A History of Gaming 1 – Childhood

May 27th, 2008

My name is Joe, and I’m a video games addict.

Been playing them all my life. A lot. Quite a bit less over the last couple of years, what with the writing and the child and all the rest of it, so there hasn’t really seemed an apt moment to begin to discuss them. But, as some of you may be aware, Grand Theft Auto IV came out recently, as a result of which I treated myself to a Playstation 3. So over the last few days, rather than waste all my writing time pissing about on the internet, I’ve been wasting it revving a stolen motorbike through the mean streets of Liberty City, and gunning down gangsters. More of this later, for the time being let me only say that I’ve found it not quite as magnetic as the previous installment, San Andreas, but still completely brilliant, and – very rare and very welcome in video gaming – the thing that really makes it is the humour, the personality, the writing.

But since, at 33 (a young and spritely one), I’ve pretty much grown up along with the computer games industry, and witnessed a lot of it take shape first hand, I thought it might be amusing (for me, at least), to push back the mists of time and reminisce about my long association with the medium. To pick out some of the landmarks that have entertained me, transported me, amazed me, and dare I say influenced my writing over the years…

I think we were the third household in my neighbourhood to own a computer when I was…maybe 7 or 8? My old mate Al’s dad had a Sinclair ZX80 (huge metal box with clackety-clack-clacky clear plastic keys, action something like the stops on a 1700s organ), my old mate Tom’s dad had a home-built Tangerine (the case was made out of wood. Yes, wood, painted magnolia as I recall.) We got an Acorn Atom. It had a staggering 2K of RAM. That’s 2000 bytes, or 16,000 bits, biatches! I can still remember the excitement as we swtiched it on and saw that > cursor flash, flash, flashing on the monitor (greenscreen, maybe, or it might even have been just a black and white telly with a screen the size of her majesty’s 3p stamp.) Gaming opportunities were limited, however. Probably stuff like space invaders and pac-man were out there at the time in the arcades, probably asteroids and a few others too, but on the Atom all that was really available was Stargate, in which you maneuvred a triangular block of eight or nine massive pixels left to right and tried to shoot other blocks of massive pixels which dropped from above (leaving a fizzing cathode-ray trail behind them). We were utterly gripped and stunned by it, played it madly, hammering at the clackety-clack keyboard until half the keys broke off leaving little metal bars covered in razor-sharp solder, then hammering at those until our fingertips were red-raw. Ah, happy days.

Some time later we got a BBC Model B. It had a staggering 32K of RAM. 32,000 bytes, read ’em and weep, mofos! It had eight colours! You heard right – colours! A whole bold new world opened up. Admittedly, not as much of a one as opened up for owners of the (relatively contemporary with the BBC) Commodore 64, or the sexy rubber-keyboard Sinclair Spectrum 48K. They got top-whack fly shit like Lords of Midnight (very early fantasy adventure/war game which I played about three times round a mate’s house and affected me so strongly that I still dream about it), Way of the Exploding Fist (the great, great, granddaddy of all beat-em-ups), and Marsport (whose crap side-to-side graphics and boring gameplay were hailed as revolutionary). The BBC was sold on a semi-apocriphal academic-cum-educational tip, so fun was out, at least to begin with. But we had rocket-raid, horizontally scrolling shooter, which we often played with three of us round the keyboard, my brother steering the ship, me shooting, and my dad dropping the bombs. Wicked times, bro! We also had text adventures. That is games where everything was described by text, and you would enter commands by text. Not much of a development beyond fighting fantasy gamebooks, in fact a step back in some ways. Anyone who remembers those text adventures ever complete one? I remember Philosopher’s Quest, Castle of Riddles, and Adventure Quest early on. The ludicrous thing was that, especially in these first efforts, you had to come up with exactly the right phrasing to make something work. To younger people the following will sound inconceivable:

You are standing outside a castle. To the north there is a forest.

What now?


You cannot do that right now.


You cannot do that right now.


You cannot do that right now.


You cannot do that right now.

To older people it will no doubt bring back tears of fist-clenched frutstration.

We had the BBC a long time, maybe 4 or 5 years, so things came a long way in that period. Every new game would herald some new development, and noticable genres started to appear which are still around today, albeit it in forms so hugely evolved that they are barely recognisable. Platform games, like Killer Gorilla, Blagger, Manic Miner, and later isometric stuff from ultimate like knight lore. Racing games like Revs. Horizontally, vertically, and diagonally scrolling shooters of all descriptions, always provided with a high score table that you couldn’t save and would hence be lost whenever you turned the computer off, occasionally prompting you to try and leave the computer on for ten days straight.

All this magnificent software was supplied on her majesty’s audio cassette, probably at around the cost of 8.99, which is seven thousand pounds in today’s money (or three million dollars). You’d blow thirty weeks’ pocket money, then spend ten minutes loading a game, though it felt like hours, and the machine would make a noise like, “wheeeee-gah-gaaaarrrrrggghhhh-wheeeee-gah-gaaaarrrrrggghhhh-wheeeee-gah-gaaaarrrrrggghhhh-wheeeeee” the whole time while a hexidecimal counter went from 0 to what seemed like 7000 and D, a brightly coloured pixelly picture in the background loudly proclaiming what it was you were missing. Some of you know what I’m talking about. Later floppy discs appeared – not the hard-cased 3.5inch ones that have only recently disappeared to be replaced by CD and DVD ROM and flash drives, but the proper 5.25inch floppy, wibbly-wobbly ones. The double-disk drive we had weighed about 70 kilos, and made a noise like a washing machine. But it moved like the proverbial shit off a shovel compared to audio tape, let me tell you.

The BBC also featured the first Word Processor with which I was ever acquainted. Wordstar, a piece of software so powerful that you had to send your computer away so it could be installed on the motherboard on its own chip. Me and my mate Tom actually tried to write a fantasy masterpiece on it, believe it or not. I don’t remember the title, but it featured the attempts of three mismatched young companions to reclaim the lost kingdom of their people, and featured the timeless sentence: “they will never forget their long-forgotten land.” Hugo, anyone?

So what really stands out from those sunny slopes of long ago, in terms of gaming? What do I still fondly think of, draw inspiration from, not perhaps for what it was, but for what
it made me feel? Well, for me, a game called Twin Kingdom Valley, which was a graphic adventure (basically a text adventure but with pictures) in a magical valley split by the lake of Watersmeet into a desert and a forest kingdom. The amazing thing was there was a picture for pretty much every one of its hundreds of locations. They’d seem absurd now, perhaps, but at the time it was magical. I still don’t know how they coded such a massive game into 32K. It was a also a lot more free-form than the adventures I’d played heretofore, not an impossibly grammatical puzzle in every location, and featured combat, which was WAY cool.


A troll is hit with a broadsword. A troll is dead.

Now that’s more like it!

Then there was Citadel, a colossal side-on platform game from Superior Software which featured a massive game world with all kinds of settings, and some puzzles which actually made sense. Gasp. I actually completed that one, which was a real rarity back in those days. Turned out to be about an alien invasion, in the end, of all things. Doesn’t everything, though…

And finally, the game which represents by far the biggest quantum leap forward in gaming I’ve ever witnessed, which saw mind-expanding innovation in pretty much every area, which was literally YEARS ahead of its time … Elite. It was basically a space combat game, but also featured trading, piracy, bounty hunting, exploration. It was probably the first game to be entirely open-ended, so you could do whatever you pleased on it, set your own goals. The universe was indescribably massive (repetitive, perhaps, but not by the standards of the day, and undoubtedly massive). Above all, it was the first serious game to feature 3d graphics. Wire-frame, see through vector-graphics, but still. Can you believe the impact? Before, and for quite a while after for that matter, everything was cardboard sprites, usually seen side-on, often moving round single static screens. In Elite you were plunged into a three dimensional world, of objects tumbling in space, of planets and suns, of dogfights with pirate ships, of fumbling, fatal attempts to dock with space-stations.

With games that take huge leaps in one area or another, they often suffer in others. Ground-breaking graphics is all too often accompanied by shoddy gameplay. Not so here. The structure of trading, to make money, to buy better weapons, to kill pirates, to get better combat ratings, to make more money, seems simple now, obvious, maybe, but was compelling beyond belief at the time. And the flying itself was revolutionary, swift, responsive, effortlessly intuitive. The ships seemed to have weight, inertia. The AI was like nothing seen before – enemies would break off, spin, tumble away, evade. The radar was easy to read and always worked. Hard to believe it was released more than 25 years ago. Looking back on this game now, it seems such a vast leap forward that it’s almost an anomaly, an aberration that you have to consider separately from everything else that followed for about five years. It was to other games of the time as the human being is to the amoeba. This was a game so mind-blowingly good that it was successfully released, years later, on the next generation of computers with only the most passing of cosmetic changes.

Elite. Greatest game of all time? For me, probably. It’s certainly hard to imagine, in this much more jaded age, anything having such an impact across the board as that game did.

Anyway, that takes me up until about age 12, I think. If any of you give a toss, by all means share some of your own gaming experiences in the comments section. Nothing past about 1985, though! We’re going to get there later. In the next thrilling installment, I get me an Atari ST. 1024K, man! That’s right, we call that a frikking MEGABYTE! And what’s this big grey, squeaky box? It’s a little thing called a MOUSE, motherf*cker!

EDIT: On looking some of these games up on the internet, I’ve found Wikipedia links for a lot, with screenshots that might bring back some memories, so I’ve added some in where possible. You can also find video walkthroughs of some, complete with sound effects on google video. A lot of them are actually available through various emulators. Lords of Midnight is apparently still quite widely played twenty-five years later, and has a few thriving communities dedicated to it. Twin Kingdom Valley can be downloaded to play on your mobile phone, believe it or not. That’s an interesting point, actually, how as technology changes some of the classics get new leases of life on different platforms…

Posted in games by Joe Abercrombie on May 27th, 2008. Tags:

26 comments so far

  • I remember those text based adventure games. In fact, one of the most memorable moments (in a bad way, mind you) was this (I’m paraphrasing from 25-year old memories here):

    You are in a room.
    > look

    You see a piano. There is a door to the west.
    > open door

    The door is locked.
    > unlock door

    You don’t have the key.

    Later, after I had spent many minutes trying to open that damn door (which felt like hours to my 14 year old self), I finally looked at the source code to the damn game on the TRS-80 to discover:

    You see a piano. There is a door to the west.
    > get key from piano

    You get the key from the piano
    > unlock door

    The door is unlocked.

    Those cheating bastards! I mean, kudos for encouraging non-linear thinking and all that, but really, piss off for that one. Can’t remember the name of the game, but I do remember how happy I was when the text-based games died, to be replaced with the likes of The Bard’s Tale & Wizardry.

  • Bob Lock says:

    Nice to see another gaming fanatic 🙂
    I’ve gamed since before the electronic explosion into RPGs, MMORPGs etc etc, when we used to hold D&D; evenings in our house and (being the devious person that I am) was nearly always the games-master. It was strangely satisfying seeing friends walk into one of my traps, like a roomful of regenerating skeletons, a door which locked behind them trapping them in, one cloak which gives the owner invisibility and all of them fighting each other to grab it! It almost lead to blows in real life quite a number of times 🙂
    I even had a couple of adventure games of mine published on Prestel/Compunet back in 1986!
    My God was it so long ago?

    Actually you can still play the adventure by going here and your PC will emulate a Spectrum 48K, hehe…

    Rogue Comet

    Fast forward twenty two years and you’ll find me in the new MMORPG Age of Conan where I’m the old giffer getting his arse handed to him by the youngsters and having ‘u suc or pwned noob!’ shouted at him whilst he’s frantically hitting buttons or trying to run like f…

    Oh, well…

  • Jebus says:

    Castle – banging away on those arrow keys to try and kill ghosts and goblins, or running through a room to run away from them on my dad’s old portable sharp (size of two large stereo speakers). Awesome!

  • Twin Kingdom Valley was the first game I ever played, back when our parents bought us a Spectrum 48K+ (plastic keys, not rubber). I remember being incredibly frustrated about not being able to get out of the small three-location area that you started in.

  • Easydog says:

    Ahh, the golden age of gaming. Brfore the days of save games, back when you had to complete a game in one setting. Ah will I ever feel the frustration of playing a game for eight hours straight and then dying at the feet of an insanely unfair final-boss fight. Waiting for the cassette to load and praying that today isn’t the day that the game dies and the tape unravels… hmm… there are some gaming moments i don’t miss from thse days.

  • Easydog says:

    Damnit, my spelling is horrible.

  • Anonymous says:

    “Elite” was the first game that evoked a feeling of an “open world/space”.
    I imagined that there was definitely something going on in this world, that it was alive somehow.
    But docking without an autopilot was one of the hardest things I’ve ever encountered in a video-game…

    And that game had Tribbles in it, although they had a different name in the Commodore 64 Version I played… 😉

    “Way of the exploding fist” was graphically stunning at that time – and it was fun, too.

    I have very fond memories of “Text-Adventures” made by “Infocom”, but my personal era of “Graphic-Adventures” began with a German game called “Zauberschloss” and “Castle of Terror” and “The Hobbit”.

    Other games I liked (and still remember) are: “Who dares wins”( Vertical Shooter), “Raid over Moscow” (Shooter/Action), “Karateka” (Action), “Bruce Lee” (Jump’n Run,Puzzle), “Pitfall” (Jump’n Run) , “Quest for Tires” (Jump’n Run), “Vanguard” (Horizontal Shooter) and “Impossibe Mission” (Jump’n Run).

    Ah… and “Blue Max” (Vertical Shooter), “Beach Head I+II” (Action), “Forbidden Forest” (strange game) …

    But “Elite” was … hmmm… elite!


  • Awesome stuff. My first computer was the BBC Micro Model B as well. The number of great games on that thing was huge. As well as Elite and Citadel (you neglected to mention that the game took away 1% of your health every minute, forcing you to move around and explore to finish the game quickly or find more health BEFORE YOU DIED!) I remember Wizardry, which was amazing since you played a wizard who could SHAPECHANGE INTO A MONKEY. Yes, he could SHAPECHANGE INTO A MONKEY, which is the very definition of pure awesome. And not only that, he could also SHAPECHANGE INTO A CAT. Once the game crashed whilst he was in midst-monkey-cat transformation, thus creating the mighty MONKEY-CAT THING, which disturbed me for a long time, possibly minutes.

    Then there was Stryker’s Run, where you ran from left to right for absolutely fricking hours shooting bad guys, but it had the innovation that you could commandeer helicopters and fly over parts of the landscape dropping bombs on people’s heads (who for some reason instantly turned into skeletons and tumbled into a pile of bones). Then there was Repton (collect diamonds, try not to get killed by rocks).

    I later upgraded to a Commodore Amiga, which was a rather better machine and home to what are probably still some of my favourite games of all time (Monkey Island 2, Desert Strike and the monumentally good Syndicate).

  • fsmn36 says:

    Here via Other Joe’s blog.

    I wanted to take a moment and thank you for answering my (well and everyone else’s) questions. It was a great guest spot and I know I appreciated hearing insight from the creator!

    I also noticed your challenge to John Scalzi and laughed.

    As for your post topic…I’m afraid the only video games I ever could play were the old ones. Pong is probably my best. And I did the original Civilization pretty ok (the new fancy-dancy ones? My 4 year-old cousin plays them better than I do). But I even sucked at Oregon Trail. I usually died of dysentery and had way too many broken axels. I stopped trying actual video games after MarioKart came out. Normal Mario, I could make it to like level 3. But racing? Never could stay on that road (fortunately, I’m a much better driver in real life than in video games. It actually worried me back when I was 12 that I would run a real car off the road since I couldn’t even do it in a game.) And while I love fantasy as much as your average RPGer, just the mere sight of a World of Warcraft box in Best Buy makes me go into hives at the idea of how terrifically bad I would be.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more posts from you–and thanks again for visiting, Joe!

  • Custnake says:

    Ah man, this is seriously the best post EVER.

    My brother and I got a Commodore 64 for xmas one year and just played it to death. One of the first games that came with it was an America’s Cup sailing game. It seriously took at least 3 hrs to load on a cassette and only loaded 20% of the time. So once it was on, you wouldn’t dare turn that baby off.

    Way of the exploding fist was one of my favs. Just look at the screen shot on the Wiki link. Glorious.

    Did anyone ever play a game called International Team Sports. Man, I loved that game.

    One of the best things was buying the C64 and Amiga mags from the UK and sending off mail order requests for games based on the reviews or the ads. The excitement of laoding up a game for the first time. Then either the jubilation or despair depending on whether you had unearthered a gem or a dud.

    I too upgraded to an Amiga after a few years and I still reckon that was one of the best games machines ever. Syndicate was phenomenal. I also loved Monkey Island (the taunts and sledging aspect of the duels was hilarious), Wings, Football Tactician ah so many I can’t recall. I’ve actually still got it, but the monitor is buggered. Now I want to go and play it again.

    PS Joe when are you coming to Australia. If its good enough for Neil Gaiman, then surely its good enough for you.

  • daniel,
    the best ludicrously specific text adventure command I ever heard of was a pillar with some carvings on, that you knew had a hidden button, but the only input that would work was, “manipulate symbol”.

    I’ve never really got on the MMORPG tip, too much being shouted at by 12 year olds, but that Age of Conan does look right up my street…

    ah, sweet memories.

    twin kingdom valley was pretty freeform, you could roam mostly at will, which was one of the things I liked about it. Must be another similar frustrating adventure you’re thinking of.


    I believe you’re thinking of trubbles. The Hobbit adventure – the first with pictures, maybe? Good pick. Interesting from a licensing point of view as well…

    Stryker’s run I remember well. I could never get past this machine gun, though. Drove me mad.

    I’m a lethal driver on computer games, but can barely get a car into a space on a good day in real life. Go figure…

    Amiga? Never heard of the EVIL RIVAL PLATFORM. It’s the Atari ST era that I’ll be covering in the next post on the subject…

  • Ah yes, the machine gun. IIRC, the only way around that was to be in a helicopter and bomb the git. If all the helicopters before that had been trashed, you were out of luck. Although I think the alternate strategy was to run into the hail of gunfire (you could take 9 hits before expiring) and shoot or grenade him.

    You had an Atari ST? So the next article is going to be very short then? 😛

  • Two little words, smartass.

    Dungeon … Master.

  • Great game. I had it on my Amiga and enjoyed it hugely 🙂

    I also had Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skulldeep. That never came out on the ST did it?

    * whistles *

  • Dungeon Master II? You mean the shorter, easier, disappointing, little-known sequel? By then I was too busy owning my entire acquaintance on Street Fighter II on the SNES. You still had an AMIGA? Oh dear, dear, dear.

  • Bob Lock says:

    AoC is quite good, Joe. It’s still in its early days and needs some tweaking but over all it is quite impressive. However, you’ll need a hi-spec PC as it is very graphic intensive and gobbles up memory.

    The other problem of course is that it’s eating into my writing/reading time 🙁


  • Melmoth says:

    Arcadians on the BBC B was the first game that I ever played.

    Many an hour was wasted on Chuckie Egg, Sphinx Adventure, Stryker’s Run, Codename Droid, Citadel, Planetoid, Repton, Ravenskull, Thrust & Galaforce.

    Thinking about it, Superior Soft. owes me one childhood of playing outside in the sun. Their loading screen logo used to haunt my dreams.

    I always wanted to play Exile; I eventually managed to get hold of dual 5.25 disk drives, and then found that my Beeb didn’t have enough memory to play it. Most gutting.

    Many more hours wasted watching the hex counter on the tape loading screen, as you say. Couldn’t go and do anything else, had to sit there and will the counter onwards, othewise you knew it would stop with a loading error as soon as you looked away. It was by a child’s willpower alone that the tape loader would finish, I was convinced of that. I still am, to some extent if I’m honest; people wonder how I manage to fix their computers all the time, I’m too afraid to reveal the secret power.

    Thanks for the trip down nostalgia lane, you put it into words so splendidly! I’m looking forward to the next post, although only my friends owned STs and Amigas (Stuntcar Racer link-up being a particular favourite) so I had to mooch off of them as often as possible; I had the trusty old Beeb for many years until I got my first PC just before going to Uni.

    And I ended up as a software programmer and computer game addict. Thanks BBC! I think.

  • Anonymous says:

    Elite had the same impact on me! Totally engrossed, which was a shame ’cause my parents didn’t buy a computer for me (- it was only a fad!) so I was limited to hitting the ‘Fire missile button’ for my friend Carl who did have a computer – C64.

    There is a modern equivalent to Elite, for PC only that is the ‘X’ series by Egosoft. The games tend to be buggier than an ants nest at the beginning but there is an avid following of hobby programmers that help sort out the bugs and even add craft from your favourite series like Star Wars, Firefly or even Babylon 5. The graphics are fantastic too.

    Check it out:


  • Bob,
    My problem is that the writing eats into my gaming time.

    Chuckie Egg, man! Good call.

    I played X2 quite a bit, and it does have a touch of the same vibe. The main plotline was disappointingly short, though, and seemed to barely scratch the surface of the game world they’d created. For me it was one of those games that seemed gripping for a while, then cracks started to show. I think overall I preferred Freelancer on a similar tip.

  • Anonymous says:

    Joe, glad you have played X². X3 was more of the same but prettier, and the latest x3 or x4 game is set around finding Earth. However, as you have said, the plot game wears a little thin, many people including me were happy just empire building, in x3 you could join station together to make giant super stations, solar power- silicon mine-crystal fab- etc.
    the player mod games have come a long way with pirate missions and extra regions, marauder ships like the Reapers in Firefly and new races like the vogons in Babylon five (not Hitchhikers guide!). It does add life to the franchise.


  • isis says:

    I pine for Manic Miner and Chucky Egg on a regular basis. Sersly.

    Ah, Twin Kingdom Valley. For years now I thought that nobody apart from my dad and my siblings even knew this game existed. Phew.

  • gschmidl says:

    I’m totally late to the game, having just started on The Blade Itself, but I’ve got to ask:

    These Flatheads… are they Dimwit(s)?

  • Haakon says:

    Well Joe, you can thank the makers of the Hobbit game for the (ca)£45 I’ve used on your books. That and the Lloyd Alexander books my Mom brought home from work at the Library.

    As for games, I was a C64 guy myself so apart from the Hobbit and Way of the Exploding Fist (preferred that to IK+) I got the Last Ninja! (I know you’re jealous now.) 😉

  • Wraith_Calling says:

    I remember swapping 5.25" disks like mad. Some of the Old D&D; games for the C64 had 8 or 9 discs!


    I hated the Text games.. I could never get anywhere and always ended up beating my head against the keyboard.

  • dodgi says:

    If you liked Fallout 3 look out for the upcoming MMORPG Fallen Earth…gonna be a stonker!

  • Anonymous says:

    Ah, I still play Lords of Midnight to this day, as well as Doomdark's Revenge.

    There's a java version you can play in a browser somewhere. I keep threatening to run a tabletop RPG set in the gameworld, although most of my players tend to look a bit blank at the prospect.

Add Your Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *