Why YOU need a vintage computer today

Acorns, Orics and Spectrums oh my! James Matson is coaxed away from playing Gods on an Amiga 500 to explain why retro computers are easily the equal of retro consoles, and why you – dear reader – should be gaming on them right now….

So you’ve got a few retro consoles.

A SNES, a Master System, an Atari Lynx. Hell, you’ve even got a Colecovision which you occasionally fire up for a game of Donkey Kong.  Suppose you think you’re at one with the retro world, right? Well even if you had every console ever made, you’d still be missing half the picture. It’s all too easy to forget the computers of the retro world when thinking about gaming history, because on the surface they’re just a little less, well, sexy.  With most computers from the 80s and early 90s having the appearance of mutated scientific calculators or electric typewriters, you could be forgiven for not having investigated the world of retro computer gaming before now. It’s pretty easy to stay confined to the world of Mario, Zelda and Sonic.

Thankfully, we’re here to dispel all the myths and convince even the most hardened console freak that retro computers have a lot to offer.

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Why do you want one? 

For a start, you simply can’t appreciate gaming as a whole without factoring in the vast wealth of software houses, innovations and genres that computer platforms have brought to the table. Companies like Pysgnosis, Electronic Arts, Ocean and Epyx cut their teeth on 8 and 16 bit computers and many big names in the games industry – Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier – did so too. Getting a retro machine like a VIC 20 or Amstrad allows you a direct and tangible window into where many of the greatest games were born and flourished. The fact is, much as gaming today is a composite of consoles and PCs, gaming of yesteryear was a composite of consoles and eleventy billion computer variants.

Yes, that’s right – eleventy billion.  It’s a real number, we looked it up somewhere.

Retro computers are interesting, their technology intriguing. There are such a vast array of custom architectures, languages and programming tricks that it’s simply an injustice not to at least experience retro computing at some point.

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Another completely awesome aspect of retro computers is that they are more versatile than their console cousins.  On a Super Nintendo you can do one thing, and one thing well (Mario Paint aside) and that’s play games. That’s it. Gaming, gaming and more gaming. That’s fun, but with an Amiga as an example, you can do so much more.  Want to dabble in pixel art? Grab a copy of Deluxe Paint. Fancy yourself the next great retro tune maker? Fire up Octamed Pro and bring sweet sweet sample sounds to all 4 of the Amigas sound channels (8 if you’re willing to ‘split’ the channels and lose some quality). Sure, you might not have any of those interests, or even the motivation to go down those roads seriously, but it’s always great fun to tinker, to prod and poke. Vintage machines like the C64, Amstrad CPC, Atari or Acorn give you that avenue.

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Taking it even further, retro computers allow you to actually code your own games! Again using the example of the Amiga, there are a wealth of game development utilities from the professional ‘Amos’ language to the simplistic but fun Shoot-em-up-construction-kit (known as SEUCK) all of which gave you an ability to make your own games.  It’s pretty easy to see that having a retro computer means you get to enjoy your love of retro on an entirely new level, one that moves beyond a simple games machine and toward a totally dynamic tool for you to put a retro spin on your own special talents.

Last – but certainly not least – retro computers open up many ways to access to a vast wealth of games and other software, ways that simply aren’t available to pre CD consoles. NES, Ataris, Master Systems all have libraries of roms available online, but due to the cartridge format it’s difficult to play those files on the original hardware. Most computers of the 8 or 16 bit era survived on tapes or disks, many of which are standard(ish) formats and many of which have had talented folk develop methods and contraptions for getting game images onto the original hardware to play.  From the simplistic solution of squirting sound into a Sinclair Spectrum straight from your iPhone, to a fully fledged flash card based floppy drive emulator, the sky is the limit when it comes to running vintage games on vintage hardware.

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Which one do you want? 

Amiga. We’re going to be biased here, but the Amiga really is the obvious choice for any Australian gamer who wants to get into the retro computer game scene. Commodore Amiga 500s in particular had a decent presence in the land of Oz, and as such are relatively easy to come by these days. Add to that the fact that any Amiga from the 500/1000 onwards is an absolute behemoth gaming machine capable of some of the most impressive sound, graphics and playability of its era and it just shines out as the right path to take.  If you’re having trouble finding an Amiga computer, you might want to consider the Atari ST range which are almost as common “in the wild” and carry similar graphical/sound capabilities and share much of the same game library.

If your interests lie even further back – in the 8-bit space – you can’t go past a C64 or Sinclair Spectrum. The former for its popularity, vast games library and ease of procurement  the latter because it stands tall as a testament to just how talented the programmers of that era were, wringing amazing games out of a computer that didn’t even have any in-built sprite functions. Amazing stuff.

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The Amstrad CPC464 is also a good option to investigate thanks partly to its cheapness and commonality, but is hamstrung by the need for a proprietary monitor that you need in order to power the machine and non-standard disk format, things that seems like tough work when you consider a bog standard Amiga with an RF modulator will plug straight into your TV via composite or RF and take ordinary (though double density) 3.5″ floppies. Really though, you should probably do a little reading, watch a few Youtube clips, and find your own focus in the vintage computing world. There are more machines than we could possibly detail here, each with its own history, quirks and charm that’s just waiting for you to discover.

So, what are you waiting for?