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 (http://code.google.com/p/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 http://www.worldofspectrum.org/).  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 (ftp://ftp.worldofspectrum.org/pub/sinclair/tools/pc/TZX2WAV_02b.zip), 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 (ftp://ftp.worldofspectrum.org/pub/sinclair/tools/pc/Playtzx-win32.zip) 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 (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=dk.rift.tzxdroid – 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 (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/speccy-tape/id460743976?mt=8 – 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.

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