When I was a kid I went through a couple of black and white, bleep bleep, TV bat and ball games… before meeting my first true love. Now, this is going to sound really geeky. In fact I am using a Sharpie to write “NERD” on my forehead as I type. Seriously. I may take a photo! Ha ha!
My first true love… the Atari 2600. Okay, perhaps you had to be there to understand… but I’m going to do my best to conjure up the tastes and smells of the era.
You have to picture a time when summers were sunny. I realise this very first step is perhaps a bridge too far… but nevertheless, A TIME WHEN SUMMERS WERE SUNNY!!! Morning TV was filled with Roland Rat and Wacky Races and the newsagent sold Pac-Man stickers. They came with bubble gum. “Yeah, yeah”, I hear you say? (just whisper it if you like). More nostalgia. Nostalgia, nostalgia. Let’s all reminisce about children’s TV back when we were young. How it was better and the school holidays lasted forever. A time, in fact, that the lyrics to Pulp’s ‘Acrylic Afternoons’ sum up perfectly. I know, I know… it’s all too easy to think then was good and now is bad. But you see, I’m sure there was more sense of wonder back then. I sometimes wonder if there is any sense of wonder now. And I sometimes wonder if wondering about the lack of wonder is a healthy past-time to be indulging in at all!
“The kids today don’t know how good they’ve got it. A thousand channels that’ll fit into their pocket. I lived through bat and ball, flick switches, bleeps and blops, tape machines, loading screens and visiting the shops.”
A line from one of my songs that kind of paints a picture of where I’m going with this rant. For it is the lack of wonder that depresses me. Today’s youngsters have PS3s, Ipads and mobile phones. They have almost photo realistic graphics. And not only do they have all this… but they have never known anything other than this. The children of today live the future the children of the past dreamed of.
So I had my experience with the Atari 2600. This was a classic gaming machine. It had wooden panels! It had flick switches! It had an incredibly bad version of Pac-Man… Hmmmm, we’ll gloss over that last one! So there I was… little Emrys… playing ‘Yar’s Revenge’ at my next-door neighbour’s house. For you see, I didn’t own an Atari 2600. I would go next door to play it. Back in the days when there was such a thing as a neighbourhood. My next-door neighbour was a bin man and in a way he may have influenced the way I progressed through this world. This man had guitars hung up all over his walls. Now, I never actually saw/heard him play them – but they were there. Hanging like artwork. And I didn’t really understand. I mean… back in those days musical instruments were musical instruments. You would play with recorders and xylophones at school. A guitar was just a guitar. I wasn’t into music yet. I was just into being ‘into things’. So I would sit there and play the 2600… surrounded by guitars. And I loved the games. ‘Yar’s Revenge’, ‘Superman’ and ‘some kind of haunted house game where you would turn into a pair of eyes twisting and turning in the dark’. The graphics were terrible by today’s standards, but they were all we had back then. And we seemed to be always on the cusp of something.
My friend’s brother had a ZX81. I remember watching him playing ‘3D Monster Maze’ and thinking “WOW!”. The ZX81 had 1k of ram. 1k!!! Even if you’re not into computers and don’t really understand what I’m talking about I bet you still appreciate that 1k of ram is not very much!!! It is actually impossibly, inconceivably small! Then my friend’s brother bought a rubber keyed Spectrum. The Spectrum had 48k and was pretty much the coolest looking computer of all time. At that point I owned an Electron. I had owned a Commodore 64 but it broke and I now owned an Electron. Actually, speaking about the Commodore reminds me of the first game I ever played on it. ‘Forbidden Forest’. This game is important as I can still remember the theme tune to this day. Perhaps the most memorable theme tune to any game, ever! I grew up with these legendary 8 bit chip music songs. I think the emphasis on melody that these gaming tunes nailed home inspired the young Emrys. But… I now had an Electron. A more educationally orientated computer – (although in hindsight still a class act in its own right). However, the grass is always greener and I would envy the Spectrum owners. Their games seemed so much more fun! ‘Jet Set Willy’ and ‘Fairlight’. I eventually bought a Spectrum and was extremely happy with it for many a year. In retrospect I realise that my friend’s brother was playing the Spectrum on a black and white TV. Doh!!! Nevermind! Ha ha. (Google “colour clash” if you don’t get the reference!).
I kind of digress… but in any case… as a boy growing up in a time when ET was a new film – videogames mattered! We would play a single game endlessly. One day, the next-door neighbour gave me something he had ‘rescued’ from a bin. He did an awful lot of ‘rescuing from bins’ when I think about it. Perhaps some of those guitars were rescued from bins. Anyway… he gave me a vinyl LP. (Youth of today … google it!). Fragile by Yes. Gate-fold Sleeve. Beautiful artwork – and when I finally played it some time later… the most weird sound. A sound that seemed SO dated. It would take me years to appreciate the brilliance of that album. But for a long time it was just ‘the album from the bin’. I still have that album. And it is an important album to me.
Guitars, Yes and ‘Combat’. (Combat … Google it!) Those summers were hot and those summers were long. We would play outside in our dens in the trees. We would ride our bikes. And we would play videogames when they were known as videogames. The word video was necessary in front of the word game just to stress they were different from board games. Board games kids. NOT BORED GAMES! Ha ha!
We would play our consoles and computers and escape this world. We would go to alien planets and mow down pedestrians on city streets. We would escape our everyday lives. The lack of graphics meant that we used our imaginations in conjunction with the game itself. We would disappear. We were the generation that disappeared. And we still do. We disappear even today. It may still be through a videogame… or more likely via flights of fantasy at 3am. But we can vanish. We can rise above the bad in society. We can rise above the injustice we see around us. We can step back inside ourselves. For we are the nerds and the heroes. And many of us are not even really nerds. It’s just that we are so strong we can admit to indulging in hobbies that the ‘general public’ frown upon. I played ‘Pitfall‘ and swung across a 1000 crocodile infested rivers. Could a rioter jump a scorpion? Maybe? A human sized scorpion? I think not. I rest my case.