Monday, March 8, 2010

Retro Roots: How Did You Get Started?

Inspired in part by this post over at Kotaku, not to mention the urge to prove to myself that I have actual readers beyond search engine spiders, today I’m opening up the floor (or at least, paying more attention to the comments than usual) and asking the question: What was the first gaming rig or console you ever owned? 

I suppose 90% of gamers out there got the bug with their first NES, and rightly so – for me, although I was staunchly a member of the Nintendo Generation, my first post-arcade pixellated experience was two-fold and pre-dated the household NES by about a year.

My first console, or at least ostensibly mine, was the ColecoVision, around 1984.  My grandparents, suddenly burdened with half-a-dozen grandsons between the ages of six and twelve, did the only sensible thing they could think of (and in doing so, were nigh prophetic in the grandparent-grandchild-videogame interrelational framework which exists to this day) and purchased a ColecoVision and handful of games to keep us occupied while the grown-ups drank coffee and, I dunno, made borscht or something.  I only recall playing two games on this console, but I played them harder than any young boy had a right to – The Smurfs: Rescue In Gargamel’s Castle and Donkey Kong.

The Smurfs game was horrible, insanely hard, and tedious.  Like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong or any of the other classic games from that era, there seemed to be an endless number of levels, patterned thusly: daytime meadow, scary night-time forest, Gargamel’s castle.  If you could get past even the first meadow, you were treated to a round of cheers and astonishment from the collective cousins, but you quickly discovered that the greatest gamer in the world could not BEAT this god-damned Smurfs game.  And the music… Christ, it haunts me to this day.

Donkey Kong, on the other hand, struck a chord with me from the very start, and I presume I hassled my parents for my own videogame system almost immediately.  Never quite trusting new, hyped technology (my dad got burned in the whole Betamax fiasco) they opted for an Atari 2600 over the just-released Nintendo Entertainment System.  While the NES thus became the ever-untouchable Holy Grail for my brothers and I, the 2600 did an admirable job of keeping us entertained over the next year.

I don’t recall the complete list of cartridges we owned, but a few will stay in my memory until my dying day.  Yar’s Revenge was easily my favourite, along with Atlantis and Dig Dug.  I logged my requisite hours with Adventure and Joust, though I could never figure out the point of the latter.  I made my little brother cry whenever I played E.T. (which wasn’t very often.)  And although I could not now comment on its overall quality as a game, I remember making my mother take me to K-Mart to pre-order Desert Falcon and then shell out $59.95 upon its arrival (subsequently, whenever I was being a pest, her typical exasperated response to me was, “Why aren’t you playing that $60 game I just bought you?!”)

Around the same time, my parents latched onto the firm belief (which was admittedly widespread in the ‘80s) that Computers Were Our Future, that it was their responsibility to expose their kids to the wonders of personal-computing technology, and that somehow, Pac-Man on a Commodore 64 was more educational than Pac-Man on an Atari.  Thus began the near-constant stream of computers into our household: A Timex-Sinclair 1000 with a cassette-tape drive my father could never quite figure out how to make work; a used C64 that broke after six weeks; an Apple IIe; and countless others.  Somewhere in the midst of this, we adopted a Trash-80 Model III.

The TRS-80 Model III was notable in exactly one regard: it was a complete unit, housing CPU, drives, keyboard and monitor.  It also had one other quality that allowed it to survive in a household of reckless, overexcited boys.  It was virtually indestructible.  I swear to God, it lived in our garage, amongst my dad’s power tools, dune buggies and engine parts, and it worked beautifully up until the day someone accidentally rested a welding gun on its frame.  The thing had some serious silicon balls.

I don’t recall exactly how old I was when the Trash-80 happened along, but I do know that I was young enough that, by all rights, it should not have managed to lure me away from my Atari as successfully as it did.  To begin with: it had no games.  No store-bought, neatly-packaged games with instruction manuals, anyway.  We had exactly one original game for it, which had been thrown in by the original owner, and that was Zork

This was my introduction to coding my own games.  First off, the thing had BASIC built into it, meaning I could (and did) scour my local library for books with pages upon pages of reproduced BASIC code for everything from Pong to Chess to god knows what else.  While my pre-pubescent attention span never got further than laboriously typing in the first three or four pages, I did manage to pick up enough of the language to start making my own games, inspired by Zork and whatever Saturday morning cartoon show I had just finished watching.  Thus, I undertook to design my own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles text adventure – and though I devoted dozens of hours to it, it sadly remains unfinished to this day (and is probably still sitting on a 5.25” floppy in one of the melted drives of the defunct beast to this day.)

Of course, soon after its demise, we acquired an XT with a modem and everything went downhill from there.  The sheer availability of easily-obtained pirated software by that point deterred me from the necessity of programming my own entertainment, and sadly it’s a skill I have long-lost.  But I still remember that Trash-80 as my very first gaming rig, and it will always have a place in my heart.

Now it’s your turn.  What was the first game you remember playing?  When, where and how did you get hooked? 

1 comment:

  1. My earliest childhood memories were of my older brothers refusing to let me play Kid Icarus, Megaman 2, and Little Nemo in Dreamland. To this day, I still play them through an emulator on my computer.