Video Gaming

I read the other day that Pong, Tetris and Doom had been inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame; something apparently invented by an American museum of playthings. The news story asked for other nominations for significant video games, and I couldn’t help but email tham and mention my own tiny piece of video game history. I’m waiting for the galaxy servers to be updated, and can’t go zooming around the ‘verse in my hugely be-weaponed star cruiser, so let me share with you…

Back in 1980, my first full time paid employment was working in the production factory of South West Research, in South Bristol. At that time video games were transitioning from the old black and white Space Invaders game to the bright new colour games like Galaxians and Snake (if you remember Space Invaders as being in colour, let me tell you that was by dint of pasting coloured translucent acetate tapes over the black and white monitor).

We designed and built what I believe was the first ever full colour screen video game, called Dambusters. All the other colour games up until then relied on star fields – essentially a mostly uncoded black background on which were scattered a few randomly coloured pixels – over which were moved the sprites (the aliens). This saved massively on coding and on memory, which was back then very expensive. Dambusters had a blue sky with clouds on it, some of which were themselves sprites, and a green countryside over which the Lancaster bomber was flown.

The game began at a British aerodrome, where you had to use the four microswitch joystick to take off in your bomber. You flew through the sky, avoiding barrage balloons and opposing fighter planes, crossing the channel through ack-ack fire from ships to the continent, and thence to the dams. I remember it turned night-time as you carried on, and finally approached the dam to drop your bouncing bomb at just the right time. It was actually endorsed by RAF 617 Squadron, who were donated a cabinet for their mess.

My role was mainly one of producing the wiring loom, installing all the component parts and testing the machine before it was sent out to pubs and arcades. I also coloured a few of the fighter plane sprites, using an old (modern then) Apple II computer with dual five and a quarter inch floppy drives. When we weren’t working on the game we played Colossal Caves on it! It was a fab time and paid me more money than I knew at the time how to spend.

My first full time paid employment didn’t last long, as the company folded due to management issues and the cost of scotch. But hey, for a time, I was a video kid! I’m slightly disappointed, writing this, that I can’t find a screenshot out there in interwebz-land. There was a poor copy that came later without the full colour skies, and I’ve located the old manual and circuitboard schematic, and even a back-glass, but no screenshots. Oh well. Back to waiting for the galaxy servers to be updated…

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  1. As an addendum, I remember the first time I saw the game Pong. It was in about 1974 and at Cardiff airport / aerodrome (whatever it was called back then, it certainly wasn’t international then). The family had “gone out for a drive” and pulled up at Cardiff airport “to watch some planes for a while”. It wasn’t until we were walking through departures that I clicked, and my brother didn’t pick up on it until we were almost on the steps into the plane. It was out first flight, and down to Jersey for a week in the Channel Islands. But I was fascinated by Pong… how things develop.

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