Console Review: Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega

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In the 1980s, if you living in the UK and a big 8-bit computer enthusiast, the chances are that you were either a Commodore 64 or a ZX Spectrum owner. The rivalry between the two formats is the stuff of legends. While the Commodore was the more dominant machine globally and more successful overall selling more units and went on to be the most successful home computer of its generation, the home-grown Spectrum was the one that the Brits took to their hearts. As an individual, I have to admit that I fell firmly into the Commodore camp. I’d been using computers at school since primary school in the late 70s – my school was incredibly lucky to have ONE computer – and because it had been built for the school by my friend’s dad it seemed as if he and I were allowed a bit more computer time than many of the other kids!

So when it came to getting my own computer for Christmas one year (after a Pong clone and several handheld and tabletop LED games), my choice was between a Sinclair machine or a Commodore Vic 20. Seeing the real keyboard of the Vic 20 made it a no-brainer for me at the time, so I ended up progressing through the entire Commodore family from that point, although with a range of friends owning different computers and consoles, the Spectrum was never too far from view…

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Produced by way of an Inidegogo crowdfunding campaign, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega is an unassuming device. With a small footprint not much larger than Sony’s PlayStation TV, it’s one of two machines released last year bearing the ZX Spectrum name, the other being the Recreated ZX Spectrum from Elite Systems. In the case of the latter, while it may look like a ZX Spectrum in reality it’s little more than a bluetooth keyboard and associated Android / iOS app so the hardware itself isn’t capable of running anything whatsoever. Retro Computers Ltd, decided to go down a more practical approach with their device…

In the case of the ZX Spectrum Vega, this is a complete stand-alone console designed and built in the UK with an impressive pedigree behind it. It has been designed by Chris Smith who is a former Spectrum games developer and who is now recognised as being the foremost expert on Spectrum hardware. Supporting him are Dr David Levy (President of the International Computer Games Association, author of over 50 books on computer games, AI, and robotics and far too many other credits to mention here), Paul Andrews (producer and entrepreneur with extensive work in the media and games industries) and last but certainly by no means least – Sir Clive Sinclair who needs no introduction, and Sir Clive is a part shareholder of Retro Computers Ltd. Even the ZX Spectrum name has been licensed from Sky In-Home Service Ltd (who purchased the brand from Amstrad) to make sure that this was going to be as close to a real Spectrum experience for gamers as possible.

But What Exactly Is It?

Before I carry on going into too much detail, I have to point out that this isn’t quite a ZX Spectrum. No matter how primitive the technology may be that is inside the old 8-bit systems, manufacturing them today would be prohibitively expensive. The old Zilog Z80 processors aren’t being made anymore and I think it’s a safe bet that no where is making RAM chips small enough to cater for the needs of the 16-bit era, let alone a 48K system. So what really is under the hood?

The reality is that the Vega is a micro console powered by an ARM Processor similar to that found in most modern mobile phones along with a graphics controller. The Spectrum side of things is actually handled via emulation custom written for the Vega so sadly there is no real original ZX Spectrum hardware inside the console, but because of the emulator, it is capable of running games developed for the 48k and 128K Spectrum. Instead of the regular Spectrum keyboard, this has been replaced with a d-pad, four action buttons, four smaller menu buttons and a reset button with the console reduced in size to approximately one-third of the size of the original 48K Spectrum.

ZX Spectrum Vega Box Front

What’s In The Box?

The box itself is rather reminiscent of the original Spectrum packaging, and even the rear of it has been designed to look like the old set-up guide for the of 48k ZX Spectrum making the buyer immediately feel at home. Opening it up reveals the 16-page instruction manual, and the console itself. Unlike the original ZX Spectrum, the cables are integrated into the Vega so this is one thing you need to be aware of when using it although they do feel quite durable.

The video output is by way of standard composite video and stereo audio but the power lead is a little unusual. For most plug and play units, they’re battery powered or mains operated but the Vega is neither. Instead, it’s USB powered but doesn’t come with a plug for the USB lead in the box. For those with modern TVs that have USB ports, or spare phone chargers around this shouldn’t be a problem (and it certainly makes shipping the console globally a lot easier), but it is frustrating not being able to plug it in straight out of the box.

ZX Spectrum Vega

Despite this, I have to say that the build quality of the Vega is very impressive. It’s lightweight, sturdy and everything is functional. There’s nothing wasted in the design (or the packaging for that matter) and while the console itself is sleek and functional, it still has that Spectrum “feel” to it. I have to say that I was also impressed with the included manual. It’s a fairly comprehensive booklet that covers everything from setting up the console anywhere in the world to using all of its functions (including saving game progress), to a troubleshooting guide. Okay Retro Computers, not even powered it up yet and you have me impressed…

Getting Started

Getting up and running with the Vega is simplicity itself. Once all of the AV leads are connected, simply plug the USB lead into whatever outlet you choose and the Vega powers up straight away. You’re presented with a few introductory screens before being taken to the main menu. A chip tune plays in the background using the Spectrum’s sound chip and you’re presented with the extensive games list. It will seem daunting at first but to make things easier for players to find their way around, the list has been split up alphabetically. Pushing up / down scrolls within each letter while left / right changes letter. Pressing F or S selects the highlighted game, while pressing A changes from the arcade-style games list to the Adventure games and vice-versa. Pressing B will swap over to the list of available games on the optional MicroSD card (but more on that later).

Once you’ve picked whatever game you want to play, loading is almost instantaneous and prior to play you’re presented with a brief screen displaying the controls as they are mapped to the Vega’s limited buttons, before allowing you to get straight into the game.

Controls

For the most part, the d-pad works quite well although it isn’t as responsive as what you’d find in most mainstream consoles. The four primary buttons have recreated the “rubber key” feel of the Spectrum (whether you think this is a good thing or not depends on which model of the Spectrum was your personal favourite), although I felt that the reset button and the remaining four (which are primarily used to access menus) are small and a little fiddly for larger fingers.

As I said, controls for the in-built game have been pre-mapped to the d-pad and each of the four action buttons so there’s no need to configure controls for each specific game making play incredibly easy and quick to get into. Even text adventures are catered for with the inclusion of an on-screen keyboard that can be accessed through the menu buttons which is surprisingly simply to use.

Games, Games, Games!

The packaging and promotional coverage for the ZX Spectrum Vega boasts about the console shipping with a staggering 1,000 built-in games on its internal storage. While we’ve seen claims made by different consoles in the past regarding the numbers of games on offer from the 30 games of the Commodore 64DTV to the 100 built into the Atari Flashback 6, no machine to-date has offered so many, and certainly not this many that are officially licensed. There are games here from a wide range of publishers and developers included – some that Spectrum owners will be familiar with and others not so much. The team behind the Vega actively sought out games to add to the console and countless copyright holders approached Retro Computers Ltd wanting to be a part of the Vega as well building up an impressive library. The copyright ownership is something I certainly won’t go into here as it’s a minefield I’ve had to tackle myself trying to source games for our own downloads section. In some cases copyrights lie with the authors, not the publishers, sometimes both, and when publishers fold, rights end up in limbo so it’s a logistical nightmare so amassing such a huge collection has to be applauded.

There are a large number of contemporary Spectrum games included as well but there truly is something for everyone here and the list of well-known titles is certainly impressive. Much of the back catalogue from Gremlin Graphics is present including a few games in the Monty Mole series and the superb Bounder, some of the breathtaking classics are included from Ultimate: Play The Game including one of my all-time favourites Jetpac (not to mention games like Sabre Wulf, Attic Attack, Underwurlde and more), most of the back catalogue from CRL… far too many to mention but there really are some gems here. And that’s just in the Arcade section!

The Adventure section is just as blessed, with many of the classic Mastertronic games making an appearance courtesy of their original authors, the Tolkein parody Bored Of The Rings, and many of the horror adventures released by CRL – Frankenstein, Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde and more. The concern that some may have here when it comes to text adventures is how could you possibly play them with a d-pad? The answer is remarkably well. The Vega’s menu buttons allow the console to bring up a virtual keyboard and with a little practice this soon becomes second nature when it comes to playing text adventures. No, you won’t be using this entry method for writing your next novel, but it works well for games and makes them fun and enjoyable to play.

It has to be said that the overall quality of the games does vary dramatically and some of the included titles have dated very badly. Some games have stood the test of time remarkably well including the ones I have mentioned above, and many others, but then there are some that probably didn’t even garner any positive feedback when first released let alone now some 30 years after their release. Regardless, there’s more than enough choice to provide you with ample gameplay for your money.

Not Enough For You?

With so many games on offer right out of the box, most people would be more than happy with the selection of what is on offer especially with the inclusion of some true classics but as the Spectrum had a library of well over 10,000 games released during its lifetime, the question has to be asked as to whether or not the console can be upgraded or added to in any way to allow more to be played. Well, this is where the MicroSD card slot comes in.

ZX Spectrum Vega Rear

Located underneath the console, inserting a MicroSD card into this slot opens up a new world of features for the Vega. First, you can use the MicroSD card to save game data from any of the built-in games on the system, ideal for those of you playing any of the myriad of text adventures on offer. Most importantly though, there are thousands more games out there for the Spectrum available for downloading that you no doubt want to play and while we certainly can’t condone the use of pirated software, there is a lot of legally available games that you can add to the console.

The Vega can support Spectrum emulator files in several formats – .TAP, .Z80 and .SZX so as long as your files are in one of these you can run them on the Vega. Obviously, depending on the control methods used by the games in question, not all will work perfectly on the Vega but as a general rule of thumb, if they have the option to select a Kempston Joystick, choose that and usually you’ll be fine! If you do struggle, you can create custom keymaps for games in the same way that the built-in games have been configured and Retro Computers Ltd have provided help and advise on how to do this on their website.

Look And Feel

When it comes to the aesthetics of emulating the Spectrum, the Vega does an impressive job all round. While it can’t recreate the fuzzy look of playing games on an old CRT screen back in the 80s, and certainly not using a modern television with a composite output, it more than looks the part. When running 48K Spectrum games, graphics look exactly how you would expect, along with the accompanying blips and beeps, and the Vega does a wonderful job of emulating the superior sound chip of latter models as well so you’re in for a treat with some of the games on offer.

Obviously, the one thing to remember with any retro console is that the graphics will look dated, even more so depending on the size of the TV screen that you use. I’ve used the Vega alternating between a 15″ CRT and a 40″ LED screen and despite the vast size differences, it still looks great on both with fluid movement and plays like a dream with no lag, or problems.

Who Is It For?

Now, having said all of that about the Vega, the question has to be asked who is the console really aimed at? Is it for people who grew up with the Spectrum when they were younger and who now want to play the games again on modern TV sets without the hassle of having to load what are now unreliable cassettes. Is it aimed at existing Spectrum owners who want to add another system to their collection and have a massive boost to their games collection overnight or is it targetted at the Spectrum newbie who has never owned a Sinclair machine before to entice them into the world of the Spectrum?

Probably a combination of all of the above. In all honesty, purists are going to be wary of the console because it contains no original Spectrum hardware and doesn’t have a keyboard but for those who are interested in the hobbyist side of the Spectrum and everything associated with it then being frank that’s something that no console or emulator would ever be able to provide and it’s something that you’ll only ever get from an original machine and that goes for any retro computer or console.

However, if you’re like me wanting to try out what the Spectrum has to offer properly for the first time, then the Vega is the perfect opportunity to not only experience the sights and sounds of the Spectrum, but also the games in the most cost effective legal way possible.

Having been using the Vega for a couple of weeks now has been quite a unique experience. Despite not being a full-blown Spectrum and focusing more on the games side of the computer, it really has made me feel as if I can now truly call myself a Spectrum owner and be able to converse with like-minded Speccy enthusiasts. I’ve still only began to scratch the surface with all of the games that are pre-loaded and have had hours of fun playing on it so far. Yes, there are some that have had me reaching for the reset button within a matter of second, but others have kept me playing for hours if deadlines would let me.

I’ve been surprised by it in so many small ways as well. Not just the console and the quality of many of the games, but small things you wouldn’t necessarily think of. Not once during the time I’ve used it so far has the Vega even got warm let alone hot even after a few hours of use. I can’t even say that about my mobile phone when using Facebook or other relatively basic apps. Equally, the level of after-sales support available for the console is remarkable. There is plenty of online support through the official forum on their website, downloads for firmware updates as these are made available, but equally additional resources for Vega owners. The most notable of these is a resource of Keymaps for games not featured on the console allowing you to download these files to accompany games you have on your own MicroSD cards making it easier to run on the console, along with detailed instructions on creating your own for games that aren’t covered.

Whichever way you see this, there’s no denying that the ZX Spectrum Vega offers fantastic value for money. While it’s not the cheapest emulation-based console on the market, its certainly the most comprehensive and only one of a few that are officially licensed AND that are capable of running anything beyond the bundled games. Add to that the fact that it has enough games to last you a lifetime and you really couldn’t ask for anything more. Whether you’re a nostalgia buff with a hankering for the old days of the ZX Spectrum, or you just want to see why people have been so passionate about the Spectrum for the past 30+ years, then this console should have a place on your retro shopping list right now.

Finally, if you do decide to take the plunge and are looking for more Spectrum games to compliment the selection on the ZX Spectrum Vega, we have a selection available for downloading legally on our ZX Spectrum Downloads Page which is updated regularly.

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