Thursday, 17 September 2015

Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega Console Gamertroll review.

Back on December 2nd 2014 Gamertroll got an intriguing message from an old friend regarding an indiegogo! crowdfunding project to revive the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 80's micro computer under the guise of a tactile new retro console dubbed the "Vega". The one immediately appealing draw was that there would be 1000 convieniently pre-installed Spectrum classics on the hardware straight out of the box. Now, Gamertroll has a special emotional investment in the old Spectrum: it facilitated his introduction to Video gaming as a tiddler for heavens sakes! We're talking the original sin for this Troll. So the £100 was duly pledged in return for one of the first 1000 Vega consoles manufactured and a special credit on the "Roll call of Honour" shown upon boot up of every machine. Cue Nerd-gasm. 

It was a good job Gamertroll acted swiftly on his friendly tipoff too, because a mere 36 hours later the campaign was way over 100% funded with every potential Console spoken for. A month later the project was 150% funded, based on backing for remaining perks and orders for later production runs of the machine. With a machine secured, Gamertroll dug in for the long wait for the May 2015 launch date. Well sort of: played a load of games and just forgot about it really.    

In recent years there have been several other notable attempts to tap into a demand for Spectrum nostalgia, mainly using bluetooth designs and heavy emulation, but none have inspired as much support from gamers as the Vega. To understand how this campaign enjoyed such an enthusiastic response you only need look as far as the team behind it. Crucially the most famous name associated with the machine, British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair responsible for the original's design and launch back in 1982 is involved with the project, along with other greats on the Spectrum scene like Chris Smith and Dr David Levy.

Anyway, May came and went, emailed excuses were made for the various delays describing longer than expected game licensing admin, key-mapping work for the pre-installed games and finally some overlong PEGI procedures for the system's packaging. Long story short, after a few missed deadlines Gamertroll's postie delivered a Vega-Shaped package on August 8th 2015. By this stage it took every grain of self-restraint not to tear the box apart. Would Manic Miner, Jetpac and Dizzy be on its games list?
Here's a video Gamertroll filmed on that day after setting up and playing about with the Vega for a few hours: 

The Horror: Manic Miner wasn't one of the 1000 pre-installed games found on the Vega, nor was Matthew Smith's other platform defining title, Jet Set Willy. In fact, many games that absolutely should have been on the machine were conspicuously missing. No Codemasters games like Dizzy or Bmx Simulator, no Death Chase or Ocean licenced games are anywhere to be seen. Ultimate play the game titles like Jetpac, Night Lore, Sabrewulf and Attic Attack are there, which is all the more baffling considering Microsoft's August re-release of them on their RARE retro compilation for the Xbox one. Surely that would have been the hardest bunch of licences to sort out? 
Just a pic for purposes of scale, Gamertroll couldn't place his old Spectrum games at that moment so here's some almost identical Commodore ones!  

Although Gamertroll enjoys and remembers many of the games the Vega comes with onboard, It has to be said that the initial search for games will be disappointing for most Speccy retro heads. There's also a surprisingly huge catalogue of text adventures amongst the Vega's Library (constituting almost half of all games on offer), whose appeal Gamertroll suspects is far too niche to be greatly appreciated by most retro gamers. A stone-cold cynic would suppose them fillers to make the total up to the 1000 games pitched on the box.   

Thankfully the Vega comes with a handy solution with which to rectify its missing software: You can use the console's Micro SD memory slot to add game roms. So long as you understand and observe the rules for legally downloading and using Roms (Detailed on Rom sites), one can load up the Vega with all your old favourites. It can however be a slight sod of a Kerfuffle to sort out the files so Gamertroll has done a little guide video (and a Ghosts n' Goblins let's play) on how to sort them out here:

With the important matter of games addressed, the functionality of console itself is the next important consideration. Like the games list, there have been some odd decisions made here and there, but overall Gamertroll thinks the Vega an excellent little device.
Although the trailing Composite Av and Usb power cables are somewhat messy looking when the machine is in use, they are a good length at about 3m and given that the console is its own controller it's hard to see a better solution without calling in less direct control compromises like Bluetooth connectivity.

Couldn't resist posting a pic of this old Amstrad game
Retro Nostalgia at it's best: Look at Wolf! Mwa ha ha
The rubber buttons are incredibly authentic in feel but as a result suffer the same dead flesh flaccidity that the old Spectrum 48k suffered with. At times, you'll find the fire buttons don't return to neutral fast enough to maintain the rapid presses, that for instance, an old Kempston joystick's microswitched buttons could achieve. Not so with the cross-pad, which provides a sharper response than Gamertroll can ever remember getting on a Spectrum back in days of yore. 

The key-mapping method and accompanying virtual keyboard is not as intuitive as Gamertroll would have hoped, but Retro Computers Ltd have promised to release regular software updates and improvement of control definition for Roms is on the future agenda. Otherwise, the simplicity of setup and pleasant menu interface are a highlight of the design and you might find yourself nodding away to the jaunty 8-bit music as you navigate between options, games lists and roms with ease. Apart from the instantaneous nature of the Vega's operation and game loading, the Micro SD slot also affords players the option saved game states for every game in the library. The game saves are a way of literally pausing progress at any point, on any number of games and Roms, allowing each game to be played as if they had never been turned off. It's a feature that works fantastically with these old games and even allows them an added dimension of continuity not possible previously. 

Another terrific novelty with the Vega comes with the ability to listen to Spectrum 8-bit sound effects and Music through proper speakers! Gone are the days of fuzzy RF or squeaky onboard speakers and despite the retro appeal that holds, the Vega provides a better audio experience without losing that all important authenticity. Gamertroll is now listening to Spectrum music through a Bose! Many lols are to be had there, the neighbours must want me dead.

At £100GBP, Gamertroll is decidedly pleased with his Vega, many hours have already been spent on teary-eyed nostalgia binges. Whatever else has been achieved with the Vega, the most important success is that it has gives off that warm feeling of being true to its roots.

The ZX Spectrum Vega is a thoroughly capable and worthy machine on which to celebrate Spectrum retro gaming without the hassle of setting up all the old gear and waiting 5 minutes for game cassettes that may, or may not brick at the end. The Vega's value to newcomers is hard to quantify from Gamertroll's entrenched perspective, but it's an absolute given that nostalgic Spectrum fans should love it.

You can buy a Spectrum Vega from source here

For more details on the Vega, the project to design it and to make orders direct from Retro Computers check out this link.

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