On my (one of my) first day(s) at school I arrived to find a new delivery of BBC Micros. The slightly imposing size of the system sat on its trolley obviously impressed a young me, yet what surprised me even more was seeing the system in operation. I was fascinated, and immediately decided it was something I wanted a closer look at. Thus, on returning home that day I calmly informed my parents that I wanted a computer.
Now, such a request would seem as though it would be met with white faces and dread as my parents worried about financial outlay. However fortune smiled, as an unused and presumed broken Commodore 64 sat in the loft. My parents crossed their fingers, and my Dad took me for a walk as my mum set up the system. As we walked, my Dad told me about the various games that were on the system, and I became more excited. I returned home to find the system largely working, but my mum was having difficultly loading Hangman, and I didn’t get a chance to use they system that evening. But it didn’t matter, I had my first computer.
I can’t remember many games we had on the C64. Maziacs was one, and later my Dad brought a copy of a Sooty and Sweep based ‘Jet Set Willy‘ clone. I think ‘Jet Set Willy’ itself may have been the first game we actually got working, and I was greatly amused by the flapping toilet at the beginning. ‘Ant Attack‘ was another game that we got working on that second evening, and later also obtained on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, both on tape and microdrive. We never did get Hangman working, and another game ‘Bathtime’ also refused to work.
Come winter, possibly the same year, the car broke down, and we ended up heading out to a garage somewhere to get it repaired. As I played with the icicles hanging from the roof of a shed (seriously) I didn’t realise that the C64 had been left on at home and, ironically given the weather, the power supply overheated. We sent it off to a family friend, who declared it irreparable. What I don’t understand is why we didn’t just replace the power supply, as I’m sure this was where we were told the problem lay. Possibly there had also been a surge which also fried the system, but I don’t recall this being mentioned.
While I dissected the C64 to find out what it looked like on the inside we got a new system in the form of a second hand ZX Specturn, with hoards of second hand games. Among these was the re-appearance of ‘Ant Attack’ and ‘Jet Set Willy’ as well as ‘The Very Big Cave Adventure,’ a simplified version of ‘ADVENT‘ with simple graphics. My parents had previously played ‘Colossal Cave’ together, a story wich the gamer in me finds very sweet. (Apparently they found it on the server at Bath University, I’m not entirely sure what they were doing at Bath University however. I think they also had a copy on the C64.) My Dad also brought me a copy of ‘Popeye II,’ which was the first of many games that we brought for the system. Car Boot sales provided a veritable treasure trove of titles, but we also got many games in the shops. Among my favourites were ‘Knight Lore,’ ‘Spy Hunter‘ and the Dizzy series.
By the time I was eight we had gone through several Spectrum systems, due to both hardware faults and the fact that a few people seemed to farm their old systems off on us. At one point I think we have three working systems, all of slightly different variations. (The ZX Spectrum, The ZX Spectrum+ and a Dktronics keyboard.) However by this point the hardware was very dated and I had fallen for a new beast, the Commodore Amiga.
For my eighth birthday I received a ‘Commodore Amiga 600,’ still my favourite system of all time. My parents had claimed that they didn’t have enough money to afford the system, and given a couple of other large purchases they had made at the same time (Namely a television and a desk for my room. Yes, I know, but I honestly half believed them.) and that I’d just receive a box filled with a few cheap odds and ends. Upon opening my present while sat on my parents bed I was met with the bland and serious packaging of the standard kit, instead of the brightly coloured ‘Wild Weird and Wicked’ bundle which was more commonly on display in shops. While this in itself wasn’t an issue, I had never wanted the more expensive bundle, it meant that for a few moment I didn’t recognise the packaging and seriously thought my parents had filled an old box with a few cheap goodies (I saw the ‘600’ and assumed, for some unfathomable reason, that it must have referred to a quantity of wine). The brief look of confused disappointment on my face must have been devastating to my parents , which was soon dispelled my my cheer of ‘YEEEES!’ and the attempt of my lower jaw to get as far away from the rest of my skull as humanly possible. The system came bundled with Lemmings and the excellent Deluxe Paint III. I proceeded to do handstands on the couch downstairs while my Dad set the system up, again disappointing my Mum that I may be disappointed, when in fact I was just a little hyperactive with excitement.
I returned upstairs to find Lemming running , and probably spent the rest of the day on the system. In ‘Magicland Dizzy’ I remember being blown away by the graphics in ‘The Chapel‘ which completely blew away the Spectrum version that I had previously been playing.
Despite what must have been a very expensive Birthday for my parents, the Amiga was still probably the best value present I have ever received. The hours and hours of use it received must have meant that the electricity to run it outstripped the initial costs several fold. I soon became familiar with ‘Deluxe Paint’ giving a creative outlet, and even played about a bit with AMOS. The Amiga also introduced me to the graphic adventure game (Or Point and Click) including ‘Monkey Island 1 and 2‘ and ‘Simon the Sorcerer.’ I still have very fond memories of the Amiga, and have instructed my parents to hang on to it until I have a place of my own where I have enough space to actually set it up again.
By the time I started secondary school the limited word processing capabilities of the Amiga were proving a bit restrictive (Although this was probably more a limitation of the software and our printer than anything else) and the system was again. Commodore had gone bust, and developers were moving away from the system. The consoles didn’t really interest me, and it seemed that a PC was the next step. However the cost was high and money trees still hadn’t been invented at that point. However eventually the family got its first PC, an AST Advantage 623, which came bundled with several titles, the only decent one of which was Worms. The system had a lowly 8MB of Ram, a Pentium 100MHz processor, 1.2GB HD, an SiS 6205 graphics card, Soundblaster Pro soundcard and Windows 95. The graphics card is probably the most significant of those specs, as initially it wasn’t Direct X compatible, and required a driver update. The only problem was I didn’t know how to update graphics drivers, and for a long time suffered compatibility problems. The first time I got a Direct X game running successfully I was ecstatic.
However the Direct X issues did give birth to one of those moments when you realise your life took a path that it may not otherwise have trodden. I had purchased a copy of ‘Broken Sword‘ from PC World, only to find graphics driver issues prevented it from running. Disappointed, my Mum managed to arrange a refund from Virgin Interactive, after lots of hassle in which no-one managed to tell us of the relatively simple process my which we could update out graphics drivers. (The DOS version also didn’t run, presumably for some unconnected reason) With my refund I purchased a game which has had quite an impact on my life since then, ‘Creatures.’ ‘Creatures’ was a surprisingly detailed artificial life program, which used simulated genetics and biochemistry to generate virtual pets known as Norns. My initial experiences with the game were disappointing, as I worried about lack of depth and longevity. However these concerns soon proved completely invalid, at the game introduced me to genetics, biochemistry, programming, modding and the joys of a vibrant online community. While I had always been intending to go into science, it is this game which caused my shift from physics to biology, and I no small way got me where I am today. I still have a great fondness for the game, although rarely play it nowadays, and the game still influences the way I think about biological systems, as well as the universe itself. I don’t have idols, but if I did, the man behind the game, Steve Grand, would be one of the few contenders for the position.
Since the AST I have had two other systems, a Quantex, and my most recent self-built system. I’ve always been a computer gamer rather than a console gamer, although have owned a PSX and a Wii. However my interest in computers extends beyond gaming to the tweaking, fiddling and even troubleshooting the benefits a PC user. While I will always bee primarily a Windows user due to my gaming, my current system is a dual-boot, and my laptop is a pur Linux system (Kubuntu). I hold a soft spot for past computers in the same way in which others are fond of past cars, although the pre-PC systems induce stronger feelings, thanks to not suffering from the ‘Janitors Broom‘ issue.