British Microcomputer War (Part 2): Amstrad and the Return of the Micros

by Terri Rose

For part one of this article, click here!

By 1984, microcomputers ruled the roost when it came to gaming in the UK, aside from the arcades. The console market -- Atari, Intellivision, Coleco and the like, had just suffered the great Video Game Crash of 1983 where store shelves were flooded with low-effort pablum and game cartridges could run interchangeably on different systems. At the same time in the US, Jack Tramiel and Commodore had made a mess of the home computer market with their aggressive tactics, and Americans were also starting to wonder if maybe you didn’t need a home computer just for your shopping list.

The UK was different, where the focus was on games from the beginning. Home computers, paired with a thriving video game development industry bolstered by bedroom coders who had learned to code on their Sinclair ZX81s and other such machines. Other than the great Japanese MSX developers and some Americans working for the C64 and Apple II, Europe was where computer games were being made.

The ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 were where most of the games were originally released, but it was not uncommon for games to be released across platforms, getting ported to everything from the C64 to the Apple II to the Dragon 32. But there was going to be a new player on the field.

 

Amstrad

 Photo by Bill Bertram (2005), licensed under the  Creative Commons   Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic  license

Photo by Bill Bertram (2005), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Enter Amstrad, the newest challenger to the microcomputer game. Amstrad is a British electronics company, founded in 1968 by Alan Sugar (yes, he of the British version of The Apprentice).

Amstrad first made their mark in the in the electronics world by marketing all-in-one stereo sets. When hi-fi stereos started becoming a must-own home feature, it was work to put them together. You had to go to the stereo store, where the hi-fi expert associate would get you the right stereo towers, the right subwoofer, the right preamp, the right controller, etc. It was a lot of work, but you ended up with a system that could play “Afternoon Delight” in stunning clarity.

What Amstrad decided to do was essentially cut out the middle man of the hi-fi sales associate by providing an all-in-one stereo experience. It wouldn’t be as good as a hi-fi set, but you could buy it all in one package at the department store, and then you could just plug it and play…”Afternoon Delight”, I suppose.

In the 1980s, Sugar saw the complex, peripheral-based world of home computing and saw an opportunity to apply the same business model. Enter 1984’s Amstrad CPC: a competent if mostly unremarkable microcomputer that came all-in-one. No need to buy a monitor or hook the computer up to your television set, the CPC came with a dedicated monitor. It was ready to plug in and go the second you brought it home from the shop.

The CPC captured the small business market across western Europe, particularly being a smash hit in France. It also proved to be a serviceable games machine, its full colour-resolution brighter and more vivid than the duller tones of the C64, but the CPC’s weak processor often meant games played far more stilted and choppier than on other systems. While most of the successful games on the systems were ports, there are a few noteworthy games developed for the machine: Remi Huberlot’s excellent adventure game Get Dexter perhaps being the best example.

The CPC continued to sell well across Europe throughout the 80s, but Amstrad wasn’t done with computers.

 

The New ZX Spectrum: Mirrorsoft and Amstrad

 ZX Spectrum +2, public domain image

ZX Spectrum +2, public domain image

 

By 1986, Sinclair Research was in a bad place. Their attempts to break into the business computer market with the QL, or indeed do anything besides update the Spectrum, had failed miserably. The time had come for Sinclair Research to find a buyer or they were finished.

Enter Robert Maxwell, the mysterious billionaire owner of British tabloid The Daily Mirror and Rupert Murdoch’s mortal enemy. Maxwell’s technology company Mirrorsoft offered a large influx of cash to save Sinclair, and would take control of the company with Maxwell at the helm.

The problem is, while both Mirrorsoft and Sinclar seemed amenable to the deal, it never ended up happening. There are competing theories as to why this is: Robert Maxwell sensing that the microcomputer market was starting to shrink and not wanting to get involved after all, issues with Sinclair’s R&D department that worried Mirrorsoft, ardent Conservative-supporter Clive Sinclair not wanting to give up his company to Labour-supporter Maxwell, or the deal being kiboshed by Margaret Thatcher herself. Nobody really knows, but it’s fun to speculate.

What did happen, though, was Amstrad. For a deal considerably less generous than the Mirrorsoft one, Alan Sugar swept in and bought the right to sell all current and future Spectrums and other Sinclair computers, and Amstrad would also produce new Spectrums. Sinclair Research would be left, a shell of its former self, to create other consumer electronics.

What Amstrad did next did more to prolong the life of the microcomputers in the UK than anything else: they released a new Spectrum model, the ZX Spectrum +2, which featured a built-in tape deck so games could be played without an external tape player. This allowed Amstrad to do something Sinclair had always been hesitant to do: market the machine for its games, complete with bundled software.

The bundled game, from then on, was a tradition that virtually every computer in the UK aside from IBM PCs would continue.

 

The End of the 8-Bits

  Drag Race Eliminator  for the C64. Photo licensed under the GPL.

Drag Race Eliminator for the C64. Photo licensed under the GPL.

In the mid-80s, two new 16-bit computers arrived that challenged the domination of the 8-bit micros: the Atari ST, and the Commodore Amiga. While both machines had slow starts, the Amiga especially, by the end of the decade they were huge across Europe; the Amiga being strongest in the UK and West Germany, with the Atari ST being France and Spain’s choice.

Both of these systems were overflowing with excellent games, as Europe’s game development industry were more than happy to make the move over to the 16-bit machines, with stunningly beautiful next generation games like Xenon, Shadow of the Beast, and Defender of the Crown being killer apps for these new computers.

However, with both Commodore and Amstrad still having good working relationships with software developers in Europe, as well as a huge part of the European population still owning 8-bit machines, games kept being ported over to the C64, Amstrad CPC, and ZX Spectrum well into the 1990s. There’s even a port of Street Fighter 2 for the ZX Spectrum! Sure, it’s terrible, but it does exist.

As powerful IBM PC clones started to become more affordable in the 1990s and both the Atari ST and Amiga never caught up with these PCs for innovation, the era of the specialized home computer was at an end. Other that Macintoshes, all PCs pretty much ran the same software after Amiga was finally dead and buried in 1996.

But the microcomputers lived a far longer and more vibrant life in Europe than they did anywhere else in the world. The last ZX Spectrums were made in 1992, and the last C64 was made in 1994. These machines, low-cost options for much or even all of their lives, were many people’s introduction to the world of computing and are fondly remembered today, inspiring large homebrew game and emulation communities.