The Spectrum Show

Dedicated to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum

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The Evolution Of The Joystick

For what predominately ended up as great gaming machine, the ZX Spectrum when launched in 1982 didn't have a joystick interface. This was mainly down to the fact the Sinclair wanted to pitch the machine as a direct competitor to the BBC micro and take a share of education and business market, and also to keep costs down.

For the early gamers, they only way to play games was via the rubber, dead flesh keyboard, which many loved and many hated. Early games tended to use the keys Sinclair had thoughtfully placed as cursor keys and had little direction arrows to indicated this. Sadly, the layout of these keys didn't exactly lend themselves to playing games.

Soon, games began to use a more comfortable set of keys which continued to be used in most games since; Q,A O P and SPACE. For many gamers, this layout is still the preferred layout, myself included.

It wasn't long before companies realised that the rapid influx of games for a machine without an actual joystick, was money waiting to be made. From this moment the race was on to create an industry standard.

Early attempts included plastic clip-on sticks that covered the cursor keys and larger clip-on keyboard overlays, none of which actually fixed the problem.

Next came the rash of hardware interfaces that plugged into the back of the computer and came with a variety of different standards. Some emulated the cursor keys, some used the ‘Sinclair’ option, which confusingly still used the number keys, but in a different layout. Other companies headed down the more flexible, but more expensive route of ‘programmable’ interfaces. These ranged from having pre-game code that had to be loaded to small boards with wires and plugs that the user had to connect for each direction.

Some companies even introduced their own standard, the major one was Kempston. At the time of release, practically no games supported it but the big selling point, was the ability to add joystick controls to your own BASIC programs. The Kempston interface used the IN command for directional control making it easy to implement for game companies, and soon more and more games were released with Kempston compatibility. Some games were re-released and some magazines and companies released fix tapes, that allowed existing games to be used.

It wasn't long before Kempston became the de facto standard, but it didn't get around the issue of older games.

Next came the dual joystick interface. An interface that had two connectors or a switch to allow different options. Now you could choose which method to control your games by. Kempston even released a three socket interface, supporting three different standards. It seemed Kempston had won and now the battle was on to include the Kempton standard interface into anything else that could plug into the Spectrum.

Sound interfaces, backup interfaces, speech interfaces, all suddenly included a Kempton joystick port and the standard was well and truly set.