nostalgia

My History of Computing, Part 1: The Beige Years

I’ve been having a lot of fun lately on the AtariAge forums. Reading about people experimenting and creating homebrew projects with old 8-bit game consoles and computers really makes me nostalgic. Because of this, and because I just bought myself a new computer, I thought I would take a look back at all of the computers I have loved and lost.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the early 80’s, when computers were just coming out of the universities and major corporations into the average homes, businesses and schools of the world. Even in the low-rent area of the Mojave Desert where I grew up, my elementary school had a computer lab filled with Apple IIe’s and the occasional Commodore 64. I was fascinated by everything that had to do with this amazing machines. So when I turned seven years old in 1986 and my dad told me he bought me a computer, I was so excited. Was it an Apple? Was it a Commodore? Was it a TRS-80, a TI-99/4A, or an Atari 800? Was it like the incredible Tandy 1000 my cousin had? Um… no.

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It was a Timex Sinclair 1000, the US version of the Sinclair ZX81. My dad, bless his heart, didn’t know a thing about computers, and he saw this one at a Thrifty Drug, of all places, at a liquidation sale and thought I would love it. I had never ever heard of this computer before, and there was a reason. It was a piece of crap. It had 2 KB of RAM, a black and white only display, and a membrane keyboard (like the ones on your microwave oven) that required herculean strength (at least to a seven-year-old) in order to register any keypresses. It was an incredible disappointment. It didn’t play King’s Quest, Oregon Trail, or Epyx California Games. In fact, we couldn’t get anything to play at all. We spent hours trying to get the “Mixed Grab Bag” software to load from the cassette that came with the computer. I did some of the BASIC exercises in the manual, but soon enough it went into the closet, and I went back to my Atari 2600.

It would be years before we had another computer in the house. Our family moved a lot and we didn’t really have a lot of money. But I was very happy that a friend of my mother’s gave me a TI-99/4A and a whole bunch of stuff for it for free in the early 1990s. Her son was blind, and her husband had tried to create a program with the TI’s speech synthesizer module in order to help him communicate with the outside world. But her husband had died, and her son hated the voice that came out of the computer. He said it was too creepy and gave him nightmares. So even though it was very obsolete at this point and everyone I knew had already moved on to Amigas and Macintoshes and 286 and 386 PCs, I gave it a good home and set out to plumb its secrets.

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Since having a computer that could speak to you was a novelty to me at the time, I used the Speech Synthesizer, mostly to hear it say profanities, to laugh at how it poorly pronounced words, and to creep out my friends and family with its clipped, robotic monotone. I also programmed a lot in the included BASIC and the TI Extended BASIC cartridge. I used it to do my math homework. I didn’t have a fancy graphing calculator to do trigonometry homework, so I wrote my own graphing program. I also wrote a program to do matrix multiplication, which was easy when I figured out that a matrix was just a two-dimensional array of variables. Any four-year-old with a copy of Microsoft Excel can multiply matrices in two seconds, but I didn’t have a spreadsheet program, so I had to make do.

Later on, into high school, I also used it to create various graphics and sound demos which would play during my school’s weekly student-made news broadcast. Unlike the PC, it was easy to get stuff from the TI-99/4A onto a tape because it hooked up directly to a TV. I was very fond of the three-channel music you could get out of the TI’s sound chip, and spent many, many hours typing notes from sheet music into a BASIC program so I could hear Mozart and the Beatles played in tinny beepy amazement. I wish I had some of this stuff now to show you guys, but all those tapes went into a shed in the back yard that unbeknownst to us, became a impromptu chicken coop.

This is nothing I did, but it’s a good demonstration of the kind of sound demos I was doing on the TI-99/4A at the time, plus it’s pretty darn cool!

And I and my parents knew that this tiny computer wouldn’t carry me through high school, and especially not college, where something called the “Internet” was quickly becoming a big deal, and news of which had reached the lips of people even in my tiny town 30 miles from the closest T1 line. So my parents went into debt and bought a used IBM 286 for about $500. It was built like a tank and was nearly as large. It came with 1 MB of RAM, a 40 MB hard drive, and MS-DOS 6.22. Windows 3.1 also came pre-installed, but the speed at which it ran made GEOS on a Commodore 64 seem fast by comparison.

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Even though it was super-slow compared to the 386s and 486s at my high school, it was still a “real computer,” and that made it awesome. I could type papers in WordPerfect 5.1 on a full-size display and a full-travel keyboard (one of the original IBM Model Ms with the clicky keys, wish I still had it) and print it out on the behemoth Epson dot-matrix printer we had or on the laser printers at school. I could do crude desktop publishing; in fact I helped one of my father’s friends make a newsletter for her church. I could use Quattro Pro to do math problems and basic accounting. I could design flyers for school events in Windows 3.1 Paintbrush. I could play a lot of the Tandy 1000 games that my cousin had, although it was still too slow for Wolfenstein and Doom. I didn’t do much BASIC programming for it though… there was never really much call for it. I already had all the programs I needed, and the ones I didn’t have (like Internet access) were far too complex to be cobbled together with my juvenile computer skills.

I couldn’t take the behemoth to college with me, because it was already several years out of date by 1996 and would have been nearly useless to me because everyone in college was running Windows 95 and getting on the Internet, neither of which the 286 could do. Also, my mom needed it for her own paper-typing and bookkeeping. So I took some student loan money and went on a shopping spree to egghead.com, the precursor to the famous NewEgg. I bought a refurbished, no-name AMD-K6 233 MHz (a Pentium clone) machine with 32 MB of RAM and a 2 GB hard drive, a 15″ VGA monitor, and a 100 MB Zip drive (remember those pieces of crap?) for $600 in 1997.

JACKPUTE(Me sitting in front of my Big Beige Box, circa 2000 or so. You can’t see the machine very well itself, but if you were to do a Google Image Search for “generic beige tower,” you will get a pretty good idea of what it looked like. And that other beige behemoth to the left of the monitor is a good ol’ Apple LaserWriter Select 360. Best damn printer ever.)

Even though it was woefully underpowered even compared to machines of the time, it was the first computer I ever purchased with my own money, and it was my near-constant companion throughout my turbulent college career and for many years afterwards. I had upgraded to WordPerfect Office 8 (because then, as now, Microsoft Office was prohibitively expensive) and was churning out papers like nobody’s business. I was exploring the Wild West of cyberspace on dialup, reading primitive webpages about Mr. T eating people’s balls and Barney the Dinosaur being the Anti-Christ. (Lolcats and Youtube had not yet been invented.) I was discovering my sexuality through web content my parochial, small-town conservative upbringing did not in the least prepare me for. I had also discovered the amazing concept that you could use a computer to emulate other computers, and I put hundreds of hours into playing classic video games via early DOS-based emulators such as Nesticle and Genecyst.

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But not all was fluffy digital clouds and CGI rainbows in my computer world. My cheapo clone was poorly built and sometimes the CD-ROM drive or power supply would just stop working… and then start again. After upgrading to Windows 98, every system upgrade after that seemed to make my computer slower and less useful. Making contemporary 3D games run on my computer and its “Voodoo” graphics card required more peeks, pokes, and undocumented feature exploits than Commodore 64 assembly programming. And I also lost more than one term paper due to the Zip drive’s famed “click of death” or worse, from a computer virus. Computer viruses ran rampant through our university networks, and in the mid-to-late 1990s, they were mutating faster than famed bespectacled nerd Peter Norton or famed fugitive nutcase John McAfee could fight them. After reloading everything onto my computer from dozens of CD-Rs for the ninth time and crying myself to sleep, I started to wish for the good old days of the TI-99/4A when I didn’t have to worry about this crap.

But then, I learned that not everyone at my school was having the same problems I was with their computers. Many of my classmates in the Computer Science program had Macintosh systems with PowerPC chips. My friend Jeremy had a PowerMac 6100, that even though it only had a 60 MHz processor, still ran rings around my 233 MHz Pentium clone. For starters, he could play MP3s, have a web browser open downloading a file, and play a video game at the same time–something my poor machine struggled to do. And Macs didn’t get viruses, or so he said.

He also kept talking about the fact that soon, Apple was going to release this brand-new operating system called Copland, or Rhapsody, or something like that, that would actually be real UNIX, like the $10,000 Sun and NeXT workstations in our Computer Science labs. It was at that moment that something in my soul burned, and I knew that I needed to get one of these amazing miracle Macintosh machines…

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To be continued in Part 2…

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The late, lamentable Atari 7800

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Back in the late 80’s, I desperately wanted an Atari 7800. I loved the Atari 2600 to death and thought that a 7800 would be three times as awesome. I remember poring over the all the video game catalogs and ads I could get my little hands on, reading over and over about how the 7800 could play all existing 2600 titles as well as how it had a bunch of “pro” titles that closely duplicated the arcade experience! Yeah, there was a couple of things in there about a Nintendo, and a Sega, but I didn’t care about those. Mario and Zelda looked like boring Japanese cartoon characters. I wanted to race around the world in Pole Position II, save the galaxy in Galaga, and play an arcade-perfect version of Ms. Pac-Man.

And also, because the Atari 7800 was considerably cheaper than both the NES and the Master System, it would be easier to convince my parents or aunt and uncle to buy it for me for Christmas. So I begged and pleaded and sent subtle hints to the grownups in my life, and when Christmas morning finally arrived, what to my wondering eyes should appear but… not a 7800. Instead, I got a box of about 20 loose Atari 2600 cartridges my dad found at a yard sale. It wasn’t bad; there were even a few awesome games in there, like Frogger II and Berzerk. It just wasn’t what I wanted. It kept me going until the following Christmas, however, when I got… a Nintendo. It was a hand-me-down from my cousin who had just moved on to the Sega Genesis. But as soon as I saw and played Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and Metroid for the first time, everything Atari had made up to that point suddenly seemed rather childish. You could play games on Atari… but Nintendo transported you to brand-new worlds.  I had moved on.

I never got to experience the Atari 7800 “in the flesh,” so to speak. I ran across Atari 7800 cartridges mixed in with 2600 games at flea markets and yard sales, but never came across an actual system. The 7800 just seemed to disappear, along with Atari’s other major flops, the Lynx and the Jaguar, relegated to the dustbin of history. I never played a 7800 game until this weekend, when I discovered that the Internet Archive had a full collection of 7800 games available for download completely legally (seriously, check it out here.) So I downloaded it (it was only 4.6 MB in size!), found a decent emulator (ProSystem) for Windows, and decided to see what I had missed out on when I was a kid.

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The truth is… I wasn’t missing out on much. While the Atari 7800 had superior graphics to the 2600, its graphics did not look very good at all when put up against the NES. The 7800’s MARIA graphics chip had a native 320 x 240 graphics mode (much sharper than the NES’s 256 x 240), but since it was so hard to program for it, developers mostly used the chip’s 160 x 256 pixel graphics mode, which had rectangular, not square, pixels. This made the games look like blocky last-generation titles from the Atari 5200 or earlier 8-bit computers.

Thanks to the MARIA chip, which could handle over 100 sprites on screen without flicker or slowdown, the Atari 7800 excelled at single-screen arcade games like Asteroids, which came to life on the ProSystem with colorful sprites and fluid animation not before seen on a home console.

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Seriously, static screenshots don’t do the game any justice. Check out this YouTube video for a review of 7800 Asteroids from one of my favorite online game reviewers, Classic Game Room.)

However, it was not very good at the side-scrolling platform games, like Super Mario Bros., that were the NES’s bread and butter. Few games of that genre appeared on the 7800, and those that did, such as Scrapyard Dog and Kung-Fu Master, were choppy, slow, and clunky compared to their NES and Sega counterparts.

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But at least the 7800 version of Kung-Fu Master has zombies… that’s something, right?)

Another thing that set the 7800 back compared to its competition was that it used the same sound chip, the TIA, as the Atari 2600. While you could create a neat variety of sound effects with it, creating memorable background music like the classic Mario theme, the Zelda theme, and the Ducktales “Moon” Theme was not the TIA’s forte. Most 7800 games didn’t have any background music at all, and only a few bleeps and bloops for sound effects. And many 7800 games with 2600 counterparts used the same sound effects for both versions! I did discover some awesome music playing Ballblazer and Commando, however… but it turns out those cartridges had a special sound chip, POKEY, in them to deliver quality sound effects. Why couldn’t Atari have built POKEY into the unit? They probably thought that games didn’t need music. It was far from a common feature in games in 1984 when the system was first designed.

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So what was the Atari 7800 good for? As I said before, it had a lot of great early-80’s arcade game conversions. Asteroids, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Joust, Dig Dug, Centipede, Xevious… they all look great and play great on the 7800. If you are into those types of games, the Atari 7800 is a great system to collect for. But you could also play most of those games on the NES… or for that matter, the Atari 2600, or the Atari home computers, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Apple IIe, or whatever other system prospective buyers of the 1980’s had lying around. And these days, you can just download the original arcade ROMs or purchase any number of arcade game compilations. So it not only was not giving anyone anything new, it was also giving the game-buying public stuff they pretty much already had.

What else did the Atari 7800 bring to the table? Well, it had several ports of late-80’s arcade games: Kung-Fu Master, Double Dragon, Commando, and Ikari Warriors, to name a few. However, as I mentioned before, any game that required complex horizontal scrolling was crippled from the start on the 7800, and all those games had much better NES counterparts. There were a few good flight simulators that beat anything the NES had at the time, such as Ace of Aces, F-14 Tomcat, and F-18 Hornet, but your flight simulator enthusiast would probably be playing those on his or her home computer, which would have more processing power and a greater selection of joysticks.  There were a few mediocre sports games, but Hat Trick was no Blades of Steel, and Pete Rose would quickly prove to be an embarrassing choice for a sports game spokesperson (but then again, so would Mike Tyson.)

ninjagolf1There are a few hidden gems in the Atari 7800 library that you can’t get anywhere else, however. Ninja Golf has a random yet completely unforgettable premise: you’re a ninja, playing golf, and to get from the teeing ground from the putting green, you must jog through a dangerous course of enemy ninjas, frogs, snakes, dragons, and other inexplicable golf course hazards. Bizarre concept aside, the game plays like a poor clone of Kung-Fu Master, and the novelty wears out quickly. There’s also Midnight Mutants, a Zelda-like adventure game with a horror theme, where you wander through a New England village in autumn fighting zombies and bats in order to rescue Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis from the clutches of an undead warlock, who you see being burned at the stake in the game’s opening sequence:

midnightmutants2(You’d never see anything like this in any Nintendo game… not until Mortal Kombat II for the SNES, anyway.)

Sadly, they weren’t enough to save the Atari 7800 from being relegated to the dustbin of video game obscurity. Looking over the ROMs I downloaded, I saw that there were less than 100 games total released in the US, and a lot of genres are completely missing from the 7800 library. There are no RPGs, no strategy games, no puzzle games except for an unreleased prototype of Klax. There are no ports of contemporary Atari arcade games, like Paperboy, 720, or Gauntlet, that would have been hits on the system. And there are only a handful of third-party games from a handful of third-party developers. It’s like they didn’t even try to compete with the NES, or maybe they thought its backwards compatibility with the Atari 2600 would fill in the gaps.

But by sticking to the past, Atari was sacrificing their own future. The backwards compatibility of the Atari 7800 meant that the new advanced 7800 games were competing, not just with Nintendo and Sega games, but with the 700+ games in the Atari 2600 library, many of which were being liquidated for pennies due to the video game crash of 1983. And Atari was selling, simultaneously with the 7800, a remodeled, cheaper version of the Atari 2600 which was “under fifty bucks!”, their remaining stock of Atari 5200 cartridges and games, and a brand new system, the Atari XEGS, which was an Atari home computer reconfigured into a game console that played most existing Atari 8-bit cartridges as well as new enhanced games made just for it.  With all of these systems to support, it’s no wonder Atari was failing to put their best foot forward in the cutthroat market of the late 1980’s. The technology and the design were moving forward… and Atari just seemed more and more like the old man sitting in the corner dreaming of the good old days when he was in charge. He occasionally tries to be “hip” to get the kids to notice him, but really he’s only just embarrassing himself.

That’s what I see when I peer into the Atari 7800 catalog… Atari’s midlife crisis writ large on the pages of history. Trying to capture the spotlight again, trying to regain lost ground and re-win old victories, trying to win the future with the same old playbook. There was so much potential left… but by the time Atari discovered it, the world had moved on.

And we all know what had happened after that… after a mediocre showing of their Lynx handheld in 1990 and the complete flop that was the Jaguar in 1993, Atari was sold off to JTS, who sold it to Hasbro, who finally sold it to Infogrames before they themselves went bankrupt. Now, the gutted corpse of Atari’s intellectual properties is up for sale to the highest bidder. The rest… is silence.

But hey, at least Grandpa Munster can still be saved!

grandpaI certainly hope so, Grandpa… I certainly hope so…