(image from official ZX Recreated website: https://sinclair.recreatedzxspectrum.com/)
Even as a dyed-in-the-wool C64 owner, I had to admit that the Spectrum – with its iconic shape, rainbow stripe and rubber keys – had a way cooler design. Whichever way you cut it, the functional beige breadbin Commodore was never going to win any design awards.
So when I read about the Recreated ZX Spectrum I was intrigued. Promoted as a Bluetooth keyboard for modern tablets designed to look like a full sized reproduction of the Spectrum, it had promise. The fact that veteran games company Elite was behind it was also promising – who better to understand what the Spectrum meant to the retrogaming community than one of its key game development companies from the 80s? Here at last was my chance to own a “Spectrum”, without feeling as if I’d betrayed my beloved C64.
Then came the price announcement: £99.95. Ouch. Way more than I was prepared to pay for the nostalgia blast and more expensive than buying a real Spectrum at the time. Still, I kept an eye on it, and when the price dropped to just under £30, I put my family on notice that it might be something for Father Christmas to stuff in his sack.
Father Christmas duly delivered and, having had a fair amount of time now to try it out, I can report that the Recreated Spectrum essentially consists of two bits. The first is the actual Bluetooth keyboard, compatible with modern devices. The second is an app that allows you to play a number of old Spectrum games for free, along with a further selection that can be purchased via in-app purchases.
Looking at the keyboard first, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to set up. Over the years I’ve had more fights than I care to remember trying to get Bluetooth devices to talk to each other, but this paired with my iPad instantly and has worked ever since. The only slight complication was that there’s a switch used to change modes, depending on whether you want to use it as a proper keyboard or play the games. Mine was initially switched to Game mode – so when I started typing, it put some very odd characters on the screen that bore no resemblance to the letters I’d actually typed! Once I realized what I needed to do (i.e. had read the instructions!), it worked with most of the apps I use with my more standard Bluetooth keyboard.
What surprised me most was how well it actually works as an actual keyboard. Anybody who ever used a Spectrum remembers how difficult it was to type properly and I was expecting this to be the same. In fact, it’s comfortable to use and pretty responsive (with less lag than my previous Bluetooth keyboard). In short, it has the look and feel of a proper Spectrum keyboard without the problems of a real Spectrum keyboard used to create. It’s not perfect – the Spectrum didn’t have all the keys expected of a modern keyboard so various key combinations have been added to give it full functionality, and these can be tricky to remember at first. It’s also not the best keyboard for very fluent typists (and definitely not touch typists because of those different key combinations). Equally, I wouldn’t want to type up long documents, but in this sense it’s no worse than my existing Bluetooth keyboard – and that cost a lot more and looked far less interesting.
Turning to the games, there’s a decent range of titles in both the free pack and the in-app purchases. Sure, there’s nothing you can’t download for free on the internet, but if you don’t own a real Spectrum, this is the closest you are going to get to recreating that full 80s experience. It’s just a shame that the choice of games is limited. The basic app comes with around 20 or so free games, with around the same number available as in-app purchase (at 79p per game). A website gives you access to a wider array of titles but sadly (as ever), there is no SD card allowing you to add more.
There were plans to develop the app and website further, encouraging more developers to make their games compatible with the keyboard, but this never happened so the device never realised its full potential.
What’s prevented this were the inevitable legal wrangles (what is it with the Spectrum and legal disputes?!) First, some developers/copyright holders claimed they were not being paid appropriate royalties and this resulted in app being pulled from the App store for quite some time. Then there was a disagreement between Elite and one of its manufacturing/distribution partners, which saw production and further development stall. By the time all this was ironed out, interest in the product had waned and the remaining units were simply sold off at a much lower price.
This lack of care and attention can be seen in the app. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much just a legacy app – no development work, updates or new games have appeared for almost three years now. What’s there is fine, but with further development it could have been so much better. Eventually both the Apple and Android versions are going to stop working as the operating systems update, and when that happens, you’ll just be left with a novelty Bluetooth keyboard.
Given the lack of development and new content, it’s a shame the creators are still choosing to charge for the additional games (adding a further outlay of around £10 if you buy them all). As a gesture of goodwill to the retrogaming community, it would have been nice to make all the games free (although in fairness, that might be tied up with the rights issue mentioned above).
The good news though, is that whilst the app does work, you can pick one of these up for about £30 – £70 less than its (rather optimistic) original RRP. At that price, it’s probably just about worth it, although I do live in fear of the day my operating system updates and the app no longer works…
[Note: since writing this review, I’ve discovered that the device is apparently compatible with the FUSE Spectrum emulator. I’ve not had chance to check it out yet, but if it is, this breaks it free from the limited number of included titles and opens up a whole new world of gaming possibilities!]