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5 best ZX Spectrum games and how to play them now

The ZX Spectrum was one of the first commercially available computers that was cheap enough for just about anyone to own. Here are the games that wowed us first time around.

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Ask anybody of a certain age what their first games machine was and they’ll likely say the ZX Spectrum. First released in the UK in 1982, Sinclair’s British computer was the first cheap enough to be found in thousands of bedrooms up and down the country.

And that lead to a massive explosion in the games industry – with Speccy games released in their droves for around a decade. They too were cheap enough to be bought plentifully – especially the budget ranges that were available in newsagents.

We were part of the wave ourselves, having owned a Spectrum and hundreds of games (not always legally, we have to admit). That’s why it’s been extremely hard to nail down just five of our favourites. But that’s what we’ve managed to do.

So check out the below – our favourite Spectrum retro games. We’ve also given you some tips on how to get hold of them and emulators you might want to play them through. Enjoy.

Horace Goes Skiing

  • Released: 1983
  • Publisher: Sinclair

Horace was one of the first franchise stars of the home computer game era. He started out in rudimentary Pac-Man clone Hungry Horace, but soon found his feet (and skis) for this follow-up released by Sinclair itself (other versions were distributed by Melbourne House). The game comprises two parts – a Frogger clone whereby Horace must cross a busy road that lies between a ski shop and the slopes, plus a skiing “simulator” where you travel down the screen, through gates and avoiding bumps.

It doesn’t really hold up much today, but was one of the first games we owned on the Spectrum and is therefore forever associated with the glorious early years of gaming, for us. It also spawned further Horace titles, including Horace and the Spiders – another early favourite.

Manic Miner

  • Released: 1983
  • Publisher: Bug-Byte

You cannot have a ZX Spectrum game round up without Manic Miner. Some highlight programmer Matthew Smith’s sequel as the better game, but we disagree. The simplicity of static platforming levels in his first title make for a better experience. It also, for us, kickstarted an entire genre of 2D platflormers that still grace our games machines today. It wasn’t the only (or first) platform game to be released in the 80s, but it’s the most memorable by far.

That’s not least thanks to the grating version of The Blue Danube on the main menu screen and the repetitive bars of In the Hall of the Mountain King that accompany the gameplay. Even today, we have hairs stand up on our arms when we hear either.

Deathchase

  • Released: 1983
  • Publisher: Micromega

Affectionately known as 3D Deathchase, this was one of the earliest examples of a 3D racing game we played at home. Clearly inspired by the speeder bike sequence in Return of the Jedi, the game puts you on the back of a motorcycle that’s hurtling through a forest after a couple of enemies. You effectively have to shoot them before you plunge headfirst into a tree.

Part of its main appeal is that it was a 16K game, so worked on the entry-level ZX Spectrum as capably as the 48K upgrade model.

Daley Thompson’s Decathlon

  • Released: 1984
  • Publisher: Ocean

Ocean’s Daley Thompson’s Decathlon would surely appear on the vast majority of Speccy owners’ fave games lists. Heavily-inspired by Konami’s Track and Field, it offered all 10 of the Decathlon sports to compete in by either bashing your rubber keyboard buttons as quickly as you could, or by waggling your joystick (a Kempston, in our case) as vigourously as you could – cue some double entendre-related guffahs!

It was followed-up by Daley Thompson’s Super-Test and Olympic Challenge games, but neither hit the heights of this original.

Thrust

  • Released: 1986
  • Publisher: Firebird

Originally programmed for the BBC Micro, Thrust was ported onto the ZX Spectrum (among other 80s computers) and ruined our lives. That’s because the hugely addictive gameplay had us locked away in our bedrooms for days/weeks on end.

Inspired by the Atari classics, Lunar Lander and Gravitar, the budget game (available for £1.99 on its release) has you collect a pod using a small space ship – the only issue is that you need to occasionally use thrusts of its rocket boosters to stop it crashing, while also keeping a keen eye on the fuel gauge, a task that’s easier said than done.


How to play ZX Spectrum games today

Apart from purchasing and setting up an actual 1980s ZX Spectrum (or one of the early-90s Amstrad models), you can play all of the above games using a ZX Spectrum emulator, such as the excellent Spectaculator for Windows. This is paid software, but doesn’t cost too much and runs nigh-on every game you can imagine well.

Alternatively, there are free options too, such as Fuse for either Windows or macOS.

As free software, you might find it won’t play every Speccy game perfectly, but we haven’t encountered many that it struggles with.

You will also need the games themselves, of course and need to remember that, even when sourced online, you are supposed to own a paid copy still.

That said, Spectrum games are readily available online in the types of files that work on the emulators above (and others).

One amazing resource is worldofspectrum.net – a website that is not only a place where you can find links to the games, but an amazing source of information about pretty much every release there has ever been.

There are 10s of thousands of games listed, so we’ve included direct links to our top five games below:

Another way to play many of the games – and other Speccy classics – is through Antstream Arcade, the cloud gaming service that specialises in retro. It has been available on PC for a while but has also recently released for Xbox consoles.

There are more than 1,300 retro games available, including many ZX Spectrum gems, and it costs £29.99 for a year’s access, £79.99 for a “lifetime”.

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Rik Henderson
Rik Hendersonhttp://gameslifer.com
Rik is a professional journalist with more than 35 years experience across online, magazines and television broadcasting. As well as the creator of GamesLifer, he is the News Editor of T3.com, while his previous work includes stints as editor and group editor on several monthlies and weeklies covering video games and technology. He has also been a series producer on daily and weekly TV shows, and has presented and guested on multiple TV series too, including GamesMaster, Games World, Game Over, Virtual World of Sport, Live TV, Greatest Christmas TV Ads, and The Apprentice.
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