Derek Brewster’s Adventure Trail

(Daddy, What was the future like?)

IT IS ALWAYS a difficult task summing up a year in home computing. Even more difficult is to try and predict what the coming twelve months might unleash upon us. I say unleash because whatever else might be said about the home games world, it is never dull: the competition is ruthless, and it is peopled by the sort of mathematical genius who is past his mental zenith at the age of twenty-five years, give or take a few million brain cells.

The press and media are at a loss to explain why Britain, a rather insignificant and petty nation, should concern itself with such an exciting and blatantly intellectual pastime. After all, isn’t this a country in decline, a divided nation where the people who read the lightweight newspapers await an answer to all the problems while the people who read the heavyweights are struggling hopelessly with the economic conundrums of interest rates and exchange rates. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking straight and doing things which come rather more easily to nations not so schizophrenic. Buying your own country’s goods isn’t a bad start.

I remember when I was at school, and it wasn’t all that long ago, much time in geography lessons would be spent learning about the manufacturing base of the British Isles. In Lancashire they had the cotton industry, in the coalfields of the Midlands and North they had steel, while in the mountains that divided these areas you had hydroelectric power, sheep, and mineral mines. I’d give away a whole shelf-load of silly pencil-top gonks to sit in such a geography lesson now (just how many different breeds of sheep are there)?

The House of Lords, by far the most coherent chamber as, despite the participants’ ages, they are not honour-bound by political allegiance, stated Britain should look to the new technologies as herein lies the next revolution. Couldn’t agree more. And so it would seem to be with the public who went out and bought the Sinclair computers despite much in the press about the unreliability of the machines. Much was made of the lack of sound when everyone knew full well that Sinclair’s competitors were caught in the no man’s land between beeps and buzzes and the full-bodied melodies of a synthesizer. The truth is the sound on these machines grinds after a short time and the demure bleeps of the Spectrum come as a blessed relief.

I read a local paper recently that put forward the reasons behind buying a microcomputer this Christmas. Quite rightly some of the points they raised included amount of software available, price, and whether little Johnny’s friends had the micro. It was curious to find the article extolling the BBC computer over the Spectrum. Let me put this as bluntly as I can. The Spectrum microcomputer is a brilliant device both for learning BASIC etc. and for playing games. I own, or have owned, an Atari, a BBC, an Amstrad, and a C64 and all have some major flaw in design, screen layout, add-on capability or available memory. What is more, the Spectrum was quite merrily computing away long before the others and so has a quantity and breadth (and availability) of software which leaves the others looking nice in the shops.

As for the QL, yes, the microdrives are unreliable, but we live in times where rapidly-developing technology must be offered at an affordable price, and who would begrudge Clive Sinclair when NASA’s budgetry constraints had DIY men throughout the world laughing at some tiles which just wouldn’t stick.

And it’s no use laughing at the C5 while you pollute the atmosphere in your heap of rusting junk whose technology has changed little since its inception. Arthur C Clarke’s (and Daddy’s) visions of the future, with the printless world, gigantic space colonies, and the kind of mentality that goes with them, may not ever be quite as anticipated, but there is no need for the cynical techno-fear as displayed in such media mishmashes as Tomorrow’s World and Micro Live. I suggest the first person who had the ludicrous idea of making technology more palatable in this dreadful manner go and write some techno-fear soap operas and leave the task to someone who is prepared to deal with the facts sensibly and reliably. Admittedly, this would remove any chance of political tampering with the facts, but it is a political reality that the new technologies are coming whether we like it or not. Any nation which actually gets to grips with the technology as opposed to the ‘subject for discussion’ will reap the undoubted rewards.

1985 was notable for the demise of MSX. MSX was a good idea, making a range of machines between which software was fully compatible. The only problem was, there was already a great deal of compatibility between the Spectrums that everyone was buying in droves. The Spectrum has, and will, last longer than either myself or other commentators thought possible.

This year was notable for the escalation in the tie-in battles with major film titles such as Gremlins, Rambo, View to a Kill and Never Ending Story gracing the computer store shelves. The advantage to these deals is the recognition a product gets through the public’s familiarity with the concept and storyline. TV tie ins can be even more effective in terms of public awareness of the product. These thoughts lead me on to an area which, to me, has really made itself plain over the last year.

The perceivable age of the home games playing market seems to have dropped steadily down through the teens to the point where anything beyond a platform game is seriously questioned in terms of its likely viability in the market place. There’s nothing inherently wrong or worrying about the spectre of a carry-cot Spectrum attachment with that all important fire button within reach of tiny hands, it’s just that one shudders to think what popular music there would be right now if it wasn’t for the older listeners pulling the whole standard of music up by its bootstraps. It is my guess that if the reading age of Sounds and NME fell by a few years those who, on paper, would benefit by such a fall would lose interest in the whole ostensibly uplifting exercise.

And all this brings me back to adventuring (believe it or not). The demise of the intelligent, text-only, adventure epitomised by Level 9’s Snowball, and mourned in SIGNPOST, is a part of this lowering of the intellectually exacting nature of computer games. In a nutshell, programs have become simpler. Utilities such as the Quill and Illustrator will continue to figure prominently in adventuring, and it doesn’t take much of a jump to realise that they will be more important in all games’ design in the near future. In America the computer games market is older because the machines Americans own are larger and more expensive, and more useful to the whole household. In Britain home computers are toys. It remains to be seen whether the market is going for the gutter or searching for the stars.