Thursday, 3 April 2008

Going back to my roots

I work in IT, I think I've mentioned that before. I've been working in IT for more years than I care to remember, and before that I studied it at Uni, back in the day when essays were still written on paper, with a pen. But before all that, my personal computing history began way back in the early 1980s with the wonderful Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. Okay, so before that I'd used a Sinclair ZX81 for about an hour one day in my last year at primary school, but the first computer I owned, the first I really got into and, crucially, the first I properly programmed was the 99/4A.

Now when I got the 99/4A (Summer 1983, if memory serves), it was already on its way out. Other, more affordable and more powerful computers were muscling in. The VIC-20 and its big brother, the Commodore 64, were both popular, as was the Dragon 32 and the BBC Model B (which we had a few of at school). And of course the daddy of them all, the machine you had to have if you wanted to swap games, was the Sinclair Spectrum 48K.

So I was using obsolete technology from the off, but it didn't matter because my 99/4A felt like a proper computer. Okay, so it only had 16K, paltry when compared to the Speccy or C64, and it was a bit slow (its programming language was interpreted, not compiled, you see). But it had build quality, a brushed aluminium finish and a proper, decent keyboard. It had an expansion slot, kind of like the USB port of its day, that you could plug all kinds of things into, including more RAM or a speech synthesizer (incredible for its day), but mainly games. Great games. I remember one game of Parsec lasting over five hours, as I racked up more than nine million points. And Munchman (guess what? A clone of Pacman) was another classic. Happy days...

The other great thing about the 99/4A is that it came with a detailed reference guide for its programming language, TI-Basic. This was one way of learning how to program, but I supplemented that by buying Home Computing Weekly because this printed the code for whole programs that people like me (the script kiddies of our day, perhaps) could steadfastly type into our machines, save them to cassette tape (yes, really), and so create our own game libraries. I still remember the very distinctive sound of those ASCII characters being written to tape. And because these programs were usually only two or three hundred lines at most, you could reverse-engineer them to work out what commands were doing, why, and in what order. And that's how I really learnt to program. Before very long, I was writing my own games, starting with text-based "adventure" games, as they were optimistically known ("In Search of El-Doradon Gold" was my best effort in this genre, which one kid at school asked if I could translate for his Spectrum - ha!), before moving to simple, catch-the-falling-object style graphical games. Programming became more fun than playing the end-product - it became the game itself.

And that's how I was hooked. Texas Instruments stopped making the 99/4A the same year I got one, and as the months rolled on the programs in Home Computing Weekly that were in TI-Basic, and could be run with only 16K, became fewer and fewer. In the end, I became very reliant on one particular company, Parco Electrics in Honiton, Devon. In fact, I cherished them as they continued to support the 99/4A - they even started publishing their own magazine for enthusiasts like me, with programs, tips, game high-score charts, and more. I saved the money from my paper-round to buy things from Parco, often games of varying quality. There was a last hurrah, when Parker Brothers licensed some Nintendo games for distribution as plug-in 99/4A cartridges - Popeye was the best of these and, like Parsec, it ate up the hours. As obsolescence really kicked in though, and the flow of new games dried up, what was left behind was an interest in computing and an aptitude for programming. And the rest, like my 99/4A (now gathering dust in a cupboard at my parents' house, along with untold cartridges, oxidised tapes and a killer joystick), is history.

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