Spare a thought for the person who gets the wrong games machine at Christmas

December 22, 2018
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In the winter of 1984 my dad saved me from a fate worse than death – and by that I mean he refused to buy an Oric Atmos home computer. Let me explain. The 8-bit era was rolling on and as a family, we had exhausted the possibilities of our ZX81 – in other words we had played 3D Monster Maze and Chess. Now, we were on the lookout for an exciting new computerised machine on which we could, as my father explained it to my mother, “do homework and, um, accounts, yes that’s it”. I was with my dad in Stockport town centre that fateful day, and as we passed the local branch of Tandy, I saw in the window the aforementioned Oric, a now utterly forgotten 48k machine by the reliable-sounding Tangerine Computer Systems (You can almost hear them naming the company: “Apple is taken, so is Apricot… what’s left? Oh god, Banana? No? What then?!”) – and it was being sold with four free games. “Let’s get that one, it has FOUR free games,” I yelled at my dad like the easily led consumer I was. Dad looked down at me with a mixture of disappointment and quiet poise. “No, son,” he said. “My friend at work says we should get a Commodore 64”. I never did find out who that friend was, but boy do I owe him.

In every video game generation, there are moments like this – terrifying purchasing dilemmas that can make or break our entertainment futures. It’s like Schrödinger’s cat, except when you open the box there’s the possibility that you both do and do not own a ColecoVision. How many Christmases have been ruined by kindly yet ill-informed parents who excitedly bought and wrapped up an Acorn Electron? Imagine bounding downstairs, all the excitement of youth in your fluttering heart, only to find an Apple Bandai Pippin?

For at least the first 20 years of video game hardware, there was more to this than the games you got to play – your games machine was part of your identity. It’s fairly accepted now that the BBC Micro was for posh kids, the Commodore 64 was the sensible middle-class option (steady, sedate, reliable – the upper-range Volvo of games) and the ZX Spectrum was the working class upstart, feisty and confrontational; hell, even its attributes clashed. They all had their roles to play. But then you’d get the Kid Who Bought the Amstrad – we all knew one. Slightly befuddled, always running to catch up, the Amstrad Kid had most of the same games as the Commodore and Speccy kids, but no one cared. My friend Dave was one. He couldn’t swap cassettes with us, he didn’t read Crash or Zzap 64, he couldn’t join in on arguments about platform exclusives. Amstrad kids were just there in the background – like tinnitus or the Liberal Democrats.

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