Speccy Nation by Dan Whitehead – Review
May11

Speccy Nation by Dan Whitehead – Review

Some people might wonder what the purpose might be to having a book of reviews of Spectrum games? Such a collection seems unintuitive when you consider that reviews for these games no longer aid consumer decisions, the games being mostly available online to run for free on emulators. To complain that it doesn’t make sense to read a book of reviews though, especially so long after the event, would mistake Speccy Nation as only a book of reviews. Its repeated comparisons between the mores of games past and present are a pause in the whitewater rapids of advertising and launching that accompany technology. It’s easy to get beguiled by these retrospective appraisals that draw you into reading them as an art form in their own right. Some reviews concentrate on the mechanics of the games and comparisons with others (Dark Sceptre and The Wild Bunch for example), which will appeal more to dedicated gamers than to curious outsiders. That said, these details are often used in revealing ways. The difficulty to The Wild Bunch (heightened by its existence being prior to comforts like Save Game), for example, highlights the way that contemporary games swaddle players with hand-holding and longevity to the gameplay. Another historical comparison is made about Ocean’s When Time Stood Still. Here, there is randomness to events instead of today’s set-pieces. The world the game inhabits is a more compact and eventful experience for the player than today’s pointlessly sprawling landscapes apparently there for their own sake. Speccy Nation also gives glimpses of the cultural and historical context. The ‘puerile British mindset’ is deemed worthy of mention (regarding Jack The Nipper), something that those who remember the 1980s will recall was prominent (just think about the rise of toilet humour). And when Whitehead reviews Deathchase, he draws attention to the disparity between inlay illustrations and the games they depicted, a disparity that was one of the many aspects to 1980s hype. These and other small descriptives convincingly convey the feel of 8-bit gaming, making the reviews greater than the sum of their parts. It’s pointed out how many games required a pen and graph paper to map them as you went along. Then there’s the way that tips in magazines were such a life-saver for the truly stuck. The multitude of observations begs the question as to why there isn’t a concluding section that pulls them together into an over-arching commentary? This would have given readers some analysis to help form a bigger picture than reviews can achieve on their own. I can’t help but wonder how Whitehead’s vision would read? Conventional wisdom is sometimes daringly questioned,...

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Thatcher’s Legacy and the UK Games Industry in the 1980s
Apr15

Thatcher’s Legacy and the UK Games Industry in the 1980s

Informally, discussions about the video games industry in 1980s Britain often raise the ‘backdrop of Thatcherism’, despite the little ink that’s ever spilt on the matter. I’m never surprised when industry outsiders quickly form the impression that computer games were a Thatcherite endeavour. Nor am I surprised at their assumption that everybody in the industry was cut from the same Thatcherite cloth. A game such as Harrier Attack captured the post-Falklands Conflict flag-waving that the PM capitalised on. In 1983, Clive Sinclair received a knighthood in the birthday honours list on her recommendation. Let’s even think of basic principles here. The very idea that anybody would, or even could, start a small company and become successful in a few months was the embodiment of a shift from heavy industries to the SMEs that she championed. Yet in my time in the industry, I saw no consensus on Thatcherism, only a DIY ethic that was influenced by it. The first point – dissensus – can be explained through a satire programme in the UK called Spitting Image. One of the most enduring images of Margaret Thatcher is that of the programme’s puppets of her. These evolved over the years into a sort of shrieking Mafiosi. They perfectly identified the duality of her (from softly spoken to thunderous in an instant) and her era (whether in the conflict over the Falklands or the power of unions). And Spitting Image gave her to us, we developers, as an impersonation among many. I worked in one software house where we regularly impersonated (the Spitting Image version of) Reagan, saying ‘Okey-dokey, Ed’ instead of ‘OK’. This phrase was one of the first things we sampled once we bought a Microvox (after, of course, farts and burps). We even learned to say it backwards, sampled the attempt, reversed it, and duly adopted the phlegmmy-sounding ‘Ocky-docky, Eckt’ as our new way of saying ‘OK’. But this digital manipulation of Spitting Image shouldn’t be mistaken for either an homage or a political sympathy. The point here is that our politics were mixed-up, naive, even apathetic. It’s true that some of us had endured homework by candlelight during the years when strikes and unions held Britain in a headlock. But it’s also true that some of us were uneasy about the escalation in cold-war rhetoric from Thatcher and Reagan. There were a range of political attitudes forming both among and within us that didn’t easily fit into the boxes that the politicians and journalists of the day insisted on. Furthermore, we were mostly aged between 16 and 24, and had virtually no interest in politics. The new comedy...

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