My trusty old Trinitron CRT finally croaked. It was a lovely screen, perfect for the old computers and consoles that I like to mess around with when I’m not working or wrangling children. But its time had come.
Frankly, now that I’m working at home, I can’t really spare the desk real estate that a CRT needs either.
So, a modern screen is needed. Trouble is, they really don’t work well with old machines. Old machines tend to output video at 240p, 480i, or 480p tops. Even if your TV has a SCART connector, it probably won’t handle those sorts of low resolutions well. It will try to upscale them, but TV upscalers are made for movies and so the result is a blurry, laggy mess.
This is where the “Open Source Scan Converter”, or OSSC, comes in. It’s a nifty little device that takes your old console or computer’s SD RGB output and “line doubles” it up to 720p or even 1080p.
The results are spectacular. The “modern” screen in my home office is an El Cheapo Phillips 24″ flat panel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. But it can’t cope with anything that isn’t HDMI and high def.
With the OSSC hooked up, all my consoles look fabulous. Razor sharp images. No artefacting or noise. No blur. No “smoothing”. No lag whatsoever. It’s fabulous. I don’t have the ability to take screenshots of it, which is a shame because it really needs to be seen.
There are a few issues. My Amiga 1200 does some weird things in Workbench. My Atari ST produces a perfect image, but there’s no audio for some reason.
But those are teething troubles at best. The OSSC is incredibly configurable and I’m sure there’s a setting somewhere that will address these problems. Fundamentally, this is an amazing device which bridges the gap between retro console and new TVs beautifully. I’m very pleased with it.
One of the drawbacks of the Spectrum Next is that it can only load TZX files by using the Pi Zero accelerator. That actually works fine in itself, but you can’t directly control the Pi, and so it doesn’t work for multi-load games because you can’t stop and start the “tape”. That’s a bit of a bugger, because many of the old Speccy games that I have enough nostalgia for to want to revisit today are multi-load games.
I needed something that would act like a real tape player, but hopefully without the flakiness.
First things first, I needed the right cable. The Next uses the same pinout as the Spectrum+3 for its tape interface and so – as with so many things retro – the peerless Iain Priddey of Retro Computer Shack comes to the rescue with his +3 tape cable, which also works nicely with the Next.
Armed with that cable, I spent some time trying to get my phone (the extraordinary Fairphone 3, if you’re interested) to output something that the Next could ingest as a tape signal, using the PlayZX app. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the Next to pick up the audio signal though. That was odd, given that I tried stereo to mono converters and all sorts.
Happily, I came across this marvellous little device:
It’s quite a simple device, at least in terms of what it does. You load up the SD card with TZX files, plug the 3.5mm jack into EAR on the Speccy, apply some power, start the tape loader on the Speccy and then select a TZX file with the back and forward buttons and hit play. You can pause and unpause it at will, and it also seems to be smart enough to pause itself automatically if it detects a long enough period of silence.
And to be honest, it just works. No muss, no fuss. It supports folders, and seems to read the SD card pretty swiftly. The manual stresses that some TZX files using certain custom loaders might not work unless patched, but so far I’ve not come across any problems.
For thirty quid, I’m absolutely delighted. Now, if only Fighter Bomber ran properly on the Next – I’ve been itching to try running that at 28 Mhz!
My Spectrum Next arrived a couple of Fridays ago and since then I have spent most of my time not devoted to work or child-wrangling fiddling with the thing. These are my initial thoughts on it.
The machine is surprisingly small, about the same size as the original Spectrum+, and surprisingly heavy. The case is very solid and has a premium feel to it.
The keyboard is, honestly, witchcraft; somehow the Next team have contrived to create a keyboard that feels like a Spectrum keyboard would feel if Spectrum keyboards weren’t dreadful. Which seems like an odd thing to say. What I mean is that it retains that “Speccy” feel, but is actually pleasant to type on.
A few nits – and they really are minor. The SD card slot doesn’t have a push-to-eject mechanism, and the cutaway which allows you to get your fingers onto the card to pull it out is too small, at least for my sausage fingers, to get a decent purchase on it. Half the time I end up pulling the microSD card out of the SD adapter, leaving the adapter in the Next. An SD reader with a push-to-eject mechanism would be a good improvement for a revision 2.
Secondly, I would have liked a power switch, although this is just personal preference and I do acknowledge that not having one is more authentically Sinclair. Again, perhaps for a revision 2 the team could include an in-line power switch in the box with the PSU, which people can use or not as they choose. For now, you can easily get one for a few quid here.
Yes, it comes with a full ring-bound printed manual running to hundreds of pages and explaining in complete detail pretty much everything about the machine, from how to turn it on through to memory maps, interrupts, system calls … you name it.
The manual is largely the work of one man, Phoebus Dokos, and its creation must have been a Herculean task. Actually using the paper version is rather difficult because there is no index, but there is also a PDF which is of course fully searchable, and so the paper manual is really more of a nice artefact to have rather than a day-to-day reference.
Speaking of paper, I did notice that the manual is printed on very thin paper, which together with the ring binding makes it feel fragile. This isn’t a massive issue for me as I use the PDF for looking things up, and anyway I understand that there will be an option at some point to buy a premium, full-colour manual.
Finally, Sinclair manuals have a fine tradition of gorgeous sci-fi cover art and the Next manual carries on that tradition. For those who haven’t yet seen it I won’t spoil it, but it is beautiful and very much in keeping.
Pulling it all together is the software side of things. NextZXOS feels snappy and lets you get to what you want quickly and without fuss.
The distribution comes with an absolute ton of demos, example programs and even a few full games, both classic Speccy titles and new titles taking advantage of all the extra things the Next can do. There is already a small software library for the Next, including games from the likes of Rusty Pixels (this site is a useful index of what’s out there and what’s coming) and even a full music production suite. Obviously the user base is still fairly small, but it’s growing as the Next team get more machines out the door, will grow more with the planned second Kickstarter, and there is very much a small but vibrant scene growing up around the machine.
I for one can’t wait to see what’s, er, next for the Next.
Know what this game reminds me of? “Second Coming” by The Stone Roses. You wait ages for it to drop, and then … it’s good, it really is, but it also sort of struggles under its own weight.
For one thing, Yu Suzuki has almost wilfully ignored everything that has happened in the last 20 years of game development. Shenmue 3 is a Shenmue game, which means that it is completely a noughties game. The controls are deeply weird, the pacing is slow, the dialog stilted. It’s … Shenmue, basically. It’s like GTA, The Witcher and Red Dead never happened.
Visually, it is very very lovely. What Yu Suzuki and team have captured, magnificently, is a sort of idealised pastoral of rural China in the 80s, with saturated colours and glow turned up to max. It has a sort of dream-like quality. Combine that with the music, which is as sweeping and beautiful as ever, and you have a game which – while painfully slow at times – is never less than epic.
Does it still stand up as a game in 2019? Hmm. Not really, if I’m honest. I mean, I’m a total Sega fanboy, and I played and loved the first two Shenmue games on the Dreamcast. But you can’t pretend that the last two decades haven’t happened, and Shenmue 3 just doesn’t have the “wow” factor that it had back in 1999, and which made us overlook so much of the clunkiness in the game mechanics.
Still, for all that, it’s undeniably good to hang out with Ryo Hazuki again. Now, does anyone know where I can find sailors?
In order to force myself to calm down a bit on the political ranting, I figured I would do one of these. Here for your delectation are a few choice retro pickups from the last few months. Apologies for the bad photography.
First off, there’s this bad boy:
A friend of mine had one of these when I was a kid, and I was always oddly fascinated by it. I mean, honestly it’s little more than a socially ambitious PDA, and is oddly less usable than the Cambridge Z88 which predates it by several years, but it’s small, it’s interesting, the hinge is really cool (those icon buttons rotate down into the case as you close it) and I’m having fun getting it to talk to my Amiga. Because reasons.
Second up, I’ve finally got a Saturn light gun again:
I never had Virtua Cop 2 back in the day; my Saturn lightgun escapades were limited to House of the Dead (a darned good port as it happens, but stupid expensive now). So far the gun is a lot less accurate than I remember – or maybe I’m just getting old and slow.
Finally, we have this pleasingly batshit action RPG for the Nintendo 64:
This is a deeply weird game. I can’t work out if it’s actually good or not. There’s a video about it here that’s worth watching.
So, that’s it for now. I’ll probably post some more retro pickups as and when I have something interesting to show.
In no particular order, and (mostly) applying equally to modern and retro games alike, here is a list of things that games do all the time and which really really boil my piss.
Compulsory stealth sections in games with crap stealth mechanics. If you’re going to force the player to navigate a section by stealth, at least have the decency to build solid, fun stealth mechanics. Don’t just shoehorn it in, especially early in the game. It’s annoying, it’s not enjoyable, and as often as not I will just rage quit and play something else.
Escort missions. There has never been an escort mission that’s actually good. No, you’re wrong. There just hasn’t. Ico doesn’t count.
Putting token female characters in completely stupid clothes because “sexy” or some shit. I had thought this cishet-dudebro “hur hur tits” ridiculousness was dying out. Then I saw “Quiet” in Metal Gear Solid 5. I mean, come on people. She’s basically in her birthday suit, and she doesn’t speak. Quiet is to gender equality what Jim Davidson is to race relations. She’s worse than Barbarella, and that was an actual piss-take. And if you find Kojima’s spurious explanation (something about breathing through her skin or some bollocks) even remotely convincing, then I’m sorry but you are definitely an idiot, probably a misogynist and very likely had something to do with Gamergate.
Sub-titles turned on by default. Why. Just … why. I know games have to support sub-titles for localisation or for the hearing-impaired. That’s a good thing. But why are they turned on by default? I can hear and understand English. I don’t need your inane dialogue provided to me in text form too.
Up to jump. One for European gamers of a certain age. See, consoles weren’t really a thing here until the Megadrive/Genesis and SNES era. Before that, we played games on home computers like the Spectrum, the C64 and latterly the ST and Amiga. All of which only supported one joystick button. Which meant that most games which needed both a jump and fire/attack function (i.e. most games) used the single button for fire and up on the joystick to jump. And, rose-tinted nostalgia aside, it was utterly shit. Up to jump is wankballs.
So, yeah. I’m sure there’s loads of stuff I missed. But this is what I could think of for the moment.
A few weeks ago I bought an untested, loft-find ZX Spectrum+ from eBay. This is the first model of computer I owned, and I still remember the endless hours I devoted to fiddling with it and playing the simple games it could run. It taught me to code, too. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Spectrum+ was my best friend when I was a kid.
Anyhow, the untested loft buy didn’t work. Quelle surprise. But Speccies are pretty easy to fix; even my limited knowledge and rudimentary soldering skills can deal with a machine this basic, surely?
Turns out that I was right. First problem was that the power supply was shot. A modern PSU with the right pinout, voltage etc cost me about eight quid. With that in place, the machine powered up just fine. But the keyboard didn’t work. OK, so I replaced the membrane. Still no joy. After a certain amount of swearing it turned out I had neglected to reconnect both of the ribbon cables properly. Hook those back up … and everything works except the sodding Enter key. Which is a bit crucial, really.
So, after taking the keyboard apart again, I found that the rubber mat which presses down onto the membrane had lost rigidity under the Enter key and wasn’t quite making proper contact. A couple of small stickers to shim out the difference and … we have a working Speccy!
A bit of a scrub later, and I reckon it’s come up lovely.
Yes, I know. It’s no Amiga, or ST, or even C64. And yes, I do own examples of all of those machines. But the humble Speccy was my first love, and it’s wonderful to own a working one again. No, you have something in your eye.
It’s a 520STE upgraded with 4MB RAM and TOS 1.62. It has an HXC floppy emulator (for loading disk images from a USB thumb drive), an adaptor to allow for a modern-ish USB mouse rather than those horrible bricks from back in the day, and best of all an UltraSatan, courtesy of the magnificent Lotharek.
I do own rarer or more collectible retro machines, but the ST is a bit special. I’ve deliberately kept it very close to how the the original machine would have been in the 90s, just adding a few useful modern conveniences here and there rather than going overboard on the upgrades.
When I was a kid with a Spectrum+, it was the Atari ST that I drooled over rather than the Amiga, for some reason. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Amiga very much. I own two of them. And yes, I know that the Amiga was technically superior to the ST. But there was something about those old Silica Shop adverts that made the ST seem like this whole other world of possibilities. And let’s be honest – it just looks way cooler than the Miggy. Look at the slant on those function keys; totally pointless, but so awesome.