Rubber Soul: rediscovering the past with Raspberry Pi

By Lucy Hattersley. Posted

We have an interesting relationship with nostalgia here at The MagPi magazine. We like to stay close friends with it, but don’t move in with it and make ourselves at home. In case it gets the wrong idea.
Which is to say: while we keep one hand firmly on our retro joysticks, enjoying and loving the past, we have another hand pointing directly at the future and are saying, “Look! That’s where we belong.”

This makes sense. Raspberry Pi is ideal for rediscovering retro classics; its modern processor is capable of faithfully emulating just about every beloved computer of our generation. And like many computer geeks of our generation, we loved many different 8- and 16-bit computers.

My beloved computer of this month is the ZX Spectrum. Which is - and I can barely believe I’m saying this - 40 years old this April.

I mean, I know this must be true. It had ‘© 1982 Sinclair Research’ on the screen every time I looked at it. But it can’t be 40 years, can it!?

I first got a ZX Spectrum around 1984. A wonderful year (despite its infamous book namesake). I fell in love with prodding the rubber buttons and making things move around my small black and white TV screen. The BASIC programming language was - in retrospect - absolutely basic. And the gulf between BASIC and Z80 machine code was depressingly huge.

And there’s no getting away from the fact that computers were sold as toys, which meant they became heavily gendered. The Spectrum was pitched at boys and let’s not forget the cliquey club with “no smelly girls in our treehouse.” Thank goodness those days are over.

Still, I stuck with my beloved ZX Spectrum. Even though its keys were squidgy and each button had four or five confusing commands printed on it. And the Spectrum broke so often that the factory, at one point, was rumoured to have stopped taking returns (because there physically wasn’t enough space to store them). Mine broke five times before my Dad bought me a Commodore 64 out of frustration.

Honour the past

We’ve honoured the ZX Spectrum many, many times in The MagPi (and will continue to do so in the future). Two years ago, the ZX Spectrum Next project produced a modern version of the classic computer. I bought one and I love it. It uses a Raspberry Pi Zero inside to provide sound support, enabling users to load tapes with sound, screeches, and all. Meanwhile, a modern FPGA (field-programmable gate array) reproduces the Z80 chip exactly.

If you’ve ever loved the ZX Spectrum, I wholeheartedly recommend you read (Wireframe editor) Ryan Lambie’s wonderful homage to Sinclair computing and the ZX Spectrum. 

Nostalgia has its place, and I defy any Spectrum fan to hear the loading screech and not have their heart melt. But Raspberry Pi and Raspberry Pi Pico are ultra-modern computer platforms remaking the modern computing landscape. As Eben says, “the future of computers is only $4 away”. That’s the important thing!

From The MagPi store