Welcome once again dear fiends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Over the past few weeks we have fiddling with the volume levels on our battered old cassette tape player and delving into the world of home micro games. Now the gaming landscape of the early 1980s was initially at least mirroring the console game market, with the key difference that the games came on easily pirated tapes rather than expensive cartridges. However as programmers and designers got to grips with new and ever expanding computing power of the mighty micros, computer gaming would venturing into new and sometime rather weird territory.
Now a perfect example of this is the output of UK based firm DK'Tronics Ltd. This company was formed by a chap called David Heelas, and began back in 1981 as a one man operation he ran in his spare time. DK'Tronics got started with an expansion pack for one of the first home micros, Sinclair's ZX80 (which actually came in kit form and you had to assemble and build yourself). By the time the ZX81* appeared on the scene (which thankfully didn't come in a kit), Dk'Tronics were producing keyboards for both the ZX80 and the ZX81, plus had ventured into the world of games with an early racing sim 3D Grand Prix.
And while DK'Tronics would continue to produce hardware, including a whole range of add-ons for the ZX Spectrum, they also produced a string of well remembered and innovative games, many of which were devised by micro gaming legend Don Priestly. However before they began publishing classic titles such as Dictator, the early gaming output of DK'Tronics was very much *ahem* inspired by arcade classics - hence in 1982 and 1983 they released the likes of Munch Man (a Pac Man knock-off), Meteoroids (an Asteroids clone), Galactians (go on guess!) and Centipede (which was a clone of.. erm... Centipede). However as the market expanded, DK'Tronics set their sights higher and began producing games that no longer merely *ahem* emulated a coin-op classic. And while they would deliver some innovative and well-loved titles, their first steps in that direction were a wee bit shaky. And to be frank, bloody weird! Ladles and jellyspoons, welcome to the world of Apple Jam
I swear this is a real game!
This game which appeared in early 1984 was written by Ed Hickman, who would go on to work with Don Priestly on innovative DK'Tronic titles such as Zig Zag and Minder. However Apple Jam is something else... I guess you could call it innovative. It's certainly different. The basic premise is that you are at a factory making, you guess it, apple jam. For reasons that are unlikely to ever become clear, the sweet sticky jam drips from a spigot tap and there's also a conveyor belt which for some reason dumps apples on the floor. Your job is to run your little man from left to right and catch the falling jam and fruit. In his gob. Obviously. Just like you would in any real factory. However there is of course a catch... several catches in fact...
Firstly, and I swear I'm not making this up - see the screenshots for proof - beneath where your little sprite man runs back and forth, there is a tunnel where a rat constantly runs. Now everytime you miss scoffing an apple or a blob of the jam, they fall into the tunnel and the rat gets them. And every time it eats, Ratty gets bigger. And when he gets to a certain size, he goes all James Herbert and comes to eat you! However you can avoid getting gnawed to death by legging it to the elevator on the left hand side of the screen. And if you time it right, you can splat the rat with the elevator, which leaves a nice puddle of blood under it. A puddle that gets bigger and bigger the more rats you splat. Brilliant eh!
But that's not all. For every time you pig out on apples or jam, you put on weight. So much so that it doesn't take long for your little man to start to resemble a Mega City 1 fatty. And if you get too fat - and here I quote from the actual game instructions - "you'll have a fit" and lose a "diet pill" i.e. a life. However you can fight the flab by running over to the right-hand side of the screen and popping in the sauna there, which will slim down to your original size. Of course, there is a downside to this - because while you're in the sauna, the jam is dripping and the apples are dropping... and Ratty is getting bigger and bigger again.
Lip up fatty!
And if things weren't difficult enough already, every now and again a giant hornet, presumably escaped from a Bert I Gordon movie, comes to buzz you. Sadly you can't use the elevator as a giant fly-swatter, and so you have to take refuge in the sauna, meaning Ratty gets another free lunch or two... On the upside, there is a mysterious box marked Rat Bait which allegedly drops and reduces the ravening rodent to its original size. And I say allegedly because the magic box only drops when you hit certain scores, and generally it seems most people never lived long enough to actually trigger that happening. For Apple Jam is insanely difficult - it doesn't take much troughing for you to hit morbidly obese levels, and hence most of the time you are just trying to squish the rat while dodging that twat of a hornet.
Killed by the stripey bastard again!
But in practice, I'm not entirely sure that this mattered much to the kids of the '80s. Certainly everyone I knew who had a copy of Apple Jam were not usually attempting to get a high score, but instead were trying to get the biggest river of blood possibly oozing out below the elevator! Ah, they just don't write 'em like this anymore! Sadly these days even the game's basic premises i.e. over-eating for fun and profit would be frowned upon, never mind splatting rats...
* Pointless footnote - in my school, a piece of graffiti on a desk read "God's only clever coz He's got a ZX81". By the way, the ZX81 had a processor running a 3.5 mhz and a massive 1K of memory!
Several years ago now, Mr Jim Moon began recounting the adventures of Carnacki the Ghost Finder as recorded by Mr William Hope Hodgson, and here are the complete collected readings from the Casebook of Carnacki...
In this episode, Mr Jim Moon takes a look at a brand new movie, Ghost Stories! Created by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, this film adapts their hugely successful stage play for the big screen and has been hailed as the best British horror movie in years! The main review is spoiler-free but there is a special little section at the end for those who have seen and survived the movie!
Welcome once again dear fiends to that benighted vault where nostalgia fears to tread! And rightly so too - if I catch it trampling my geraniums again, I'll shoot it up the arse with this vintage Daisy air rifle! Bastard! Anywho, where was I? Oh yes, we are messing about in the wacky world of the mighty micro! So then, I'd told you about the strange state of affairs when a home computer was a little slab slab that was mostly keyboard that plugged into your telly, and every bloody one of them had their own operating system. And we'd looked at the often tedious, and noisy business of trying to load programs, or rather, games mostly. But now it's time to dust off that battered shoe-box full of dodgy looking cassettes and explore the home micro gaming market in the early 1980s...
Now as we mentioned last week, it didn't take long for people to realise that having software on ordinary audio tape cassettes made piracy ridiculously easy. Especially as this was the era when stereos with dual tape decks became very popular too. And so by the time the home micro market had evolved enough for the Spectrum, Commodore 64 and the BBC Micro to be battling it out for supremacy, odds on you knew someone who was hawking C90 cassettes chockful of pirated games. Of course some of the titles on these dodgy compilations would be all those classic games you were dying to play, but on the other hand, you also could safely bet that you wouldn't have even heard of half of them! For things moved fast in the world of the home micro, in an era when new models of computer were being released literally every month, games publishers were appearing just as fast. And the huge advantage of having software coming on cassettes was that it was now very simple for anyone to become a software publisher.
Obviously a great many of the games produced in this period, often by somewhat fly-by-night software houses, were of course merely variations on the big selling titles. There were still plenty of what we would now called sport sims, which mostly consisted of variants on the classic Pong (i.e. a couple of lines for paddles and a square for small). They of course were still utter rubbish but these primitive games persisted for a surprisingly long time, mainly because back then they still were what people expected a video game to be like. Although that said, the sports game did seen some programmers embracing the enhanced computing powers of the home micro, with racing games beginning to generate first person perspective graphics. And more exotic sports such as skiing, snooker and bowling were becoming very popular subjects for games too - not because there was an upsurge in interest in more niche sporting events, but because the games did not consist of yet more waggling thin rectangles about to knock a dot back and forth. Hence early home micro era icon Horace, who started life in a Pac Man knock-off called Hungry Horace, had taken up slalom skiing in his second outing.
This might not look sophisticated but was a revelation in 1982
There were also computerised versions of tried and tested analogue old favourites. Computer game versions of well-loved board games such as chess and Scrabble were quick to appear, marketed very much with the angle you could now play against the computer. However in truth these early skirmishes in the human-AI wars tended to go one of two ways. Either the program was ridiculously good and delivered a whopping every time unless you were a world champion, or it was foolishly simple to the point of being naive. "Are you sure wgmumfr is word" the Scrabble program would politely ask, "oh yes" replied the nation's the kids... Also around this time the first computerised card games appeared, with various versions of poker doing the rounds, but ultimately the real winner here was computerised solitaire, which is still the cause of millions of lost work-hours a year.
However the lion's share of the market was still clones of arcade hits such as Space Invaders, Defender, Donkey Kong and Pac Man. And while there were more sophisticated games beginning to appear, such as complex text adventures, generally the prevailing conception of a computer game was that it should involve a simple scenario, straightforward controls, and consist of doing a simple task - i.e. shoot these, collect those, get over there - over and over again in a series of near identical levels. The graphics should be big and colourful symbols, the sounds should be bleepy and futuristic, and the gameplay fast.
Now by this stage, the obvious bases had already been covered. Sports of all kinds had been translated into games, all manner of cars, planes and boats had been raced, and countless enemies from across history and outer space had been shot at. However games like Pac Man or Manic Miner had proved that any scenario, no matter how weird, could be the basis for a hit game. In fact, the more off-beat the better it seemed. Now given that the home micro market was huge in the UK, the birthplace of Alice in Wonderland, the Goons and Monty Python, a great many would-be programmers took the advice of David Bowie and turned to face the strange...
Next time, we discover what happens when apples meet elevators and radical weight-loss becomes the subject of a home micro game!
In this little episode Mr Jim Moon takes a look at a doubly rare thing - firstly because it's an episode of an obscure TV horror series hardly ever seen since its first broadcast, and secondly for it is an even rarer beast - a screen adaptation of a Robert Aickman story!
So then dear fiends, welcome back once again to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Now last time we were discussing the strange era that can be found at the dawn of the 1980s - the weird world of the mighty micro. And this week we are going to be making a further exploration of that land that Computing History forgot, so pull on a cable-knit jumper and prepare your best Doug McClure impression as we venture out to make battle with fearsome microsaurs!
Now as discovered last week, the coming of the home micro promised a new exciting age of computers coming into our homes. One of the great selling points of having a home computer was that it would help kids with their school work, however in reality what had happened was that kids had managed to con their parents into buying a machine that actually would enable them to do the exact opposite i.e. help them to play Jet Set Willy instead. But why had this state of affairs come about? Why wasn't this early generation of gamers not pestering their beleaguered oldies for the latest consoles? Well dear fiends, there were a couple of good reasons for this. Firstly many of consoles doing the rounds back then were quite frankly terrible old tat (and I promise you we we will look at some at some future visit to the 'Orrible Old 'Ouse). However, more crucial (and not in an '80s Lenny Henry way) was the second reason, which we shall dub the life cycle of the console, which many kids had bitter experience swith...
And the life cycle of the console goes like this - kid gets a console for Christmas or a birthday pressie. Said console arrives with a couple of games on cartridges. Kid never gets any more games for the console because a) they can't afford to buy another one themselves as game cartridges were so hideously expensive, b) parents never cough up for another because they are so bloody expensive and they don't want to forever be having their wallet lightened every time a new game is required by their spawn. And there was finally c) said console is now virtually obsolete and there are no other games in the shops anyway other than the ones the bastard thing shipped with. And so after a few months, maybe even weeks, we have a very expensive dust collector languishing in a cupboard in a tangle of wires.
"Please buy me another cartridge..."
Now bearing these grim facts in mind, how long do you think it took the kids of the early '80s to note that firstly games for micro computers came on ordinary household cassette tapes (and yes, you did need a cassette player of some sort to hookup to the computer, although the later home micros did come with cassette decks built in). Secondly, said tapes with games on cost a fraction of console cartridges - a game for a home micro could be picked up for a little as a fiver, with a more expensive title going for ten or fifteen quid. Whereas for a console cartridge you were talking a starting price of £15 a title, going up to £25 or even £30! And finally, and perhaps most important of all, we all realised that with games and software coming on ordinary cassettes - exactly the same type that we were using to tape favourite chart hits off the radio on - it was going to be a piece of piss to pirate games from hereon in.
And thus the first age of digital piracy was born! Hence after you got a home micro, it didn't take too long to end up with an extensive collection of pirate titles. Now generally most games only took up a couple of minutes of tape play time, and therefore it was quite common to acquire a long running tape, such as a C90 (which had 45 minutes of record time on each side of the cassette) and have several dozen games on one cassette. However this first wave of piracy was not without its pitfalls. In fact there were several distinct downsides to pirated game cassettes.
Firstly having a ton of games on one cassette made finding the particular title you wanted to play a bit tricky. If your cassette recorder had a counter mechanism - literally an analogue set of wheels with numbers on that turned in sequence with the tape playing - you had to make a note of when each game started on the tape and then fast forward and rewind to that position. Or you had to develop a very good ear for screechy noise of computer code and be able to recognise the end or beginning sounds of individual games. Now that might sound mental, but actually a lot of us did develop this particular wild talent and could find a game on a pirate compilation often quicker than trying to do it by a counter!
And for those of you who are too young to remember, this what happens when you loaded a game on a home micro -
Yes, back then games didn't load instantly, and the more complex the game, the longer it took. In fact some games required you to load extra bits as you went along, meaning long tedious minutes listening to more code squeaking and warbling to get to the next bit. And it was those long minutes waiting for games to load that we learned to recognise the start and end sounds of different games - for if you were addicted to playing Manic Miner, you got to hear the song of the code loading many, many times. In fact, even now, over 30 years later, I still recognise the closing few bars of the Manic Miner code...
However there were additional perils for those attempting to load a pirated game. For often there a range of variations in recording levels on different tape machines, and a similar variance in the recorded volume levels of the actual tapes. And together these variations in volume meant that you might find that some games might not be playing loud enough to load properly. Or in other cases, if you had the volume level too loud, there would be distortions in the sound that would also bugger up the loading process. To be fair, this could occur with genuine copies too but it was far rarer. However it did mean that sometimes you had to make several attempts to load a game, each time fiddling with the volume level until you hit the right one for it load. And the real pain of it was that usually it was only when the entire program had played - having to listen to minutes of electronic shrieking - that it would crash right at the end, just as the game was supposed to start. Veterans of this era often gather round campfires and tell tales of blood-chilling terror about that time they tried to get Valhalla to load...
"Get used to seeing me kid, 'cos I take AGES to load... If I load that is...."
Anyhow, once you finally got a game to load there was then another challenge for the pirate gamer. For most games back then didn't come with training levels or in-built help menus, and so if you had a hooky copy, you rarely had any instructions at all and hence no idea how to play the game. Now it is true that many games of this era were ports or clones of existing arcade games, but on the flipside not that many of these early games supported the use of a joystick or gamepad. And so therefore it was a process of patient trial and error... oh alright mainly frantic hammering on the keyboard to be honest, to discover what the controls actually were.
But even when you worked up what keys to move, fire, pick up stuff, or whatever, actually were you still had the challenge of working out what the hell you were supposed to be doing. For while the first home micro games were indeed new versions of familiar arcade classics, it wasn't long before teh home micro was spreading its wings and delivering some rather sophisticated games. The aforementioned Valhalla (Legend 1983) for example was an early and highly innovative sandbox game - a huge open world set in Norse mythology and the player was free to wander where they liked and do as they wished. However if you had a naughty copy, you were lacking all the vital background and instructions as to what you were supposed to be trying to achieve in these lands of myth. Adventures tended to not to be epics of great heroism and usually ended up as wandering about aimlessly and swearing at various gods and monsters.
However things weren't helped by the fact that once programmers of this era had grasped the concept of not simply cloning arcade favourites, they boldly set out exploring new and exciting game concepts. And while this sometimes resulted in pioneering titles like Valhalla, many games ended up going to some very odd places indeed... And over the next few weeks we'll be having a look at some of stranger titles that were released in this era...
Hello dear fiends, and welcome once again to the 'Orrible 'Ouse ofTterrible Old Tat! Yes, after a somewhat extended winter break, we are once again open for business, charting histories of weird and wonderful relics of yesterday. Yes, welcome once again to the land that pop culture forgot!
Now then, recently over brandy and cigars - well a cup of tea and a Kit Kat to be honest - the conversation somehow got onto the subject of rats and apples. And I distinctly heard the sound of a dusty box conspicuously dropping off a shelf within the benighted depths of the 'Orrible Old 'Ouse. And as we wondered what this aural omen could signify, a memory stirred - a 16K memory to be precise. A flashback to the days when digital piracy involved cassette recorders, and to be specific, a year when although everyone was expecting Big Brother to be watching, (although thankfully the horror of having to watch Big Brother was still decades away). Yes, welcome back to 1984 and the glory days of the home micro!
And for those of you too young to know what a home micro is, let me briefly explain, hopefully without patronising you within an inch of your life. The 1980s saw the real birth of the home computer market. Yes, people, usually beardie weirdie people, had been making their own little computers in garages and sheds during the 1970s, but no one paid them any attention. After all, they were beardie weirdies and nerds weren't they - just bloody hippies really, excepts one too boring for drugs and who had done maths exams instead for Pete's sake. They could bugger about with circuits and microchips all they liked but they weren't going to get anywhere were they? They certainly wouldn't end up multi-millionaires and running some of the most lucrative global corporations on the planet... Oh hang on...
However at the dawn of the 1980s, the tech had developed to a point where it was feasibly to make a small and cheap computer that you could run at home - a micro-computer. While originally these things came in actual kits where you had to solder all the circuits and built it yourself, at the start of the '80s they began to arrive pre-assembled and pre-programmed! Now I know these days, most stuff has sophisticated electronics bunged in it, from your phone to your fridge, but back then, computers were usually huge beasts that took up entire rooms. Hence these first computers that Joe Public could buy were termed "micro computers". And the idea of having one in your own house was indeed the stuff of science fiction. The phrase "home computer" now sounds bland to the point of meaninglessness in our current age of smart devices and wearable technology, but back then it was a massively exciting pair of two words, a duo that conjured up visions of the 21st century. And if you collide this two new phrases together, we get the then cutting edge (but now almost forgotten) term "home micro".
And make no mistake it was the buzzword du jour, appearing in titles of books, magazines and TV programmes that aimed to help the public come to understand this new technology. Or at least just to shamelessly cash in on this latest fad. And to a certain extent the home micro boom that Britain enjoyed in the early 1980s was just a craze. While the home micro promised a lot - it was claimed that they would help you with the household accounts, replace typewriters, you could make art and music on them, and kids could do homework with them - in the end it was just like the earlier similar craze for CB radios, at least to a certain extent. For the naysayers were only partly right, for without that initial boom in the market for home computers, we wouldn't now have the ever-expanding array of cyber tech we have today, a world where computers kids do their homework on them, where they are used to help with the household accounting, where they have replaced typewriters... Ironically most of today's tech is powered by the samesort chips and processors that were first developed in the early 1980s. Technology 1, luddites 0!
However the brave new world of the mighty micro was a very different place to the computing landscape today. For a start off, we had the bizarre situation where every home micro on sale had its own operating system, none of which were remotely compatible with each other. You think the Apple/PC Amazon/Google grudge matches are daft? That was nothing comparing to home computing in the '80s where even different models from the same damn manufacturers had their own software and hardware. Eventually it did settle down a bit to a battle for supremacy between a handful of leading machines (with the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 being the two titans of this arena), but it was still a bizarre and bewildering situation.
And no matter which system you opted for, to be honest, you still needed a certain amount of beardie weirdie know-how to get the buggers to do anything at all. But a whole generation of kids, eager to join the 21st century when we'd be zipping around in hover cars and bossing robots about, were more than prepared to learn. Now admittedly in practice this usually only extended as far as learning to type a much abused bit of code that usually ran something like this...
10 PRINT "Nobhead"
20 GOTO 10
...which explains why so often home micros on display in various shops were often displaying screens full of scrolling obscenities, and frequently ones far worse that the example quoted above. Of course, the other code we all learned went something like this - LOAD "" - for this was the magic formula make your home micro play games. And naturally that soon became the default purpose for most home micros. Oh yes, we badgered our parents with lofty talk of how a computer would help us with our schoolwork but really we just wanted to play Manic Miner.
Ultimately however the home micro market crashed, and largely down to two factors. Firstly, as is blindingly obvious to anyone, having more than twenty competing and incompatible systems was always going to end in tears. Too many punters got by buying machines that disappeared quickly or worse still died a long lingering death due to a lack of handy hardware such as printers or joysticks and no one stocking any software for them. The second reason was the second coming of the games console - hey kids, no more messing about with bits of code, or fighting to configure a joystick to work properly - just plug in a cartridge and away you go!
However while the home micro boom was short-lived and many of its predicted benefits completely failed to materialise, one of its loft prediction did come true. And that was that a great many people - usually the aforementioned beardie weirdies and spotty kids in bedrooms - did actually end up making small fortunes from learning to code and writing programs. Well, I say programs, but in the main, it was writing games. Now some were genuine classics, such as the previously mentioned Manic Miner, while others like 3D Ant Attack pushed the boundaries of game design. But on the other hand, some people came up with very odd ideas for games...
Tune in next time, to discover the absolute palavar involved trying to get a game to work on a home micro. and the frequently demented nonsense that present itself when you finally got the bloody thing to load!
In this episode, Mr Jim Moon takes an in-depth look at the Oscar winning monster movie from Guillermo del Toro. First we have a spoiler-free review of The Shape of Water, and then in the second half, we delve deeper, exploring its connections to The Creature From the Black Lagoon movies and other connections to folklore, fairy stories and classic films.