the 80s

#652: Evolution ’80s: Music and Gaming

#652: Evolution ’80s: Music and Gaming

We had a big old IBM PC with dual 5 1/4″ floppy disk drives.  That meant you could copy disks from your friends much faster and easier, and so we did.  It wasn’t very powerful and we only had a monochrome monitor, but back then you had virtually unlimited access to free software.  Copy protection usually took the form of the game asking you for information that can only be found in the game manual.  So, you would just go to the library and photocopy the manual from your friend.

My dad worked at the bank at the mall, and he had a number of customers who did him cool favours over the years.  One such friend was a fellow named Scully.  Every once in a while, he’d come to my dad with a list of video game titles.  Dad would bring it home, give it to us, and say “Circle any games you want.”  My dad would buy a pack of 5 1/4″ floppy discs, and a week or two later they’d come back full of games.  “Flight Simulator” (version 1.0), “King’s Quest”, “Alleycat”, “Sierra Championship Boxing”, “Lode Runner”, “Executive Suite”, “Rogue”, “Janitor Joe”, “Decathlon”, and “Evolution” were some of the game titles written on the floppy discs that returned.

Best friend Bob, who was without a computer in his house, came often to play the new games.  Back then, a PC was a luxury.  Only a few families on the street had them.  My dad’s was subsidised via work.  And by the way, when families on the street had computers, that meant more access to free games.

Bob and I shared a mutual love of music, and so music was usually playing when we were gaming.  Mom and dad were tolerate a little noise once in a while, and damn, we had such a good time.

One game that we played to an endless soundtrack of Iron Maiden (Live After Death predominantly) is unfortunately a title long forgotten.  It was a grid-based shooting game, and the controls were so complex.  You had four keys for moving, and four keys for shooting — one for each direction.  Keyboards are not designed for that kind of gaming, and so playing alone was all but impossible as you mashed your fingers together trying to quickly move and shoot using eight keys.

Bob figured out how to play the game:  as a team!  He manned the firing keys and I moved the ship through this grid.  It was about an 8×8 grid, approximated by hand below.  As these alien things started moving around their rows and columns, I had to dodge blasts while setting Bob up for shots.  You had to kill each alien twice.  It required co-ordination, all enhanced by the steely bass of Steve Harris combined with the precision percussion that Nicko McBrain provides.

Mystery 80s DOS game (approximation)

Another game that required coordination was “Decathlon“, which unfortunately drowned out any music we could play.  My dad  hated “Decathlon”.  During the racing events, you “ran” by hammering on two keys as if you were running with your fingers.  Bob and I discovered the best way to do it was two-handed — both pointer fingers at full speed.  The clacking sound was a cacophony and my dad complained every time we played.  The point of the game was to beat Bruce Jenner, so we had to do it.  My dad hated Bruce Jenner because of that game.

Back to the teamwork:  there were some events I could do well, while others only Bob could do, and one that required both of us hammering keys in unison.  That was the pole vault.  It began with someone doing the run-hammering with their pointer fingers on two keys.  The other person had to use four keys to 1) plant the pole in the ground, 2) jump, 3) pull a handstand on the pole, and 4) release.  Music didn’t help with the pole vault — you were fucked if you weren’t focused completely on your little digital man.

Some days I played solo.  Bob was a couple years older and had a part time job at Harvey’s.  There were a few games we had for playing against the computer.  I obsessed over Sierra “Championship Boxing” one summer:  1988.  Ace Frehley had a new album out, Second Sighting, and he happened to have a boxing related track called “The Acorn in Spinning”. The game allowed you to create all kinds of your own custom boxers, so I created a whole storyline about one I built called Acorn.

One of the aforementioned games, “Evolution“, was a lot harder without Bob.  I picked it because one night, watching TV with my parents back in the early 80s, there was a story on about a new Canadian software company called Distinctive Software, based out of British Columbia.  They were being spotlighted for a new and very original video game they released:  “Evolution”.  Through a series of levels, you had to evolve from a single-celled organism to an amphibian to mammal and up the ladder to humanity.  It was praised for being different from the average computer game.  The whole premise was so cool, and the actual gameplay so awful…not to mention, even as kids, we knew that humans didn’t evolve from beavers.

Level 1: the amoeba.  You’re an amoeba floating around and trying to eat all the little edible blue dots around you, while trying to avoid a weird spinny eyeball looking thing that launches little purple spiky things at you.  You can also, like, electrify your amoeba for a little while to protect yourself.  You have five lives, but I used to typically burn three or even all five on this first level.

Level 2:  the tadpole.  A little easier this time.  Just move side to side and jump to avoid fish, and to catch food.  The simplicity of the controls meant you could make it through, losing minimal lives.

Level 3: the rodent.  Dig little mouse tunnels and drop poisonous mouse poops behind you to block it again.  Avoid being eaten by the snakes.  Be careful you don’t use up all your poops too soon.

Level 4: the beaver, yes, a fucking beaver.  Avoid the alligators while retrieving five pieces of wood to build your dam.  A surprisingly easy level.

Level 5: gorilla.  Humans didn’t evolve from gorillas, but we do share long distant ancestors, closer than beavers anyway.  In this strange level, you have to throw oranges at monkeys who are stealing your shit.  Aiming those oranges was purely just a matter of luck.  Game over here.  If you ever make it to this level, congrats, but you’re done now.  Only once, maybe twice over the years did I hit all the damn monkeys and move on to:

Level 6: human instant death.  As soon as your little fully-evolved human ejects from his neat space car, he is dead meat.  Numerous robots and aliens enter immediately after, from every direction, and being shooting.  You will have no chance, so just accept your fate instead of wishing you were still a gorilla.  And you thought those monkeys were bad.

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I love/hated that game so much.  I wanted so bad to get to that final human level, and with Bob, we worked as a team to finally get there only for it to last a couple seconds at best.

Perhaps 1982’s “Evolution” had a deeper message. We climb the hill to the very top of the food chain on this world, only to be squashed immediately by whatever is waiting for us out there.  It’s a classic science fiction dystopian theme.

Can we find a suitable heavy metal song to go with this doomed fate of alien or robotic annihilation?  Of course we can!  From 1988’s Ram It Down, another album I obsessed over during this period, it’s the apocalyptic “Blood Red Skies”.

Whatever your gaming soundtrack, I hope your memories are as good as mine.

As the sun goes down, I move around,
Keeping to the shadows,
Life, hangs by a thread,
And I’ve heard it said, that I’ll not see tomorrow.
If that’s my destiny, it’ll have to be,
So I’ll face the future,
Running out of time,
I’m on the line,
But I’ll go down fighting.
 
Felt the hand of justice,
Telling wrong from right,
Threw me out upon the street in the middle of the night,
Cybernetic heartbeat,
Digital precise,
Pneumatic fingers nearly had me in their vice.
Not begging you,
I’m telling you.
 
You won’t break me,
You won’t make me,
You won’t take me,
Under blood red skies.
You won’t break me,
You won’t take me,
I’ll fight you under,
Blood red skies.
 
Through a shattered city, watched by laser eyes,
Overhead the night squad glides,
The decaying paradise.
Automatic sniper,
With computer sights,
Scans the bleak horizon for its victim of the night.
They’re closing in,
They’ll never win.
 
You won’t break me,
You won’t make me,
You won’t take me,
Under blood red skies.
You won’t break me,
You won’t take me,
I’ll fight you under,
Blood red skies.
 
As the end is drawing near,
Standing proud, I won’t give in to fear,
As I die a legend will be born,
I will stand. I will fight,
You’ll never take me alive.
I’ll stand my ground,
I won’t go down.
  
You’ll never take me alive,
I’m telling you, hands of justice,
I will stand, I will fight,
As the sun goes down,
I won’t give in to fear.
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#643: Boom Boxes and Walkmen

GETTING MORE TALE #643: Boom Boxes and Walkmen

In the 80s, you had to have a Boom Box.  Or a Ghetto Blaster.  Or whatever you wanted to call a portable tape deck/radio.  Everybody had one, because they were awesome.

In order to make your Boom Box truly portable, you needed batteries.  There was often a place on the back where you could wrap up and store the power cable.  Then you’d load up the deck with batteries.  My first Sanyo stereo deck took about eight D-cells.  They’d last less than one afternoon of rock and roll.  When the tape started to slow down, you knew your batteries were dying.

Next door neighbor George liked to prop his Boom Box up on his shoulder as he walked, like the kid in the video for “The Right to Rock” by Keel.  It seemed cool at the time.

My second Sanyo was a dual tape deck with detachable speakers.  To make it portable, you just secured the speakers to the sides and plugged in those batteries.  This one took even more batteries than my first one.  In addition to the D-cells to power the music, it also required two AA batteries for the clock!  The truth is, a Boom Box was such a pain in the butt to make portable, that we tended to avoid it.  Sure, we could take it to the park and assault the tennis court with Black Sabbath, but it was just better to keep it at home.  A Ghetto Blaster, plugged into an extension cord in the garage, could still keep us entertained outdoors.  Parents would yell to “turn it down!”, so we would…for a little while before turning up again.

A Walkman was easier on batteries than a Boom Box.  The only problem with a Walkman?  Nobody else could listen in.  So that made it a little awkward and a lot funny when George would walk down the street with his Walkman.

George worked an early shift at Long John Silver’s, which was walking distance.  In the morning he could be seen strolling off to work, earphones on his head.  My sister and I would watch from the window.  As he walked forcefully down the street, suddenly he burst into song.  A lot of the time, you couldn’t tell what he was singing.  Most memorably though, he serenaded the neighborhood with “Love Gun”.

We watched him walk when he suddenly yelled, “ALRIGHT! LOVE GUN!” just as Paul Stanley did on Alive II.  And then George ripped into the chorus:  “Love Gun, Looo-ooo-ove Gun…”

It was hard not to laugh.  George singing in the mornings was a daily event, rest his soul.  We teased George a bit but he was a good person.  He was certainly unique and a non-conformist.

My parents bought me a neat little speaker set to go with my Walkman.  When fully packed up, it looked like a cylinder with the speakers on each end.  When you opened it, you could remove the speakers and set them up on your desk or shelf.  Just plug in a Walkman and you were good to go.  If you wanted to go portable, there was room inside the set for both speakers and your Walkman.  It too was heavy on battery use, but it was a very cool little set.  I brought it to school when I needed musical accompaniment to any of my OAC-level presentations.

Who misses stocking up on AA and D-cell batteries?  And don’t forget extras for when your Walkman slows down. You don’t want to be stuck without batteries! Isn’t it so much easier to just charge some USB speakers and plug them into your phone?  Sure is!

 

 

#587: Blocked!

GETTING MORE TALE #587: Blocked!

Someone bugging you on Facebook?  Block!  How about Twitter?  Block!  Go ahead and try it.  The President does it all the time!

In the pre-Record Store 1980s, it was not this easy.

In late 1987 and early 1988, a kid from school named Bobby was getting a bit too clingy.  He was even a bigger nerd than I was.  Way bigger nerd.  His prized possession was a massive multi-volume copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.  His stalking didn’t begin until grade 10 French class.  I was never very good at French.  I can’t really explain why I took it again in grade 10 when I didn’t have to.  It was my worst class.  Bobby and I would study together over the phone.  It helped so we continued our phone studies.  That’s how it started.

Soon after, Bobby began calling for non-school related reasons, which was still OK, but it picked up speed. The calls became very regular.  First, they were every other day.  Then they were daily.  Then twice a night, and more.  He started inviting me to go to church with him.

I was a young kid with no idea how to handle the discomfort I was experiencing.  Talking on the phone was fine, but every night?  I was getting smothered, except I didn’t know that was the word for it.  I wasn’t sure if this was weird or not, or how to deal with it, and I didn’t want to confront him.  I decided the best strategy was to start avoiding his phone calls.  There were two problems with this:

  • In 1987 there wasn’t an easy way to “block” Bobby’s number.
  • My mom outright refused to lie and tell Bobby I wasn’t home.

I made sure my mom knew that Bobby was calling too much and annoying me, but she wouldn’t play ball!  “I won’t lie for you!” she said.  I can remember her answering the phone, while I’m telling her “I’m not home!” only for her to hand the phone over to me.  I was furious but she wouldn’t budge on her lying policy.  New techniques had to be invented.

The easiest was taking the phone off the receiver.  Leaving it “off the hook” would give any caller a busy signal.  No such thing as voicemail.  I began taking the phone off the hook during Bobby’s usual calling hours without telling my parents.  The only problem was that the handset then started making a very loud beeping sound when you left it off the hook.  So I buried the receiver under blankets and pillows so it could not be heard.  Of course we wouldn’t be getting any calls at all from anyone, but I figured that was the price my mom had to pay for refusing to lie!  Later on, I learned how to remove the ear piece so that it wouldn’t make any noise.

The other method of Bobby-blocking required the help of my best friend Bob, not to be confused with Bobby.  One night my parents were out and Bob was over, when the phone rang.

“That’s Bobby calling,” I said.  “Answer the phone and tell him he has the wrong number?”  Bob obliged me.  He was willing to lie for me!  He answered and told Bobby he had the wrong number, but it was a little more complicated than that.  Bobby said, “But I have this number programmed in my phone!”  It was 1987.  Nobody had numbers programmed into phones…except Bobby.  Bob insisted that he still had the wrong number and hung up.  Sure enough the phone rang again as Bobby called back.  This time we didn’t answer.

Things with Bobby came to a head twice.  The first time was over the phone, one of those nights he called multiple times.  He asked me to go to church with him again and I said “No” very firmly.  I said we had our own church to go to and I just didn’t want to go to his.  To my shock he started bawling on the phone and hung up on me.  He then called back, apologized and asked if I’d go to church with him again.  I accepted his apology but declined church again.  He started crying again and hung up again.  He was Lutheran, in case you’re wondering if he was evangelical or something more obscure.  Nope, just Lutheran.  Pretty mainstream.

Bobby and I patched up the friendship and boundaries were re-established.  There was another incident towards the end of 1988 and it was the final one.

I had 11th grade math class with Bobby and the year started fine.  He sat next to me.  One morning in class he took my pencil case and wouldn’t give it back.  I had been drawing band logos on it, so Bobby took it upon himself to take it (and all the pens, pencils and erasers it contained) away, as if he was a parent and I was a child.  I was getting more and more angry and when he finally returned it after class, I was furious.  He acted like it was funny, but I wasn’t laughing.  I was really pissed off.  I went to the cafeteria at lunch, and I told Bob what happened.  He said, “Well we just won’t let him sit with us at lunch.”

I met Bob and our group in the cafeteria for lunch, and we made sure to take up all the bench space.  When Bobby arrived, Bob informed him he’d have to sit somewhere else because I was still mad at him for taking the pencil case and not giving it back until after class.  That was pretty much it.  Bobby and I stopped speaking completely after that, even though we sat next to each other in class.  It was awkward but a certain amount of peace and quiet returned to my life.

I remember shortly after that, I caught a ride home from school with Bob.  He drove a shit-brown Chevette.  We were driving home when I spotted Bobby up ahead.  Bob slowed down his car and followed Bobby without saying anything.  He just slowly, slowly followed, at walking speed, in his car.  This time it was me who found it funny, but Bobby was not amused and yelled at his neighbors to call the police!  (They didn’t.)

Bobby changed schools the next year, and a mutual acquaintance told me that he “hated” me now.  I accept the part that I had to play in it, but I would also suggest that where I was concerned, Bobby was obsessed.  He was not gay,  he was just fixated.  It wasn’t going to end well no matter how it ended.  One thing for certain though, the obsession had to end, because if it didn’t, my wits would.

I can’t help but wonder if much of this could have been avoided if only my mom would have played along and told Bobby I wasn’t home!  We’ll never know now.  Thanks, mom.