Nostalgia Lane: BASIC games

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That image right up there caused a huge pang of nostalgia in me.  It’s the spitting image of our first family computer, an IBM PC, along with the huge set of thick manuals that came with it.  The second book to the left, the brown one, was one I became intimately familiar with: the BASIC manual.

Without the internet, loads of stores selling software, or a shareware distribution system between friends, our first couple years of owning this machine was thin in the programs department.  We had a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a couple games (like breakout) — but that was it.  So as the family member who quickly became the most obsessed with the computer, I turned to making my own games as a form of entertainment.  Hence my adventures into the wells of the BASIC manual.

I loved BASIC.  It was easy to understand and pick up, although I had no concept of structure and clarity.  The manual itself was extremely technical and dry, with each page listing a command, a definition, and perhaps an example.  So it was left up to me to figure out how it all pieced together.

I had some help.  It seemed like BASIC programming was all the rage with the up-and-coming 80s set, so lots of magazines and books (like Micro Adventures) had sample programs that you could copy and run on your computer.  There was lots and lots and lots of typing involved, which I also taught myself (I was a two-finger typist until a high school class broke me of the habit and taught me the proper way to do it).  Above all else, it helped me grasp the fundamental pieces to start putting together my own games.

Dang, but I loved making games.  I *loved* it.  I couldn’t do much with graphics, although I tried hard to figure out ways to make ASCII doodles move (usually via scrolling or screen redrawing).  Mostly I made RPGs and text adventures.  I did program one series, Spaceship Combat Simulator, which proved somewhat popular with my family.  I think the second edition allowed you to choose a hull type of a ship, equip it via store purchases, and take it out for galactic conquest.

These games got obscenely long, too.  I was routinely topping 5, 10-thousand lines of code toward the end.  I composed my own music and experimented with musical pitches to see if I could simulate speech (I couldn’t).  I learned a lot about color pairing, in particular what would make the best background and foreground colors.  I had games that would print you off award certificates if you beat them.  And I was pretty much the only person who ever played them.

I think I loved all of that because I could envision a game and execute that vision single-handedly.  My parents really thought I was going to be a game designer, especially after I started taking programming classes.  But something happened in college after I picked up three or four other languages — I lost interest in it.  Programming wasn’t fun in and of itself, it was just a means to see my game vision come to life.  And it was getting more and more complicated.  I could see that we had moved past the point where a single programmer had total control over a project and I had no interest being a coding monkey.  Plus, figuring out where you went wrong in one line of code among thousands is a major headache.

So even though I graduated with a degree in computers from college, I stopped pursuing that path a couple years prior to graduation.  Perhaps that’s why I started making web pages (again, I could conceive and execute my vision by myself), and later on blogging.  I don’t know.  But BASIC will always have a special place in my memories, and I regret that I didn’t save the discs that had all of those programs.

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6 thoughts on “Nostalgia Lane: BASIC games

  1. I dunno, it seems that every few years the barrier of entry (stuff that a single developer can do alone) resets itself.

    With the mobile game migration, it became easy again to launch your own self-created game from scratch. Nowadays the level of quality needed to compete is ramping up again, even in the mobile space.

    In 5 years, something else will come along that will “reset” the barrier to zero.

  2. I had a similar experience on a Vic 20 and Commodore 64. I ran out of memory trying to make a simple platformer. Oh, and my magazines gave me programs to type in in machine language with checksums. How lucky you were!!

  3. I wish I was that fortunate to begin with. I had one opportunity to get into programming early in my life when dad picked up GFA Basic for the Amiga, or would have if I wasn’t discouraged from even touching the disks (The bastard).

    It wasn’t until DarkBASIC entered my life that I got an interest in programming and by then, I was in my late teens and what little patience I had for learning on my own was beginning to whittle away from me. :(

  4. We had a computer class in middle school that taught a little basic – this was the 80s. What do they teach kids in such a class now I wonder?

  5. @Sleepysam: If the US education system is anything like Britain’s, you’d be lucky if kids learn LOGO before leaving. IT, when I went through secondary school, pretty much boiled down to how to use Microsoft Office.

    That said, there has been a push to get kids coding again recently, with the likes of the Raspberry Pi gradually infiltrating schools and children’s lives.

  6. Thanks for the warm memories. Watershed moment in my life was when we got our “2-holer” (an IBM PC with 2 floppy drives, a whopping 64K of RAM & PC-DOS 1.3). I spent hours writing BASIC games – I had like 3 or 4 books with sample programs. In school, tThe only computer class was 1/2 year typing and 1/2 year “Intro to Computers” with a bunch of TRS-80s (“trash eighties”). The teacher realized that there was a few of us aspiriing geeks and they had 4 terminals hooked up to a minicomputer which had “Adventure” and “Star Trek” on it. We were supposed to be learning Pascal…

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