Beloved Spec-chums, we are gathered here in the presence of Almighty Clive to pay homage to the 8-bit Wonder of the World. Lead us not into the foul temptations of Commodore, and keep us from the follies of Amstrad. Our tape heads are pure and our patience for prohibitive loading times remains strong. Thanks be to POKEs.
Yes, ok, owning a Spectrum wasn't quite a spiritual experience, but it involved enough idiosyncratic weirdness to feel just a little bit cultish at times.
Acceptance into the temple of Speccy would, blasphemously enough, usually occur at Christmas. The system was of such relative expense that it had to be a special family purchase - none of this casually popping down the shops to splurge on a new gaming machine. For some, the arrival of their Spectrum would actually be telegraphed several months prior to the festive period, allowing a seriously unhealthy level of anticipation to build up. Expectations may have been raised to near breaking-point, but this lengthy wait ingrained a passionate dedication; not to mention a subconscious tolerance for epic loading sequences.
Being born late in the era of Uncle Clive, my first encounter was with the somewhat flash-sounding 128k +2 (shamefully, an Amstrad model). It was robbed of the cheerful rubber keys and weird multi-functional shortcuts of my brothers' 48k, but still possessed the unmistakable smell of moulded plastic and mystique of a hallowed object. Before long, the dismal sounds of Christmas carols had been replaced by the cosy beeping noises of a happy Speccy. The collection of included games was, it must be said, less than impressive. Oh Mummy! turned out to be an Egyptian-style Pacman variant, Punchy featured synthesised speech so terrifying that it resulted in a lifelong fear of marionettes and Crazy Golf ... wasn't. Treasure Island was rather more entertaining, featuring varied gameplay and some fantastic examples of colour clash - but it wasn't long before the 48k game collection was being plundered. As were the 48k joysticks, because the freebie 'stick was so flaccid that heavy breathing could knock it over.
This raises an important point. Upgrading a PC involves some reading around, but researching a new Spectrum could be just as in-depth. A kempston joystick was desirable, but required an additional interface. Other peripherals like the ever-unreliable Microdrive or a mouse had to be considered; and, having convinced your parents the machine would definitely be used for homework, a printer wouldn't go amiss either. Of course, it might run a game or two as well ...
The thrill of a new Speccy at Christmas was matched only by the bulging C90 cassettes brought home by elder siblings. The cases would glisten with the delicious illegality of goods from a far-off world, though in truth they'd probably just been slapped together by a spotty schoolchild in between a lousy book report. Still, what a treat it was to trawl through the poorly handwritten titles; at first attempting to guess what lay in store from the loading screen, and then trying to blunder through a couple of screens without any instructions. A few efforts would fail to excite, but such hand-picked selections could usually guarantee some degree of quality. Looking back, it's also notable just how varied these games were - creations like Quazatron and Highway Encounter stubbornly defied simplistic pigeon-holing.
Later in life, there was no longer a need to rely on older relatives to sail the high seas of piracy. Schoolyards were the perfect breeding ground for furtive tape exchanges; a hotbed of excitable young chaps eager to play the latest titles, but lacking the necessary capital to purchase them. To begin with these transactions were undertaken with an edge of fear - mindful that at any moment, F.A.S.T. might storm the gym and arrest everyone in it. Ruination and shame would surely follow, sparking a downward spiral of fines and jail time. Experience would eventually reveal these concerns as ridiculous, resulting in a flood of open C90 copying and swapping. The confident swagger of people who know they're above an unenforceable law.
However, sometimes even Long John Silver couldn't deliver the booty. Either because nobody in the area owned a particular title, or some devious copy protection had been put in place by sales-conscious publishers. These occasionally put paid to legitimate attempts to play the game as well, with a table of dark brown numbers printed on a brown background being a particular anti-photocopying favourite. Elite went one step further, forcing players to hold a strange plastic contraption against the television screen to decipher a perplexing code.