Sin­clair Resurge Ltd

The ZX Spec­trum is back – and there’s no need to dig out your tape recorder

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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

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