How to Buy and Use a ZX Spectrum in America: A Primer from Across the Pond
As my job here on Retronauts is largely to cover UK/European news, I’m naturally going to be talking about computers like the ZX Spectrum a lot -- however, one of the main questions I always get from people is that one right there in the title. You see, accessing ZX Spectrum games isn’t easy for people in America -- the system never came out over there. And thusly the joys of the Spectrum are going to be fairly closed off for a lot of people...however, don’t fret! I’ve written up a handy little guide that, if you’re interested, should hopefully allow you to play the system -- and the games -- that I’m frequently going to be talking about.
So, wait...the Spectrum never came out over here in America? Are you sure about that?
Well...ok, it did. Sort of. Back in the early 80’s Sinclair collaborated with Timex on two clones for the US Market -- the Timex Sinclair 1000, and the Timex Sinclair 2068. The TS1000 is based off of the earlier Sinclair ZX81 (somewhat equivalent to a Commodore Vic-20) and is honestly too early and primitive for what you want, although it was a fairly successful computer in its own right. The later 2068 is based off of the classic 48k Spectrum, albeit with increases to memory and other improvements over the regular machine, such as a better keyboard and a cartridge slot on the side -- if you want to play ZX Spectrum games on an old computer that delivers an NTSC 60Hz signal out of the box, this is the system you want.
Unfortunately, the TS2068 was a complete flop sales-wise and was only on the shelves for a few months, meaning that it's considerably harder to find than the TS1000. It’ll probably run you at least 100 dollars on Ebay...and that’s not the only problem! Because of the modifications made to the Timex, it’s incompatible with virtually all European Spectrum software -- it simply can't read ZX Spectrum machine code. Seeing as nearly everything worthwhile released for the Spectrum was European, that’s obviously a problem...TS2068 users did find a solution -- they created a cartridge with the original Spectrum ROM inside that could read the machine code and emulate the software, improving compatibility with the Speccy from next-to-nothing to around 97%. Unfortunately, said cartridges are rarer than the system itself these days, and will likely cost you as much if not more...so yes, you’re looking at a big spend if you want to use a TS2068 at all, let alone use it like a Spectrum. And it only provides composite video (S-Video is available with a mod)...in the end, you’re probably better off going down the traditional route and importing a ZX Spectrum from Europe.
The Timex Sinclair line is far from the only set of ZX Spectrum clones -- there were many other very popular clones in areas like Brazil (the TK-90-X) and especially Eastern Europe (Scorpion, Leningrad, Sintez...so many). This is the dark side though, and as a newbie I do not recommend you explore it yet. We don’t go to Ravenholm.
Ok, so...I want a Zee-X Spectrum. What model should I get? How much is this going to cost me?
Woah woah woah. First off, it's ZED-X Spectrum, not Zee-X - watch out, as some people will really lay into you if you don't get this right. It's kind of like if us folk over in the UK started calling Jay Z "Jay Zed" instead of "Jay Zee" - it would sound wrong.
Pronunciations aside, let’s get down to business. I should note straight away that for all Spectrums that you buy from the PAL regions, you’re going to need to factor in import/shipping costs along with some sort of step-up transformer so that you can power it up, as the Spectrum has very specific demands when it comes to power. The iconic Spectrum model is the ZX Spectrum 48k -- that’s the one you’ll always see in pictures. It sold millions, it looks great, and it’s home to most of the system’s classic games. 48k’s are widely available on eBay UK, providing you can find folks who are willing to ship -- import costs aside they’re not that expensive, running around $60-80, or £40-60.
However, there’s quite a few issues for you, the American person reading this in 2017. Let’s be blunt: The build quality is not great, the keys are made of cheap and nasty rubber, the sound is a single-channel beeper, and it crashes like you wouldn’t believe. The look of the machine is fantastic, but I would not recommend a 48k to anyone in America -- the main reason being that out of the box, its video signal is not just standard RF only, but a UHF that's designed to work with UK TV channels such as BBC 2 -- chances are good that you won't even be able to connect the standard lead to your TV, let alone get it to actually show a picture. Modding the 48k for composite video is fairly straightforward as far as such things go, but it's also essential if you want to get a picture from it -- and that won't change the other issue of the Speccy pumping out a PAL 50Hz signal. You will likely need some sort of PAL-to-NTSC converter in order to display games in colour, not to mention a TV that's compatible with the signal itself -- and what with all these wires, converters, transformers and cassette recorders running about everywhere, you may end up with a system that looks like it’s on life support. Lazy Game Reviews has a video featuring his own experiences with getting a ZX Spectrum 48k up and running, so I recommend you watch the pain for yourself.
The far better option is to go for the later ZX Spectrum +2 line that was manufactured by Amstrad. They’re not as iconic, but the build quality and keyboard are a lot better for a start. The tape drive is also internal, so there's no need to dig out an old external cassette recorder and fiddle around with the tone dial. The biggest improvement however is that this machine comes with support for RGB SCART right out of the box, so as far as video goes you can just hook it up to any RGB upscaler device, be it a cheapo Hong Kong jobbie or an XRGB Mini Framemeister, and forget about it -- even the cheap upscaler will be an improvement over composite. Just make sure you get the right model cable to go along with it -- Retro Gaming Cables will have what you need.
Also, these Spectrums are 128k models, thus opening up more games for you to buy! Nearly all the most famous Speccy games are 48k, but there’s a lot of good stuff on 128k -- and the sound’s a lot better on 128k games too, seeing as they used an AY chip for that as opposed to the 48k's beeper. The only trouble with +2’s is that compatibility with 48k games isn’t perfect...it's still very good though -- chances are that you’ll be able to play anything you want to so long as you load it up in the included 48k BASIC mode (Instructions: Press J for LOAD, then Symbol Shift+P twice for “”, then ENTER -- now you’re ready to press Play!). The best model for purpose is the regular +2 (Grey) machine -- easily differentiated from the rest by its grey case, it's by far the most compatible with 48k games while also handling 128k games without issue. The +2A/2B (Black) and +3 models look better but are somewhat less compatible, and the +3 also uses floppy discs as opposed to tape -- it’s not recommended seeing as most games came out on cassette. Finally, Grey +2’s are, like 48k’s, also very common -- in fact, they’ll cost you around about the same price.
For the sake of completeness, I should mention the ZX Spectrum+ and the original ZX Spectrum 128 machine as you might run across both of them. The Spectrum+ is primarily an external upgrade to the original 48k machine, featuring a different case and a new keyboard - meaning that you will have the exact same video issues with this machine as you would with the 48k. The Spectrum 128 does feature most of the improvements we've seen from the Amstrad line, including RGB out of the box -- although you'll need an external cassette recorder to load games (or alternatively, a smartphone -- more on that further down). This is by far the rarest of the main models, however - it was only on sale for a few months, and it'll set you back a great deal more money than the Amstrad-made +2 will.
Right! I’ve got my Spectrum...how do I get games for this thing?
Well, you can import them from eBay. Most games are small and inexpensive (aside from ones by say, Ultimate Play the Game -- who went on to become Rare) so they won’t cost that much, but import costs will again add up. There’s a lot of bundles and job lots available which might prove to be cheaper in the long run...again though, there are issues. These games came on cassette tape and most of them are over 30 years old, meaning there’s a very real possibility that the tape itself has degraded over time -- this can even be the case with new-old stock as they never used high-quality tape in the first place -- ferric only. Tape degradation is a much bigger problem here than it would be with your standard audio cassette -- lost frequencies can mean lost data, exposure to magnets can mean entire lost blocks, and all this means R Tape Loading Errors, crashes to BASIC, and a waste of your time. Seriously, loading games off of a cassette is a pain -- especially if you didn't grow up with it and therefore 3-5 minutes or more of waiting for a game to load isn't a part of your personal nostalgia.
But again, there are alternatives! The flashcart solution is one, and the divMMC Future is the newest and best -- it’ll hold all the games you could want with an SD Card and load them up instantly. If you want the authentic loading experience but don’t want to deal with the lottery of old cassettes, you could always buy a cheap MP3/CD cassette tape adapter -- the same sort of thing you’d have in the cassette deck of your car -- hook the audio jack up to a mobile phone, keep your games on the phone and load them through an app. ZXTapeLoader is what I use on Android, but there’s several options such as tapDancer that do roughly the same thing. If you're using a 48k machine, then you can do away with the old cassette recorder and use a smartphone or tablet to load your games instead with this method. No matter what however, if you’re doing this then just make sure that any games you download are perfect copies -- you’ll want anything with the .TZX file extension. As for getting games, you can find that information further down.
What about playing the games? Is there any joystick I should look out for?
Well, there’s multiple types...the +2 had a proprietary joystick that came with it -- the SJS1 -- and it wasn’t very good, but cheap adapters do exist that will allow you to use any Atari-style joystick with the +2. If you’re headstrong and desperate for a 48k machine, then guess what? That doesn’t come with any joystick ports built-in, and you’ll need an adapter. The Kempston Interface is by far the most accessible, and compatible with most everything -- once again, it allows the connection of regular Atari-style joysticks to the system....honestly though? I wouldn’t bother with joysticks at all -- you can play basically every Speccy game using the keyboard. Most Speccy games have an option to redefine the keys, and the default/best option is usually Q and A for Up and Down, O and P for Left and Right, and M or Space for Fire. Seriously -- try it out for yourself, it works just fine on these games.
Hmmm...righto. Out of interest, are there any modern systems that emulate or recreate the ZX Spectrum?
There are a couple out there, most of which can be found on the likes of Amazon. The ZX Spectrum Next is probably going to be the easiest of the lot, coming with SD Card functionality as well as HDMI Out, but it’s not out yet. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+ is a handheld that boasts literally hundreds of games that you can play, but that too isn’t out yet -- that’s been delayed so much that people wonder if it ever will be. The original Vega is available -- it’s a computer on a joypad that has roughly 1,000 games built-in, along with microSD functionality...not having a proper keyboard can be a pain however, and it’s composite video only. You may also run into the Recreated ZX Spectrum, but don’t buy that -- it’s basically a bluetooth keyboard with functionality dependent on apps that aren’t supported by the stores anymore.
You know what? Life’s too short for all of this. Are there any decent emulators out there?
I understand completely -- and yes, there are. Fuse is probably the one that most people use these days -- it’s very accurate indeed, comes with all the functionality you’d expect, and it emulates every Spectrum model. It’s great, and it’s available on basically any platform out there -- Windows, Mac, Unix, AmigaOS...the lot. Spectaculator is also very good -- like Fuse, it’s super accurate, compatible with everything and emulates all models...it’s a paid product, mind you -- and the desktop version is only available on Windows. However, if you want to play Spectrum games on your Android, iPhone or other Apple device? The mobile version of Spectaculator is probably your best option. A Fuse-based core for the ZX Spectrum also exists for RetroArch and -- if you have a Raspberry Pi setup -- RetroPie. Finally, if you’re in a pinch -- say if you’re bored at the office and you really need to play Manic Miner NOW -- there are plenty of websites that will let you play ZX Spectrum games through a browser; QAOP is your best bet here. As far as games go, World of Spectrum has all the games that companies have allowed the distribution of -- which is a lot. As for specific recommendations? Those will come, but for now you could have a look at WoS's Top 100 page for a solid overview of the Speccy's best.
Ok! Hopefully now you know what you need to in order to get yourself playing Spectrum -- whether you take the easy way, or the harder path. Getting an actual ZX Spectrum itself to run in the U.S. may well be a challenge, but it can be rewarding if you stick with it -- and there’s also the added bonus of experiencing classic European computer history. Although needless to say, it’s perfectly understandable if you decide to go down the emulator road instead. Either way, the first thing you’re going to want to do is load up the classic 3D Deathchase from 1983 -- it’s just you, two bikes that you have to blow up, and about a thousand trees. Old school arcade twitch gaming doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.
If you wish to shout at the author, then you can find Kim on her YouTube channel, or on her Twitter @KimXXXJustice.