Page last updated at 09:40 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 10:40 UK

Keeping the joystick dream alive

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News


Old joysticks, new tricks: Ellie Gibson meets Paul Qureshi and his collection of home-hacked games controllers

The past is very present when you use a computer.

This might be thanks to Moore's Law which sets a punishing rate of change for the entire hi-tech industry.

Develop an affection for a program or a chunk of hardware and in weeks you can fall behind the development curve and find yourself arguing the merits of such an antique to increasingly sceptical listeners.

But it might also be because, when it comes to home computers, they still feel pretty new.

ZX Spectrum, Copyright: Bill Bertram
Enthusiasts still improve ZX Spectrum software and write new games

In the UK particular affection is reserved among those of a certain age for the first wave of computers that washed up in homes.

Computer classics

The Sinclair ZX80, 81 and Spectrum, Commodore's Vic 20, C64 and Pet, the BBC Micro and many more are guaranteed to elicit coos of appreciation and fond memories whenever they crop up in conversation.

"They were the first ones you could afford and play games on," said Simon Ullyatt, founder of Cronosoft - a company that publishes new games for the old machines.

Established in 2002, Cronosoft has published 51 new games for old machines, each one the work of a programmer who has never lost their passion for that older hardware.

Jonathan Cauldwell is one of the regular creators of games sold via Cronosoft. Aged 37, he specialises in games for the ZX Spectrum and turns out three or four novel titles a year.

Mr Cauldwell said he started out writing Spectrum games for the cover tapes that used to be given away with computer magazines. The games, which include Kuiper Pursuit, Banger Management and many others are written in Z80 assembler code and will run on either a PC-based emulator or the original hardware.

'Sophisticated' emulators

"Some of the hobbyists prefer the older equipment itself," he said.

"There are ways to convert PC files to the real media and back again."

TV showing Pac Man turned on its side
Placing a TV on its side helps recreate the original arcade machines

He said that he too regularly fires up his old Spectrum but adds that the emulators produced for PCs, Macs and other machines are now so good that the experience is very similar to the original machine. Some involve installing a program while others are web-based.

"The emulators are extraordinarily sophisticated," he said.

"The timings are accurate, the hardware emulation is accurate," he said. "On the really good ones you cannot find anything wrong with them at all."

Despite having been programming for the Spectrum for upwards of 20 years, Mr Cauldwell can still surprise himself by finding novel ways to get something working.

"There's a certain amount of satisfaction to be had in finding a new work-around for a particular problem in a game," he said.

Reviving joysticks

Mr Cauldwell also likes the purity of programming games for the Spectrum. Modern games, he said, were very much like interactive movies. By contrast the appeal of a game made for the Spectrum or another machine of that ilk was in its gameplay, not the eye-popping graphics.

For some, emulation can only take you so far.

Paul Qureshi in front of his hacked Pac Man console circuit board
Paul Qureshi tinkers with circuit boards and game controllers

For electronics whiz Paul Qureshi, a PC keyboard lacks the authentic feel of that original equipment. His interest in tinkering and circuit boards also dates from his early experiences with those first home computers.

"You had to understand the electronics to get the most out of the system," he said. "It was natural to get into it."

Mr Qureshi said he enjoyed playing emulator games like Air Gallet and Final Flight on a PC, but modern joysticks lacked that certain special something. Using one to control an old game felt like a bit of a kludge, it got in the way of the experience.

"I wanted to connect up and use the original controllers," he said.

Rewiring connectors

That idea started him on his project of creating a "black box" studded with sockets and ports that a huge variety of controllers can be plugged into to play the older games as they were intended.

The tricky part of making the black box was not the outputs from the old controllers. Most of them, said Mr Qureshi, were quite straightforward. The stumbling block was the connection from black box to PC.

"The USB side was tricky," he said. "There's a lot of documentation for it but when it comes to doing it practically you find out very quickly there are a lot of quirks to it."

Despite this, he has finished the first black box and has made the schematics available on the web for all to see and use. The next step, he said, would be the creation of a kit of parts and instructions that people could buy to build their own.

Pac Man circuit board
Rewiring old circuit boards can make them work with modern equipment

For Simon Ullyatt of Cronosoft, the intimacy and control that the older machines made possible has given rise to their longevity.

Most of the games produced at the time were utterly original - often, he claimed, the creation of one person.

"Now," he said, "it is rare now to hear of anyone writing games by themselves."

Machines' allure

But that individuality did give rise to an era of startling creativity.

A creativity made possible by the fact that back then one person could write a game themselves and have it look just as good as one produced by the professionals. In fact, if they knew the machine well enough, they could do it better and discover a way to do it that a pro had missed.

"You had to know the machine inside out to get the best out of it," he said.

Given that it is easy to understand the allure of those the older machines. After all who wouldn't want to spend time with hardware that put all that power at your fingertips, that was only limited by what you could think up?

BBC video journalist Andrew Webb contributed to this report.

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