A look back at my personal computer history — from leaning on the corner of arcade machines in the late 1970s, to the arrival of the PC in the early 1990s.
The first video game I ever remember seeing was in an chip shop while we were on holiday. While waiting for my parents at the counter, my brother and I watched a collection of wire-frame shapes silently drift around the screen of a hulking cabinet in the corner of the room.
Now of course I know the game was called “Asteroids”, and was a direct ancestor of perhaps the first ever space game, “Space War”, written by the students at MIT in the 1970s.
My next brush with video games came while on holiday in Spain — our first overseas holiday as a family. Dotted around the hotel and in cafes near it there were coin operated arcade machines playing a variety of video games — among them “Galaxians”, and “Phoenix”. They cost 25 pesetas per game to play. At some point my brother discovered that a british two pence coin also worked in the machines, and he became an expert at both games — well — until we ran out of two pence pieces.
Leaning on the corner of arcade machines, and watching others play was a core part of the video game experience when I grew up. If you visited an arcade, most of which looked and sounded exactly like Flynn’s in the movie Tron, you would see hordes of children and young adults congregated around their favourite games, watching, giving tips, and commenting on each other’s play.
Perhaps six months later I was playing with LEGO in the lounge after school, when I noticed Dad’s car pull up on the driveway, and my brother carry a large box into the house with a very serious look on his face — the sort of serious look you have when you’re carrying the crown jewels. Or an Atari VCS 2600.
The Atari was THE games machine in the early 1980s, and my brother had one. Our house became a video game mecca that summer. There are photos somewhere of huge gatherings in our living room — with any number of children sitting cross legged, waiting impatiently for the “next go”.
I have a vague memory that my brother “clocked” Pacman —attaining such a high score that the game counter looped around. It took most of a Saturday morning to do it. The game may have even crashed.
The first time I ever saw a proper computer was in the spare room at my grandparents house. It looked like a prop from a 1970s science fiction movie, and threatened to destroy the table it was precariously perched upon — such was it’s girth. It had been purchased to use for book-keeping at the family business, and was being prepared with accounts software. Of course I didn’t know this at the time — I was only seven or eight years old — all I knew was that it looked awesome, and that I was not allowed to go near it, breathe on it, or touch it under any circumstances.
The computer re-appeared some years later — perched on top of a chest of drawers in my brother’s bedroom during the school summer holidays. Dad returned home from work with it one day, wired it up, and let us play with it. We had no idea what the computer might be able to do, how to use it, or what it might even be useful for. We played with it in the same manner I had played with the old cooker in the garage — pretending we were commanders on a space rocket — pressing buttons, shouting random commands, and spending hours on flights of imagination around the universe.
Luckily my brother had a friend. During the early 1980s most people had a similar friend. He knew about computers. He also had a comically bad haircut, and didn’t go outside much — but that was all forgotten when he sat down in front of the computer in my brother’s bedroom, slid a floppy disk into the slot in the front of the machine, turned the lever that locked the strange floppy rectangle in-place, and began typing.
After several minutes watching him type — munching on chocolate biscuits and drinking orange squash — we were invited to sit in front of the computer.
“What planet would you like to destroy ?”
The cursor sat, blinking — waiting for us to type something in.
“Earth will be destroyed in…”
“Earth has been destroyed.”
We stared at the screen with eyes like saucers. We had just destroyed the Earth. It was both scary, and exciting at the same time. Not only could we now go on imaginary flights around the solar system — we could blow up planets, and the computer said it had really happened. Over the course of the next few minutes we blew up every planet in the local solar system, the school, next door’s dog, the ice cream van we could hear several streets away, and any number of other things that came to mind. As each detonation was announced, a chorus of “it’s my turn!” would ring out across the bedroom.
Not knowing how to save the program my brother’s friend had written, we printed it out. Every time we wanted to play the game again, we would re-key the program. Occasionally we tried to change the programming to make it more impressive, but that invariably led to the computer silently murmuring “Syntax Error” at us.
Then one day a disaster happened. The computer stopped working. It made odd clunking noises after turning it on, and the screen reported some jibbering or other about not finding something or other. We did what any normal person would do — we cleaned the computer. After fetching a can of furniture polish, and a duster, we cleaned it to within an inch of it’s life — including the floppy disks. Looking back, we probably made it much, much worse. It was now very clean, smelled of a meadow in springtime, and didn’t work at all.
A few months after the Alphatronic debacle, I tagged along with my Dad to visit the local television rental shop. We had rented our television for years — most people did. Or rather, most people we knew did. In the shop we were shown an apparently amazing new thing called a lazer disc player, along with various televisions. This was back in the era of cathods-ray-tube televisions that weight about the same as a small car.
On this particular visit, the shop also had a display of “home computers”. They all seemed to be made by Sharp, and were mightily impressive — much smaller than the computer we had recently destroyed, and seemingly capable of doing anything if you believed the promotional pamphlet. The glossy brochure kicked around at home for months.
When I opened my Christmas presents that year, I didn’t find one of the computers we had looked at. Instead I found a “Sony HitBit”. An MSX. Although it’s easy to criticise now, it was actually a really smart move. While Commodore, Sinclair, and Atari all made incompatible computers, the Japanese companies had all built compatible systems — Sony, Sanyo, Toshiba, Goldstar, and Yamaha all made MSX computers that ran the same software. There was only one problem — everybody carried on buying Commodore, Sinclair, and Atari computers.
This resulted in the video game shelves of the local toy store being stacked with row upon row of games for every home computer system, and the MSX being relegated to the bottom row, with perhaps five or six to choose from — one or two of which would be affordable on a pocket-money budget.
If you grew up using home computers during the mid-eighties, you know the hell of cassette tapes. Not only did you need to plug a tape recorder into your computer, you also needed to set the volume exactly right for every single tape. Upon pressing play, and keying the correct commands into the computer, a high pitch squeal would ring out across the room. Even if you got everything right, and held high hopes of playing a game in a few minutes (because loading a few kilobytes took minutes), you might still face failure at any moment.
Although we had some games for the computer that first Christmas, we didn’t really play them. It snowed that year — so like any other normal kids, we disregarded all of the presents our parents had scrimped and saved to buy us, and ran around like lunatics outside, pelting snowballs at each other. This had an unintended consequence though — my Dad was left alone with the computer.
Over the Christmas period, we would wander back into the house — walking snow with us, and being shouted at for it — and my Dad would invariably be hunched over the computer with the guide book next to him.
Now and again my Dad would encourage us to sit and watch the results of his endeavors. I still remember him typing “RUN”, and watching a low resolution facsimile of the Olympic rings draw onto the screen.
“What does it do?”
I guess the eleven year old version of me was pretty difficult to impress.
Over the next few days he slowly added to his program — it asked your name, your age, your favourite colour, and so on — and then made pithy comments about the information you had entered. Mum didn’t think it was very funny when she discovered the program had been fixed to recognise her name, and be purposely rude.
I suppose in some ways I have my Dad to thank for everything that followed. He was the one that showed me that a computer could be programmed — that the games you might buy off the shelf in the toy shop had been written by somebody no better than you or me — just a little (or a lot) more experienced, and with a lot more time and determination.
For several years, the MSX was our family computer. My Dad obsessed over a game called “Les Flics” that could most accurately be described as a collection of coloured blobs that you could move around the screen with the joystick, that would make noises, and the screen flash from time to time. The box artwork told another story — you were a bank robber, and you were stealing things from various buildings, with the police in hot pursuit.
A lot of imagination was required in the early days of computer games.
In most respects, Evesham is an unremarkable market town in Worcestershire. During my childhood we would often drive past on the way to the coast, and stop at one of the many farms with road-side stalls to buy vegetables, cookies, or even cups of tea.
In the mid to late 1980s, Evesham became rather remarkable in my little world though — because it had the most impressive computer shop I had ever seen. Admittedly, I had not seen many computer shops, but that’s beside the point. Let’s just agree that it was very, very good indeed , and that it sold Atari STs.
I can remember standing in the shop on the day we bought the computer. While we waited for the shop assistant to go out to the back of the store and pick up the computer and software we had ordered, we looked around at the same model of computer on display, and the various video games available for it. An enterprising assistant realised what we were doing, and quietly wandered over to “help”.
He loaded a new game that had just arrived — called “Flight Simulator 2”. For the next five minutes we stood goggle eyed as a pretend Cessna taxied onto the runway at Oakland International Airport, across the bay from San Francisco, rolled down the runway at full throttle, and took to the air.
There was a problem. The Flight Simulator game cost several times more than the savings I had taken with me.
“Don’t tell your Mum”.
We bought the computer, a rather large and mysterious blue box containing a music application called “Steinberg Pro 24”, and a copy of Flight Simulator 2. I spent the next several weeks flying pretend Cessnas and Learjets around pretend west coast America, and of course my grades at school plummeted.
At school I became a minor celebrity for a few days. I enthused endlessly about the flight simulator game, and might have embellished reality a little with my descriptions of the lavish game world. Even thirty years on, I don’t think video games have quite matched my breathless reports.
One day, late in the autumn of 1989, my Dad floated the idea of selling the Atari ST, and buying a PC to replace it. We hadn’t been using the Atari for it’s original purpose — music production — for years, and it was obvious from the magazines we occasionally bought where the future was headed.
The weeks that followed saw us purchase magazine after magazine — learning an entirely new lexicon of words. EGA, VGA, Ethernet, PCMCIA, and so on. We learned the difference between the 386 and 486 processors, and what a 486DX had that a 486SX did not. We didn’t know what difference it would make to us personally, but we could probably bore somebody really well if they asked us.
I returned to my lecturer at college, finding him in his office. I had never visited his office before, and caught him half-way through eating a cheese sandwich. He scooted his chair to one side, and invited me to sit down. I unfolded a copy of Personal Computer World on his desk, open at a vast list of specifications for computers available from one of the major manufacturers. Over the course of the next half an hour he explained what a maths co-processor did, what difference cache memory made, and why having 4 gigabytes of RAM was a pretty good idea — all the while shaking his head that computers were now being sold with that much memory.
Before saying goodbye, he rose out of his chair, smiled, and said “follow me — I want to show you something”.
We wandered back to the computer science classroom where I had spent so many hours over the last two years, but instead of heading to the classroom area, opened a door, and walked into the small server room next door. Among a mass of cables on one of the desks sat a new beige PC case, with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse attached. He wiggled the mouse, and the screen burst into life.
It was running Microsoft Windows 3.0.
Sure, I had read about Microsoft Windows, and everybody knew it was coming — but actually seeing it running on a computer was a bit of a moment. After a few clicks of the mouse, “Word for Windows” opened, and he began typing letters in a smooth, serif font. I was blown away.
The next weekend I went with my Dad to Evesham — to visit the very same computer store we had visited years before to buy the Atari ST. By now the store had evolved into a well known maker of PCs with huge full colour adverts in all the well known computer magazines. They had also moved premises — to an industrial unit outside the town.
We waited in a reception area while the computer we had ordered was brought through from the store room. While waiting, I blew the little money I had with me on copies of “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, and “Flight Simulator 4” — the direct ancestor of the game I had spent so many hours playing on the Atari ST.
When we got home, I discovered I had a considerable mountain to climb. Unlike todays computers that come pre-installed and pre-configured, in the early days they did not. A world of hurt lay ahead.
You might say I was the right kind of person, in the right place, at the right time. The software that came with the computer — MS-DOS 5, and Windows 3.1 — came with sizeable books. The DOS book ran to hundreds of pages, and looked quite impressive on the shelf. I read both of them, and over the course of perhaps a week or two, learned all about hard drives, partitioning, memory management, drivers, interrupts, address space, and lots of other things. In order to play games, I learned about expanded memory, extended memory, high memory, and the various tricks required to use them efficiently. When you switch on a Windows PC or Mac these days, you have no idea how much as been done for you by the operating system — it wasn’t always that way.
For several years I became the guy that could turn up at somebody’s house, and solve their computer woes. I could get games to work. People would sit in awe as I wrote configuration files for their computers by hand. When they asked where on earth I had learned how to do it all, I always replied with the same answer — I read the books.