The 8-bit era of home computing was a far simpler time than the digital age we live in today. It was a world without online multiplayer, 3D accelerator chips or stereo sound, yet many claim that this was the pinnacle of video gaming. The ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 ruled the roost back then, and the debate over which was the superior machine dominated every playground.
There is no easy answer to that question, since it's a conundrum with as much significance as Nintendo vs Sega, and equal complexity to iOS vs Android. Both computers did their bit to shape the industry as we know it, and are more than worthy of their places in the gaming hall of fame. It's almost 30 years to the day that Sinclair Research released its first ZX Spectrum model in the UK, and to mark the occasion Digital Spy has reopened one of the computing industry's greatest debates - which was the better games machine?
Hardware and physical appearance
Sinclair's first Spectrum was powered by a Zilog Z80A CPU running at 3.5 MHz with either 16KB or 48KB of RAM. Video output was through an RF modulator compatible with television sets, offering a resolution of 256×192 with limited colour capabilities. Sound was transmitted via a beeper on the computer itself, rather than the TV, playing back through one channel with ten octaves.
On paper, the C64 was superior under the hood. The 64KB machine rocked a VIC-II chip with two bitmap graphics modes, better equipped for handling multiple colours, and a SID sound chip for greater sonic prowess. However, the 8-bit MOS Technology 6510 microprocessor clocked in slower than the Spectrum's CPU, making it ill-designed for handling 3D graphics.
The C64 might look ugly and bulky today, but it was certainly functional back then. Sporting a keyboard design that hasn't been altered much for the modern era, the Commodore machine was a more robust alternative to its rubber-keyed nemesis. That said, the Spectrum was more sleek and transportable.
Commodore may have had its rival firmly outgunned in the hardware stakes, but it's important to note the significant price difference between the machines. The Spectrum launched at £125 for the 16KB model or £175 for 48KB, while the C64's introductory price was almost twice that. The question of which offered more value for money is a debate that mirrors the current generation console wars. One had the hardware, the other was budget-friendly with a bigger software library.
Graphics and sound
Although the C64 was backed by more advanced technology than the original Spectrum, the debate over which had the better graphics and sound was not so cut and dried. This varied from game to game, usually coming down to the creativity of the programmer and their ability to get the most out of the tools at hand.
This is less true of sound than of graphics, as the C64's SID chip is a clear winner in this respect. While some programmers were able to mould the array of bleeps the Spectrum produced into something almost pleasing to the ear, the Commodore computer's synthy tones set the standards during the 8-bit era. The C64's musical functionality still has a strong online following today with an array of websites dedicated to new compositions.
Graphical comparison between the two machines is a far more contentious issue. While the C64's VIC-II chip handled multi-colour visuals far better, and was more adept with sprites and scrolling, it all came at a cost. If game designers used more than one colour in an 8x8 pixel cluster, they lost half the horizontal resolution, resulting in blocky imagery.
The Spectrum's biggest graphical issue was colour clash. Unless a workaround was applied, tones ran into one another and sprites took on the shade of the background or became obscured by it. Games like Double Dragon and Knight Tyme are two such offenders, but the techniques designers adopted to minimise these issues became a part of Spectrum culture. Some programmers went down the monochrome route, while designers like Don Priestley opted to use large sprites spanning entire character blocks.
Despite the obvious advantages of the C64's graphics chip and sound hardware, many games looked identical across both systems when designers chose to harness the machine's full resolution at the expense of colour. As previously mentioned, it usually came down to the skill and creativity of the programmers. Street Fighter II is more pleasing to the eye on the Spectrum despite being rendered in monochrome as the sprites and backdrops were much clearer, while games like International Karate + are a good example of the C64 coming out on top.
Games library and hardware peripherals
We've already covered graphical and sound comparisons between the two computers, but when push comes to shove, which was the better gaming machine? Lengthy loading times were a drawback that both systems suffered from, but C64 developers did more to make them less of a chore. Players were served music while the software fired up, and even provided with mini-games to pass the time.
Such gripes aside, the Spectrum's vast library, which now exceeds 23,000 titles thanks to the continuous efforts of its cult followers, makes it a clear winner in this category. It wasn't always a case of quality over quantity, and there are numerous examples where the C64 edition of a particular game is the definitive version, but strength in numbers prevails here.
Again, there's also an element of personal preference here. Elite, Lords of Midnight, and Dizzy are but a few examples of the Sinclair machine at its best, while the Ultima titles, the Last Ninja series and Impossible Mission were unrivalled on C64.
The C64 arguably had the edge when it came to peripherals, with its array of branded disk drives and datasette players. Both computers supported basic dot-matrix printers and joystick interfaces, but the C64 deserves points for hosting a primitive modem, despite users having little need for one in the early '80s.
In closing, the ZX Spectrum vs Commodore 64 debate is a contentious issue since both of these iconic machines have their own strengths and weaknesses. Pushed for an answer, we would say that the C64 has the edge where sound capabilities and hardware accessories are concerned, while the Spectrum has a superior library of games.
From a graphical standpoint, we'd call it a tie. While the C64 often provided more colourful fare, this was usually accompanied by blocky visuals. Spectrum games occasionally suffered from colour clash, but had a distinct look that was their own, not to mention some highly creative programmers.