Windows Phone 7 has a Spectrum emulator, ZX Mobile, and it has a touch screen Spectrum game.
The game is not new, in fact it’s more than 20 years old, but it’s been updated courtesy of the original author, Alvaro Mateos, and published on the Windows Phone along with two other games he produced for the Spectrum back in the 1980s.
There are of course, many ZX Spectrum games available to play on touch screen phones and tablets. However, to the best of my knowledge these are all straight-up ports of games with an emulated control system.
None, as far as I’m aware, do what Alvaro Mateos has done under the publisher name of ‘hi-score‘ with West Bank and restructured the control system so the game operates as properly touch screen rather than with an emulated joystick or keyboard, which is why I believe it is the first genuine touch screen ZX Spectrum game. I could be wrong, but that would render this entire post pretty pointless. So let’s just assume I’m right and get on with it, shall we?
Now obviously this wouldn’t be appropriate for all, or even many, Spectrum games. Furthermore West Bank is simple enough to comfortably translate the controls to touch screen. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see some innovative thinking in how old games can be neatly updated for modern hardware without losing anything in translation.
The emulator that the game runs on is called ZX Mobile, and creates a sort of ‘skin’ that shows what a real handheld Spectrum could look like if it was made back in the 1980s. It’s the sort of thing that if I was a millionaire I’d order a bespoke version of it looks that cool.
The screen runs across the top half of the ‘handheld’ while underneath a selection of buttons in the style of the old rubber keyboard are shown, limited to only the ones needed to play the game, freeing up space and making playing the game easier. The ‘body’ of the ‘handheld’ as shown in the emulator has the same black plastic sheen as a real Spectrum and the three colour strip that crosses the corner make it look authentically Spectrum-like.
In a touch of genius, the emulator also has the option of emulating the actual loading process of the Spectrum, allowing you to listen to the legendary screech of a loading Spectrum and even giving you the option to force it to crash, allowing a generation of gamers to relive the tedium and frustration of waiting ages for a game to load only to find it crash right at the end.
The attention to detail that ZX Mobile provides is really outstanding for a mobile application and is obviously a labour of love by the author. It also provides a base from which more games can be emulated in the future.
Enough about the emulator, what about the games?
West Bank, which is based on an arcade game called Bank Panic!, sees you play a Sheriff protecting the local bank from robbers to allow innocent people to make deposits, carried in handy robber-friendly swag bags. Great for robbers, but confusing for you as you have to make sure you don’t accidentally shoot an innocent customer. After all, bankers are unpopular enough at the moment without shooting customers. Although even if they did they’d still probably give themselves a bonus! Am I right? Eh? Eh?
The game is hampered by a lack of clear instructions, which the author instead put on the marketplace entry for the game. This is the case for all three games in the ZX hi-score collection and severely holds them back from being simple ‘pick up and play’ games. To get the most out of them you’ll need to refer back to the marketplace entries or find the instruction manuals online, most likely at the World of Spectrum website.
Nonetheless it’s pretty easy to figure out the aim and controls of West Bank, more so than the other two games, and the touch screen controls are implemented flawlessly, ensuring the game ports over to the mobile platform perfectly. You simply touch a door, through which robbers and depositors will appear, to shoot whoever is standing in the way and tap the edge of the screen to switch between doors. Once all twelve doors have received a deposit you progress to a quick shoot out with robbers before moving to the next level.
As for the game itself, it’s not tremendously difficult but it is still very good fun. As the game progresses the speed of the robbers in drawing their guns advances, so you have to stay relatively alert to avoid being shot or shooting them before they draw their gun.
The addition of online leader boards as opposed to the high score table within the game is also a nice modernising touch and helps ensure West Bank is an enjoyable mobile gaming experience that should appeal beyond the narrow confines of the retro gaming community on Windows Phone 7.
Of the other two games, sadly neither have the consistency and quality that West Bank does, but nor are they completely without merit.
Rocco is essentially a play on Rocky, literally so – the name had to be changed for reasons of copyright. It’s a basic boxing sim, as you fight your way past a number of opponents to become champion of the world or whatever.
You get four buttons to press and these control your attack and defence for your left and right hand. It’s confusing at first figuring out how to defend properly, without which you’ll struggle to get much past the first fight.
It’s enjoyable enough, but it’s a struggle to work out the balance between attack and defence and it just feels like a matter of time until your energy drains away and you’re knocked down.
However, the biggest negative is the lack of a save state, which is especially frustrating when you’re playing on a mobile that could receive a call at any time. This is something that affects all games and along with the lack of clear instructions are the two most critical issues with the package.
The final game in the ZX hi-score collection is called Capitan Sevilla. It’s a humorous platformer and is clearly a more complex game than West Bank or Rocco. The graphics are entirely in blue and black monochrome to enable greater complexity and clarity in the graphics but once again without instructions it’s difficult to work out what you’re supposed to do.
You play a sausage delivery man called Mariano Lopez who turns into a superhero called Capitan Sevilla whenever he eats a sausage. Don’t panic though, it’s intentionally nonsensical. Your mission is to fight the villainous Professor Torrebruno and his minions, eating as many sausages as possible to help you along the way.
It’s a standard non-scrolling platformer and each screen has numerous baddies you have to avoid touching or face death or injury depending on whether you’re in your nerdy everyday form or buff superhero form. Whether it’s the small phone screen or my inferior hand-eye co-ordination I don’t know, but I found myself constantly misjudging the jumps, which are painfully slow, and dying constantly.
I get the feeling when playing Capitan Sevilla that there’s a really enjoyable platformer trying to get out, but of the three games on ZX hi-score collection it’s got the longest set of instructions and the game is quite difficult to play without knowing the full range of sausage-based superpowers you have access to.
There is obviously a fanbase out there for Capitan Sevilla as there is a PC remake available online, but it’s hard to persevere with even as the appealing humour sets it apart from other Spectrum platformers.
What next for ZX Mobile?
While the iPhone has a well established Spectrum emulation scene, with numerous classics and modern releases available, the Windows Phone has a limited scene for Spectrum emulation, limited to the ZX hi-score collection and Manic Miner.
Despite this, there is the possibility with the existence of the ZX Mobile emulator to start porting other games over. While the classics might have copyright issues there are tonnes of modern homebrew titles of the last ten years that could feasibly ported over to the Windows Phone platform with permission from the authors.
The ZX hi-score collection is by no means a perfect compilation and relies on West Bank as it’s biggest selling point, which is worth the price tag alone. While the addition of save states and instructions would improve the games across the board frankly for 99p you still get three full games for your money.
Perhaps most exciting is the opportunity it’s very presence gives to get more Spectrum games on the Windows Phone, particularly if Alvaro Mateos can find some more games to take advantage of today’s smartphones’ touch screen capabilities.