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I think for geeks, that first computer is a little bit like a first love. You remember it longingly, even though it isn’t anything that would make you at all happy today. It has nothing that you need at this point in your life, but you still remember all of those feelings. Those emotions that felt so strong and so powerful back then.
Yes, for geeks, our first computer is just like that.
My first computer wasn’t just a computer. It was an act of charity. My brother had grown up with childhood rheumatoid arthritis nearly since birth, and it had taken a toll on our family financially. There were massive medical bills, travel expenses, and everything else that goes along with a family dealing with a very sick child.
Times were hard, and in those days and in such a small Northern Maine town, when times get hard for one family, all families pull together. The town threw one of the biggest, most extravagant dances that any small town could pull off in the early 1980’s. You had Dire Straits blasting on the sound system, high school kids necking in the corner, and even the old folks trying to dance to the twist once that obligatory Hank Ballard and the Midnighters classic started playing.
I remember leaving early – I was only about 7 or 8 years old after all – but on the way out, I noticed that the money jars were already jam packed with “donations” people had offered at the door, the raffle tickets had sold out, and the bake sale table was bare.
A week later, nearly all of the proceeds of that fundraising event – put on solely for my brother – went toward a brand new computer intended to help him with at-home tutoring. It was a Franklin ACE 1000, a cutting edge computer with 64K of memory, and dual floppy drives that could run some of the most amazing games imaginable.
I knew, the moment that the computer guy rolled that big white box with a keyboard into the middle of our kitchen, flipped the switch and the first monochrome green text flashed across the screen, that I was in love.
The Greatest Adventure Ever
At the time, since I was so young, I really had no idea what an “Apple Compatible” computer was. I had no idea that the processor was essentially a Commodore, and that it ran off the fledgling Apple operating system. I didn’t know anything about the current state of the desktop computer industry, or that the Apple Computer company would eventually sue Franklin Computers and force the company to stop manufacturing its computers.
All I knew was that I could come home from school, flip the switch, and immerse myself into another world. And that’s exactly what we did.
There were some weekends when we would all sit around the computer like it was a television screen. It’s laughable now – but it was quite serious business back then. We would insert the disk with the label pronouncing “Adventure” into the floppy drive, and then start up the computer.
After the ultra-cool ascii-art intro, we would all read the block of text from where we last left off the game, and then stare at the blinking cursor, racking our brains to try and figure out the answer to the next puzzle.
"You are in a 20-foot depression floored with bare dirt. Set into the dirt is a strong steel grate mounted in concrete. A dry streambed leads into the depression."
Every puzzle we collectively solved would lead to a round of cheers and an excitement as we read the text describing the next room or the next path. Sometimes there would be glorious descriptions of places beyond our wildest imaginations. Other times, there would be frightful moments when we were afraid we’d send our virtual character on a path to certain death.
It was the first virtual adventure I’d ever embarked upon. And when the puzzles became too difficult for people to crack and the novelty of this newfangled device grew old, people stopped coming over to play the games. After a while, there were more and more opportunities to sit at the computer all by myself, working away at the mysteries and the stories that were hidden within.
It was just me and my computer. It was like the world had become more wondrous and more colorful overnight.
Learning To Write Programs
Of course, that wasn’t where it ended. Once you discover your true passion, it rarely simply ends where it starts. No, it metamorphosed as both my brother and I got older. We tired of the text games, and were constantly seeking out newer and more exciting things that we could do with this amazing machine.
We started pouring over computer magazines at the library. Back then, they weren’t quite as easy to find as they are today, but we somehow managed to get our hands on some. They almost always featured cool programs that you could type into the computer to make it do something cool.
I can’t say that those programs made a whole lot of sense to me as my brother and I would methodically type them into the command prompt one line at a time. I seem to recall a lot of “PEEK” and “POKE” commands. Nothing in regards to programming would ever really make sense to me until Pascal programming class during sophomore year of high school, but at age 8 – understanding didn’t really matter. What mattered was that when my brother and I typed the “RUN” command – that something really cool happened.
If it didn’t work, then we would spend hours sifting through the strange code to try and find out where our typo was. Once we discovered the flaw, the program would run. Most of the time it would just be some funny graphics along with music. I remember once, it was “dance of the sugar plum fairies”, or some other silly thing.
It wasn’t really important what the program did, only that it worked and that my brother and I had accomplished it together.
Games With “Awesome” Graphics
There are few things about computers that I remember quite as clearly as those first few months when we got that first Franklin Computer. I remember the next decade as a procession of slightly better computers that would always play dramatically better computer games with always-improved graphics.
It was inevitable that my brother and I would launch a new game that we had saved up for and then bought from Radio Shack, only to sit there mesmerized by the introductory scenes of the game, repeating over and over to ourselves, “wow….check out the graphics!”
Kids these days, playing games with perfectly skin-toned soldiers toting booming machine-guns in a virtual world that’s almost indistinguishable from a real battlefield (save for the actual death of course), will never appreciate the wonder of watching computer games evolve from the text-based wizardry of the 1980s to the pixelated graphical genius of the 90’s and beyond.
I will forever be grateful to Electronic Arts for Sentinel Worlds, Lord British for Ultima, and to Sierra Entertainment for King’s Quest.
Now it’s your turn. Tell us a few of your earliest computer memories. Do you remember the first computer game you ever played? What computer did you first fall in love with? Share your memories in the comments section below.