Level up

There was a lot of snow that year. So much so that it came halfway up my bedroom window, blocking the little sunlight that we had in Finland during the Christmas holidays.

I didn’t mind it, though.

To be honest, I barely noticed it because it was also the the year I got ZX Spectrum.

I spent the Christmas Eve night setting it up, connecting the tiny plastic box with the rubber keys to the 14-inch TV set on my desk, and to the tape recorder – the mass storage unit – next to it.

I only had one tape, and it was a collection of programs that came with the computer. To call it a computer makes me smile, because I think there’s more computing power in our fridge than in that Spectrum. The programs on the introduction tape were chosen to have something for everybody.

There were basic lessons in, well, BASIC, the programming language. There were typing exercises. There was a dictionary and something called Evolution that showed how to make graphs (based on fox and rabbit populations). The other programs included one that made graphs of sums of sine waves, a character maker, a drawing program, and Monte Carlo, a game of dice, or so I thought. Instead, Monte Carlo was “a simulation of the repeated rolling of two dice which graphs the expected and observed probability distribution.”

The tape’s contents were fairly heavily skewed toward the educational aspects of home computing.

But of course there was Thro’ The Wall, Spectrum’s version of a block-breaking game in which the player uses a ball and paddle to break a wall, made of colored bricks.

And I was great at it.

I was a natural.

Or, maybe my years standing in front of a wall of TV sets at Dad’s store, playing Tennis” (2-player Pong) and “Squash” (1-player Pong) had helped me hone my talent.
Either way, the game opened a window into a new world, one that wasn’t covered with snow as I spent my Christmas holidays glued to the TV connected to the Spectrum which, in turn, never left my hands. After the Xmas break, and possibly world-record breaking scores in Thro’ The Wall, I moved on to new games and new horizons, even an upgraded version of the Spectrum.

I regularly rode my bike to town to get the new Spectrum magazine and maybe learn some game cheats, or new strings of code I could use in my own little programs.

Spectrum was so much a part of my high school years that when I, a few years ago, began to write a novel partly set in the 1980s, my trusty Speccy and The Hobbit, a text adventure game based on the Tolkien book, became important plot points.

As I was writing the book – and doing “research” -, I stumbled on an interesting Kickstarter project. It was called ZX Spectrum Next. The developers were going to re-build the Spectrum, only a 21st century version of it.

Too good to be true?

Only one way to find out, I thought, and became a backer. The Next would be in my hands by the end of 2018. Perfect.

I finished the book with the Spectrum prominently in it. I got an agent, I celebrated, she sold the book, I celebrated, then made revisions, waited for feedback, was published, celebrated, got published in two more countries, celebrated, went on a book tour, celebrated that, and finally, wrote another book that came out two weeks ago, and celebrated that.

The project team had sent a few newsletters, mostly telling us backers that there had been a small glitch, a minor delay, a slight error in production, but that there was no need to worry, ZX Spectrum Next would see the light of day soon.

So I didn’t worry. And since I had lots to do, I even forgot about the Next for months, although never completely.

Then, two months ago, I received another newsletter. This time, there was no glitch, no delay, only good news. The Nexts were being shipped.

Today, I picked up mine – and it is absolutely gorgeous.

It’s the closest thing to a time machine I have ever seen. I plugged it onto our TV and was thrown back into the 1980s. Well, except that our TV is about forty inches wider and about twenty inches thinner than my old TV. Also, there’s no tape recorder.

But I sat on our living room rug, looking up, amazed by the colors on the screen.

It took me a good fifteen minutes to get my feet under me, or more correctly, to get my fingers back up to speed. I was a little rusty with the keyboard, just like I had been rusty flipping through vinyl records when I first got back into that game a few years ago after a three-decade hiatus.

I racked my brain for BASIC language commands, all the while politely ignoring Wife’s gentle suggestions that I read the manual.

Then I found Nextoid, the 21st century Thro’ The Wall.

Yes, apparently, the purpose of the game is to “restore health [of a sick human] in all 20 germ and virus infected levels”, an unwelcome reminder of the real world out there and the new version has lasers and special bonus objects that make the paddle bigger, faster, stickier, but to me, it still looked like my mission was simply to tear down that wall.

I got to work.

I moved my paddle with my right hand, firing the ball up against the colorful bricks, trying to break a small passage into the wall and then send the ball up to the other side, let it bounce there on its own, and have the game do all the hard work for me.

I tried again, and did better. I failed again, tried again, failed, and played again. . After a few runs, I took a break and went to the pet store to get some dog food. (For Dog).

When I got back, I found Wife sitting cross-legged on the living-room floor, with the Spectrum on her lap, cheering herself on.

Even though she was on Level 2, was about to advance to Level 3, and had just crushed my high score, all I could do was smile.

Like all good time machines, ZX Spectrum Next has made life in the present day better.

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