The Kingfisher at Walcott Racing at Walcott sea-front, 80's style Old postcard of the Coastline Holiday Village, Walcott Astro Blaster Flyer ZX81 Collection Voltmace Database console and games Commodore Pet 3016 and tape deck BBC Model B computer with a few games Mattel Aquarius Magazine Advertisment Mattel Aquarius collection Warhawk on the Atari 800XL Pacman Cartridge & Box (Atari VCS) Gridrunner on the Atari 800XL. Use joystick to gain high-score Norwich City College, main entrance

LIFE IS BUT A GAME - THE EARLY YEARS

Hi Gary here and I'm about to share with you the story of how I become so obsessed with retro games. This story has never been told before and the names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

Okay, it all started in 1980 when I moved to a little seaside village on the North Norfolk coast called Walcott. Little did I know how much things were about the change, forever. As an 11yr old, I was turning my back on the toys of the past (Action Men, Airfix kits, and Britains farm toys in my case) and looking for more engaging forms of entertainment. Coming from a farming family I had previously lived in small villages and my parents weren't really into technology. Then the 80's arrived and so did videogames.

Ah, 1980. The Jam were 'going underground', the Vapours were 'going japanese', and I was going down the local arcade. As much fun as the beach was, the novelty eventually wore off and I soon started to explore my new surroundings. Of course back in the 80's every coastal village and town had arcades. There were two in Walcott, one in The Kingfisher (this was a large building incorporating a gift shop, an arcade, a restaurant, and a chippy - where my mum used to work). The other one was part of a holiday camp just up the road from our house.

Going Underground by The Jam (YouTube video) Turning Japanese by The Vapors (YouTube video) Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins, YouTube

It was one at the Kingfisher that I spent most of my time. Like most arcades of the time, it was filled with classics and for a small arcade it had a good selection. There were about seven machines, which consisted of Pacman, Warlords, Lunar Rescue, Defender, Asteroids, and Astroblaster. There must have been at least one other one but I can't remember it.

And so started my love affair with gaming and also my first favourite game, Astro Blaster. I used to watch the older kids play on it and was so envious of the high scores they would get. I'd sometimes get some change but even at 10p a play it was over so soon. I never really played the other machines much, I was totally hooked on Astro Blaster. It must have been the amazing speech that seemed so futuristic at the time.

Next came the chance to get my hands on a home computer, the Sinclair ZX81. I borrowed it from school over the summer break (thinking back it was a strange thing for them to do but at least it was better than looking after the gerbils, which I had the summer before). I hooked it up to the black & white tv in the kitchen (that's the ZX81 not the gerbil!) but soon found that I was missing something... ah, there was no tape deck so nothing to play. A friend of mine in the next village had some game listings so I collected them and got down to typing them in. Looking back I must have been mad (I couldn't save them!!). But it was fine and after hours of careful typing, I had a white block moving around a maze, and then the power lead came out. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted and it must have impressed my parents as we soon had our first games console at home.

Swap Shop Youtube Clip SodaStream UK YouTube Clip C64 Outback YouTube Clip

And so the Voltmace Database arrived and was quickly connected to our little black & white tv. It was no Atari VCS but it was cheap and that was the main reason for us getting it. I remember playing a shooting game (with birds and things moving across the top of the screen) and a space invader clone. I'd sit down with a bottle of cola flavoured soda-stream and play for hours (until one of my brothers wanted a go). So from now on, rather than watching Noel Edmond's Swap Shop on Saturday morning's, I would try to beat my high-score on Earth Invasion (Space Invaders). It was a difficult choice to miss my weekly dose of Maggie Philbin but those little aliens just kept coming so I kept shooting.

Having a games machine at home was the catalyst for my future interest in the subject, even if I didn't realise it at the time. At the same time, I started to spend school holidays at my aunties. When she moved near Yarmouth I would get regular visits to the arcades during the summer. She also had a Commodore 64 but without any interesting games I never gave it much of a look. I do remember one called Out Back, with a really annoying rendition of 'waltzing matilda' that played over and over again until it was so deeply ingrained in my brain that I felt like flushing my head down the toilet. I recognised it later as a clone of Pooyan.

I spent several fun years at Walcott but eventually we moved near to Norwich. You could say that this was the time that my gaming experience moved onto the next level. It was 1984, Madonna was on 'Holiday', Frankie Goes To Hollywood was getting banned with 'Relax', and Limahl was singing the 'Never Ending Story' (which I think this is turning into), but it wasn't just the music that was getting interesting.

Holiday by Madonna, YouTube Music Video Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, YouTube music video The Never Ending Story by Limahl (YouTube music video)

If there was one thing that could have changed the path I was about to follow, it was the fact that I had not been able to take computer studies as an option at school until I moved to Norwich. And as it turned out I had an aptitude for the subject. Bearing in mind the year, I guess it shouldn't be too surprising to hear that the computers we used at school were the Commodore Pet. Lovely green screens with a tape deck to save your programs on and 8k of ram. If you were really lucky you could use the 'upgraded' machine, which had 32k ram and a disk drive!! There was also a BBC model B in the maths room which we used to play games like Frak! and Revs on. Compared to the poor old Pets, the BBC looked awesome.

As the old Voltmace had been going for a few years now, it was beginning to get worn out. I managed to persuade my parents to buy me a home computer (for all the usual reasons and definitely not to play games on, honest). I'm not sure why but I ended up with the Mattel Aquarius. We got it from ASDA and at the time it seemed like a good idea (and it was cheap). I absolutely loved it and would play around on it a lot. Unfortunately I didn't have a tape deck so I could never actually save any programs I typed in.

I soon realised that it was not easy to get games for the Aquarius, and apart from ASDA, the only other place that I can remember finding games was John Menzies on Gentleman's Walk (they had a small selection of cartridges upstairs). As a 14yr boy with his first home computer, I would gaze longingly at the great artwork on the front and thinking how exciting the games sounded. The only problem was that the game cartridges were amazingly expensive (I think they were about £25 to £30 each). I had two games, Astrosmash and Tron Deadly Discs. As you can probably imagine, they got a lot of play!!

Astrosmash on the Mattel Aquarius. YouTube video clip Tron Deadly Discs on the Mattel Aquarius. YouTube video clip Aquarius Home Computer Systems Video Presentation. YouTube clip

Although the Aquarius was a lot of fun, I did grow out of it pretty quickly. In fact, I think I only had it for about 18 months before I sold it (my parents persuaded me to sell it on live radio!). It was terrible knowing that hundreds (okay, maybe 10 or so) people were listening but it did the job and the Aquarius was sold soon after (I must have had a knack for selling computers). I wasn't really sorry to see the back of it as my school friends had machines like the Texas Ti-99/4a, Commodore 64, and, BBC Model B. I needed a better computer and this time I was going to get a tape deck!!

And so began my love affair with Atari.

It was 1985 and the Pet Shop Boys were storming the charts with 'West End Girls', Talking Heads were on the 'Road To Nowhere', and Simple Minds were 'Alive and Kicking'. I wasn't doing too bad either, now being the proud owner of an Atari 800xl and 1010 tape deck (hurrah!). Unfortunately (or maybe ironically) I was about to find out that the Atari tape deck had a little problem. It appeared that the buttons were a little 'fragile' and the one that caused the most trouble was the record button. We must have taken it back to Brainwave (later to become One Step Beyond) at least least three times and my Dad had decided enough was enough.

I will never forget that day,my poor Dad started making a big scene in front of everybody in the shop but at least it got it sorted. It's funny, looking back on it, that I would one day be working in Brainwave. Although Alan (the manager) did get his own back on me by making me tune-in all the Commodore C2N tape-decks that came back.

West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys. YouTube music video Road To Nowhere by Talking Heads. YouTube music video Alive and Kicking by Simple Minds. YouTube music video

One of the coolest things about the Atari was the fact that the tape deck could hold data and audio on different tracks. This was used in on the introduction tapes that came with the Atari, so you would get the audio instructions and then the program would load (this trick was also used to fool some rather gullible people in Brainwave once, one of the programmers of Warhawk had brought in a demo of the game on the Atari and loaded it up for us to see. After the game loaded it then played a Jean Michael Jarre track, which they thought was the in-game music).

Anyway, after making my parents feel happier about their purchase by learning how to use it, I soon got onto the games. The first one I got was Gridrunner by Llamasoft, but as soon as it had loaded I realised I needed a joystick to play it (D'oh!). Luckily I managed to talk my Dad into taking me down to the local BB Adams and splash out £8.99 on a Quickshot 2. At last I was really gaming!! The next game I got was Capt. Sticky's Gold (don't ask), which was an English Software game with a rather jolly theme tune. My poor Aunty got a little confused at Christmas, thinking she had bought me Pacman for my new 'computer thingy'. I was so excited as I unwrapped what I knew was a cartridge game but soon realised she had bought the Atari VCS version. I won't have minded but she was adamant that I should try to make it fit into the cartridge slot!!

There is one last story about my trusty Atari. As the computers at school were rather 'lacking' in capabilities, I was really struggling to design a project for my 'O' Level Computer Studies exam. Eventually I managed to talk my teacher into letting me do it on my Atari (I was the only one that didn't do it on the Commodore Pet). So I started working on 'Irata Quiz' which was basically a multi-choice quiz based on several categories of questions. It was nothing flash but not bad for a first attempt. There was just one problem, I had to supply a listing of the program and I didn't have a printer. As buying one for me was not an option my parents considered, they suggested I ring around the local computer stores to see if they had one I could use. Most of them didn't (I don't remember calling Brainwave but after the situation with my tape-deck I don't think they would be in a helpful mood) except for the Norwich Camera Centre, which although they sold, well.. camera's, also sold computers. They offered to let me use their dot-matrix printer but I had to bring my floppy drive as they didn't have one. So off to the store I went and in a large room above the shop I set everything up and waited while the noisy printer chugged away and printed page after page of my 'little' program. As it had contained so many questions most of the output was the data for these and it was long (plus I had to print it out twice for the school). The staff at the shop were really kind and never charged me a penny (just asked I put in a good word whenever possible - little did they know I'd be working for one of their rivals in a couple of years). Anyway, the program impressed my tutor (Mr. Bailey) and it was considerably more complex then many of the programs on the Pet computers.

Captain Stickys Gold on the Atari 8-bit Atari Computer Graphics Demonstration.

Before taking my 'O' level computer exam I had gone to Norwich City College to take an aptitude test for a place on a computer studies course after I left school. I passed the test and was offered a provisional place but had to achieve two 'O' level passes at school. I had now decided that I wanted to start a career in computers but some rather bad luck meant I was about to seriously hamper my chances at getting into City College.

Read the next episode of 'Life Is But A Game' to find out what happened in 'The Next Generation'. Thanks for letting me share my past adventures with you all. If any of the images or songs brought back memories for you, drop me a message via the 'Contact Us' option at the bottom of the page.

 

Original article by Gary - April 2006 (revised May 2014)