A (Very) Brief History Of Consoles: And How The Love Affair With Gaming Began

retro gaming consolesIn The Beginning…

Lie back, make yourself comfortable, close your eyes and relax. Clear your mind and think back. Think back and try to remember where it all began. Try to remember and tell me how it all started…

We all have that first machine, the one which paved the way for our love of all things gaming. That one glorious games system that you look back fondly on, through rose tinted 3D glasses. For me, it was actually two systems, one a video games console and the other a home computer. They were my beloved Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and the awesome Commodore 64 (C64).


Commodore 64

retro gaming consoles - commodore 64 system

Our C64 pre-dated my NES in being the first system that our household bought, by maybe several months. Sure, we had things like Nintendo’s Game & Watch handheld games and generic LCD based games.  I also seem to recall a calculator where numbers appeared from the left of the screen, inching further and further to the right, getting faster and faster, and it was up to you to type in matching numbers to erase them from the ever advancing attack.

However, the C64 was our first full games machine/home computer.

retro consoles - commodore 64 and screen

The C64 had a massive 64kb of RAM with an astonishing 20kb of ROM, a CPU at 1MHz, VIC-II graphics pumping out a rather heady 320×200 pixels in 16 colours and a datacassette in which you loaded games from tape, often eating up entire daylight hours before you even got a chance to play any of the game. Your LEGO watch is probably more powerful.

Now, I’m being facetious of course, it’s very easy to be so glib about the C64 when you compare it to today’s systems. However, at the time (mid 1980’s) and as a young child, this system was spectacular. Some of my friends had Sinclair ZX Spectrums and were jealous of the Commodore’s full colour graphics – despite the various ZX Spectrum systems often having better drawn sprites and backgrounds than the C64 counterpart…

We built up quite a library of games, granted most of them were demos and freebies from the cover of computer magazines, but quite a few were from the budget ranges of different software houses, often bought from a local computer shop which sold them for £1.99. That’s correct, a full game for under two pounds with change for a penny chew – back when penny chews cost precisely that, a penny. Not the £4.50 of the current financial climate.

As I am typing, the titles are just flooding back to me.  Freak Factory, Buggy Boy, Operation Wolf,447/ Yie Ar Kung Fu, International Karate, Bomb Jack, Paperboy, Thundercats, the list is endless. How can I forget Ghostbusters and, one of my all-time favourites, Monty on the Run? Oh, and what about the Gremlins text adventure game, where I spent many a happy hour typing in swear words with the software telling me not to be so uncouth. Just the names alone are enough to trigger happy memories of a childhood long gone.

commodore 64 - operation wolf gaming
And in some case trigger flashbacks. Charlie in the tree line!

The Commodore 64 provided us with countless hours of entertainment, not just from a video gaming perspective but also from a home computing point of view. It was the first time I ever tried programming – yes it was very primitive (BASIC) and consisted of:

>10 PRINT “I LOVE C64”;

>20 GOTO 10

Actually, I’m lying. Replace “I LOVE C64” with any number of swears (the more exotic the better) and you’ll be closer to what I really got up to.

commodore 64 - operating system code
So many swear words. So little time!

If I was feeling adventurous I would spend ages typing in code to make the computer cry. Well, the blurb in the manual said make your computer cry, but it sounded more like a robotic whining through a thick sock made out of static. However, back then it was incredible. Embarrassingly, I also remember spending a great deal of time typing in a whole heap of code from a magazine, to get extra lives in Buggy Boy only to realise that I executed it without the game tape in the datacassette!  Sad times…

Still, the C64 was tremendously good fun, even the achingly slow load times and sometimes multiple cassette swapping had an element of excitement as often whilst you were waiting for the the game to load you’d get some lovely gaming artwork displayed or even mini-games such as Space Invaders (or some derivative of). These mini games were sometimes better than the game you were loading and it was often a bit of a shame when the main game eventually loaded.

However, time hasn’t been kind to our C64. It currently lies in bits in my parent’s garage with boxes of games strewn all over the place. Though in recent times the Commodore 64 brand has been given a new lease of life with Nintendo’s Wii Virtual Console offering up a handful of C64 games and the release of the Commodore 64x PC, which sadly isn’t compatible with the original C64.

The Commodore 64 was a very strong system and for me, the best game available for it was essentially a clone of the first arcade machine that I ever played. In fact, this game was so identical that the makers of the arcade managed to have it pulled from the shelves. The name of that game was The Great Giana Sisters and the game it was aping? Well, that was none other than Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros.

The Great Giana Sisters and Super mario bros comparison

David Cheng

I am an ex-lab scientist (though not of the evil kind, much) and currently (serious hat on) work as a test engineer on scanning systems for use in histopathology and cytogenetics. In my spare time (propellor hat on) I nerd out on video games, apps, movies, television, comic books, regular books, tech and martial arts. I am also (spouse hat on) happily married to my beautiful wife Jing.

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