King of Excellent (according to Scaryduck)

Monday, March 15

Computer Wars, and nothing to do with "Wargames"

Ah, computing. My first real experience of home computing was as a fresh faced 9 year old, being taken by his parents to Harrods in London. I had a choice, I could spend my hard earned and saved up pocket money on something pointless or I could buy a computer. I had a wealth of choice and I remember it well, having to choose between a Commodore Vic 20, a brand spanking new Sinclair ZX Spectrum, or a Texas Instruments TI99-4A. The sales patter of the spotty 17 year old was very good, nearly selling my soul to the devil for a humble 3k of Vic 20. The Spectrum was very new, being about a month old, and he said that with it's huge 48k it was going to be the machine of the next decade. The TI99-4A had a lovely keyboard, but not much else.

That's it, my Dad was sold, and home I went that night with a very expensive (£199) electronic rubberised beermat. I had been treated to a free selection of games that came with it, the best one being made in Basic by Sinclair themselves called "Through the wall". I was also introduced to the delights of the £5.95 game Space Raiders which even had my parents hooked!

The first hour was spent setting up on the 21" television in the lounge, followed by deciphering the keyboard and getting the game to work (Who can forget the immortal line LOAD "raiders"). The problem was, as time progressed, I realised there weren't very many games out there. You had a choice, copy pages and pages of text from a magazine to make a block move around the screen (or just crash as was so often the case, losing the whole program because you hadn't saved it), or make your own. The manual wasn't something you threw to one side when you opened the box, and as any spectrum programmer will tell you, was a valuable resource. It contained every aspect of Basic, with a full glossary of examples of how to use each command. It even had the full list of mnemonics for programming in assembly language. Copying from magazines was a nightmare, often spending more time debugging the program then playing it. Typos were the scourge of the programmer, but Big K the magazine from heaven was adept at making sure their programs worked, and shock horror, some were very very good.

Games were scarce, mostly produced by Psion (the software division of Sinclair) and shortly Mastertronic. My first game outside the realms of Psion was a delightful game called Gnasher, not surprisingly a blatant rip-off of Pacman. The best advantage of such games was the price. Most full priced games were the staggering price of £5 or more (a small fortune when you are a pre-teenager) and the Mastertronic range came within range of the pocket money at £1.99. Just about every game stocked by my local newsagent was purchased at some point or other, and the collection looked mightily impressive even though it only cost a fraction of the regular games. The occasional foray into 'full-priced" games brought an introduction to companies such as Ultimate Play the Game with delights such as Atic Atac (£5.50 from Boots in Croydon), Lunar Jetman (again £5.50 but from WH Smiths in Croydon) and a lot later the delightful Knightlore, Underwurlde and Alien 8 (all £9.99 from what is now the Post Office in Crystal Palace). The following Christmas my main present from my parents was the Psion full priced package called "VU-3D." A graphical cad (?) package allowing you to make wireframe graphics. I remember spending many hours making a wireframe equivalent of a wineglass, and not looking as to whether this had a point. The best thing about this program was it was written in Basic, and a simple SHIFT-SPACE combo would reveal the source code in all it's glory. Not that I understood it.

It was at about this point that I realised I needn't pay for all these games. School friends were also finding out the joys of the Spectrum, and swapping games. It didn't take long for someone to realise that using the cable that connected the Spectrum to the tape recorder could be plugged into another tape recorder and the games could be copied. Whole C-90s started to appear in school, and the piracy market was born. Stories of "A guy at my cousin's school" getting arrested, locked up, tortured, and even deported in some cases purely because he'd been found to have a copy of "Everyone's a Wally" on a C-60. It was only a matter of time, before I succumbed to temptation. I *borrowed* my sister's Amstrad midi Hifi with the tape-to-tape, and a good friend's version of Spyhunter and copied it onto a tape. It didn't work. I gave up.

More fun was to be had programming in my opinion. Simple games like defusing a bomb could be better fun, choosing the wire to cut, albeit slightly monotonous. The fun was making the game in the first place, and subroutines could be saved to tape and used in further programs. A hint on BBC's Saturday Superstore by some slick young professional programmer taught me how to make superslick graphics using mothing more then tracing paper taped to the screen, and the world was my oyster. Many hours of experimenting, and I had a huge datafile of the trench from Star Wars digitised perfectly. Not that it did much else, but ho-hum. Maybe the sound would be more fun?

To be continued...