Andrew Newton on the video games we were playing back in the day…
It’s time to cast your minds back as we take a look at what was new on the computer games scene in December 1981. This month saw the release of a computer that came to be known by nearly all schoolchildren for years and whose legacy lives on just a smidgen today in the ARM processor of many mobile devices, I am speaking of the BBC Micro – a computer famed for its technical achievements as well as introducing an entire generation to the educational game Granny’s Garden. In short, the release of the BBC Model B begins the time when computer games in the UK really started to get more interesting.
Prior to December and the BBC’s Micro’s release, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) announced The Computer Literacy Project to encourage the UK population to get familiar with computers and their increasing relevance in the world. They aimed to commission the development of a microcomputer but they wanted it to meet certain specifications which many companies, including Sinclair (ZX Spectrum), Tangerine (Oric micros) and Dragon Data (famed for the Dragon 32), were eager to try to meet. Finally, the BBC chose Acorn Computers (developers of the Atom) and their Proton prototype as their machine and even changed its name.
The BBC Micro was a powerful machine with its 2MHz 6502A processor and 32K of ROM but it also came at a very high price. The Model A version had 16K Ram but cost £299 and the Model B featured 32K Ram and cost an eye watering £399 (this would be the equivalent to over £1500 in today’s money). Despite the high price, schools and households the length and breadth of the country were purchasing it.
Besides its technical capabilities, the BBC also featured a robust case ideal for primary school environments. They are seriously strong machines, my old BBC Model B has been bounced around, banged, played with by my son when he was a nipper and it still happily turns on plays any game I care to put in it. Now picture the ZX Spectrum and Oric Atmos in the same situation; the Speccy is a great computer but wouldn’t have survived the harsh treatment by sticky fingered kids (had Sinclair won with the Spectrum).
The BBC Micro gave Acorn Computers a real boost as it sold over 1.5 million units around the UK and this success perhaps allowed the development of the Acorn Electron, which was a good selling computer (obviously not in the same league as ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64) in 1984 and the Archimedes computers also used in schools in the late ’80s and ’90s. It was this later computer that featured the first ARM processor and later versions of this would go on to be used in registers, smartphones, tablets and more devices that we take for granted today.
When it comes to gaming, it is thanks to the BBC that we were able to play such greats as Repton, Exile (both worthy of looking up) and especially Elite by David Braben and Ian Bell. Had it not been for the BBC there’s a chance that many of you wouldn’t be playing Elite: Dangerous today.
There’s so much that could be said about the BBC Micro, it’s technical specifications, the huge amount of games, it’s capabilities to use floppy disc as well as cassette tapes, the ability to use Econet (a local area network) and much more. It’s worth looking into the history of the BBC computer, Acorn Computers themselves and their software company, Acornsoft.
Fire Wide Screen Game & Watch – Nintendo
Fire in the Wide Screen format was first released at the beginning of December 1981 and had players take control of two firemen, rescuing people leaping from a burning building. Players would move their two heroic firefighters carrying a life net and saving the little fellows leaping from the building to the left of the screen. As these little people hit the net they would bounce and players would then need to catch them again. I know you’re thinking that it sounds pretty easy, and to start off with you’re right but as time passes things start to speed up. More people begin to leap from the building and they start to fall much faster. Miss a person from the initial leap or the bounce and you lose a ‘life’ and the person runs away, do this three times and it’s game over.
One nice touch to this little handheld was the alarm feature (included on all Game & Watch handhelds) had a little fireman ringing the bell. This didn’t make any difference to the game itself but from a child’s point of view was entertaining.
Fire made an appearance in the Game & Watch Gallery 3 for the Game Boy Colour and was also referenced in the Gamecube game Super Smash Bros. Melee with a special move for Mr Game & Watch including the two little firemen characters.
Lady Bug – Arcade – Universal
Lady Bug is a maze game released in the arcades by Universal and looks to have been inspired by Pac-Man but has many differences that sets it apart from that timeless classic. The biggest difference is the majority of walls forming the maze are actually rotating gates that the player can go through giving the ability for the ladybird to change the layout of the maze. This allows the player to block off pursuing enemies (for a brief time while they take another route) and quickly reach flowers by taking short-cuts.
The main goal in Lady Bug is to swallow up all the flowers and bonus items on each level while avoiding the enemy insects, of which there are 8 different types. These enemy insects are introduced gradually over the first eight levels but then starting from the ninth level, players will face four enemy insects per level. Touching any of these enemies will cause the lady bird to become a little angel with a halo.
Though it didn’t knock the arcade industry for six and repeat the success of the better known machines, it did well enough to become a launch title on the ColecoVision and have a couple of clones – Doodle Bug for the TRS-80 and Bumble Bee for the BBC Micro/Acorn Electron and Commodore 64. It may be because I grew up playing Bumble Bee on the Electron but I personally find that version to be the better one and worth having a play if you have the chance.
Star Trek – ZX81 – Macronics
There were several Star Trek games making an appearance in the old days of computer games (none of them likely to have been licensed by Paramount, Viacom or Gene Roddenberry) but one of the most notable was Star Trek by Macronics.
In this version of Star Trek, there has been a Klingon incursion into Federation space and unfortunately there is only one Starfleet vessel available to fend them off. Taking control of that sole starship, players need to find each of the invading Klingon ships and destroy them. To make matters worse, players only have a short amount of time in which to do this before their Dilithium Crystal explodes, the only mercy is that there is a Starbase nearby that can help out.
A number of different events can happen throughout the game based on decisions made, these include repairs at the starbase, damaged photon tubes and even leaving the galaxy and Starfleet assuming you have been destroyed.
It’s slow going and it looks very, very basic but we’ll let it off as it was working on a ZX81. There are places online where you are still able to play it and if you are an avid Star Trek fan as well as a lover of retro then give it a try.
With another year coming to a close I have to wonder what gaming treasures we will get the chance to revisit when we look at what games and technology we were playing with in 1982. Join me next year with more retro games. Until then, stay safe and happy new year.