Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The history books tell it (part 2)

Some time around 1988 the venerable Spectrum was showing its age, and it was time for an upgrade. The Speccy was only ever really used for games; I never mastered saving data back to tape, and we never had any radical peripherals like a disk drive or printer that might have made it more generally useful. The main driver for getting a new computer was (like every family computer ever purchased) something to help with homework, so a games console was never an option. The Atari ST and Commodore Amiga either hadn't been widely released, or else were considered too game-oriented.

I'm not entirely sure why we ended up with a PC; recommendation of a colleague-of-a-friend-of-a-sister or something, I think. It was an Amstrad PC1512, a cheap (compared to other PCs) IBM compatible aimed at home users as well as businesses, and coupled with a Citizen 120D 9 pin dot matrix printer made for a formidable powerhouse of a unit. 8Mhz processor, 512k of RAM, 5.25" disks storing up to 360k, this beast could handle anything you could throw at it (this might sound like excessive sarcasm, it was actually a respectable spec at the time). My main disappointment was that we had a choice between either a second disk drive or a colour screen (having both would have been too expensive, and as for the 20Mb hard drive option, I'm not sure Croesus himself had one of them. Possibly because he'd been dead for two and a half thousand years. And he preferred Macs.) The practicality of the second disk drive won out, despite my vehement arguments that a colour display would be so much more useful for... homework... school... stuff... of some sort. Probably. I didn't know at the time that the CGA graphics of the 1512 were limited to four colours anyway; if anything, the garish CGA palettes of cyan, magenta, black and white or green, red, brown and black were marginally less unpleasant when rendered in shades of grey.

So, homework was duly assisted by the bundled Ability office suite, teachers being suitably impressed when presented with printed essays only slightly torn at the edges from removing the tractor feed holes. Word processing and spreadsheets didn't provide much entertainment, though, there are only so many combinations of bold, italics and underlining you can use before getting bored. Six, in fact. There was always GEM Paint, which included a rather splendid image of a tiger, for mouse based drawing fun, but my artistic skills were (and indeed still are) limited to stick drawings. No, I was after some edge-of-the-seat gaming excitement, which was a bit of a problem. The PC wasn't exactly a first-choice gaming system. Nor third or fourth choice, for that matter. At the time it was fighting it out for seventeenth-choice gaming system with a Popeye Game & Watch. No high street shops in our town or the surrounding area sold PC games, and on one rare occasion on holiday when I found somewhere that did (three slightly dusty looking boxes in a sea of titles for other systems), they cost something ludicrous like £15 or £20. Adjusted to today's prices, and taking pocket money into account as a base salary, that would be roughly £3,812.27, so a bit much really. Fortunately the aforementioned colleague-of-a-friend-of-a-sister turned up trumps with a disk full of a random assortment games. The big hit from this was Digger, a gem-collecting monster-squashing game that was rather fun, and beeped out Popcorn from the PC speaker (Wikipedia link included to clarify I'm talking about the song Popcorn, rather than some amazing hack that created snacks from soundwaves as you played). It used the cursor keys for movement, which I found a bit tricky at the time; a fairly standard key layout on the Spectrum was to use Q and A for up and down, O and P for left and right, and space for fire. The idea of using one hand for all four directions was madness, so I squeezed both hands onto the cursor pad. This meant using F1 to shoot was a fairly involved manoeuvre, but as I had no idea you could use F1 to shoot until discovering it accidentally after several months, it wasn't really a problem.

Other games on the disk included Armchair Quarterback, a text-based American Football game (I'd picked up the basic rules from Channel 4 but wasn't entirely au fait with all the terminology, so my play calling was somewhat random; "3rd and 27? Quarterback sneak!"), some karate game that I suspect was intended for a 4.77Mhz processor (or just coded by bastards) as the opponents moved rather quickly (those cats, it could be said, were as fast as lightning; in fact, it was a little bit frightening...), and a few other bits and pieces. I got Elite from somewhere, and spent a long time working up to the titular Elite status. All entertaining enough but not exactly state of the art, most of the games were several years old by that point. I picked up the odd issue of PC Plus or Computer Shopper or similar (I tried Computer and Video Games magazine once, but that was an exercise in taunting with glossy full-colour page after glossy full-colour page of games, of which about three would be available for the PC) and gazed in wonderment at the lists of games available from mail order suppliers (much like the laminated book of dreams, only not laminated of course). With some begging and cajoling (and probably some Christmas money), I eventually got permission (and more importantly, a cheque) to send off for MicroProse's Airborne Ranger, my first "proper" PC game. Very splendid it was too, lots of sneaking, shooting and stabbing fun, infiltrating enemy encampments.

In parallel with an increasing interest in computers, I was also getting into pencil and paper RPGs (just to be a totally stereotypical nerd). Starting with the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, working up to various other RPGs back when White Dwarf was a proper roleplaying magazine rather than just a miniature catalogue, waves walking stick damn kids get off my lawn etc., I even used the database component of the Ability suite to store character sheets. I missed out on adventure gaming on the Spectrum (never played the classic Hobbit text adventure, not that it stops me randomly dropping "Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold" into conversation), but that first disk of assorted PC games included Zork, so I spent a while mapping mazes and getting eaten by a grue without making much progress. The Infocom text adventure of the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy was on there too; I think I solved the infamous babel fish puzzle myself, but saw most of the game only thanks to a text file containing the solution. There was also Rogue, which I rather enjoyed, doing battle with vicious upper case letters, but never made it out with the Amulet of Yendor. Though classics, they were also several years old and distinctly lacking on the graphics front. Not long after getting that first PC, SSI got the rights to make Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games, which I seem to recall was fairly big news at the time, and I got Heroes of the Lance, a side-scrolling beat(/shoot/spell) 'em up, that was fun enough but generally forgettable, though I was quite impressed with myself for working out that you had to switch to a particular character, and throw her staff at a dragon right at the end. Well, I say "working out", I think it was just a case of cycling through the entire party trying every weapon and spell on the bleedin' night-invulnerable final beast. The pick of the early SSI AD&D games had to be the "Gold Box" series, and though I missed out on Pool of Radiance in favour of Heroes of the Lance, I played the second, Curse of the Azure Bonds, to death. A friend actually bought it, but some swift work with scissors, a photocopier, a brass paper fastener and some sticky back plastic produced an extra version of the spinning copy protection wheel, and it was off to... wherever Curse of the Azure Bonds was set. Milton Keynes, possibly. Spanning four entire disks (yes, over one whole megabyte of game data) there was plenty of adventuring there.

The real breakthrough in PC gaming came when a new kid joined our school. Chatting away, as you do, it turned out he had a PC. And games! Such games he had. He brought a disk in with Double Dragon on it, amazing arcade-perfect action on the PC! (OK, arcade-broadly-similar-if-you-squint-a-bit action, to be strictly accurate, but still.) Turned out his dad used PCs for some sort of proper CAD type electrical work, or something, and owned *hushed gasp* an 80386! With a VGA screen, capable of 256 colours! He had plenty of games too, some original, some copies with printed or photocopied lists of codes to defeat copy protection questions. A sounder basis for friendship you couldn't ask for, and we spent many weekends gathered around PCs solving adventure games (we definitely finished Space Quest III, amongst others) and playing stuff like F19 Stealth Fighter, Sim City, Prince of Persia, Falcon and Populous with even the odd bit of rudimentary networking, when the null-modem gods smiled (not often). As well as playing games, he knew about the dark and mysterious workings of things like the autoexec.bat and config.sys files, and PC hardware (we upgraded the PC1512 with another 128k of memory and a 32Mb hard card, a combined hard drive and controller card. No more disk swapping needed!) I got GW-BASIC from him, and, inspired by Zork, coded up my own amazing adventure game in which you had to escape from a POW camp. Actually, "amazing" might be overstating it a bit, I only got about three rooms in, and the text parser consisted of a couple of IF statements testing for exact phrases like "Go North" or "Take key". Slightly more usefully, I came up with a program to solve some maths assignment that the teacher was most impressed by.

By 1990, though, the PC1512 just couldn't keep up. My friend had upgraded to a VGA 386 and was enjoying his glorious technicolour games while I was stuck with mono CGA. Still, I could at least play most games, after a fashion, until... Wing Commander. Wing Commander needed VGA graphics, and it was amazing. I went round to my friend's house to play it at every opportunity, and it was a driving factor behind the upgrade to my next machine...

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