First published in ITWALES.com [online] magazine, Aug 2007
Thirty years ago our family first purchased a BBC Micro (or ‘the Beeb’) – a sleek, stylish, cream-coloured machine, complete with a matching cassette data-recorder. It was new, exciting – a gateway into another world.
Back in the early 1980s, the BBC Micro was also the computer of choice for schools, which meant that there was an instant homework advantage to anyone who owned one. But there was plenty of competition for the Beeb. In our ‘computer gang’, apart from four Beeb users, there were three Commodore [CBM] 64 lads, and of course the obligatory Sinclair ZX Spectrum dude. (A couple of people had a Dragon 32 machine, but being typical snooty schoolboys, we didn’t care much for them).
Britain seemed to be going Micro-computer crazy. BBC TV of course made use of the Beeb itself – there was Teletext for a start, and Making the Most Your Micro (presented by Ian McNaught Davis). Even popular shows like The Adventure Game and Doctor Who frequently featured graphical effects generated by the Beeb.
Program Power There were always plenty of Micro games to choose from back then – at first, these were variations on arcade favourites: Pac Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Frogger. Later, it seemed that each Micro-computer had its own core group of suppliers. For the Beeb, for example, Acornsoft and Micro Power seemed to have the market.
Of the games I remember playing, Castle Quest, Escape From Moonbase Alpha, and Frak! were personal favourites. There are many others which appear to have become legendary: Chuckie Egg, Elite, to name just two.
Nowadays, we have CD-ROMs, memory sticks. In the early 1980s, one would purchase a game on cassette (sometimes at £7.95 a time), type LOAD″″ or CHAIN″″ into the command prompt, and press <Enter>. Then, it was necessary to wait, fingers crossed, while the abstract download sound blasted out, and the hexadecimal display of data ticked over, as the game loaded.
Where are they now? It occurred to me recently that four of us from the gang are currently working within the IT industry. I began to wonder how many other people in IT-related professions had similar Micro-computer interests back in the 1980s.
To verify this point, a survey (regarding the ownership of Micro-computers during the early 1980s to early 1990s period) was undertaken at a Cheshire-based IT corporation. The results were as follows -
* Games frequently played (selected list) - Microprose Soccer, Munchymen, Elite, Mortal Kombat, Doom, Heretic, Hexen, Repton, Chuckie Egg, Frontier, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Dungeon Master, Manic Miner, JetPac, Sabre Wulf, Monty Mole, Radar Rat Race, The Count, Pirate Adventure, ‘Way of the Exploding Fist’, Defender, Bomber Command, Green Beret, Yie Ar Kung Fu.
* Programming Languages used - BASIC, BASIC2, Turbo, Pascal, Assembler, Ada, Coral66, GFX BASIC AMOS
* Magazines read - Computer & Video Games, Amiga Pro, Amiga Format, Amiga Power, Crash, Your Sinclair, Amstrad Computer User, Zzap! 64, Electron User, PC World, ACE (Advanced Computer Entertainment)
As may be noted, a variety of the most common Micro-computers were owned by the twenty-two people who completed the survey (although one or two folk admitted to also owning an Intel 286 and a Mission 386). In addition, a number of languages were evidently used for programming, with variations on BASIC being the most popular. Most people claimed to have been interested in gaming only or both programming and gaming. Only two had an official computer club at their school. Approximately sixty per-cent of the people claimed that their interest in Micro-computers directly affected their choice of career.
Join the Club For the gang, our break-times were certainly spent chatting about the latest gaming software, or how we would one day be creating our own fantastic software. Yes, there was much talk – and this continued within the computer clubs of the time. After school, there was always a mini programming challenge set by the teacher, although games were a ‘no-no’. In the club that met at the local town hall however, there was always much discussion about current games and the programs that the more advanced users were involved with. I remember how one guy was building his own BBC Micro.
From discussions with friends in the local area, it is clear that schools currently take an interest in computing outside of the regular curriculum. One Year 9 student reported that at his school, students are able to make use of the computer room during lunchtimes. He also mentioned that not so long ago, there was an organised group who played Unreal Tournament via the school network, and that the study and use of the Blitz BASIC product range was encouraged. Another Year 8 student mentioned that gaming in her school is not allowed, but that it is possible to use the computer labs to complete homework at lunchtime.
There certainly appears to be a move towards encouraging children to learn how to program once again. For example, Microsoft presently market ‘C# for Sharp Kids’ and ‘VB for Very Bright kids’. The teaching methodologies for these packages make use of cartoons and easy-to-learn code examples. In addition, Morrison Schwartz’s KPL (Kids Programming Language) – a freeware product – aims to teach programming techniques, through creative learning, and the effective use of gaming-based graphics and sound.
Merry Meetings Computer clubs are of course not just for children and teenagers. For example, RONWUG (the RISC OS North West User Group) continue to promote the Acorn systems. Affiliated with the [international] Acorn Association of User Groups, RONWUG meet to discuss RISC OS (Reduced Instruction Set Computer Operating System) based applications and news. The RISC OS itself was first employed within Acorn’s Archimedes range, in 1987 (which followed in the path of the BBC Micro and Master).
In the RONWUG meeting I attended, following a news update, a newly released website development tool (‘Web Wonder’) was discussed. The atmosphere within the meeting was reminiscent of the clubs I attended during the 1980s, with members sharing snippets of relevant application experience. Past topics of discussion for RONWUG have included ‘A Look at Text Adventure Games’ and ‘Introduction to the A9Home Computer’.
Past and Present Publications The RISC OS magazine Qercus is a direct descendant of Acorn User. Recent editions contain regular features on RISC OS art packages, the multi-platform programming language ‘Lua’, and software application reviews. In addition, Classic Acorn User and Electron User articles are also being reprinted this year, to celebrate twenty-five years of Acorn User and the Beeb. Example reprints include ‘the best strategy to complete Elite’, and a report containing classic BBC BASIC listings.
As far as I recall, there were always plenty of publications for the keen Micro user, in the 1980s. Apart from reviews, gaming hints and interviewers with top programmers, most magazines also contained listings for BASIC language programs. Reviewing of a copy of Computer & Video Games from 1984, I noted program listings for the Beeb, CBM64, Spectrum, Oric1, Atari 400 and Texas TI-99/4A Micros.
From what I have read and discussed, it seems that many young programmers in the 1980s started out by typing in these programs from the range of magazines – programmers who went on to produce many top-selling games. It’s a little-known fact, but a game entitled ‘Bouncers’ was designed and produced by our gang (c.1988) for the Beeb Model B, but failed to impress software distributors. It was still a triumph for us, of course.
A wander through any good newsagent these days will reveal almost twice as many available IT magazines – for example, Web Designer, Computer Active, PC Advisor. Again, these publications have news and reviews of the latest hardware and software applications. In the sample of publications I examined however, only Linux Magazine seemed to have a set of program listings for users to work through. Similarly, ORACLE magazine (a trade publication) features reviews and interviews but has a dedicated regular ‘Developer’ section, which discusses PL/SQL programming issues.
One interesting title is Retro Gamer. This has big focus on the history of classic games, where and if those games are still available, and the programming teams involved. The magazine also contains an excellent ‘Making Of…’ feature. The latest edition, for example, provides an in-depth review of the development of the afore-mentioned Chuckie Egg.
Re-emulator There appears to be a desire to recreate the programming/gaming scene of the 1980s – currently it is possible to download a variety of Micro-computer Emulators for the PC. The result is probably nothing more than a walk into ‘nostalgia’, but many hours of fun can be had, revisiting the simplicity in BASIC programming or block-graphic games. And the technology to re-create such fun extends beyond this. The ‘Commodore C64 Plug and Play’ joystick for example, may be connected to a regular TV and contains no less than thirty popular CBM64 games within its circuitry.
Once bitten People often laugh when one mentions the humble Micro-computer, and you may be one of those folk. But ask yourself if you are in fact a secret Micro user. Do your fingers start to itch when you walk into a modern computer store? Do you find yourself strolling over to a PC, and ever so carefully typing the following instructions?
>10 PRINT “Name”;
>20 GOTO 10
You do? Then surely you too, must be a ‘New Romantic’ 1980s Micro-computer geek.