Nostalgia Lane: My childhood as a BASIC game programmer

basic_largeMy parents often said that I was destined to be a video game developer when I grew up, mostly because that’s where my attention was as a kid — both in playing and making them. Our family’s first PC came with a gigantic instruction manual for BASIC/A, a simple programming language supported by DOS and accessible to weirdos like me who wanted to try their hand at making playable games.

Throughout my junior high and senior high years, I grew into a (in my mind) master of BASIC. I would whip up thousands of lines of code based on game design documents that I drew up in class, and even though the finished product was a tangled mess of spaghetti code (which drove my computer teacher nuts), it tended to work.

It’s one of my big life regrets that none of the games that I made survived. The 5 1/4″ floppies on which they resided were no doubt thrown out a long time ago, back before I had the means to back them up elsewhere. And no, unlike Richard Garriott, I did not print out my code so that I could type it in later. In any case, little of it was pure genius, but it was personally interesting.

My biggest series was “Starship Simulator,” which actually worked unlike certain Derek Smart products I could name*. I recall four in the series, with the first three giving you command over a starship to modify and then send out in battle. There wasn’t a lot of narrative here, just customization and battling. Starship Simulator 2 was the only game I remember that was actively played by friends and family members; I think I hit on a sweet spot of fun. Starship Simulator 4 put the player in the role of a captured captain who had to fight his way out of a starbase, room by room. It was incredibly difficult to make, with the program keeping track of a grid of 100 rooms and what was in each, but I liked it.

I was enraptured with the idea of taking all of the pen-and-paper RPG manuals I had lying around and turning them into computer games, so I made a lot of RPGs. Not great ones, again, but somewhat technically accomplished. I did a Terminator 2 RPG (you had to fight more difficult terminators until you beat the T-1000) and a couple generic fantasy RPGs probably based on my fascination with Zelda.

I also did more than a few adventure games, as I might have written about earlier. These were fun to make, since they involved a lot of writing and weren’t that hard to program. Keeping track of variables and puzzles was the trickiest part.

For my sports-oriented friends, I created Battle Golf, which mixed golf with land mines, volcanos, and other death traps.

Unfortunately, making graphics and bits that moved on screen was a little out of my league (and out of the capabilities of BASIC back then). I did as much as I could with simple line drawings and ASCII art, but the most I was able to accomplish were small shooters or racers where you would drive a car (an asterisk) between dots. I did as much as I could with colors, however, and used BASIC to make fun music tracks for my game (sometimes I would reverse-engineer a song, like the Star Trek theme, into BASIC notation).

BASIC was a bit of a pop culture fad in the 80s, too. There were one or two kids’ book series where you’d read a story and occasionally have to type in a program into your computer to advance the plot (so to speak). And I picked up more than one magazine that had several pages of code to copy onto your computer. Later on, I would spend a lot of time modifying someone else’s code and trying to improve on it or twist it to my own ideas.

In college I had a computer degree and took a couple of programming classes — C++ and FORTRAN and even assembly — but by then the magic of programming had vanished for me. I was more interested in writing and playing than trying to wrangle the increasingly complicated code to make games. Maybe in some other universe, alternate me stuck with it and became a game designer or (more likely) an IT guy.

*All of them


6 thoughts on “Nostalgia Lane: My childhood as a BASIC game programmer

  1. Ben Miller August 3, 2015 / 9:37 am

    Very cool post dude! Thanks for sharing. As an IT guy with very little programming love or interest (but had to learn a few things to keep moving forward!), this kind of passion is what makes life worth it!

  2. Sylow August 3, 2015 / 9:38 am

    > which actually worked unlike certain Derek Smart products I could name*
    > *All of them

    Since when do you feel the need for such unwarranted low blows? I played Battlecruiser 3000AD (the free release) and it worked fine. By playing it i also saw why it was no great success, i found it not really fun to play. Even for terms of that time, it was massively overburdened, but that’s still far from the claim you make. (While Derek Smart also clearly made many claims which his programing skills never lived up to. But at the same time, on the topic where his name lately poped up again, i for a long time was on his line of thought: the original scope and concept of Star Citizen i was looking forward to. The by now promised feature-monster i have little confidence in. I am certain that -something- will be released, but i fear it’ll either me an unplayable moloch or a wild mess of hardly matching parts. Eve and Dust 514 send their regards. )

    On the main part of your posting: yea, it brings back memories. I had the luck of being on the C64 as child, where sprites were not that hard to do. For some reason most of my games turned out to be multiplayer, though. (Tank battles and the likes. ) It was easy to have two players drive their tanks through ascii-terrain (with different characters blocking shots, slowing the tanks, etc) but i couldn’t teach the computer to do that. (Any attempt of doing that lead to the game getting unplayably slow, it was all basic, after all. )

    My only branches into single player were some “adventure style” games, although i at that time had no idea how to properly (performantly) program a parser and a japanese board game of which i only read the review in a computer magazine and which was not available on the C64, so i built that one myself. That one was the only game on the C64 i made where i replaced a good portion of the computers ascii-graphics with graphics made by myself so i could have the necessary 66 playing stones of a full board displayed. Eight different stones, each 6 characters (two by three) big and in awesome (*cough*) three-color graphics, i think at that time this one game could’ve even been published and sold, would i have had the connections. 😀
    (With different music, though. The music running in the background was ripped out of another game… )

  3. bhagpuss August 3, 2015 / 10:20 am

    Derk Smart is going to sue you, you know that, right?

    I actually trained as a programmer for 4 months in the 1980s. It was a couple of years after I graduated (I read English). I’d finished working in a comic shop (it went out of business – not because of me) and I was unemployed so I took one of the myriad of government-funded training courses on offer.

    It was mostly COBOL, some RPG2 and even a week of some low-level assembly language or other. I passed the course and got a certificate and applied for a couple of programming jobs in exciting industries like retail footwear and then I got offered a completely unrelated job, took that and never really programmed again.

    I did also do a lot of hobby programming in BASIC on the ZX Spectrum and I once wrote a working Moonbase Sim in the 16k memory of an Oric 1. Unfortunately the Oric in question had no disc or tape drive so that game ended when I switched the machine off.

    We knew how to make our own entertainment in those days. It must still be going on though because I sell quite a few Raspbery Pi books at work, mostly to grandfathers and their 10-year old grandsons.

  4. wolfyseyes August 3, 2015 / 5:24 pm

    I used to derp around in BASIC on this little VTech computer thing with a thin LCD screen. My games would run no longer than about five or eight lines at maximum–they basically amounted to word problems or IF/THEN style choices. But it still felt weirdly validating. I was he smartest dude in my whole house for having made this thing make sound effects when you entered in a wrong choice and got blown up.

    Coincidentally, I would play the hell out of a game like Battle Golf.

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