Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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Joysticks; sometimes they come back!

Old-school gamers come in two flavours; those who swear that joypads are the one true control method, and those who insist joysticks are the way to go. The latter camp are right of course, a fact which is especially annoying since (almost) no-one manufactures simple, fit-for-purpose varieties these days.

If you can get your mits on a 9 pin to USB adapter you can connect an original 80s/90s joystick to your modern computer, and blissfully pretend the last few decades of 'evolution' are but a bad dream. The hitch, however, is that many of the poor blighters will have been twisted, yanked and crushed to within an inch of their wretched lives, and so can't be guaranteed to work.

Another option is to find a newly manufactured 9 pin joystick and hook that up instead. Impossible you may scoff, but this is precisely what makes the Atari Flashback so alluring. It's a remodelled Atari 2600 games console that hooks up to your TV allowing you to play dozens of classic games as if it were 1977.

Coincidentally the package includes two authentic CX-40 9 pin joysticks which are compatible with original Spectrum, Amstrad, Commodore and Amiga computers, the Sega Megadrive and Master System consoles, as well as your retro joystick adapter. Even if you have no interest in the Atari 2600, for £17.99 (the best price I found on Amazon), it may be worth a punt for the controllers alone, at least until these are made available as a standalone purchase. Incidentally, for adapterless gamers, the same company behind the Flashback - Legacy Engineering - produce a variety of USB versions to be used specifically with emulators.

The fourth rendition of the Flashback is due to hit the shops in time for Christmas and features two not-so-retro wireless joysticks. Unfortunately these will only work with the Flashback because the infra-red sensors are built into the console itself. The archetype comes with two 7800-style paddles, while the second and third incarnations both include wired joysticks. I'm told that the FB3 joysticks have a greater 'throw', are looser and suffer from more microswitchy clickety-ness than their FB2 counterparts, the latter more closely resembling the sword-in-the-stone originals.

Reviews of the various console editions diverge wildly across reputable, retro gaming sites and on YouTube, but what you can be certain of is that they're rock solid/will disintegrate in a light gust, play just like the 30 million-selling prototype and are an aberration that would have Jack Tramiel spinning in his grave.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

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Anyone who owned a Spectrum back in the 80s will likely still cringe at the echoes of its shrill, piercing load tones. Strangely enough though, at the age of 7 I don't ever remember pausing to reflect on the purpose of those awful fax machine impersonations. I just accepted that's what it does, pressed play and scarpered before the aural assault commenced.
It wasn't until many years later I discovered the computer was actually interpreting the ones and zeros of programming language conveyed through modem-like pulses played at varying durations or widths. This allowed software to be encoded on cheap, ubiquitous audio tapes, or even to be transmitted over the airwaves. The thought of holding your PlayStation up to the radio to load a game sounds ridiculous now, but back in the day this wasn't unheard of.

Similarly, those multicoloured, psychedelic flashing borders weren't arbitrary eye candy; precise colour combinations and line widths represent the type of data currently being loaded. That said, this feature of the system was later manipulated simply for visual effect.

I don't imagine there are that many people out there who own a real live, hardware Spectrum and an iPhone, but for those of you who do, you can now serenade one wit' t'other, substituting the phone for a tape drive to transmit those nails-on-a-blackboard screeches.

The Speccy Tape app latches onto World of Spectrum's tape image database allowing you to search out any game and play it on your original hardware in a few clicks. You could even use it to play games that didn't exist way back when because they've only just been released. You heard that right, people are still coding new games for a platform that was born in 1982!