Those over the age of 30 or so may recall fondly the 1980s British home computer boom, which saw the arrival of classic machines such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro and Amstrad CPC.
Perhaps taking advantage of the spending power of this older crowd, numerous products have been launched to capitalise on nostalgia for the games of this era. The ZX Spectrum Vega is a new device that harks back to the design of the original, and which comes loaded with 1,000 classic games. The Vega is able to use a television as a display, but thankfully modern technology has done away with the need to load games from tape. Similar ideas have been used to reintroduce the classic Atari 2600, the Commodore 64 and even another Sinclair revival, as a game controller.
The Vega’s first batch of 1,000 units has sold out at £100 each – more than I’d want to spend on what will to most seem like a novelty item. What is behind this obsession with antiquated gaming history? Is it shameless reselling of the old as new? Or does it speak to something deeper about what games were then and what they have become now?
The evolution of video games
The original ZX Spectrum shipped in 1982 with a 3.5MHz processor and 16KB RAM. By comparison, the current generation of Playstation and Xbox consoles from Sony and Microsoft contain eight processing cores running at 1.5GHz and 8GB RAM. Such an extraordinary increase in power has allowed today’s games to be almost unrecognisable in comparison to their primitive 1980s counterparts: full-colour, photo-realistic three-dimensional worlds rather than four-colour representations. Games are also more accessible, available everywhere from web browsers to smartphones and televisions.
This has led to a demographic shift in who plays games, and how and where they’re played. While for many years gamers were predominantly male with the average age steadily rising into the mid-30s, now there are gamers of all ages and a near-equal gender balance – helped by the breadth of games built for popular consoles such as the Nintendo Wii and mobile phones.
The evolution of the industry
In the early days, limited video game hardware forced games developers to find creative solutions. Memory was severely restricted, so in order to provide replayability games had to be demanding – they had to challenge the player to beat them. Today’s games tend not to focus on mastering the game mechanics but instead use psychological concepts of flow to keep players engaged. They match the degree of challenge to the skill of the player and offer feedback rewards to keep the player coming back for more. Games can be huge, often requiring an investment of dozens of hours to complete – to beat a game can be as much a feat of endurance as skill.
The cost to develop early games was comparatively low, with games often created by a single programmer/artist/designer working out of their bedroom. There was opportunity for experimentation, to try out new or unusual mechanics. With no rules or industry history to go on, there was considerable innovation.
Today mainstream games have budgets comparable to films with staff of dozens or even hundreds – sunk costs which often lead developers to be risk-averse with their games, leaving little room for creativity. Ubisoft executive Jade Raymond has said that the market will only support ten “triple-A” titles a year. That means if you’re working in a triple-A studio and you’re not making a top-ten game, then you’re making a loss. Publishers need to reduce risk in order to increase their chances of a return, and that stifles creativity. In 2014, of the top 20 video games sold 16 were the latest iterations of long-running franchises. One was built around the Lord of the Rings franchise, and three of the remaining four were new games to compliment the launch of next generation consoles.
Authenticity, nostalgia, disappointment
One theory is that technology isolates us from reality. Nostalgic experiences evoke feelings of authenticity because they often derive from a simpler time. In the games industry we’ve seen interactions become more direct and authentic. Gesture-tracking devices such as Microsoft’s Kinect, voice control or eye-tracking control devices – people will buy imitation musical instruments to use as controllers for games like SingStar. Through Facebook games we can interact with people we know in our real lives. All of these devices allow a greater connection to reality – perhaps it’s this same motivation that drives us to try and relive our earlier gaming experiences?
It’s very hard to think about nostalgia without drawing from personal experience. I have very fond memories as an eight-year-old huddled around a BBC Micro playing games like Chuckie Egg with my Dad. I wasted many happy hours in the local arcade playing Double Dragon II. One of my first games on the NES was Bionic Commando, and I remember spending summer holidays playing through Sonic the Hedgehog on the Megadrive, and Street Fighter II on the SNES. Monkey Island on the PC was and still is a classic – and Privateer remains one of my favourite games ever.
I’ve revisited all these games in some new form or another– some have been ported to run on modern systems, some remastered and updated, others completely rewritten. But more often than not I’ve been disappointed; finding myself looking back through rose tinted glasses to a time of greater freedom to invest in playing games – and fewer distractions. I hope that those who have invested in their ZX Spectrum Vega don’t find the same.
But even if the ZX Spectrum Vega becomes an expensive paperweight for some, there’s no doubting the original’s place in British gaming history. Preserving it for future generations to enjoy for a moment, and reflect on how far we have come certainly has some merit. After all, games were better in the old days – right?