I’ve played computer games over the years on a wide range of platforms. I was fortunate enough to get an Atari 400 and a ZX Spectrum in the early 80’s and I’d been playing games a little before that in the arcades. Here’s a brief history of my computer gaming. You’ll notice that until the Wii, I never had or really used a Nintendo system, I don’t know why. I didn’t own all these systems, some of them were owned by friends, others by my school. The list is in no particular order, because my memory isn’t good enough to do that for you. Also, I thought this would start out as a brief list, but as usual, I’ve waffled so it’s now broken up into several posts.
I can’t really remember how old I was when I first noticed games in arcades that weren’t just fruit machines (slot machines to the rest of you) or one arm bandits. But I remember where I was. Berwick upon Tweed and ‘The Coast’ (Newcastle, meaning Whitley Bay or Tynemouth). I remember spending more of my pocket money than was healthy in the arcade in The Spanish City in Whitley Bay (yes, of Dire Straits fame). I was never really very good at the games, I never had enough money to play and play and get any good, so I invariably only saw the first couple of levels. In Berwick there was an arcade associated with the holiday camp site we stayed at, and I remember playing Mr. Do! quite a bit and a year or so later Mr. Do’s Castle. By the time I was playing arcade games, I think Asteroids and Defender had already had their day.
For me, the arcade was a special holiday treat mostly, so I didn’t really end up part of the generation that grew up spending their spare time in arcades, a few hours for me every few months in The Spanish City or once a year at Berwick was about my limit. But those games got under my skin and into my head and I’ll never forget the sounds and the flashing lights.
I’ll reel off a few games that stuck in my memory most of all.
- Mr. Do! – as mentioned above, this one and the others in this line were favourites.
- Xevious – I loved this vertical scrolling shooter, out of all the shooters I played this was the only one I was even remotely any good at.
- Defender – I had a love/hate relationship with the arcade version of this, I owned the Atari 400 conversion which I loved and could play for hours, and I never liked how hard the arcade version was in comparison.
- Gorf – who couldn’t love Gorf! For the speech alone.
- Galaxians – my favourite static space shooter.
- Gauntlet – astounding and until I started this list I’d forgotten about it. This and Outrun! were both in the Leisure Centre in Eldon Square in Newcastle, and that’s where I played them in my late teens.
- Commando – I sucked, big time.
- Blasteroids – I remember playing this a lot in The Spanish City, but it was probably only for like 7 minutes once in my entire life, memories are strange like that.
- 1942 – after Xevious this was my favourite vertical scrolling shooter, and I played it quite a lot.
- Missile Command – which reminds me of yet another place I’d forgotten that I used to play arcade games – the local swimming baths had a single arcade game (Missile Command for a long time) in their ‘coffee’ room which overlooked the pool. They had a hot drink vending machine (which also did scalding hot oxo soup), and after swimming for an hour or so I’d head here and spend my locker money on Missile Command.
I think I got an Atari 400 before I got the ZX Spectrum, which also reminds me that I was a bloody lucky kid for a whole range of reasons. I fell in love with the Atari for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it brought that arcade experience I’d had previously, into the house, you wouldn’t believe how excited I was to be playing Space Invaders, PacMan, Defender and Centipede in my own home (on the TV no less!) but secondly, it had a keyboard and you could make it do things. You could get it to make sounds and put images on the TV. I didn’t really know what it was, that it was programming and that it would probably define my entire education and career path, but I knew I liked it. The Atari 400 had both a cartridge system and a cassette recorder. Most of the games I had were on cartridge, and the cassette was for saving things I’d typed in (with my sister’s help) from magazines. I remember spending a couple of days typing in (all in HEX) a donkey kong style game, and moments before we got to save it to tape, the power supply in the back of the Atari 400 (always the Achilles heel) wiggled and the whole thing reset, losing everything we’d done.
So I was probably between 10 or 12 years old when I first learned the lesson of when to backup your data (frequently and often).
The Atari 400 had the classic Atari joystick. A thick square base, single stick and one fire button. When you’re a kid, holding that joystick in one hand meant pushing the corner into the joint between your thumb and your palm. Holding it there for 6 hours while you played Defender with no save game option usually resulted in pain, blisters and a bruise. So as well as teaching me about backups, the Atari taught me about repetitive strain injury and how computers would be making my hands hurt for the rest of my life.
It was a big beast of a machine, with a solid metal cover over the electronics to meet RF emissions regulations, the keyboard was flat and horrible to type on (but we coped), and at least was spill resistant. I still remember the sound the thing made when you first turned it on, a little beep-crunch style noise and the white-noise it made if you opened the cartridge slot without turning it off first. In some ways, the Atari 400 cartridge system spoiled me when I moved to all cassette systems like the ZX Spectrum, where had my instant game starts gone? I do wonder if we’ll see a move away from DVD and Blu-Ray discs for games back towards a solid state solution with the increase in SSD capacity.
I didn’t have that many games for the Atari, they weren’t cheap (compared to other systems), but the ones I did have I loved very much.
- Asteroids – with filled in raster graphics rather than the empty wireframe of the arcade version, this Asteroids conversion looked awesome (honest), and I got pretty good.
- Defender – I played this on the Atari 400 before I ever tried in the arcade, and although the game play was similar, the arcade version was much harder to control. I remember two things, playing it for lots of hours in a row and using my foot to press the space bar to activate the bomb (since the joystick only had one button).
- Centipede – like the others, a classic arcade game with simple gameplay that kept me pressing the fire button.
- Star Raiders – probably the most complex computer game I’d ever seen, and a pre-cursor to Elite, Wing Commander, and many first person style games. This game kept me absorbed for many, many hours.
I remember spending many hours in Fenwick’s in Eldon Square looking through their games in their huge, new computer games section (which eventually moved or shrank and the area was re-used as their sports section).
I didn’t own a ZX81, and I can’t remember who did the own the one I used (sorry!), but I remember playing Horace Goes Skiing on the thing and being blown away by the crisp, engaging graphics and simple, responsive and engaging gameplay 😉 Anyway, I don’t really remember much more about the ZX81 other than it was tiny, especially compared to the tank-sized Atari 400.
Sinclair ZX Spectrum
I had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k. I did not own a Commodore 64. I wonder if people these days feel the Sony vs. Nintendo or PC vs Mac or Sega vs Anyone platform wars are vicious? You want vicious, you should have seen the C64 vs. Speccy platform wars of the 80’s. Only a tiny minority of people could afford to be in both the C64 and Speccy camps, you had one, but you didn’t have both, and while in our hearts we knew the C64 was technically superior we also knew what that meant in truth. What it resulted in. What it gave us. It gave us developers (on the ZX Spectrum) who worked magic on inferior hardware with idiosyncratic graphics and terrible sound. Worked magic and twisted the limits in every way they could imagine to give us high quality, engaging, terrific games that lasted for months. We got multi-channel sound out of a single speaker, not because the hardware supported it but because crazy programmers made it happen with trickery and pokery the likes of which has never been seen since. Tired of the static loading screen on games which took 5 minutes to read off tape? Fear not – ninja coders discovered ways of loading games and displaying animated or interactive screens at the same time. And so on.
On top of the software tricks that allowed the Spectrum to behave in ways it was never designed to do, there were a million peripherals which moved it from a little computer to a flexible and useful tool with thousands of uses.
The Atari 400 had wetted my appetite for writing software, the Spectrum turned me into a programmer, showed me that software was like poetry and that it could be both functional and beautiful in its own right.
But, this post is supposed to be about games, and the Spectrum had literally thousands. Despite the limitations of the hardware, the Spectrum had a version of just about every arcade classic it was possible to port, and there were very few titles which appeared on the C64 but not the Speccy. Most games were played with the keyboard, although if you could afford a joystick and an interface you could sit back in style (I opted for a Kempston micro-switch joystick, you can see a picture here). Some people preferred QAOP (up, down, left, right) while others were fans of QWPL (left, right, up, down).
It would take me days to write down the Spectrum games I remembered, and even longer to discover the ones I’d forgotten, and so here’s a short list which in no way at all does the system any justice.
- Skool Dayz – I was never very good at it, but I remember there being some controversy around the game, and it was okay to play.
- Jet Set Willy – a classic, seriously, and I’m still humming that damn tune. (If I was a rich man …..)
- Manic Miner – anyone who’s never played this should, and anyone who’s ever played it will recognise this.
- Tranz-Am – memorable not for the gameplay alone, but because you could play it two player on the same keyboard. On a 48K Spectrum, which is about half the size of a regular full size keyboard these days. Two kids, both using the same keyboard. ‘mazing.
- JetPac – simple, addictive, fun.
- Uridium – amazing side scroller with just awesome music and graphics!
- Lightforce – there was a lot of hype around this game, thanks to some amazing trick which meant the colours on the sprites didn’t bleed together like they did on all other Spectrum games. It turned out it was just clever sprite design, but none-the-less it sold well as a result. Check out the article in Crash magazine.
- Ah man there’s so many, Atic Atac, SaberWulf, Knight Lore, Bard’s Tale, Spy vs. Spy (split screen!), Elite, Arkanoid, and on and on and on.
Looking around on the web for various sites relating to old computer systems and games machines, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum appears to have one of the largest followings of any old system. I’m not surprised, it endured and grew and left a generation of owners.
I thought I’d write more about the Spectrum, but it’s hard because there’s just so much I could write, I don’t know how to limit it. If I start it’ll just go on for ever so this will have to do. Suffice to say it’s the computer system I have fondest memories of.
Anyway, I managed to get through four systems, and I’m already over 2000 words. I’ll save the others (and there are many to go) for another post or two. Still to come, Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, Atari 2600, BBC Micro B, Acorn Archimedes, Amstrad PC1512, Amstrad PC1640, Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis), Microsoft XBox, Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation 2, Sony Playstation 3, and all manner of PC’s.