There has always been a vibrant retro computing scene, as people upgrade but still hold onto older working machines, continuing to play the simpler games which date from a time when you could count the pixels on a screen. Interest in the genre has recently peaked with the success of the Raspberry Pi computer coupled with demand both for 'geekends' for the adults and for improved teaching of computer coding in schools.
From Retro Computing to the Raspberry Pi
Retro computing is once again hot news with the runaway success of the Raspberry Pi computer, launched a year ago on 29 February 2012.
But where do I come into this?
Wait...what am I doing here?
I'll admit here and now, for me, a computer (namely a BBC Micro in the computer room at school) started out as a work tool. It was something to use for my writing, which meant that I didn't have to write by hand any more. But I pretty quickly learned that there was a whole different side to the machines, where games could be played, and even tournaments staged, if you had enough people and time.
I came to the retro computing scene with a love of the music used in the games, first and foremost. I had absolutely no idea what most of the tunes I was whistling were, because I was pretty useless at most of the games back then, but I could hit you up a mean Tetris and successfully completed almost 400 levels of Fishdom on my old laptop. (Still haven't reinstalled that on this machine, as I know what will happen to my writing and editing if I do...)
I first discovered electronic music in the early 80s, when someone played me Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene Pt. 4. That wasn't even ten years after Tubular Bells was released - and I still play that piece at least once a month.
It didn't take long to realise that these sounds were similar to those being used in the hit games of the time: Munchman, Tetris, Pac-Man, Manic Miner and others. As my friends all had early gaming systems such as the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64 and tabletop console games, I would play around on them when I had the chance. I was eventually given a Mini Munchman handheld for Christmas in 1982 which is still around somewhere. My poor father nearly went mad from the audio track. I can still hum it today, that's how deeply it wormed its way into my subconscious.
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2003 and all that
So where did I go from there?
Fast forward to 2003 and, firmly a cyberchick, I signed up for an online dating site. Within a few weeks of joining I received a message from the man who is now my husband. We hit it off from the start, sharing interests in reading, travel, being online, music and yes, you guessed it, old computers and games.
I hadn't even moved out of my flat in Surrey the first time I went to a weekend 'demoparty', as they were called. We stayed on a campsite in the rural Netherlands for an Easter weekend of eating junk food, getting drunk and playing computer games. We travelled and partied with my husband's best friends, one male, one female. Us girls left the guys gaming one day and went to Amsterdam - and ended up getting lost on the way back after the bus driver dropped us off a stop too early. Cue two very drunken men wandering down the road from the campsite looking for us as we tiredly made our way home.
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The start of a habit - arrival at the digital arts party on the Friday
Since then I have turned up at several such events, many of which have been reviewed for one website or another. I have a reputation for running the Twitter feed (or should that be 'ruining?') and still being able to remember enough of what went on to review the competitions the day after.
The standard demoparty, now as often as not referred to as a 'digital arts party' or 'gaming weekend', starts on the Friday night with the arrival of attendees from far and wide. A few hours are spent setting up the retro kit and laying in party supplies such as snack food, beer and breakfast requirements for the next morning, if it is not provided. Proceedings are usually rounded off by a short set from one of the scener musicians.
Saturdays at a sceners' party
The Saturday is alternately spent in finishing up coding for the competition entries, catching up with old friends, making new ones and wandering the local area. As night falls, the doors to the venue are closed and the 'compos' begin. These are on every conceivable platform, and also cover ASCII drawings, photography and music as well as graphics entries. The various presentations can go on for ages, are usually very colourful, beset with technical glitches thanks to the variety of systems and often overrun into the small hours. Some of the bigger parties these days insist on the demos being presented on video rather than run on the original machines in order to keep to time and present entries smoothly. There is often a concert at some point on the Saturday night too, especially at the bigger European parties where many of the regulars are musicians as well as coders.
Sunday - the wind down, the drive or flight home from a gaming weekend
Needless to say, the Sunday is often a very slow start indeed, with industrial quantities of strong coffee being consumed. Most of us are old enough now to know that drinking to excess is not recommended, but a few more glasses/cans are usually consumed than we would generally manage on a 'school night'. Many party goers these days have eschewed sleeping on the floor of the venue for the comfort of a proper bed in a hotel or bed-and-breakfast, and many of us are becoming experts on the best such establishments to stay at when we choose to spend a weekend gaming.
Travel, gaming and writing, what's not to like?
In my case I review such places as part of my travel writing strand and combine two of my main loves - travel, and writing about it. The Sunday is an ideal time to conclude these pieces and take necessary location photographs to accompany them. We have visited some truly amazing bed-and-breakfast locations in particular as part of our party weekends, and these definitely deserve to be publicised, as they are far superior to many hotels, with the level of personal welcome you might perhaps expect from a relation rather than a stranger.
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Not just games...
...but much more besides
Yes, gaming has a reputation for being indulged in by spotty youths in darkened bedrooms, but as you'll see from my articles, many events have a decidedly family-friendly flavour these days, being held in locations such as museums or tourist destinations which offer something for the families of the gamers too.
Even within the venues, many of the 'geekends' have areas devoted to cosplay, arcade games, tournaments and modern games. Some, such as the Vintage Computer Festival at Bletchley Park in 2010, have talks, music and presentations as well as a gaming element.
The one problem I do have is that my digital camera doesn't like taking photos of these old machines, as it can't cope with the screen flicker. And my phone camera isn't much use, which is a shame, as it copes with the screen flicker but produces lower resolution pictures.
I guess you'll just have to come along and see for yourselves what all the fuss is about.