For many people, the golden age of computing was the 1980s, when computers became affordable to all.
The big name models such as the Spectrum, the Atari ranges, the BBC, the Amigas are all several decades old now. But they are still functioning, still loved, and being adapted for today’s market in any number of ways.
Gaming expos are big news in the UK. Play Expo, now run in association with Collectormania, can pack out Manchester Central (the former G-Mex) for a weekend of gaming, cosplay and talks. In addition there are traders selling refurbished machines, parts and games as well as retro game themed clothing, jewellery and household items. Revival, in Walsall FC’s stadium, is a similar event offering arcade games, retro computers, gaming tournaments and seminars. The added advantage is that the nearest hotel is quite literally at the other end of the stadium from the conference rooms, making it a very easy expo to attend.
For many gamers, expos offer a chance to see, and even to meet, some of the big names of their youth. Regulars at these events include the likes of Archer Maclean (creator of Dropzone and International Karate), Jim Bagley (more of him later), The Oliver twins (Dizzy) and David J Pleasance, formerly of Commodore. Matthew Smith (Jet Set Willy, Manic Miner) was recently warmly welcomed to PlayExpo in Manchester; his first live event for some time. The development team behind From Bedrooms to Billions are now onto their third film, and use the expos as a way to raise awareness of their work.
The European retro computing scene, meanwhile, specialises in what are called ‘demoparties’. The ‘demoscene’ is wide and deep, encompassing many countries where groups of like-minded geeks gather together to code programs for these 40-year-old machines which push them into places their designers never really imagined. At least once a month there is a multinational gathering of demosceners in a hall somewhere to host ‘compos’ judging the best program in many different categories. Compos are often limited by file size, machine and length, while the ‘Wild’ demo allows creative use of such things as oscilloscopes and LED light panels, as long as they are controlled by coding run through a retro machine.
For those who can’t make a gaming expo or a demoparty, there are always museums. Retro computing museums are springing up all over the place. The first well known example in England was probably The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park, but many more have established themselves since, including The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester and the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield.
To keep these lovely old machines running and playable, modern technology has come to the rescue. It is not uncommon to see BBC Micros retro fitted with USB ports, for instance. The original floppy disks the machines relied on for saving data are becoming rarer and more unreliable, so a USB is the smart way to run programs and save work these days.
Likewise, demosceners such as Lotharek in Poland are using their skills to provide HXC emulators for many different types of retro computers. This allows otherwise fully functional vintage computers to continue to perform as expected, bringing pleasure to new generations of fans.
There have been several attempts to reboot old names using emulators or porting original games to modern day kit. The Amiga C-One, the Spectrum Vega and the Spectrum Next have all appeared since 2000, to be met with varying degrees of success. Current visitors to retro gaming expos are likely to see Jim Bagley and various others associated with the Spectrum Next, which is currently in prototype, funded by an ongoing Kickstarter campaign.
Meantime, retro games music composers are enjoying a renaissance. The new classical music station Scala Radio has a mixed playlist of classical pieces, film scores and gaming tunes. There is also an hour-long show on Saturdays specifically dedicated to video game music, but video game fans are just as likely to hear a recognisable tune at any time throughout the day.
In addition, live performances of retro games music scores have become popular. The Skywalker Symphony Orchestra might, arguably, have one of the best jobs in the world, playing music from the Star Wars movies, but for musically gifted geeks, playing at a retro gaming music event can’t be far behind in terms of job satisfaction. Concerts in Poland, Germany and the UK have been taking place since at least 2000. Composers such as Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway and Ben Dalglish are celebrated at these events for their contribution to the whole retro game experience.
These retro computers aren’t ready to go away just yet. Many original 80s bedroom coders have in turn introduced their children to the machines they loved as youngsters. Given that the computers are still working and available to play on in many museums and at expos, there’s still plenty of life left in them.