The ZX81 is 42. The meaning of life. And it kind of was to a generation of British school kids. That is, if they could keep the 16KB RAM pack connected for long enough. Typing on the ZX81’s hideous keyboard could make the pack wobble, fall out and crash the entire machine. Helpful.
Hang on. What is this abomination? The unholy offspring of a calculator and a home PC?
It actually won a Design Council award. Still, your label’s appropriate, given that its creator spent the 1970s hawking hobbyist electronics until his calculators were clobbered by more capable Japanese fare. So Clive Sinclair and his boffins pivoted to home micros, including the ZX80 and this improved follow-up… which still only had 1KB RAM, came in kit form unless you paid an extra 20 quid, and turned the display off when it had anything strenuous to do.
That sounds awful. So presumably this was a computing disaster of epic proportions?
You’d think so, but the ZX81 sold 1.5 million units and laid the foundations for the ZX Spectrum. Admittedly, this was mostly because it was dirt cheap (£50) compared to most rivals. Plus it plugged into a telly, rather than requiring a spendy monitor. But although its barebones nature (four chips, no sound, no moving parts) was limiting, some saw a challenge. Before long there was a burgeoning accessories and software scene, with coders squeezing entire games into the ZX81’s paltry RAM.
Don’t tell me – “And they eventually even got Doom running on the thing”?
No, because the ZX81 was soon eclipsed by the Speccy, which came out just a year later. But who needs Doom when even back in 1981 this British-built machine had 3D Monster Maze? That pioneering survival horror title found you fleeing for your life from a ravenous tyrannosaurus. And if you got frustrated at being repeatedly eaten by the blocky horror, you could chuck your ZX81 out of the window in a huff, safe in the knowledge that it’d still work when you plugged it back in again. Try that with your swanky PS5.
Six of the best ZX81 games
Silent films feel as if they’re from another era. And there’s similarly something ancient about the ZX81. Its silent black and white titles feel a world away even from those that graced systems a year or two later. Yet, like with classic movies, there’s quality in the vaults if you’re prepared to look beyond presentation.
Landmark title 3D Monster Maze (1981) was framed as a circus event, where you unwisely entered a maze housing a T. Rex. Terse descriptions – “He is hunting for you” / “Rex has seen you” / “RUN – he is behind you” – ramp up the tension in this silent horror. [Play online]
1K ZX Chess (1982) might not look like much, but the clue to its ambition is in the title. Most ZX81 games relied on you plugging in a 16KB RAM pack, but this chess effort only used the built-in 1KB. And yet it will still beat you.
Flight Simulator (1982) obviously can’t compare with modern efforts like Microsoft’s stunning sim. But fans of such fare would do well to check out where these games began – and marvel at what could be squeezed into a paltry 16KB.
Don Priestly was best known for his amazing Trap Door game – but he cut his teeth on Mazogs (1982). Despite being on the humble ZX81, this maze game nonetheless featured Priestly’s trademark huge characters. [Play online]
Given its vintage, Fungaloids (1982) has sophisticated mechanics. You must replenish fuel/bomb reserves as you blast your titular foes to oblivion. A dash of sound and colour and it would be an arcade classic. [Play online]
ZXagon (2014) is a ‘demake’ of Super Hexagon by Sinclair master Bob Smith. It lacks the colour and chip tune of the original, but makes up for that with fast-paced gameplay that’ll show you left your reactions back in 1981.