Being born in the 60's (just!, it was 1969) means that I'm old enough to have experienced the birth of popular home computing. I was a child of the 80's, which was such an exciting time in every respect; music, fashion, world politics, and not least the explosion in personal home computing devices.
By todays standards, these machines are almost laughable, performance-wise. But it's important to remember where modern computers started out, and I feel honoured to have lived through and experienced the growth of that industry. It's with a nostalgic tear in my eye that I look back upon the devices of yesterday, and I've managed to start a small collection which I'd like to share on this site.
The very concept of creating a page on a global network where anyone in the world could instantly read what I write hadn't even been considered back then, but today it's hard to imagine a world without the Internet. I'm proud to have lived through it all, and it's something that I feel today's youth have seriously missed out on, through no fault of their own, obviously.
As you read through these stories, try to remember that the machines were cutting edge at the time. They might look ancient now (technically, I guess they are) but these old units inspired so many people to create magnificent, magical things. The people who grew up playing games on these devices are the same people who are now creating the amazing games that kids take for granted today. The beeps and clicks of the first home computers have evolved into the crystal-clear lifelike audio that we're all accustomed to. Basic, rudimentary block graphics paved a way for the Photoshops and PaintShops of today.
This was groundbreaking stuff, laying the foundations for things we now rely so heavily upon. I have nothing but respect for the pioneers of home computing. The following articles don't cover the history of every machine since personal computing began, there are plenty of websites documenting that. I am only writing about my personal experiences with computers that I actually owned.
The humble ZX81 was my first programmable computer. They were available in kit form or pre-built, from 1981 onwards in the UK.
I remember nagging my mum to take me to Woolworths every time we visited Chester, just so I could see these new-fangled devices in their polystyrene and card boxes on the shelves next to the record section. Now and then one was set up as a demo, but it was in a plastic case so the public couldn't physically touch it. I'll never forget that momentous Christmas morning when I came downstairs to find that familiar sized box waiting for me under the tree. I knew what it was before I even unwrapped it.
The machine itself was very, very basic. It was small, had a horrible (although awesome at the time) membrane keypad, no physical on-off switch, an output that only fed a TV (there were no monitors available to Joe Public at the time), and saved your programs to a separate audio cassette. Of course it also loaded pre-saved programs from the audio cassette and it was a major challenge getting the volume levels right. Too loud or quiet and the program would fail, leaving you with an infinite "Loading..." message on screen.
Spec-wise, the Sinclair ZX81 was pretty dire by today's standards. It used an 8-bit Z80 CPU, running at 3.75Mhz. (Yes, MHz not GHz!) With regards to memory, the ZX81 came as standard with a whopping 1K of RAM. ONE KILOBYTE. Like, 1024 bytes. To put this in perspective, the picture of the ZX81 just up there is 68K. That single picture takes up 68 times more memory than what was available with the ZX81! Still, even with this limitation, some clever guy managed to create a fully functional chess game! OK, the 'graphics' were pretty much non-existant, but it was a playable game, and actually had an AI. Although I seem to remember it being quite easy to beat.
This device had so little computing power available that it couldn't process the keyboard input and video output at the same time, so each time you pressed a key, the display would go blank! It was marketed as 'key press confirmation', but us geeks knew the score. And forget about colour! The video output on the ZX81 was strictly monochrome - or 'Black & White' in old language.
Even with these severe limitations, the ZX81 opened the floodgates for a revolution, and while it wasn't actually the first home computer to be readily available (the ZX80 was its predecessor), it was my first one and I remember it fondly.
I have a mint condition boxed ZX81 in my collection, although it's not the actual one from my youth. I swapped that for a remote controlled car if I remember correctly.
I first encountered the BBC Micro on an 80's TV show called Micro Live. It seemed leaps and bounds ahead of my ZX81, and it was made by the BBC so it must be amazing, right?
Well to be fair, it was pretty decent but it was huge (I was used to a ZX81) and it cost an absolute fortune. There was no way I could ask my mum for one of those, especially having recieved the ZX81 a few months earlier. As it happens, I found some in the classified ads of our local paper. Two non-working identical BBC B's, for around twenty quid. Of course my mum was kind enough to "lend" me the money. Come to think of it, I must pay her back sometime.
It turns out that one was completely dead (even though the fuse was fine), and the other one sort of booted up, but didn't do what it was supposed to and the on-screen text was garbled and unreadable. I swapped some chips from the dead one (a lot of the IC's were on sockets rather than soldered to the motherboard) into the semi-working one and Bingo!, a fully functional BBC Model B for the price of a pair of Doc Martens! Total bargain! I never did fix the other one and ended up selling it for a fiver to a school mate.
The machine itself wasn't too bad to be fair. It came with a decent version of BASIC, was very reliable (compared to the ZX81) and oh, that keyboard! What an absolute joy to type on. This thing had a mechanical keyboard about 30 years before they were cool! - (probably because rubber dome keyboards hadn't been invented yet). Anyway, I learned to actually write working programs on the BBC B, as opposed to just typing them in from magazine listings on the Sinclair. It had sound! and COLOUR! and selectable video resolutions! This thing was nothing short of awesome!
The BBC Micro was widely adopted by schools and colleges as the machine of choice, and if you did any kind of computer studies in the early 80's, the chances are you used one of these. The actual hardware was made by a company called Acorn Computers who were based in Cambridge, under license to the BBC. Acorn had a number of other successful computers which included the Atom and the Electron, but the BBC Micro model B totally dominated the computing scene of the early 80's.
Games-wise, the BBC Micro was leagues ahead of the ZX81. Granted,it only had 16 colours (well, 8 really, then the same 8 at half-brightness) but what it did have, it used to great effect. Sound was also something new to computing, and the beeps made all the difference!. There were loads of games available - the industry was really starting to take off - and some classics included the likes of 'Chuckie Egg' and 'Frak!'.
But the real masterpiece was a game by David Braben and Ian Bell called 'Elite'. No one would realise it until years later, but this game was so ahead of it's time that it still exists today, albeit in a somewhat updated version. Games up until this point had been shoot-em-ups, side-scrollers, platformers etc, but this game was 3D! Up until this point, every other game I'd seen had always been 2D. This feeling of depth added massively to the experience, and after seeing this, game creators started realising the potential of large-scale playable worlds. Imagine being able to fly a spaceship to anywhere in the known universe, which incidentally was accurately modelled regarding the positions of stars and planets. You could be a simple trader, a pirate, an explorer, the possibilities were endless! Having the imagination of a 12 year old boy (well, I WAS a 12 year old boy) easily turned the wireframe graphics of Elite into a full-on cinematic adventure of epic proportions!
Check out some screenshots of the original game compared with the latest incarnation...
I think it's fair to say that graphics technology has advanced quite a bit since it all began. The shots on the right are from Elite:Dangerous by Frontier Software, a company created and still run by David Braben, co-creator of the original Elite. These aren't static images, they are screen shots of real-time gameplay, running at 60 frames per second. Mind blowing!
Around the same time that the BBC B was available, a new computer appeared, the Commodore VIC-20. This was Commodore's first foray into the home market, having been reasonably successful in the business sector. I don't think they realised just how successful the VIC-20 would actually be, it ended up being the first computer of any kind to sell over one million units.
I wouldn't say home computers were part of everyday life yet, but they were certainly becoming more and more common in households across the country, and they were the talking point of every classroom, for the boys at least. I could never quite understand why the girls weren't as interested in computers and videogames as we were back then, but I guess that has changed now with girl gamers being the majority.
The VIC-20 used a 6502 CPU, had 5K memory (woooo!) which was expandable to 32K if you had a money tree growing in your garden. It also had 16 colours which were actually individual unlike the BBC B which cheated a little, and had 4 channel sound.
The power supply on this thing was like a brick, and it didn't have a built-in RF modulator, meaning there was a separate box between the computer and the TV to convert the signal into something the TV could display. This machine also used magnetic cassettes to load or save data, but had a dedicated tape deck so you didn't have to worry about setting the right volume levels. Discs were also available but were again, very expensive and beyond the reach of a twelve year old kid.
The VIC-20 was the machine that popularised game cartridges though; plug-in cartridges (or 'carts') that contained whole games. This meant super-reliable play, zero loading times and much bigger programs due to the carts having their own on-board memory.
The games themselves were decent enough, and at least matched the type of things that could be found in the arcades at that time such as 'Space Invaders' or 'Defender'. 'Sargon II Chess' was a huge improvement on the ZX81 chess game, both in terms of graphics and artificial intelligence. You could even load part-played famous chess games and have a crack at completing them your own way. Some more iconic VIC-20 games included the likes of 'Blitz!' where you had to bomb a row of buildings to create somewhere for your plane to land before you ran out of fuel, 'Omega Race' which was a sort of Asteroids clone, 'Gridrunner' which was a centipede style shoot-em-up based on only X and Y Axis player movement, 'Frogger' which needs no explanation (I would hope) and 'Galaxians' which was like Space Invaders except the aliens were a lot less predictable, and it was hugely more colourful.
While still being very low resolution by todays standards, games were starting to look a little more advanced. Sound and animation were also improving, albeit slowly.
The world of home computing went crazy in 1982! New machines were released left, right and centre! Things were taking off in a huge way, and device manufacturers fought for the loyalty (and cash) of the consumer. The three main competitors for the home market now were the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and the Dragon 32. Each had their own plus and minus points, and for reasons I can't remember, I was lucky enough to own all three.
The Dragon 32 was very similar to the popular Tandy TRS-80, not in looks but pretty much everything else. They were pretty unique in that they were one of the few computers manufactured in Wales. This was still an 8-bit computer, with the '32' in it's name referring to the 32KB of RAM available. Even though it had a more advanced CPU (it used the 6809 where most of it's rivals still used the 6502), it suffered due to bad system design, and soon became obsolete as the more popular Commodore 64 and ZX-Spectrum took the lead.
The Dragon 32 also suffered when rendering particular fonts - in fact, it couldn't even display lower-case letters out of the box, a program had to 'trick' it into being able to do so, but at the expense of system resources. For this reason, the Dragon 32 couldn't even be marketed as a business computer. Who would want to write a letter using only CAPS?
A bit later on, Dragon Data released an updated version of the machine called the Dragon 64 (which unsurprisingly, had 64K of RAM) but by then the damage to the brand was done, sales were disappointing, and the company collapsed in 1984.
I'm lucky enough to have a boxed Dragon 32 in my collection though. One thing that stuck in my mind about the computer at the time, was seing a demo of a robot approaching over the horizon, only rendered in 4 shades of Grey, but with such smooth animation it was mesmerising. This would look comical today, but at the time it was pretty mindblowing.
While the Dragon 32 and 64 faded away into obscurity, the two big-hitters of the time battled it out for supremacy, those were exciting times, and a great time to be fifteen! There's no denying that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum has become one of the most iconic images of the 80's. It's right up there with flamboyant shirts, mad hair, and Rubik's cubes.
Sinclair's compact little unit packed some punch, and despite it's horrible rubber keyboard, very limited graphics, and rather pathetic sound system, it became one of the most popular home computers of the time. The software base was huge, especially games, and peripherals were in no short supply either.
The machine still used a version of the 8-bit Z80 CPU (the Z80A in fact), but due to huge advances in system design, used it very well. It was available in a number of varieties too, including 16K versions, 48K, 128K, versions with hard keyboards and even versions with built-in tape decks. Many people consider the ZX Spectrum as the catalyst which kicked off the IT revolution in the UK, and Sir Clive Sinclair received a Knighthood in recognition of his services and contribution to the UK economy.
The machine became affectionately known as the "Speccy", and its competition came in the form of the Oric Atmos, Amstrad CPC, the latest version of the BBC Micro and the Oric-1 to name but a few, but it's main competitor was Commodore's recently introduced C64. Kids in the mid-80's generally fell in to one of three fields; Speccy users, C64 users, or 'other' users.
Spectrum games were the main selling point of the machine. The screenshots above are (in order): Rainbow Islands, Dizzy, R-Type, Batman, Manic Miner, Atic Atac. Batman is of special note because movie tie-ins were not commonplace back then. I couldn't call myself a true collector if I didn't have a mint condition boxed ZX Spectrum in my collection :)
Finally, we have the Commodore 64, or as it was known, the 'C64'. This computer had everything; great design, huge software support, decent keyboard, amazing sound, sprites, colours that were addressable on a pixel (rather than block) level and a decent (at the time) amount of memory (64K, hence the C64...)
This was the computer that eventually won the war of home computing, and is still listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the best selling home computer of all time, totalling around 17 million units. It outsold all the IBM PC Compatibles, all Apple computers and everything offered by Atari. Part of its success could be attributed to Commodore's policy of sending technical design documents to software developers, allowing them to get the very best out of the hardware available. All other manufacturers at that point (most noticeably Apple and Atari) kept their circuit designs a close guarded secret.
The keyboard was a hybrid design which had similarities between the new (at the time) rubber dome/carbon pad type and spring-loaded mechanical type used by the BBC Micro. Compared to the Speccy, it was an absolute joy to type on, and unlike the BBC Micro, had cursor keys which were placed in a position that rendered them actually usable.
The machine came bundled with Commodore's version of BASIC on ROM, which meant it was ready to rock as soon as you turned the power on. The file system was also based on BASIC which while being comparatively slow, was a more than capable system. But the main attractions to the C64 were its graphics and sound capabilities. For these, it had designated chips (VIC and SID respectively) and, to put it bluntly, it wiped the floor with the competition.
Many digital artists took advantage of the C64's capabilities, and the music and graphics scene started to really take off with slideshows and demo's a regular sight on bulletin boards and in genre magazines of the day. Of course the machine didn't really have the power needed to render these new 'high resolution' graphics quickly enough to allow them to be used in games (not fast moving games, anyway), but even the lower resolution modes used for gaming were still better than alternatives offered by the C64's competitors.
Likewise, the sound chip used in the C64 (SID 6581) was unique to this machine, and was light-years ahead of the competition. It was a combination of analogue and digital circuits (on a single chip) and included 4 tone generators, 3 different kinds of waveform generators, amplitude modulators, envelope generators, ring modulation and programmable filters. This stuff was unheard of until the release of the C64, and really advanced the methods of sound production and reproduction on home computing systems. In comparison, the beeps and clicks of the Dragon 32, ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro were laughable.
Games-wise, the Commodore 64 was second only to the Speccy in terms of variety and availability. While the majority were the standard 2D affairs, 3D games were becoming more common, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Frontier Software with their classic, Elite. Most software houses produced games for both the Speccy and the C64, but as the Z80A and 6510 processors were so vastly different in design and architecture, the games couldn't simply be ported over, they had to basically be written from the ground up for the target machine. Because of this, many games appeared on one machine first, then quite a while later on the other.
Even though the C64 and Spectrum, BBC Micro, Oric-1, Atari 800, CPC-464 etc.. were quite limited in terms of hardware, this didn't stop game makers coming up with a huge range of games, from 2D scrollers through 'point and click' adventure games to 3D ground breaking titles such as 'Elite' and 'The Sentinel'. Reading back on the actual specs and capabilities of the hardware involved, it amazes me that the developers were actually able to make such great games on these old machines. There seemed to be a lot of tricks and cheats used to squeeze every ounce of performance from these things.
'Barbarian 2', 'Castle Master' and 'Elite' show some of the varying game types available on the C64, a 2D beat-em-up, a filled 3D explorer adventure and a wireframe 3D space adventure (although later versions of Elite included 3D filled graphics).
'International Karate+' (or IK+ as it was known) brought amazing multiplayer playability to the scene, the 'Last Ninja' series of games introduced stealth as a method of play, and 'Little Computer People' (or LCP) brought something new to the table - a game where you had to care for 'little people' that supposedly lived inside your computer. I guess this was a precursor to the likes of 'The Sims' which is so ridiculously popular today.
'Outrun' was very popular in the arcades, and this popularity carried over to the home market via the C64. 'Pit Stop' introduced split-screen multiplayer racing on home computers, and I recall many a heated gaming session with my schoolmates playing this. 'Prince Of Persia' was quite revolutionary in terms of player motion and fluid animation, way before the days of motion capture.
My personal journey ends with the Amiga. After this machine, we move on to the Playstations and the XBox's, generic PC's and consoles that don't have the same character as the vintage machines, and somehow weren't as groundbreaking. But I don't want to end this article on a depressing note, let's talk about the amazing machine that was the Commodore Amiga!
I can't imagine a more perfectly designed personal computer. Everything about the Amiga A500 was right - back in 1987 of couse. I was 18, videogames on home computers were mainstream, and this machine took home computing to the next level. Its main competitor was the Atari 520ST, along with 4th generation game consoles such as the MegaDrive, SNES, NeoGeo etc, but none could really compete with what the Amiga was capable of technically.
The standard A500 used a Motorola 68000 CPU which was well-proven in the business sector as being a fast (at the time) and reliable chip. It was actually a 32bit CPU, but as it only used a 16bit data bus, it was bottlenecked somewhat by design. Having said that, it was a huge leap up from the 8bit machines which preceeded it.
The original A500 had 512K of RAM (Yes! Half a Meg!) and could display graphics at a resolution of 736x567 interlaced at 4 bits per pixel on a PAL display. Positively ultra high resolution by the standards of the day! It also boasted 4 channels of 8 bit PCM sound at 28Khz. Crazy specs! Adding to this, there was a trap door underneath where the user was able to add an expansion board to take it up another 512K to 1Meg of RAM. That's a thousand times more memory than the ZX81 offered, only six years earlier. It was obvious that leaps and bounds were being made in the field of computing.
The Amiga 500 also had something very rare for a home machine - socketed chips. These had been seen before in the BBC Micro (mainly due to chip availability and costs), but in the case of the A500 they were part of the design. This has a number of benefits. Firstly, it allowed easy replacement of defective chips (thankfully a rare occurrence, but it was nice to know you could just bang in a new chip rather than scrapping the whole machine). Secondly, the CPU could be directly upgraded to a 68010, 68020 or 68030. You could even fit a 68040 via the side expansion slot if you had the cash to afford one. In fact, all the custom chips could be upgraded to the Amiga Enhanced Chip Set (ECS) versions. The idea was unheard of up until that point, and I personally think it was a great idea of the Amiga designers.
Workbench was the GUI based file manager of the Amiga, which itself ran on top of the operating system which was known as 'AmigaOS'. It looked very similar to what Microsoft Windows does today, except the first version of Workbench was released in February 1985, and Windows didn't come along until November of that year. The A500 also came bundled with a two-button mouse.
While the A500 was an awesome gaming machine, it was marketed as a multimedia home computer. Along with this title came several 'Killer Apps'. These included graphics manipulation software, music and audio editors, midi controllers, copying software along with the usual word processors and spreadsheet applications.
Software of note included 'Deluxe Paint' (which went on to become Paint Shop Pro on the PC), 'Octamed' which was an 8-channel audio sample sequencer which spawned a thousand clones, and was the grandfather of today's sequencing software, and 'X-COPY' which was for making mirror copies of floppy disks - even 'file protected' ones. Yes, piracy was in its infancy in 1987, but even back then software tools were being written which could make copies of disks, under the guise that they could be used as legitimate backup tools, which of course they could.
There were even a number of game creation software utilities available, which were based on BASIC, but opened up much more powerful commands to the user, without having him resort to machine code. The main offerings were AMOS (which was the Amiga version of STOS on the Atari ST), and Blitz Basic. Both had their advantages and disadvantages, but AMOS won out due to it's easier syntax and more powerful commands.
Games created with AMOS were basic, but playable nonetheless, and it gave home users the chance to dabble with what was essentially a very capable machine. I wonder how many of today's game developers typed their first few lines of code on the likes of AMOS, STOS or Blitz. But it was the professionally created games that made the Amiga so popular. Studios were popping up all over the place, and teams of programmers were taking full advantage of the specialised chips the Amiga had on offer.
Amiga games were known for their bright colours, top-quality soundtracks, amazing sprites, great animation and awesome sound effects. Of course playability came first, and of this there was no shortage. In fact, some classic Amiga games would still hold their own against some of todays high budget titles. Quality games such as 'Gods', 'Battle Chess', 'Lemmings' and 'Zool' are still played by many people nowadays on PC's running emulators.
A friend asked me what my all-time favourite Amiga game was, and as much as I thought about it, I simply couldn't pick one. There were so many good games to choose from. The thing is, there were so many genres of game. There were platformers, shooters, sports, adventure, strategy, simulation, anything you could think of. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that every single Amiga game was amazing, as with any platform, it had its turkeys too. But the games that were good, were really good. And for something to be remembered so fondly thirty years later, something about it must have been special, right?
I could end this article with a top twenty list of Amiga games, but my top twenty wouldn't be the same as anyone elses, so I'll sign off with a few screenshots of the classics. Guess them if you can!