1200 baud

The storage media of choice for the 80s home computer was the cassette tape. Most houses had a mono-cassette recorder, or they could be bought relatively cheaply. Loading a program would involve winding the tape to the correct point, and playing the 1200 baud signal into the computer. Minutes would pass and, if you had a spectrum, brightly coloured bars would flicker across the screen as the bleeps and squeals were converted into code.

While tidying up the shardcore studio I stumbled across these two examples, which nicely highlight the state of the software industry, circa 1983. First up, 747 by ‘Doctor Soft’: I’ve been unable to find out much online about this company, but with the photocopied insert it’s easy to see that this was probably a very small operation, operating out of someone’s house.

Contrast this with the BBC port of the hugely successful Manic Miner. Slick artwork and higher production values were a trademark of Software Projects, who produced this game.

This game also introduced a form of ‘copy protection’, which ingeniously played to the limits of available technology. Cassette games are obviously easy to copy – just get two cassette recorders and connect them together. This game came with a special four colour code grid, and you would be challenged to type in the relevant colour sequence. And of course, since there were no colour photocopiers to speak of in 1983, there was no easy way to copy this piece of paper.

The Video Genie

No, not magical sprite contained in a video recorder, but another also-ran computer of the 80s. It seems to be compatible with the TRS-80, but it’s unclear if it’s a simple clone, or something more sophisticated. The most startling feature, at least for us in the internet-age, is the integrated cassette recorder. Saving your BASIC program to cassette (and hoping it will load back in again) seems a doubly redundant activity – I’ve not played a music cassette for years, let alone tried to use one as a storage medium. My memories of using cassettes are mainly of the bitter tears of frustration after the tape machine ate the only copy of my long-laboured-over piece of code…

PCW Reviews the Spectrum, May 1982

The BBC just pipped Sinclair to the post when it released the first UK colour home computer, the BBC Micro, in 1982, but it was the ZX Spectrum which stole the hearts and minds of the nation. Clive Sinclair was very much the Steve Jobs of the day, as evidenced by his quote from the review:

“We believe the BBC makes the best TV programmes – and that Sinclair makes the world’s best computers!”

You can read some more about the spectrum in a previous post

Christmas 1981

More from CVG December 1981. Here we have the ‘Christmas Parade’ of all that’s best in handheld gaming. I remember seeing the LED Grand Prix game, and I definitely remember playing with Big Trak at my friend Darren’s house. Big Trak was a programmable truck which could remember a short sequence of moves and replay them, not quite as exciting as it appeared on the TV ads, but certainly head-and-shoulders above any non-programmable trucks…

In the same issue we see an advert for a Game & Watch. Really the first ‘pocketable’ computer game, with an LCD screen and annoying bleeps. Produced by Nintendo, but here appearing under the brand name of CGL, each model featured a single game [this one is a sort of 'Lion Taming' game] and a clock. The promise of ‘Game A’ and ‘Game B’ was a bit of a con, since ‘Game B’ was exactly the same as ‘Game A’, but slightly faster. However, despite these limitations, ownership of a Game&Watch in the early 80s guaranteed you’d be the most popular kid in the playground…

At last. A watch that's fun.

At last. A watch that's fun.

Computer & Videogames, issue 2, December 1981

Computer & Videogames (CVG) appeared on the scene at the tail end of 1981, it was a glossy monthly magazine of listings and game reviews, at odds with the existing ‘serious’ monthlies.

It promised to be all about fun and playing videogames! In reality this meant typing in pages of illegible listings and reading about things that were only sold in shops miles and miles away…

Solve The Cube!

The magazine that makes computers FUN FUN FUN!

Cover art is essential when trying to sell a magazine on a crowded shelf, and generally speaking CVG had excellent cover art. However, even now, I’m not sure the ship-sailing-the-treacherous-waves image screams ‘videogames’ at me.

The picture alludes to a listing for an inpenetrable tactical war game for the Tandy TRS-80. No one I knew had a Tandy, though I remember playing with the one they had stuck to the counter in the Tandy shop in Exeter, at least until the manager used to tell me to get lost.

While the cover art was usually pretty good, inside it was a different story. CVG featured some quite astonishingly poor drawings, some of them easily qualify for the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ category. For example this treat:

The Damsel and the Beast

The Damsel and the Beast

There’s lots to love inside the magazine, giving us a wonderful glimpse into the world of consumer entertainment technology of twenty-six years ago. Below are the ‘Games News’ pages in full, featuring such treats as ‘Rhino’ (“requires Acorn Atom, 10k of memory and a floating point ROM’), the above illustrated ‘Damsel and the Beast’ (which promises “a brave hero sworn to save the wretched by vociferous damsel”, but I fear may fail to deliver on the target platform of 16K ZX81), and the clearly Copyright infringing ‘Startrek’ (featuring Klingons with ‘super-fast firing lasers’.)

The magazine cover also promises to help us ‘Solve the Cube’, so tying nicely into the Rubik Cube craze sweeping the UK at the time. Unfortunately to solve the cube you needed a 40 column Commodore Pet – again a machine no one had – and required typing in 537 lines of code. I’m not sure what’s stranger – the idea that someone could condense the solution to a complex three-dimensional puzzle into 8k of BASIC, or that someone might in fact take the time to type it in…

Solve the Cube

Twiddling with a pet

More to come from this issue shortly…

The BBC Micro

Firstly, apologies to you all for an unexpected haiatus in retrogeekery. We’re back now, with an unregularly scheduled selection of prime 80s fun. I’d like to welcome a new contributer to the blog, imipak, who also has a stack of mouldering magazines in his collection and who has kindly offered to scan some for us:

And so, without further ado, here is the first contribution, from Personal Computer World, 1982, a ‘preview’ of ‘the most talked about machine in the history of the micro’, the BBC Microcomputer.

Your Ups and Downs at the touch of a button

Since the dawn of personal computing there has been the Biorhythms program. Desparate for something to show to the powerful computational power [and perhaps the graphics too] of your new machine, we would dutifully type in the program which would map our physical, emotional and intellectual ‘cycles’ so we could explain away our miserable mood swings. A pointless and scientifically unfounded exercise, but one that may result in some pretty graphs on the screen.

Here is a dedicated device for calculating these meaningless equations. Type in your birthdate and be instantly rewarded with three LED integers, use these numbers to explain to your mum why you haven’t tidied your bedroom, not done your homework, or why you need a sick-note to get of PE this week – worth every penny of £19.95

red light indicates critical period

red light indicates critical period

byte by byte

BASIC was pretty much the de facto language of the 80s home computer. Simple to learn, dog slow to run. To do anything really interesting with these little 8-bit beauties involved programming machine code. Instructions are inserted into the memory, byte by byte, then executed directly by the CPU. Whizzy fast. impossible to read.

Here we find a fine example of a machine-code listing from PCW. Take a good look at those long lists of numbers, and realise that getting a single one wrong means hours of debugging. Interestingly the author has included a rudimentary checksum for each line, which I presume would have made the process somewhat less painful – typing in listings was frequently a two person job, one to read out the list of numbers, the other to type them in. For pale and wan little boys, with no interest in fresh air and exercise, this was a perfect passtime.

SYS 24576 TO RUN

SYS 24576 TO RUN

The pac man war

In 1982 pac man was a phenomenon. It was the most popular arcade game by far, and hence generated a huge demand for versions to play at home. In the 80s enthusiasts in their bedrooms were the generators of much of the content, and to them, copyright, corporate branding and legal protection were unknowns – hence we saw numerous pac-man clones, some more accurate than others. However, even in 1982 it was apparent that video-gaming was to be a highly lucrative market, and as a result, a more ‘grown-up’ heavyweight approach to the scene emerged.

This news report is of a clash between mighty american titans Atari and Commodore, and caught in the cross-fire the plucky Brits Bug Byte, all over a little yellow circle who liked to eat dots.

PCW 25 November 1982

PCW 25 November 1982

This op-ed piece from Computer and Video Games puts it into some perspective.

Computer & Video Games October 1982

Computer & Video Games October 1982