A worn out old Xennial just wants to go back – way back – to 1987 and the bad old days of cassette tape-based computer games and dot matrix printers. Kids these days, huh, they don’t know they’re born if it’s not shared on Instagram…
Attention, parents! Fretting about what tech gifts to get your little ones this Yuletide? Fret ye no more.
What your children want for Christmas and what they need might not be the same things. So stuff their sodding Christmas list and get them a laptop instead. The best laptop you can afford.
Or, if it’s their first laptop, get them something basic, so that when they’re old enough to get something better, they’ll appreciate the quality.
Last year, my colleague Alastair Stevenson recounted the disappointment his adolescent self experienced upon receiving a Sega Saturn for Christmas instead of the promised PlayStation.
Firstly, as all the cool kids knew, the correct 5th-gen console to ask for was the Nintendo 64. Secondly, you could actually get Tomb Raider on the Saturn (but it wasn’t as good as the PlayStation version). Thirdly, the article exhorts parents to listen to their sprogs and make damn sure that they get them what they want for Christmas – or else!
I would like to offer an alternative perspective informed by my own experience which contrasts slightly with the one detailed in the aforementioned article.
Cue flashback music…
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Reliving the Amstrad CPC 464 glory days
On Christmas Day 1987, I snuck downstairs to do a quick recon of what was stashed ‘neath the tinselly boughs. In the centre of everything sat a mysterious object. This thing was draped in a polyethylene cover which formed a vague trapezoid shape. Whatever it was was obviously squarish in shape. A rectangle of deep blue light emanated from somewhere under the translucent covering. Such ponder, very mystery.
The semi-wrapping of the object bore no ‘To X From Y’ label; I had no idea what it was or who it was for. ‘It’s a Commodore 64,’ I told myself. I stole away from the living room and pretended to go back to sleep.
Later, between spoonfuls of cornflakes, I wondered if it really was a Commodore, like the one my next-door neighbour Alan had. Afternoons trying to finish Jet Set Willy had me convinced that I wanted a Commodore. Or a NES. Or a Master System, like the one my cousin Andrew had. Basically, anything I could plug into the TV set and play games on.
Uncloaking the mystery Christmas object revealed that it was none of these at all; it was an Amstrad CPC 464.
This comprised a monitor, an external floppy disk drive, joystick, a built in keyboard and a cassette tape drive. That’s right kids, TAPES. You’ll be able to see TAPES on the upcoming season of Netflix’s hyper-referential spook-fest Stranger Things (probably).
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A box of programs and games came included. There was Arnor Protext (a word processor), Harrier Attack (a dubious post-Falklands War side scroller which saw you bombing islands while dodging enemy flak), Oh Mummy! (a Bomberman-esque maze game with an ancient Egyptian theme), and Fantasy World Dizzy (a platform game starring a hard-to-control anthropomorphic egg), and an edutainment title, the name of which escapes me, which involved steam trains and doing sums. ‘If seven passengers get on at this station and four get off the next, how many are left?’, that kind of thing.
Hours of fun. All pretty crude, all loaded from CASSETTE TAPES.
I particularly remember the artwork for the Dizzy TAPE, as it featured a starburst proudly proclaiming something like ‘Fast Game – Loads In Under 20 Minutes!’, which begs the question, what were program loading times like previously?!
A quick trawl through Flickr reveals other TAPE-based delights, such as Gary Lineker’s Super Star Soccer, Xanagrams, and, er, Samantha Fox Strip Poker.
I owned none of these.
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So yes, the Amstrad CPC 464. It was a slow, boxy, cumbersome-looking thing and the games were kind of rubbish. The bundled joystick was about as responsive as a stoned panda and the dark grey casing lacked the cool rainbow stripe and rubbery keys of the ZX Spectrum.
It also didn’t enjoy the popularity of the Commodores, meaning I had nobody to trade games with in the playground, meaning it was ages before I got around to getting my very own copy of Jet Set Willy, which was pretty much the Fortnite of its day in terms of popularity.
The thing was also noisy – first edition PlayStation 2 noisy, if memory serves. In a way, it had the effect of making Harrier Attack feel more immersive, because the thing sounded like an actual aircraft carrier. When it was loading any program, the CPC 464 would emit a series of long octave bleeps to let you know that something was happening; the aural equivalent of the Windows egg timer, perhaps.
Big, bulky, ugly and noisy. I loved my Amstrad.
Countless hours were spent getting to grips with Protext, where I learned the basics of word processing. This involved finding out what the Shift and Caps Lock keys did and how they were different, and how I could write and save my early short stories (about talking dinosaurs who lived inside a hollowed out volcano) to floppy disks.
Later on, a cheap dot matrix printer was acquired for a future birthday present, and I was able to print things. This opened up a whole new frontier. I desperately tried to get a school magazine going, but couldn’t get anyone else interested, so the Coombe Bissett Volumizer lasted all of one issue, and was never distributed any further than my bedroom. Instead, I found joy in typing rude words (like ‘PLOP’ and ‘FANNY’) on the screen and printing them out in the biggest font possible.
At the age of seven I decided that ‘P*** Off’ was the rudest/funniest thing you could say to anyone (far, far worse than the c-word), so I set about cataloguing a league table of swear words and printed it out – my very first listicle. My parents were not impressed when they found it, and my mum demanded to know where I had heard such foul language. My dad was curiously silent on the matter.
My point is, the creaky old Amstrad was objectively a bit pants, but it put me in good stead. By the time the first BBC Micro arrived at our school, I had the advantage of already knowing a bit about word processing and printing things (again, rude words, which earned me a modicum of respect from my peers).
It was almost certainly this present which catalysed my love for writing, telling stories, and coming up with ever-creative ways of being crass and crude. Here I am with a ‘career’ (such as it is) which for the most part sees me putting words in the right order for money. Getting a cheap desktop or laptop PC might not inspire the same love in your child, but it might open up a path to video editing, game design, scriptwriting, 3D modelling, or something else.
Your kid might be snotty and ungrateful for a day and they might hate you for not buying the PS4 Pro for Christmas, because you thought that the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 was a better present instead.
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While I wouldn’t dare tell any parent how to raise up their progeny (you already know what’s best), please, buy them something for Christmas that’s both useful and unexpected. They might hate you a little in the short term, but there’s a better chance that they’ll learn something, if only that if life gives you lemons, you can make lolz by writing swear words in 40pt letters.
I later learned that my CPC 464 was actually second hand, something that my dad had bought from a colleague. Learning this made me appreciate the present more. If cash is tight and you can’t get anything close to the top line, I guarantee that your present will be valued in the long run. So long as whatever you buy doesn’t load games from TAPES.
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