British Microcomputer War (Part 1): Sinclair, Commodore, and Acorn

by Terri Rose

Throughout the 1980s, before and indeed partially during the domination of Nintendo and Sega’s consoles, video gaming in Britain happened primarily on the microcomputers. Pretty much all those who grew up in this era recall playing games like Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum, or Uridium on the Commodore 64. These systems, though not all British in origin, became one of the centres of the British entertainment industry, producing billions of pounds in revenue.

 

A Brief History of the Microcomputer

Microcomputers, or micros, had their first wave of popularity in the United States in the late 1970s -- these small, moderately inexpensive machines were a far cry from most Americans’ conception of a computer: a hulking, behemoth of blinking lights and metal that’s the size of a room and probably made by IBM. These micros were small, affordable (on average about $350 USD at the time), and that meant you could do all manner of things on them: make shopping lists, do your budget, and of course: play games.

The “holy trinity” of these micros were all released in 1977: the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET. The success of these first home computers spawned a flood of imitators by companies like Coleco, Atari, and Texas Instruments, and America's micro-computer boom had begun.

Since the operating systems on these machines were all powered by some form of BASIC programming language, they also inspired a flood of people learning how to code -- and this meant learning how to code games. 

In Britain, this phenomenon was sped up even quicker when a British company entered the market: Sinclair Research. The company, who had been faltering in the home consumer electronics market against foreign competitors like Commodore and Texas Instruments, struck gold with their second home computer: the ZX81.

The ZX81 was a sleek, futuristic looking black machine that was built as cheaply and effectively as possible by the engineers at Sinclair, keeping the machine under ₤100. For a Britain that had been ravaged by economic instability and the destruction of northern British industry by Margaret Thatcher's government, this was a luxury product that was still affordable in most British homes. And especially in areas hit by high unemployment and economic downturn, learning to code seemed like an exciting new career path, leading to Britain’s bedroom coding boom of the early 1980s.

 

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

 ZX Spectrum 16k (Spanish model), licensed by Adobe Stock

ZX Spectrum 16k (Spanish model), licensed by Adobe Stock

Sinclair’s follow-up to the ZX81, however, was what really set the UK on fire. The ZX Spectrum, released in April of 1982, became a wildly successful machine, a symbol of British technological ingenuity that earned Sinclair Research founder Clive Sinclair a knightship.

Compared to other micros on the market in the 80s, the Spectrum was not a technological marvel -- it was a low-budget one. The machine infamously carried an AY sound chip, capable of producing only the bleepiest and bloopiest of sounds,  certainly keeping the Spectrum from having some of the more memorable game soundtracks of the era. The Spectrum’s way of displaying graphics with a foreground/background scheme also infamously produced games full of colour bleed.

Nonetheless, the Spectrum was one of the premium game machines in the UK throughout the decade with classics like Mervyn Estcourt’s Deathchase, Ultimate Play The Game’s Knight Lore and Sabre Wulf, Paul Reynolds’ All or Nothing, and Kevin Toms’ extremely popular Football Manager all being huge hits on the platform, helping the sell the system in droves.

While the Spectrum was never a global success like the Apple II, the MSX machines, or the Commodore 64, it did enjoy healthy sales across Europe. It was a particularly large seller in Spain, where it dominated the home computer market.

There are three major iterations of the Spectrum as made by Sinclair, each new iteration featuring a larger memory port. The first was the ZX Spectrum 16k, which featured but 16kb of RAM. Later on, the 16k model could be upgraded to 48 KB of RAM. The third, and final iteration made by Sinclair Research, was the ZX Spectrum 128 which was released in 1985 with better chip sets, 128 KB of RAM, and improved sound.

1985 also spells the last full year of Sinclair Research’s relationship with the Spectrum computer, but we’ll get to that in the next part of this article.

 

Commodore 64

 Commodore 64, licensed by Adobe Stock

Commodore 64, licensed by Adobe Stock

Launched in August of 1982, and created under the most grueling assignment from Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel (i.e. make the cheapest computer that’s also the best computer), the Commodore 64 found itself almost immediately locked in price wars on both sides of the pond. In America it was a brutal war against Atari’s home computers, the still running strong Apple II, and especially against Texas Instrument’s 99/4a. Jack Tramiel’s tactics were brutal, and while Commodore did win the US market share quite handily in the end, the scorched earth tactics and relentless price slashing meant the American home computer market pretty much experienced a crash between 1983 and 1984.

The UK also had a microcomputer war, but it was a kinder, gentler one than what had happened in the US. Commodore UK wasn’t run directly by Tramiel, scorched earth tactics were never employed, so most all UK-based electronic companies had good relationships with software developers and retailers across the board.

The C64 is probably the most famous of all the microcomputers for games, and rightfully so: the system produced masterpiece after masterpiece. Some of these included Manfred Trenz’s stunning Turrican, Uridium by Andrew Braybrook, Dennis Caswell’s Impossible Mission, and Time Warp Production’s The Great Giana Sisters. A quick note on The Great Giana Sisters -- while the game is indeed great, it was also pretty much a rip-off of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Nintendo noticed, a lawsuit was threatened, and the game was quickly pulled from circulation.

The C64 sold remarkably well in the UK, in a way that the Apple II and TI 99/4a never did. Commodore having an autonomous UK base of operations and excellent relations with the retailers definitely helped this. It also helped that the C64 is a fantastic machine -- strong graphics, a fantastic sound chip for the time, and a distinctive colour pallet that put monochrome-display computers to shame.

 

BBC Micro/Acorn Electron

 BBC Micro, public domain image

BBC Micro, public domain image

The third party in this war is Acorn Computers, a British company co-founded by former Clive Sinclair protogee Chris Curry. Acorn’s first home computer, the Acorn Atom, was a moderate success and definitely put Acorn on the map as a player in the UK home computer market.

What was happening concurrently to all this, however, was a decision by the BBC to brand an education-based computer that could be sold at a discount to schools across the country. A call for bids was put out, and a machine Acorn was developing known as the Proton won out, defeating a beat by Sinclair Research. This obviously caused a great deal of tension between Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry, and the two never spoke again (though there are rumours of a knock-out brawl between the men at a pub around Christmas time).

The Proton, renamed the BBC Micro, became the de facto educational model in the UK, similar to how the Apple II and later Macintoshes served a similar function in North America. Acorn estimated that about 80% of the machine’s sales were to British schools -- attempts to break into markets in West Germany and the US proved disastrous.

Acorn also released a low-cost model version of the BBC Micro, the Acorn Electron, to compete directly with the ZX Spectrum. It was, again, a moderate success, though it couldn’t touch the Spectrum or C64 for sales.

The Micro/Electron is definitely the lesser of the three systems for games, but many games were ported to the system, and it featured a handful of strong originals: the early 3D game and space exploration sim Elite by David Braben and Ian Bell, and educational games like Mike Matson’s Granny’s Garden.

Future follow-ups by Acorn, the BBC Master and the Acorn Archimedes, were also hits in the educational market, but as Commodore’s Amiga, and then IBM PCs and Macintoshes began to overtake their market, Acorn was forced to halt development of their home computers in 1995.

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In part two, we'll take a look at a new major player in the microcomputer game, Amstrad, as well as how the other 8-bit micros went on into the 1990s.