Remembering the home computers of the 1980s

I wanted to share my experiences in home computing in the 1980s. I may not remember it quite right, but I remember it at all. You, I can’t trust to remember my experiences at all. I mean apart from my dad, who tells me he reads these things. But as I remember it, what he would remember is I disappeared into my room for up to 84 hours at a stretch. I’d emerge just because the groceries needed to be put away. And by putting them away myself I could put things in the freezer correctly, unlike everyone else.

Also I could get dibs on the microwave fried chicken. The microwave fried chicken was awful, understand. But it was convenient. Also the thighs would taste weird, which is not to say the same as good. But if I didn’t get away from the computer, someone else might eat that first. I don’t know whether my dad remembers this, but it’s got little to do with my computer experience. It would have looked the same to him if I spent all that time in my room re-reading the Star Trek comic book where the Excalbians went to Space War with the Organians because they were bored.

Big thing to remember is that how you got software was different. There were all these magazines that offered the promise of neat stuff, like, going around riding a dragon. And anyone could play this, if they just typed in six pages of three-column column text and didn’t get too much of it wrong. Then it turned out to be fun for maybe one-fourth the time you spent typing it in. Not everything was games, no. If you had a Commodore 64 you could type in programs that would let you use the graphics and the sound on the Commodore 64. It wouldn’t help you have anything to draw or … sound out. But if you ever thought of something, you were ready. Sometimes we would swap out the ROM version of the computer’s operating system for a RAM copy that was identical, except it didn’t throw a fit if you tried to find the ASCII value of an empty string. There were reasons this was important.

Still, games were great, because the only other software out there was spreadsheets and word processors. It still is, but now the spreadsheets and word processors are in a web browser so annoying ads can flash at you. But if you didn’t want to type in a game, you could get a professionally made game.

Compute! magazine issue #90 cover, showing a watercolor illustration of a kid riding on the shoulder of a large green wyvern, to advertise the text-adventure game The Hermit.
What rational person could resist getting this magazine and typing in the cover program? I mean, the chance to load, run, rename or delete IBM files at the touch of a key? Paradise! Fun fact: you could speed your Atari up to 30% just by tilting it backwards so as many electrons as possible were running downhill.

Thing to understand about computer games back then is that nobody ever bought them. You just … got them … somehow. Not really clear how, or who from. But they came on tape cassettes or on discs that a friend loaned you and that you copied, or that they copied and gave you. There were stores that claimed to sell software, yes. They had welcoming names like Professor Technofriend’s Software Empori-fun. Doesn’t matter. They never sold anything. The top-selling game of the 80s, Broderbund’s Karateka, saw sixteen copies sold in stores. There was never a game for the Amiga that sold. Game companies didn’t even try. They just gave the gold master disc to someone who knew this guy who worked(?) somewhere (??). He’d crack the copy protection and then make a kabillion copies with a fun message on the first screen. Every playground would have copies, although there was only one kid in school who had an Amiga. So that oversaturated the market.

The traded tapes, though, they’d have like 428 games on them. This seems like great value, what with them being free. The drawback is the games were mostly boring. There’d be, like, tic-tac-toe only it’s a grid of four rows and columns. Or Blackjack, except there’s no graphics or placing bets and you can’t do that thing where you split a hand when you’re dealt doubles. You’d just press space and watch numbers come up in a row until someone busted. In hindsight, I don’t know how it is I spent so much time on this. Oh, well, there was a Wheel of Fortune game that was great. It was even better after I memorized all six puzzles and could start solving puzzles after five letters. I typed it in from a magazine.

I know this all sounds ridiculous. But if it weren’t ridiculous we wouldn’t have done it. This is still true.

The Other 34th Talkartoon: Swim Or Sink; your choice

So last week I reviewed what I called the 34th Talkartoon, Minnie the Moocher. But there is a definitional problem here. There was another Talkartoon released the same day, the 11th of March, 1932. Which one is first? Lists seem to have settled on Minnie the Moocher, I assume on grounds of alphabetical order. The other Talkartoon of that busy day is Swim Or Sink. It’s animated by Bernard Wolf and Seymour Kneitel, both names we’ve seen before. Wolf in Minding the Baby. Kneitel in Barnacle Bill, Grand Uproar, and several less notable shorts. Here’s Swim Or Sink, or as it’s often aptly titled, S.O.S..

In content that hasn’t aged well. There’s a quick rather Jewish caricature in a fish that shows up for a line about 2:50 in. And there’s a bunch of pirates who are clear what they plan to do with Betty Boop. Nothing like in Boop-Oop-A-Doop. And Betty’s dress keeps riding up.

Swim Or Sink is nowhere as famous or renowned as Minnie the Moocher. And fair enough, really. It has some quite good animation in the ship-sinking. And a couple nice effects bits. But it doesn’t have any technique as impressive as Cab Calloway rotoscoped into a singing walrus. And the music’s merely ordinary. Picking “What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor” for a song about being at sea or being confronted by pirates doesn’t take imagination.

It might be the more strongly constructed cartoon, though. It’s got two parts, a big action scene of the steamer sinking, and then a chase scene of Betty Boop, Koko, and Bimbo menaced by pirates. Throughout there’s reasons for people to be doing what they’re doing. The spot jokes of animals struggling through the ship-sinking can mostly go in any order, but all of them work. And for some reason I’m always tickled by the lightning bolt that sews together the hole it’s cut in the sky.

The sinking ship almost does that “going down three times” gag about sinking that Roy Kassinger was asking about earlier, but it falls short. I think the pirate ship growing eyes and a mouth and swallowing Betty Boop’s raft is exactly the sort of joke we look for in black-and-white cartoons. So is the pirate captain morphing into a snake when he declares he’ll keep Betty to himself.

About 3:55 in the pirate’s sword menacing Koko grows a mouth and licks its lips; the joke was good in Bimbo’s Initiation and it works here too. The anchor shaking itself dry and sneaking into the doghouse is such a neatly done gag, too. I also like Koko, Bimbo, and Betty doing this funny little walking-dance while the pirate crew chases them.

There’s a suspiciously Mickey-like mouse at about 1:45 in, putting on a doughnut as lifesaver. Another’s on the pirate ship about 3:38 in with rather too much sword. And one more, for good measure, dangling from a rope about 6:05 in. I’m not sure there is a blink-and-you-miss-it joke. Maybe early on, when the parts of the doomed ship are falling back into place, when the last bit of the ship — the smoke — drops back into the funnels.

I don’t think there’s any body-horror jokes here, unless you count the pirate crew falling into a giant fish. They seem to be having a jolly time of it at least. The ending might seem abrupt. But “dodging out of the way so your chasers fall overboard” does make sense as a way out of a chase. Works for them.

Bunny Pirate Raccoons of the Delaware Bay

“Is it time yet?” our pet rabbit wanted to know. He was anxious, and I saw him getting ready to chew the wires of his pen to hurry me along.

“For … what?”

He grabbed his pen with his forepaws, which is fine, because that’s not so rattly. “To go outside! I’m all ready and set, let’s go!”

“You mean to play the raccoon?”

Here I have to explain. We put up a wildlife camera in the backyard, and it’s taken a month’s worth of photographs of us checking to see if the wildlife camera is taking photographs. We asked our rabbit if he’d go outside and hop around, so we could know whether the camera would photograph something like a raccoon.

He started to chew on the cage, “Yes! I’ve been doing a lot of research and I’m all set!”

“You really just have to exist. You’re already very good at that.”

He stood up on his hind feet and looked up and raised his left forepaw, and cried, “Arr!”

“It’s threatening rain. I thought we’d wait for … what?”

“Avast ye mateys! Ready with the jibs! We’re off to the Egg Harbor!”

“That’s a pirate.”

He nodded. “I’ve been doing a lot of research for this part!”

“We asked you to play a raccoon. That’s completely different from being a pirate.” He looked at me impatiently. “I’m sorry to be the one who tells you this.”

He rolled his head back and sighed. “I’m playing a raccoon who plays a pirate.”

I lapsed into a dignified silence because I was unprepared to answer something like that.

“My raccoon character is named Berkeley Nishimori, and he’s long been fascinated with the history of piracy on the Atlantic seaboard.”

“You don’t need to have a character, though. You just need a body, and you’ve got one.”

“If I don’t have a character this’ll be lifeless. It’s having someone who wants things that makes for compelling scenes!” I looked toward the back window. “Drama or comedy, put in an obsessed character and you’re in good shape! Mister Brock, we’re off for the Egg Harbor!”

“But all I want is you to be there.”

“Now, Berkeley has gotten particularly interested in the mid-Atlantic coast, and he’s set up his pirate character as operating from the South River, as the Dutch termed the Delaware River, but obviously operating as far afield as possible.”

“… Really doesn’t come into play for hopping around the pond.”

“He reasons that the Delaware Bay area is a good one for operations since even though it’s less active than Boston, the divided authorities between the main of Pennsylvania, the Lower Counties, Maryland, and the reunited New Jerseys will make hiding from official inquiries easier.”

“I figure if you just look at the camera, and then look away from the camera … ”

“Now, Berkeley sets Davis — ”

“His pirate?”

“Yes, Davis, and I admit Berkeley hasn’t established whether Davis is his first or last name, but it seems one historically plausible enough either way, and he’s leaning towards working `Trent’ in there for obvious reasons, is aware that at this time New-Jersey itself was administered by the Governor of New-York, so that helps the administrative confusion, obviously.” No, I did not doubt that he was using the hyphens for the colony names.

“Maybe stand on your hind feet. I imagine raccoons in the wild do that too.”

“Now, Berkeley has figured that Davis isn’t a pirate for reasons of petty greed, of course. He reasons that Davis was driven to it to support his family, disgraced after being named as accomplices to the theft of the colonial treasure chest from the western capital of Burlington in 1714.”

“So all I mean is, you don’t need to have a recursive mass of character.”

“Obviously, I’m drawing on the 1768 theft of East Jersey’s funds from treasurer Stephen Skinner’s house for this. But Berkeley figures that setting his pirate in that era necessarily involves him in pre-revolutionary politics that he doesn’t want to explore just now, and while it wouldn’t require relocating the action to the North River — ”

“The Hudson. I know.”

“Well, it would bias the setting anyway. I should say I don’t think I’ve completely ruled out the other interpretation of this relocating, besides just making up an incident.”

“I really think you’re over-working the part — ”

“And that is, maybe Berkeley is just sloppy about character development. He might have made it up without realizing there was a strikingly similar scandal a half-century later.”

“You really don’t need a character.”

He sneezed at me, so I knew I was in trouble. “You know you’re terrible at improv? You haven’t given me a single `Yes, and’ all this time.”

“Hold on. First, not all life is improv” — he sneezed again, that little buzzing noise — “and second, you haven’t actually responded to my perfectly reasonable skepticism about you over-planning a little hop in the backyard, so how good at this are you?”

He didn’t sneeze at that, but his ears did droop.

“I need to establish,” he finally concluded, “whether Berkeley is deliberately moving the Skinner treasury theft to Burlington circa 1712 or whether he’s making it up. We can wait.”

I agreed, but said, “You’re getting caught in a research spiral. Carry on like this and you’ll build everything about your character and never play him,” while it started to drizzle outside.