Retro Gaming and Computing
The past takes on an aura of myth. Things were better. You had to be there to experience it. And other tired tropes. I first got into personal computers in the 9th grade when our high school was gifted a computer lab full of squeaky clean, new Apple IIs. I was hooked, and spent about every afternoon in there with my small group of friends.
I couldn’t afford an Apple, but I did dive into the Atari 8-bit computers (and I even keep one around) pretty hard, and collected a bunch of hardware and software, graduating to their 16 bit computers, and from there jumped into the IBM PC world, then Macs, then PCs then Macs again (and now, in 2021, I am contemplating buying a Windows machine again).
My memory of the Atari 8 bit era is muddled. I remember great games, cool DOS, my Hayes 300 modem (and my bulletin board that I ran with it), the FoReM BBS software that we all modified (written in Basic XL).
In the mid oughts, I bought a complete Atari system to relive my youth. Actually both an 1040ST as well as a complete 130XE system.
Then I remembered a fact.
This wasn’t really a golden era.
Different versions of DOS, some special loaders for some programs. How to disable Basic at boot. Literally thousands of programs, including my 30 or so favorites, but many that were, for want of a better term, rubbish.
The first generation of computers in my life, sucked. 5&1/4 inch floppies, sucked. An Atari 1050 disk drive, even with the Happy chip update (that made it about 3x faster, and able to copy just about anything) still sucked.
Why do I have such fond memories of this time?
About the same time that I bought my Atari hardware, I also picked up a couple of used Apple II’s. They were less than $50 each, shipped, so it was a no-brainer. I bought an expansion card that loaded up a CF card and treated it as a hard disk drive, and my memories of that system were as faulty as my memories of the Atari.
In truth, they didn’t suck. They were what was available at the time, and they all kicked off my lifelong infatuation with technology.
While we had an Atari “Pong” game (I am not sure how we got one, we were pretty poor, so I suspect that my step father traded it for some car repair work) and I enjoyed playing it on our B&W TV. But my passion for video games was well and truly kindled with my discovery of coin-op video games. Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and then there were the Atari games. Asteroids, Battlezone, and Tempest were my favorites, and I fed those beasts tons of quarters and tokens.
I even took a job at Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizzatime Theater, so I would have ample access to games.
The early 80’s was a golden time. New games appeared seemingly weekly, and new arcades opened frequently, and the one near my high school was one stop every day for me.
My time in the arcades was mostly in the early 1980’s so it was the first wave of games. I never got into the later games where they blended computer driven graphics and laserdisc video, to make cool flight simulators, or the Mortal Kombat series of fighting games. Not my thing, but likely because it was the second (or third) wave of games, more sophisticated graphics, more computing power, and better graphics. This brought a generation into video gaming in a serious way.
The Atari 8-Bit computers
Don’t get me wrong, when I spent hours every day in the Apple lab, I had boxes full of floppy disks with Apple games, but they were a second tier compared to what the Atari 8-bit computers offered. The Atari computers had custom chips to provide kick-ass graphics, and many of the arcade games were ported to the system, and while there was tradeoffs in the graphics (arcade games typically had custom boards, with special CRT’s and hardware to drive them, instead of RF interfaces to TV’s) it was good enough.
But was this really a golden era?
Every time I get nostalgic and try to relive my youth, I am reminded that there was a reason that in this time period, only computing enthusiasts would suffer through the hurdles that were presented. Special hardware, building custom cables, matching versions of DOS to the programs being used, and some programs just never worked.
When I fire up MAME, and load an old game, I use the mouse and keyboard, or an Atari joystick (I have an interface that connects to USB and provides up to 4 joystick ports) and while it works well, it isn’t the same experience as the actual game on a full cabinet.
Every few years, I consider buying a MAME cabinet kit to build, but I never pull the trigger.
And I will likely never pull that trigger.
Sometimes, the memory is better than the reality. Keep it that way.