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Loading tunes from the 1980’s: A trip down memory lane

Submitted by on February 23, 2010 – 16:352 Comments

I had a moment of nostalgia today that reminded me of my childhood days. As I walked down the road in the snow, with baby son snuggled up against me in his baby-carrier and mum and grandma following close behind under their own respective umbrella’s, I found myself singing songs to the little one. I soon realised the songs I was humming were loading tunes for computer games that used to run on the 8 bit micro computers of the 1980’s, specially the Acorn BBC B Micro computer. Let me explain a little more, since many people reading this blog entry may not have a clue what I’m talking about, especially those who have grown up surrounded by modern games consoles and powerful desktop and laptop home computers.

These days, when you want to play a computer game on your desktop computer or console, you click an icon, wait a couple of seconds and the game fires up. Back in the 1980’s things were significantly different. Most home microcomputers did not have a hard disk. They loaded programmes off cassette tape. The tape player was usually connected via a data cable to the micro computer and if you loaded up a game you could hear the data being loaded in to the computer by turning up the sound on the cassette player. The whole process could take anywhere between a minute, for simple and short computer programmes to several minutes for more complex and data heavy applications, such as games.

To make the whole process of “watching paint dry” – which is what it sometimes felt like when loading up a game – many games coders would first load a graphical screen containing, for example, the logo of the game, and then load up an intro-tune. In other words, a piece of music that would play whilst you waited for the main game to load up. This would provide a little light entertainment. As games got bigger and better the tunes also got better and better. The BBC Micro computer, back in the 1980’s had a four channel audio system which basically allowed the computer to play up to four “instrumental sounds” at once. This was plenty enough to make for enjoyable tunes.

What a stark contrast to today’s gaming experience. There’s a string of game loading tunes I remember fondly and often find myself humming either in my mind or more recently out loud to the little one.

Here’s a great example of a game called Firetrack (one of my favourites) loading up on the BBC micro. Along with the loading tune, you can also hear the constant burring of the data being loaded in.

The other thing that comes back to mind is the classic Acornsoft logo which you’d often see displayed whilst a game would load off tape. Acornsoft was an early software publishing company producing games for the then popular BBC Micro computer which was in fact made by Acorn Computers Ltd. Here’s an example of the Acornsoft game loading screen for a game called Super Invaders:

The other really cool thing I remember about the BBC micro and other computers of its ilk back in the 1980’s was just how easy and enjoyable it was to create programs that would run on them by simply typing in a few lines of code. I remember how I would often walk in to a branch of Dixons, a then popular high street electronics store in the UK, and walk over to their computer section where they would have a BBC micro on display, force quit the shop demo that was running and then type by hand my own little graphics demo application. The code was written in an interpreted language called BBC BASIC and the program I’d most often write was the one where you could get random shapes to appear all over the screen in a never ending loop. Here’s a great little video showing just that (and a lot more):

Oh, the good old days. Then came along the 1990’s and the affordable spread and availability of hard disks built in to home computers. The late 80’s and early 90’s also hailed the advent of more powerful graphic user interfaces. I remember being a die hard Acorn computers advocate and back in the late 80’s and early 90’s Acorn had launched arguably one of the most advanced and powerful home computers based on their early RISC chip called the ARM processor. ARM processors are found, now-a-days embedded in almost every mobile computing device, most notably mobile phones. The power of the then new ARM chip enabled Acorn to launch there multi-tasking 32bit operating system called Risc OS (technically it was a 26 bit OS) which was capable of running games that utilised solid 3D graphics, a domain that was exclusively reserved for the more expensive and dedicated arcade games machines which you’d never find in a home. Zarch is the name of a game that came free with the Acorn Archimedes computers, the first RISC based home computer that Acorn produced back in the late 80’s and 90’s. Here’s a short video showing just how advanced things had already become back then, and we’re talking over twenty years ago. You’ll also note from this video the WIMP interface of Acorn Computer’s RISC OS. WIMP stands for Windows Icon Mouse and Pointer.

My all time favourite computer game to this day has to be Elite. A 3D space trading and combat game. The basic idea of Elite was to pilot a space ship through several galaxies trading goods from planet to planet. As you traded you would build up more cash reserves by selling your cargo for a profit and slowly upgrade your space ship with better armaments, more cargo carrying capacity and better shielding, etc. Along the way, you might get attacked by pirates who have scanned your ship inventory and want to rob you of your cargo. You would have to defend yourself against these marauders. You could also choose the path of a criminal and trade in illegal goods which would fetch greater profits, but at the risk of being brandished a fugitive and constantly attacked by police ships. Or you could be a pirate yourself and attack other space craft and scoop up their cargo to sell on for a profit. This was all played out in a full 360 degrees 3D space environment. To get an idea of the type of gaming experience you got in Elite, watch this short video of the game running on a 8 bit BBC micro computer:

Elite is no more, but it lives on in the form of an open source clone called Oolite, which runs on the Mac. Anyone on a Mac should definitely check this game out and give it a go. It’s faithful to the old game and even goes as far as preserving much of the graphical interface with options to enhance the graphics, the features and gaming scenarios. There’s a huge community of developers constantly updating the game and there’s a discussion forum available for avid fans of the old game. Oolite still posses great game play which I find many modern day games lack.

That’s it for my trip down memory lane, all sparked off by me humming tunes from game loading intro’s on the Acorn BBC Micro computer to my baby son.

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  • Fuzzyfish1000

    Heh. Enjoyed that. Loved Elite – was one of my favourites too… Also used to do the BBC micro trick, except I did it at school, so a load of random sounds would go off 10 minutes into the lesson. 🙂

  • Kaustav

    Phil, LOL. Yes, I used to do that as well. I also remember programming “poke and peek” on the ZX Spectrum, but it was never as enjoyable as coding Assembler on the 6502 chip set or the ARM chips. Used to love those old ARM Risc processors. I remember creating a graphics demo in assembler which has 8 levels of parallax scrolling… Awesomeness from such a “slow” process by today's standards.