Sinclair Resurge Ltd
The ZX Spectrum is back – and there’s no need to dig out your tape recorder
Henrique Olifiers explains his part in the ZX Spectrum Next story
Have you ever wondered what inspires Bossa Studios to dream up oddball games such as I Am Bread? Look no further than gamer-in-chief Henrique Olifiers, who had his childhood mind scrambled by eccentric ZX Spectrum games such as Jet Set Willy.
“Thirty years ago, I was playing a game where the whole house was trying to kill me and I end up with my head inside a toilet,” he says. “Why don’t we make games like that any more? Why so serious?” Hence Olifiers’ affectionate and ambitious plan to revive Sinclair’s longdormant computer range with a 2017 model – the fully licensed ZX Spectrum Next, complete with design work from original Sinclair designer Rick Dickinson.
The Next board is an evolution of the TBBlue, a Raspberry Pi-esque Spectrum-ina-box built by Victor Trucco – a veteran retro engineer who’s also a childhood friend of Olifiers. Trucco planned to sell the TBBlue outside of his native Brazil, but Olifiers dreamed bigger. “I started to push it,” the Bossa man explains. “Why don’t we add more memory, more graphics modes? I reached out to Rick Dickinson, and he was in. Lo and behold, we had the Next.”
There’s no software emulator here, nor a desire to mimic the game-jukebox approach of 2015’s Spectrum Vega. Next’s hardware perfectly simulates Sinclair’s chips down to the microsecond, so it’s compatible with everything from Jet Set Willy to a 2015 homebrew version of Castlevania, and has ports for cassette recorders and Sinclair joysticks. It even plays the 1987 conversion of Taito’s Arkanoid – a tester’s nightmare because of some esoteric graphics coding. “That game is crazy,” Olifiers says. “If Arkanoid works, chances are everything else will.”
Olifiers, Trucco and collaborator Fabio Belavenuto have considerably beefed up the new hardware’s specs since they started work – as well as the price and lead time. “I’m way behind schedule!” Olifiers admits. But that’s given breathing room for wider collaboration. Enthusiasts and ’80s coding stars, including Midnight Resistance maestro Jim Bagley, have been influencing – or directly coding – new features, and shaping the hardware into something far beyond similar hobbyist projects, such as Spain’s ZX Uno.
An adjustable CPU speed means that many old titles (including Elite, an Olifiers favourite) will run at higher framerates, while games such as Cybernoid have already been recoloured to show off HDMI output and a quadrupled colour palette. “We’re now talking about removing colour clash,” says Olifiers
of the notorious colour-bleeding issue that saw many games for the platform plump for drab monochrome instead. “No one is fighting to keep colour clash.”
Olifiers can’t grant the wide-eyed wishes of every grown-up ’80s child. Extra features have already bumped the new Spectrum’s pricetag up to around £175 – the same as 1982 consumers paid at launch for the 48K version of the original model. But he’s been nothing but open with both fans and detractors throughout. “It’s such a small community and so passionate,” he says. “It’s very easy to get on their bad side. I’m very careful with that.”
It’s the community that really excites Olifiers: he’s eager to watch what people do with a new 1980s-era programming box that’s ready for experimentation from the second it’s turned on. “With Raspberry Pi, you have to struggle with whatever operating system you install. That’s very different to what we had back in the day: you could immediately start digging in to see what made the machine tick, because it was so much more simple and exposed.”
Veteran Z80 coders and demoscene types (the latter surprisingly prolific in Russia) are already fired up about the ramped-up audio, WiFi, and 96 times as much RAM as the debut 16K Spectrum. An added ‘accelerator’ – an onboard Raspberry Pi – can process 3D graphics and pipe them directly to the Spectrum’s display, so it’s entirely possible for the Next hardware to run, say, Quake rendered down to a resolution of 256x192. (Thanks to the machine’s double SD card slots, there would be no need to wait the 15 hours Quake would take to load from cassette tape.)
Other Spectrum revivals have exhumed the ‘dead flesh’ rubber keys of the original model, but Dickinson’s design is a return to 1984’s Spectrum+. “Rubber was out immediately,” Olifiers says. “But we didn’t want anything that looked like a Commodore, so a traditional keyboard was out as well. We started talking about the Spectrum+ keyboard – but reengineered, because [the 1984 version] looked great but felt terrible.” A new approach means that underneath the keys are modern-day laptop switches that avoid the notoriously sticky, wobbly feel of the originals.
The casing design is clever all round, the curve on the right side slyly echoing the moulded metal faceplate of the original Spectrum. But if neither the white nor black ZX Spectrum Next appeals to you, the board is sized so that you can scoop the innards out of an old Spectrum and slide the new tech snugly inside.
But for Olifiers to afford the pricey moulds that would make the case a reality, he has a Kickstarter goal to meet. He estimates he needs 2,500 backers kicking in for the £175 machine – aiming at 40-somethings with nostalgia in their hearts and a Z80 programming manual in their attic. If he undershoots, the fancy case remains on Dickinson’s drawing board.
But there’s little risk of backers experiencing the bumpy ride of similarly themed Kickstarter projects, such as Elite’s Recreated ZX Spectrum, which ran into various problems. Olifiers has already spent £10,000 of his own money prototyping up to a ready-to-ship board. “The Next exists,” he says confidently. “I have the luxury of eliminating the risk around crowdsourcing.”
Olifiers is the perfect cheerleader for this new computer. He’s still the Spectrumobsessed kid from Brazil, albeit now with a 48K Spectrum framed on his living-room wall and a fear of ever meeting Sir Clive Sinclair in case he can’t live up to “the mystical figure in my head”. The Next firmware is open source, in a deliberate attempt to let the machine “take on a life of its own”. This isn’t a business proposition for Olifiers – it’s a way to write a new chapter of the ZX Spectrum story.
“It’s about giving something back to something that gave so much to us,” he says. “I spent all my pocket money on Your Sinclair and Crash magazines, and I wanted to be a part of that crowd. But I was a kid in another country, so I couldn’t be. Now, perhaps, I can.”
This isn’t a business proposition for Olifiers – it’s a way to write a new chapter of the ZX Spectrum story
The ULAPlus – a reengineered version of the Spectrum’s original display chip – boosts onscreen colours from 15 to 64. If rubber keys are your thing, the new silicon can be fitted inside of an original ZX Spectrum case
Henrique Olifiers, co-founder and gamerin-chief of London’s Bossa Studios, and manager of the ZX Spectrum Next project