There has been a recent increase in modern retro consoles, particularly of the handheld variety, reproducing retro hardware with modern technology, or (in some cases) using a software emulator on a cheap generic mini computer.
Emulating machines on existing handhelds has been possible for a long while, and is far easier than most people think. At SFEO, we have thrown together our own list of systems on which you can play your beloved Spectrum, without dropping a load of cash or waiting an age for an appropriate system to be released.
So, without further ado, and in no particular order…
Smartphones – Android and iOS
We’ll start with the most obvious mobile solution, simply because there is a surprising lack of choice. If you are on an Android device – be it phone, phablet, tablet, e-book reader, smart TV, (snip! Ed. ) or any other gadget that now claims to be smart, there’s no point looking any further than Marvin – one of the oldest, and certainly the most popular and best-supported emulator for the platform. You can even connect a PS4 controller over bluetooth. If you really don’t like Marvin, honourary mentions go to Spectaculator (discussed below) and USP.
If you are on an iOS device – be it an iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini, iPad Pro (SNIP! Ed.) then the choices are even more limited, give Apple’s insistence that their platforms don’t run interpreted code. Simply put, the only way to run snapshot files or load TZX images is to crack your device. That said, several games have been ported over, and are completely faithful to the original, and have even been jigged with so that your touchscreen experience isn’t so frustrating.
The above-mentioned Spectaculator is the biggest player here, coming with a download pack of a few games, and others provided as paid-for add-ons (yes, if you have an Apple, you have money to burn). It even runs BASIC, but you won’t trick it into loading any games! Elite (makers of the Recreated Spectrum bluetooth keyboard) also brought out an app, primarily to work alongside their keyboard, but since they abandoned it very quickly, and it’s not very good, we’re not going to link to them. One last app you should check out is not an app at all, but a website built especially for emulating the Speccy on an iPad – iSpeccy. It’s a work in progress, but has definitely got potential.
The GPD XD is a handheld games console designed for gaming. Pitched at the serious gamer who plays at every opportunity it is light, tough and has an impressive 9 hour battery life. Although built around Android, it has been heavily customised, and it does provide you with real controls, rather than a touchscreen our clunky bluetooth peripherals.
The upside is that it’s not just the Speccy you can take on your travels, but (as with the rest of this list) you can even play games from inferior systems, if the awesomeness overwhelms you. As dedicated retro console go, it’s as good as any, handheld or not.
The downside is the XD is – by quite some way – one of the most expensive options this list – setting you back up to £200. Whether you want to sacrifice this extra cash for the convenience of a pre-configured console is your call, but it’s worth reading on to make sure…
The main reason for including it is purely the different shape of the device – if the XD is shaped like a Nintendo DS, this is more like a PSP.
The console has recently been superseded by the Blaze Tab, which has received some good reviews (and is a more reasonable price), so it may mean you can find second hand versions of the 7800b cheaper, or you may wish to check that out.
The GP32 from now-defunct GamePark is an oldie but a goodie. Hailed at the time of its release in 2001 for its open-architecture and revolutionary software distribution (downloads, when cartridges ruled the roost), it was hoped that it would shake up the stagnant mobile gaming scene that Nintendo had been untouched in for a decade.
Sadly, it did not crack the commercial market, but become the poster-child of the homebrew scene, and dozens of high-quality titles and ports were made.
Getting hold of one is fairly straightforward. Buy It Now’s on eBay tend to be a bit high, but a bit of patience will see you win one with a load of accessories for around £40. Just bear in mind that this is still old tech (nearly half as old as our beloved Speccy!) and may require maintenance of its own, not to mention the obsolete SMC card storage.
PlayStation Portable (PSP)
Now we move on to the consoles that are – shall we say – a little more restricted. The previous three devices were all built with hacking in mind, but Sony’s handheld debut from 2004/5 most certainly wasn’t.
As with every major commercial system, the manufacturer did its best to lock the system down to squeeze every last cent out of it, and as with every major commercial system, a loop hole was found and mercilessly exploited. It’s beyond our remit to tell you how to “softmod your PlayStation Portable” but certain Google searches will have you on the right track (WikiHow is a good place to check).
Once you have your modded PSP, you can put all manner of software on it, possibly even PSP games! For Speccy emulation, the undoubted queen of the scene is FUSE – a piece of software that has seen some headlines recently for an unrelated matter. EmuTopia and The ISO Zone both provide ready-to-run builds, and if you are coming straight the back of a softmod process, you should be right at home installing them.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the PSP is cheaper than the GP32, although when you think how many millions more were sold, and the attention span of those that would have bought each when they were contemporary, it might not be so surprising. A careful trawl through eBay or Gumtree should find you a PSP-1000 for around £35, possibly with some accessories as well, or a PSP-3000 for around £50-60.
The last option we’re going to cover is also the most popular – the Nintendo DS Family and the newer Nintendo 3DS family. The reason for the popularity is the use of the lower screen for the Spectrum keyboard or instructions, while using the top screen for playing, combined with Nintendo’s legendary quality hardware, relative abundance of consoles (and hence low prices) and the usual options for playing other systems through emulation and large catalogue of native games.
The main difference between the DS and the DSi was the lack of a Gameboy Advance slot, and this shouldn’t affect your usage. Obviously, the newer models will have better battery life and be more powerful, but probably won’t affect emulation so much.
By far the best emulator for the platform is ZXDS, which is compatible with all models and can be used with the standard R4 homebrew card family. You will need to check which card you need for your particular model of DS, as they aren’t all compatible with each other. It should set you back £20-30 – probably as much as the console itself – but is well worth getting and has resale value. Once you have it up and running, the emulator will let you map joysticks and keypress to the console buttons, allowing you to have your own custom controls for each game. Once you’re done, just close the console, slip it in your pocket and be on your way.
For us, this is the clear winner in terms of cost, usability, reliability and customisation, only slightly let down by the confusing array of models.
Note that there are loads of other systems or emulators out there, this was just an overview of some of the best, most popular or cheapest. Hopefully it’s given you the taste to try it yourself!
We hope you enjoyed this anti-Vega handheld Speccy lolfest!