Sunday, 29 April 2018

MICROGORIA 56 - Paperbacks From Hell

In this episode, Mr Jim Moon takes a look at a marvelous new tome Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix - a lavishly illustrated and in-depth history of the horror paperbacks of the 1970s and the 1980s

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  MICROGORIA 56 - Paperbacks From Hell

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Thursday, 26 April 2018

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Beneath the Sheets

In previous editions of Folklore on Friday we have examined why ghosts are often pictured wearing chains or depicted as headless phantoms, and so now we shall round off this little series with a look at why exactly we so often picture spooks as sheeted shapes. Of all the depictions of ghosts in popular culture, phantoms appearing as sheeted shapes is surely the most common. But somewhat weirdly, while the reasons for this used to be rather well-known, in recent years the waters have become somewhat muddied.

In recent times I've seen numerous articles making the claim that depicting ghosts as sheeted forms is a relatively recent development. It is claimed that it is based on an old theatrical convention.  Allegedly in olden times, when ghosts appeared in plays and other stage entertainments, they were costumed in suits of armour. And why was this? Well according to the TV Tropes article on this subject (which appears to be the source for many of the pieces I am refering to), it was because -
"in Elizabethan England, armor was no longer worn in combat, and the costuming convention at the time was to dress characters in contemporary (Renaissance) clothing. So, by dressing a character in armor, the character was given an out of date look, and recognized as a ghost."
However by the late 18th and 19th centuries, or so the this theory goes, audiences would no longer suspend disbelief in the stage ghosts because their armour made too much clanking and creaking. And hence costume designers cast about for a way of creating a costume that would suggest that the ghost was  incorporeal and ethereal. The solution they arrived at was to dress the actor in white sheets, which along with low lighting, would create misty figures and shapes on shape.

Now this is all very interesting, but once you start investigating the matter the theory collapses like an empty paper bag. To begin with, armour was still commonly worn in Tudor England - Henry VIII for example had several magnificent suits of armour made for his martial endeavours. And furthermore one only has to look at the Roundhead soldiers who fought for Cromwell in the civil war in the 17th century to see that armour was still very much in use a century after the Tudor era was over.

Hamlet and his father's Ghost by Henry Fuseli

Digging a little further into the origins of this theory, we find that the idea that all ghosts were depicted as wearing suits of armour is something of a misconception. Yes, one of the most well-known ghosts in literature is Hamlet's father, who does indeed appear in full battle dress. But if we go back to the text of the playwe discover that while the spirit of Hamlet's father does indeed appear dressed in armour at the beginning of the play, later on he reappears, but in a different costume. For in Act II scene IV, when Hamlet is confronting his mother and his father's shade appears again, the doomed Prince says -

Why, look you there look, how it steals away! 
My father, in his habit as he lived! 

And this is a key scene to understanding why the ghost was deliberately costumed in armour by the Bard of Avon in his first appearance in the play. When the phantom father is first manifesting, he appears in martial dress as he is seeking to combat a grave injustice (ie. his murder) which is placing the kingdom under threat. However after Hamlet has taken revenge on his uncle (the villain of the piece) and is seeking to also punish his mother for her part in the murder, his father's ghost appears without armour to stay his son's hand; his dress signals that justice has been served and the ghost can now rest. 

Furthermore we discover that there are other ghosts in Shakespeare. And Shakespeare's other famous ghost, is the spectre of Banquo in Macbeth, and this shade isn't specified as wearing armour either,. Nor does the ghosts who visit Brutus in Julius Caesar - indeed it would make no sense for a Roman spectre to appear in a suit of armour. Likewise in John Webster's The White Devil (1612) it would be nonsensical for the specter of the murdered Isabella to appear in full plate armour. In a play from the 1580s, Dr Faustus, written by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, when our hero conjures up the ghosts of many different historical figures, but they don't all appear dressed in armour either. Rather they appear dressed in their own contemporary clothes.

In short then, what I shall term the armour theory collapses when you look into the range of ghosts and spectres in 16th and 17th century drama, for only a select few of these stage phantoms are kings or soldiers for whom it would be logical to depict as wearing armour. Furthermore Shakespearean scholars have written much on the technical aspects of staging plays, with John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, in a 2016 article, theorising that "the actors probably – on the day-lit stage of the Globe – had their skin whitened with flour"

The Gambols of Ghosts by William Blake

So where did the armour theory come from? Well tracing my way through the perilous underworld of footnotes and references, the misconception appears to begin in an article entitled The Ghost in Hamlet by RA Foakes published in Shakespeare Survey: Volume 58, Writing about Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press 2005). In this piece Foakes examines the history of portraying the ghost of Hamlet's father, citing on the work Renaissance Clothing by Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, who document several reports of the ghost of Hamlet's father provoking laughter thanks to the noise made by the armour. Hence as a response to this, in the18th and 19th centuries, ditching the armour in favour of a lighter more ethereal looking costume came into fashion. However the key point here is that Roakes, and Jones and Stallybrass, were only speaking about one particular stage ghost, Hamlet's father. But it is thanks to some very careless readings of their studies that the historical evolution of the depiction of the ghost of Hamlet's father has been applied firstly to all stage ghosts, and then  to all popular depictions of ghosts in the eras discussed.

illustration by James McBryde for Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad

So why are ghosts depicted as wearing sheets? Occasionally I have seen the origin laid at the door of MR James, for in one of his most famous ghost stories, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad a dreadful spectre manifests in a bed sheet. However here James was playing with the already popular notion of ghosts appearing dressed in white sheets, by having his malevolent apparition actually be a sheet with "a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen". Indeed the ghost as appearing as a white shape was very well-established by the 18th century, as can be seen in  the numerous spirits and phantoms depicted by William Blake, as well as in reports of hauntings such as the Cock Lane ghost and the case of the Hammersmith Ghost from 1803. In another of his tales, There Was a Man Who Dwelt By A Churchyard (which appropriately enough is actually James's guess at the ghost story Maxillius was going to tell in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale) features another sheeted spectre, and James gives us the real reason why -
Have you ever seen an old brass in a church with a figure of a person in a shroud? It is bunched together at the top of the head in a curious way. Something like that was sticking up out of the earth in a spot of the churchyard which John Poole knew very well.
Now while we always think of burials and funerals as involving a coffin, this is a relatively new development. In ages past only the rich could afford a tomb or a coffin and most folks therefore were buried wrapped up in sheets, with more well-off folks being able to afford fine linen for their shrouds, but often wool blankets were used if they were poor. In fact in There Was A Man Dwelt by a Churchyard James details the funeral of the old woman who later returns from the grave, and tells us "She was buried in woollen, without a coffin."

Hence for many centuries, when people thought of the dead they thought of shapes wrapped up in sheets. Ironically had any proponents of the armour theory read a little more Shakespeare they would have found a passage that highlights this. In Julius Caesar, the Bard has Horatio deliver these lines (which were memorably quoted in one of the eeriest sequences in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street) -
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
Even more ironically, had anyone bothered to consult one of the original sources, they could have easily discovered the truth. For the matter was concisely and clearly wrapped up, if you'll pardon the pun, by Mr Peter Stallybrass himself - 
If you ask people today, when they imagine ghosts, they say they come back in sheets. But if you ask people why they were in sheets, most people don’t know. And they come back in sheets because you’re buried in sheets. So you come back in your shroud.

 Frontispiece to Tales of Terror by Matthew Lewis, 1808 edition

Wednesday, 25 April 2018


Welcome once again dear fiends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! This time we are continuing our explorations of the weird world of the home micro and taking a look that some games that are truly legendary. Or at least was released by a company called Legend...  

Now at the dawn of the home micro age, there was a common perception that these small and affordable computers, that didn't require a massive room filled with spinning tape wheels and an evil genius with a beard who would program it to run amuck and try and take over the world, would mainly be used for serious purposes. Such as science, education and business. And naturally as soon as the public began snapping up the likes of the Sinclair ZX81, many saw a glimmer on the technological horizon of vast empires built on writing software. And this was no mirage - indeed there was a new frontier opening based on computer publishing... 

But the gleaming city which was built on software didn't turn out to be based on accounting programs. Nor was it built on rock and roll as predicted by Starship. For despite the efforts of pioneers and gadget gurus to educate the public on the power and potential of the mighty micro, what actually happened was that people bought them and then completely failed to get to grips with them. However the nation's kids very quickly mastered how to load a game, and very soon the software sections in shops were expanding to contain a tidal wave of games. 

Now in these early days, one of the companies formed to create and sell business software was an outfit called Microl. However at some point in 1982, Microl very cannily realised that the big money was in games, and set up a spin-off outfit solely to create gaming titles. Headed up by John and Jan Peel, this new gaming software company was called Legend. Now although there were a host of fly-by-night companies that popped up and foisted a legion of shoddy games upon us all, Legend was no quick cash-in venture and the Peels were interested and excited by the possibilities of the emerging games scene. Quite correctly, they realised that computer games weren't just a passing fad, and that the power of the home micro allowed for gaming to evolve way beyond the arcade titles of the past and become a whole new media in themselves. And from the start they were aiming for quality. In an interview with Your Spectrum magazine (see here) , the Peels claimed "We are looking for TV quality images coupled with the interactive potential of a home computer". 

Now one of the most impressive games in the early days of home micros was The Hobbit created by Beam Software in 1982. In many ways, this computer game version of JRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR Tolkein's classic wasn't exactly breaking new ground - it was basically a text adventure, a style of computer game which had been around since the mid 1970s. However these earlier text games had been mainly played on computers in labs and universities, and the general public still generally thought of computer games as things like Pong, Space Invaders or Pac Man. However The Hobbit really grabbed the public's attention - to begin with it came with a copy of the original book (see! computers were educational!) and as well as the usual typing in of phrases such as "Ask Gandalf to open the door" and "Ask Thorin to stop singing about gold", The Hobbit came with pictures. Yes, they were primitive and took ages to load but they were based on famous illustrations and really brought the game to life. 

And to the vast majority of people who were just discovering the joys of computers, The Hobbit was a massive leap forward in game-play from running about over-eating or crashing spaceships. Instead of repeating the same actions or doing the same tasks over and over again, except slightly quicker on each level, in The Hobbit you could go where you liked and do what you liked. Well, provided the program could understand the command you typed in. The text parser in The Hobbit was good, but it never understood the more frequent types of commands typed in by kids determined to mispend their youth, as seen below...

Now obviously to get anywhere in the game you had to replicate the plot line of the original book, and in fact you could complete the adventure in under ten minutes if you knew what you were doing (as can be seen in walkthrough videos like this one).  However there was nothing to stop you heading off in any direction you liked, and causing mayhem in Middle Earth. And this kind of freedom in a computer game was nothing short of astounding back in the day. In fact, the lure of just wandering anywhere you liked was so great, most players never found some the notorious bugs in some versions of the game which actually made the proper adventure unfinishable! 

Now the Peels right recognised that The Hobbit was a real milestone in the development of computer gaming, not just in the technical sophistication of the game engine but also in the impact it had made on the public's perception of what games could be. They realised that games that tell players create their own adventure, tell their own stories had the potential to be as addictive as soap operas, and thus Legend's first venture was intended to pick up where The Hobbit left off. Very astutely for their first game, they chose as their subject matter some of the very same source materials that had inspired Tolkein's famous tales, Norse mythology. Andthe game that resulted was Valhalla! 

Next time - we voyage to the realms of Asgard, journey to Hell, and insult assorted Norse divinites!  

Sunday, 22 April 2018

MICROGORIA 55 - Veronica

In this little episode Mr Jim Moon investigates a new Spanish horror movie, Veronica which is being touted as the scariest movie currently on Netflix!


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Wednesday, 18 April 2018


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...

Ratted out!

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!

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Complete Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder

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... 

Episode home page - The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghost Finder #1 - The Thing Invisible

Episode home page -  The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder #2 - The Gateway of The Monster

Episode home page -  The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghost-Finder #3 The House Among The Laurels

Episode home page -  The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder #4 The Whistling Room

Episode home page - The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghost Finder #7 The Find

Sunday, 15 April 2018

HYPNOGORIA 90 - Ghost Stories

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!


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Wednesday, 11 April 2018


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!  

Sunday, 8 April 2018

MICROGORIA 53 - Night Voices: The Hospice

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!  

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  MICROGORIA 53 - Night Voices: The Hospice

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Thursday, 5 April 2018


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... 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

GREAT LIBRARY OF DREAMS 43 - Dagon by HP Lovecraft

In this episode, we round off our current series on aquatic terrors with a seminal tale of marine horror from the great HP Lovecraft.


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