It may be over 30 years old, it may have had less processing power than a washing machine, games may have taken around six minutes to load and it may have introduced the world to the wonder of ‘colour-clash’. But the ZX Spectrum is back and in a big way!
The revolution started when Elite Systems, a company synonymous with Spectrum games, launched a kickstarter campaign to fund their Bluetooth ZX Spectrum. Despite courting much controversy, the product is expected to launch later this year. However, during its 12 months of development time, a new pretender entered the fray. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega took a very different approach, but was no less successful in its own crowdfunding campaign. So with two very different machines offering the chance to get (re)aquainted with Britain’s most successful home computer, this article will look at each machine in turn, along with an alternative that is available now.
‘The recreated Sinclair ZX Spectrum‘ by Elite Systems Ltd
Type: Bluetooth Keyboard
Cost (during crowdfunding): £50
Crowfunding commenced: December 2013
Crowdfunding target: £60,000
Crowdfunding achieved: £63,194
Crowdfunding target accomplished: January 2014
Number of Backers: 821
Crowdfunding Description: The recreated Sinclair ZX Spectrum will be a Bluetooth keyboard, initially for iOS and subsequently Android / Windows phones & tablets.
Originally branded as the ‘Bluetooth ZX Spectrum’, the device is basically a custom bluetooth controller for use on mobile and desktop machines, using the exact size, look and feel of the traditional rubber keyed ZX Spectrum computer. It is designed to be fully compatible with Elite Systems’ own ZX Spectrum smartphone apps, but is also expected to be fully functioning for other generic purposes (though we can’t imagine anyone using the rubber keyboard as a replacement for their standard one).
Free and paid for games are downloaded to the app from Elite’s game store. However a fully fledged 8bit-storm dampened enthusiasm for the product when it became apparent that Elite Systems had not honoured previous royalty agreements with original game authors for access to their games on the ‘ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection’. Elite chief Steve Wilcox promised to remedy the situation with 28 days, but it is understood that there are still rumblings of discontent within the developer community.
Originally planned for a September 2014 release date, the device is already late, but in a Kickstarter update dated 31st January 2015, Wilcox provided pictures of the pre-production unit, stating that
“in our next Update, we’ll be showing the recreated device in action and we’ll be confirming details including delivery and on sale dates.”
The product is available for pre-order with prices ranging from £50.00 for a standard model to £130.00 for a signed limited edition.
Of course you could just use Elite’s rather nifty app without the bluetooth controller, but we have found that a number of the games struggle with on-screen touch controls.
‘Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega‘ by Retro Computers Ltd
Type: Plug and Play TV Game
Cost (during crowdfunding) £100
Crowfunding commenced: December 2014
Crowdfunding target: £100,000
Crowdfunding achieved: £151,837
Crowdfunding accomplished: January 2015
Number of Backers: 821
Crowdfunding Description: The Sinclair Spectrum Vega is a new games computer based on Sir Clive’s hugely successful Spectrum.
The ‘Vega’ takes a very different approach and pulls in the big guns of Sir Clive Sinclair (the man who’s name adorns the original machine), Chris Smith (a former ZX Spectrum games developer self professed world’s leading expert on Sinclair Spectrum technology) and Dr David Levy (International Master of chess, noted for his involvement with both computer chess and artificial intelligence!?!).
Taking its lead from the plug and play TV Game devices made popular by American toy company Jakks Pacific, the Vega is a consolised Spectrum emulator housed in a controlled shaped to be reminiscent of the original 48k Spectrum. Retro Computers plan to launch the machine with 1000 built in games, but once again the thorny issue of publishing rights has cropped up. Retro Computers claim to have reached agreements with many original developers to include their games in return for a payment of £5 to the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity for each of the first 4000 Vegas sold. However many have claimed that using the charity was simply a way to guilt developers into giving up their rights to games. A further plan to reward the developers (or the charity if they choose) on any sales beyond the initial 4000 would see them paid a percentage of the net selling price of a vega based on the number of games the developer makes available, however the maths don’t look good for more than a couple of pints.
“Our longer-term offer to Spectrum software rights owners is this. We will make a donation of 10% of our net selling price to Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity. In addition we will make a pro-rata payment based on the same amount to whichever you prefer – the charity or yourself. So if, for example, you give us permission to use 10 of your games in the 1,000 games provided in the Vega, you or the charity will receive 1% of that additional amount, since 1% of the games in the Vega will be your games.”
If my calculations are correct and assuming a £100 selling price with a 60% markup, that means that a total pot of £6 is available to rights owners per machine, or just £0.006 (a halfpenny) for each copy of a game. If this were a global product with huge appeal then it may add up to a good number by the time they receive their annual cheque. But this is a very niche, retro product, with a massive price tag and of course the developers get nothing for the first 4000 machines.
Other more immediate issues are the shape of the controller, which looks like it would be uncomfortable to hold for long periods and the restricted number of keys available making many games unplayable. However, the latest update from the makers has moved to allay some of these fears by making a couple of changes to the planned console…
1 ZX Spectrum games often make use of the keyboard to perform additional game operations. We are therefore adding extra buttons to the Vega, giving the user direct access to such operations for the majority of games.
2 We are designing the Vega with the capacity for expansion by providing a hardware interface on it’s circuit board, and by allowing future software upgrades.
Hopefully the hardware expansion will allow for USB joysticks and controllers to be used rather than the angular unit itself. Currently slated for a June 2015 release, we shouldn’t have too long to wait and see if the Vega lives up to its promise.
Speccy Tape Smartphone App by Wojciech Lazarski
Equipment Required: Original ZX Spectrum Computer, iOS device (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad)
Speccy Tape is a very useful application (available from the App Store) that links into the fantastic World of Spectrum archive to enable the loading of games into a real Spectrum computer (all models are supported) from your iPhone or other iOS device.
Simply plug a standard mono cable between the EAR socket on your Spectrum and the Headphone socket on you device and you can use your phone in exactly the same way as a cassette player. Using the simple interface you can search for a game on the WoS archive, download it to your phone, give your Spectrum its loading command (LOAD”” on a 48k model for example) and then press play on the app.
Original hardware has increased significantly in price over the last few years, but it really is the purest way to relive the 80s. There is no substitute for the beautiful nostalgia of hearing those loading tones and watching a loading screen draw in front of you. Although of course, one downside of this against the new devices on offer is that it is not emulating the computer, this is a real Spectrum doing what a real Spectrum does, so get used to 5-10 minute loading times!