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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
When Jet Set Willy ruled the world
Sinclair Spectrum, BBC
Attention rubber fetishists: The much-loved "Speccy"

Those classic Atari computer games from the 1970s and 80s will soon be on your mobile phone. Clearly some gamers can't let go of those clunky keys and blocky graphics.

When you turned on your computer this morning you probably cursed the time it takes to boot up.

If you use a dial-up modem, doubtless you cursed the time it took to establish a connection to your net service provider.

Jet Set Willy screen
Life didn't get much more exciting in 1983
You may well have cursed the time it took to reach this site and for this page to load. But was it better in the old days?

Many people have fond memories of the golden days of home computing when Sinclair and Commodore machines ruled the living room.

But has time edited our memories and made us forget the bad times and the troubles? If anyone knows, Pete Henshaw will.

Full-time hobby

He ran the Retro-Games website for two years as a sideline, but it became his livelihood when he was made redundant earlier this year.

He sells both old games and the machines and consoles to play them on.

Mr Henshaw spends a lot of time visiting junkshops and car boot sales looking for old machines.

Cassette tape
It's enough to make you crave a 5.25" floppy
"You can still find them pretty cheap," he says, "but they are getting harder to find, especially in good condition. They are certainly not going down in price."

Customers tend to be other collectors or those into nostalgia who want to relive those halcyon days.

Although there are programs that let you emulate the experience of playing games on a Sinclair Spectrum or Commodore Vic-20, not everyone is satisfied with this.

"Emulators are just not the same as the original," says Mr Henshaw.

One of his best finds was a Tandy Model 1 TRS-80, a legendary machine that first appeared in the UK in 1977.

Memory of a goldfish

It was so influential there is even one in the American History Museum at the Smithsonian Institute.

He also has cupboards full of Sinclair Spectrums, Commodore Vic-20s and Amigas.

I spent some time playing with Mr Henshaw's old machines to get a feel for what home computing used to be like.

Certainly, it was quicker starting up the old machines. As soon as the on/off switch is flipped they were ready to use.

Sir Clive Sinclair, BBC
Home computing pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair
But back then there was no cosseting; no cosy Windows overlay showing you what was available. All you had was an angrily blinking cursor waiting for you to do something.

There wasn't even a mouse.

If you wanted to do anything you had to load a program, usually from a cassette tape. This was where the golden gloss of yesteryear started to dull.

The infinitesimally tiny memory capacity of old computers meant you could only perform one task at a time.

If the machine was loading a game you had to wait until it was finished or crashed.

Cursing and cursors

Frequently, that could mean you twiddled your thumbs for 10 minutes, with nothing but the screech of the transferring data or flickering of the screen to amuse you.

And there was always the danger of it crashing and the whole operation having to be repeated... again and again.

The Sinclair C5, BBC
Not all Sinclair inventions were popular
With the Sinclair Spectrum, or Speccy - one of the most popular computers of the early 1980s - there were other "joys" to test your mettle.

"If you were lucky enough to get a game to load, there was always the peril of the dodgy power lead to contend with," says Alex Waddington, curator of the Sinclair Lair website.

"Just the slightest movement of your Spectrum could reset the machine, leading to much cursing."

The games themselves were very different, too.

"These days you have to have a story," says Mr Henshaw, "a beginning, middle and end almost like a film."

Parents duped

Old games substituted variety for plot and had tens, sometimes hundreds, of screens. Finishing them was a mammoth task.

"You had to be pixel perfect on a lot of the screens, if you were one pixel out you were dead."

Part of the attraction was also the fact that you could actually program the machines to do your bidding. You could create games just like the ones you bought.

Commodore Vic-20, BBC
The Vic-20, a classic of its time
Many people duped their parents to buy them a home computer on the pretext that they could use it to learn programming, recalls Mr Henshaw. In fact, all they did was learn to play games.

Now, the only thing I can remember about Basic was what it stood for (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).

But the amazing thing about those days was that we did not mind the loading delays, dodgy cables and other mechanical quirks such as the slowly disintegrating keyboard of the Spectrum.

Back then, the fact that it was possible to play Star Chess, Manic Miner or Blue Meanies at all was enough to keep us interested and coming back for more.

The graphics looked good because we had seen nothing like them before. It was the FUTURE, raw, undiluted and in your living room.

And once you have touched that, you never forget.

You can hear more about the history of computing on the BBC programme, Go Digital.

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

17 May 02 | Entertainment
06 May 02 | Science/Nature
01 Feb 02 | Entertainment
17 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
11 Jan 02 | UK
18 Apr 02 | UK
16 May 02 | Science/Nature
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