Wednesday 26 February 2014

Wire Strippers, Beer and a Spectrum: Part 3

With the keyboard membrane replaced, I was all set to load up some games.  I hooked up the off-white Sanyo cassette recorder to the Speccy, put in the copy of 'The Hobbit' (which had clearly been lovingly recorded to a 15 minute Boots cassette some 30 odd years ago), typed LOAD “”, pressed ENTER, then PLAY.  Nothing. No screeching, no lines on the screen, not even a coloured border.  At this point I thought it must have been the volume on the cassette recorder.  Nope.  Perhaps the 'Format' switch on the player should be set to normal instead of data?  Nah.  Maybe it's the lead?  Not on your life.

After spending what seemed like an eternity fiddling around with both cassettes at my disposal and all the settings possible on the recorder, I managed to progress to a screen with a red border and nothing else.  Something was clearly not right, and I was hoping it was the cassettes.  With this in mind, I hit eBay again in order to procure an original cassette.  I spotted the original 'Dizzy' for £2 (as a 'Buy it Now'), and bought it.  Sadly this meant I would have to play the waiting game again, at least as far as running cassettes went.  I remember reading an article about running cassette based games using alternative methods, and figured this would be the best time to try them out.

In the article I read, the author had managed to load Speccy games using his iPod, on which Spectrum games were played as MP3s or WAV files.  This makes perfect sense when you think about it, as all the cassette recorder is doing is playing data to the computer as an audio file.  This then reads the code and spits a game out all over your telly. 

In order to convert the files I downloaded several programs.  The first was OTLA ( ).  This program is great in the respect that it takes seconds to convert titles, will output to MP3 or WAV, and will even speed up the loading times, meaning most games are running within a few seconds (something that wouldn't have seemed possible to computer gamers back in the early 80s).  My first conversion was Matthew Smith's classic, 'Manic Miner' (available legally and for free – as are many others – from  Once I'd copied the file to my phone and set the volume correctly, I was able to load the game almost instantly.  The black magic works!  Truly, we're living in a technological golden age. 

Now I knew how to convert files, I simply had to try some others.  I downloaded some more files (they're tiny, so I grabbed loads), and began to convert more.  The success rate wasn't the best, sadly.  Some titles loaded fine, others would get so far and return to the Speccy's boot screen, and some wouldn't even attempt to load.  As awesome as it is to load games instantly, I needed more compatibility.  I found some success in TZX2WAV (, which maintained the original loading times, and coped admirably in faithfully converting anything I could throw at it (everything played through the Spectrum too), but I felt that converting a file seemed an unnecessary process at this point, and started looking for a better alternative – something which would play the files in their original TAP or TZX format.

I found PlayTZX ( to work brilliantly.  It played TZX files perfectly by dragging them to the program's executable, then output straight from the headphone socket of my laptop and into my Spectrum.  Unfortunately I'm a little bit picky, and still felt the process could be streamlined even further.  I did what I should have done to begin with and checked on the Play Store on my phone, and the App Store on my iPad.

For my phone I found TeeZiX ( – Free) to to the job.  Just throw a load of TZX, TAP or ZIP Spectrum files onto your phone, play them through this and you're sorted.  Well, mostly.  I found that a few games just wouldn't load, but it was only a few.  If you're looking to play Spectrum tape files through your Android device, this is the way to go.  However, Speccy Tape for iOS ( – Free) is, in my opinion, the best way to play Spectrum tapes to your computer outside of having a working tape deck.  I shows you on your device what is loading in real time (you know, the screeching noises, lines on the screen and so forth) so you know what you should be seeing on the real Spectrum.  So far I've run into no problems loading games.  This is now my second weapon of choice for loading games, as will be explained.

While I was waiting for my copy of 'Dizzy' to arrive, I received a gift from my good friend “Muppet Man” Kev – a copy of futuristic sports game 'Xeno'.  I must admit it wasn't a game I'd even heard of before, but I was grateful for an actual, genuine game to run on my Spectrum from cassette.  Sadly, the copy of 'Xeno' pretty much confirmed that no audio was coming from the cassette recorder.  It looked like another purchase was required in order to get that authentic experience of loading tapes.

My copy of 'Dizzy' arrived a couple of days later (I tried to run it anyway – no luck), and decided to go looking locally for a replacement cassette recorder.  Living in Exeter's city centre is ideal, as there are a plethora of charity shops and pawn brokers to be found.  I nipped ten minutes down the road to the nearest charity shop to me (and on of the shops which sells electricals.  So may don't these days).  Amazingly they had one in stock for £10.  It was practically on my doorstep all along.  I promptly bought it and returned home, connected it up and (after more volume adjustment and waiting) had 'Dizzy' loaded.  My quest for a fully working ZX Spectrum 48k setup was finally complete.

So, after a week or so of rigorous eBay combing, component switching and general fannying about, I was able to create the authentic early 80s computer gaming experience I was after.  Even with the cost the new keyboard membrane and replacement cassette recorder I still feel I bagged a bargain, and am thoroughly happy with my new addition to the retro collection.  Now I just need to get a few more cassettes for this, and I can start on my next conquest – fixing up my Amiga.  But that's another story for another day.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Ethan: Meteor Hunter Review (PC)

There have been a lot of 2D platformers hitting the various download services recently. In order to stand out you need to do something different and do it well. Ethan: Meteor Hunter aims to mix the precision and difficulty of the Super Meatboys of the world with some old fashioned block/tile sliding puzzles (the things that used to drive us mad as kids and when you could never get the last piece in the right place).

You play a mouse named Ethan who needs to navigate a number of platform/puzzle levels while gathering chunks of meteor and eating cheese.  While it might not sound that original it certainly does things a bit differently. The platforming elements are handled in pretty much the same way as a Cloudberry Kingdom or Super Meatboy, that being that they require precision jumps and timing with constant traps and dangers ready to kill you instantly. 

Ethan is more about precision than breakneck speed and your character handles differently than you may expect. Handling has changed a little from the PS3 game and there is a better flow to your movement. This allows for the more fluid run that the levels seem to be designed for. There are also numerous checkpoints to avoid having to repeat large sections and the improved handling does help to lower the frustration, however it is still a very difficult game.

The main gimmick is the ability to use telekinetic powers to move blocks around to create platforms and solve puzzles. This, for the most part, works really well and adds variety to the game. Sometimes you’ll be simply moving blocks around to get to the next area, while at others you’ll need to be in a constant flow of jumping and pausing to move blocks to block flames or traps as you pass by. It’s in sections like this that the game really comes to life and the creativity of the development team really shines through.

Levels themselves are designed to the highest standard and just about every conceivable way of twisting the basic mechanics is brought to the table. This means the game is always throwing something new at you or asking you to think about how to use your skills and abilities to reach the next area. 

Players need to stay sharp as this is a tough game from the start. You will die and die often and it’s certainly the type of game to cause controller smashing. Most of the time this is due to the player but there are odd occasions where the controls will let you down (it is much less prevalent than the PS3 version though). There are also a few minor issues that add to frustration. The main one of these involves small cut scenes or animations, especially when fighting bosses. You really don’t need to see a five second animation sequence over and over every time you die and it can tarnish the experience at times.

Another minor irritation is the timing of some of the sequences. In areas where things drop from the ceiling or roll along it seems that, on occasion, they don’t start quickly enough. This means that after death you then have to wait a few seconds for the object to get moving before you start charging off as otherwise you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and die again. These are all minor issues but in a game as difficult as this it does add to the frustration when you have to repeat a section a large number of times.

Overall, Ethan: Meteor Hunter is a brash, inventive and challenging platformer. It has strong level design and a lot of imagination through its fifty or so levels. It certainly shows a lot of potential, the few minor issues with timing and controls seems to have been smoothed out somewhat since the PS3 release which creates a more enjoyable experience. For those looking for more platforming action this is another must have, just be prepared to smash a few pads on your way to conquering the game.

Overall 8/10

Monday 10 February 2014

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (PS Vita)

Over the years Nippon Ichi has brought us some truly weird and wonderful games. They normally come packed with a twisted sense of humour and enough anarchic chaos to send the average gamer mad. Danganronpa takes this weirdness to a whole new level and the end result is a game as insane as anything we’ve seen before.

This is a heavily story based game and much of the fun comes from unravelling the twisted tale so we won’t be going into a massive explanation of it. You’ll learn early on that you’re a student trapped in a school with a host of other students. Each of the characters has been picked because they are the ‘Ultimate’ something. For instance one is labelled the Ultimate Baseball star while another is the Ultimate pop sensation. 

Once you meet everyone and find you are indeed trapped inside the school a strange bear-like creature appears to tell you that you are trapped forever. That is of course unless you can kill one of the others and get away with it. This results in much horror and shock and the obvious eventual first murder. It’s here where the game really gets going as you are tasked with uncovering clues to who committed the crime and then taking them down in a class room trial at the end of the chapter. 

Each chapter splits itself into a number of different sections. First of all you will have a section where you are pretty much guided around the school to various relevant story progressing points. At each of these locations pre-planned events will happen and you’ll get the setup of the chapter. On occasions you will also get free time to explore the school and talk to the other students. Doing this time you can build social links which give you special skills and stat boosts, as well as allowing you to learn more about the other characters and fill out your personal files on them. Characters can also be given gifts to further develop your relationship with them and the odd special scene will also play out if you are in the right place at the right time.

After doing this a murder or other event will normally take place and you’ll be put into the investigative part of the game. Here you explore the school looking for clues as to who the murderer is or what is going on. This then leads into the bizarre classroom trial. The trial is effectively a set of mini games that must be completed to win the day. It starts with a class debate where everyone says what they think happened, if you spot something a miss you need to shoot the words with a ‘truth bullet’. At that point you will then correct the argument and it will start again. Here you have a few skills you can use such as ‘concentration’ which slows things down. Others can be gathered from social links as you progress as well.

If you challenge the wrong point you will lose energy and sometimes you’ll have to use the combination of the right bullet and right words to succeed as well. There’s a definite hint of Phoenix Wright in there but it certainly carves its own path as well. Once the debate is over you will need to piece together the crime. This is done by adding in pictures to a partially completed comic strip. Get one wrong and your energy will take another hit. Get that complete and you are onto the final part of the trial which is the face off with the accused murderer.

The face-off takes the form of a bizarre rhythm action game where you alternate pressing X and triangle in time to the accused shouting objections at you. Hold out for long enough and they will eventually crack under the pressure and give in. they are then dragged off for a brutal and twisted death based around their ‘Ultimate’ persona.  Of course if you fail to identify the murderer then everybody else dies and it’s game over.  The games only real issue lies here as well, in that you can’t save during the class trial and they do go on for absolutely ages.

In a way it’s kind of a weird cross between the social links aspect of the Persona series and Saw and is presented in much the same way as other Nippon Ichi titles. It’s also quite a slow and thoughtful game with much of the time spent exploring and evaluating what is going on and in that respect it shares a fair bit with a classic point and click adventure. In truth we can compare it to all sorts of things but the only way to really understand it is to play it as it’s quite unique in many ways.

Overall, it’s refreshing to see something as absolutely crazy as this come out. It’s certainly something different and a break from all the other tried and tested formulas out there. It can be slow at times and there is an issue with the length between saves once a trial has started. That said these are the only real down points in a game which is fun, interesting and a downright joy to experience. The mystery is good, the dialogue is well written and the characters interesting. All the elements work together well and for those looking for something different they really shouldn’t look further than this.


Wednesday 5 February 2014

Surge Deluxe Review (PS Vita)

Future Lab first released SURGE as a mobile title last year. Now, like with Velocity and Coconut Dodge they have returned to the game to give it a native make over for the PS Vita. Our love for their output is well documented and we can’t help but wonder if there few remaining non-Vita native titles will also receive the same treatment in the future.

In truth, SURGE always had the potential to be more than just a mobile title. It’s a match style puzzle game which utilises the touch screen. The aim is simply to connect blocks of the same colour to one another with an electrical current. Using your finger you need to drag from one block to the next to create as big a chain as possible. Like all good puzzle games the premise is simple but in practice it all becomes highly addictive.

The idea is to clear the screen before a pressure gauge explodes. In order to stop this happening you need to clear an entire horizontal row and open valves at both sides of the screen. This releases the pressure and adds a point bonus to the blocks of corresponding colour. On top of this ticking time bomb there is a normal time limit as well. When that expires more blocks fall into the screen. It starts out simply but by the end descends into panic stricken madness of the best kind.

Along with the standard coloured blocks are a number of special ones. These consist of things like bombs (which clear the screen of all blocks of that colour), wild card blocks (which can be used as any colour), and blocks which continually change. The best special block though is one which, for a short period of time, changes all the blocks to the same colour allowing you to rush for a quick clearance and chain bonus.

What really elevates the title is its presentation. The theme of electricity is constant through the design and the blocks glow with neon colour, the electrical lines drawn to connect them fizz satisfyingly and the new sound track still gives off an excellent industrial electro vibe. This keeps the adrenaline pumping and the enjoyment high. When everything starts working together it creates a real state of flow that’s hard to match in many other puzzle games and gives a real gravity and impact to the game.

Adding to the competitive side of the title are online leader boards and trophies. When you start a new game the name of the person who has the score directly above you is plastered right in the middle of the screen for a few seconds. This adds to the ever growing reasons to keep coming back for just one more go. However, it does take some time for scores to upload and a number of times we were presented with our own name as the person next up to beat.

The main problem with the original is one that has been addressed to some degree. Each of the colours now has a different corresponding shape which removes the issue for colour blind players present in the original. It still takes some getting used to as a few of the shapes are similar but we are happy to report that after a few goes we were unable to use it as a valid excuse for getting low scores.

Overall, Surge Deluxe is another example of Future Lab taking on a genre with skill and flair. This is another essential game for those that want something they can play on the move. The studio continues to impress and we look forward to seeing what they come up with next.


Monday 3 February 2014

Wire Strippers, Beer and a Spectrum: Part 2

Read Part 1 Here

Written by Dan Gill

The machine sat inside the polystyrene inner, and looked to be in very good condition.  The power supply was there too.  All good so far.  I'd already put the cassette recorder, tapes and detonator-like device to one side, and connected the Spectrum up to ensure it powered on.  Success!  I was greeted by the pale yellow screen awaiting my command.  I punched a few keys, and commands and characters appeared on screen.  I was feeling pretty good by this point.  It's not often you'll find a boxed, working ZX Spectrum for twenty quid.  I gathered together the other bits and pieces and wired it all up.

Having determined the mystery box as an all-in-one computer switch, PSU for the cassette recorder and audio lead container, I was now ready to load one of the tapes.  The two tapes were home copies of The Hobbit, Kong, Scrabble and Pimania.  I thought I'd fire up Kong first of all.  Having had to look up how to load Spectrum games (I never grew up with one), I was met with my first hurdle – the symbol key didn't work.  As any Spectrum owner will tell you, this is needed to input the LOAD “” command.  I tested all the keys and found several others were also out of action.  I opened up the computer to ensure the ribbon was secure (and had a look at the main board.  It was in surprisingly good condition for a machine almost as old as me).  It was fixed firmly.  Of all my concerns after ordering the computer, I'd never considered the keyboard would be the problem. 

After looking into the issue online it transpired that the keyboard membrane was the cause of the fault.  It seems this is a common fault of the rubber keyboard Spectrums.  Being that there was very little else I could do with the machine at this point, I began to search online for a membrane replacement.  Thankfully, I found a site dedicated to supporting various Spectrum models online ( ) who actually stock replacement keyboard membranes.  I found their eBay shop and ordered a replacement (£10.49 including postage, if you're interested), and eagerly awaited delivery.

A couple of days later my replacement membrane arrived, and I immediately went to work.  I first had to soften the glue holding the metal faceplate on.  Being a techie type, I had the specific tool required for this job, an instrument so niche that one would rarely be seen in a toolbox.  I took the hair dryer and heated the plate for a few seconds.  I then prised the plate off (bending it a little in the process, unfortunately), opened the computer, removed the old membrane, replaced the new one, tested all the keys, and reassembled.  I now had a fully working ZX Spectrum and was ready to load up some games.  Sadly, while the Spectrum itself was working, the other equipment in the equation had other plans.