Spectaculator (ZX Spectrum Emulator)

Spectaculator is a ZX Spectrum Emulator for iPhone and iPad, designed primarily for playing a selection of ZX Spectrum titles. The ZX Spectrum was ubiquitous for those growing up in the UK in the 1980s, and those growing up in the US may have known its enhanced clone, the Timex Sinclair 2068. Given their cult following and relative ease of emulation on today's modern machines, emulators of early 8-bit machines such as the ZX Spectrum abound. However, probably due to App Store restrictions, it is probably fair to say that there are fewer options for iOS. Spectaculator is a welcome— though as we shall see not unhindered— addition to the 8-bit hobbyist's armoury.

Early home computers such as the ZX Spectrum had two key features that many of us fondly remember. Firstly, they were designed as much with the hobbyist programmer in mind as the casual gameplayer: switching the machine on effectively took you straight to a command line from which you can immediately start entering and running simple BASIC programs. Secondly, the actual gaming experience was something of a labour of love by today's standards: any game-playing session was preceded by several minutes waiting for the game to load from cassette, following by another minute of fathoming about configuring the keyboard/joystick and any other game preferences. There was rarely the option of saving your current game state, so that both configuration and game progress would inevitably have to be started from scratch each time.

Nonetheless, a number of very popular and addictive (at least, seemingly so at the time!) classic games were produced, with famous titles including the likes of Atic Atac, Chuckee Egg, Jetpac, Knightlore, Alien 8, Dizzy, Starquake as well as conversions of famous later relases such as Lemmings.

Modern emulators give such games a new lease of life, and in principle Spectaculator is no exception. The fumbling through piles of cassettes and waiting 5 minutes for a game to load are replaced by a menu system in which you simply select the game you want to play and play it. An instant snapshot function allows you to save and later restore the complete state of the machine (read: your current game position) at the tap of a finger. A neat feature of Spectaculator is "Instant Play", whereby a game is instantly loaded and configured to use the on-screen joystick (which emulates a Sinclair joystick for those who know what that means). This works relatively well as the joystick buttons are also configured to provide certain functions depending on the game. For occasions when keyboard input is required, tapping the game screen will temporarily replace the joystick with an on-screen keyboard laid out to resemble the rubbery delights of the good old Speccy. A feature of ZX Spectrum games— and arguably part of the appeal— was that they often required you to be somewhat nimble on the fingers, and I should say that I found the on-screen joystick much more playable on the iPad than on the smaller iPhone screen, where it was a little fiddly if just about workable.

In principle, a big advantage of emulators of early machines such as the ZX Spectrum is that most games are effectively abandonware. In other words, if you have used such an emulator on a PC or Android device, you will be aware that there are literally thousands of titles freely downloadable off the Internet.

Unfortunately, this is not so of Spectaculator. The app does not allow you to download and run any arbitrary game snapshot. Instead, a very small number of games are provided with the initial app purchase, the most famous of which is probably Dynamite Dan. But it's fair to say that the other inclusions are not necessarily the crème de la crème. To increase the selection of games, you then buy additional packages as in-app purhcases. Again, bar occasional games of more notoriety such as Starquake and various Gremlin Graphics titles, there are a huge number of obvious omissions such as Chuckee Egg and the entire Ultimate series. I assume that part of the reason for this has to do with licensing restrictions: whereas the Internet community at large is happy to treat all ZX Spectrum games as abandonware, in reality Apple may require actually evidence of an agreement to distribute the games. But one way or another, it would be nice to see more titles available, or simply an in-app purchase that allows you to install and run any arbitrary snapshot from your Dropbox.. My advice meanwhile is to browse the list of currently available titles in the app description before purchasing.

Finally, I should mention a few interesting 'bells and whistles'. Although it is surely not the primary reason for running a ZX Spectrum emulator on your iPhone or iPad, the app will allow you to 'boot' the Spectrum to BASIC mode (either 48K or 128K models are emulated), allowing you to nostalgically recollect just how frustratingly fiddly it actually was to input even a 3-line program on the ZX Spectrum. The app has a 'turbo' mode to speed up the emulated hardware a little just in case you are planning to run some scientific simulation on a ZX Spectrum (!). You can also issue POKEs (allowing you to change an arbitrary memory location and hence patch the running program for infinite lives etc). And the emulator can be run not only in black/white or colour mode, but also with the curious default option of emulating the look of a TV screen by adding the familiar horizontal brightness distortions that in the 1980s served to remind you you couldn't afford a monitor. Luckily, after the nostalgia wears off, you can disable this feature.

Starquake and Dynamite Dan in action
Puzzle (other)
Attention span: 
In-app purchases: