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Retrogames fan Sean Kavanagh checks out some of the less popular home computers, and reminds us what they were actually like to live with back in the 1980s.

The EBAY description said the wire was loose.  Now to me loose has a few meanings: a bowel movement after a curry may be loose; Kevin Bacon’s feet were certainly loose in Footloose, but I’ve never come across a definition of loose that means the power lead was ripped from the socket by a dog or possibly a lycanthropic child’.  So, the computer I had coughed up thirty quid for was a write off.  And I was angry.  Even though in my anger, the memory of a shameful retro deed from my own past surfaced. 

Let me explain.

It was 1984 and I was desperate to get rid of my ZX81.  The computer, which had amazed me a year earlier, was now nothing but an embarrassment.  I didn’t even have a working tape recorder to load games with (nor could I afford the games), so if I wanted some gaming fun, it meant sitting down with a type in programme.  Not fun.  Not a cherished retro memory.

I tried selling the ZX81 thru various news agents’ window adverts, but nobody wanted my little black Sinclair doorstop.   And in those days I really did need the money, as my pocket money wasn’t enough to buy games for my Vic 20, but I was too young to get a Saturday job.

But how to sell a computer with no games?

A few weeks later at school, the class soap dodger (let’s call him...actually best leave it at Soap Dodger) got wind that I wanted to sell my ZX81.  Got many games? He asked.  Oh yer – stacks, I lied.   And so, holding my nose, I arranged for him to come around at the weekend, half realising he probably just wanted come around and play.

That Saturday I got up early, and typed in the best game listing I could find.  Part one of my plan.  Part two was to connect the broken tape recorder to make it look like I’d just loaded it in to the ZX81.  And part three – the really cunning bit – was to get a load of blank tapes and write fake game names on them.  Names like Space Trek, Munch Mate and Road Hopper.  You get the idea.  And so I piled the tapes with the ‘games’ on by the computer.

Soap dodger arrived.

Soap dodger played the great game I had just ‘loaded’.

Soap dodger was impressed by the 20 or so games that came with the computer.

I had a sale.  Oh joyful day.

But of course it came at a price.  A few days later Soap Dodger came up to me in the playground and seemed upset.  Apparently none of the ‘games’ would load.  I offered some excuses.  Perhaps the tape head needed adjusting? Perhaps he needed to tighten the tapes?  Maybe the tape leads were loose?

And right there is my moment of retro karma.  

Sorry Soap Dodger, I did you wrong.

Imagine this: it’s the 1980s, and your mother has bought you a computer. Fantastic, except your dear old mum knows nothing about computers. Whilst your friends get Spectrums, you get a ZX 81. When your best mate gets a Commodore 64, you get a Vic 20. And it gets worse: you’re one of the few people to own a Commodore 16 or a Mattel Aquarius. Thanks to your mum, your experience of 8 bit computer gaming is very different from your friends. But it’s not all bad, after all, even the duffest computer had its gaming moments

Case in point: the Mattel Aquarius. In the 1980s Mattel was already a well respected toy company, added to which they’d already part conquered the world of computer gaming with the rather wonderful Intellivision (a sixteen bit console introduced a full nine years before the Sega Megadrive). You might hope then that Mattel would have built on this heritage for its first foray into the world of home computers. But no. Instead, Mattel bought a design off-the-shelf from the no-mark Hong Kong firm Radofin. There was a good reason no one had heard of their computers before: Radofin’s design had only 4k of memory and relied heavily on cartridges for its games.

About the only thing the average British user found familiar about it were the Spectrum-esque blue rubber keys. It had the smallest space bar in the history of home computing too. The oft- repeated rumour was Mattel’s own staff took to jokingly calling the Aquarius ‘ The system of the 70s’ (which wasn’t much help if you got one for Christmas in 1983). Merely owning a Mattel Aquarius was likely to get you bullied at school. Spectrum and Commodore 64 owners would often take breaks from their ‘ Who’s got the best computer ’ argument to pound on Aquarius owners – if they could find one.

And yet not all was lost. Mattel had remembered a thing or two about making good cartridge-based games from their Intellivision days. And for the games starved Aquarius owner this offered a lifeline. Whilst your playground bruises healed, you could ‘console’ yourself with Snafu (a Tron-a-like bike game), or best of all Utopia.

PC owners today are spoiled for choice when it comes to God Games, but Utopia was in a very small way the forerunner of many of these games. The premise was simple: two islands (which to me always looked like the Falklands – but which probably looked like the Malvinas to Argentinean kids) sat opposite each other. You, and preferably a friend (or your mum if you were really stuck) would each ‘rule’ an island. You could develop it however you saw fit, by building forts or planting crops. The aim was to make your island as prosperous as possible. The real fun however came from the mischief in the game. Attacking the other island was part and parcel of success, and nothing was more fun than knocking down your friend’s newly built fort – or sinking his fishing boats. It somehow kept you away from real life vandalism as destroying an entire island was much more fun than breaking the glass in your local bus shelter.

Utopia also had a few tricks up it sleeve. Random rain was needed to make your crops prosper, but random hurricanes would also saunter across your little island, knocking down your hard built forts. Sneaking in and destroying your opponent just as he’d been Katrina’d was a favourite tactic. The game was round-based, but the user could set the length of the round to as little as 30 seconds – which allowed fast and furious game play.

Not that everything was fabulous in Utopia. The Aquarius was horribly limited in both the graphics and sound departments. The main map looked remarkably like the teletext weather map (try page 401 on BBC1 text to get an idea). And the sound was no more than the occasional beep. Plus, there was no save feature, but as the average Aquarius owner probably hadn’t invested in a cassette data recorder it didn’t really matter. And that was the point about Utopia: it was fun, but throwaway. It’s doubtful that Utopia had much impact on the development of modern strategy games, simply because nearly nobody played it, even when it appeared on the Intellivision console.

Ultimately, the rare, fun oddity like Utopia wasn’t enough. The age of Aquarius never dawned and the machine was withdrawn within a year of launch, destined for the elephant’s graveyard of unsuccessful 8 bit home micros. The Mattel Aquarius and Utopia: terrible computer – great game.

Sometimes you have only yourself to blame. It was 1990 and I had decided to treat myself to a games console to take away to university. The choices were simple: Did I spend a little extra and go for a Sega Megadrive or even perhaps wait for a Nintendo Snes, or, should I buy Amstrad’s latest wonder, the GX4000 games console? After all, I’d had many happy gaming years with Amstrad’s home computer the CPC464. Added to which, software big boys of the time such as US Gold and Ocean had pledged to produce games for the GX4000. So, I purchased the Amstrad console, secure in the knowledge that I had bought myself the next big thing in gaming. Oh dear…

There was, in hindsight, a lot about the GX4000 that was very odd. Firstly, there was the name. What did the GX or 4000 stand for? I suspected the seemingly meaningless name was selected to sound ‘futuristic’ by the barrow boys in Amstrad’s marketing department who’d been told to come up with a sci-fi sounding name like R2D2. Then there was the console’s looks. The GX4000 looked like a NES that had been left on for too long and had melted into a curvy puddle. It wasn’t so much ugly as simply trying too hard to look cool - as if it was aware it wore the Amstrad name – consumer electronics equivalent of Poundsaver or Kmart. Worst still were the control pads, which were so cramped that they should have come with a health warning from the British Arthritis Campaign stating that prolonged play would leave you with the hands of an eighty year old.

Looking back there were other warning signs of the GX4000’s impending ignominy. The box came with an unsettling sticker slapped on the side warning you not to turn off the console by removing the power cable - the big red writing hinting that bad things awaited those that ignored it. Not confidence building. I began to suspect my Amstrad console might be a bit delicate on the inside. What it actually was on the inside was revamped version of the 8bit CPC464 computer. Sure there were sprites and an impressive new colour palette, but essentially it was an old machine. Amstrad – never shy about flogging a dead horse – were actually selling the British public the same machine for a third time (the 464, 464 plus and now the GX4000). And just like a Mini Metro with spoilers and a Rover badge on it, the public was not fooled into thinking this was a ‘new’ product. (Except obviously the small percentage of the British public that was comprised of me).

Not that I was wholly to blame. The gaming press of the time were initially quite positive about the new machine. Mean Machines and Amstrad Action – two of the best magazines of the era – both pledged to support the console. There was just the matter of the games… The avalanche of promised titles never materialised. A few expensive cartridges did emerge, but mostly they were old CPC464 games that had been tarted up a bit (some didn’t even bother to do that much). Paying £40 for a game on cartridge that could be bought for £5 on tape didn’t win the GX4000 many friends. Added to which the cartridges came in possibly the ugliest boxes in the known universe. Young children would cry if they caught a glimpse of the ugly grey slabs of plastic with their faded artwork, which for some reason were HUGE (each box was almost the size of an entire Wii console).

Within a few months it was clear the end was already in sight. The GX4000 started to gain a stigma. Going into a shop to buy a game for it was as embarrassing as going to the chemist to buy Durex.

And then came Pang.

Finally here was a GX4000 game to be proud of. You could stroll into your local Dixons and say with pride ‘A copy of Pang please, and whilst you’re at it a packet of ribbed featherlites too ’.

Essentially a conversion of the arcade machine of the same name, Pang was a simple enough concept: you’re under attack from giant red balloons which need to be blasted. The twist in tale is that when you blasted one of the balloons it split in two – so you needed to keep blasting until the balloons split again and reached their smallest unit and could finally be dispatched. If Nena and Patrick McGoohan had children, this game would be their nightmare.

Smooth gameplay, great use of sound and lovely graphical backdrops of far flung locales only helped to seal the deal. It was no wonder Amstrad Action gave it 93%.

And yet it raised an uncomfortable question: why were all the other GX 4000 games so shonky?

Pang wasn’t however a killer app. It’s easy to over-hype old games through the intoxicating effects of nostalgia, but in the cold light of day, Pang was merely a good game on a system that didn’t have many good games. And it certainly wasn’t going to sell consoles the way Mario and Sonic did.

In the videogames business, timing is everything - and the GX4000 was a machine out of time. Had it been released two or three years earlier, Amstrad might have had a chance to crack the console market. Released as it was in 1990 at the fag-end of the 8-Bit era, it just never stood a chance. Within months Alan Sugar pointed a fat finger in the direction of his little games console and said ‘You’re fired’. Soon the software houses dropped all pretence of supporting the machine. Eventually the only ‘new’ software available came from bootlegs produced by the Polish Mafia. And even the Slavic mob soon lost patience with Amstrad’s fading console. The GX4000 slipped quietly into videogame history, with only the fond memory of Pang to ease the pain.

Martin Luther King had his dream and I had mine. His was a noble dream of equality… I just wanted a Commodore 64 for Christmas. And I thought my dream might come to pass. It was the mid 1980s and the well inspected box under my Christmas tree was the right size and shape. I prayed hard to Santa (I was slightly confused about religion as a child) and I was certain that come Christmas morning I’d be playing with Commodore’s slick 8-bit beast.

Or not.

Santa did deliver a Commodore, just not the one I had hoped for. The wrapping paper came off and I was eyeball to eyeball with the Argos clearance offal known as the Vic 20 ‘Starter Pack’ (perhaps named thus, as you immediately started saving for your next computer when you got it). I smiled, so my mum wouldn’t be annoyed, but inside I was crestfallen. I thought perhaps she had bought it by mistake – after all both computers looked identical. The idea that it was all she could afford never crossed my ungrateful young mind. Plus, it wasn’t as if the Vic20 was a bad computer – it had a great keyboard, colour graphics and 4 channels of sound. No, the problem was that it was yesterday’s machine. Last Gen we’d call it nowadays, though in the playground my friends would call it far more cruel things (mostly relating to it being a shoe box full of dog faeces).

Setting aside the cassette of four free games that came in the ‘Starter Pack’, I opened up the copy of Perils of Willy that I’d also been bought. I played it most of Christmas day. It was an decent platformer with bright chunky graphics and amusing animation, but having played Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy on my friend’s Spectrum, I couldn’t help but feel it was distinctly second prize.

Finally, by New Year, when the last Quality Street was gone from the giant tin, I’d had enough of putting my Willy in Peril. I dug about for the four game free cassette that came with the Starter Pack. There was a hard as nails Frogger clone, a car racing game with treacle-like controls…and then I loaded Blitzkrieg.

The game started by randomly generating a crowded skyline of skyscrapers of different heights (which looked surprisingly art deco considering the low res graphics). At the top of the screen a little plane few left to right. As it reached the edge of the screen it would re-appear slightly lower on the other side – it would then repeat again, going lower and lower until it crashed. Not being a fan of instructions (they were for girls surely?) I started hitting random keys looking for the controls to pilot the plane. Nothing I did made it change course. Was the game broken? Finally I hit the spacebar and a bomb fell, knocking down half a skyscraper.

Frustrated I finally embraced my feminine side and decided to read the instructions to find the other controls.

But there were no other controls.

The spacebar was it. Your plane didn’t change course, so all you could do to stop it crashing was to drop bombs and try to flatten all the buildings below so it could land. I decided to give it just one more go, then another…and another. Great games hook you without you even realising, and despite its simplistic game play, Blitzkrieg had me hooked. I ran to get my brother to play the game with me, but he refused: ‘I’m not playing a game with only one button’ he moaned. So I played on alone.

Though it was new to me, Blitzkrieg was in fact an old game concept. Versions of the game had been around since the days of ZX81 and Commodore Pet, and it would often pop up as a bug ridden type-in in magazines such as Your Computer. But for my money the Vic20 version written by Simon Taylor was the best: the drone of the plane, the lovely colourful buildings and, most of all, the screen shaking crash if your plane ploughed into one of the skyscrapers. Blitzkrieg did have its ‘coffee Revel’ moments though: it was very very hard, and the frustration of inevitable death if you mistimed a bomb was immense.

But its simple game mechanic was fun - the sort of fun that is sometimes missing from today’s PS3 and 360 mega-games.

And yet today Blitzkrieg lies virtually forgotten – primarily because the game play wouldn’t work in the 3D first person that today’s gamers are force fed by publishers. And thanks to the events of 9/11 it’s probably safe to assume that no one beside Al Qaeda-soft is working on any new games about planes crashing into buildings. Even so, Blitzkrieg on the Vic20 stands as a testament to a simple idea well executed.

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