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Load ZX Spectrum Games In Seconds

This is final part of my mini-series on ZX Spectrum modifications. Part OnePart Two

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…

OTLA Main Interface
OTLA Main Interface

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)

Select your Speccy File
Select your Speccy File

3b. The next screen scares the Miner Willies out of me. No idea, just click ‘OK’.

Errrr...
Errrr…

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

Published inVintage Tech

5 Comments

  1. It’s awesome that you’ve gone to such great lengths to resurrect such a worthy machine, but, I can’t help feeling you’ve put in the effort for little reason other than ‘because you can’.

    I can get the same experience, if not better, by connecting an Android device to a TV over HDMI and using a bluetooth gamepad/joystick/keyboard. In my case I have a little JXD handheld with built-in gamepad and Treasure Island Dizzy works amazingly well with the Marvin emulator both as a handheld experience and on the big screen.

    I guess the reality is that I’d love to have the floorspace and the time for a proper nostalgia trip but I’m very happy to settle for what I’ve got.

    • PJ PJ

      Hi Hayden!

      I find gaming on an original machine to be a much more fulfilling experience than using emulators, otherwise I never would have got past using Fuse or Spectaculator (which I still do use for a quick fix). I enjoy the feel of the original keys and knowing it’s the original hardware. Is this logical? Probably not; I’m sentimental about these things and unashamedly so. 🙂

      Mind you, it’s great that Amstrad have been so co-operative with the ZX Spectrum fan base and allowing use of the BIOSes, etc.

  2. Garry Richardson Garry Richardson

    Hi,

    Great article!

    I am looking to pick up a 48k speccy and already have a few nostalgic games purchased. My dilemma was around the loading as I no longer own a cassette player!

    I don’t suppose you fancy helping a fellow retro gamer out and would be willing to share the wav files you have created to save me the bother of converting?!!

    • PJ PJ

      Hi Garry,

      A very quick and easy way to create WAV files is to download the TZX files from World of Spectrum and then use tzx2wav to convert them instantly. You can find it on the Utilities page. Also, if you have an iPhone, check out Speccy Player, which downloads direct from WoS and converts to WAV on-the-fly. That’s now my default system.

      • Garry Garry

        Thanks very much for the info, will give it a go when my Spectrum turns up!

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