Eventually, the council relented and provided us with a house. After the cramped living within two rooms, we suddenly had seven (including two toilets: one upstairs and one down). To celebrate, my Dad bought a colour TV for the living room.
Three things happened when I was 8 or 9 that began my lifelong fascination with computer games and gaming.
The first and second things are related to the rise of the arcade machine. Each machine was a large cabinet. It housed a bulky screen and the electronics hardware where one game was installed. The front shelf of each cabinet held an array of buttons and controls. Underneath was a slot into which you put your money. Ten pence was all you needed to play. The cabinet was decorated in the livery of the game within. An ‘attract mode’ would show animations and graphics on the screen, while the speakers blasted out sound effects to lure you closer so that you might dip into your pocket and ‘insert coin’ as directed.
I remember that one day, an arcade machine appeared in the waiting area of The Golden Fry, our local chippy. It was a brand new cabinet, one of a few in the country. It was called “Space Invaders”. The local population of kids were fascinated. On the each side of the cabinet were two crab-clawed shadowy beasts posed to hurl missiles. On the front were five buttons, two for moving your cannon left and right, one to shoot. The other two were for starting a one-player or two-player game, assuming that you’d inserted the correct amount of coins. You could hear the deep base rhythm of the invaders as they moved across the screen long before you entered the chippy, and when you went in, the sound blared at you. It was genius. The kids were drawn in by the noise and the visuals, and as they waited, they would buy drinks and crips and chips. The older boys bought cigarettes and smoked them then and there.
Around that same year, when our local chippy got invaded, we would routinely jump in the car as a family and travel down to Portobello (Edinburgh’s Seaside) to visit my Dad’s mum. My brother and I would walk the mile up the prom from Joppa to Bath Street to get to the arcades. When we started making that pilgrimage with our fifty pence pieces in our pockets, there were only a few machines in one smokey room off the prom: “Sea Wolf”, “Asteroids”, “Space Invaders”, “Galaxian”, and “Lunar Lander”. On subsequent trips back, that one room had expanded, and where before there had been a wall, there was now a passage into other rooms filled with cabinets with names like: “Battlezone”, “Berzerk”, “Defender”, “Missile Command”, “Pac-man” and “Tempest”.
We’d take our fifty pence to a person in a booth where they would change it for tenpence pieces. We would try to make our five goes last for as long as possible. It was a serious and difficult decision about where to insert your coins. If you chose unwisely you would be penniless in minutes. In subsequent trips, we’d take more than just fifty pence. We would save up in advance and split our savings based on how many trips to the arcades we could fit in.
The third event around this age was when my Dad took home a small angled box with six switches, a grilled top and a faux wooden panel on the front. The Atari Video Computer System. Something new to plug in to our new colour TV.
The games were now in our house, we could have unlimited goes, and each one was FREE! Each game was a cartridge you inserted into the front of the Atari. I loved watching TV with the family: “The Professionals”, “The Incredible Hulk”, “Starsky and Hutch” and “Doctor Who”. But I couldn’t wait for those shows to end so I could bung on the Atari and play. Or get up early before the rest of the house to play games like “Air-Sea Battle”, “Combat”, “Indy 500”, “Video Olympics”, “Breakout”, “Night Driver”, and eventually “Asteroids” and “Space Invaders”.
It didn’t matter that the graphics weren’t the same or the audio was all squashy and almost unrecognisable. We would replace the deficiencies in our remembered imaginations of how they sounded and looked in the arcades. It was just as good and just as exciting, only a different experience. And did I mention it was free?
In my remembrances, these events are all mushed together, and it’s hard for me to tease apart what came first, but the order presented here is as good as any. The arcade machines in The Golden Fry, the trips to the Portobello arcades, and the ever-present lure of the Atari made me fall in love with video games.
But this was only the start.
It wasn’t long before I began pestering my parents for what I saw as the ultimate in-home computing: the ZX81 with a 16k RAM pack. It would make for a perfect tenth birthday present. I sold it to them as a tool, something not just for playing games.
I must have been pretty persuasive. Or obsessed. Or both. I got one.
After that, things REALLY took off if you were into video games.