BASIC Instinct

Copyright 2004 Andy Krouwel. All rights reserved

Article originally appeared in Issue 5 of Retro Gamer magazine, May 2004

I put far too much effort into research and preparation for this, and reading it back now it's a complete mess, takes ages to get going, repeats itself, is generally overwritten and involves too many tiny interviews scattered all over the place. But from tiny acorns do mighty squirrels grow.

andy@sockmonsters.com


Back in the 1980s we liked to put some effort into our entertainment. We would even get out of our chair to change the TV, or flip an LP with our bare hands. These back-breaking trials were nothing however compared to what gamers put themselves through. Imagine a world where magazines come with full games but you have to type them into the computer yourself. Welcome to the world of the type-in listing.


Let us go back now to a time when games cost - and we paid - in sweat.


What were listings mags? Strange as it may seem today in the early 80s if you wanted to play a game on your shiny new fangled 'home computer' the chances were that you wouldn't just grab a fiver's worth of tape from the shelves of Boots, Greens or WH Smiths. For a kid short of pocket money and shoplifting skills 30p could still get you six games in the form of Popular Computing Weekly. If you could stretch to 85p you could try C&VG, which might contain the latest title by Matthew Smith, Jeff Minter or Mike Singleton.


There was just the small problem of having to type the damn things in.


Computers in the 80s weren't for playing games on. They were Educational. Honest. That's what we'd told our parents, to convince them to splash out ridiculously large amounts of money. If we didn't want to seem too blatant in our game playing we'd better start looking like we knew how to use them for proper stuff, like programming.


Why did we do it? Why not? In the early 1980s it was far from clear that commercially published software would come to dominate. From labs, to businesses, to homes, computers were a blank slate ready for programming. You could barely touch the keyboard of a Spectrum without triggering a BASIC command, even if it was the 'Print iss off' seen in Laskys' up and down the nation. It was what you did with home computers, you typed in listings.


As long as there have been home computers BASIC listings have shown what people what to do with their new-fangled electronic brains. Computer clubs would encourage their members to send off their latest ideas and programs to hobbyist magazines such as Your Computer, or Personal Computer World. These general computer magazines would show off all kinds of programs, from payroll software to graphics demos and the occasional game.


This got a lot more exciting in October 1981 with the first edition of Computer and Video Games magazine. Billing itself as 'the FIRST FUN computer magazine', the sinister crater headed sci-fi aliens cover made it pretty clear that this wasn't going to be about soldering and accounts, oh no. This was about games, and in 1981 games meant listings. A third of the magazine's hundred pages were given over to game listings, second only to adverts. Clearly not wanting anyone to feel left out the Apple, Vic 20, Nascom 2, TRS-80, PET, ZX80/81, Atari 400/800, Acorn Atom and Sharp MZ-80K were all covered. Commercial game reviews had to settle with a mere 4 pages, right at the back, near an inexplicable full page advert for the magazine you were already holding.


By the mid 80s C&VG was joined by Sinclair Programs, ZX Computing, Your 64 and dozens of other multiformat and dedicated platform magazines, all publishing several type-in games every issue. From one end of the country to the other home computer owners were accidentally learning to program, all whilst trying to get that promising version of Q-Bert working.


For owners of the less supported machines type-ins were also the only way to get a regular supply of games. A subscription to Dragon User would deliver new titles no matter how ignored you were by mainstream developers. Sharp owners must have wept with happiness each time a new C&VG listing appeared. However, even if there was nothing specifically for your machine in an issue BASICs were so similar that a motivated reader could convert them with a little effort. Magazines could also support older machines long after they'd gone out of general circulation.

But what were the games like?

The mixture of styles was similar to commercial games. Many were arcade conversions, often blatant copies where the author hadn't even changed the name. This was handy as it was often the only remaining recognisable feature.

Traditional parlour and board games were also available, but AI opponents were rare and that excellent-looking Chess program was often little more than a board simulator.

Strategy/management games were also popular. You could run anything a humble Lemonade Stand, or an entire Kingdom. Games could be topical, and distinctly British. Simon Goodwin's 'Shop Steward', from June 1980's Computing Today let you run a Ttrade Union as the simulated economy slowly collapsed.

Occasionally a text adventure would crop up, but unless they were very cunningly written there wasn't much point. "Invariably you knew the whole story by the time you'd finished typing. Should I pick up the rope? Well, seeing as the next line says that you come to a cliff, it might be a good idea" recalls Sinclair Programs reader Emma Lenz.

There were also a number of 'standards' generally written as programmers learned their skills. This was in the Days Before Tetris, but Breakout, Lander and Snake clones were as popular then as now. One of the most common standards, whether by design or convergent evolution, is the now largely forgotten vertically scrolling road game.

Like an upside-down Spy Hunter, the aim was simply to keep your car between the sides of a wiggling road. Sometimes there would be other things to avoid, sometimes things to collect. Having both marked the author out as a terrible show off, and was considered bad form. Text characters were all that was required, not graphics, and it could run at a reasonable speed in BASIC on almost anything, even a teletype.

Over time these became more elaborate, whilst keeping the same basic gameplay. An advanced example is Dizzy author Philip Oliver's "Road Runner", from January 1984's C&VG. This featured colour graphics, several different tunes, a high score table and joystick input. The game itself however was still contained in about 5 of the 50 lines that made up the program.

Road race games became so common, with one issue of ZX Computing alone containing three examples, that C&VG published a joke listing 'The Great Escape' where an, ahem, 'tunnelling through a minefield' game actually disguised a piano playing program. Cool.

Unfortunately, a great many of the games were rubbish. Honestly. Complete crap. This was less of a problem than it sounds, as most commercial games were also awful, and at least type-ins didn't cost much. There were however several outstanding titles that would put 'proper' games to shame. Amongst the clones and copies there were original ideas to be found. We've highlighted some examples in the boxes around this article.

The great thing about listings though was the surprise. You'd never be quite sure what you were going to get.

But where did this steady stream of games come from? Cruel exploitation of child labour, mostly. Vulnerable young readers were seduced into submitting their hard-worked on listings in exchange for money and fame by sinister 'editors'.

How much money? It varied wildly. In early 1984 Sinclair Programs generously offered 10 for a listing, which would get you enough Texan bars and Curly Wurlys to make you extremely sick. In the very next sentence however, and highlighting how much cheaper it was to fill a magazine with submitted content than pay journalists, they offer 50 per 1000 words of article. Andrew Viner managed to do even worse than this, with Popular Computing Weekly splashing a meagre 6 for his Houdini Hamster listing. There you go sonny, don't spend it all in one go. Chris Roper's fun Danger Dynamite (on the CD) managed to squeeze 25.

Your Computer was clearly the magazine to aim for. They offered an extremely generous 35 per page. This helped Red Ants creator Carlo Delhez (see boxout) to over a hundred quid. Very good, considering I'm only getting (*cough* - Ed) for writing this.

The biggest recorded payment however went to a commercial company. Marshall Cavendish, publishers of the multi-format tutorial 'Input', were looking at starting a game-focused title. To draw in the crowds they approached cheeky Liverpool superstar developers Imagine to provide quality games. A staggering 200,000 advance was handed over, with reports suggesting the entire deal could be worth a cool 11 million. All Imagine had to do was produce two commercial grade titles for each issue. 

Which was fortnightly. 

Ah. 

"We were just not geared up to do the job" recalls Imagine Operations Manager Bruce Everiss. The deal collapsed, and shortly afterwards so did Imagine. The only game produced was released as 'Pedro', not remembered as one of Imagine's best. Excitedly, I asked Bruce if there was any chance that part-finished titles, forgotten by history, still remain? 

"No, Pedro was all they managed. Pathetic really."

Oh well.

For aspiring contributors submission procedures couldn't have been simpler. An author would send in a listing and article, possibly with the game on tape. Then they'd usually hear nothing for months until they noticed their appearing in print. A cheque would follow a few weeks later, hopefully without too many reminders.

The system worked to a large extent on honesty, which was open to abuse. Simon Goodwin, who has over a hundred published listings, found a nasty surprise lurking a few pages from one of his programs. It was a reader supplied listing suspiciously similar to one he'd written some years before. It "just happened to use exactly the same variable names, line numbers, program structure and even comments". The only significant differences were a new title, some added spelling mistakes and someone else's name as the author. 

Cheeky. 

On another occasion, while working on the other side of the editorial counter at Crash, he was sent a copy of one of his own type-in programs for review as a commercial product. Oh dear, oh dear.

But weren't listings rubbish? They never worked properly, if at all. Well, frankly, yes this is completely true. Computer programs are fragile beasts at the best of times. A wrong comma or a zero read as the letter 'O' can turn a Mars mission into an expensive dustbin lid. By the magic of Science what is true for space missions also applies to Frogger clones.

And the potential for disaster was huge. A large and unlikely number of factors had to be right for the program to work. For any of you still traumatised by your experiences, you'll be relieved to know that most of the problems weren't your fault.

But first the one that was: typing in the program correctly. This is impossible, no matter how simple the listing. Go on, try it. I can guarantee you won't get it right first time. You will make typing or spelling errors that BASIC won't feel inclined to warn you about.

On top of that you, or the person reading the listing out to you, have to figure out what the magazine actually says. The difference between a colon and a semi-colon is only a tiny crease, or a dead midge, but the difference in meaning is huge.

A lot of the time however you were doomed before you even got started as it was highly unlikely that the magazine in front of you even contained a correct program.

Much of this was to do with magazine production techniques in the early 1980s. These hadn't changed a great deal since Victorian times. It's difficult for our twenty-first century, copy and paste, WYSIWYG, wireless, bluetooth enabled ears to comprehend, but let's try.

After acceptance a listing would ideally be thoroughly checked and playtested by a highly skilled team of programmers, possibly Swiss, who would carefully examine each line and comma for consistency. More likely however, it would be taken on trust that it worked and was the same as the included article. Many games were submitted without accompanying tapes, so its possible the magazine staff never even played them before printing, even on conscientious magazines.

If the printout was of good enough quality, the listing would then be photographed so it could be added to the magazine directly as a picture. This was the lowest risk route, and allowed listings be scaled down to illegibility or easily set at jaunty angles across the page, ruining any chance of following which line you were typing in with a ruler.

Given the quality of computer printers at the time, usually the familiar shiny bog roll of the Sinclair ZX printer, the photographs were often illegible. So there was a backup plan. This involved typesetting the entire listing, in the same manner as, say, an article.

What is typesetting? Brace yourself, this one's particularly painful. A copy-typist would re-key the entire listing line by line into a typesetting machine, which constructs printing strips from block letters. The resulting collection of strips could then be glued on a sheet of card to go to the printers. What could possibly go wrong? Simon Goodwin explains.

"Copy typists were untrained for the character-perfect accuracy required for listings - skipping sections when the program seemed (necessarily) to repeat itself, mistyping crucial but cryptic numbers like POKE addresses, and adding and removing spaces in ways that confounded BASIC syntax checking."

Oops.

Once you had the paper strips of course even they weren't safe. The magazine had to be laid out, i.e. the strips had to be glued to a sheet of cardboard, and this could involve a certain amount of juggling with format and line ends.

"Magazine layout was often done by people with a bit of experience in local journalism but unfamiliar with computers, let alone listings. I remember an 'art editor' picking lines from a listing apparently at random and scattering them through a long program like cross-headings, in attempt to break up the 'grey text' - which didn't make the program any easier to follow!"

"Computers, unlike type-setters and art-editors, tend to be very fussy about line ends, yet programs were regularly hyphenated or reformatted. Vital control codes were often lost, though some mags tried to re-express them in their own shorthand withsymbols like [up] and [inv] for cursor movements and inverse video. This could introduce as many errors as it fixed",

Commodore listings were particularly troublesome, as they regularly included PETSCII graphic characters. For typesetting processes designed to stretch only as far as Mr Dickens' latest grim tale of woe this was asking a bit much. Even a modern magazine has trouble printing or .(Cheers - Layout Ed)

Thank god for computers, eh readers.

That any listings survived this process at all is a testament to the dedication of the production staff.

But the ordeal was not yet over. With the photos and typesetting completed, an urchin would be engaged to flag down a Hansom cab to take the resulting sheets to the printers. Hopefully not too many bits would fall off during the journey.

Once at the printers pages could always end up in the wrong order, which wasn't critical; Being printed twice, which was confusing; or being entirely missing, which was pretty much terminal.

Did we let this put us off? Quite frequently, yes. However, with some determination and experience it was possible to correct the bugs, fill in the missing lines and end up with not only a working program, but a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement.

So where did they go? As home computers advanced in power and popularity the listings became unwieldy and over complex to enter. As programs get longer the likelihood of show-stopping bugs increases exponentially. 1K and 2K programs were easy. 16K programs were within the practical limit of most people's patience. By the time games that filled the memory of a CBM 64 or BBC Micro appeared the chances of getting them working were slim. The BBC version of Treachery (see boxout) for example didn't make your life any easier by arriving as two chained programs, which couldn't contain any spaces due to memory constraints.

At the same time commercially published games were becoming more polished and complex, raising people's expectations. Listings that tried to compete with the speed of a commercial title generally had to be written in machine code. Ah, machine code.

If BASIC listings were tricky, tedious and incomprehensible then machine code programs were Kafkaesque. All your experience of error messages and matching brackets couldn't help you here. All you had was an impenetrable list of numbers without the slightest REM statement or hint of what they meant. Your chance of correcting bugs if they appeared in the printed listing was effectively zero, and you really weren't learning anything typing it in. Even detecting typing errors was tricky. A BASIC listing would usually stop at an offending line with an error message. An incorrect machine code listing would more than likely crash or lock the computer completely, leaving you to carefully comb through memory manually to find the error. Or, if you valued your sanity, give up altogether.

July 1984's C&VG contains a perfect example of this, a screen from Automata's Olympimania. More dedication than I could muster was required to type in six solid pages filled with row upon row of numbers. And at the end of it? It wouldn't work. September's issue reveals a bug in a critical address.

The success of Crash! and Zzap 64 showed that the magazine buying public preferred a strong emphasis on reviews of commercial software at the expense of type-in programs. The Fictional Lloyd Mangram reveals on the letters page of issue 2 that "Program Listings were never, ever on the agenda for CRASH!", a move described by a reader R.J.Hammond as "just what the majority of Spectrum owners have been waiting for". Sad, but true.

Advertising revenues were also shifting. Listings appealed to hardware manufacturers who provided most of the money in the early eighties. The more games there were for their computers, the more attractive they were. By the mid-eighties the money had shifted to the software houses, who most definitely did not like the idea of computer owners spending all their time typing in and playing 'free' games when they should be buying 'product'.

The last nails were hammered in when cover mounted tapes finally made the listing entirely pointless. When the 16-bit machines appeared, none had BASIC built in. The type-in listing was dead.

Type-in listings are long gone, but not quite forgotten. Very nearly, but not quite. Squint very hard at the Internet and you can just about find a couple of sites.

The Type Fantastic, for example, dedicated to preserving Sinclair magazine type-ins of every flavour, and maintained by Jim Grimwood. Why bother? I asked him. More tactfully than that, or course.

"Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, and we certainly don't want to repeat some of the more tragic efforts from those early days of home computing fervour."

How very true. If I have to play another blocky invaders clone I'll need another gin at the very least. More seriously, he continued.

"There are some real gems amongst the plethora of lesser works, and I think those who devised them deserve some future recognition of their ingenuity. If some archaeologist can be paid good money for mapping out the exact positions of rubbish which someone threw away five thousand years ago, then preserving some of the more constructive and occasionally entertaining of these minor human endeavours seems quite worthy in comparison."

A fine and worthy set of answers that I couldn't have put better myself.

Another site is the type-in section of the excellent World of Spectrum, maintained by Arjun Nair. This is purely dedicated to Spectrum type-ins, but has a broader remit that includes listings from books. Why does he think they're worth keeping?

"For the most part, type-ins relied more on gameplay than amazing graphics or smooth animation or superb sound. These programs were meant to instill a sense of enthusiasm and interest towards programming than for pure entertainment"Hearteningly, he still plays type-ins to this day.

Aside from these two Sinclair focused sources, you'll be lucky to find one or two games, confined to their author's websites. There are huge chunks of the historical record missing. How huge? Well, brace yourselves. There are probably at least as many type-in games as commercial titles, if not dramatically more. How's that?

Well, C&VG alone can claim more than three hundred published games. Sinclair Programs could feature twenty five in a single issue, and that ran for three years. Popular Computing Weekly might contain half a dozen, and as the title suggests there was a fresh issue every week. And that's not even mentioning Big K, Amstrad Action, Your 64, Your Spectrum, Atari User, BBC Micro User, Sinclair User, Home Computing Weekly, Game Computing, Micro Adventurer, Personal Computer Games and so many others.

There were literally thousands, possibly tens of thousands of type-in games published in the early 80s. How many of them are preserved online? Well, Jim's got nearly a thousand, and Arjun 230, but a large number of titles appear on both sites.

Type-in listings are a forgotten secret. In focussing on commercially published games we're in danger of completely ignoring a huge and highly influential section of computer game history. A quick poll at a small software house showed that 85% of the programmers had used or written type-ins in their youth. Without the programming skills we learned from magazines Britain wouldn't have anywhere near the games industry we have today.

And they're almost entirely forgotten and ignored.

So if you want to make a real contribution to retro gaming, but don't think the world needs another Jet Set Willy remake, what are you waiting for? Grab that fedora, strap on your whip, and begin your hunt for the Lost Treasures of Gaming.

Five of the best

An extremely biased and partial list of the most interesting games available as type-ins.

Red Ants

Written by Xtender author Carlo Delhez at the age of 17, this 16k ZX81 listing appeared in November 1984's 'Your Computer'. Entering it was quite a challenge, as it was mostly machine code, but the results were well worth it. The presentation and gameplay are easily a match for any commercial ZX81 program. Pac historians have confirmed that having the ants (ghosts) lay the eggs (pills) is also a Genuinely Original Idea. Any regrets? "Why on earth did I decide to use an '*' for the player and an 'O' for the ants? The other way round would have been so much more logical. And why did I decide that players should get instructions by default before each new game? And why didn't I solve the "deadlock" situation that happens when an ant hits the player in the top-left hand corner of the maze?" Details, details. Try it now, from the CD.

Treachery

This spy themed computer board-game was written by none other than 'Lords of Midnight' author Mike Singleton. It originally appeared in March '84s C&VG, along with a keyboard overlay, centre-spread board and set of counters. The original Spectrum version was so popular that conversions for the Commodore 64 and BBC micro appeared in the, er, '1985' yearbook, along with a two page introductory comic. The turn-based game ranged across the capitals of Europe, with KGB and MI6 players trying to capture the wandering mindbomb, or its mad scientist creator. The twist was that both players were sending orders to the same group of agents, and could never be sure where their loyalties lay. Excellent stuff, and rumours of a remake are possibly to be believed.

(Curse of the) Aztec (Inca)Tomb

Superb and highly varied ZX81 platform game a little like a mini Rick Dangerous, but not as annoying. I remember it as the cover feature from April 1984's Sinclair Programs. Look a little deeper however and we find that it was first published in January 1982s C&VG. By a different author, David Healy. Hmmm. Games journalist and fellow fan Stuart Campbell comes to the rescue with an explanation. The C&VG original was apparently missing large sections, leading prospective programmers to fill in the gaps themselves. The Sinclair Programs version is just such an adaptation, as is the version on Stuart's site www.worldofstuart.co.uk "Overcome with the thrill of programming, I went on to add several entirely new sections to the game. This version, adapted for emulator use, even features high-score saving, although I'm not absolutely sure how I actually did it." He adds.

Crasher

In stark contrast to the other listings here Dilwyn Jones' ZX81 program from December 1982's ZX Computing was minimal. At only 13 lines long it fit easily into 1K, and with practice it was almost quicker to type the game in from scratch than to load it from tape. Which didn't mean it wasn't good. The aim was to steer your ship into the characters flowing up the screen. Different characters had different values and the trick was to maximise your score. Each go lasted ran for less than a minute, so there was always time for just one more. Why not give it a go now, from the CD

Rox 64

Another big name game, this time from Jeff Minter. This appeared in the same January '84 edition of C&VG which featured the Oliver twins' first published program. Oddly bereft of any llama references, but with an impressive cutscene introduction and music, this simple shoot-em-up isn't one of Jeff's more fun titles. "Rox64 was written in one evening purely as a learning exercise. It was my first ever go on the 64 (and only in BASIC) it was never going to set the world on fire" he acknowledges. "I'd been one of the first to get my hands on the new machine, and it might be nice to release the game, simple though it was, for people to pull apart and look at the code and see how the new features were used." This was particularly useful for the 64 as Commodore owners had to suffer one of the worst versions of BASIC available, lacking any decent graphics commands.

Rox also has the honour of being one of the few type-ins to have a modern remake, Mark Rayson's Rox PC. Why? Another learning exercise. Curiously the faster fire rate of the modern version makes it a more appealing game. Both versions can be found on the cover CD.

Typing-in Tips

Thinking of typing in a listing? WE make the mistakes so YOU don't have to.

Sites to Try

So many games, so few sites.


The Type Fantastic (Sinclair listings) - http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~jg27paw4/type-ins/typehome.htm

World of Spectrum - http://www.worldofspectrum.org/type-ins/

Looking for a listings mag? Try your loft, car boot sales, the classified ads in Retro Gamer or eBay.

If you're really keen the British Library, as well as the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales carry collections of 80s computer mags. No, Honestly, they do.