Thursday, 21 May 2020

The NEXT Generation...

It was around 39 years ago that I started using my first home computer.  We're talking of a time waaaaaay back - the web hadn't been invented, only scifi shows like Star Trek had these futuristic concepts like "video communication" and hand-held devices... There were no cellular phones, there was no sign of any 'internet' and some people still watched TV in black and white if they weren't outside the house doing something non-digital related.

In 1981 I was just 11 years old.  When my school got a couple of Apple II computers in the previous year(s), I was instantly fascinated with these machines.  My parents ended up buying me a ZX81 that year and that's where I remember the direction I wanted to take in life began.  At the time, computers were new and no, unlike today, not every home had one.  They were both 'technical' and 'confusing' for a lot of people especially given to operate a computer meant typing in BASIC commands.

My precious!

I loved games (Arcade machines had slowly started to appear here, and the Apple II's had great stuff like Apple Panic, Star blazer and Spare change) and now I had my own computer - I realized I could write my own!  I think there is a hint there as to why I wanted to learn how to program one...

There was no huge video game industry present at the time.  The huge mobile, console and online gaming culture we have today just didn't exist.  It's hard to believe how things have changed since the 1980's, but its also really fascinating at the same time just to look back and recall the things we now take for granted.

Get a move on, Kev...

So - lets zip to a couple of years later - I wanted a Spectrum, and my parents made a deal with me that I had to earn half the money to pay for it myself through lawn mowing and other jobs.  After a lot of after school and weekend work,  I did get the ZX Spectrum around 1983. (though my mother tells me that they paid a 'little more than just half' - lol!)

This machine was the game changer, not just for me, but globally.  It inspired a huge following, with immense amounts of games developed for it and a massive amount of software listings being available to type in yourself from books and magazines.  Kids were getting jobs working in what was a virgin games industry , and that was my (unachieved) dream.

ZX Spectrum with an upgraded keyboard - This was my desk in 1988

While I've obviously moved forward over the years with PC's, mobile devices and digital media - I've still kept (aka hoarded) a lot of this stuff as I've grown up. Like any memorabilia, fond times sitting in a darkened room at night typing in code and drawing pixel artwork all come flooding back whenever I have them sitting next to me...

What is NEXT?

In 2017 a team of very passionate people decided to run a kick-starter campaign to develop a brand new version of the ZX Spectrum - the machine that had changed everything for me.  It was called the ZX Spectrum Next

Given my fondness for my childhood memories, the chance to relive them with modern technology was extremely tempting.  This was the second time I'd ever pledged on kick-starter (the first was a retro documentary film called "From Bedrooms to Billions").  

While kick-starter projects do not guarantee that the investment will eventuate a result, I wasn't actually worried at all. For a start, there was an actual demonstration video of early hardware working, and you could tell that this was obviously extremely personal to all involved. There was an option to pledge for the machine as a board that would fit into an original ZX Spectrum case, but there was also the option to pledge for a model with a newly designed keyboard and case.  A complete new Spectrum? I was sold - please take my money (around NZ$350-ish)

Where is my Speccy!?

Like a lot of kick-starter's, the delivery deadline had passed without the product being released and delays crept in.  However, this was for the cased version - the boards had been delivered on time, and I remember wondering if I should have pledged for that as well.  The boards did prove that the machine existed, but the cased version was still being developed and appeared to be having delays and issues.

2017 was over, 2018 had passed and 2019 was also mostly over - but at the very start of 2020, it was finished, shipped and delivered!  Although it had taken a while, the team did a great job keeping people informed of the mishaps, delays and where it was going so I had not been phased by the somewhat longer wait.

One very professional looking product

So it arrived at work, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was a product shipped from a large production company and not a team of extremely passionate people doing this in their own time.  The production and presentation quality was impressive.

The case was professionally manufactured and looked very slick.  The best part is that it was designed by the late, great Rick Dickinson - the industrial designer behind all of the Sinclair machines since the very early 1980's.  Unfortunately Rick died before the machine was finished, but you can see the love he put into making this retain the same feel and look that made Sinclair computers recognizable.

It wasn't all sunshine and roses...

The box looked fantastic - solidly constructed to last, with clean blues and blacks...  However upon opening mine in the office to show my coworkers, a handful of keys had fallen off as the box had suffered a little in transit on its way from Europe to New Zealand.  You can imagine, after 3 years, this was a kick in the gut. 

A couple of days later I made contact with the team and - kapow - the replacement parts were winging their way back to New Zealand a day or two later.  This fast response, as well as providing instructions to help replace them, is a true testament to the team behind this project.

Instructions?  Who reads instructions?!  (Eh, me...)

And viole!  Just like new!

The machine's back in action.

That's it - and now it was time to sit and see if this really was going to re-stoke the nostalgic fire.  Here's a few additional pics because, well, why not...

The new manual fits well next to its predecessors 

Yes, yes I did fall in love all over again...

Officially branded, with fresh new font face

That darn delay-incurring keyboard... But well worth the delay in the end

55" sized Manic Miner, anyone?

Another piece of eye candy for the collection?

No.  Unlike my other machines which spend more time being 'looked at' and kept safely in boxes, the Next I have kept out and actually been putting to use.  In fact, its had the opposite effect on my 'box' storage as I've started to collate my programming books and look at my magazine collection for inspiration.

Be inspired - more by the fact I've hoarded away so many books!

It really was back - that same excitement I'd had when I was 13.  My goal had always been that when the machine arrived I would kick back in and start game programming. As an educator (I've been teaching 3D software, art and technical topics for almost 16-17 years now) I was excited by the prospect of not only programming, but sharing with the passionate community that has grown from this kick-starter...

Way easier to code in front of a VGA screen then from my lap in front of a TV

At the time of posting this on the blog, I have written 4 games already but I'll talk a little more about that in future upcoming blog posts...  Right now  I have a game to finish...  This one, in fact... 

Anyway, until NEXT time...


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