Books My first computer was an Acorn Electron. It was the cheaper home version of the BBC Micro with a similar cream finish but smaller and I loved it. I think my parents bought it from Dixons for about eighty pounds one Christmas in the mid-eighties and I spent every waking hour using the thing for years. It’s were I learnt to type and although I know now the games weren’t all that good I used to spend hours playing the likes of Kissin Cousins and Hacker, Repton being far beyond my price bracket until they appeared in the Hits compilations years later. My Dad too would sit up until the wee small hours playing Pacman knock-off Snapper and later Chuckie Egg, a time he also looks back on with nostalgia.
My next computer was a Commodore 64 and I loved that too, the music, the games. I was there during its glory years when Zzap! 64 magazine was the place to read about the best new games and I ‘enjoyed’ the arguments about whether it was better than the ZX Spectrum, especially since it clearly was. I’d borrowed a Sinclair whilst one of the Electrons (since we went through a couple) was repaired and it just didn’t seem as good. My cousins had an Amstrad CPC and I did envy that since it had its own monitor and built in disk drive. Anyway, I was still trying to beat Wizball on the C64c right up until and after the boat had sailed and everyone was hammering away on Sony Playstations. After that was a low-spec PC and it was PCs all the way until the relatively high spec machine I’m writing this and somewhere along the line I stopped playing games.
But I was still ripe Jack Railton’s excellent The A-Z of Cool Computer Games, a nostalgia trip through a period that he himself claims can nebulously described as the golden age from the early seventies through to time of the Playstation, when the simple act of moving a white line of pixels up and down a screen to deflect another pixel was considered revolutionary and having a small black kit built computer without a proper keyboard was the cutting edge of home computer entertainment. At this point I should reveal that Jack Railton is revealed inside to be the pen name for Jack Kibble-White one of the contributors to the Off The Telly website (which I’ve also been known to write for), a fact I was entirely oblivious of until I bought it and was looking inside the back cover sitting on Chester Station, closely accompanied by a exclamation of ‘That’s what you look like!’ after seeing the photo.
As Jack explains on a page marked ‘the point of this book’ this is a subjective collection – it’s no encyclopaedia and certainly not exhaustive. In each entry, rather than providing a detailed production history of the game or computer system, we find instead an evocation of the experience, what the packaging and loading screens looked like, how difficult a game was to play and the technological pitfalls of the system it plays on, like the fact that Jet Set Willy couldn’t be completed because it had been rushed to the shops or the famous colour glitches on the Speccy. It’s also pleasingly British in its perspective; too often similar books have hailed from America were Arcade machines and consoles were the story and no one would know what a Dragon 32 was. It’s Sega Megadrive not Genesis here and Jack even takes the time to give the Acorn Archimedes some of the credit it deserves – Risc OS was robbed – those machines seemed as fast then as modern PCs are now.
Some of the best entries aren’t about the games at all, but the social mores paraphernalia which surrounded them, the magazines, the shops and the television programmes. There’s a very detailed entry on Gamesmaster, the Channel 4 show hosted by Dominic Diamond which clearly stopped being indispensable when Dexter Fletcher took over. Jack’s the only other person I know who seems to remember First Class with Debbie Greenwood, late of QVC, at the helm. Long held aspirations are punctured – it turns out the Mindlink peripheral didn’t in fact control games through thought but the twitching of an eyebrow and the Virtual Boy which sits in the window of most GameStations is going to go unbought upon discovery that it’s not really proper virtual reality and all done with mirrors. It’s also good to hear that I’m not the only one who finds the process of seeing how far a digital environment has been designed more enjoyable than playing the game and that the goal was called a ‘painted-on wall’. My least favourite was an upturned car in Resident Evil which could clearly be jumped over but could only be traversed by hiking back through half of the Raccoon City.
Ultimately, the book cleverly recreates a time when computer games weren’t really mainstream and neither were the computers they were played on. You either spent most of your time outside playing football or inside playing Football Manager – rare was the kid who did both. It was also a solitary activity; no matter how many games had a two player mode, a lot of the kids at the keyboard were using both players. Throughout, a seasoned retro-gamer like me will find latent memories coming to the fore – the smell of the computer games shops, the interminable wait for a game to load via cassette, copy typing a programme from Electron User only to find it didn’t work or the computer would crash before finishing. He addresses piracy as it was then – a school friend stacking up a mass of games on a C90 cassette some of which might even work. And even if neither the Acorn Electron or Wizball receive their own separate entries, this is still a valuable social history which is sure to get us old timers firing up their emulators to relive the glory days.