My 30th year anniversary using computers!

As the years have passed, it is easy to overlook something as commonplace as the computer in our homes. But a very few short years ago, there were no such things in our rooms.

Yeah, we actually had to get out of the house to entertain ourselves… also known as playing with friends.

But I digress… anyway.. computers… it is 2014 and this year marks the 30th anniversary of my first owning one of these marvelous machines.

The first computers to gain popularity in the homes were actually microcomputers, and they all had their different versions of ‘operating system’ so to speak. Most were very basic affairs with the most horribly complicated programming Basic languages.

But inversely, my first computer was a great little number, the Texas Instruments TI-99/4a. This computer had 16k of RAM (13k useable), no storage space to speak of, and around 8k of ROM. One had to load and save programs using a cassette tape, and the screeches of the different baud rate signals were enough to wake the dead during the night.

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Most of my friends bought Spectrums, commodore64s or Ataris, but the price of the TI-99/4a, at 55 Maltese liri of the time was too low to ignore. And as a family of four with modest income, the price seemed to be about just right.

Apart from this not inconsiderable fact, the Texas (as it was known), had the first 16-bit microprocessor, 16 colours, a REAL keyboard (Spectrum users take note), a three-channel
sound chip with real music, and space for a number of expansion packs, notably extended basic with its’ extended commands, including ‘sprites’.

If there was anything to lament on the Texas, it was the lack of machine code on the system, so one had to write all the programs in TI-Basic.This meant that to squeeze every bit of speed from the machine, we programmers had to be thrifty and wise.

It was, indeed… slow… but I tell you what… I loved that machine to bits. I learnt programming in a few days, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Together with a mate of mine, we created games like there was no tomorrow… After purchasing the extended basic cartridge, I expanded even more into programming complicated stuff, and sold some games on the official market.

After the Texas, I purchased a Goldstar MSX computer, surmised to be the next big thing across the world. It even utilised Microsoft Basic 1.0… the premise was that all MSX branded machines would need to conform to a minimum standard.. so we had computers from Sony, LG, Goldstar, Fujitsu, Funai… all different but the same.

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The thing was a real doddle to use… the Z80 CPU made programming machine language and assembly so so easy. I cut my teeth on assembly using this MSX, and it got me a long way. I loved this machine too, and I am so sorry that I sold it…

And the reason I sold it is that my mate Mark, whom I spent many happy hours with, had upgraded straight to a Commodore64… Ah… Now THAT was a machine to be reckoned with… 64k RAM (38911 available), easily accessible machine language commands, super sound chip, incredible keyboard, easy interfacing… and the games… my god the games…

I wanted one… and I wanted it immediately. I sold my MSX to buy the C64, and after a short time, also the 1571 disk drive for it… remember that this was a time when a game would take all of twenty minutes to load… and the disk drive, supposedly enabling faster times, was a ‘serial’ disk-drive… then Turbo Loaders came along, and all 64k of RAM was squished into 5 seconds of controlled high-pitched gibberish… Magic!

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I learnt 6502 machine code on the C64, and it seemed so easy… All I needed was an Assembler, and there we went…I really enjoyed programming in Assembly, back then thought of as very difficult… again, I took to it like a duck to water, and I was swapping registers and creating games in hours.

Perhaps the greatest software on my C64 was undoubtedly ‘Graphic Adventure Creator’. My brother was a keen adventure fan…make that an adventure nut, and after playing many games from the Level9 stable, decided to start creating our own…

The coding was easy enough, but creating the images was difficult… well they had to be. the C64 had no basic to speak of…. no circle, no line, no paint, or fill…. that meant that everything had to be hardcoded, and that was our undoing.

Again, I totally loved this machine, and even now, own 2 Commodore 64s…

Cue a couple of years playing with the 64, and I upgraded to an Amiga500, expanded to 1Mb and an extra floppy drive. The Amiga was a beautiful machine, doted with an incredible OS, Workbench, and the games were simply more than arcade standard.

(At work, PCs were just coming into vogue, and the first PC I saw was a Victor 286, with a mono screen… hardly impressive. These did not inspire me, even when I saw the first HP 286, with a CGA colour card costing hundreds of pounds for the 4 colours alone. I once took my Amiga to work for the engineer to see. He was absolutely gob-smacked at how far ahead the Amiga was.

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Unfortunately, like the rest of the adult world, he saw it as a machine for games…)

Again, after a few weeks in acclimitising myself with the splendor of titles such as Defender of the Crown, or Ferrari challenge, I decided to pursue programming once again. A new basic/c language was just coming out at that time, called AMOS. I bought the package by mail order and happily spent years and years using the Amiga as a programming tool.

Then after four years, and just when I married, I purchased my first pc…. a non-descript 386sx. I often remarked that it did not hold a candle to the Amiga.

The 386sx had a math-co-processor added to it, making it a dx, then I upgraded to a 486sx-25, then a 486sx-40, then a 486dx4-100, my first Pentium100, 120, 166mmx, PII-333, then a PIII-600, and on to a succession of Pentium IVs… I never got quite beyond the single-core pentiums, because I then wisely upgraded to the AMD Athlons, and finally to a Dual-Core Dell notebook, which is still going strong, and used daily (and nightly!) as a kitchen computer.

I have turned to the MAC as an alternative way, and the computing experience is so much better.

But looking back at all my years using computers, never has been the light so bright as when I started off back in the early 80’s. I have forgotten how many nights I have burnt the midnight oil playing a succession of games that thrilled me and drove me to tears with frustration.

I rest easy in the knowledge that I created many games myself, including the first PC Football manager… 4 divisions of 16 teams each, modelled on the Serie A at that time. I sold many copies of that game on the PC, admittedly very cheaply, but it was money just the same…

These days, the magic of programming games is just about gone. The splendour of modern titles such as Tomb Raider or Call of Duty, churned out by a team of a hundred or more designers and artists crush our little efforts… but we were the bedroom coder pioneers, striving to put the computers out of science fiction into the hands of many millions.

I have owned my own computer shop, selling mainstream PCs, until the market dropped and it no longer was profitable. I still miss the old times and still spend innumerable hours designing games on my MAC. Just for me to play with, trying to relive the glory days. That, for me, is more than enough reward.

So …. yeah… happy 30th birthday to all my computers.

Addendum : Favourite Games.

1. TI-99/4a – Favourite game was Blasto, which I even recreated using a PC and Blitz Basic, taking part in a worlwide retro-gaming competition, finishing in the top 100 amidst some 5000 entries.

2. On the MSX, I still look misty-eyed at the mention of Konami Ping-Pong… what a game… how many hours have I spent honing my reflexes?

3. On the C64, my favourite game was Killer Watt. Again, I recreated this game faithfully to the last byte, gaining an accolade when I re-entered a competition with it. Supreme.

4. Too many games on the Amiga to select a favourite, but most probably it had to be Ferrari Formula 1… my god what a game.

5. There are too many gems on the PC to mention, but the Championship Manager games, and the Tomb Raider series spring to mind.

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