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My Life in Computer Games Part 1

My Life in Computer Games Part 1

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Published by Kevin Anslow

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Published by: Kevin Anslow on Dec 28, 2010
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My Life in Computer Games Part One The Early Years Kevin Anslow 20061
Thursday, June 01, 2006
My Life in Computer Games, Part One - The Early YearsI played my first computer game in about 1979. It was a flat, trapezoid plastic thing my unclegot for Christmas. It had two paddle controls on long cables, a dial for selecting the 4-5games it offered, and a wire that plugged into the back of the telly. Though this wire werepumped simple images of a black background overlayed with white lines, some of which youcould move with the paddle during game play. I have tried in vain to find this thing on theinternet somewhere, but perhaps my memories just does not stretch back that far, because Iremember it as being orange, and no orange contenders appear in the many histories of console games you can find on the web.The only really playable game was all about a square dot that bounced backwards andforwards on the screen. The game was called tennis, because in some ways it was, in others itwas the silliest and most bare boned fascinating few hours a person could spend. Not onlycould you spend indeterminate midnight-oil-burning eons trying to get the little dot back tothe other side, when your opponent could not, but you could sit there and watch someone elsedoing it - because, let's face it, it was that amazing to behold. In my case it was mostly thelatter, because my teenage uncle and his hippy friends were the ones doing most of theplaying. Nevertheless, the seed of a lifetime's obsession had already taken root. Little did Iknow what was to come, and that at the age I should be settling down as a mature man, Iwould still have not lost the thrill.If the sense of wonder about these simple games seems little bizarre now when games are abasic staple of life and computers are everywhere around us, it has to be remembered that thiswas the era when a lot of things we take for granted seemed out of this world, and computerand media technology was in its innocence.When I got my first digital watch I spent hours of bliss parading it around the playground of the primary school I attended. Cordelia (I later adopted a duck through the RSPCA andnamed it after her), the first girl I had a crush on, even wore it for a minute - even greaterbliss. But in any case, everyone wanted to see it; I had never known popularity like thatbefore. A couple of years later I was astounded to hear of a kid who had been given severalclips from Star Wars for his birthday. They came on 8mm film, and could be projected,silently on his dad's cinema movie. No sound, but no contest, this was a favoured son andmany of us wanted to be him, if only long enough to get a few viewings of the silent dogfights.Digital watches, video games, having big screen movies at home, these were all impossibledreams and space age wonders to a child of the 1970's, whose usual adventures were littlemore than riding a push bike aimlessly around the place, going swimming, and damningstreams in the local woods.Post Star Wars, and certainly riding on the tails of its popularity, arcade games started toappear. Space Invaders, Galaxians,Asteroids, they were the first in most people's neck of thewoods. I first saw them at theleisure centrein the Sussex commuter town where I grew up in.Even now, these games recall for me the smell of chlorine from the centre pool, and a gaggleof excited kids huddled around one of the hooded displays in the lobby of the place. Usuallyit was a teenager with pocket money from paper rounds who played and little kids who
 
My Life in Computer Games Part One The Early Years Kevin Anslow 20062soaked up his glory vicariously, but once in a while one of us knee high to grasshopperyoungsters got on and lasted a whole.... 2 minutes.It was never quite worth it, and with hardly a breath taken in the onslaught of the alienhordes, the coins were gone and that was most of your pocket money for a week. Still, youalways wanted to do it again, because that was the magic of the thing - another chance tosucceed. It felt like your moment in galactic history; something happening there and then anddependant on your own guts and instinct, even if you hardly had any of that. For bare minutesyou knew what it was like to be a man, and boy it felt good as much as it felt scary. I think these games were my first experience of true heart pumping adrenalin. And the odd thingabout adrenalin, is though it supposed to be a sign you are in trouble, it keeps calling youback for more.It didn't matter that the colours of different rows of invaders came from cellophane strips on ablack and white display, or that the asteroids were white outlines like the murder scene tapingof the suicide leap of a world weary boulder.Most games were and continued to be 2d for many years to come. But quite early on inArcade gaming history, 3D games did sometimes appear. I playedTailgunnerand Tank Simulation on holiday in Swanage one year, when my cousin and I spent ever more ingeniousways of extracting coins from grandparents and other family members to spend minutes of bliss in the darkness of the arcade away from the healthy brightness of the sand and surf.There were other fun games in the video arcades in those days, classics such as Pacman andDonkey Kong, Frogger and Centipede. These never truly inspired me. But it was 3D gamesthat still held a certain fascination because I think I wanted games to reach into anotherreality, a played reality. What I liked about the game world was the ability to feel as thoughyou could explore another world.A leap forward into the early eighties. My cousin's step dad bought a video player whichprobably cost him a fortune. When my uncle hired us a video of Buck Rodgers in the 25thcentury the movie - a masterpiece of bastardised airfix models making the same threescreeching swoops against a starry background and hammy acting from beings with datedhair. We watched it 6 times in two days. It was about this time too, that computer gamesstarted to be get more accessible, ie, they made it onto home computers.There are generations around today for whom the nameZX-81sounds like R2D2's mate thatbought it in a scene of the Phantom Menace. It actually was a home computer, a kind of calculator with big ideas about itself, that came with I000 byte of ram (as opposed to the1,000,000,000+ bytes on the machine I am writing this blog on) and a 16,000 byte expansionpack almost as big as the machine itself. The expansion pack was wonky and strayed out of its connector all too easily, and for either me, or my best mate, to play games that took advantage of its then quantum leap in program capacity, and thus pogram complexity, theother had to sit behind the machine and hold it on while waiting desperately for doom tobefall the one at the controls.TheZX-81In plugged into the telly, as did is successor theZX Spectrum, with its characteristic black finish and grey dead flesh rubbers keys. Later other home machines suchas the Commodore 64 appeared and also plugged into the box. Believe it or not, these andother dedicate console systems were the precursors of the consoles such as the Playstationand Xbox, which now dominate the gaming market and account for most of the games sales.
 
My Life in Computer Games Part One The Early Years Kevin Anslow 20063It is an old story. Graphics were pretty basic, so the effort went into making the games fun.Which they were... I
think 
. People still play them today with retro emulators on PCs, althoughin all honesty my nostalgic adventures into Manic Miner and Jetset Willy on aZX Spectrum emulator made me wonder what was so fascinating about the original, the graphics were soblocky I felt like I was in a sumo wrestler suit and I could not quite tell what was supposed tobe what. We were either desperate or blind, but at least I can remember the fun. Perhaps itwas the wonder of childhood.I did not have a ZX series calculator with attitude, I had an Oric, a short lived, ill fated rivalto the ZX Spectrum that was, far as I can tell, badly made and not desperately well supported.Certainly it suffered from recurring defects, and mine had to be sent back to the manufacturermore than once because of faults, particularly with the keyboard.In those days, the games were loaded from cassette tapes, that if you listened to them soundedlike a bunch of clicks and snow from the telly put down on tape for an androids' garage night.You could of course copy these tapes fairly easily if you had decent audio dubbingequipment, so the era of game piracy was well on its way when this format appeared. Of course the home computers were not just about playing games, they gave us an avenue intothe world of programming.Most of the home computers of that era ran basic, the most simple and the slowestprogramming language of the time. It was called basic pretty much because a lot of it usedinstructions that sound roughly like their English equivalent. It was not that hard to learn andbefore long I was writing my own game. The one effort that ever truly worked was avariation on space invaders, which had one invader that ambled across the screen and wasreplaced by a mate, when I managed to shoot it with the asterisk that hurtled up from my little"h" base ship at the bottom of the screen.I didn't create any more games; I was not smart enough to learn enough programming toadvance beyond my first effort. But others did. A guy in my senior school managed to sell agame he wrote to a games developer and blew the several thousand quid they gave him onpartying with his friends. One person could write a game in those days, these days it takesentire production teams of programmers designers and marketing people.I didn't play games a whole lot in my mid to late teenage years, apart from anything else myfather did not give me any pocket money, so the arcade was out of the question, and we hadno TV for quite a while, so no home computer games, even if I had still had the computersomewhere in a drawer.Now and again on a road trip, or on a ferry to France I got the chance to play, but reallyduring my late teens games did not figure hugely in my life. Perhaps this was just as well. Bythen I had discovered writing in a major way, and spent most of my spare time writingnovels, the first one of which I completed at age 16. It was to become a rule of thumb, nocomputer games = more writing done. Even now it is true, I would not be writing this if myGothic 3 RPG game for the PC had come out on May 5 as it was supposed to, rather thanbeing postponed to later this year.I lived down in Brighton for a year when I was about 19 and there were oodles of games onthe arcades on Brighton pier, so I sort of rediscovered them for a while. Now I was earning

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