This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Decades of gaming
  • My gaming history – The 80’s
That’s not a typo in the title, it does say the 1980s, and yes I’m that old. This is the first in this series of four posts where I’m going to take you on a journey, and it might be a long one. I’m also conscious that we’re going a fair way back here, and I’ll make reference to some pretty outdated stuff, so I’ve sprinkled these posts with a healthy dose of hyperlinks if you’re interested in further reading.
I was definitely lucky, growing up with a father in IT his whole career, my first taste of a ‘proper’ computer game (not this crap we played with in the playground) was at a family open day at his work when my mum and I got to see his office, and I sat at his desk. On that desk was a chunky keyboard and an IBM PC with CGA graphics (that’s four colours 🤭).

I asked the obvious question – did he have any games on the computer? Bear in mind I hadn’t even seen DOS before, and my dad reached over and typed on the keyboard:

FP.EXE

and up came “Fighter Pilot“. I put it in quotes because the game was actually called Sopwith, something I only discovered in researching digging up screenshots for this series. But I’m going to call it Fighter Pilot, so let me describe the action.

It’s a horizontal scrolling flight-sim arcade flight game where you control a biplane with some very basic controls. The background was all black, and the land formation along the bottom of the screen was all white. Your little plane starts on a flat patch of ground (the ‘runway’) and as soon as you press one of the flight keys it takes off and flies at a constant speed.

The objective of the game was to score points by shooting and bombing air targets (other biplanes) and ground targets (tanks, factories and so on) without dying or crashing. The controls were simply:


, – Go up a bit
. – Invert
/ – Go down a bit

space – Shoot
b – Bomb

I don’t think I was very good, but I was pretty young.

IBM PC XT

But I was even luckier that my dad brought home a PC from work which he used for work… when I let him. Basically when I wasn’t playing games.

Marvel at its specs:

  • IBM PC XT
  • EGA graphics (16 colours)
  • 640 KB RAM
  • Something like a 5 MB hard drive
  • 5.25″ floppy disk drive
Once we had a computer at home there was no stopping me. My source of games… my dad. He’d bring home these games I guess they’d share around the offices at work.
Games like Alley Cat, which (astonishingly) has its own Wikipedia entry which can explain so much more than I could. It was a CGA platform where you controlled a cat. ‘Nuff said. Even the theme music is on Wikipedia – I remember that tune!
With slightly improved graphics was Dig Dug a maze tunnelling kind of game a bit like Pac-Man but where you create your own level. I’m pretty sure it had cherries in it too.

And there were basic button smashing games like Microsoft Decathlon (yes – MICROSOFT!) where you’d basically smash [ and ] alternately as quickly as possible, to run for instance. Check that out and behold the exquisite sound:

IBM PS/2

In about 1988 I think my dad decided to spend money on our own computer, and by 1988 standards I think this thing was pretty well specced.

But they’re not floppy

We got a brand new IBM PS/2 with a 286 processor, but for me the biggest differences were the new 3.5″ floppy drive (but they’re not floppy and I couldn’t understand it at the time), the 256 colour VGA graphics (count them) …and the mouse!

  • IBM PS/2 model 50Z
  • VGA graphics (256 colours)
  • 1 MB RAM
  • 60 MB hard drive
  • 3.5″ floppy disk drive
  • Mouse
Other neighbourhood children whose parents worked in IT would also get games and we’d all soon be learning how DOS worked and managing the file system and copying floppy disks around. This let me play even more games when I wasn’t watching Top Gun – my favourite movie as a child – which I’d recorded off the TV with good old VHS. Sorry, I digress.

Anyway, I got to play games like:

Kings Quest was a pretty simple game but it was the first adventure game I played. And it was all done by typing in commands – see the text entry cursor at the bottom of the screenshot? Fortunately, this would improve and become more fun in the 90’s.
Prince of Persia came out in 1989 (just in the 80s) and I guess was the first free running platformer before free running was a thing. Pretty epic for its day, I tell ya! I mean, look how awesome it is!
F-19 Stealth Fighter was my 9th birthday present. No joystick, just the keyboard cursor keys for flight. But with my aforementioned affinity for Top Gun I was really into flight sims and this would carry into the 90s. This came on two floppy disks!
SimCity – this classic city builder was pretty much the only game that made use of the mouse as far as I can recall. “Features high-resolution EGA graphics” …! And just listen to those sounds.
The thing with DOS was, as these games advanced you soon learnt its limitations. Like its 8.3 file system meant that if you stored all your games in C:\Games then each needed an acronym for its own directory. So Prince of Persia would be shortened to PoP for example.

Access to other games

Looking back I guess I was really lucky. In addition to having a computer at home, we also had computers at school and I had friends and neighbours who had some early games consoles.

At school

At school we had a couple of computers, although I didn’t get to use them very often because they were shared with everybody.

We had a BBC Micro which was supposed to be for doing educational things, but there was only one of them. So while some people were using the computer, others would control the Big Trak “educational toy”.

But we just wanted to get on the BBC and play Chuckie Egg.

Then we got an Acorn Archimedes, and people always knew which disk had “Lander” on it, which was a demo for a game called Zarch. The Acorn was pretty amazing, as the first computer I’d seen with a GUI, icons and where the mouse did something. Lander was also 3D which I don’t think I appreciated at the time, but check it out below.

Kids in the playground had a range of those aforementioned crappy handheld LCD games. If you were lucky, it was Donkey Kong, but a range of simple games from Systema were popular.

I was quite lucky to get the Tomytronic 3D game Sky Attack for one birthday. That was a simple binocular-like device, but quite amazing at the time for young me.

Click to enlarge images and watch the videos…

Enter basic control commands into Big Trak and let it rip!
Chuckie Egg was a fun platformer you weren’t supposed to be playing at school.
The Lander 3D demo was quite amazing for the 80s I’d say.
I had this racing car LCD game by Systema. The controls were just left and right.
The white panel on the top let light into the game. Somebody covering it with their hand was annoying!

Other people

I mentioned the other neighbourhood children with parents in IT above. But there were plenty without a connection to IT who had plenty to play.

The neighbour opposite had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum which I remember for its rainbow on the corner and the rubber keys. The only game I remember on that was Arkanoid, where you bounce a ball off a paddle to destroy blocks at the top of the screen.

The kids up the road had a Nintendo Entertainment System, which was incredible! I remember playing the first Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt with the light gun – that was so cool. Then they got Super Mario Bros 2 in 1988 which had neater graphics and let you play as different characters; Mario, Luigi, Toad or Peach. And you could scroll left. It blew my mind.

I also had some friends who had Commodore 64 computers, with the tape drive. Tapes! I don’t remember many of the games, but I definitely remember Lode Runner. You can play this for yourself in this online browser-based port. What I did find cool about the C64 was its joystick. So revolutionary.

Finally, when my mum would take me with her to her friends’ house, I got to play on his Amstrad CPC while the adults all ate, drank and talked. Harrier Attack was my game of choice every time on that.

Coming in the 90s

By this point, games have already begun to evolve quite a bit, even with the still relatively simple technology available. That IBM PS/2 would take me well into the 90s.

But they were about to really accelerate as we move into a decade of standards, customisation and 3D graphics. A lot is going to change in the coming ten years, and I’ll explore that busy period of change in the next post.

Before you go...

If the 1980s has made you nostalgic for some of those old DOS PC games, you might want to check out my 101 DOS Games video, which takes you through all the games I played through the 80s and 90s before Windows took over PC gaming.
Did I have a normal gaming experience in the 1980s? How does this compare to what you played, or were you even born then? Have you played anything I’ve mentioned since? Drop a comment and tell me below!