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The Sinclair Vega

The Sinclair Vega, for those of you had do not know, is a modern, commercial take on the classic ZX Spectrum. The idea was to produce a small handheld device that you could connect up to your television and just play all of those memorable games from your childhood. It could also help introduce the Spectrum to a whole new set of fans.

The project began on kickstarter and was very quickly funded. Backers got the units from the first batch of 1000, and sadly I missed out on those.

The Hardware

The Vega itself is quite small measuring 13.5cm x 8.5cm and less than 2cm deep and sits in the hands quite well. It is styled like the original 48k rubber keyed model, but obviously has less buttons. The lack of a full keyboard has implications that we shall cover later.

On the left is a joypad, in the middle a reset button and on the right are 8 control buttons. Four large ones and four smaller ones. Styled like the rubber keys of the original, the four larger ones are used for selecting, firing and options 1 and 2. The smaller buttons are used for in-game options as well as SD card reading and mapped buttons for various games. On the back there is a slot for a Micro SD card so you can load games of your choosing.

A mass of cables exits the back of the unit ending in composite video, left and right audio and a USB plug used for power. Once plugged in, it starts up on its own and after a logo and the option to see the first 1000 backers, we get to see the list of games.

The unit is shipped with what it claims to be 1000 classic games but to be honest, some of them are a bit obscure. You can move through the games using the up and down joypad buttons, or to move through the alphabet, using the left and right joypad buttons.

The Games

There are some older gems in there from Artic, DK Tronics, Psion and Ultimate Play The Game as well as some newer games from the last few years like Sunbucket, El Stompo and Sgt Helmet zero. The list initially shows just the arcade games, to switch to the adventure list, you press the B button.

Pressing the select button will take you to the game where you can usually begin playing straight away. The games have been pre-set to use the joypad and I liked how some of them ‘felt’ using this control mechanism. Some games were actually easier to play, although the ones requiring four directions, for example Jetpac, took some practice to get right.

One major complaint from other owners is the video signal. Opting for the cheaper composite output rather than going for the higher quality HDMI, the signal is OK but not brilliant. On some games, for example Rex and Sabrewulf, the dot crawl was a bit bad. Maybe it was my TV, but it usually works fine with a real composite modded Spectrum.

As I understand it, using a HDMI output would have increased the price due to licensing requirements. Being expensive as it is, paying extra for a high quality picture may have reduced sales.

Playing the games is as expected, just like the real thing, and you certainly get that ”plug and play” experience.

Options

During game play pressing the M button will bring up a menu allowing you to save the game, load a previous game or exit back. Saving and loading require an SD card, more about that later.

When viewing the menu, pressing the C button will bring in the control options. This acts as a virtual keyboard but also a control option. Be careful here, by mistake I changed this and the game stopped responding to the joypad until I reset it. This virtual keyboard is also used when playing adventure games. Yes there are quite a few adventures loaded into the Vega, and it isn’t particularly suited to them.

To type a command, you have to navigate the control menu. On the right is displayed what each of the 8 buttons represent, on the left are the optionsto change those representations using the joypad. A very long and time consuming process if you want to type out long sentences. I doubt this will get much use.

More Games

Once you get fed up of the 1000 games, you can load your own using a MicroSD card. Simple copy the games you want onto it, or place them in folders to make life easier, and insert the card into the slot on the back of the unit. Power on and press the B key. The manual says the A key, but on my unit it was the B key. You are then asked which folder to scan, highlight the desired folder and press select to scan for any files the Vega recognises.

When displaying your games, the Vega will automatically place them in alphabetical order, showing each letter at a time as it does on the in-built games. A word of warning though, you have to remember the Vega has a limited number of keys to use for the games. This may be fine for shoot-em-ups or games that require joystick control or left, right and fire, but games that need specific keys will be impossible to play.

Firmware

Retro Computers have promised future firmware updates and a tool that will allow users to create map files for their games. This will hopefully mean adding and configuring your own games will become much easier, with users being able to share their custom mappings with other owners.

New firmware, when available, can be downloaded from Retro Computers website, placed on a micro SD card and used to upgrade the unit.

Conclusion

So what do I think of the Sinclair Vega? It’s nice little device that gives quick easy access to play Spectrum games without the hassle. You can pick it up and take it to any room in the house, plug it in and be playing games within seconds. It was designed as a twitch game device, something to play games if you happen to have ten minutes spare. For this, it is ideal.

The price has been called into question by many users, and the device is expensive coming in at just over £100. Many point to other similar devices like the Sega Megadrive plug and Play device that costs around a third of the price. I agree that £100 is a bit steep considering you only get a composite signal and there are many arguments for and against it.

You are of course paying for convenience. A real Spectrum, with joystick and a mass storage device such as the divIDE would cost you more than £100, and be a pain to set up every time you wanted a quick blast on Jetpac.

It still needs a bit more work in my opinion, especially around game controls and key mapping. When released there was no information about how to make your own key mappings. You can now though, get the details from Retro Computers website.

For straight plug and play gameplay, it’s actually not bad. I quite enjoyed playing some of the old games using a more modern, joypad setup. It actually improved some games for me.

Picture quality can be a bit off, but then again so was the original, and sound is really good. If you want a quick way to play Speccy games without faffing about with the real hardware, or have no option to run emulators on your television in the living room, then this is ideal. Can I recommend one? Yes if you want quick access to games as mentioned before. No if you are a hardcore fan who loves to delve into emulators or real hardware, and for whom anything new should be buried in a deep hole and forgotten about.

Also remember not all games can be played with the limited number of buttons. Your choice then.

The Vega can be purchased from the Retro Computers website. www.retro-computers.co.uk.