Confessions Of A 40 Year Gaming Addict (Part 1)

In today’s GenForward Living Legacy free genealogy blog, I’m going to delve back into a subject that is still a big love of mine to this day. “My name is Tom, and I’m a gameaholic”. I’ve never really been clear of it, but now am old enough to not let the problem get in the way of real life. Sadly this hasn’t always been the case. It’s obviously something my son has readily picked up on as ever since he was small there’s been multiple different consoles and computers about to game on. I do enforce time limits on him though, sadly something that was never really done with me:

Some weeks ago I put out a couple of articles about the toys we had as kids growing up in the 1970’s and early 80’s. It was a really interesting time to be growing up as there was a lot going on with the development of computers and the microchip that started a new wave of toy away from the more traditional stuff that I was addressing in my first posts.

I deliberately separated the old school and the new wave of electronic stuff in the interests of not ending up writing forever, but now it’s time to redress the balance by looking at the electronic games we grew up with.

Again, I can feel the need to spit this one into three. There were two paths of influence that we were exposed to early on. First was the home market consisting of first electronic games, then basic consoles, then computers. The other side of the coin was the birth of the arcade game. Today, the consoles and high end gamin PCs around are pretty much capable of doing as much and more as any stand alone arcade cabinet, but in the 70’s it just wasn’t the case and it took a little while for the home machines to catch up fully. And then finally we moved into the more modern console era where arcade quality was becoming a reality and some serious addiction could be had!

 

Ok, let’s start with my first real memory of a console of any type that we owned. There were some around just before, but this is the one we had.

The Binatone game console. Released in the UK in 1977. Plug into the TV using the ariel socket, switch it on, and away you go. In glorious black and white-o-vision, you used your paddle controller to move a stick up and down to bounce a dot around the screen. In typical creative 70’s style, Binatone managed to stretch this concept to represent multiple “sports”.

There was tennis, (2 sticks and an open bit at each end), squash (2 sticks and one open side so the square ball bounced about), football (2 sticks and “goal hole” in the play area so you could score). Then there was a practice mode and 2 skill levels. Switching to “pro” just made your stick smaller.

Ok, by today’s standards, pretty naff. But you have to remember this is pre space invaders time. We’d seen nothing like it. Time spent of this thing started off a fascination with video gaming that’s still with me 40 years later.

 

Not long after we had the Binatone, we took a big step up in the world.

The granddaddy of them all, the Atari VCS2600. This thing was a whole new deal when it came out. Not only did we have the familiar paddle controller of the Binatone, but now these new fangled “joysticks” to play about with. But the main trick of the VCS was the fact that its games came on removable cartridges. This meant that you ability to play new games was primarily limited by your ability to throw tantrums till your parents took you shopping for something new.

As the years went on, all of the Atari arcade games got conversions to run on the VCS. They were a pale shadow of their arcade cousins but to us, having your own Space Invaders, Pac –man, Centipede, or Asteroids machine at home that you could play for free, was like nothing else. There were just so many classic titles on the VCS that I will leave you to pick out your own. Some of them are worth real money today.

The famous saga of the buried cartridges in New Mexico is still going on having raised well over 100K usd to date in sales of rare cartridges. I actually remember playing the ET one talked about here. We had an American family living in the next street and we used to swap games.

“Worst Game Ever Made” Sells At Auction For Over $1500

The next thing I recall hitting us was a new offering from some upstart firm called Nintendo

We went mad on these things. Car journeys were never the same. Gone was the constant bickering and occasional violence in the back seat, replaced by the Chinese Water torture like, constant blip blip blip blip blip from the two of these that were being played until the batteries went flat. Then the fighting would start again. I think my parents preferred the blipping to the fighting as at least they could drown that out with a bit of Terry Wogan on the radio or some Abba on the 8 track.

All the games involved was moving left or right through a few pre set positions with your LCD catcher, in order to intercept stuff that was falling down the screen at increasing speed, all the way up to 999 points when it all reset back to zero. It might not be much by today’s standards but it beat eye spy hands down, especially as my brother was a bit dyslexic so you couldn’t always rely on it being a fair game (this problem was never picked up at school and he only found out many years later that his problem was actually a disability and had a name but, being the 1970’s, he was just labelled “thick”).

We had both of the ones pictured above plus a few more. I recall my brother had one with an octopus on it for certain and I had one involving people being thrown off a burning building (very “pc”, but it was just the begging of the 80’s). Then came the zenith of this game and watch frenzy. We had to have one of these each in order to prevent all out war!

My life with the console market then took a bit of a back seat with the advent of something even more interesting.

The Sinclair ZX81 was the first time we really saw a home computer. Originally designed as a build yourself kit for enthusiasts and something to teach programming. I am cheating a little bit here as I didn’t actually own one of these myself, however my best pal at the time had one and we’d spend hours round his house messing about with it and playing such epic games as “Flight-Sim” and 3-D Monster Maze.

Ok, we’re back into glorious black and white-o-vision but let’s not scoff at the ingenuity of the coders here. The software (as it was now known) was now on tape cassette. It was put into a normal tape deck and played screechy noises into computer games came out. To be honest it’s pretty amazing that anything came out given the performance specs of the mighty ZX-81.

The machine came with a standard 1 Kilobyte  of RAM. To put that in some perspective, the computer I’m typing away on now has 12 gigs of RAM or to put it another way 12,000,000 Kilobytes. The huge brick like attachment you can see in the picture was the memory upgrade pack. By plugging in the memory brick had 2 main effects. First it increased the memory capacity of your ZX-81 exponentially to….16 Kilobytes! Secondly, you no longer needed any heating in your room as this thing took care of it.

As well as the games on cassette, we also started to see magazines being released which were all about the new machines and also contained copies of code that we would spend hours upon hours typing in using the flat plastic keyboard. In the unlikely even that you had managed to type in several hundred (if not thousands) of lines of abstract code without a single error or typo, you were awarded with some genuinely depressing result that we somehow thought amazing. I suppose the amazing bit was that we ever got a single one to work.

This baby was the start of a long run of success for (later to be “Sir”) Clive Sinclair, right up till he lost the plot a bit with the C-5 personal transportation vehicle. I guess he was just a bit ahead of his time…

As I mentioned however, I didn’t have a ZX-81 and actually spent my lifetime falling on the opposing side to Sinclair all the way through the computer wars that followed. Right around this time my parents had started doing pretty well for themselves. As a result, when we started showing an interest in this new fangled computer stuff we got the real deal item that came out shortly after the ZX-81.

In around 1981 we saw the release of the Acorn Computers BBC Micro. Basically there was a tie in between this computer and a bunch of programmes being shown on the BBC, it was also the defacto choice for schools so of course that was my sales pitch to my parents when it came to why I “needed” what was at the time a seriously expensive piece of kit. There were two models, the A and B, one having better specs than the other. OF course I “needed“the B version which was about 350 GBP (about $875 at the time or close to $2,500 today when adjusted for inflation).

This thing was actually a proper computer. It had a real keyboard, metal case and you could not only use tapes with it but also the first of the big floppy disk drives. It also came with a version of the BASIC programming language installed and a full on inch and a half thick manual that genuinely told you how to use and code on the thing.

Now, in my defence I did dabble in coding. And also did a lot of the typing in stuff from magazines. The main difference this time however was that because of actually having some coding knowledge, and the ease of use of the BASIC language, it was reasonable possible to de-bug my efforts and actually get them to work most times. But to really make things happen, you had to know “machine code” which was all a bit beyond my eleven year old brain at the time.

What I could do however was appreciate other people’s abilities in the coding arena, and was introduced to a quantum leap in gaming. There were some real decent games on the BBC like Killer Gorilla (a donkey Kong clone) and Chuckie Egg, but what really was another level was stuff like “Revs” racing sim and then ,the cause my first real bigtime game addiction (there would be many over the years the depths of which scare me still), Elite.

When Elite came out it was pretty much the end of my coding career. To be fair it was pretty much the end of life as I knew it. Fourteen years old, summer holidays. Staying with grandmother, who would let me get away with anything, all day as mum was at work. A whole universe of planets to explore/trade/pirate my way around at the helm of my own spaceship. C’mon, what was supposed to happen? I don’t think I have ever been paler in complexion after a summer holiday. I eventually did make it to “Elite” status (the final aim of the game, although it was essentially never ending), a feat which I repeated some years later on the PC version as well (although it seemed a lot easier second time around).

The tech world was moving really fast and shortly after came the pre-cursor to the Console wars we’d see many years later between the Sony PlayStation and whatever console was less good (have I given it away a bit?). Both hitting the shelves in 1982, we had the follow up to the ZX-81, and a new entry from Commodore Business Machines.

 

The ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 would battle it out head to head for the love of young gamers right across Britain. The Spectrum was cheaper but had a kind of wonky rubber keyboard and horrible colour clash on all the games. The C64 on the other hand, despite its fetching “hearing-aid beige” colour was a proper machine. It felt better, looked better, and most importantly, played better. IF a game was available on both systems, it ALWAYS looked better and played better on the C64. Probably because it was twice the price….

Really the only reason to not have a C64 instead of Spectrum was that you couldn’t afford it. The fact that we were children and really couldn’t afford any of it without our parents wasn’t really up for discussion.  So the inevitable world of bitchy one upmanship was introduced into our young lives.

90% of the software was dealt with still on cassette tape. Some of these had crazy long loading times until the advent Of Jeff Minter’s “Revenge Of The Mutant Camels”, featuring “Turbo Load”. One one side you could do normal load and take quarter of an hour to load up the game, on the other site it turboed in in about 30 seconds.

At this point, gaming just exploded. There are so many titles I could go into it’s beyond reason. We were also introduced to new types of game such as “The Hobbit” graphic adventure game as well as Olympic type sports Sims. The latter came in two types. The first was the games released by Epix. With these you’d have about 10 events. Each event was at a different point on your cassette that the game came on, so you’d have to write down all the tape counter numbers for each event start point on the inside of the game packaging. You’d also write down your “world records” here to compare with your mates because it didn’t save them. The main deal with these games was that each event was built around timing and rhythm, a game of skill.

The other kind was the Daley Thompson games released by Ocean software. There were joystick destroyers as it was all about how fast you could waggle your “joystick” to build up max speed before pressing your button for release and angle. This was all good fun and games right up until you hit the last event, the 1500 meters. There was no let up in game style. The only way to get up speed was waggling away at break-neck pace. Whilst this was easy enough for the 5-10 seconds or so needed for each other evert, after four minutes, it wasn’t even remotely funny. I’m sure everyone’s heard the jokes about people going deformed on one side from interfering with themselves too much? Well with us it was true, but the cause was the 1500 meters in Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. We all had right arms like Schwarzenegger!

 

My final upgrade of this era came in the form of what at the time was a revolutionary piece of kit.

If I remember right I actually had 2 of these. First off an A500 then later an A1200 when they came out. These were head and shoulders above the competition.  I had a second 3.3 Inch disk drive as well which made playing some of the Lucasfilm point and click adventure games a little more bearable. Each game (Monkey Island 2, Indiana Jones etc) came on around 14 discs each so even with 2 drives there was a lot of swapping but still worth it.

More Epix sports titles like World Games were also well in the mix as well as stuff like Gunship, a flight sim based on the AH-64 Apache Gunship Helicopter. I loved that one and got really good at it. Still believe I would be able to pick up the basics of flying a helicopter for real just based on the time spent in that sim.

Also many a happy hour playing stuff like PGA golf and TV Sports Football (the American game this time) as well as games like Wings, IT Came From The Desert, and Frontier (Elite 2). My pals got really into Sensible Soccer as well. I had to join in of course but it wasn’t so much my thing. Then we had RPGs like the original Eye Of The Beholder, and things like Populous, the god sim. The fun bit about that one was that you could set up to play against each other using a good old RS232 interface lead. Much fun to be had setting off volcano’s right in the middle of your mates settlement! We also did that with Spy VS Spy to much comedic effect. Very satisfying watching your pal who was sat next to you walk right into a trap you had just set up for him.

Then another big addiction, Formula One Simulator. This was all about realism as opposed to arcade style. As purists we went the whole hog. Full race weekends with qualifying and practice, full length races, manual gears and assists off. You had to know the tracks backwards. To this day I can still talk round every corner and every gear change for quite a few of the F1 circuits. We did allow ourselves one concession though. Damage off for the first lap. Without that it was practically impossible to get started without getting shunted by everyone due to kamikaze AI on the computer drivers. As damage usually meant race over it had to be done. Even with this concession it meant hours upon hours spent learning every circuit.

Both graphically and sonically this was way ahead of it’s time. It even had a “windows” type GUI operating system. After my time with the Amiga family, I moved back into the world of consoles, which, given the amount of time I have spoent on this already, I will pick up in part 2! 

tom@genforward.org

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