Put on some Duran Duran and step into your moon boots; it’s time to take a look at the best ZX Spectrum games of all time.
Many of you might know the ZX Spectrum as that console that plays all of your favourite retro games with poor graphics…
Ok, that was a little harsh. The Spectrum was one of the first home consoles in the United Kingdom, after all, and it has done a lot for the gaming world.
It’s almost 40-years-old too, so I should probably cut it some slack.
The Spectrum had lots of original titles and proved a training ground for developers who would go on to make some of my favourite ever games, many of which feature in our list of the best N64 games.
With a cool stripe and sleek look, this console is also one of the few gadgets that defines the 80s. But what are the best ZX Spectrum games to play on this retro renegade?
We’ve listed 15 of our favourite titles below as well as links for you to add them into your collection.
Happy scrolling, and enjoy the ride!
Table of Contents
Rainbow Islands: The Story Of Bubble Bobble 2 kickstarts this list of the best ZX Spectrum games of all time!
Some of you might recognise the guy on the front cover from Parasol stars, one of the best PC Engine games. Well, Rainbow Islands is where that part of the Bubble Bobble story starts, and it features everyone’s favourite shape-busting dragons in their human forms.
Yeah I know; it’s hard to get your head around, but stick with us.
Bub and Bob, the main characters of Bubble Bobble, are actually humans that have been transformed into dragons by an evil sorcerer. Players play as Bubby and then Bobby alternately in this game.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a little like a version of Mario Bros where instead of just defeating enemies on a screen, players also have to jump up levels to avoid the rising sea level. Fail to move quickly enough and you die!
Compared to the arcade version, Rainbow Islands on the ZX Spectrum is very spartan. The characters don’t have any colour to them and the levels are mainly block colour backgrounds.
If it wasn’t for the engaging gameplay, then this title might not have had made this list at all. Still, Bub and Bob are big players in the Retro Gaming world, and it’s not their fault the Spectrum sucks all the life out of their looks!
I’m going to be honest here; even though I know what Jet Set Willy is from having played it, it still took me ages to figure out what the heck is going on with that front cover.
I thought it was a friendly whale at first, especially with what looks like a swordfish poking his nose out of the door! Then, like one of those eye puzzles, a man holding a wine bottle with his head down a toilet came back into view.
Still, despite the weird cover, this game spent three months at the top of the UK gaming charts and was the most popular title of 1984!
Serving as a sequel to Manic Miner, the game follows Miner Willy in a new adventure. Willy has had a humongous party and feels a little worse for wear. He wants to go to bed but can’t until his house has been tidied.
The thing is, this house isn’t a normal house. Willy bought it with the money he found during Manic Miner and hasn’t had time to explore all of the rooms yet. Many of them are filled with monsters and enemies, all of which Willy needs to defeat.
Clean every room including Willy’s yacht and beach; sounds like one hell of a party!
Work through 60 screens in any order you wish. Just get that house tidied so poor old Willy can go to sleep!
Daley Thompson’s Decathlon takes the 13th spot in this list of the best ZX Spectrum games of all time!
You know how Mario and Sonic have made the Olympic Games fun for kids and family to enjoy more than once every 4 years? Well, Daley Thompson was the one that brought epic Olympic Olympic action to home consoles back in the day.
Released in 1984, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon came in the wake of Daley’s successful Decathlon medal streak. He was like the Tony Hawks of his day; the ultimate ‘challenge everything’ superstar.
The game itself resembles Track and Field, a title that most of our readers will have played at some stage in their lives.
Gameplay consists of two days crammed full of events:
- Day 1: 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400 metres
- Day 2: 110 hurdles, pole vault, discus, javelin, and 1500 metres
Players lose lives if they don’t do well in an event. I’m sure glad this wasn’t the case with real sports, otherwise I would have died years ago!
Thankfully, the controls are simple to grasp, though you’ll need to have nimble fingers if you want to nail those high scores!
Thanks to Speedlock, this is one of the fastest loading games in this list of the best ZX Spectrum games! Not as fast as Daley though; that guy is quick!
Bomb Jack takes the 12th spot in this list of the best ZX Spectrum games of all time!
This bombastic hero might not be as famous as our favourite kangaroo-riding, explosive-kicking, Sega Mega Drive star, but Bomberman would certainly be proud of his exploits.
Bomb Jack stars in a simple side scrolling adventure that feels like a very early Alex Kidd/Asterix title crossed with Pac-Man. Collect bombs while trying to avoid enemies; sounds simple, right?
It would be a heck of a lot simpler if the enemies were easier to defeat. Whoever thought that Egyptian mummies that turn into UFOs once they hit the bottom of the screen would be a good idea? Those guys are tough to beat!
Bombs aren’t the only things on offer to collect in this game. Bomb Jack must grab different letters through each stage, a little like the golden KONG letters in Donkey Kong games. These letters unlock abilities that help Bomb Jack for a short time, so it’s definitely worth finding them all!
Collecting all bombs on a stage opens up new areas too. It’s good-old-fashioned fun with an easy to navigate game screen!
What do Operation Wolf and Bubble Bobble have in common? They’re made by the same people, despite being complete polar opposites of each other! Still, I suppose that shows that Ocean aren’t just a one-trick-pony!
Operation Wolf sees Special Forces Op Roy Adams kicking ass and taking names. He’s a gnarly commando who has to fight his way though enemy territory to rescue hostages.
I’m not going to lie; this port looks a lot worse than the Commodore 64 version. Featuring levels that are all in one colour, it’s not exactly easy to get into the action and enjoy the background scenery.
It’s actually quite hard on the eyes at times.
Still, as one of the first shooting games to have a storyline, all the thrilling arcade action appears in heaps.
Operation Wolf has six levels, each with side quests and sub missions to complete. It might not be the most technically advanced title in this list of the best ZX Spectrum games, but it does give gamers a lot to sink their teeth into.
Blast back enemies on each stage in order to advance. There’s a certain number of bad guys players need to defeat, so don’t start getting all soft and leaving people to run for freedom.
And let’s give a hand to Roy Adams. With constant gun fire, grenades and rocket launchers, helicopter gunners, and maniacs wielding knives attacking him, he’s certainly got his work cut out for him!
The Lords of Midnight could have one of the coolest game cases of all time (bar Number 3 in this list, of course!).
This fantasy RPG game has a strong strategic vibe that fans of Fire Emblem and Risk will feel right at home with. It’s a ZX Spectrum original title and was one of the most popular games of the 80s, taking its place as one of the pioneering titles in the golden age of gaming.
In true RPG style, gamers control four characters from the beginning and can up their party numbers as the levels progress. Who wouldn’t want a team filled with people like Farflame the Dragon Lord and Utarg of Utarg.
Anyone named after their place of birth must be a great warrior, right?
In a cool twist, there’s actually three ways to play The Lords of Midnight. It’s an adventure game, a war game, and an epic quest.
The adventure mode is my favourite as it’s the most nerdy. Take the protagonist Morkin through the main story towards a showdown to destroy Doomdark and his Ice Crown of power.
It’s so good that it cold be a Tolkien tale!
The war mode sees players strategically recruiting nobles and their armies before declaring war on Doomdark. And the Epic mode is basically the first mode followed by the second in succession.
For fans of RPGs and quest games, this needs to be in your collection!
The Way of the Exploding Fist takes the 9th spot in this list of the best ZX Spectrum games of all time!
One thing that you’ll immediately notice is that compared to other ports of this game on various consoles, the ZX Spectrum, uses characters with see through skin. Instead of having coloured in limbs, they remain translucent, taking on the colour of the background.
Ok, so we know it’s not the most technically advanced console when it comes down to colour palette, but the gameplay is still great.
Gamers must compete in a series of karate matches against various fighters. Set in a world that looks like it has the Tower of Water where you can get Urshifu in Pokemon Sword, a wise karate master oversees each match, assumedly to make sure there’s no foul play.
Like Punch Out!, one of the best Wii games, opponent fighters get harder as you progress through the game. The format is different to many modern fighting games like Street Fighter too.
Instead of bashing someone to oblivion and depleting their energy bar, players must secure solid hits against their opponent to obtain yin-yang symbols. Land a solid punch or connect a kick against your opponent for a full icon, or bag a half icon for a sloppy attack.
Get two symbols to win. Apart from the symbol thing, this is a method of scoring actually used in Karate. Pull off epic kicks and attacks, and try your hand in a one-hit-punch bull attack mode…
… I don’t think PETA would be too happy about that bonus stage!
Target: Renegade takes the 8th spot in this list of the best ZX Spectrum games of all time. It’s one for the Streets of Rage fans out there, a side-scrolling beat-down title for up to two players.
As the front cover might suggest, players control one (or two) street fighters on a rampage. In many ways it’s like Double Dragon too, but I’m aware that I’m just continuously naming games that it’s like and not explaining anything about the plot now…
The aim of the game is to lay some sweet revenge on Mr Big, a crime lord that killed your brother.
Revenge games are always a winner in my book; sometimes you just need to destress while avenging somebody else’s loved ones.
We’ve all been there…
The ZX Spectrum is one of the only ports to have a multiplayer mode. I guess its a one-up against the poor graphics, and these types of games are always fun when battling through with a friend.
Brutal men and women try to stop our nameless protagonist at every turn, and its up to you to pull off gnarly combos to beat them back.
Target Renegade is a classic title and, while it looks super simple, it’s a great game to kick back with a mate and show the crime world who’s boss. It won’t win awards for style, but it’s a fun title to get stuck into.
Jetpac is actually one of the best looking games on the console. It’s a true arcade cabinet-style title and dropped onto the Spectrum in ’83.
Ever heard of the developer company ‘Ultimate Play The Game’? No? Well, what if I told you that they later changed their name to RARE, and that Jetpac was their very first game?
That got your attention, didn’t it!
I’ve been playing Donkey Kong 64 again and recently got to the part where the Jetman mini game becomes available. That little astronaut up there is Jetman, and he’s got to collect the broken pieces of his rocket to explore different parts of the universe.
Like any good space game from the 80s, there are lots of alien enemies to battle along the way.
Build, refuel, fight, refuel, repeat. It’s an easy concept to grasp, and the game’s levels are simple enough to blast through at your own pace.
And, it’s a genuine RARE original, which means it would be rude not to include it in this list of the best ZX Spectrum games ever made!
Chase H.Q is undoubtedly one of the best ZX Spectrum games on the console, but I just can’t get over how much better this title looks on the Master System. (Check out our list of the best Master System games to compare).
I used to love playing on this game at my Uncle’s house and still have fond memories of it. It’s practically the very first Need for Speed title and full of epic car chases, but that singular yellow screen with zero graphical content… i
It’s only now that I compare the two that I realise how poor it looks!
This is a bit of a blow for me, so I’m going to just move on to what this game is all about while I cry about my gaming past being a lie.
Gamers take the fearless Tony Gibson around a series of tracks as he chases down bad guys. Tony works for the Chase Special Investigation Department, or CSID for the cool kids.
Cruising in his Porsche 98 (hard to tell in a black and white car tootling along the yellow brick road, I know), Tony must catch up to speeding vehicles and ram them into submission, stopping criminals from getting away with their shady business.
Those criminals aren’t hanging around, however. You’ve got to catch up with them while dodging oncoming traffic and picking the right roads to cut them off, otherwise it’s game over!
Atic Atac looks a little like a nightmare I have on a recurring basis. Coincidentally, it was also the idea that sparked the TV show Knightmare, so maybe I’m intrinsically linked to them somehow…
This is another early RARE title made by brothers Chris and Tim Stamper. The gameplay consists mainly of unlocking doors and searching for a golden key, all while avoiding mushrooms, devils, and other nasty enemies.
Items are spread throughout all of the different rooms in this game, but the catch is that you can only carry three at a time.
Grabbing keys willy-nilly isn’t going to help you, and you may have to rethink your strategy to keep your pockets empty for pieces of the golden key when you come across them.
Gamers can play as a wizard, a peasant, or a knight. I know what you’re thinking; why play as a peasant when you could be a wizard? Well, each character has a different route to take, so there’s effectively three ways to play!
I toyed with putting Elite in the top spot just to comply with the opinion of the masses. But after much deliberation, I’m sticking it in fourth position.
Don’t get me wrong; this is one of the best ZX Spectrum games ever made and often considered the greatest title on the console, but there are three games that I just enjoyed more, so I’m sticking by my decision.
From the wire-frame 3D graphics to the cool cockpit view and crosshairs, Elite is one of the earliest and best space shooting games that would go on to inspire the likes of Rogue Squadron and Lylat Wars.
Players control Commander Jameson as he flies through the universe, trading galactic currency to buy the biggest ship in the galaxy.
There’s no Millennium Falcon cheat here, however. You’ve got to prove your metal against criminals and the police. In many ways, it’s like a space-age Too Fast Too Furious!
Like Number 2 in this list, the world (and the universe in this case) is your oyster. You can do as little or as much as you want outside of the main core of the game. Go all Miner 2049er on asteroids or kick back with a space smoothie and just watch the world fly by.
This is another Spectrum title that did great business and is considered successful on pretty much every console imaginable. Push past the old-school graphics and immerse yourself in this interstellar title!
I’m a massive Lord of the Rings fan. Heck, I love anything that Tolkien has created, from Roverandum to the Silmarillion. The Hobbit was always going to feature in this list of the best ZX spectrum games of all time for this very reason, and it’s a cracking game with serious retro vibes.
We used to play lots of illustrated text adventure games at Junior School, but never anything as exciting as this.
Based on the epic book (and the film if you’re not cultured), this game follows Bilbo and the Dwarves on their journey to the lonely mountain.
If you were lucky enough to purchase this back in 1982, then you might even have a copy of the book that you got free with the game still kicking around somewhere!
It might be obvious from the previous games in this list, but the colour palate wasn’t that rich back in 1982. That’s why Bilbo has a black and white floor like a Vans slip-on shoe and a bright red chest in his hallway.
Still, I’ve got so much love for the retro feel of this game, especially the text instructions that read a little like a meditation tape leading you to your ‘happy place’.
Coincidentally, Middle Earth is my happy place, so I get the best of both worlds out of this game.
Despite its simple looks, this game was very advanced for its time. Users could input proper sentences with follow up actions rather than just ‘get cape… wear cape… fly’. Adjectives came into play too, allowing players to softly creep or brutally attack goblin soldiers.
Anyway, as the company of Thorin Oakenshield might sing, ‘We must away to Number 8, to find more long forgotten ZX Spectrum games!’
No, I’m not talking about sandcastles or long jump; I’m talking about games like Minecraft, GTA, and Second Life, titles where the user can make decisions that affect the rest of the game or just wander around aimlessly not doing very much at all!
My school days certainly weren’t anything like Eric’s Skool Daze. Eric is the main character in this game, a schoolboy that has to take his report card right out from underneath the Headteacher’s nose.
Mr Wacker, Mr Withit, Mr Rocker, and Mr Creak roam the halls searching for wrongdoers. If you’re caught out of class, you have to write lines.
Amass 10,000 lines (that’s a heck of a lot!) then the game ends. Lines can also be picked up if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time or a teacher wrongly mistakes you as being troublesome when you’re actually just injured.
Ok, so nowadays this game looks super simple for a home console title, but the ideas that went into making it and the difficulty level are still super impressive today. It’s one of those games that you’ll find yourself going back to again and again even though Miles Morales is waiting patiently in your PS5.
The old games still have what it takes to draw the fans in!
Knight Lore is the best ZX Spectrum game of all time. This is one of my favourite retro RARE games and one that I played as a kid whenever I went around to my Uncle’s house.
While this wasn’t the first game to use isometric 3D graphics, it’s considered by many in the know (I reckon I come under that heading now too) to be one of the games that popularised the style.
Who knows, without titles like Knight Lore, we might still be playing side-scrollers all the time in 2021!
Players take a dude named Sabreman around a series of levels, solving puzzles and knocking back monsters with his gnarly claws.
Yes, as you might have guessed, Sabreman is a werewolf. Fans of the Sabre Wulf series probably already know the story; Sabre Wulf bites man, man becomes Sabreman, and man can’t help but turn into a wolf when the sun goes down.
Players have a measly 40 days to find all the necessary ingredients for a cure to Sabreman’s affliction. If you cure Sabreman, you win. If you don’t, then you lose.
It’s that simple.
The items that make up the cure are scattered throughout the game’s 128 levels. Some areas can only be access by the werewolf who can jump higher, while some puzzles can only be completed by Sabreman in human form.
And, in true fantasy nerd style, the only instructions on what to do in this game come in the form of a poem in the game box. How retro is that!
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Seb Santabarbara has bought every Nintendo console that has ever been released in his 33 years on Planet Earth. His favourite game franchise is Zelda, and he’s patiently waiting for Banjo-Kazooie to come back to the fold. When he’s not playing games, he’s travelling the world in his self-converted camper van.