One of the most important British home computers of the 1980s, the ZX Spectrum celebrated its 40th birthday in April 2022, and remarkably there are still new games being made for it.
On this page, you'll find an alphabetical list all about looking back to classic titles that defined the system and helped build the foundations of the modern gaming industry – from young boys coding in their bedrooms to billion-dollar companies.
This is not a ranked list or a definitive "best of" – this is twenty games representative of the hardware and classic moments in gaming history that should not be forgotten. There are so many more we could have mentioned, and so many great recent Spectrum games that are also worth playing.
Magazine cover tapes were a common feature towards the end of the Spectrum’s commercial life as the magazines fought for readers by offering increasing amounts of games on each tape while page counts dwindled. But here we have a game that may have been a difficult sell on its own, being heavily influenced by Atari's Breakout and Taito's Arkanoid. The gameplay is instantly familiar – use the bat to knock the ball into the bricks, picking up the falling power-ups and avoiding/killing the aliens. Rather than simple capsules, the power-ups looked like objects – including a jetpack to blast you onto the next stage. Re-released on compilations and at budget price, this was worth picking up. Control is tight, screen designs were clever without being annoying and it all moved very slickly. It is credited to “Mark Crane,” an alias for Ultimate Play The Game programmer (and later, Rare studio head) Mark Betteridge. And while it would be converted to other formats, its place as a legendary Spectrum game among a sea of clones is assured. Elite held the rights to the final game, which led to its inclusion on a controversial iOS app and the ZX Vega console.
Julian Gollop is known for his tactical games – Laser Squad and its Rebelstar predecessors were nearly included in this list, and he went on to found the X-Com series. But here is an interesting and unusual strategy title published by board game specialists Games Workshop (who had a brief spell as a software publisher, including a Spectrum version of board game Talisman). Up to eight players as wizards battled it out, casting spells to summon creatures and attack opponents. Each wizard could choose an icon and colour to stand out in the crowded arena. The unique idea here was that your magic can create a real creature or an illusion if the spell succeeded; the illusion would move and fight like the real thing until an opponent disbelieved it. Mastering the use of flying animals and defensive spells gave so much depth, and no two games ever played out the same – thanks to the randomised selection of spells given at the start. There would be a spin-off Lords of Chaos, taking the ideas into a role-playing game similar to Laser Squad, and Julian would return to the idea for PC, Mac, and Linux with Chaos: Reborn in 2015.
Let’s go, Mr. Driver! The Taito arcade game was like a rollercoaster, packed with thrills. So how could the humble Spectrum expect to recreate that? It managed in style, with a convincing 3D effect, effective sprites and backgrounds and everything included from the arcade original. There’s superb speech on the 128K version, a choice of route at junctions (with an arrow or helicopter overhead to help guide you the right way) and multiple cutscenes. Your co-driver and other characters appeared in the status panel, along with flashing red and blue lights. Each of its five levels started with a briefing from Nancy at Chase H.Q. The aim was to pursue criminals, damaging their vehicle by ramming into it repeatedly until they were forced to stop. Hitting one of your three nitro boosts really increased the speed, jumping over the hills which were portrayed convincingly. Picking up multiple awards from the magazines, it was a tour de force of 8-bit programming and one of the top arcade conversions ever. It put the inferior C64 version in the shade. The sequel Chase HQ II: Special Criminal Investigation was not as widely revered on Spectrum, so best to stick with the original.
This was under development with the title Eggy Kong, the young Nigel Alderton inspired by the classic and oft-imitated arcade game and a British slang term for a chicken’s egg. Eggs featured heavily, as you must collect them all on each stage. To do so meant avoiding the patrolling birds, and on later stages the giant chicken/duck (which is safely caged up to level 8 before being unleashed). There were also lifts to master, timing the jump on and off them being critical to get around the increasingly complex platform layouts. In some places a leap of faith off the edge of a platform was the only way to secure an elusive last egg – gravity always wins in the end. Piles of bird seed could be collected for bonus points or left as a distraction to slow the enemy birds down. Emerging around the same time as Manic Miner, both games retain a loyal fanbase and saw multiple conversions to other machines. But you just cannot beat the original. A’n’F tried, with a sprawling sequel set in an Easter Egg factory (Chuckie Egg II) that could never live up to the hype.
Picture the scene. A young gamer obsessed with Star Wars went to see Return of the Jedi at his local cinema and wanted to relive it in computer game form. The official arcade game and its home conversion were years away, and so he loaded up Deathchase on his ZX Spectrum. Action switched between day and night patrols, with the player swerving between trees to shoot the opposing jetbikes. Defeat two enemy bikers and it was on to the next patrol. Swooping helicopters and roaming tanks on the horizon required expert timing to take out for bonus points. Fitting into 16K, this was pure action and is so nostalgic. With a limited number of frames and simple but effective sounds, you find yourself swaying in your seat as you weave back and forth. The sensation of speed and peril was real. Mervyn’s other titles (shoot ‘em up Luna Crabs and motorbike racer Full Throttle) are less well-known nowadays. And for all those asking, 3D was a label on the tape highlighting it was a 3-dimensional game – the name has always been simply Deathchase.
This was more than a game; this was a multimedia experience and a landmark title designed by a visionary genius. There were two tapes in the package – an audio tape and a computer tape. The two were synchronised by following a voice on the tape and onscreen prompts, and there followed a 45-minute extravaganza. Onscreen a series of minigames portrayed the life of a “defect,” a growing biological lifeform in a dystopian future. And in your ears, the famous voices of former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee, comedian Frankie Howerd and singer Ian Dury narrated a tale inspired by Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” speech from As You Like It. From birth through war and old age, interaction was about keeping objects moving or protecting them while the ECG heartbeat trace added an eery counterpoint. The result was like nothing out there – until Mel Croucher crowdfunded a sequel nearly thirty years later. Sure, there was self-indulgence and minimal controls, and for those without instructions or the audio it must have been unplayable. The “game” baffled reviewers and was a commercial failure despite being released twice, but this is truly something that should be experienced.
Codemasters billed the original Dizzy game as a “cartoon adventure” and this third instalment remains loved by fans – and by its creators Phillip and Andrew Oliver, who were living the dream of going from bedroom coders to business owners. It mixed ideas from fairy tales (such as growing a beanstalk) and the flick-screen action of using objects in the right place. Dizzy’s unique somersault jump remained a tricky skill to master here, with a limited number of lives. This game also introduced the Yolk Folk as Dizzy once again took on the wizard Zaks. The inventory let you carry two different objects at a time, taking them to your friends or using them in the right place, and there was a side-quest to find 50 hidden coins. One section of the game even saw gravity turned upside down as you walked on the ceiling. Although there were mixed results from the arcade-based spin-offs and Dizzy never made a significant impact on consoles, the egg-shaped hero remains popular. So much so that in 2020 a new eighth adventure was published for 128K Spectrums in the form of Wonderful Dizzy, with the Oliver Twins involved in game design.
Few people have invented a whole new genre of software, but Kevin Toms was there at the beginning of the time-consuming passion that is football management simulation. After writing the original game on ZX81, a version for the bigger Spectrum was inevitable. But what could the newer machine bring to the game? The answer was match “highlights,” short sequences showing goals and near-misses. There was no control over these, but you had to make substitutions, buy, and sell players and hope your stars were not injured for the big match. It’s the desire to see a favourite team reach the top, to take control and live out the fantasy of success, which keeps people playing. There were multiple follow-ups, including a World Cup edition, and the thematically similar Software Star (with hilarious fake game names). While the long-running Championship Manager has been cited in divorce cases, we have Kevin and his beard (nostalgically immortalised on the game’s packaging and advertising) to thank for all the hours we have spent willing on a bunch of numbers to win their next match… Kevin has even returned to this classic with an iOS version in recent years.
While athletics was going through the painful business of switching from amateur to professional status, arcades were filled with the sounds of button bashing. Konami’s Track & Field had defined the idea, hitting left and right rapidly to run through its mixture of events. This follow-up added more – the accuracy of skeet shooting, the rotations of gymnastics and the strength of weightlifting. There is a break from waggling for the archery (where wind direction affects your accuracy) but you must put the effort into your triple jump run-up and the gruelling swimming (pressing the action button to breathe at the right time). Ocean had created its own successful clone in the form of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon in 1984, and then its Imagine label would be tasked with bringing Hyper Sports’ arcade action home. And for the Spectrum it meant the coding genius of Jonathan “Joffa” Smith. From his gloriously unusual debut Pud to the “murder” key in Green Beret and the surreal movie tie-in Cobra, Joffa’s Spectrum games were technically polished and immensely playable. The same applies to Hyper Sports, capturing the gameplay so well. Joffa’s sudden death in 2010 was a sad loss to the Spectrum community.
The legendary first game from the Ultimate Play The Game label is remarkable for fitting into just 16K of memory. This was also one of the few titles available on a ROM cartridge that slotted into Sinclair’s Interface 2 for instant loading. The Stamper brothers (with programmer John Lathbury and artist Carole Ward, who later married Tim) took lessons they had learned from working in the arcade industry and applied it to a stellar Spectrum title. The premise was so simple – fly around to build your rocket, fuel it by collecting pods and dropping them on the completed rocket and take off to the next planet. All the while swarms of aliens moved in from the screen edges, taken out with colourful blasts of laser fire. Bonus objects such as gold bars and diamonds were collected for extra points. There was something so addictive about the game, keeping you playing and chasing a higher score. While the sequels Lunar Jetman (Spectrum) and Solar Jetman (NES) would be more complex, this was a deserved hit. Its appearance on the Rare Replay compilation and the Jetpac Refuelled remake for Xbox Live tapped into the love for the original.
The mysterious adverts with gorgeous artwork. The black box with its almost enigmatic instructions listing gameplay features. And the joy on loading up a new Ultimate game for the first time. Sabre Wulf had established the legend, its massive map and tricky quest making Sabreman the hero. And he returned - after his second adventure Underwurlde – in jaw-dropping isometric 3D thanks to the Filmation engine, with the curse of the werewolf. When day turned to night, as shown by the moving sun and moon symbols in the score panel, Sabreman changed form. This was no mere graphical change; the wulf could jump further and higher to solve certain puzzles. The aim was to find the cure, taking ingredients back to the cauldron and brewing the antidote before forty in-game days have passed. A sprawling castle setting filled with spikes, guards and moving platforms made this a really engrossing quest, the player often needing to move and stand on objects to reach higher platforms. More isometric titles would follow, although planned sequel Mire Mare would have been two-dimensional and remained unreleased. The rebooted Sabre Wulf for Game Boy Advance from Rare made many references to these classic Ultimate titles.
The late Mike Singleton deserves to be held up in the highest esteem with other British coders such as David Braben (Elite, which got an excellent Spectrum conversion) and Geoff Crammond (whose Stunt Car Racer and The Sentinel pushed the Spectrum into solid 3D realms). Mike’s clever Landscaping system generated a “3D” view from scaling pieces. The huge realm of Midnight was covered in ice and snow, echoed by the white landscape. Four heroes set out on a quest worthy of Tolkien – Luxor the Moonprince, his son Morkin, Corleth the Fey (the wood-dwelling race equivalent to elves) and wizard Rorthron the Wise. Recruiting new armies and fighting battles, occupying citadels, and finding magical objects were all part of the game as you fought Doomdark and his hordes spreading the Ice Fear. Luxor’s Moonring allowed him to command others, and victory could come through conquering the opposing armies – or by Morkin destroying the Icecrown, source of Doomdark’s power. The follow-up Doomdark’s Revenge created an even larger world but sadly the third game Eye of the Moon was never completed. The later Midwinter games and an iOS remake of Lords of Midnight are a fitting tribute to Mike.
Matthew Smith gained instant fame for this platform classic inspired by Bill Hogue’s Miner 2049er, with many screens designed in an exercise book while on holiday. A dispute over royalties saw him leave Bug Byte and take the valuable game to new company Software Projects. Miner Willy must make his way through twenty increasingly difficult levels, avoiding enemies, spikes, and deadly bushes. Everyone remembers the yellow robot in Central Cavern and the toilets in Eugene’s Lair. Collapsing platforms made his task even harder as he gathered the keys/objects to open the door to the next screen before his oxygen ran out. Losing all your lives saw Willy squashed by a giant foot in Monty Python style. It was that mix of humour and intricately designed screens that made it so memorable (that, and the interrupt-driven music). For many, the sequel Jet Set Willy was the better game, but the sprawling mansion and varying difficulty made that game almost impossible to complete (and indeed a bug meant it initially was, until an early “patch” in the form of a type-in listing emerged). Matthew never captured that magic again, planned sequels went unfinished and he vanished from public view for many years.
It was a tough choice between this and the duo’s brilliant isometric games (tie-in title Batman and the comic genius of Head over Heels, with the sadly departed Bernie’s beautiful cartoon characters) but for many it is the football games of Jon Ritman that they remember most. With International Soccer riding high in the charts for C64 users, software houses were looking for the Spectrum equivalent – and Jon told Ocean he could write it. He clearly remembers the breakthrough moment when he got the computer AI to play in the original Match Day, and the marathon phone call to the C64 programmer of the Match Day sequel to explain how his code worked. That code included the ”diamond deflection system” to make the ball bounce more realistically, and the (optional) power meter that allowed for different strengths of kick and even a cheeky backheel. Almost forgotten is the updated International Match Day, adding new team names and improved sound for the Spectrum 128K. By modern standards the sequel has few options, the menu system is difficult to navigate, and the pace feels sluggish, but against another human it offered superb and smooth kickabout action.
Bubble Bobble had received exceptional home conversions thanks to Firebird and Software Creations, so how would the next title to feature Bub and Bob (now in human form with cute dungarees) fare? Graftgold took on the challenge and succeeded, studying a real Rainbow Islands machine to discover its tricks and secrets. (They did not discover the hidden islands however, revealed by collecting all the large gems – but all the power-ups and hidden items on the first seven islands are present and correct). The action was split into a series of themed islands threatened by rising flood water, and Bub (or Bob) must climb to the top using rainbows as platforms. These rainbows can also be crushed by jumping on top of them, killing any enemy underneath. Those enemies are incredibly cute though – even the giant bosses that must be conquered every four rounds. Crushing enemies with rainbows also gave the player gems, with a bonus for collecting them in rainbow order (based on where they fell on the screen, left to right). This really captured the look and feel so well, including a cutesy rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
The moment you heard Jonathan Dunn’s memorable music and the clear speech reading out the Prime Directives, you knew you were in for a treat. Ocean had found a great formula for licensed movie games, starting with Platoon, by splitting the action into a series of game styles recreating parts of the film. Software manager Gary Bracey had signed up the rights to Robocop from Orion Pictures before anyone knew it would be a hit, sub-licensing the arcade rights to Data East. (Some claim the home game was an arcade conversion, but development was separate). The game would be a massive success, staying on top of the software charts for a record number of weeks, advertising the video release on its loading screen. Most levels saw Robocop stomping horizontally along, dealing with enemies using a variety of shot types – or his powerful punches at close range. Spicing up the action were the first-person shooting sections (including freeing a hostage), the sprawling warehouse with lifts and stairs, and a clever photo-fit puzzle game. The difficulty level was high throughout, and ammunition was sparse, especially with the chainsaw-wielding dudes and the motorbikes rushing in, but it was all superbly put together.
Irem’s horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em up had been a massive hit in arcades, and it would take demanding work to convert it to home computers. The man taking on the challenge was Bob Pape, and many years later he wrote a book about his experiences (a free PDF is available here). The part most people remember is The Force, the drone that attached to the front or back of your R-9 fighter. This must be earned by collecting a gem from a particular enemy, and different coloured gems grant other weapon types (including the bouncing diagonal lasers and handy missiles). Huge bosses included the series stand-out alien Dobterakops (found at the end of level one) that challenge the player to master their attack patterns. The smooth scrolling and detailed enemies were even more impressive for their clever use of colour, avoiding the “colour clash” problems that plagued so many Spectrum games. The difficulty level and map layouts were incredibly authentic to the original, meaning that even today it is a challenge to get through. From the explosions to the twinkling starfield, this was a class conversion.
Firing your catapult, jostling for an empty chair, dodging the bully, and getting lines as punishment – it was a comic book portrayal of school life, and a clever simulation with life revolving around a schedule of classes and strict teachers. The twist was you could rename them and your classmates, bringing back good (or bad) memories of your own school days. The aim was to open the safe and get rid of your bad report before you earned 10,000 lines (or catch mumps, meaning you sent home). Jumping like a kangaroo to touch them or shooting the shields around the school starts them flashing; when all are lit you can knock down the teachers for their combination letter. The history teacher needed to see his year of birth, which was always the same as a famous battle – so the game does teach you something. Writing on the blackboard, you tried out a combination and went to open the safe. Succeed, and you must switch all the shields off again. With wonderfully animated characters and a clever side-on perspective, you will be playing this one (and sequel Back To Skool, which adds the neighbouring girl’s school) all term.
Pete Cooke was a master of Spectrum hardware as shown by Earthlight, Micronaut One and his conversion of Stunt Car Racer. Originally packaged in an unusual triangular box, you controlled a “skimmer” searching the human colony for parts of nuclear rods to assemble and insert into the power station (because as usual the defence systems have gone astray). Rods were found in buildings spread around sixteen districts, each filled with enemies. The passage of time was key, with flares and infra-red vision (giving a purple hue and subtle blurring) to see after the sun had set. Damage from attacks could knock out systems, making things very tricky. Your armament included a laser prone to overheating when used too much, missiles that needed to lock on and AMMs (Anti-Missile Missiles) to protect yourself. Docking with a building gave access to a computer interface, a clever zooming map of the planet and the ability to load and save the game. The first-person view was very impressive for the time, creating light and shade. The sequel, Academy, saw the player design their own skimmer (including placement of the dials and monitors) before taking on a series of training missions.
Although it used the American job title, there was something very British about a humble binman collecting rubbish from suburban streets (which were all named after real locations around Bath). There were elements of Frogger as you dodged the traffic and cyclists, rushing against the decreasing bonus as the bin lorry travelled up the street. The top-down view let you walk into the gardens around a house, but you must not step on the grass – it would cost you bonus points and at later levels unleash a dog that will chase and bite you, slowing you down. Successfully emptying a bin at the back of the lorry and returning it gave the chance to pop in to speak the owner for bonus points. This revealed witty dialogue, including the immortal “I am not a megalomaniac” which is followed by “Give me a ZX81 and I will take over the world”. Get run over and the “news flash” message hit home as your name entered the high score table. The follow-up Travels with Trashman is less well-known, with the hero travelling Europe performing different jobs to find vital objects, and an unreleased sequel was to be called Trashman Through Time.