███████╗██╗  ██╗ █████╗  ██╗
╚══███╔╝╚██╗██╔╝██╔══██╗███║
  ███╔╝  ╚███╔╝ ╚█████╔╝╚██║
 ███╔╝   ██╔██╗ ██╔══██╗ ██║
███████╗██╔╝ ██╗╚█████╔╝ ██║
╚══════╝╚═╝  ╚═╝ ╚════╝  ╚═╝
                            

A look at some recent 1K ZX81 games


+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+


I won't say a lot about these computers. There's plenty of information out there on the web if you want to learn more. But to cut a long story short, these are cheap 8-bit computers built very much to a budget and released in (you guessed it) 1981. Based on the earlier ZX80, by shrinking the logic of that earlier machine into a ULA and including just a few other chips: Z80 processor, ROM chip and 1K of memory (2K in the US Timex version), providing no sound, colour or a "real" keyboard, this was as cheap as a computer could be made in 1981 (about £50 in kit form or £70 fully assembled). The price of home computer components would soon rapidly fall, quickly making these systems obsolete and discontinued by 1984, but I suspect they had a much longer life beyond the early 80's as cheap, second-hand learning computers for kids and teenagers with limited money to spend.

(Incidentally, my dad bought a ZX81 around this time to learn how to code in basic. He volunteered to run the school's new computing department, even though he was actually a chemistry teacher. So this was a time before IT / computer science teachers even existed in some schools!)

At the time, these basic barebones home computers were often compared to more impressive machines and judged to be wanting. But really that was missing the point. The ZX81 was designed to be affordable and accessible to as many people as possible (and make Sinclair plenty of money too, of course). A gateway drug to computing, if you like. They were the cheapest computer available aimed not just at hobbyists, but at the general public. Clive Sinclair envisaged a world in which we would all become programmers. It would be this ethos that created the environment for an army of skilled, largely self-taught bedroom coders to kick start a fledgeling UK video game industry. American consumers disagreed however, and most did not see the potential of a cheap computer that could bring programming to the masses. Instead, comparatively wealthier Americans would pay more money for fuller featured computers with established "professional" software ecosystems. It was thought that people didn't want to code their own programs and to be fair, this turned out to be true. We are living in the future as they predicted it would be, a world of computer users but not computer coders.

Whatever your opinion, I don't think you can deny the aesthetic qualities of these little machines. I've always loved the look of Sinclair's stuff (before they were bought out by Amstrad). Nearly 40 years after their first release, ZX81s still look like something straight out of the future. Who knows, maybe it was from the future. After all, the membrane keyboard, much derided in it's day, is closer to the touch screen keyboards of today's tablet computers in function than any of the "real" keyboards found on more prestigious micros.

When covering the computer in retrospectives, Americans can be particularly sniffy about the capabilities of the ZX81 and consequently, overlook the fact that this humble little computer is experiencing a bit of a renaissance right now. We might be living through the best period to actually own one of these things. So what can be done with 1Kb of memory? The answer, most would say, is not much. But some skilled programmers have taken it upon themselves to find out.

Yes, really, even the unexpanded 1K model has attracted coders looking for a challenge. This is a golden age of new ZX81 software. Don't believe me? Let's load up a some games on a cassette tape for old times sake and take a look at a few of my favourite 1K games from the last few years:

Note: I have tested all of these games on a real ZX81. But for convenience, I will mostly be using readily available screenshots for illustrative purposes.

Super Micro FIDE Chess

The ZX81 famously hosted a 1K chess game written by David Horne (released in 1982). But as impressive an achievement as it was to squeeze the game of chess into just 1K of memory, it didn't actually contain the full rules of chess. Enter Super Micro Fide Chess, Written by Stefano Marago and based on the Micro-Max chess engine developed by H.G.Muller. This more recent chess game includes all the rules of chess that ZX Chess didn't (en passant, castling and under-promotion). It's not the strongest chess engine ever. I can beat it without much difficulty and I'm a very weak chess player (you can see I've checkmated the computer in the picture to the left), but I think it would put up a decent fight against a total beginner. That said, I've only played the "fast" version of the game (which wasn't fast by modern standards). It took a long time to "think", especially in the endgame, so the stronger version of the program may be a tougher opponent. In any case, I find it mind boggling this program can even exist. I'd like to see how it fairs against level 1 of the Stockfish engine one of these days... One thing to note: After you make a move, the screen will go blank. Your computer is not broken, it's just thinking about the next move. The ZX81 can be programmed to turn the screen off to speed up calculations.


K-Bird (1K Hi-res mode)

This is the first of many games to feature in this list from the prolific Dr. BEEP (Johan Koelman), who at the time of writing has written nearly 70 Hi-res 1K ZX81 games. He doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down, either. Astonishing.

K-Bird is basically Flappy bird for the ZX81. The flapping mechanics are a little different so I'd say it's not quite as maddening as the original, but it's still a challenging game. The more pipes you pass through, the faster the game gets until it's all but impossible. Because of the iffy membrane keyboard, the best games for the ZX81 employ a simple control scheme (and this one needs just one key to play).


Shapestack (1K Tetris)

Of course there's a version of Tetris for ZX81. There's a version of Tetris for everything. This one is my favourite Tetris clone for the system but to be honest, it can be frustrating to play on a genuine unmodified ZX81. It's too easy for your fingers to wander away from the keys without realising. Also, the only score that it keeps is the number of lines you clear (probably due to memory constraints) and for some unknown reason, hitting the shift key crashes the game. But still, it's a very solid Tetris clone and I love Tetris so it gets a thumbs up from me. You could actually buy this game on a physical cassette tape from Cronosoft along with "LazyFrog"...


Zxlider

Zxlider is another Dr. BEEP creation and it's my favourite of the bunch so far. It's essentially an endless runner in the vein of Canabalt. You play as a clothes iron. Your goal is to jump between an endless procession of platforms and iron out any small bumps. But if you hit a large bump or fall off a platform, you lose one of your 5 lives. Ocassionally, "turbulence" will shake the screen and make things a little bit more difficult. The game increases in speed as you play. It's a simple idea but a really fun one and it has the kind of quirky surrealism that's missing from much of modern day game development. I love it.


LazyFrog

Lazyfrog is, you guessed it, a Frogger style game. Not much to say about this one. It's Frogger, surely you know how Frogger is played...

It uses the ZX81's built-in character set for graphics, so as you can see it's a little more abstract than most other clones. Nevertheless, it's a solid conversion and still fun to play. It has the same control issues as Tetris but that can't really be helped (damn that membrane keyboard).


Painter

Yep, it's another Dr. BEEP game again. This time he's made a simple maze game not dissimilar to the old Konami arcade game "Amidar". If you've played that game you know what to expect here: paint the pathways of the maze in black whilst avoiding the enemies. As the game progresses, you must go over each line more than once to paint them in and of course, there are more enemies on screen to avoid (The movements of enemy characters don't seem to have any programmed A.I. and appear to move randomly, but that would probably be impossible to include in such a small program). It's a simple, familiar concept that's very well-done.


Stupid Cupid

Our next game here is, you guessed it, from Dr. BEEP (I did say he was prolific!). This time he tackles the shoot 'em up genre. The goal, as you've probably figured, is to shoot the hearts with cupid's bow as they make their way down the screen while at the same time avoiding being hit yourself. In the second "bonus" round, a group of hearts circle in place and you must shoot them all before the round ends. The game then repeats with greater speed. At the risk of sounding like a broken record at this point, it's simple but it's fun and like all the games here, it has that "just one more go" quality to it.


Nohzdyve

Written by the fictional star programmer Colin Ritman (for the equally fictional early 80's game publisher Tuckersoft), you may recognise Nohzdyve from its background appearance in Bandersnatch, the choose you own adventure episode of Charlie Brooker's Netflix series Black Mirror. But what some viewers may not know is that Nohzdyve is actually a genuinely playable game. Matt Westcott (the real author of Nohzdyve) has done an excellent job capturing the casual psychedelic weirdness present in so many of these early Spectrum games. If you want to play it, you can download the game from this website (link) and run it in an emulator or even on a real ZX Spectrum (and a very fun game it is, too). Nobody appears to have made a ZX81 version however, but thankfully Dr. BEEP recently programmed his own 1K conversion of the game. The premise is very simple: collect eyeballs to increase your score as you hurtle towards the ground (each eyeball is worth 10 points), avoiding hitting the walls and the oncoming barrage of gnashing teeth hoping to chomp you up on the way down. Sadly, due to memory constraints, some aspects of the game didn't make the cut (like graphics for the washing line, air-con units and any animations). Nevertheless, it's very faithful to the Spectrum version and fast too. There's a hypnotic quality to the dodging and collecting game play that draws the player in.

So there we have it, just a small sample of some of my favourite recently coded 1K games. I think you’ll agree, there's a suprisingly wide range of genres on offer among the games that I’ve featured here and there are now so many that I couldn’t possibly review them all (I’ve not even mentioned any of the very impressive 16K games available). I do plan to add more reviews here as times goes on, however.

While these games represent some astonishing technical wizardry and many would have floored ZX81 users back in the day, by the modern standards of PC gaming they are naturally very basic. But I think there can be value in simplicity. And if you think an ochre handprint on a cave wall can be just as beautiful as the ceiling in the Sistine chapel, maybe you’ll find something to enjoy here too (pretentious comparison, I know).

It looks to me like development for this ancient computer is in very good health.


Further Information:

ZX81 at Wikipedia

Find all of these games and more at the Sinclair ZX World forums

Villordsutch plays many of the games featured here on his Youtube channel

Tape Utility (for converting .p files back into an audio format the ZX81 can understand)

1K Tetris and Lazyfrog (author's website)

1K Bjewelled type game



+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+


BACK TO THE SHRINE