Part Three: Loading, Please Wait…
Finally, having got my Speccy looking good and displaying a beautiful picture, I now need to make the thing usable. Life’s a bit faster than it was in 1982 and waiting five minutes for a single game to load is completely at odds with the ADHD dynamic of the 2010s. I simply don’t have the time. There might be a new tweet to read or a Facebook or something. Futhermore, the tapes are getting old and tape players rarer and more troublesome. It’s a technology with a finite lifespan and it’s well past its prime.
Seriously though, if you can speed things up why wouldn’t you? Actually, there’s something calming about listening to the white-noise of a Spectrum loading routine but lets assume we’re impatient.
If you’ve got no time and some money, stop reading this right now and hunt out the DivIDE interface (if you can still find one). Originally intended as a way of hooking up an IDE hard disk to the Spectrum, it’s now been married up with a Compact Flash IDE interface and the result is a small circuit board that can store pretty much ever program released with near-instant load times.
Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t want proprietary stuff sticking out the back of my Speccy, I’m going for as-authentic-as-possible. So, here’s the solution I found.
A rather clever fellow who seems to be reluctant to share his name (or my Google skills are sadly lacking) has produced a utility by the name of Project O. T. L. A., which can be freely downloaded from http://code.google.com/p/otla/. It takes common emulator file formats for a number of 8-bit machines, the Speccy and ZX81 among them, and produces WAV files that load in super-quick time.
As it turns out, the ZX Spectrum can natively support much higher load rates that the default. However, it’s normal baud rate, around 1200bps, was chosen to balance speed against the reliability and audio quality of cassette tape. In our digital-playback era, the hiss and crackle of tape, not to mention stretch and crease, are a thing of the past. So, OTLA allows you to generate a audio file that, via a header programme, vastly speeds up the load process to 12,000 baud. I can now load Hungry Horace in 13 seconds. Don’t believe me?
The utility is for Windows but works great under wine on Mac OS X (and therefore, I’m guessing, Linux). It’s not exactly the most intuitive utility but once figured out is quite straightforward. Here’s what I wish someone had said to me…
1. Fire up the app and select ‘Sinclair ZX Spectrum’ as your target platform
2. Select the model you want (48/128/+2a)
3. Click ‘Add Blocks’
3a. Choose a file – most popular Spectrum formats are supported (Z80, TAP, TZX, SNA etc)
3b. The next screen scares the Miner Willies out of me. No idea, just click ‘OK’.
4. Finally click ‘SBB => WAV’ or any other suitable option (yes, MP3 really works!).
A WAV file will be spat out to your chosen output directory. By default this is ‘output’ under the main program directory.
Once you’ve got a few WAV files ready to go, play them back into the Speccy using either a computer (my Speccy lives next to my iMac, so I just connect an audio cable between the two) or any MP3 player. BOOM! Ultra-fast loading Speccy games. I use an old iPod Nano to store a whole library of them so the old tape deck has found it’s rightful place in the bin.
OTLA isn’t the most reliable system; I’ve had a few files that refuse to convert, but on the whole it makes genuine gaming so much more convenient. A doff of my cap to its mysterious author!
That’s the end of my little refurbishment series so let’s recap.
- A beautiful composite video output
- A refurbished box, keyboard and power supply
- A games console that boots instantly and loads games in under 30 seconds
- No more tape recorder
Not bad for 1982 and still relevant in 2013. Why? In this world of over-produced games with endless interstitials and style over substance, getting back to a platform where all that mattered was the gameplay teaches us something about the joy of simplicity and what can be achieved by constraint. My 12-year-old son gets a real kick out of Manic Miner, just as much as many of his Xbox games. Yet, Manic Miner was the result of one person on a budget consisting mainly of petty cash for teabags.
‘Refurbed 48k ZX Spectrum’: Lot 1 in PJ’s Home for Disowned and Discarded Digital Detritus