x128 OS/2 v0.5b5- by Tim Walker

The Time Machine

Boot up TARDIS/2, OS/2's very own time machine emulator, and take a trip with me back to December 25, 1983. The location: Swindon, southern England. The UK is in the grip of its first ever wave of home computer fever. We land in a front room where a feverishly excited 11-year-old is about to open the present he's saved and waited for for months. Off comes the wrapping, and there before him is a Sanyo cassette recorder and a little black box with rubber keys and some sockets in the back. Oh, and a little rainbow across one corner.

That boy now possesses a 48k Sinclair Spectrum home computer. 8-bit, 16-colour display output, cassette storage of data and -- to the eternal derision of owners of its great arch-rival, the Commodore 64 -- a solitary monophonic internal beeper for sound, which halted the computer every time it sounded.

And yet that little black box, and the thousands of classic games written for it, changed the lives of this youngster and millions of others -- particularly in the UK and Europe -- for good. To the point where these same folk, now in their twenties and thirties and often still in computing (working on machines hundreds of times more powerful), still turn their ear to the past, where they can still hear that little black box beeping plaintively at them, its siren song calling them back for one more game of Jet Set Willy...

Stop me, stop me! I'm afraid to say that even today I am, despite sitting before a Pentium as I type this, still a Spectrum addict. And, it seems, I am not alone. The 'net is home to a plethora of Web and FTP sites, and even a whole newsgroup (comp.sys.sinclair), devoted entirely to the love and preservation of all things Sinclair, such as the Spectrum16/48/128, ZX80/81, QL and so on. (I haven't room to expand on the Internet's Spectrum fan base here, but can recommend the comp.sys.sinclair FAQ as an excellent starting point.)

An old favourite revived...

Thankfully, it's not all memories. There are Spectrum emulator programs available for all manner of modern platforms allowing you to run all those wonderful old games you thought were lost forever. The most well-known emulator for the Intel CPU is probably the DOS-based Z80 (named after the CPU which powers the Spectrum). Unfortunately, Z80 refuses to run under OS/2 -- on my system it freezes the DOS session just after loading -- so I resigned myself to booting up DOS for those quick games of Manic Miner. Then, recently, I was browsing through the comp.sys.sinclair FAQ when it drew my attention to an OS/2 Spectrum emulator, x128, ported by a Danish programmer, Thomas Ahn Kolbeck Kjær. I went straight to the home page (but it is also available at Hobbes and the OS/2 Supersite) and downloaded it...

...and the program has rarely been switched off since! In the league of my all-time favourite OS/2 apps, x128 OS/2 is already nudging up there with PMMail and Object Desktop -- and only after a few days' usage. Briefly, x128 is a PM-based Spectrum emulator which uses DIVE for the video interface. It is capable of running programs written for the original 16K and 48K Spectrum models, as well as the slightly later Spectrum 128.

As one might guess from the name, x128 requires the EMX runtime to run (the necessary files are included in the archive though). It also needs a 486DX2-66 or better, Warp 3 or 4 and DIVE and DART-compatible video and sound hardware (most modern cards fall within this category). On my machine the program loads within a few seconds, and has not crashed once; considering the intensity of my usage of the program lately, this is most impressive, and a major plus point.

Software?

The inevitable question arises at this point: how does one get the software onto the PC? For those unfamiliar with Spectrum emulators, Spectrum software is loaded from tape into an emulator via a special hardware interface, and saved as what's called a snapshot. These files, which usually have the extension .sna or .z80, can be found all over the 'net and if you have a favourite 'Speccy' game and know where to look (see the FAQ!), chances are you should be able to find it.

For those concerned about copyright, many of the original game authors have given permission for their old games to be used this way (many are still in the business, now writing games for the PC or consoles). x128 can use both .sna and .z80 snapshots -- as long as the actual files are sound they should present no problems. I've had no corrupted files to date, except for one which merely "rebooted" the Spectrum "inside" the emulator. Set up the program object to associate with .sna and .z80 files, and a double-click will take you straight into the game.

Watching the emulator in action is quite remarkable, because it's so eerily true to the "feel" of a Spectrum (GIF, 7.6k) -- sound, video, speed and all. I found snapshots of all my old faves (Manic Miner [GIF, 6.5k] and most of the Ultimate Play The Game range like Jetpac [GIF, 3.5k], Trans Am and Lunar Jetman ) and all the memories and gameplay methods came flooding back instantly. For someone who spent many hours on the Spectrum in the early 80s, playing an original Spectrum game in a window on one's OS/2 Desktop is an experience which takes some getting used to.

Quirks

It's a tribute to the author of this program that I have very few complaints with x128, and those that I do have are largely cosmetic. I still have Warp 3, so the DIVE implementation is not perfect, causing a significant slowing of the mouse pointer whilst the emulator is running. I suspect this is my system rather than the program though. Also, the pitch of the sound isn't exactly matched with how I remember the original games, but again this could just be my system, and it's a very minor point. When I recently e-mailed Thomas (he welcomes views and opinions on the program), he replied within 24 hours, revealing that future versions will include bug fixes and, best of all, drag-n-drop of files.

In fact, just before publishing, a new version was released (it can be found on the x128 home page mentioned above). As promised, it has drag-n-drop and a few other refinements.

Conclusions

If you're a former 'Speccy' owner pining for those old games, someone who already owns a non-OS/2 emulator like Z80, or a fan of retro video gaming, then x128 is an utterly essential addition to your system. It's OS/2-native, rock-solid stable, and free... and it'll give you the chance to see if you can complete all twenty levels of Manic Miner, all on your OS/2 Desktop. A word of warning, though -- some of these games can be fiendishly addictive, which goes to show you what a clever programmer can achieve with an 8-bit black box with rubber keys and 48K RAM.

And a little rainbow across one corner.


 * x128 OS/2 v0.5b5
by Thomas Ahn Kolbeck Kjær
download from the OS/2 Supersite (ZIP, 250k)
Registration: Freeware
Tim Walker is a 24-year-old non-programmer, living near London, UK, working in electronic publishing and running Warp at home... which marks him out as a pretty unusual OS/2 user. He finally got around to creating a Penguin Cafe Orchestra home page, except he doesn't have much time to update it.

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