Today, we look back the classic era of home computing that existed alongside the dreariness of business computing and the heart-pounding noise and colour of the arcades. Were you a Spectrum owner? Did colour clash rule your life? Did you experience tape load errors, and did you ever poke when you meant to peak? Whether you had a measly 16K or the full 128K, join us for some judgement-free reminiscence about the classic, golden era of early home computers. Note that this article might make Amstrad owners feel like they’re being made fun of. It’s okay, they’re used to it.
Why we miss it: Ah, soothing…
In the 1980s, cassette tape was the most common format for games distribution on home computers. The main downside of the tape medium was that it was slow. If you were lucky, you could load a game in about five minutes. Worse case, you could be looking at fifteen minutes before you could start playing. This required a bit of planning. While waiting for a game to load, you might put the kettle on, fix a snack, or you could get started with your Maths homework. Ha, ha – we’re joking about that last one. It got worse: one tape error and you’d have to start again from scratch. On systems that couldn’t manage loading music because of technical limitations, you could hear the electronic noise that was stored on the tape. This is now called ‘dubstep’ and young people dance to it in clubs.
Let’s put this into perspective by remembering that modern systems are often even worse than vintage ones. How many times do you get ready to play something just to be told that there’s a gigantic update that needs to be downloaded and installed before you can start? First time installs on modern systems often eclipse those of typical loading times on tape based systems.
Why we miss it: Left a few things to imagination, and it was drenched with character.
The original Space Invaders, released in 1978, is actually a black and white game. European releases of the arcade cabinet used coloured plastic strips over parts of the screen to simulate a colour display. By the time home computing went mainstream, colour graphics were a minimum expectation. However, lots of colours on screen meant great demands on the memory and CPU. In the early 1980s, four, eight or maybe 16 colours were a reasonable expectation, along with some restrictions on where the colours were used. The number of pixels making up the image is another important factor in the perceived quality of graphics, more pixels offering finer details. Again, memory and CPU were a limiting factor here.
As with all aspects of the early era of home computing, the limitations fostered creativity. In the early days, the makers of games did their best to create graphics that gave a recognisable impression of what you were supposed to be looking at; at the same time, the player would usually have to use a bit of imagination. So, the amount of detail and of colour and the level smoothness of animation and scrolling all contributed to the overall quality of the game graphics. But having said that, the limitations gave the old systems character, and every computer system typically had its own distinctive look. In an interview, one designer was complimented for his commitment to ethnic diversity in his game. He explained that, actually, it hadn’t been a conscious decision on his part and that the system he was programming for, the Commodore 64, simply offered a lot of shades of brown in the palette.
When a new system came out, it often had a ‘wow factor’ due to its new graphical capabilities, and it’s difficult to describe what this was like to people who weren’t there at the time. You were, perhaps, used to seeing plain backgrounds, and now you were seeing subtle shading in the skylines for the first time. Perhaps you were seeing a photograph on screen that, for the first time, really looked like a photograph? It must have been similar to a person experiencing a colour film at the cinema for the first time or even someone getting a first taste of moving pictures. Nowadays, modern games sometimes evoke the style of so-called ‘pixel art’ for the nostalgic effect.
Why we miss it: Simpler times.
Back in the early days, computer games were still in the process of being invented. In addition, the hardware itself placed limitations on what the game could consist of. This meant that a typical early computer game involved steering something around and shooting something or bouncing something off something in some way. Of course, the player needed some sort of mechanism to determine their progress through the game. Enemies would come at you in ‘waves’ and when you destroyed one enemy, you’d get a point added to your ‘score’. Destroy an entire wave and you’d go to the next ‘level’. Don’t worry, when you went wrong, you’d usually have another chance, if you had any ‘lives’ left. Early games tended to be rock hard and terribly unforgiving, occasionally dosing the player with the sweet drug of an extra life or an end of level boss. In the case of arcade machines, the difficulty level was as high as it was to extract the maximum amount of money from the player. In the case of early home computer games, it was there because ‘content’ – as nobody called it at the time – was at a premium due to memory limitations and making you play the same bit over and over again was the best way of stretching it out.
Cynicism aside, the level of difficulty made games of this era a test of skill and a high score something to boast about with your mates. Get a good score when it was all over and you could enter your name on the high score table. Arcade units typically allowed you to enter a three letter moniker by making entry with the joystick. It was a bit annoying when home computer games made you do this, even though there was a perfectly functional keyboard available. You could put words like “BUM” in if you were feeling in the mood for wry, classy humour. It’s debatable whether life was simpler back then, but the first generation of games typically were.
Why we miss it: Friendly combat. Happy days.
“My one is better,” you’d say. “No, mine is better,” the other boy would reply. Fair enough, to outsiders, it doesn’t sound that good, but it was. “Know your enemy,” you’d whisper to yourself as you rattled off a technical titbit that you’d picked up from one of the mags. The ZX Spectrum was hampered by colour clash, but on the other hand, it had loads of software, and it was a speed demon thanks to its fast CPU. Commodore 64 owners had a lot to brag about in terms of graphics, and it sported a mighty sound system that is still the stuff of underground chiptune legend today. Amstrad owners, well… They were nice people, generally.
By the next generation, the Commodore Amiga was the king of the playground. For a time, there wasn’t much you could say to an Amiga owner, unless you had something weird and expensive like an Apple Macintosh, a high-end PC Compatible or an Acorn Archimedes. This is all starting to sound like bullying, but mostly, it was part of the playful ribbing and camaraderie of the schoolyard. We extend everything we say here to include the bunch of 40 somethings in an office who were just as bad. Basically, if you had a system of some sort, you were probably having a good time with it in the evenings, and that was all that mattered.
There was another group: the console kids. Pound for pound, home computers were left in the dust by contemporary consoles, games-only machines with tricked-out hardware. It was this specialised, souped-up hardware that moved backgrounds around and threw colourful sprites at you with alarming speed and smoothness. The games consoles had the cream of the international, headline-grabbing franchises like Sonic The Hedgehog, Street Fighter and Mario, and using one was as simple as plugging in a cartridge and turning it on. Unless it didn’t work. Then, you could try… blowing on it! And it usually worked after that.
Back then, there were a lot of systems and a lot of exclusives. That meant that you were sometimes left wondering what a game was actually like, unless you had a mate who had the system that it ran on for you to drool over and envy. There was an aspect of unfairness to playground computer rivalries. Nine times out of ten, the parents did the paying, and what you had depended on how things doing, financially, at home. It felt achingly unfair when you were a few years behind and your family didn’t understand the importance of such matters. Calculations were made: a paper round, a Saturday job and saving half of one’s dinner money for a year and you could get back into the game, as it were. Credit where it’s due, a few kids did just that.
Why we miss it: The camaraderie and the refuge from the slings and arrows of the ordinary world.
As with a lot of technological advancement, the improvements have removed some of the fun because it’s taken something out of the equation: other people. There was a time when if you wanted to ask a question about something computer related, or see something in action, you’d have to venture outside and into another building to go and see it. This was a social aspect to computing, and by ‘social’ we mean being out in the real world, within four feet of other humans.
There were various types of computer club. School ones, after school or lunchtime, were surprisingly good. Often you’d get a chance to mess around with expensive gear that you didn’t have at home. They could also be a refuge for people who didn’t excel in the academic or social hierarchies of school life. There were also privately run clubs in most towns. In the very early days, these would be concerned with computing in general. Later, when computers were more common, the clubs were typically defined by a brand of computer. You might find yourself meeting up in the upstairs room of a pub or in the back room of a community centre, with multi-adaptors draped over the backs of chairs, while various computers flashed and binged. Whatever the setting, getting together with some like-minded people to discuss a common interest was golden.
Why we miss it: Always something new to amaze our ears.
Early home computers like the original ZX Spectrum could only make a beeping sound of variable pitch. However, as often happened in that era, genius prevailed and people found out to how to quickly switch between sounds so that you could have more than one simultaneous musical note and even some clicky percussion thrown in. This led to beautiful, complex game music that is highly evocative of the era. Later machines added the capability to have three or even four notes at once, leading to even more complicated compositions.
Of course, sound was meant for laser blasts, explosions and revving engines as well as music. Here, the progression was the same; clicks, beeps and drones gradually became more sophisticated as the hardware improved. The computer that speaks to you seemed like piece of science fiction daftness, something about as likely as the flying car, until it actually happened. In the early days, programmers found ways to replay a grainy phrase of movie dialogue or even synthesize the phonetic elements of speech to make the computer talk in a robotic voice.
Things progressed and progressed, and by the early 90s, computers had a sound capability that rivalled the synthesizers of the time. By the time the PlayStation came around in 1994, the music sounded as good as a CD because it was being streamed from a CD. As with much of the progress in home systems, although the quality became perfect, something was lost in terms of character. In the early days, you would often be amazed at the inventiveness of the programmer who had found a way to coax a serviceable, recognisable, or sometimes, otherworldly sound out of primitive hardware. These days, there’s quite a scene around so-called ‘chip music’. It’s a scene that recognises the greatness of the past masters of the golden era while keeping the spirit alive with new compositions that make the most out of the limitations of the old hardware.
Why we miss it: A rewarding activity that taught us a lot.
10 PRINT “DEN OF GEEK IS COOL!”;
20 GOTO 10
Type that into an old computer. Then type RUN. Then actually run – run away as fast as you can, leaving the staff in the 1980s computer shop that you’ve time-travelled back to baffled, you legend! What we have above is an example of a small program listing. The first line tells the computer to print onto the screen the string of characters contained between the speech marks. The second line tells the computer to return to the first line and execute it again, meaning that the whole thing will go around forever. If you’re not familiar with computer programming, it might surprise you to learn that all software is made up of lists of instructions like that. Examples include the Microsoft Windows operating system, games like Counter-Strike and the web browser you’re using to read this article. Of course, those programs are much bigger and more complicated than our example above and are written in a more modern language than BASIC, the teaching language that was built into older computers.
There’s a serious point to all of this. Old computers typically presented you with a command prompt as soon as you switched them on, meaning that they were practically begging to be programmed on. A lot of people lament that fact that they lost touch with programming when they moved onto bigger, more complicated computer systems. Typing in massive games listings from books and magazines was often part of the hobby back in the day. You might even tell yourself that you were getting a free game in return for a bit of effort. You’d spend hours and hours typing the thing in, finally be able to type RUN, and when you did, something magical would happen: it wouldn’t work. As often as not, a long program would fail with an error on a first attempt, and then you’d have to do some debugging to figure out what the problem was. The best bit? You’d learn a lot about programming in the process. In fact, that is how many professional programmers got started. The serious problem is that it means that computer obsessed teenagers of the 1980s often knew more about how computers worked than modern teenagers do now. Amazing, when you think about it.
Why we miss it: Because it’s a cute little limitation.
Many early computers used an attribute system to control the use of colour on the screen. The ZX Spectrum had the most famous example of this, where it was affectionately known as ‘colour clash’. The screen was, basically, black and white, however it was possible to assign each 8×8 square of pixels with two colours from a total of sixteen. Many of the systems of the time employed a similar system because it sped up the graphics processing and saved on memory. It gave a very colourful display but with some limitations. Let’s say you’ve got a guy on screen, and he’s red. The problem starts when he stands too close to the alien, because the alien was green and part of our hero now turns green too. Things get worse – they were both standing next to something that was blue. Welcome to the wonderful world of colour clash. The Amstrad CPC was a good, successful machine. As a later machine of the 8 bit era, it had an impressive, full colour specification, 16 colours from a palette of 27, with no colour clash. Unfortunately, that computer had a CPU that was about the same power as the one in a ZX Spectrum and it turned into a total slugabed when it attempted actually move the graphics around in a game. Great for screenshots, not so great for actually playing.
Why we miss it: Don’t miss this one so much.
Piracy was a big part of the computer gaming scene in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, people would often choose the same machine as their friends so that they could copy games for free. Typically, it ranged all the way from people who did the odd bit of copying, right to people who would have a drawer full of copied software, never having bought anything in their lives. Software publishers fought back by implementing copy protection schemes on disks and tapes. These measures only prevented casual copying as groups formed to remove the protection or ‘crack’ the games, distributing these versions of the games via postal networks or online warez BBSes.
A lot of those kids who would have laughed at the idea of paying for software in the 1980s changed their tune as adults. Part of it is understanding that nice things like games cost money to produce and not wanting to feel like a leech, along with earning enough money to be able to afford games. Also, the value for money can often be better on modern games thanks to things like Steam sales, the thriving second hand market and budget indie games, particularly when taking inflation into account.
Why we miss it: It amused and sometimes amazed us.
Serious applications allowed you to create things, games made you do things, and demos didn’t do anything. Demonstration programs have probably existed as long computers have existed as the engineers had to cobble together code to test the hardware. The Amiga Boing Ball, created during the 1984 CES show, is a famous example of a demo. The demo, consisting of a bouncing, rotating ball, wowed potential customers by showing off the revolutionary graphical capabilities of the Commodore Amiga before the actual hardware was ready for release.
The demos that came out of the demo scene were created by artists and programmers who simply wanted to show off their skills along with the capabilities of the hardware. The demo scene was particularly strong in continental Europe, and the Amiga tended to be the lead platform, although every machine had at least a bit of scene. The demos would be traded, often physically, via the post and also via BBS systems. The scene itself consisted of members from around the world, so it’s also an early example of international co-operation using computers. It’s fascinating, really, because the demo scene was an art scene that produced thousands of examples of music, graphics and code, but never entered the mainstream. Most people don’t even know it existed, and there are still a healthy number of groups producing demos today.
Why we miss it: It fostered creativity and was something to be overcome.
Part of the innovation of home computers – computers that an average person could afford to own – was their stripped down nature. When poring over the spec-sheet, expensive RAM (Random Access Memory) chips were often the first casualty of the bean counters. The Sinclair ZX81 was released with 1K of memory, or 1024 bytes. That’s not bad, if you think about it. It’s over a thousand storage locations for characters or numbers between 0 and 255 or for parts of a simple program to do something with that data. Imagine adding together 500 of those numbers in your head. Well, in its defence, the humble ZX81 could do that almost instantly.
On a more advanced system with 32K of RAM, if you wanted 16 onscreen colours at once, you might lose 20K, leaving only 12k for the program and the operating system! Out of adversity comes innovation, and many early games got around this limitation by using what’s called procedural generation. Rather than storing the game world, a formula was used to generate it as required. You’ll recognise the technique in modern games like Minecraft; that’s how that game generates a practically infinite number of landscapes that are always the same as you journey back and forth around them. No Man’s Sky is another modern game that uses procedural generation to create a huge variety of explorable content.
There came a time when 1K, 16K or even 48K of RAM wasn’t enough. For example, The Atari ST, released in 1985, debuted with 512K of RAM, an amount that made old-timers shake their heads as they wondered what on earth anyone could use 512K for. However, computers of the mid and late 1980s needed that amount of RAM to provide the then cutting edge graphics and sound alongside more complex software that people were beginning to expect. Get ready for when a person, younger than you, laughs at the idea of computers that shipped with less than 4TB (4096 GB) of RAM. “Sonny, I remember when I had a hard disk drive that was that size, and I was glad of it!” you’ll proclaim to that young person, who will try not to look embarrassed by your mad ranting.
Why we miss it: All part of the game.
The 1980s were an amazing time for home computers, thanks to a relatively large number of manufacturers bringing out competing machines. Each one was a new vision of the ideal home computer, and usually, totally incompatible with all of the others. So, the consumer had a lot of choice back in those days and had to balance features with cost and also software availability. However, it could be catch-22 with a new machine as it typically wouldn’t have much software when first released and it was unlikely that publishers would be interested in developing for a new computer with practically no owners. As computers were so expensive, it was a mistake that meant that the owner of such a system could miss out on a lot of the fun.
Released in 1984, the Sinclair QL is a good example of this problem. Sinclair had enjoyed a huge success with the earlier ZX Spectrum home computer, and it followed up with a business-orientated home machine. It was a reasonably good machine, but due to its high price coupled with a delayed release and disappointing performance, it failed in the marketplace. A lot of people who had presumed that it was a reasonably safe bet due to the Sinclair name must have annoyed when they saw better, cheaper machines with loads of software available. The Commodore 16 was a cut price alternative to the Commodore 64 that quickly fizzled into obscurity. By the end, shops like Dixons were selling it for just fifty pounds, but fifty pounds for a computer with almost no software wasn’t much of a bargain. The flipside is that all of the old machines that went on to success were once an upstart model that no one had heard of.
Why we miss it: The first really big upgrade of the classic era.
Early home computers were based on 8 bit technology. For one thing, this meant that they could only handle numbers between 0-255. Now, you can carry out any computational task with a setup like that, it just requires more steps and takes longer than with a larger architecture. The CPU of an 8 bit system was also hampered by only being able to move around 8 bits (called a byte) of data at one time. By the end of the 1980s, machines like the Commodore Amiga, The Atari ST and the AT class IBM PC compatibles heralded the beginning of the 16 bit era of home computing.
On the console front, the Sega Megadrive and the Super Nintendo were the drool-worthy standard bearers of 16 bit processing. 16 bit machines were not only more efficient at handling larger calculations but they could also shift much more data about in the same amount of time. They needed the extra capability too as expectations had risen in terms of graphical quality and the complexity of the software. For example, increasing the number of simultaneous colours onscreen from four to sixteen was a jump from 2 to 4 bits per pixel, a doubling of the required memory. Double the resolution and you’d, once again, double the amount of memory that had to be shifted around. You’d need all of that extra processing power just to keep up with what you used to be able to do on the older computers.
In contrast to consoles and arcade machines, the appeal of home computers was never solely as games machines. Creative digital applications came into their own with the arrival of the 16 bit era. 16 bit computers typically came with a mouse, a disk drive and an operating system that offered the user a graphical environment. An older machine could just about handle a simple word processor, as long as the documents didn’t get too long. Those computers could take a stab at things like musical composition and digital art, but for the user, it would be a frustrating balancing act of working against the limits. 16 bit computers offered facilities that rivalled those of professional workstations in the creative arts. Never mind word processing, 16 bit computers were able to handle desktop publishing for newsletters and fanzines. On the musical front, a fair proportion of the music you’d hear in the charts would have an Atari ST controlling the synths, and it wasn’t unheard of for a Commodore Amiga to be dishing out the graphics you’d see whizzing around on a TV show. Sure, those machines were typically heavily (and expensively) upgraded, but back on the homefront, the average user could dip their proverbial toe into the world of digital content creation thanks to the 16 bit revolution.
Why we miss it: Our first look into a virtual world.
Early home computers were designed, primarily, for 2D graphics, but some programmers saw that as a challenge and found ways of rendering 3D graphics on these modest systems. Some of these attempts were examples of what’s called ‘pseudo 3D’. That is, 2D graphics that tried to give a sense of perspective to the proceedings. For example, some games used two dimensional graphical assets that gave the impression that you were viewing them from above and from the side. This is called ‘isometric’ perspective and often looked good, but the viewing angle is always fixed. Racing games of the early era tended to use flat sprites, but they would plot the position of an object and vary the size in a clever way that would give the player a sense that everything was moving towards the screen.
Some early games went the whole hog and would render 3D graphics in realtime using the relatively meager resources of an 8 bit CPU. Despite the resourcefulness of the programmers of that era, severe compromises had to be made. For example, wireframe graphics, in which the shapes were made up of lines, was common, but quite frankly, not many lines could be employed. To a kid who whose first system was an XBox, these efforts are difficult to decipher. At the time, it was pretty amazing. Even the earliest attempts with 3D graphics on home computers gave a sense of an explorable world where the player could look around and decide what to do next. A few games, like those driven by the Freescape engine, such as Driller (1987) and Castle Master (1990) went even further, offering solid 3D graphics on home computers.
However, on 8 bit machines, frame rates would never reach double figures. Bear in mind that the computer graphics that were starting to make their way into films of that era, were not real time graphics. In film production, each frame of a scene can be rendered leisurely and then committed to film or a digital format once it has finished.
The 16 bit era made colour and solid 3D with a decent frame rate a reality on home systems. As the systems improved in power, the 3D graphics continued to increase in complexity. By the mid 1990s, nearly all limits of what you could do in 2D, in terms of colour and rendering speed, been removed, and arguably, 2D graphics had plateaued. It was at this point that the entire industry moved over to 3D rendering. Sega failed to anticipate this, with its Saturn console, while the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 excelled in this area. Subsequently, Sega never made a console again.
Why we miss it: An adventure into another world, and a workout for our typing skills.
Some early games only had basic graphics, but some games had no graphics at all. Text adventures relied on a text parser system, allowing the player to travel from one location to another using English phrases while solving inventory based puzzles. Because the story was conveyed through textual descriptions of what was going on, there was no limit placed on potential setting, but science fiction and fantasy settings tended to dominate. As for the player experience, the difference between a graphical game and a text adventure is similar to that between a film and a novel. Text adventures go into far more detail about things like setting and character, relying on the imagination of the player to visualise the surroundings.
The first text adventure, Colossal Cave Adventure, was released in 1976 for the PDP-10 mainframe. A large and complicated game, it was inspired by the programmer’s real-life experiences of exploring cave systems. The first adventure games for home systems kept up these traditions, often offering a large gameworld. This often came with an equally huge frustration factor as the difficulty was usually sky high, sometimes making the player start again from scratch because they had missed a small detail early on. On some games, you would have to create maps on paper, just to keep track of where you were in a particularly maze-like area. “GO NORTH” you would type. “YOU HAVE BEEN KILLED BY GIANT SPIDERS” the computer would reply.
For some reason, adventure gamers liked things hardcore. Later text adventures for more powerful systems ramped up the complexity and the sheer volume of text in the descriptions, and they can be bit intimidating for the first time player doing a bit of retro-exploration of the genre. Long before RPG games like the Fallout series, text adventures offered players a taste of massive, explorable worlds along with character interactions and a feeling that you were escaping to another world.
Later adventure games started to offer graphics in addition to the textual descriptions, perhaps treating the player to an illustration in some locations. As time went on, more and more, graphics dominated the gameplay. By the mid-1980s, hybrid games, with some arcade-like character control and realtime graphics mixed in with text input started to overtake the traditional text only model of adventure games. The hilarious Leisure Suit Larry series, along with games like King’s Quest and Space Quest from Sierra Entertainment, were popular games of this sort. Eventually, these games started to be displaced by point-and-click adventure games like the Monkey Island series, that were still, basically, adventure games, but didn’t make any use of text entry at all. By the middle of the 1990s, the text adventure itself was pretty much dead as a commercial entity.
Why we miss it: They plugged us into the world of computers while entertaining and informing us.
Before the Internet and World Wide Web came along, magazines were the main source of information about software, hardware and computer systems themselves. Some early magazines were subscription only and produced on a low budget by enthusiasts. As computers became more mainstream, high street retailers started to stock computer magazines, eventually having to dedicate entire walls to them. The magazines that were published could be divided into the platform specific ones and those that were multi-format. A further division could be made between the tone of the magazine, serious or games orientated. It got to a point where every system would have at least some coverage, sometimes many times over, leaving the user with a dilemma of what magazines to get each month. Eventually, the magazines started adding cover tapes, cassette tapes with demos of games, free software and programming examples. Later, the tapes gave way to floppy disks, and later still, CD ROMs.
One word we could use is ‘connection’ – when you got a magazine, you were connecting yourself to the wider world and a scene that you were interested in. Another concept of relevance is ‘community’. After a while, you’d start to recognise familiar names of writers and be on the lookout for the in-jokes by the staff. As more and more people have been connected to the Internet, the computer magazines have succumbed to the same pressures as the rest of the print media market in general. They still exist, in fewer numbers, but it’s secondary to the Internet for most people. The point was, those glorious, colourful magazines were often the only source of information that you had on what was going on in the world of computers.
Why we miss it: Our first taste of being connected to the world.
A modem (MOdulator DEModulator) is a little box that plugs into a computer and then a phone line in order to connect to other computers. But what were these computers, you may ask? Typically, a hobbyist would connect to computers that were running bulletin board software (BBS) that offered a menu based interface to its facilities. These facilities included file upload/downloads, discussion forums, news pages and a type of email. This might sound like an early version of the Internet, and that’s what it was. Take into account that although the Internet and its precursors date back to the 1980s and even earlier, the world wide web wasn’t invented until 1989, only becoming widely available in the mid-1990s.
By the mid-1980s, most hobbyist BBSes used a system called ANSI which offered colourful blocky graphics amongst the text. A lot of BBSes only had a single modem and phone line themselves, meaning that only one person could connect at one time. This might might seem like it negates the usefulness of discussion forums, for example, but that wasn’t the case, thanks to a system called Fidonet. Under the Fidonet system, all of the connected BBSes throughout the world would connect to neighbouring systems periodically throughout the day. The hierarchy was quite complicated but the system worked… mostly. Typically, you could connect to a BBS, upload your comments to forums and send private mail and expect them to be propagated globally within a few days, if everything was working like it should. In America, toll free phone billing was the norm, but most of the UK had to pay by the minute. You could build up a phone bill that was bigger than a monthly broadband Internet bill would be now due to a lack of discipline about BBSes at peak times.
So, if you had a modem and computer, you could do amazing things like converse with people in other parts of the country, and even in other countries. Of course, we do that all the time now via the Internet, but before most people had heard of the Internet, it was pretty cool. Some companies would distribute shareware software via BBSes and many systems contained a treasure trove of useful free software and technical information. As much as anything, BBSes could offer social interaction via a computer any time of the day or night. There was also an underground feel to a lot of what was going on. One BBS might specialise in ‘adult’ content and contacts. Some of the others were a bit naughty and would offer ‘warez’ pirated software, making one feel cool when one had access to such a board. Apparently.
For a while, the BBSes ran alongside the burgeoning Internet, some even offering Internet access via a text-mode gateway. Gradually, the Internet took over in popularity, and the majority of BBSes closed down.
Why we miss it: It was a game played in real life, with your real money.
One advantage of a home computer over a console is that it could be upgraded. In fact, most home computers were supplied in a fairly basic state, meaning that it was up to the user to decide what direction they wanted to take things. You can upgrade computers today, but some of what you’d decide to add to a vintage machine would now be regarded as standard. For example, a monitor was an expensive add-on, often costing from half to the full price of the computer it would be connected to. If you couldn’t afford a monitor yet, you’d just have to fight for time on the family TV, or you’d have to imagine what colour was like and use a black and white portable. The mouse is another ubiquitous device that was once a luxury. Until the 16 bit era came along, mice weren’t the essential system component that they are now, but still, using an art package with the cursor keys or a joystick wasn’t that much fun. That said, adjusting for inflation, in the early 1980s, they probably cost about the same as a cheap tablet PC does now.
Disk drives were a marvellous upgrade, if you could afford one. What a tape drive could transfer in minutes, a floppy disk drive could accomplish in mere seconds. It was the dial-up to broadband upgrade of that era.
Internal upgrades could be carried out, but they tended to alleviate a severe shortage such as lack of memory for word processing rather than significantly elevating the capabilities of the machine. On early computers, it would have caused havoc for game programmers if someone had a machine that was three times as fast as everyone else’s.
Once you got an upgrade home, you were faced with the problem of where to plug it in. People make fun of all the different USB connectors that crop up today, but at least there are only few standards for add-ons. Back in the early days, you’d have separate connectors for modems, mice, disk drives and printers. Furthermore, a lot of what you’d buy would be specific to a brand of computer or require an add-on interface before you even got started.
Why we miss it: They were weird and wacky, and generally, simple.
In the early days, designers didn’t know how games were supposed to work, and for that matter, they didn’t know how games were supposed to be controlled. Some of the early controllers used a combination of switches and dials. The Intellivision console had a controller with dial and a numeric keypad, which can cause headaches when emulating on modern systems. You have to remember, bat and ball games such as Pong and a version of tennis were the main hits that those first systems were trying to emulate. In all fairness, if it’s tennis on a TV game that we’re talking about, two dials is an accurate system for X and Y control.
On the home computer front, before long the joystick soon started to dominate. Acorn’s home computers lacked much of a joystick culture for some reason and keyboard control tended to be the default. Any veteran of that platform would quickly go to Z,X,’,/ and RETURN/SPACE during a play session, as quickly as a Spectrum owner would go to the Q,A,O,P and M or SPACE, if they didn’t own a joystick and interface. In actual fact, keys offered fine control, even if you had to hunch over the machine itself while gaming out. They had their place, but a problem with joysticks is that they tended to only have a single fire button due to ergonomics, and this meant that they lacked a dedicated jump button for platform games.
Enter the d-pad controller of consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Mega Drive. This combined the accuracy of using keys with the convenience of more than one button and the luxury of a nice long cable. These days, the main thing you have to remember when controlling a game is to press both shoulder buttons at once, while pressing up on the left analogue stick, while sticking your tongue out, hopping on one foot and blinking three times.
Why we miss it: Escapism into a surrealistic world and jumping around, like an Amstrad owner at the school disco. What’s not to like?
Lately, there’s been talk of people buying into a system just to get the latest Zelda game. Crazy. Back in the 1980s, things weren’t as excessive as that – people were buying into a system just to get the latest Mario game. Oh, and to get the latest Zelda game too. For a while, in the classic era, platformers were the headline platform sellers. The character of Mario had gradually risen to fame. He was, first, the protagonist in early arcade platform game Donkey Kong. That game was a success, as was the first true Mario game, Mario Bros, an arcade game that was later ported to the home platforms. This first Mario game has most of the elements that we now think of as intrinsic to platform games as it’s a scrolling game world made up levels to be traversed to completion. It even features the little fellas that you jump on top of to kill without actually killing.
This non-violent form of violence would also go to be a signature of platform gaming in the 1980s and 1990s. By the beginning of the latter decade, Sega realised that it needed a recognizable mascot and platform character too, hence the arrival of rival platformer franchise, Sonic. None of these games could be called an adventure game, but they evoked a sense of exploration mixed in with the flow of the main gameplay which was, itself, more of a reflex task, and in terms of tone, cute was king.
Of course, while Mario and Sonic grabbed the headlines, home computers embraced platforming too. Manic Miner (1983) is a good example of a home computer, rather than console or arcade, platform game. Here, the mechanics were similar, but there was more of an emphasis on exploration, non-linearity, and even puzzle solving. In fact, many home computer platformers were considered to be ‘arcade adventures’ for that reason. Oddly, the atmosphere of exploration was fostered by the fact that most early home computers weren’t as good at scrolling around a title-based landscape as consoles were. That meant that as you progressed, you would stumble into entirely new rooms, aesthetically at odds with the others.
Ultimately, as with most gaming, platformers transitioned from their 2D side-on roots to the world of 3D. Sonic and Mario survived the transition into the world of backwards and forwards as well as up, down, left, and right, but they, and the gaming genre of platformers, don’t rule the world like they once did.
Why we miss it: A bittersweet farewell that led to other things.
The computers that mesmerised us, educated us, and in many cases, bankrupted us were out-evolved by a species of supposedly better computers and consoles. In the early days, we were amazed to see a few coloured blobs flitting around the screen. In those days, we worried that the other guy had eight colours on screen at times when we only had four. A smile would come over our faces when we’d experience something genuinely new. It might be the gameplay or the graphics, or it might be the exciting new burning smell from an external power supply that was way under-specced. We were the first generation that had seen these amazing new things. Yup, we surmised, computers are going to take off.
Okay, it’s easy to feel a bit sad, looking back at the crazy, innovative early days, but why be sad? One thing that computers are certain to do is to continue to improve. After that first wave of machines and concepts, things seemed to die down a bit, though. The thing is, most people reached a point when they had to give up on the machine that they had loved. Yeah, you could spend a fortune upgrading, but beyond a certain point, you’d realise it was time to get a grey box that was much more powerful and able to do the new things you wanted to do. Our grey boxes serve us well, but do we even remember them when we move onto the next one? Are we genuinely surprised by anything a new one does? You move on, but you never fully get over your first love. However, let’s not get too melancholy, as what came next was pretty amazing, quite frankly: the early days of the Internet, games with better graphics and bigger worlds and applications that surpassed the predictions of science fiction.
And we’ve not run out of computer history yet. Let’s look forward to virtual reality, new Internet innovations, better graphics, new gameplay concepts and maybe even a bit of retrogaming, from time to time, to revisit the glorious beginning. What we are living through at the moment is still the primitive, early stage of computing. The most exciting chapter of all, my geeky friends? The future!
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