Monday, August 07, 2006

My Life As A Gamer Part 1: The Public School Years

My first exposure to videogames was in the early 70s, when as a child I saw a Pong machine in a local store. Once I played, I was hooked. After that, I played whatever I could, whenever I could get a few quarters. Arcades, department stores, supermarkets, bowling alleys, whatever. If there was a game there and I could wheedle some quarters, I was playing.

The Atari 2600, when it came out, interested me. Intensely. But alas, Mom and Dad were of modest means and so I had to make do with a dedicated Tank War videogame. Which I played. Until it wore out.

Upon entering high school, I was presented with the opportunity to write software - first for programmable calculators (including my TI-57), then for the school's leased IBM 1130 "small" computer system, and finally for the TRS-80 and CP/M systems (the latter as a summer and part-time job). So of course I tried my hand at writing computer games.

First were a couple of games for the TI-57:

Pinball: A string of '1's would randomly grow and shrink, and you had to hit a button before it shrank to nothing.

Dogfight: You had to put in a roll and pitch value on each turn, and was told the angles of the target plane in response. If you managed to get the angles under five degrees, you shot the other plane down.

Then there were these games in BASIC for the TRS-80:

Blasteroids: This was a side-scrolling shoot-em-down with your ship at the top, dodging and shooting down at the asteroids that scrolled up from the bottom.

Night of the Living Dead: You're in a minefield full of electric mines - they electrocute rather than explode so they're reusable. You can see the mines. The zombies run straight at you. To win, move so that the zombies step on the mines. Don't get caught or step on a mine yourself.

Escape From Death Star: This was my masterpiece. It's the first game I know of to cover loading time with a cutscene. It began with the Star Wars logo, followed by the title and some forgettable text, scrolling from bottom to top. Then came the cutscene of the Falcon leaving the Death Star's docking bay. Finally was an animation of the ship flying away. When gameplay started, the player was presented with a starfield behind a targeting crosshair. You could rotate the turret up, down, left or right. A T.I.E. fighter would move randomly across the starfield, shooting at you. Sometimes it would hit. When you shot at it, two lasers would come in from the corners of the screen and meet at the crosshair. Shoot down all four TIEs, and win. Get hit five times (25% shield loss on each hit) and lose.

This, my acquisition of a TRS-80 Model III, and the availability of some rather good commercial games for it such as Adventure International's Adventure and subLogic's Flight Simulator took some of the shine off arcade games and consoles (like the 2600 and the Nintendo). That's not to say I quit putting quarters into arcade machines; after all, there was Space Invaders, Galaxian, Galaga, Asteroids, and Donkey Kong, just to name a few. But gameplay on the TRS-80, crude as its graphics and sound were, was good enough to kill my interest in consoles entirely. And this perception that anything a console can do, a PC can do as well or better, continued throughout my adult life until around 1997. So I missed out on the Nintendo and Sega eras.

And that brings us to 1981, graduation from high school, and the next era in this gamer's history: the PC years.

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