Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A visual compendium Book Review.

Bitmap Books is back! And this time it's the turn of the humble spectrum to get the Visual Compendium treatment. But can a printed book ever do justice to the little marvel and will it be another book to equal its predecessors?

Apologies in advance to Sam Dyer, Author of the Bitmap Books Visual Compendiums. This is now the third outing of the series and probably the one I was least looking forward to reviewing. For I am an unashamed Commodore fan. The first 2 books (C64 and Amiga reviewed here and here) were right up my strasse. They were the first two computers that I owned as a child and teen respectively. The spectrum never crossed my radar except as some quirky thing that some of my new friends (after moving from the sates to the UK) had. In the UK, I was the odd one out with a C64, so I never really understood the plucky little be-rubbered one.

Double page spread of screenshots for Batty

Now in my later years I have a new-found appreciation for the much maligned (by me...) machine and feel a little saddened on missing out on this great British institution. So when the third instalment of the Visual compendium series was announced I was straight into the Kickstarter campaign and placed my pledge on the first day, though not this time springing for the hardback or poly-block capsule or slip case. However, going for the poverty spec was by no means missing out. The campaign was so successful that it smashed through the stretch goals and as a birthday treat I received a veritable cornucopia of retro goodness. The book, a poster, several postcards, an Allister Brimble remix CD, Stickers, bookmark... yeah it was a good day.

But on to the book itself. The first thing that strikes you is the cover (well duh!) adorned in the usual style of an A to Z represented by iconic game lettering, such as the 'G' of Gauntlet, or recognisable game characters such as Horace goes skiing. But this one is a departure from the common theme of the first two stablemates. The base colour is now black instead of white. This is in part, to provide a good contrast with the bright, colourful screenshots to make them stand out even more, and part, I'm sure, to lull your eyes into a false sense of security for what is about hit them, unannounced (except for the tiniest of hints on the cover imagery) and with extreme prejudice. Inside the front cover are some unmistakable loading bars and a short blurb as a prelude to the main event, then turn the page into the contributor acknowledgement page and WHAM! a Full on, IN-YOUR-FACE-OH-EMM-GEE-OW-MY-EYES-ARE-BLEEDING acid pink background smacks you into next week.

It seriously stings in real life...
In the kickstarter updates, Sam mentioned he was using a specific printing technique combined with fluorescent inks in order to bring the vivid speccy colour palette to life in print, and boy does he deliver. The pinks greens and yellows are so bright, so loud, they actually leave your eyes stinging when delivered in a full page like this. I have tried to convey the brightness in my photos but there really is no way to do justice to the eye-popping nature of the print.

As for the content, all the usual Visual Compendium hallmarks are there: gorgeous screenshots spanning in the most part double page spreads, stunning Oliver Frey magazine covers, close up shots of various pieces of Spectrum hardware, specially comissioned new art, interviews, features on publishers, memory quotes from industry stalwarts and new for this edition features on three of the biggest magazines: Crash, Your Sinclair and Sinclair User, each with a selection of memorable covers. There are 128 (nice round number) games featured in chronological order from 1982's The Hobbit through to Extreme, Gauntlet III and Lemmings in 1991, each with at least a screenshot and a paragraph memory concerning the title, but many go beyond that, with whole level maps in some case, or multiple screenshots with more interesting tidbits than you can shake a stick at, before delving into the still flourishing Russian homebrew scene.

There's even a nice little easter egg inside the dust cover: a type-in BASIC program listing (which I can attest that it works - after bashing it in and only having one mis-type and was able to rectify thanks to my 1337 h4xx0r 5k1llz. not.)

Ultimately nothing gets in the way of what is star of the show though: the pixel art borne out of necessity and severe limitation rather than a self imposed style choice. That some beautiful imagery was able to be produced despite some of the most severe restrictions of all the great platforms is a testament to the resourcefulness and skill of the artists of the time, many of whom were as new to it as the their coder mates sat alongside them trying to figure out how to get a quart of code into a pint pot of 48K.

Conclusion: The whole production is a tour-de-colour-clash-force and just goes to prove that the series is getting better with each outing, and thoroughly deserves its place on any retrogaming enthusiasts bookshelf alongside the C64 and Amiga books.

Which by the way leads me nicely on to the next upcoming instalment of the visual compendiums. After the massive successes of the Amiga and Speccy book kickstarter campaigns, the original C64 book now seem a little slender in comparison, so Sam is launching a second edition to the C64 book. This is not just a volume revision, but a companion to the first edition. A chance to include all the extra things that had to be missed out. The first book made its goal but not by enough to make a book of the same caliber of the successors. With the new book there's the option to have the new SE book with a slipcase that will house the first edition side by side, or a hardback Ɯberbook containing both editions in one. I've already made my pledge ;)


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