Digital 80's: My Mail Order Microcomputer
Päivitetty: 7. tammik. 2021
I was raised on a small farm in central Finland in 1970's and 1980's, and my parents probably were not expecting me to start tinkering with computers. Those days the mental image of a computer for the laymen was some mysterious large room somewhere far away, full of flickering lights, humming cabinets, rolling wheels of tape, and copious output of paper strips with weird patterns of holes, where scientists and engineers would carefully monitor and adjust knobs, switches and wheels while puffing smoke from their pipes and occasionally nodding to each other.
During the 70s tremendous progress of microelectronics that produced cheap enough processors, memory, and other chips that businesses started making computers that one would be able to fit into a shoebox. First microchips became small and cheap enough to produce that they could be first used in incredible accurate digital watches, and in pocket calculators. The calculators could make instantly the kind of computations, which would take minutes or even hours to perform with pencil and paper. Calculators got more sophisticated, and soon one could get a calculator for scientific and engineering use, and most advanced of got programming ability.
While video games debuted for general public in arcades, cafes and bar lounges, very quickly home video games that could be attached to TVs were also introduced. First of these had games built in, while later models allowed new games bought as cartridges which were plugged into a special slot in the game console.
Invasion of microcomputers
And then, in the early 80's, microcomputers for homes appeared. They were marketed for both serious use and entertainment. Soon they started selling so well that dozens of manufacturers jumped in. In Finland, most popular microcomputers that I remember were made by Commodore, whose first model in Finnish market, VIC-20, was the first one that I saw at my older brother's friend. I remember seeing two cartridge games for VIC-20: side scrolling shoot-em up Scramble and a maze game, Radar Rat Race. I also got my first glimpse of the computer being programmed using a language that became de-facto standard on home computers: BASIC.
All of this was a huge new and exciting thing to me. I had already fallen in love to video games. After getting the games on one’s own computer there would no longer be need to pay for each played game separately. Also, I could try program the games myself! Of course I wanted a home computer of my own.
But - although cheap enough for money earning adults to purchase, they were expensive for a teenage country boy with not much extra income. I would have to save money to get one.
My parents had started teaching my older brothers and me how money was earned: by having a paid job. In our case, my mother had set up a carrot patches on one of our fields, and had us kids take care of the chores of growing and picking the carrots. The first money I earned with my own work came from selling the vegetables. We also got hired to plant fir tree and pine seedlings by our neighbour, who was growing the these to be sold for afforestation.
How I Met My (First) Computer
I saved the money from these summer jobs. Then, in 1983, I finally decided what I would buy with my savings. I saw an ad in Koneviesti, which was (and still is) a print publication in Finland focusing on farming, forestry, and construction machines and related tools. A company called Comtron had started importing the and advertising a computer called Oric-1, which could be ordered by mail. But first I ordered brochures from this company and some others, like Hedengren which imported and sold Sinclair ZX-81, and PCI-Data, which did the same for Commodore.
The Oric-1 ad listed memory, graphics, and sound specifications surpassing those of Commodore VIC-20. Commodore had already introduced an upgraded model, Commodore 64, but unfortunately its price, around 4000 FIM, was beyond my budget. Sinclair Spectrum was not quite yet available and I did not know about it. Price for Oric, 2300 FIM, was within my reach. And unlike Commodore microcomputers, it could use regular cassette recorder as its mass memory. With VIC-20 and Commodore 64, the cheapest mass memory option was a Commodore 1530 Datasette, a tape drive that used Phillips audio cassette tapes, but was attached to the computer using a proprietary cable interface. Oric-1 tape interface was a standard 5-pin socket, that could be found from most audio tape decks, such as the one my older brother had.
Yes, at that time, the Compact Cassette analog audio tapes were the format most music was recorded, sold and consumed. Most of the kids used to record their music to the tapes using recorders that had old analog FM radio receivers.
After reading and re-reading all the details on the Oric-1 I could find, especially the selection of games and other software that was initially available, I made my decision. I took a deep breath and informed my mother that I wanted to buy a microcomputer. This probably was something she did not want me to do nor did she even have much idea what I was talking about. After some explaining, discussion, then lengthy whining and nagging, she reluctantly let me place the order and went on to continue to chores.
Interlude: Unboxing Oric-1
After impatiently waiting for what seemed ages, but probably was just a few weeks, I received a notice from the local post office that my package had arrived. It was time for unpacking and getting started to use my very own computer!
To commemorate this glorious tech event in my life more than three decades ago, I decided to repeat the unpacking my original Oric-1, kept in storage by my brother after I had outgrown it. Big thanks to my big bro, for keeping my Oric-1 safe these many years!
Unboxing Oric-1 and Oric-1 Manual. Click images to view photo galleries.
With the computer came one bundled demo cassette and two game cassettes that I had decided to purchase with the computer. First game was Oricmunch, an clone of Pacman, complete with ghostlike monsters and little dots to eat in the corridors of a maze. The second was called Zodiac Text Adventure, and it introduced a whole new game genre to me. Both games were British made, by a fellow named Geoff Phillips. Of course, this was long before there was any notable game industry in Finland.
As a kid, it felt like entering a wonderful new and magical world. I carefully followed the instructions in the simple and friendly manual, plugged my new microcomputer to the antenna socket of our TV, tuned into the UHF channel 36 as instructed, and finally connected power supply unit first to the mains and then to my Oric-1. I held my breath.
My Oric-1 came to life, the screen was filled with some black and white stripes at first, and after a brief pause, the following screen appeared:
And a blocky square was blinking on screen. After hesitating a split second, I pressed one of the keys on the keyboard, immediately heard a clear ’click!’ sound and the letter that I had typed appeared on the screen in the place where the blinking square had been. The square moved to right of the letter that I had just typed, as if beckoning me to continue.
My computer was working!
This felt pretty much more awesome than anything before. I quickly continued with the chapter on setting the computer to learn how to plug in my brother’s cassette player, a quality deck by Akai, with the all-important audio in/out socket. I was inserting the Oricmunch cassette in the deck and noticed the text on the cassette which said
ORICMUNCH CLOAD ””
At the visit to the friend that had VIC-20, I had learned typed command LOAD was used to load programs from Commodore Datasette, so I figured Oric-1 did this too, only for some reason using CLOAD command instead of LOAD. I examined the other cassettes that had come with the machine, and sure enough, they had similar texts:
ZODIAC CLOAD ””
WELCOME TO ORIC
CLOAD ”DEMO 1"
So I typed
And pressed play on the tape deck. Oric-1 immediately responded:
Then the deck signal meter needles (Akai had two audio signal dB meters for each stereo channel) jumped up, I heard the weird sound of bits modulated as audio with rate of 2400 bits per second, and status text on screen changed to:
A few tens of seconds later, the signal stopped. And on my Oric-1 screen, the startup screen of Oricmunch flashed up automatically.
The very first video game that I owned was up and running! The rest of the day me and my brothers had a lot of fun with Oricmunch, the other games on the small game collection tape. and game and demos on the Welcome to Oric tape.
Oricmunch title screen from 1983, captured from Oric-1 emulator screen. The game was localized in Finnish.
Oricmunch gameplay, level 9. Notice ghosts are in reverse color, as the player character just reached power pill.
Oricmunch gameplay video.
Before Angry Birds, there was Artillery Game, before Snake there was Crazy Dominoes
The games collection included Oric Bandit (One-armed bandit), Reversi, and Projectile Game, where players took turns in shooting the opponent on the opposite side of a computer generated island with a cannon. One would give an angle and speed to the projectile to fire the cannon. Simple physics simulation included gravity and windspeed which had an effect on the trajectory. If the bomb would hit the island, it would blow away a circular area of the landmass.
We learned that hitting the opponent cannon could be done by not only proper speed and angle to go over the island, but also with a lower trajectory by first digging a tunnel through the island with a number of shots. The game could be played against another player or the computer, which we learned was quite quick adjust its aim and destroy us. One had to learn to estimate the island shape and wind effect to the angle and speed needed in just a few rounds in order to beat Oric in this game. What kept the game interesting was the different shape of the island every time the game was played.
We spent hours playing this rudimentary Oric-1 cannon game, which in its core had the same gameplay that Angry Birds still has today, although in Angry Birds it has been elaborated, given more color and personality, enhanced with much more advanced physics simulation, and extended to hundreds of different levels.
The Welcome to Oric tape included a game, too. Crazy Dominoes was a version of an old game called Blockade. Most people in the world probably recognise the gameplay from Nokia Snake, which used to be a built-in game on millions of mobile phones.
These game examples show that certain game ideas seem to work from decade to decade. Snake, Tetris, Projectile games, Breakout, platform games, the list goes on. Whenever new game platforms emerge that are short of resources, old classics from 70's and 80's sem to be first to get recycled on these platforms. Until the new platforms mature, get more capability, and then the treatment and production values for recycled game ideas just grow with them. Just take a look at Angry Birds Galaxy, or Snake Rewind on mobile phones that have evolved tremendously over the last ten years. Or take a look at how Nintendo offers refreshed versions of its old video games on its newest game consoles.
In a way, game industry reinvents itself with each generation of gaming platforms, and at the same time, honors a tradition that started in the 1970's.
Each new generation of players get used to the type of games they start playing with. It is likely that the first gameplay experiences from the childhood are the ones that we cherish the most as we grow older, like we tend to appreciate key movies, books, plays, TV-series, songs and other forms of popular culture . For me and my fellow gen-X's the simple 8-bit video and computer games evoke fond memories that we return to from time to time (like I do in this blog). These days games kids play have awesome graphics and sound, a continuous supply of content that can be purchased as add-ons. Interactivity, digital teamplay, and social gameplay is as natural to them as TV, comic books, and board games may have been to me and my childhood friends. Still, many of the latest digital games our children and their children play today, have their gameplay roots on golden era of video and computer gaming from 70's and 80's.
Writing this, looking back, all this still feels somehow... awesome.
In the next blog postings I am going to continue to recollect some of the many hours and days I spent with my Oric computer, mostly focusing on my efforts in creating my own game programs. Including BASIC program listings from simple practices to fully programmed games.