Getting back to BASIC(s).
As the child of a freelance computer programmer in the 1980s, I was exposed to all kinds of computer technology from a young age. My weekends used to be spent going to the various offices of my father’s clients; while he worked coding at a terminal, I would play ascii renditions of pac-man, or traverse caves in text adventures such as Zork or Adventure. All displayed on a green and black monochrome screen. Sometimes I would print off ascii snoopy calendars on giant dot matrix printers. In those days, these printers were so large and so noisy that they had to be housed in special sound proofed rooms.
As I became a bit older, and the technology became cheaper, my father set up a home office with some high end business computing machines, over priced laser jet printers (still huge but not nearly the beasts that their dotmatrix cousins were), and COLOUR monitors! It was then that I really learned how to use computers, not simply as a user, but as a ‘programmer’. I use the term loosely of course because for some time my programming skills were nothing more than having a monitor display repeating rows of text in the old 10 Print “put text on screen”, 20 goto 1o, RUN. Not very advanced, but it opened a door.
It was around this time that my classroom ended up getting a C64 or Vic 20 installed on a desk at the back of the room. Our teacher would give us language and math puzzles to solve, and the students who did so first got access to the machine at recess. I’d play the old famous Bruce Lee game most of the time, but the rest was spent fiddling with BASIC. Learning how to load games from tape and floppy, or playing with PETscii to draw weird abstract images.
^image by Max Capacity^
It was also around this time when Scholastic (a Canadian book publisher) used to distribute sales flyers once a month in my class. It was called the Arrow Book Club, and kids had an opportunity to take these flyers home, beg their parents for a little money (or use their allowance) to buy books published by the company at discounted prices. I used to look forward so much to these flyers, so much so i would often save my allowance every month just to buy books from them.
It through the Arrow Book Club that I discovered the joys of making my ‘own’ games. Scholastic had a series of books full of BASIC computer programs which children could copy BASIC programing code from the book into the machine (usually done by having a ruler handy and going through the book line by line, typing into the computer, double checking every character to ensure it was copied correctly). After hitting RUN, I’d be subject to all kinds of animations, games, and more depending on the program I chose to input. It was a great deal of fun and gave me a sense of agency with the computer that I had never felt before. The books I recall the most are the Computer “X” series: Computer Craziness, Computer Monsters, Computer Space Adventures, and Computer Olympics (the latter being the one I remember most, rendering an ascii olympic torch whose flames flicked and waved back and forth).
These books introduced me to the concept of code literacy. As I copied and typed, I worked to understand the how’s and why of the code, what it was doing, what each character and line meant as part of the greater whole. It helped me understand that the computer wasn’t simply some mystical box, but a tool for creation. It was more than a machine meant for consumption of things, it enabled me to make things. A few years after I had been playing with computers in my leisure time, my parents divorced. My father moved himself and his home office, computers and all out of the house. I’m sad to report that it would be nearly half a decade again before I would have access to a computer at home. Due to the nature of my father’s business, and my mother’s association of computers with him, she pretty much forbade computers in the house. Unfortunately this meant that all I had learned began to wane. It was until years later that I started to learn DOS on a computer at school, but I never quite got into it in the same way again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Flash foward some 25 years or so from the time I stopped playing with BASIC. I work as an artist/ modder using video game technologies. I am a collector of vintage computers/ consoles/ paratext such as magazines and manuals. I curate game based art; art that uses game technologies and cultures as the tools and inspiration of contemporary art making.I learned a little bit about html code over the years, but never anything significant. Sometimes I think had my parents not divorced I would have continued down that path. Though quite recently, I’ve become very interested in revisiting my BASIC past and playing around with it again.
Part of the reason why I became re-interested was my discovery of a couple of vintage micro computers at junk stores and flea markets. Another was finding a bunch of old BASIC programming books, including Computer Monsters. I find myself wanting to crack open these books from my childhood and play with them like I used to. One of the key difficulties is having all the pieces to do so. Micro Computers which connect to TVs, require RF switchers, thankfully I found a couple, but I lack a CRT television. The whole thing feels like a bit of a production, and with working on a Master’s thesis and other projects I haven’t found the time / energy to do so.
I know I could use an emulator and play with them on my current computer, but for some reason that just hasn’t happened yet. But something I found last week has served as a catalyst to get me going. I was browsing the Eshop on my Nintendo 3DS for some new games to purchase (I spend the bulk of my time gaming these days on the go between school/home), and I happened upon a new piece of software on the Eshop called Petit Computer. Created by Japanese developer Smile Boom, Petit Computer is the exact tool I’ve been looking for. It’s a Basic Computer emulator / program for the DS/3DS! It has a sprite editor and a music sequencer. Thanks to this little piece of software I can now engage in my old creative tendencies while on the subway or streetcar.
What’s old is new again, and retro computing culture opens up to a whole new generation of would be game makers and coders. One of the features of Petit Computer never existed when I was a kid. The ability to share programs online with other tinkerers is built in to Petit Computer either online, or through the creation of QR codes, which contain whole programs! This kind collapsing of the old with the new is something I find very intriguing and engaging.
Speaking of old meeting new, below you’ll see a screenshot from a game called TINY Trek, which is a remake of an old ascii based Star Trek strategy sim that I also used to play back in the days when I would have access to those monochrome terminals as a kid. Seeing this makes me excited about the possibilities of play on Petit Computer, even if typing in code one character at a time on a DS touch screen seems a little tedious, I am eager to get going on it.
As my adventures in getting back to BASIC unfold, I’m going to endeavor to post the results here, although with so many plates spinning at the moment, it might be a while.