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Finally, “Paperboy” and “Airwolf” Maker Brings 8-bit Games to iPhone, iPad

The ZX Spectrum Elite App, from the company that kicked off the 1980’s home computer revolution, reinvigorates the 8-bit games rage for the Apple generation.

Airwolf

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Americans might not immediately recall the wildly popular U.K. computer, the ZX Spectrum. But anyone over the age of, say, 30 knows the impact the machine had on the 1980’s home computer revolution. It was crucial in the early gaming market. And Sinclair Research pioneered the home gaming system trend later popularized in the States by Atari and Commodore 64. Now the golden age of gaming is coming back as a retro games app on the iPhone.

Elite Systems started making games in 1984 for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, 8-bit Atari units, and Commodore 64. They’re the ones who helped cause the crippling finger pain you suffered as a kid as you battered away at crappy rubber keypads or violently jerked un-ergonomic joysticks. They’re the chaps behind Paperboy, 1942, Airwolf, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Kokotoni Wilf, Turbo Esprit, and Saboteur.

spectrum-app

Taking advantage of the newly-relaxed regulations about third-party layers in apps in the Apple App Store, Elite’s just in the process of releasing an app called “ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection (Vol. #1),” which lets you play 25-year-old gaming classics on your shiny new iPhone (and iPad). The brain can’t quite cope with the glee of it all, can it? All those memories from childhood flooding back, and the sheer geeky joy of thinking that the simple logo for the iPhone app takes up more storage space than an entire computer game did, complete with soundtrack and graphics, all those years ago.

Elite has taken all due precautions with this endeavor to ensure it’s all legit. They have an official license for the Spectrum ROM, they’re attacking their own stable of IP first and “officially licenced” games, and they’ve crafted the app so the game occupies part of the phone’s touchscreen while game-specific controls take up the other segment. They’ve even replicated the reedy monotone output of the Spectrum’s speaker. The game experience should be pretty authentic, right down to the thumb pain of playing–this time driven by swiping at a touchscreen–and it’ll likely sell well (knowing the iPhone’s sale demographic).

But there’s a secret weapon in the company’s business plan, that deserves a hat-tip for quick thinking. The IP for many of the tens of thousands of Spectrum games is still someone’s property in many cases. So Elite’s making their new iPhone engine available to these people so that they can re-monetize the IP and launch the games for sale on the iPhone. MD Steve Wilcox notes in the press release that the idea is to get these old games available “by bundling them with future volumes, offering them as in-app purchases or by commissioning us [Elite] to create bespoke bundles which they can then publish themselves.”

The app is currently awaiting Apple approval, after a bug fix, Elite tells us, and when it’s approved they’ll reveal exactly what 8-bit game wonders will come in the package. Steve Wilcox is also promising that Elite has “extensive” future plans for this sort of app.

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The iPhone and iPad are touted as the potential “saviors” of many industries, but who’d’ve predicted they could bring back to life an entire dead industry?

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.

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