Growing Up With 80's Tech

My childhood was defined by the new technologies of an awesome decade.
January 19, 2009
The microprocessor made it possible. It was a decade full of new gizmos and gadgets for both adults and a new generation of kids who would grew up unable to imagine a world without them. While the technologies may have existed in some form years earlier, they came of age in the 80's. It was the decade that you probably owned your first personal computer, picked up a CD or a walkman, filmed a vacation with a camcorder, tuned into cable TV, called someone on a cell phone, sent someone a fax or played a video game. It was an awesome time to be alive.

I think my first exposure to 80's tech came in the form a trip to Showbiz Pizza.

Aside from being entertained by the Rock-afire Explosion--the animatronic band--and being fed 80's high-tech cardboard-tasting pizza, Showbiz was filled the latest arcade games. Think about those standup arcade machines. It's almost difficult to believe that they would dedicate a really expensive piece of hardware to just a single game.

Arcades were everywhere in the early 80's: the mall, the roller rink, the roller rink in the mall, the mall in the roller rink, the mini-mall area in the roller rink in the mall, etc. Watch the end of Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), the shootout scene that takes place at the roller rink. That setting is basically how I remember those joints.

In Showbiz Pizza, to help you part with your money--your parent's money that is--they used to exchange large bills for tokens and tokens could only be exchanged for video game or skee ball time. Meaning, once you fed your bill into the token machine (another technical marvel of the 80's), your money has already gone bye-bye.

Rock-afire Explosion used to play for a few minutes and then they would take breaks. It never really occurred to me why a robotic band would need rest. Obviously, it was to encourage kids to go spend their tokens, ideally running out and forcing their parents to feed yet more bills into the token machine. However, I recently found evidence to the contrary. On eBay, someone was selling a "melted" Fatz Geronimo mask. Fatz, as you might recall, was the giant, tuxedo-wearing gorilla fingering the piano-like "Tune Machine." Why was the rubber mask melted? Perhaps the robots overheat after a few minutes and need to be shutdown to avoid a potential fire hazard. It's a true 80's tech mystery.

As a little kid, for some reason, I imagined that the 80's arcade games offered tremendous depth. I just wanted to keep playing to see what would happen next. What would level 10 of Ms. Pac-Man look like, for instance? How many different worlds did they come up with? But, in later years, when emulators like MAME became possible, I discovered that due to hardware limitations, the game developers couldn't pack in that many levels. All levels were virtually the same with minor variations to make it more difficult. Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.

Via a process called "Concept Unification," Showbiz Pizza was bought out by Chuck E. Cheese and the Rock-afire Explosion effectively broke-up. My parents never took me back after the name and character changes. But that was okay, because the arcades were coming home in the form of the Atari 2600.

That machine rocked. There was Pitfall!, Pitfall 2, Demon Attack, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Winter Games, Berzerk, E.T., Baseball, Adventure, Jungle Hunt, Breakout and tons more. There were crappy-clones of all the major arcade games. The graphics were horrible. The game play was pretty lame. The sound-effects though were definitely nice and arcade like. In fact, the beep-and-boop tones of the Atari 2600 have been preserved as stock sound-effects. They can be heard in dozens of movies and TV shows whenever they show people playing video games.

Meanwhile, the 12 part PBS series Bits and Bytes introduced my family to computers.

The show featured Bill Van as a student and Luba Goy as a computer instructor. Billy explored the new technologies of the time from Commodore, IBM, Apple and many other companies. What always frightened me about the show is how they kept Billy and Luba in separate rooms. They communicated over some sort of projection teleconferencing system. Why?!

The show encouraged my parents to buy us a secondhand IBM PCjr.

It came equipped with a wireless keyboard, which worked really poorly because you needed an almost perfect line-of-sight for the infrared beam and it consumed battery power rapidly, and an optical mouse, which required a special mirrored mouse pad. In addition to a 5 1/4 floppy disk drive, it provided 2 cartridge slots in the front of the machine for games and other software like BASIC.

The marketplace considered the PCjr dead on arrival. Video games played poorly on the PCjr because it didn't contain the chips necessary for rapidly displaying moving sprites or scrolling backgrounds. However, unlike the Atari, game developers could store large amounts of graphics and music on disk. This enabled companies like Sierra On-Line to develop rich graphical adventures.

Sierra's "3D-animated adventures" let you take control of a little person. You could walk around different environments and type in commands to interact with the world around you as the story progressed. The backgrounds were stored on a disk in vector format similar to clipart as opposed to bitmap files due to space limitations. When you navigated onto a new screen, you could actually watch it slowly load and draw the background, almost as if it were quickly being sketched by hand. That delay was of course caused by hardware limitations, but it was actually a cool effect that kind of added to the game experience.

Aside from having fun with games, the PCjr actually made me computer literate. It provided me with skills that I would use for the rest of my life and carrier.

I never owned a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I actually skipped to the Super Nintendo in the early 90's. But, I played the NES at my friends houses. Series like Super Mario Brothers, Mega Man, Castlevania, Contra and Zelda were my life after school and on weekends.

Oddly, I never really advanced beyond the SNES. I still have one hooked to my CRT television in addition to a large box of cartridges and I still play it on occasion.

Cable was a big part of growing up. I still remember the day that we ditched the rabbit ears and UHF loop. Nickelodeon and HBO were my friends during those long lost summers.

When I wasn't watching TV, I was making it with the family camcorder.

The camcorder saved video directly onto VHS tapes, which could be played on our VCR. Getting a VCR meant that I could record television while I was doing homework, I was asleep or I was away from home. It meant that I could watch certain programs over and over again. I could rent movies before they aired on HBO. I could forward past commercials. If the VCR was broken, I had to be there in front of the TV to make sure I didn't miss anything.

The 80's gave birth to a set of life transforming technologies that still are very much part of our lives today. I've gone from a 5 MHz PCjr to a 3 GHz PC. The VCR replaced by Blu-ray and the DVR. Modern video game systems are closer to Star Trek's holodeck than the blocky graphics of the Atari 2600. We depend on computers, having our TV shows recorded, having access to movies, talking on our cell phones and playing video games. The concepts introduced in the 80's are still there... when are they going to bring back the Rock-afire Explosion?
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