Review: Spectrum Vega
I was lucky. Back when I was a kid, in the middle of the 1980s, personal computing was just taking off, as companies like Apple and Amstrad realised that there was money to be made by bringing games machines out of the video arcades and into family homes. There were plenty of attempts by various different companies to build the perfect machine as they scrambled for market share; it had to be powerful enough to run the kind of games kids were used to playing in the arcades, while also not so expensive that many youngsters were priced out of the market.
By 1984 in the UK, there were two main contenders (at least if you wanted to be one of the cool kids; nobody yet wanted to admit to owning an Apple II, and the government-funded BBC Micro was mostly only found in schools). The Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum were both introduced in 1982, and although the C64 would go on to become the best-selling computer model of all time it was the British-made Spectrum, with a price tag less than half that of its rival, that dominated the nascent home computing scene.
I was around ten years old when I first got mine. It was actually the slightly later model ZX Spectrum+, which replaced the iconic rubber keys with a moulded plastic keyboard, and added a reset button (which did nothing more than cause a short circuit across the CPU reset capacitor). Thus began almost a decade of game collection, both legitimate and less-than-legal tape-to-tape copying, to feed my 8-bit gaming addiction.
Fast-forward almost thirty years, and video gaming looks very different. The powerful multi-core PC dominates, while consoles now in their fourth generation deliver near photographic-quality imagery and textures. Virtual reality is just around the corner, with the long-awaited release of the Oculus Rift later this year. One would think that the lowly 8-bit computer no longer has a place in the hearts of gamers, but that is apparently not the case. The retro-gaming movement, due no doubt to the large numbers of kids like me who are now in their forties with large amounts of disposable income, has grown immensely in the last few years. They even have their own magazine, complete with the Spectrum's iconic diagonal rainbow stripes.
And now some of those 80s kids have resurrected the humble ZX Spectrum; not in its original form, but as an 8-button, plug'n'play console called the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega.
Made with the blessing and involvement of Spectrum grandaddy Sir Clive Sinclair, the Vega was brought to market after a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and comes pre-loaded with 1,000 games (of, it has to be said, variable quality). The console plugs directly into your television via the SCART socket, and draws its power from either the TV or another convenient USB plug.
While there are a good few games that Spectrum fans will remember fondly -- Horace Goes Skiing, Knight Lore, Auf Wiedersehen Monty, Back to Skool, Jetpac, should all provide hours of nostalgic fun -- the Vega's killer USP is the ability to download and run any Spectrum game from a mini-SD card. Sites like World of Spectrum and Emuparadise ("Emu" as in "emulator", in case you were wondering) contain virtually every game ever released, and downloading them to an SD card is the work of only a few minutes. So, if you have fond memories of Daley Thompson's Decathlon or Chuckie Egg, they're easily loaded up, and the built-in keybinding mapper allows you to map the controls of just about any game to the Vega's 4-way directional pad and four action buttons.
Ready Player 1
To somebody grown used to endless respawns and ever-so-gradual difficulty gradients, the first thing that hits you when you fire up an old Spectrum game is just how damn unforgiving they are. Stand still too long? Whoops, you're dead. Not in quite the right place to make that jump? Dead again. Almost reached the end of the level before dying? Back to the very beginning you go -- there are no save points here.
The complete lack of maps for any game that involves multiple locations is also a shock to anyone that has spent the last ten years playing World of Warcraft, Fallout, or the various Elder Scrolls titles. Vague memories might start to resurface; a computer desk covered in sheets of perforated dot-matrix printer paper, pencilled maps of connected squares that start optimistically in the centre of the page before spreading wildly across multiple pieces of paper, squiggly lines indicating their shared connections. You recoil from the memory of trying to map any adventure game which included a maze; the non-Euclidean infinite loop of possible directions, with escape only possibly by moving south and then east.
One might imagine that the best thing about a Spectrum console is the lack of loading time -- chat to any 1980s Speccy owner and conversation is bound to turn to the endless war of attrition with the tape player's volume control, and "Oh God, that loading noise!" By comparison, the pleasant chiptune on the Vega's main menu is the only hardship one must endure before choosing and starting any game almost instantaneously.
However, I personally found that the lack of waiting, the absence of the five minute "will it, won't it" minigame as you wait to see whether the magnetic tape has finally stretched beyond all recovery, removes a core aspect of Spectrum gaming: that of commitment. No longer tied to a course of action that requires you to sacrifice large chunks of your playtime to watching epilepsy-inducing blue and yellow stripes flicker across the screen, it is far easier to simply give up than to persevere with a challenging game. The Vega encourages me to throw in the towel far too early, tempted by the possibility of an easier, less frustrating experience in one of the other 999 games available.
But if you can stick it out -- the limited lives, endless restarts, fiddly controls and challenging gameplay -- it is still, thirty or more years after its debut, fun. Hard and frustrating, certainly, but still fun.
After all, if your ten-year-old former self could beat those games, then so can you.