Tag Archives: zx spectrum

I laugh at your DRM and present – the Lenslok

Continuing my nostalgia kick, I was thinking about copy protection in the world of 8 bit computers.  Games for the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 were on audio tape, recorded as sound (in Europe, in the US I think the Commodore was more commonly used with diskettes).  Anyway, this presented an excellent opportunity for up and coming software pirates (aka kids with only a small amount of pocket money).  One kid would buy the game, and then it was easy using tape-to-tape copying to give your friends copies as well.

This resulted in a number of counter measures, in a software piracy war that would continue until the present day.  But in those days, it was a far less technical war.  There were a number of methods introduced.  For the ZX Spectrum, different modulations were tried with the tape content, essentially trying to ensure that only original recordings were of the right quality to load, while copies of the audio would fail.  This was less successful than hoped, as tape-to-tape copying equipment developed rather quickly as well.  Some schemes only worked because it wasn’t easy to share information around quickly, for example, Jet Set Willy was supplied with a colour card and in order to play, you needed to enter the colour corresponding to a prompt.

While it was hard to create colour photocopies at the time, and not exactly trivial to write up and share a full list of the colours, it turned out to be rather easy to circumvent the copy protection and the solution was actually published in a magazine at the time (Your Computer, Issue 6, June 1984).  It was a different age back then.

However, for many Spectrum owners, the most frustrating scheme was the Lenslok.  Anyone who had the necessity to use them knew how unreliable they were, and they quickly became one of the most hated copy protection schemes around – not because it worked – but because even for legitimate owners, it sometimes didn’t work.  That’s a lesson for the DRM boys.  The Lenslok was a plastic prism, which you used to unscramble text on the screen before entering it to play the game (most notably, Elite).  However, it had to be calibrated to your TV every time (to get the size right) and wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to use.

And it still didn’t provide 100% reliable protection, because interfaces for the Spectrum allowed people to save games to tape at a point past the copy protection scheme and share them with their friends anyway – just another failed copy protection scheme from the games industry.

So when you curse your DRM, or laugh at the attempts to fix a social issue with a technical solution, just think back to those of us squinting at our black and white TV screens from an inch away, through a plastic prism, so we could play an 8 bit pre-cursor to Modern Warfare 2.

Prepare to Launch

I’ve waxed nostalgic about computers before, and I’m going to do so again.  This time, it’s the fault of team members at work.  After a short conversation about The Hobbit (movie, lack of progression), a colleague reminded me of the ZX Spectrum adventure game based on the book.  Oddly, we both remembered getting stuck in the same place.  That in itself isn’t amazing, it was obviously the place to get stuck when you played The Hobbit, what’s amazing is that it’s approaching 30 years since the game was released (1982), and it’s around 25 years or so since we played it.

25 years.  And we still remember where we got stuck.  Anyway, that led to a range of discussions of the humble ZX Spectrum, including Sabre Wulf and how you can’t download it for emulators because the copyright holders still exist and refuse to allow it (in case they want to cash in on their 25 year old intellectual property).  I also, badly, tried to do an impression of the first digitised speech I heard in a computer game.  It was a game on the ZX Spectrum, and I knew it was some kind of space game, but couldn’t remember the name.  I’ve been quoting the phrase ‘prepare to launch’ in a stupid, static-laden voice since I was in my teens.  I still do it now if I hear that phrase on the TV or talk about the first speech I heard in a game.

A couple of years ago, I blogged about Wing Commander (here) and how I’m still quoting stuff from my early life – and this Spectrum game was no different.

Luckily, we have The Internet, and a quick bit of googling and I found the game.  Death Star Interceptor.  Amazingly, the game had a tie-in license with Star Wars, and uses music and themes from the film (including the Death Star).  Essentially you have to launch your interceptor (which is annoyingly hard, straight off the bat), shoot down some tie-fighters and then fly along a trench to blow up the Death Star.  I can’t remember if I ever beat the game or not, or if you even can.  But I do remember the speech.  And thanks to a little emulator, now you can too.  Have a listen, see if my impression is any good (click the text!)


I just spent 10 minutes playing the game, and after a few minutes of getting hit by flying tie-fighters I got a little better.  I didn’t get better because I was learning how to play, I got better because I was remembering how to play!  From 25 years ago.  I still remember how to play this bloody game.  I sometimes can’t remember what I ate for dinner yesterday but I can sure as hell remember how to play an obscure shoot-em-up from a Spectrum game in the mid 80’s.  Nice.

I’ve got a real computer nostalgia kick going on right now, I’m sure there’ll be more blog posts to come!

Old photo’s

We spent the weekend in Newcastle, visiting my family (I’ll be blogging about that in a moment), and while I was there I asked my sister if she had all our old photo’s.  I sort of knew she did, she’s been making sure all the family photo’s are kept safe for quite some time.  Grete hasn’t seen them really, despite the fact that we’ve been married for 10 years, so it was a chance for her to laugh at the ones of me when I was younger.  Two in particular caught my eye in respect to my blogging.

tony-paitningThe first one is me sitting painting some miniatures, note that I’m using oil based enamels, big pots of tamya modelling paint as bases (which I’m still using, the very same pots), and that there’s a partly finished mini on the table, an elf in a green cloak with blonde hair.  I still have that mini, and I’m pretty sure it’s still got the same paint job (which since it’s oil based enamel will last for ever).  Click for the full sized pic, yes, I spelled the file name wrong.

The second picture is of me proudly sitting in front of what I suspect was my brand new spectrum.  As you can see it’s plugged into a black and white TV, and connected to an ancient tape deck (complete with mike!)

For bonus points, I appear to be wearing the same shirt.

tony-spectrum Edit: Ah, Grete points out one shirt is short sleeved and the other long, I’m blind. Also, judging by my hair these are probably a year or two apart.