Today, we look back the classic era of home computing that existed alongside the dreariness of business computing and the heart-pounding noise and colour of the arcades. Were you a Spectrum owner? Did colour clash rule your life? Did you experience tape load errors, and did you ever poke when you meant to peak? Whether you had a measly 16K or the full 128K, join us for some judgement-free reminiscence about the classic, golden era of early home computers. Note that this article might make Amstrad owners feel like they’re being made fun of. It’s okay, they’re used to it.
1. Loading games off tape
Why we miss it: Ah, soothing…
In the 1980s, cassette tape was the most common format for games distribution on home computers. The main downside of the tape medium was that it was slow. If you were lucky, you could load a game in about five minutes. Worse case, you could be looking at fifteen minutes before you could start playing. This required a bit of planning. While waiting for a game to load, you might put the kettle on, fix a snack, or you could get started with your Maths homework. Ha, ha – we’re joking about that last one. It got worse: one tape error and you’d have to start again from scratch. On systems that couldn’t manage loading music because of technical limitations, you could hear the electronic noise that was stored on the tape. This is now called ‘dubstep’ and young people dance to it in clubs.
Let’s put this into perspective by remembering that modern systems are often even worse than vintage ones. How many times do you get ready to play something just to be told that there’s a gigantic update that needs to be downloaded and installed before you can start? First time installs on modern systems often eclipse those of typical loading times on tape based systems.
2. Low res graphics
Why we miss it: Left a few things to imagination, and it was drenched with character.
The original Space Invaders, released in 1978, is actually a black and white game. European releases of the arcade cabinet used coloured plastic strips over parts of the screen to simulate a colour display. By the time home computing went mainstream, colour graphics were a minimum expectation. However, lots of colours on screen meant great demands on the memory and CPU. In the early 1980s, four, eight or maybe 16 colours were a reasonable expectation, along with some restrictions on where the colours were used. The number of pixels making up the image is another important factor in the perceived quality of graphics, more pixels offering finer details. Again, memory and CPU were a limiting factor here.
As with all aspects of the early era of home computing, the limitations fostered creativity. In the early days, the makers of games did their best to create graphics that gave a recognisable impression of what you were supposed to be looking at; at the same time, the player would usually have to use a bit of imagination. So, the amount of detail and of colour and the level smoothness of animation and scrolling all contributed to the overall quality of the game graphics. But having said that, the limitations gave the old systems character, and every computer system typically had its own distinctive look. In an interview, one designer was complimented for his commitment to ethnic diversity in his game. He explained that, actually, it hadn’t been a conscious decision on his part and that the system he was programming for, the Commodore 64, simply offered a lot of shades of brown in the palette.
When a new system came out, it often had a ‘wow factor’ due to its new graphical capabilities, and it’s difficult to describe what this was like to people who weren’t there at the time. You were, perhaps, used to seeing plain backgrounds, and now you were seeing subtle shading in the skylines for the first time. Perhaps you were seeing a photograph on screen that, for the first time, really looked like a photograph? It must have been similar to a person experiencing a colour film at the cinema for the first time or even someone getting a first taste of moving pictures. Nowadays, modern games sometimes evoke the style of so-called ‘pixel art’ for the nostalgic effect.
3. High scores and extra lives
Why we miss it: Simpler times.
Back in the early days, computer games were still in the process of being invented. In addition, the hardware itself placed limitations on what the game could consist of. This meant that a typical early computer game involved steering something around and shooting something or bouncing something off something in some way. Of course, the player needed some sort of mechanism to determine their progress through the game. Enemies would come at you in ‘waves’ and when you destroyed one enemy, you’d get a point added to your ‘score’. Destroy an entire wave and you’d go to the next ‘level’. Don’t worry, when you went wrong, you’d usually have another chance, if you had any ‘lives’ left. Early games tended to be rock hard and terribly unforgiving, occasionally dosing the player with the sweet drug of an extra life or an end of level boss. In the case of arcade machines, the difficulty level was as high as it was to extract the maximum amount of money from the player. In the case of early home computer games, it was there because ‘content’ – as nobody called it at the time – was at a premium due to memory limitations and making you play the same bit over and over again was the best way of stretching it out.
Cynicism aside, the level of difficulty made games of this era a test of skill and a high score something to boast about with your mates. Get a good score when it was all over and you could enter your name on the high score table. Arcade units typically allowed you to enter a three letter moniker by making entry with the joystick. It was a bit annoying when home computer games made you do this, even though there was a perfectly functional keyboard available. You could put words like “BUM” in if you were feeling in the mood for wry, classy humour. It’s debatable whether life was simpler back then, but the first generation of games typically were.
4. Playground rivalry
Why we miss it: Friendly combat. Happy days.
“My one is better,” you’d say. “No, mine is better,” the other boy would reply. Fair enough, to outsiders, it doesn’t sound that good, but it was. “Know your enemy,” you’d whisper to yourself as you rattled off a technical titbit that you’d picked up from one of the mags. The ZX Spectrum was hampered by colour clash, but on the other hand, it had loads of software, and it was a speed demon thanks to its fast CPU. Commodore 64 owners had a lot to brag about in terms of graphics, and it sported a mighty sound system that is still the stuff of underground chiptune legend today. Amstrad owners, well… They were nice people, generally.
By the next generation, the Commodore Amiga was the king of the playground. For a time, there wasn’t much you could say to an Amiga owner, unless you had something weird and expensive like an Apple Macintosh, a high-end PC Compatible or an Acorn Archimedes. This is all starting to sound like bullying, but mostly, it was part of the playful ribbing and camaraderie of the schoolyard. We extend everything we say here to include the bunch of 40 somethings in an office who were just as bad. Basically, if you had a system of some sort, you were probably having a good time with it in the evenings, and that was all that mattered.
There was another group: the console kids. Pound for pound, home computers were left in the dust by contemporary consoles, games-only machines with tricked-out hardware. It was this specialised, souped-up hardware that moved backgrounds around and threw colourful sprites at you with alarming speed and smoothness. The games consoles had the cream of the international, headline-grabbing franchises like Sonic The Hedgehog, Street Fighter and Mario, and using one was as simple as plugging in a cartridge and turning it on. Unless it didn’t work. Then, you could try… blowing on it! And it usually worked after that.
Back then, there were a lot of systems and a lot of exclusives. That meant that you were sometimes left wondering what a game was actually like, unless you had a mate who had the system that it ran on for you to drool over and envy. There was an aspect of unfairness to playground computer rivalries. Nine times out of ten, the parents did the paying, and what you had depended on how things doing, financially, at home. It felt achingly unfair when you were a few years behind and your family didn’t understand the importance of such matters. Calculations were made: a paper round, a Saturday job and saving half of one’s dinner money for a year and you could get back into the game, as it were. Credit where it’s due, a few kids did just that.
5. Computer clubs
Why we miss it: The camaraderie and the refuge from the slings and arrows of the ordinary world.
As with a lot of technological advancement, the improvements have removed some of the fun because it’s taken something out of the equation: other people. There was a time when if you wanted to ask a question about something computer related, or see something in action, you’d have to venture outside and into another building to go and see it. This was a social aspect to computing, and by ‘social’ we mean being out in the real world, within four feet of other humans.
There were various types of computer club. School ones, after school or lunchtime, were surprisingly good. Often you’d get a chance to mess around with expensive gear that you didn’t have at home. They could also be a refuge for people who didn’t excel in the academic or social hierarchies of school life. There were also privately run clubs in most towns. In the very early days, these would be concerned with computing in general. Later, when computers were more common, the clubs were typically defined by a brand of computer. You might find yourself meeting up in the upstairs room of a pub or in the back room of a community centre, with multi-adaptors draped over the backs of chairs, while various computers flashed and binged. Whatever the setting, getting together with some like-minded people to discuss a common interest was golden.
6. The sounds
Why we miss it: Always something new to amaze our ears.
Early home computers like the original ZX Spectrum could only make a beeping sound of variable pitch. However, as often happened in that era, genius prevailed and people found out to how to quickly switch between sounds so that you could have more than one simultaneous musical note and even some clicky percussion thrown in. This led to beautiful, complex game music that is highly evocative of the era. Later machines added the capability to have three or even four notes at once, leading to even more complicated compositions.
Of course, sound was meant for laser blasts, explosions and revving engines as well as music. Here, the progression was the same; clicks, beeps and drones gradually became more sophisticated as the hardware improved. The computer that speaks to you seemed like piece of science fiction daftness, something about as likely as the flying car, until it actually happened. In the early days, programmers found ways to replay a grainy phrase of movie dialogue or even synthesize the phonetic elements of speech to make the computer talk in a robotic voice.
Things progressed and progressed, and by the early 90s, computers had a sound capability that rivalled the synthesizers of the time. By the time the PlayStation came around in 1994, the music sounded as good as a CD because it was being streamed from a CD. As with much of the progress in home systems, although the quality became perfect, something was lost in terms of character. In the early days, you would often be amazed at the inventiveness of the programmer who had found a way to coax a serviceable, recognisable, or sometimes, otherworldly sound out of primitive hardware. These days, there’s quite a scene around so-called ‘chip music’. It’s a scene that recognises the greatness of the past masters of the golden era while keeping the spirit alive with new compositions that make the most out of the limitations of the old hardware.
7. Learning to program
Why we miss it: A rewarding activity that taught us a lot.
10 PRINT “DEN OF GEEK IS COOL!”;
20 GOTO 10
Type that into an old computer. Then type RUN. Then actually run – run away as fast as you can, leaving the staff in the 1980s computer shop that you’ve time-travelled back to baffled, you legend! What we have above is an example of a small program listing. The first line tells the computer to print onto the screen the string of characters contained between the speech marks. The second line tells the computer to return to the first line and execute it again, meaning that the whole thing will go around forever. If you’re not familiar with computer programming, it might surprise you to learn that all software is made up of lists of instructions like that. Examples include the Microsoft Windows operating system, games like Counter-Strike and the web browser you’re using to read this article. Of course, those programs are much bigger and more complicated than our example above and are written in a more modern language than BASIC, the teaching language that was built into older computers.
There’s a serious point to all of this. Old computers typically presented you with a command prompt as soon as you switched them on, meaning that they were practically begging to be programmed on. A lot of people lament that fact that they lost touch with programming when they moved onto bigger, more complicated computer systems. Typing in massive games listings from books and magazines was often part of the hobby back in the day. You might even tell yourself that you were getting a free game in return for a bit of effort. You’d spend hours and hours typing the thing in, finally be able to type RUN, and when you did, something magical would happen: it wouldn’t work. As often as not, a long program would fail with an error on a first attempt, and then you’d have to do some debugging to figure out what the problem was. The best bit? You’d learn a lot about programming in the process. In fact, that is how many professional programmers got started. The serious problem is that it means that computer obsessed teenagers of the 1980s often knew more about how computers worked than modern teenagers do now. Amazing, when you think about it.
8. Attribute clash
Why we miss it: Because it’s a cute little limitation.
Many early computers used an attribute system to control the use of colour on the screen. The ZX Spectrum had the most famous example of this, where it was affectionately known as ‘colour clash’. The screen was, basically, black and white, however it was possible to assign each 8×8 square of pixels with two colours from a total of sixteen. Many of the systems of the time employed a similar system because it sped up the graphics processing and saved on memory. It gave a very colourful display but with some limitations. Let’s say you’ve got a guy on screen, and he’s red. The problem starts when he stands too close to the alien, because the alien was green and part of our hero now turns green too. Things get worse – they were both standing next to something that was blue. Welcome to the wonderful world of colour clash. The Amstrad CPC was a good, successful machine. As a later machine of the 8 bit era, it had an impressive, full colour specification, 16 colours from a palette of 27, with no colour clash. Unfortunately, that computer had a CPU that was about the same power as the one in a ZX Spectrum and it turned into a total slugabed when it attempted actually move the graphics around in a game. Great for screenshots, not so great for actually playing.
9. Playground piracy
Why we miss it: Don’t miss this one so much.
Piracy was a big part of the computer gaming scene in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, people would often choose the same machine as their friends so that they could copy games for free. Typically, it ranged all the way from people who did the odd bit of copying, right to people who would have a drawer full of copied software, never having bought anything in their lives. Software publishers fought back by implementing copy protection schemes on disks and tapes. These measures only prevented casual copying as groups formed to remove the protection or ‘crack’ the games, distributing these versions of the games via postal networks or online warez BBSes.
A lot of those kids who would have laughed at the idea of paying for software in the 1980s changed their tune as adults. Part of it is understanding that nice things like games cost money to produce and not wanting to feel like a leech, along with earning enough money to be able to afford games. Also, the value for money can often be better on modern games thanks to things like Steam sales, the thriving second hand market and budget indie games, particularly when taking inflation into account.
10. The demo scene
Why we miss it: It amused and sometimes amazed us.
Serious applications allowed you to create things, games made you do things, and demos didn’t do anything. Demonstration programs have probably existed as long computers have existed as the engineers had to cobble together code to test the hardware. The Amiga Boing Ball, created during the 1984 CES show, is a famous example of a demo. The demo, consisting of a bouncing, rotating ball, wowed potential customers by showing off the revolutionary graphical capabilities of the Commodore Amiga before the actual hardware was ready for release.
The demos that came out of the demo scene were created by artists and programmers who simply wanted to show off their skills along with the capabilities of the hardware. The demo scene was particularly strong in continental Europe, and the Amiga tended to be the lead platform, although every machine had at least a bit of scene. The demos would be traded, often physically, via the post and also via BBS systems. The scene itself consisted of members from around the world, so it’s also an early example of international co-operation using computers. It’s fascinating, really, because the demo scene was an art scene that produced thousands of examples of music, graphics and code, but never entered the mainstream. Most people don’t even know it existed, and there are still a healthy number of groups producing demos today.
11. Memory limitations
Why we miss it: It fostered creativity and was something to be overcome.
Part of the innovation of home computers – computers that an average person could afford to own – was their stripped down nature. When poring over the spec-sheet, expensive RAM (Random Access Memory) chips were often the first casualty of the bean counters. The Sinclair ZX81 was released with 1K of memory, or 1024 bytes. That’s not bad, if you think about it. It’s over a thousand storage locations for characters or numbers between 0 and 255 or for parts of a simple program to do something with that data. Imagine adding together 500 of those numbers in your head. Well, in its defence, the humble ZX81 could do that almost instantly.
On a more advanced system with 32K of RAM, if you wanted 16 onscreen colours at once, you might lose 20K, leaving only 12k for the program and the operating system! Out of adversity comes innovation, and many early games got around this limitation by using what’s called procedural generation. Rather than storing the game world, a formula was used to generate it as required. You’ll recognise the technique in modern games like Minecraft; that’s how that game generates a practically infinite number of landscapes that are always the same as you journey back and forth around them. No Man’s Sky is another modern game that uses procedural generation to create a huge variety of explorable content.
There came a time when 1K, 16K or even 48K of RAM wasn’t enough. For example, The Atari ST, released in 1985, debuted with 512K of RAM, an amount that made old-timers shake their heads as they wondered what on earth anyone could use 512K for. However, computers of the mid and late 1980s needed that amount of RAM to provide the then cutting edge graphics and sound alongside more complex software that people were beginning to expect. Get ready for when a person, younger than you, laughs at the idea of computers that shipped with less than 4TB (4096 GB) of RAM. “Sonny, I remember when I had a hard disk drive that was that size, and I was glad of it!” you’ll proclaim to that young person, who will try not to look embarrassed by your mad ranting.