The Life and Times of the ’70s Kid

I’ve been re-reading Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid recently, which, if you haven’t read it (and even if you have), is a gloriously funny account of growing up in America in the 1950s.

The things Bryson witnessed  – the emergence of TV, the development of the hydrogen bomb, the fifties parents’ cheery nonchalance regarding their kids’ welfare, or, indeed, whereabouts – made me think about being born in the 1970s, and the things my generation experienced that won’t come again. Most groundbreaking, I suspect, was the widespread adoption of the home computer.

I distinctly remember when my Dad first mentioned we’d be getting a computer.  I was about eight years old and I remember being amazed. A computer! What were we, NASA?

That Christmas, my sister and I received that marvel of technology, an Amstrad CPC 464. It had a green screen, a keyboard with jazzy coloured inserts, and a tape deck that made odd screeching sounds as, with excruciating slowness, it loaded our games. It was quite the most exciting thing I’d ever seen.

Primitive as they seem now, those games opened up new worlds. One particular favourite, Roland on the Ropes, involved manoeuvring a character noisily up and down ropes (Roland squeaked as he climbed, we never thought to ask why), through a series of haunted caves and castles, whilst avoiding ghosts, rats, drips of acid and our mum, who could often be found standing behind us and asking us to kindly finish the game, our Findus Crispy Pancakes were getting cold.

So many games! Electro Freddy, Manic Minor, Chuckie Egg. Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, where sporting glories were achieved by a waggling of the joystick so vigorous it must have kept Tandy in business supplying replacements.

In a spirit of adventure, I also persisted in playing an ‘interactive fiction’ game called Return to Eden, in which you gave the protagonist verbal commands to direct the action. Having previously been proficient only at cursor-ing an 8 bit Roland up and down some ropes, this was a bit of an ask, and within minutes of beginning the game, I either succumbed to radiation poisoning, got trapped in a padded room, or was sentenced to death. Still, I played it for hours. That’s what counted as fun in the 1980s.

We’d also programme games from PC magazines, me or my sister typing while my Dad painstakingly read out lines of code, improvising when he came to a punctuation mark he wasn’t familiar with. (It was years before I realised that ‘dottles’ was actually called a colon.)

Of course, we’d inevitably make a mistake somewhere, and so, after days of work, we’d triumphantly type RUN only to be met with an Improper Argument or a Syntax Error, that sent us back poring through the lines in the hope that we’d eventually get to play our laboured-over copy of Snake Wars.

Good times. Innocent times.

Watching those old Amstrad games on youtube now, I’m astonishing by how far we’ve come in forty years, that those long buried memories can be accessed simply by typing a few words into my browser.

But, still, there’s something to be said for the way we lived then. If computing in the 80s taught us anything, it was that some things were worth waiting for. That, and, if you’re going to climb noisily up a rope, it’s better not to pass through a ghost.