Insert Disk collects Usborne’s Creepy Computer Games.
Today’s retro game review is rather different. Today I’m taking a look back to the golden age of micro-computing with the Usborne Creepy Computer Games book. Aimed at children and building on the UK’s IT Literacy Project, the book gives step by step code to allow their user to program their very own horror/creepy computer games. ISBN: 978-0860207801
Greeting’s collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. Now, who wants to see something really scary? Yes, today we travel back to an age where computer games were distributed in a way that must seem quite frankly unbelievable to anyone born past the early 1980’s.
Forget your digital downloads, your CDs, your disks, your cartridges and cassettes. It’s time to go old school with good old fashioned paper distribution. Join me today as we take a terrifying look back at the way things were in 1983. Usborne’s Creepy Computer Games.
Now to be fair, in 1983 we were all happily using cassette tapes and cartridges of various sorts with floppy disks also gaining in popularity. However, the early 1980’s was a time when programs could be small enough to simply distribute via the written word. Sounds silly? Well, not really. Back in the day popular micro magazines would often publish code for micro enthusiasts to type in at home. You would often get a cut out cover to add those finishing touches. You not only got a small piece of game software but also learnt the fundamentals of programming at the same time. It was an era were being “IT Literate” meant something other than “can you use a Windows based PC”.
Being “IT Literate” was almost a by-phrase for “Can you code?”. These were the days when computing was very much a specialist hobby. Of course, you would need some hardware to get you up and running. The early 80’s, at least here in the UK was dominated by microcomputers. Think machines such as the Sinclair Spectrum. The very British black box of the working man. The Commodore 64, one of the most popular micros of the day due to its vast library and add on capabilities. Build in good old Britain and over in West Germany. If you wanted to be a Welsh patriot though the Dragon 32 was perhaps your weapon of choice.
Amongst these popular options sat the BBC Micro, developed by Acorn as part of an initiative from the British government and supported by the BBC. Essentially it was the successor to the Acorn Electron.
By the late 1970’s it had become clear that the British education system would potentially fall behind other developed nations and needed to act when it came to IT skills. Computing as it stood was very much a specialist venture by the late 70’s, a national plan was needed to get us all coding and prepared for the worlds of tomorrow. This became known as the Computer Literacy Project and supported by not only television programs but also BBC Microcomputers placed in British schools under government funding. My school had precisely one of these machines and precisely zero staff that knew how to use it.
Even up until the year 1999 I still remember one of these sitting in the corner. Shunned by the Windows 3.1 machines. Yes, my school really was still using windows 3.1 in 1999. There was even a joke at our school after it was burgled. They stole everything but the computers.
As a side note we still had a suite of 386 RM Nimbus’s running in the year 2000. Yeah, ask your parents about those. Anyway, the Spectrum, the C64, the Dragon 32, the Oric, the BBC Micro and all the other micros. They had something in common.
Not that they were basic but the computer language BASIC. Developed in 1964 BASIC is actually an acronym. Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. True story. For those in to coding this is perhaps one of the first languages you would have been introduced to and mastered. The adoption of BASIC across multiple systems was a key turning point in programming. This somewhat standardised language enabled the learning of programming flourish during these years. Sure, Sinclair BASIC is a little different to Commodore BASIC and BBC BASIC is a little different again. However, they are all dialects of the same language. If you learnt, one then transitioning to another was not too much of a stretch.
Now I’m on the cusp of my 40’s and rather battle hardened by life, a stock BASIC manual holds little fear for me. OK, the schematic workings of the BBC Micro and assembly language still give me sweaty palms but the BASIC coding manuals, they’re pretty decent to follow. Shows such as BBC Micro live were great for adults and enthusiasts but what about the children? Won’t somebody think of the children! Imagine you’re 8 years old though. Computing doesn’t actually look exciting now does it?
And this where the Usborne book series comes in. With the drive for IT literacy in in our schools there was a natural gap to fill. Creepy Computer Games, take my pocket money. Just 99p. All of a sudden, you’ll want to become a coder of the next video game nasty. That cover, just awesome. It’s really has stood the test of time well. As have so many of the Usborne book series. Usborne published dozens of education children’s book. From Machine Code For Beginners. To Computer Controlled Robots. Practice your BASIC and even Experiments with your computer.
Usborne really didn’t dumb things down. There was a strong ethic of teaching real skills in a manageable way for children. I look at the current state of education and wonder if this latest generation could handle a book like “Machine Code For Beginners”. Anyway, that’s just me getting old I guess.
The range of books that I’m looking at here though are the ones aimed at letting the user create a game with the help of the book. Be it, Computer Spy games, Fantasy games, Space games or even Adventure games. The cross platform use of BASIC meant that publishers such as Usborne could produce one book catering for multiple machines. In the case of Creepy Computer Games, the Sinclair ZX81, BBC Micro, Oric, TRS-80, Apple and Dragon 32. A bonus internet point to you if you’ve ever used a TRS-80 or any other Tandy computer for that matter.
It wasn’t long before Usborne really cornered the market when it came to children’s IT educational material. And before you assume that Usborne are an evil corporation exploiting the market, think again. To this very day Usborne are a small independently run family company. Peter Usborne is still a managing director at the company along with his daughter Nicola Usborne as deputy managing director. Honestly, have a look around their site. They truly are a breath of fresh air and it’s clear that creativity and integrity are at the forefront of what they do.
And you’ll find something else at their website for yourself too. This series of programming books for children from the 1980’s. The Usborne family have now made them freely available in PDF format via the website. If you’re curious about getting children started on coding old machines, this is the perfect place.
To put this in perspective. If you must own the physical copy like myself, I have seen this book pitched at £50 on the online auctions. Although recent top bids have only hit £20. Still, that’s a lot for a relatively short children’s coding book. The Fantasy Games edition. Now that’s got to sting.
So, Creepy Computer games. Well, I have to say that this is the one that appealed to me the most. Inside you’ll be able to code out 8 horror themed programs and I use the term horror lightly. In reality they are mostly logic games with a bit of a theme wrapped around them. The format of the book is as you would imagine, very accessible for new coders. Since the BASIC code covers multiple machines there is a key where code deviates. See here the star for BBC Micros and circle for Apple machines.
If we hop in to a bit of code example here, you’ll see where code may deviate in a minor way. Usually by a single piece of formatting. In cases where there are more major deviations in the BASIC execution between hardware there will be a helpful piece of substitute code provided. Ah, ZX81. You and your crazy dialect.
What’s nice is that you’ll also feel connected to the code. Let’s face it, just retyping code isn’t exactly fun now. You want to know what’s going on. Here’s where the book really excels in my opinion. Take this example from the first game, Computer Nightmare. You’re told that this line sets a score. Whilst the Let command is defining a stored string. Already, you’ll feel like a coder. What I like here is that the learning isn’t dumbed down for children, this is a legitimately effective way of imparting knowledge.
The explanations continue and go that step further in suggesting modifications to the code such as changing the speed variables.
We’ve now gone beyond the basic code and in to a deeper understanding.
There’s then a gentle prompt to ask the coder how they would produce letters rather than numbers.
In swift succession we’ve gone from example code, to modifications, to problem solving. All with the skills we’ve just picked up. It’s all seamless learning and I have to say I wish that modern training books were this helpful.
To still appeal to children the book does feature some great illustrations.
I really enjoy the Number Wizard but it’s the Spiderwoman illustration that really stands out here for me. It’s all so well polished and memorable.
As you might expect the games themselves are a bit of a mixed bag.
The first game “Computer Nightmare” has only 30 lines of code so you can understand the limitations here. It’s also worth stating here that I’ll be showing footage of the ZX81 output throughout as it is the default code used within the book.
The Sinclair Spectrum range was well established and mainstream here in the UK. However, only minor coding changes are needed to run on other platforms. I won’t run through all the games here in this episode but I will instead give you a good flavour. Ghost Maze pits you against, you guessed it, a maze, with ghosts in it. Your aim being to find the exit. You can move forward, turn left and right. This is actually a rather nifty bit of code as turning left or right will pivot the map. Landing on a ghost will transport you elsewhere. Yes, it’s simple but my goodness you can learn a lot from the 95 lines of code. It really will get you familiar with your IFs, Lets, Gotos, Prints and For loops.
So, things ramp up a level here with the game Seance. Now imagine in this day and age giving a virtual Seance game to children to program but here we are. Essentially the spirits want you to remember the letters that they are spelling out. Or as the book says, they will be angry… very angry.
It’s a simple game but again it has a certain creepiness to it and even introduces subroutines. There are also some rather chilling messages should you upset the sprits. I’ve updated my code for modern age.
Perhaps the best game in the book is Grave Digger standing at 131 lines of code. Your task is to escape the graveyard as you are chased by three skeletons, these are indicated by the X’s. You are represented by the asterisk and the gravestones by the crosses. It’s a simple turn-based affair in which you can move in the cardinal directions but also have the option to dig a hole to block the skeletons. All in all, a great little game for what it is. Minimal but it does feel like a real game.
Of course, what the Usborne books did for my generation was to very much act as a gateway drug on to harder stuff. On to more Spectrum game programming, writing out peeks and pokes. Before you knew it you were a generation shooting up on to Class A material, always looking for that next coding fix.
As the technology advanced the children of the 80’s became the programmers of the 90’s and beyond. hat the Usborne coding books did for us was to create an easy to pick up experience and begin our coding journey. They weren’t the dry manuals that were seen as the go to media of the day. They weren’t the more adult focussed educational programs that simply looked to educate rather than to also entertain. They were for children, written by people that actually cared and understood how to bring coding alive.
Have a virtual seance, why not?
Modify the code, why not?
It was all so accessible and interesting and that’s the real triumph of this book series. It’s an educational tool that works, whilst also appealing to our sense of intrigue for the horror and mystery genre. Now I accept that this is perhaps quite an unusual topic for a Halloween episode but I’d urge anyone with an interest in coding to give this book a chance.
Until next time, happy gaming and happy hauntings.