Fighting Off 8-Bit Computer Nostalgia

Don’t know what it is about turning a certain age and wanting all the toys you had in your youth, but recently, I suddenly became obsessed with buying all the 8-bit computers I’ve ever owned.

Evil. Pure Evil.

There I was, using my uber-modern Mac G4 and my uber-modern PC, and suddenly I had a strong desire to play with my uber-antique Vic-20, Commodore 64 and Atari 800XL from my college days in the 80s. But there was 1 problem:

I hadn’t even seen a Vic-20, Commodore 64 or Atari 800XL for almost 20 years.

Anyway, eBay had more than their share of 8-bit kit, so I bought a Commodore 64, 1541 floppy drive, a Vic-20, a Vic-modem, a tape drive for the Vic, lots of Scott Adams adventure games for the Vic, some expansion carts (16k memory cart and a machine language cartridge for the Vic), and a $99 TV at CompUSA to use with the computers.

Yeah, that’s right. Computers in those days used televisions, though you could get a monitor for the 64.

Now, I’m well aware there are software emulators for every 8-bit computer ever made that you can run right on your Mac or PC, but there’s something about holding a computer in your hand that emulators just don’t give you. No, if I wanted to have that Vic-20 experience all over again, it was going to have to be the real thing.

Ah, the Vic-20.

I saved all the money from my summer college job to buy the Vic-20. I got it at lunch that day, and my boss finally let me go home early cause I couldn’t keep my mind on my job from the excitement.

My parents thought it was the biggest waste of money they’d ever seen, though my mother eventually wanted to learn how to use a spreadsheet I had (she was the accounting type in the family).

Can you believe it only had 22 characters across the screen? And I think it only had 16 colors, and instead of using a disk drive (which did come later), you used a tape drive. Sloooooow.

To write your own programs, you had a few choices-the built-in BASIC, or buy a machine language cartridge. Otherwise, you could type in page after page of numbers from computer magazines, hoping you didn’t make a mistake typing. Fortunately, someone (Compute’s Gazette Magazine) wrote a checksum program and it made errors less possible.

I loved assembler, well machine language anyway. That’s as close to pioneer computing as you can get without using bit switches or cables to connect relays. (My first programming experience other than the built-in BASICs these machines came with was a machine language cartridge for the Vic-20.)

6502 8-bit assembler:
To form a 16-bit address in 8-bit machine language, you had to combine 2 8-bit numbers, and reverse them (low byte/high byte instead of high byte/low byte like you think it should be)).

Also, you didn’t have labels or variables in machine language (different from assembler where you DO have those niceties). You had to write down real physical addresses that you were going to use to store values, and try to calculate how far you were going to branch or jump by adding up the byte-length of the mnemonics plus the addressing modes. Whew! How do I
remember this stuff? Cause I’m a Geek!

See why I know binary so well? Actually, you had to use hexadecimal more than binary, but binary helped when it came time to rotate or shift bits or do bit masking.

I also used to own an Atari 800xl, so I looked for one and a 1050 disk drive on eBay, but sellers on eBay wanted too much money to feed my obsession. How dare they! Don’t they know the limits and depths of the human mind? Of course they do. 😉

I played for about a week before I came back to the real world of modern computing. Now my 8-bit toys are in the closet, where they’ll remain for another 20 years, I’m sure.

Here’s something to think about-This generation’s young people will get the same addictive urges in 20 years for tomigotchis and iPods, and will be frantically searching on eBay or whatever the big online auction thing is at that time.

Did I mention they had Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots on eBay?


For more info on 8-bit computers, click [HERE

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