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We were joined by Sean “Advent of Computing” Haas for this episode of the podcast, and we wanted to talk about some of the oldest video games and video game systems. Sean is an expert at this kind of stuff, as his podcast
Advent of Computing, linked earlier
is all about… well, the advent of computing - looking back at where it all started and how we got to where we are today. So it seemed only natural that we’d have him on the show, as he’s a real font of knowledge on this topic
See Z-Boi? I can get it right!
The closest thing to extreme sports is this; outside of yodelling alligators in New Orleans. This is it. The adrenaline is pumping
Sean’s Podcast & Computer History
Before we get started with all of that though, we take some time to discuss Sean’s show. If you’re at all interested in the history of computers and computing
including things like certain applications, viruses and trojans, or even programming languages
I’d recommend subscribing to his show. It really is amazing.
We recorded this episode back on August 16th of 2020
And I put these show notes together as soon as the episode was edited and ready to go. But in the intervening time, Sean has put out an episode on the birth of Pong, and I really think that you should give it a listen. Here’s a link to it: Episode 48: Electronic Ping-Pong.
Listening to Sean’s podcast lights up parts of my brain which have been untouched since my Uni days. We studied the history of computing for a whole semester in the first year of my CompSci
CompSci is short for Computer Science, in case you didn’t know
degree, and it was then that I learned that touchscreen goes all the way back to the 50s. I share this story on the pod, but if you want to know more about touchscreen, I’d recommend taking a look at the Wikipedia page for it as a starting point. Squidge mentions that it’s the PDP-1 which was the first machine to have a touchscreen on it. And that reminded me that there’s a wonderful kit out there to turn a Raspberry Pi into a working PDP-8.
An episode connection
I’m going to be looking out for these from now on
happened when we talked about the Raspberry Pi. We talked with Eben Upton about the RaspberryPi, back in episode 80
Pretty cool, huh. The 6 degrees of waffle-ception, perhaps?
This prompts us to talk about emulation, how great it’s become recently, and about FPGAs and the MiSTer devices
keep an eye open for a future episode about the difference between emulation and FPGAs
And I take a wack at describing the difference between emulation software and FPGAs, and how it’s completely magic
I’ve heard it described as: it’s software defined hardware
That being said, I really want to get a MiSTer and all of the hardware by Analogue.
This is where we usually take some time to talk through each of the games we’ve recently been playing, and discuss whether we think it’s worth other people picking them up. And first…
Sean’s Recent Games
Whilst he doesn’t usually get to play games that often, Sean had been able to find the time to play a few titles due to working from home.
Based on Sean’s description alone, I really want to play this game. It sounds like it takes the idea of a title like Skyrim and adds some realistic elements to it. The idea of “is this bread too mouldy for me to eat and not become sick,” sounds pretty immersive to me.
Squidge’s Recent Games
Following along with the episode in a thematic sense, Squidge had been revisiting some older titles.
and a prime example of this is Maze War from 1972. This is a 3D maze based FPS, with network based multiplayer
think CoD, but with vectors and in very low res
Whilst it didn’t use the Internet in order to host multiplayer games - because the Internet came about in the 90s - it did use the ARPANET, which was a precursor to the Internet.
‘net based, 3D FPS multiplayer gaming in 1972. Just think about that for a second.
This was in a time when there were no game cartridges
they would be invented later
and to copy the game to a new machine, you would literally have to type the source code into a new machine. Any mistakes in copying the code over would result in a game which didn’t run.
Kids today have it easy
This was a time when getting a new computer would be a big deal. It was also a time when programmers wouldn’t be allowed to go near the computers, and technicians would load the programs they’d written into the computer, and give them a day and a time when the results would come back. But just on the cusp of the mid-70s, programmers where allowed to get up close and personal with the mainframes.
This was also a time when computers would be rented rather than bought, because they cost that much money
They would cost more than a mansion
When talking about who most people don’t know about where we’ve come from, with computers, I mention an important piece of automaton/computer history called The Turk. Which was a device from the 1800s which could play chess with people. The only problem was that it was more of a marionette or puppet then a computer. And Sean reminds us that even up to the Apollo missions, “Computer” was a job title - you would sit and do maths all day, that was the job of a computer. And all of that is why EDVAC and ENIAC where known as electronic computers
Whenever some new technology is created, there will always be someone who devotes themselves to doing something off-kilter with it; and computers were no exception. In fact, Sean succinctly describes this as:
Let’s do some stupid stuff
The first on our list of games to check out was Spacewar!, which was released in 1962
that’s right: 1962!
It turns out that the majority of the first games made for computers were all about space. Maybe that’s because the early devs were sci-fi nerds, or maybe it’s because the majority of the first uses for computers were for scientific calculations and that the majority of these early devs where working on the space race.
Spacewar! was released for the DEC PDP-1, and used a radar screen for it’s visuals. It had the first purpose built controller, too. Oh, and it was multiplayer.
Often times it’s called the first video game. Which is, broadly speaking, pretty accurate. The distinction I’ve seen - that I’ve read about in more academic sources - is that Spacewar! is the first game, on a computer, with a win condition
So whilst it might not have been the first, it was the first that you could complete
now I want to see speedrunners tackle Spacewar!
The award for first video game actually goes to OXO
Sean calls this "Tic-Tac-Toe"
from, get this, 1952
and it was playable on the EDSAC. EDSAC was built in 1949, by the way.
Imagine having a computer and there not being any games available for it, for the first 3 years!
those PS5 shortages don’t seem so bad now, huh?
To be fair, EDSAC (like all early computers) was purpose built for scientific and mathematical research. So it wasn’t really meant for games.
needed a way to prove his PhD thesis on human computer interaction, so wrote the game as a way to prove it.
The very first computer game was for educational purposes, folks.
The best part is they wrote it in machine code. So they’re just writing numbers. Just put enough numbers together, you get Spacewar! It’s an amazing testament to how smart those dudes were
And on top of that Spacewar! (as pointed out by Sean) was, essentially a tech demo. It started as a way to show off that the team at MIT hadn’t wasted their money on a brand new computer with a screen, and evolved into a way of letting people use a computer
which was a novel thing then. The public didn’t generally know about computers, let alone have the privilege to use one
during the open house days.
It was also the most complicated program at the time, so became a way to smoke test new computers. So much so that DEC
the company who made the PDP-1
heard about it, and requested a copy of the tape
programs were stored on reels of tape in those days
and used it to test their new computers, because it used every part of the machine. DEC also shipped Spacewar! with every PDP-1 sold, because you could use it to check that you had the machine set up correctly.
So it was the very first release title?
Emulators are amazing. They allowed me to say this on the podcast:
A bag of holding within a bag of holding, within a bag of holding, within a bag of holding, within a bag of holding
But because Windows has a thing called sticky keys
it will ignore your keystrokes because it thinks the keys on your keyboard are stuck
I couldn’t actually play it properly
It’s just to complicated for modern computers, it’s too high-tech
This title was released a lot later than Spacewar!, being released in 1977, and is a text based adventure. The player finds themselves in a cave, is presented with text which describes what they can see and hear. The player is then expected to type commands which represent actions that the want to take.
It might sound boring by today’s 4K, ray tracing, teraflops, 100 fps experiences. But this was the cutting edge in interactive fiction. It’s also hilarious.
It has sneaking, treasure, pirates, pirate ships, battery operated lamps
and vending machines for when the batteries died
dragons, and the threat of being chased through the maze.
Technically, it has everything we’d expect from a modern survival horror
except for the body horror, bio-punk storyline, and 9 foot tall vampire ladies
There’s a part of the game where you run into a dragon, and this is the input: "KILL DRAGON". And the game asks you "WITH WHAT? YOUR BARE HANDS?". If you say, "YES" it goes, "THE DRAGON IS DEAD"