Atari Nerd Chronicles: 1982-1983: Computer Lab

Note: I've been writing these little stories on the internet for the better part of the last decade.   Out of my entire close and extended family, only a very few have taken the time to read them.  One of those people was my Uncle Richard.   My mom's brother, he was the only uncle I ever knew.  He was in the Navy in WWII, and  worked as an engineer in the Silicon Valley almost since it's inception.  He was also a pilot, and the father of 9 kids.    Since my mom is not on the internet, every time he read one of my stories that he enjoyed, he would print it out and send it to her so she could read it offline.  When I was growing up, my uncle was one of the few people in my life that shared my love of computers and technology.  I loved the idea that my uncle was sitting in far away location, reading my stories, and enjoying them enough to actually print them out sand mail them to my family.  Uncle Richard died this morning, at 4:30 AM  This story, in particular was one of his favorites, so I'm reposting it in his honor today.   Thanks Uncle Richard for all your love and support over the years.  I was blessed to have known you.   I will always believe that you are out there. somewhere, reading my little internet stories about growing up and technology.  One day, I promise, you will feature in one of these stories yourself.  I've already written it in my head, I just need to get it down on paper,


Part I: Mr. Hughes

In the fall of 1982 I started 7th grade at Foster A. Begg Jr. High School in Manhattan Beach California. My classes were Homeroom, Honors English. Pre-Algebra, Honors Science, Honors Social Science, Drama, Spanish 1, and P.E. My Schedule was stacked with very difficult classes, and historically, that would have been perfectly fine. I was a pretty good student all through elementary school, wracking-up good grades and a fistful of dollars my dad would pay for every 'A' on my report cards. As 7th grade started though, my outlook on life chnaged. Just 9 months before, at Christmas, my brother and I had received our Atari 2600 VCS. Then, instead of spending our free-time reading or watching baseball on TV, we were playing video games.  We played a lot of video games. However, it was not just playing, we also spent a lot of time designing our own games on the graph paper my dad brought home from his job at Hughes Aircraft, and with BASIC language manuals we had borrowed from the Manhattan Heights Library. Where once I had found school to be the most thrilling thing I had ever experienced, the idea of playing and making video games had taken its place.

It was no wonder then, that my first couple months of 7th grade did not go very well. I was doing OK, but the hardest class for me was Spanish. For some reason, while the idea of learning a computer language like BASIC seemed like second-nature, the idea of learning a foreign language simply did not compute. It started off badly, as Mrs Boerman (no joke) told me my Spanish name was 'Esteban'. I could never spell it right, and always got -1 for spelling it 'Estebaun' on every paper I submitted.. Even more difficult for me though, were the every day words. Mrs. Boerman called on kids at random to name something in the room using Spanish instead of English. I was absolutely terrified of her calling on me, but I simply could not commit many of the words to memory. In fact, the only word I memorized was El Reloj which meant "clock", because I was always staring at the thing in class, begging for it to move a little faster before she called on me.

When our grades came out for the first quarter, I got A's in every class, except Spanish in which I received a "B-". It was the worst grade I ever received in any class (up to that point any way). The day after grades were handed out, I sat in my home room almost in tears, trying to figure out what to do. I simply did not like Spanish. There was no way I was going to do any better in the class, and the subject simply did not interest me at all. Mr. Hughes, my homeroom teacher noticed that I looked pretty sad, and asked me to see him before I left for first period. Mr. Hughes was a very quiet man who taught reading. I too stayed quiet, reading at a desk in the back because I was scared of the older kids in the room. He had never asked me to talk to him before, and my stomach fell as the first period bell rang, as I had no idea what he wanted to say to me. Mr. Hughes had a reputation of being "mean". I'd never seen it, but then I was never on the receiving end of any of his anger either.

"Steve, I noticed you look pretty upset today, what's up?", Mr. Hughes asked me as I slung my Wilderness Experience backpack over my shoulders in an attempt to to get out of the room as fast as possible.

"Umm,I err, I...I..I". I stuttered. I did that a lot in those days. Trying to get the words out of my mouth was sometimes the hardest thing in the world for me.

I tried again.

"Sp..Sp...Sp...Spanish" I finally blurted out, "i...i...i...it's too hard for me"

He looked at me for a second and then he looked down at the book I was holding, Computers For Kids - Atari, and back up at me and said "you know, Spanish is an elective. You don't have to take it. Let me find out if there is something else you can do that period"

"Oh...Oh...Oh Kay, great" I said back, and ran out the door to Drama class.

My response masked my complete and utter joy at the idea. I might be able to get out of Spanish! The idea was breathtaking. I spent the rest of the day in joyous daze. I could not wait another minute to hear what Mr. Hughes might have for me to do instead of Spanish class. The next day I nervously entered home room. I was hoping that Mr. Hughes had remembered what he was going to do, but I did not dare ask him. I propped up my Atari book and tried to concentrate on the basic programs inside, but it was very difficult to digest any of it. All I wanted to do was to hear what Mr. Hughes had to say. About 10 minutes before home room ended, Mr. Hughes called me up to his desk. This was it.

"I talked to Mr. Donalou..." he started.

Crap. Mr. Donalou was the Principal, I did not think it would have to that far.

"...he will call your mom call later today. He wants to speak with her.".

Crap crap. I had to wait the whole day again, and now for a call from the principal. My heart sank.

When I got home, my mom told me that she had indeed been called by the principal, and they had a discussion about Spanish class. She told me that Mrs. Boerman did not want me to leave class, and that there were no others elective classes I could take at that time. I'd have to wait until the end of the trimester, and then I could be a library aid. For now, the only thing I could do was be a teacher's aid for Mr. Hughes, or continue Spanish. I suppose they thought this would make me stick with Spanish, but they were wrong. I chose teacher's aid, and wanted to start immediately.

The next day I began my new job working in Mr. Hughes' class. He taught reading to 6th and 7th graders, and my job was to grade papers and quiz kids on the books they had read. Since we had read the same books the year before, the job was pretty easy for me. The only hard part was talking out loud, which I still feared like nothing else on earth and I found painfully difficult. However, I got to know Mr. Hughes pretty well in the next couple months. He always told me about the books he was reading, and he seemed interested in whatever I was reading myself (usually an Alfred Hitchcock And Three Investigators book, a Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Golden Treasury Of The Civil War, or a computer manual. Far from being the "mean" teacher of his reputation, I found him to be the type of teacher who loved to see kids light-up when they discovered the same things he discovered in the books he taught. The problem was, there were not too many of those at Foster A Begg in those years. I found him coming back to my aid's desk more and more often to talk about my books and what I thought of the 6th grade material. Over time I got pretty comfortable talking out loud because Mr. Hughes treated me like any other person. My stuttering and fear of speaking were not cured, but our conversations had gone a long way to prove to me that my ideas were worth speaking, and others might like to hear them.

When the first trimester was almost over, Mr. Hughes came to ask me about my plans for the upcoming trimester. I could stay as his aid, or work in the library. He told me he would look into some other possible options, but no matter what, I'd have to choose by the next day.

When I got home from school that day, my mom told me the school secretary had called. She said I needed to choose a new elective: teacher's aid, a Library aid or... Computer Lab aid.

I was shocked. Computer Lab Aid had never been discussed before. In fact,I had no idea what it was, but it sounded amazing.

My mom called the secretary back and told her that I wanted to be a Computer Lab aid.

It was exciting to think about. Even though I read books about computers, I did not have access to one. My friend down the street had one, but I rarely got to use it now that we were in Junior High and he was still in Elementary School. Having access to computers meant the possibility of programming one, which meant I might be able to some day get some of my game ideas up on the computer screen.

The next day in home room, Mr. Hughes was silent to me again for the first time in weeks. However, I read my Atari Basic book even more feverishly than ever. I had no idea what was in-store for me when I started my job in the computer lab, but I needed to prepare the only way I knew how, so I just kept reading and reading. A few minutes before first period, Mr. Hughes came back to my desk.

"So what are you going to do about your elective?" he asked.

"Umm...I'm going to help out in in the Computer Lab" I replied.

I looked up from my book, and I saw something on Mr. Hughes I had rarely seen before.

A smile.

He always sported a stern, yet concerned, yet scholarly look. Not mean mind you, just serious, and it rarely formed into a smile.

"Good, I thought you might choose that" he said back to me, and then he turned and went back to his desk.

Part II: Computer Lab

A few days later, day, instead of going to Room 22 to help Mr. Hughes, I slipped down the Room 23 ( next door ), and walked into my future.

Inside this little room were about 10 Apple IIe computers, all humming away running Bank Street Writer. There were about several different women who helped in the Lab, while Mrs. Brown, a math teacher, ran it as the faculty administrator. I handed her my transfer paper, and told her that was supposed to be there.

"Of course you are!", she said with a wild flair. "This is our lab. We have a class set of Apple IIe computers (one for every 3 kids), and look at this over here, our new Apple Lisa!"

She pointed towards what looked like an IBM PC on a desk separated from all the other computers. One of the adult aids was fiddling with it, trying to get it to work.

"We are still setting it up" she told me, "Now, look over here, we are setting-up for a writing class."

Mrs. Brown showed me around to all the Apple IIe computers that were running Bank Street Writer.

"Your job today will be to help anyone who needs it when they are writing."

Crap. I'd have to fake it. I's never used Bank Street Writer before, and I guess someone had told Mrs Brown that I could help teach it to other kids. Looking around, I spied a laminated card on one of the desks that listed the key combos for doing thinks like saving, loading, bolding, etc. I picked it up and studied it. If I was going to be successful I'd have to learn quickly. I felt my hands sweat a bit around the card. I could not blow this job on the first day.

Soon, the Lab filled with 30 6th graders, all fighting to sit in front of a computer. The lesson that day was to write a few sentences and save them to a 5.25" floppy disk. I floated around the room with my laminated card, trying to be helpful. Most of the kids were too busy pushing each other out of their chairs to even try the writing program. I did manage to help a couple kids get their work saved, but for the most part it seemed like an unmitigated disaster. After the kids filed out, I was afraid of what Mrs. Brown was going to say to me. Did she think it was my fault that my younger peers were such idiots when it came to computers?

However, Mrs. Brown came back told me that I did great. "It was one of our better classes!" she told me.

The class period was still not over, so I sat at one of the Apple IIe computers and typed a few key presses into Bank Street Writer. Within a couple minutes I had several paragraphs written describing how difficult it is to teach 11 year olds computer skills. When the bell rang, I saved the file to a disk, cleared the screen, and got-up left for my next class.

The following day I walked to the computer lab wondering just what they would have me do. However, when I got there, Mrs. Brown was absent. I asked one of the other ladies, the one who was trying to get the Lisa to work the day before,what I should do. She just looked at me coldly and said something that sounded like: "not mess things up for me." I had no idea what she was talking about, but it was enough to get me to cocoon-up for the day. I sat down at one of the Apple IIe computers in the back and looked through the disk-box next to it. I filed through the floppy disks until I came to one that looked really intriguing: Sands Of Egypt. I put the disk into drive A: and rebooted the machine. Soon, the hi-res title screen for the game came-up, and I was playing a full-on adventure game on a computer in the middle of the school day. I'd never done anything like it before, but I did not want to stop. No one came back to talk to me that day, so I just kept traveling across the desert near Cairo until the bell rang, then I got-up and left.

For the rest of the week, Computer Lab was mostly the same as day #2. Mrs. Brown was not there, and the other ladies either ignored me, or like the mean one, treated me like I was stealing food from their mouths. At one point the mean one asked me to get a printer set-up on one of the computers. I had never done that before, however, there was chart on the wall that Mrs. Brown had created that explained how to do it, and I got it done quite quickly. This seemed to make the mean lady even meaner. When she wasn't in the back fiddling with the still dormant Lisa, she complained that I had done everything wrong. This sent me to the back of the room again, where that I spent most of the rest of the week playing Sands Of Egypt. It was OK though, I was so engrossed in the game, I pretty much shut everything else out.

Anyway, within a couple weeks, things started to settle down in the lab and I worked into a routine. When Mrs. Brown returned, I was back to helping out in classes, connecting printers, showing kids the key combos for Bank Street Writer, and avoiding the mean lady. In my spare time I played Sands Of Egypt, Murder On The Orient Express, and a couple other games that were squirreled away on the floppy disks in the back of the room. I slowly proved my worth to Mrs. Brown and some of the other ladies. I became very adept at getting software set-up, and helping in the classes. In my spare time, as well as playing the games, and I started programming in Apple Basic. Not huge programs mind you, but small things like text displays, math calculators, and anything that would provide a nice graphic effect that could be produced in the few minutes a day I had to work on a program.

In home room during that trimester, Mr. Hughes was uncommonly quiet, even for him. We still spoke a bit, but it seemed that now that I was not his aid, I was back to just being another kid in class. I did see him talking to Mrs. Brown a couple times, and once he stuck his head into the computer Lab to see what I was doing. but for the most part he disappeared. I was never quite sure if he was mad at me for abandoning him as his aid so I could play with computers every day. He was so quiet it was hard to tell.

Back in the computer lab, things were starting to settle down. I think the programming work I was doing sent the mean lady over the edge. One day she asked me to come over and look at a program she was loading onto the computers. It was LOGO, a programming language that used graphics instead of text, designed to teach kids computer skills. I hated it. It made no sense to me. I got it to work, but it was obvious that I did not care about, so I failed to learn it. However, since I could not get into it it, the mean lady held it over me for the rest of the year. "BASIC is a dead end" she would say to me, just  out of Mrs. Brown's ear shot, "LOGO is the future."

Still, Mrs. Brown was impressed with my little programs. She started having me do more and more intricate work, and even told me that next year she wanted me to teach programming to some of the kids. As I continued into the 3rd trimester, the computer lab became my refuge. As long as I avoided the mean lady, I could play in a world on computers for 52 minutes a day. Without Spanish class dragging me down, I did pretty well in most of my other classes too. To stay as an aid you needed at least a B average, and I was pulling that down with no problems. By the end of the year I had the run of the place, and except for the still unusable Lisa, I could perform almost any task asked of me, and still manage to play games and program most of the time.

For all intents and purposes, The Computer Lab had become my favorite place in the world.

Part III: Cold Reset

On the last day of 7th grade, I came to home room with a box of Italian candy. Mr. Hughes wanted us to have a "food of the world" party for the last day of school. We needed to bring food from a country our ancestors had come from. Each of us put the food on our desk, and the other kids came around to sample everything. My Italian candy was not very popular, so I sat most of the time by myself with an almost full box in front of me. In the middle of the period, Mr. Hughes came back to talk to me. We had not spoken very much for months, ever since I stopped being his aid. I had chosen to think Mr. Hughes really did not try to be quiet towards me, that instead, without me helping in his class, there was just not time to talk about anything at length.

"How was Mrs Brown this year?" he asked me.

"Great! I loved it! I think I know what I want to do when I grow-up."

"What?", he replied laughing, "teach in the computer lab, or program computers?"

"Hmm. Both I suppose!" I laughed back at him.

"Steve, Next year, I'm going to get my own Apple IIe computer in this class. "

"Really?", I replied, genuinely surprised. I never knew that a regular classroom could have it's own computer.

"Sure!" he replied, with a bit of enthusiasm I had not witnessed since I was his teacher's aid. "We'll put it right back there next to the window" he said, pointing towards the back of the room.

"Start thinking of the stuff we can do with it, because it's going to be great!"

Mr. Hughes looked at me like he meant it and I could tell how much he wanted it to happen.

"Cool." I said back to him, trying stay calm even though it seemed really exciting.

Underneath it all, I was really happy because it seemed like Mr, Hughes was not mad at me after all. I always suspected that he might have had a hand in getting me the job as Computer Aid. He did seem to know Mrs. Brown pretty well , and now he was getting a computer in his room, so I knew he was interested himself. I left that day with high hopes for the next year and 8th grade.

Over the summer between 7th and 8th grade my brother Jeff and I worked very hard to convince my dad that we needed a computer of our own. We focused on an Atari 800xl, the shiny, sleek new entry to the Atari 8-bit line. We played a lot of video games too, including tons of games on the Vectrex we bought ourselves with money we made from selling a bunch of our Atari 2600 cartridges.

When the time had come to choose my elective for 8th grade, I instantly chose Computer Lab aid. Even though I felt guilty for not choosing Hr. Hughes class room aid again, the Computer Lab was where I really wanted to be.  I knew he would understand.  Furthermore, with the new computer in our home room class, I could help Mr. Hughes in the period too, and get almost double the computer time I had in 7th grade. Just the thought made me want to skip the summer and just start school right away.

However, when my class schedule arrived in the mail the week before school, I was shocked to see that my home room had been changed to room 3, Mrs Davis. I still had computer lab 3rd period, but I had no idea why I was not in Mr. Hughes' home room. Had he kicked me out? I had Mrs. Davis for 6th grade English class. She scared me in 6th grade,and the idea of her scared me again. On the first day of school I sheepishly entered her home room, and told her that I used to be in Mr. Hughes' home room class. Her usual stern demeanor changed for minute, and she softly welcomed me told me where to go sit-down. Mrs. Davis treated me that way for the first few weeks. At the time I never really understood why, but I just went with it. I questioned a couple of the other kids that had been in my home room with Mr. Hughes, but none of hem knew why they were not in his class any more either. In fact most of them were quite happy to be in other rooms. To be honest, Mr. Hughes was not terribly popular teacher at Foster A Begg Junior High. It was probably the reason we got long so well in the first place, but it should have been clear to me why not many people cared about the change.

While home room was confusing, Computer Lab with Mrs Brown started better than the prior year. The mean woman was still there, but I had more free reign to do what I wanted while being an aid. Even better though, a new wrinkle had been added. A Company named Pertech had decided to donate a set of 24 high-end CPM workstations to our school. By the second trimester they would arrive, and it would be our job to explore them and make them work.

Still, I could not help wondering why I was not in Mr. Hughes' home room. A couple weeks into the school year, I decided to go ask him. Instead of going to room 23 immediately for 3rd period, I decided to visit him in room 22. However, the door was locked. It suddenly occurred to me Mr. Hughes did not kick me out of his home room at all, Mr. Hughes was not working at our school any more. I have no idea why I had not figured that out before, but I just had not even considered the possibility. I asked Mrs. Brown about him, but she only mumbled something I could not hear, and told me that I needed to load LOGO on a couple computers for a class the next period.

A few weeks later, there was an announcement in the daily school bulletin that there would be a memorial service during 3rd period. It said that any student who had known Mr. Hughes could come and say goodbye.

Mr. Hughes.

Had known?

Say Goodbye?

I never made it to the service. I found out later that Mr. Hughes had died of cancer over the summer. The same summer that I had spent dreaming about getting a new Atari Computer for Christmas, he probably had spent dreaming about how to keep on living just one more day.

I was not mad at Mr. Hughes for not telling me he was sick. In fact, I had no idea what to feel about him. I suppose I should have been sad, but I wasn't. I was just numb. It took about 25 years for me to really understand what he meant to me as teacher. Years later, as I recounted this story in my mind, I realized that Mr. Hughes was the first teacher (and also one of the last) who actually cared about me as an individual as well as a student. He helped me get my start in computers by supporting my interest in them, even though he never got the chance to have one of his own. Actually, in a way, he did get a computer of his own... 24 to be exact. When the Pertech workstations arrived later that year, the only classroom available to house them was Room 22, Mr. Hughes' old classroom. Instead of one Apple IIe, Mr. Hughes received 24 of the best looking computers I had ever seen. He never got to see them in action, but I like to think he smiled the day they were wheeled into his old class room.

Sometimes, when it's quiet, and I'm working on some web site, program, or game, my mind slips back to the final day of 7th grade, and my conversation with Mr. Hughes. I remember the look in his eyes when he told me about his computer plans, and what would happen the next year. It's an image in my mind that I can't shake, nor do I want to. Often, it occurs to me that those were not real plans at all, but the dreams of a man who knew his time was limited and they could never possibly come true. He must have known he was sick already, and he told me about his computer dreams for a reason. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Hughes handed me those dreams on that day in room 22, hopefully knowing that I'd keep them safe, that I was one kid who could steward them them into reality. Later that year I did get my first computer of my own and it launched my life as a computer nerd, an Atari Nerd, that still lasts to this day. I like to imagine that the thought of my eventual success in the computer field put another rare smile Mr. Hughes' face, and that he knew that a simple act as teacher, like maybe helping getting a student into Computer lab as an aid, changed that very kid's future, and set him on a path to success for the rest of his life.


BASIC 50th Anniversary: Riding An 8-bit Rocket


I was 9 years old when I first touched the keyboard of an Apple II computer.  It was 1979, and I was visiting my friend Eric's house.   Eric's dad was a computer engineer at Hughes Aircraft, and he was the first person I ever knew who owned his own computer.

Eric, my twin brother Jeff, and I all gathered around the machine, and using some simple commands Eric's dad taught us, we created our first programs.   All were based on the PRINT command.

First we printed something once.



This seemed very logical to me.  We asked the computer to do something, and it responded in kind.Next, using a loop with a GOTO Eric's dad showed us, we printed the same thing dozens of times until we broke out of the program.  It was amazing.  We had done the work of  dozens of single commands with just 2 lines code.  I was fascinated by this efficiency and the way the machine responded to a concise set of numbered commands.


20 GOTO 10


We continued to play around with printing and discovered that you could concatenate strings with a semi-colon, which led to interesting scrolling and text effects.

20 GOTO 10





One thing we all noticed with this program was just how slow the text was printed to the screen in Applesoft BASIC.  As we watched the text scroll up the monitor, one of us had an idea.  The exact person who thought of this idea has been lost to time, but all of us remember the output vividly:  if text scrolled up the screen so slowly, we could use limitation to our advantage.   By chaining many PRINT commands together, we could "launch" ASCII designed rockets up the screen every time we ran our BASIC program.

This was a revelation to us.  It meant that with a few simple commands, we could make something we designed come to life.

And so that is what we did.  For hours.  For days.  For weeks.   We sat and wrote lines of PRINT statements to create rockets like this one:

10  PRINT ""
20  PRINT ""
30  PRINT ""
40  PRINT ""
50  PRINT ""
60  PRINT ""
70  PRINT ""
80  PRINT ""
90  PRINT ""
100 PRINT "               ^"
110 PRINT "              / \"
120 PRINT "             /   \"
130 PRINT "            /     \"
140 PRINT "           /       \"
160 PRINT "           |_______|"
170 PRINT "           |       |"
180 PRINT "           |       |"
190 PRINT "           |       |"
200 PRINT "           |       |"
210 PRINT "           |   U   |"
220 PRINT "           |   S   |"
230 PRINT "           |   A   |"
240 PRINT "           |       |"
250 PRINT "           |       |"
260 PRINT "           |       |"
270 PRINT "           |       |"
280 PRINT "           |       |"
290 PRINT "           |       |"
300 PRINT "           |       |"
310 PRINT "           |       |"
320 PRINT "           |       |"
330 PRINT "          /|||||||||\"
340 PRINT "          |||||||||||"
350 PRINT "          |         |"
360 PRINT "          |         |"
360 PRINT "          |         |"
380 PRINT "          |         |"
390 PRINT "          |         |"
400 PRINT "          |         |"
410 PRINT "          |         |"
420 PRINT "          |         |"
430 PRINT "          |||||||||||"
440 PRINT "          |         |"
450 PRINT "          |         |"
460 PRINT "          |         |"
470 PRINT "          |         |"
480 PRINT "          |         |"
490 PRINT "         /-----------\"
500 PRINT "        ///////|\\\\\\\"
510 PRINT "       ////////|\\\\\\\\"
520 PRINT "       |||||||||||||||||"
530 PRINT "      /-----------------\"
540 PRINT "      |||||||||||||||||||"



When we tryped "RUN" rocket text would print in succession. Since the update was so slow, each line printed one at a time, and scrolled up, making it appear like the rocket was shooting up the screen, and disappearing off the top of the monitor.  As time went on, our rocket designs got longer and longer and more and more eleborate, and each time we typed "RUN" we watched our creations crawl up the screen and disappear back into the 8-bit universe from which it came.

It was the limitation of the medium, as well as the features of it, that bred our creativity.  It was the combination of the exact hardware and software that made it possible.   You had to experience this exact "launching" illusion in person, on an Apple IIe with Applesoft BASIC.  A few years later I tried to write the same program on my Atari 800 in Atari BASIC, and it did not have the same effect.  Not too long ago, I tried to use an Javascript Applesoft BASIC emulator (http://www.calormen.com/jsbasic/), but it too did not work the same way, updating far too quickly to create the launching animation.

It was the right place at the right time. If I was any younger, I would not have understood what I was doing  If I was any older, I would have probably questioned and complained about the speed of the display refresh, instead embracing it as part of fabric of the universe in which were were creating our worlds.

Since that day, I've written more lines of code than I can count, and worked on 100's of games and applications.  However, I've never fogotten those rockets, or how it made me feel when we created and then "launched" them.   For me, ceating these rockets in BASIC was a nuanced experience that cannot be exactingly recreated. Doing so would require a mix of  technology, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and personal naivete that existed at one exact moment, in 1979, and has been lost over the decades.

But the affect of them lives on.

Those simple programs were the jumping off point for a life of wonder and amazement I made for myself, by sitting down behind a keyboard and typing out the ideas in my head. I may be terrible at making music, and even worse at drawing pictures, but with code I feel I have the power to weave tapestries and create realities.  Many times now, when I compile my code, have a clean build, and run my project, I feel like that 9 year old boy again. I feel that same charge of excitment, and the same thrill of accomplishment I felt back in 1979, after typing in some code, typing RUN, and watching the magic of BASIC unfold before my eyes, inching up the screen, one line at a time.


My “Lost Age Of The The Pizza Parlour” Gets An Honorable Mention in 43rd Annual Easy Reader Essay Contest

A re-written version of my old 8bitrocket.com Eassy "The Lost Age Of The Pizza Parlour" was chosen as one of several "Honorbale Mentions" in the 43rd Annual Easy Reader Essay contest.   Now titled  "Pleasures Of The Pizza Parlour", you can read the new version here : http://www.easyreadernews.com/73558/pleasures-of-the-pizza-parlor-el-porto/ -8bitsteve


Atari Pong Developer Challenge Diary: What The Radio Shack “TV Scoreboard” Taught Me About Game Design.

One day, back in 1978 my dad came home with this:

A Radio Shack, TV Scoreboard console.   We had been begging my dad to let us play the Atari 2600 console in the TV department at Fedmart on every visit, so he knew we liked video games.  However my dad, a notorious cheapskate, was not about to plunk down $169.99 on anything.  $19.99 price-point of the TV Scoreboard was more his speed.  However, even $19.99 was probably too much.  i'm sure this came from the dirt-cheap bargain bin from Radio Shack.

At first, my 8 year old twin brother brother and I were really excited.    The idea of having a video game of my own to play was enough to rocket me out of bed in the morning and into the living room to try it out.

Of course, this taught me my first lesson about video games.  If no one else was awake, there was no one to play with.   The TV Scoreboard had a "Squash" option that let a single player hit a ball against the wall, but I never found that game very interesting.  I wanted to play "pong", and if no one was around, no dice.

When my brother was awake, and we actually played the unit, the second major issue reared its' head: sound.  Like most dedicated "pong" consoles, the limited sound of the TV Scoreboard   came from the unit itself, not from the TV.  This made the already lo-fi beeps and boops even more annoying than I thought possible.  We very quickly learned to shut the sound off, and play in silence.   While the "pong" style game play of the unit was solid, nuances (like bad sound) ruined the experience.

The third thing I learned from the TV scoreboard was that "ping pong" games were not really all that much fun.  Maybe six years earlier, when Pong first arrived, the game was thrilling, but in 1978, with Space Invaders filling the local arcades, the "ping pong" game play of the "TV Score-bored" (as it came to be known) was just not compelling enough.

Those three lessons: the need for  compelling single player game play, the importance of nuances in games, and the need for evolving game play, have colored the design for the Pong game we are making for the Atari Pong Developer Challenge.  I hope we can do those hard learned rules some justice with our entry.

By the way, the "TV Score-bored" stopped displaying video after a few weeks, but since the sound came out of the unit and not the TV,  I could still "play" it by starting a game and listening for the sounds and moving the paddles.  If I managed to "hit" a ball,a distinctive beep would sound, and I felt totally victorious for few seconds.  On the other hand, my dad felt "taken" by the "cheap-o" device after it failed do quickly.   It would be several years before another video game system entered our house.



A Nerd Is Born: Star Wars In-Person At Toys ‘R Us September 1977 (updated)

By Steve Fulton

May 4th, 2012:  For Star Wars Day, May 4th, we are re-running our story about Star Wars in-person, 1977.

(update: since I originally wrote this story, a fine denizen of the interbaun provided the proof to the right in the form of an advertisement about the event.  It occurred on September 25th, 1977.  I reposted the story because the ad to the right is amazing it it's own right!)

I've been a consumer of nerd-laden toys and video games for most of my life.  There is not a January that goes by that does not see me searching through the After-Christmas red-tag bins at Target, looking for mark-downs on video games and toys that  others would shudder at purchasing.  Just yesterday, for example, I found three new Leapster games for my 4-year old for $6.44 each, Sid Meier's Pirates for The Wii for $13.78, but I passed-up the Spider Man pinball machine for $13.78 because it was the exact same table configuration as the Dora pinball game my 8-year old still plays, plus my girls are still not enthralled by super heroes. Even so, it almost made the cart too.

At Target this week, I noticed a few new Star Wars action figures with the classic packaging: something Hasbro decided to do last year to get old guys like me to buy the same stuff they have bought dozens of times already.

While I was holding a Storm Trooper action figure, I had a sudden flashback.  It was to a time before there were any Star Wars toys for sale at all.   It was the day I became a nerd consumer.


Atari Nerd Chronicles: The Best Christmas Ever



Although I had no idea in early 1981, my brother and I were video game obsessed twins on a collision-course with the pinnacle of ultimate geekdom: computer ownership.    We both loved arcade games and owned an Atari 2600 that we played constantly.  We spent all of our money on Electronic Games magazine, arcade tokens, and Atari cartridges.    In the course of our many adventures searching for good, cheap video game thrills, we stumbled across a store named HW Computers.   HW was part of a chain established among the first wave of computer stores.  The shop was a mish-mash of t-shirted techies,  cheap business-suited sales guys, IBM clones, Apple IIs, and walls of elaborately shaped boxes of software and games.   We were there looking for the 2600 versions of Asteroids and Space Invaders, but instead we found something better...something amazing to me at the time.  In a glass case HW computers had a display if one most beautiful creations I had ever witnessed: an Atari 800 computer and 810 Disk Drive.    Atari made computers?  We had no idea!  We picked-up a catalog of Atari software, left the store, and our passion for computers was born.

Over the next two years, my brother and I schemed and scouted all avenues possible to obtain the pinnacle of our childhood dreams: an Atari computer.   Knowing how expensive computers were at the time, and how little money my parents had, we knew we were going to have to be mighty creative in our endeavors if were ever going to see our plans come to fruition.   The first thing we did was to educate ourselves.  We poured-over the software catalog from HW, drinking in every game description with complete wonderment over what the experience might hold.  Titles like Energy Czar, Temple Of Apshai, and Star Raiders had us drooling with excitement.    We checked-out books on basic programming from the library, learning line numbers, loops, gotos, gosubs, plot and color statements.    Soon we were fashioning our own programs on notebook and graph paper, designing games and graphics, and anything else we could think of.  We had no way to test-out our ideas, but that didn't stop us from imagining the possibilities of what a computer could do.  Still, being able to program a computer did not mean we would ever have one.  If our plan was going to work, we would have to start really working on getting a machine into our house.


Our first chance came in the summer of 1982.   MacDonald's had an Atari Video Game 'Scratch And Win' contest, giving away 1000's of Atari products, including 5200's and Atari computers.  We resigned ourselves to win the contest.  That summer, in between stints at the arcade that offered '8-tokens for a dollar', we would haunt the local MacDonald's, looking for discarded game-cards on the ground, and braving old Big Macs and soggy fries as we searched the trash cans in and outside the restaurant.   Out of the 100's of game-cards we found, none of them were Atari winners.     The best we did was to win fries and Cokes, but we were too disgusted by MacDonald's food by that time to eat any of it.    As the summer passed, so did the Atari computer dreams, and by the time we were back in school the idea was pushed-back, but not forgotten, as 7th grade got under-way.

In early 1983, Atari announced a new line of low-cost computers.  The XL line consisted of the 600XL and 800XL replacements for the Atari 400 and 800 respectively.  Both had sleek new designs, (straight-edges replaced the space-age curves of the older machines) with BASIC built-in.     They certainly were not as beautiful or engaging as their older counterparts, but they were much cheaper and this fact alighted our dreams once more.   At the time, our dad had been working overtime at Hughes Aircraft with a new computerized CAD/CAM system.   Without any knowledge of our computer obsession, he started coming home and bestowing upon us his wisdom about the virtues of this new computer system, and how computers were going to change everything.    Our father had a degree in Fine Art from Syracuse University, and after spending 20 years trying to land a decent job, he knew the value of not wasting a college education.   He warned us constantly that we would 'end up on skid row' if we wasted our education and didn't find a skill that was sellable.   At the same time, he constantly complained about his job, and told how most of our work lives would be spent 'dealing with boredom'.   As well, with his overtime work, he seemed to have a bit more cash on-hand than usual.   My brother and I decided it was time to tell him about the Atari Computers we have been coveting.

Our dad was blown-away by our enthusiasm on the subject.  We showed him the books we checked-out, the programs we had written, and the catalogs and magazines we had about Atari.  We swept him up in our computer dream, telling him about how we could grow-up to be programmers (a sellable skill) and not be bored with work (because computers were cool!).   He bought ever word.   He had no idea his kids were so interested in something so technical and modern.  With little coaxing, he joined us in our quest to make the 'Atari Computer Dream' a reality, and even better, he wanted to do it by Christmas.



In the months that led-up to Christmas 1983 we made attack plans on just how we would make the Atari Computer plan a success.  We listed all the things we would need:  800XL, 1050 Double Sided Disk Drive, a box of 10 blank disks, and a color TV for output.   My dad took care of the color TV by setting us up with a refurbished one he built from taking night classes on television repair.     We kept looking for the best prices on the Atari machines.  Every week we would check the ads in the Recycler, and take a trip to Fedco and Gemco to see if a shipment of 800XL's had arrived.   In the Autumn of 1983, the Atari XL computers became one of the best-selling lines in the world.    Simply finding an 800XL was becoming a problem.   As the weeks before Christmas turned into days, the outlook became bleaker and bleaker, as there were none to be found in any stores.

On Christmas Eve, we still had no computer purchased, and all hope seemed lost.   We took one last trip to Fedco, just for the hell-of-it.     It was Friday December 24th, and it just-so-happened to be the same day Fedco finally received their first shipment of Atari 800XL computers.  We were amazed, and dazed. Our dream of almost 3 years was coming true, and on Christmas!   My brother and I ran around the aisles, gleefully picking out everything we needed.   However, our father was not as enthusiastic.  He looked quite shocked that the store had anything in stock, almost like he had planned to find nothing there.   In fact, he looked rather glum.   As we dashed around the store, he finally got up the nerve to give us the news he had been holding back.   There would be no Atari 800XL this year.  He did not have enough overtime-pay to buy one.  We would have to wait even longer.

Devastated, my brother and I went home and sulked.  Christmas was ruined, and there was nothing we could do.  We both wished our dad had never latched-onto our plan, as it only raised our hopes only to dash them in the worst way possible.    However, church and family added some spirit back, and soon we got caught-up in the evening.   It was Christmas by God, and it would still be fun, as it always was.   Since the holiday fell on a Saturday that year, we would have two full weeks to play with whatever toys we received.   Even without a computer, we still might get some Atari or Vectrex games, and that couldn't be all bad.  Sleep that night was tough though. All the pent-up energy and feelings from years poured into twisted dreams about the Atari Computer Christmas gone-awry.  Asleep, awake, asleep, awake, with dreams in- between about what could-have-been: programming our Atari 800 XL, playing computer games all day long.

Christmas morning and the next two weeks are a complete blur in my mind.  For how precisely I remember the events that led-up to Christmas 1983, the events afterwards live in a state of suspended animation, where all memories seem to rest on-top of one another as if they all happened in tandem. My brother and I awoke, and things were just as my father had said.   There was no Atari 800 XL, and there was no Atari 1050 disk drive.   There were no shiny new computer games in elaborately shaped packages.  In their stead were two giant Atari Computer boxes, one for an Atari 800, and another for an Atari 810 disk drive.   Next to those was a box filled with books and two 5 ' inch floppy disk holders filled with disks.   Our father had not lied.  He could not afford a new Atari 800 XL,1050 disk drive or brand new computer games.   His buddy at work, Dave Elwood, had sold him an older Atari 800, with its beautiful curved design, an older model 810 disk drive, and all the software he had collected for 3 years.     It was like discovering The Lost Dutchman Mine when you thought you were on a trip to have your teeth pulled.


My brother and I dived into that computer and all the riches it held and did not come-up for air until two weeks later when we had to go back to school.   We wrote programs, played games, and discovered everything we every wanted to know about owning our own computer.   Mr. Elwood had collected dozens of games, and we tried them all.   Every Zork adventure, every Scott Adams Adventure, all the Atari created arcade translations, Star Raiders, and tons of others.  We explored financial programs, graphics demos, the realms of the public domain, and everything in-between.  Nothing was off-limits, and everything was of the utmost interest.  It was the purest moment I ever knew as a child.   It was the joy of complete intellectual and sensory discovery.  The computer held the promise as a device that we could control, and meld into what we needed and wanted, and as an unlimited tool for learning and creating.


20 years later, I still feel that way.   I may be older and grayer, with 100's of games played and 1000's of lines of code written behind me, but the discovery of that Christmas will never change.    My love of computers, programming, and games has grown and changed over the past two decades, but I now seem to be at a crossroads with it all.  In a time when 'Global Sourcing' threatens my job on a daily basis, and multi-million dollar soul-less video and computer games threaten to destroy my hobby,  I look back on that Christmas to remind me of the reasons why I still program computers for a living, and why I still play games.   There is always the hope of the next great discovery, be it technical, or the story of a great game that will make me say 'wow!' with a pure heart and no irony what-so-ever.   I seek to recall Christmas 1983, and to retain a tiny bit of that nerdy 13 year-old boy I once was: the one that believed, with computer in his hands, and a dream in his head, anything was within the realm of possibility.


The Day Wii Played Hooky : How My Family Loved And Lost The Nintendo Wii

By Steve Fulton

Wii Sports

In 2006 my family played hooky: All 5 of us.  It was a Monday in November.  The previous day I had gotten-up very early to stand-in line at the local Target.  It was rumored that they would have about 100 Nintendo Wii consoles available first come, first served. In my pocket was $450 dollar in cash that I had earned from publishing an article about Atari history Gamasutra.com.  I used that money in particular because I felt it was like the changing of the guard: old invested into new.   I was an Atari kid, and because of that, I had never owned a Nintendo system in my life.   I went from Atari 2600 directly to an Atari 800 computer, and then an Atari ST.  I bypassed the Nintendo age completely.   Because of this, there was no nostalgia in my heart for the Nintendo brand.   The Wii was going to have to live on it's own merits: there were no 20 year old memories that would help float it into the success column in our house.

The line at Target moved very quickly, and when I got to the front, I picked out a Wii console, Wii Play (packed with an extra Wii-Mote), Elabits, Legend Of Zelda Twilight Prinicess, and an extra Nunchuck.   I packed it all into my car, took it home, and hid it from my kids for Christmas.  Then the yearning started.  I needed to try it. I decided I wanted to play the console to make sure that it worked.  Christmas would suck if it didn't work, right?

I asked my wife Dawn what I should do.   She reminded me that we already had enough stuff for kids for Christmas, and suggested that I open the console and set-it-up to play immediately.    To be honest, I could tell that her interest was piqued too.  She had never had a Nintendo console herself (save for the one at the Teen center she worked at in the mid 1990's), and we had both been impressed by the Wii demo DVD I brought home from E3 that year.  I needed no more convincing, however I still hesitated because  imagined  the Wii would make an awesome Christmas surprise (though the kids were  had never really expressed an interest in it).  I waited all day Sunday, and finally opened up the console and set-up Sunday night for everyone to see.

My family was instantly interested.  Dawn and I spent most of the night creating Mii representations of ourselves. Before it got too late, we put in the Wii Sports disc to try it out.  The first game we tried was Bowling, and my family was pulled into the contest immediately.  We played through one game (and Dawn kicked my ass), and then realized it was too late to continue.   I imagined we all went to bed that night with Wii dreams dancing in our heads, but in reality, it they were probably just in mine.

When I woke up Monday morning, I ran down stairs and started-up the Wii so I could test another one of the games on the Wii Sports disc.   The first game I tried was golf.  My 8 year old came down the stairs, and asked to play too.  It was still early so I said yes.  Soon after my wife came down with the baby, and sat on the couch next to us.  Just a bit later, my 4 year old sleepily walked down the stairs and ask to play.  I don't recall the exact events that transpired, but the decision was soon made that no one was going to work or school that day.

Wii decided to play hooky.
The rest of the family made Mii characters.  My 4 year old tried to spell her name with the Wii-mote, but it came out "DC Nughman", and that stuck as her nickname for few years until she got really tired of it .  After that, we tried out the other Wii games I had purchased.  This is where I should have gotten a clue, but it passed me by.  All of the other games were, honestly, not successful. Elebits was supposed to be kind of like Katmari Damacy, but proved too frustrating to play.  Wii Play was like demo disc of failed controller experiments. Even Legend Of Zelda Twilight Princess left me cold.  Since none of us had any built-in nostalgia for the Zelda franchise,  the game came came off as slow but promising.  However it was single-player game and we were having such a good time playing as a family, we quickly went back to Wii Sports.   Outside of maybe one other  session, none of those three game were played in our house after that day.

Still, Wii Sports was good enough.  We continued playing all day and into the afternoon.  We traded the Wii-motes back and forth for Bowling, Tennis, Golf and Baseball.  We even tried Boxing, but it proved a bit too much with the nunchuck tether slapping us in the face as we tried to do battle. Still,   it was a great family day, one of the most memorable we've had, and the Nintendo Wii had given it to us.  I thought it would be the first of many such days we would spend as family together with the Nintendo Wii.  I had never been a Nintendo fan-boy, but at that moment, I was sold.  I had the urge to get ALL the games for the Wii, and then use the Virtual Console, go back and play all the games I has missed too.

Soon after though, things started to fall apart.   My next purchase, Excite Truck failed to set the family alight.   Warioware Smooth Moves proved far too difficult for the family to play ,and Cooking Mama just did not control as well as the DS game.     While both Carnival Games and Williams Pinball showed some promise, Mario Party was a mess that got played exactly once, EA Playground simply did not hold the same appeal as Wii Sports, and Metroid Prime 3 was too traditional to appeal to the family.

This game is far worse than ET on the 2600.

I recall Dawn telling me one day, as we tried another failed game, and went back to Wii Sports that she felt the Wii was a "Bait And Switch."  It had a lot of promise, but the games after Wii Sports never lived up to it.   She had a point.   At the time I was playing Williams Pinball religiously, but it was not really a "Wii" game at all.  (It remains my favorite game on the console.)  We also bought a ton of kids games, but most were simply awful.   The worst game we ever bought for the Wii was iCarly 2, a game that I don't think was even play tested before it was released. With games like that,   the kids expected that the  games we bought for the Wii would be hard to control, look terrible, and not be fun to play. Bait and Switch indeed.

However, I was not ready to give-up.  I started buying Virtual Console games in earnest in an attempt to rekindle the fire with some classic Nintendo Goodness.   The original Super Mario Bros. was the first, and it proved to be a mild success.  Dawn had spent many days playing the game with the kids at the Teen Center when she worked there in the 90's, and we had a few good sessions until it proved too difficult to continue.    I also bought the first few Zelda games, hoping to see what all the fuss was about, but to be honest, I just did not see it.  They were were Okay, but they did not really interest me. I was not immune the fact that the game was a huge advance in console video games when it was released, and putting my head into that of a 10 year old in 1987, I could see why they would have liked it or even loved it.  However, that same year I was playing Dungeon Master on my Atari ST, such a vastly superior game in every way, there was no way I would have been drawn into Zelda or the Nintendo console.  In fact, most of the the NES and Super NES games I bought from the Virtual Console (Save for Super Mario Bros. 3) were disappointing when compared to the Atari ST and PC/DOS games I played ion the same time period when they were originally released.  So much for manufactured nostalgia grabbing me.  As well, there was something else that really irked me about the Virtual Console: the almost complete absence of American and European games.  It was as if the paltry eight Commodore 64 games available were Nintendo's big middle finger to all the games and history of the 80's that both influenced their creations and made their success possible.

Still, I was not ready to give up.  So I bought Wii Fit and it became a sort of Wii Rennasiance in our house.   Again, all of us were in the living room trying to ski or balance stuff, or hula-hoop.  However, it too proved short-lived.  For all of it's usefulness, Wii Fit was mostly a single player game.  The promise of the entire family playing together was lost in the cumbersome interface of switching players.     More games were bought, and played once: Super Mario Galaxy, Animal Crossing, Wii Zapper, Thrillville,  Big Brain Academy,  and many others.  Even Super Paper Mario, a sequel to Paper Mario 1000 Year Door , agame my daughter and I had bought used, played and loved on the Wii, failed to gather much interest.     The only successful games in our house, versions Karaoke Revolution, Guitar Hero,  games that we could truly all play together but also titles that were available for any game system.  Watching my wife and daughters sing songs in those games made me feel a bit that that first day we played hooky with the Wii.  I wanted the feeling to continue.

So, I kept believing in the Wii.  In 2009 I bought game that I figured would change everything, and for a while, it did.  Boom Blocks appeared to be the game the Wii was made for.     It used the Wii-mote perfectly, and the whole family could sit around and play it.  Encouraged, I invested in the Wii Sports Resort and Wii Motion Plus in the belief that Nintendo was finally getting back to the roots of what made the Wii great, and by extension, what my family loved about it.  However, for some reason, that game never made a huge impression.  I, myself, loved the sword fighting, but the family lost interest quickly.   Furthermore, the Wii Motion Plus drained the Wiimote batteries at an incredible rate.   When Nintendo failed to follow-up Wii Sports Resort with any significant Wii-motion Plus titles, I removed the devices for good.  The last full retail game I bought for the console was Wii Party, and it was similar failure in my house.   Since then, besides cheap, red-tagged, marked-down games found on the end-caps at Target bought for he kids as fodder for cheap afternoon of entertainment,  I have pretty given-up on the Wii.
Last year I bought the Kinect for our Xbox 360.  Instantly, the same old family feeling entered out living room.    We all played Kinect Adventures together, and Kinect Sports was a huge hit.  While the Kinect has its' own particular issues, it was successful and accessible enough to get the whole family interested.   While we don't have a lot of time these days to play Kinect, when we do play as family, it works out pretty well.    My middle daughter, ("DC Nughman"), is currrently obsessed with Fruit Ninja.   My oldest daughter loves Ping Pong on Kinect Sports.  My youngest is now begging for the Seseme Street game for Christmas after we played the demo. At the same time, My wife and I play games like You Don't Know Jack and we all watch Netflix in HD on the 360.  As well, all sorts of games are available for download instantly for the 360, in all  genres and from all around the world. Sure there are no Nintendo games, but then we have all those already anyway don't we? In a sense, the Xbox 360 with Kinect out-Wii'd the Wii by actually delivering the whole family entertainment experience that the Wii promised but never delivered.

When the Kinect arrived, I moved the Nintendo Wii to the small TV upstairs, relegating it to obscurity.  It's still hooked up, with Boom Blocks firmly set as the game that is played the most...but not very often .  Still, I was not ready to give-up on Nintendo.  Not until I saw the Wii U at E3 and realized that they have pretty much lost the plot.    The Wii was a great system in search of software that did not exist.  In the end, it might have been the best bowling simulator ever made, but it's promise of pulling the family together was lost in sea of shovel-ware and empty promises.   Still, I've got the memories of that first glorious day, the day my entire family played hooky so we could all experience the Nintendo Wii together. Even if the console never lived up to its' promise of of truly great family experiences, I am still thankful for that first, best time playing Wii Sports and imagining the greater gatherings to come.





Sometimes Destiny Lies Between The Lines or How 4th Grade Isn’t Necessarily The End Of The World

By Steve Fulton

I sat next to Michael Jackson in the 4th grade.  Not that Michael Jackson, but Mike Jackson, my friend since he moved from England to  attend our Kindergarten at Pennekamp Elementary school in 1975.

Mike, I and my brother had been friends since he arrived from the UK, and we had been in just about every class together until Ms. Goldsmith's 4th grade classroom in 1979.   We did all the stuff that normal kids at the time would do.   We rode bikes, played army men and Godzilla, and we shot realistic guns at each other on the school grounds. We even made plans to move into a huge house together with all of our other friends in the neighborhood when we grew-up.

In November 1979, Mike invited us to his birthday party at Straw Hat Pizza.  Straw Hat Birthday parties were always awesome. They always included double-cut slices of pizza with huge cheese bubbles, pitchers of root beer, free rides on the mechanical horse, silent movies, and  especially, video games. Straw Hat was one of the only local places that had arcade games, so it was a no-miss event for sure.

There was one kid though, that I'm pretty sure was not at Mike's birthday party: Stanley Jones (not his real name).  This is not a knock on Mike, because except for when we were in Kindergarten, not too many people invited Stanley to much of anything.   Stanley had been in our Kindergarten class for a short time, and we played with him on the playground. The one thing I liked the most about Stanley was his enormous toothy grin, a smile he displayed with complete honesty at any given chance. However soon after Kindergarten started Stanley was moved to the "Resource" classroom.  "Resource" was separate room where kids from all grades went who needed special attention.   Stanley went there off and on, leaving Kindergarten class, and returning to play with us. Then then one day he left, and never came back.

Soon after Mike's 4th grade  birthday party, he and I were sitting in our classroom, working on a math ditto.  Math was my favorite subject in the 4th grade, but as I was zooming through the the purple ink on the page, I glanced at Mike's paper to see how he was doing.   I noticed that Mike had not answered a single question. Instead, he was doodling,  drawing some amazing little illustration of space ships in-between the questions. Soon after, Ms. Goldsmith came by and chastised Mike for not being further along on his work.  I felt sorry for Mike.  I remember thinking, "What was he going to do in his life he never learned his Math?" " How could he live in the big house together with all of our friends when we grew-up if he never made it out of school?"

If the prospect of Mike's future bothered me a little bit, the prospect of Stanley's future stuck in the back of my head.   I wondered if Stanley would ever be allowed back into a regular classroom, but it never happened.   Kids like Stanley were often left behind, as the throngs of students passed them by in the halls.  Besides some of the more popular kids saying mean stuff under their breath at them as they passed, they were hardly even acknowledged.  I never joined in, but instead was the kind of coward that just watched and never said anything to defend them, even when Stanley was the target.

There was very little understanding among us of Stanley or his particular issues, and I'm sure there were good reasons for us not being told. Still, a little information would have gone a long way.  He and the other kids in "Resource" were sequestered away, partially for their own good and I'm sure, partially for ours.   Whatever issues befell Stanley and whatever his thoughts and feelings were about it, I never knew.  He was just whisked away  where we hardly ever saw him.

I do recall speaking to Stanley on occasion, and in the 4th grade, he and his "Resource" class started to appear on the blacktop when we were out playing for morning recess.  At that point, Stanley appeared defeated, or at the very least, exasperated.  The huge smile he displayed in Kindergarten was long gone, replaced with a sort of knowing grimace.  I'm sure the years since we all had class together had not been easy.  Kids in the 70's could be very creative with their cruelty, and I'm sure Stanley was the recipient of much of it. Eventually, I believe, Stanley was put back a grade, but he did manage to make it all the way through Mira Costa High School and graduate.  However, by then, I had lost complete track of him.

At the same time, Mike, my brother Jeff and I remained pretty good friends through most of our school years.  We went on to Begg Junior High School, where we continued to be friends.  We played video games together, and we traded Atari 800 games in early 80's. We hung out together for our first couple years of high school, listening to Depeche Mode and getting into all sorts of trouble.  We even got caught together by mom after we snuck a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps into a screening of 2010 at the Mann Theater, and reeked of it afterward.  However, as people are wont to do,  we grew apart.   By the time we graduated from high school,  I'm not sure we even said goodbye to one another.

Nearly 12 years later, I was working at Mattel Toys ,building web sites and games.  I was working in the I.T. department, which traditionally is all about things like databases, spreadsheets, HR systems, and making sure the computer network is working.  However, I had been hired to build web sites for an IBM AS/400, and worked myself up to building ecommerce sites, then to consumer web sites and games.  Since my main customers were the brand web teams in the marketing department, I spent most of my time working with them, co-located in another building away from I.T.   The regular I.T. department had hard time understanding what I did, and game development in particular was the hardest for them to grasp.    It was a constant struggle to get I.T. management to understand that games were essential to the success of the consumer web sites (our sites which were some of the most visited kids web sites on the internet).   I never planned it this, way, but here I was, working between the lines, serving two masters: customers who wanted games and web sites and could not understand I.T., and my bosses in I.T. who could never grasp that games were what made our projects success in the first place.

Lo and behold, one day a new artist walked in, and it was Mike Jackson.   He had most of the spent the previous decade working on all sorts of graphic design projects, including a PC game by Steve Meretzky named The Space Bar.   Mattel hired him to design web sites, and he began working on HotWheels.com among other boy branded projects, none of which were things I was building, since I was mostly working girl's branded sites and games at the time.

About 3 years later, Mike and I got the chance to work on a project together. HotWheels.com wanted to add some Flash games to the site, and they had tapped us to both to a build game for the Monster Jam license.   I spent a few days mocking-up a game that used some basic mathematical slope calculations to move objects down a hill, and when it was ready, I showed it to Mike so he could start designing graphics for it.   As I was demoing the game for Mike, a thought struck me:  When we were sitting next to each other in the 4th grade, I worried for nothing.  My destiny might have been working out those Math problems, but Mike's was not.  His destiny was in-between the lines of that math ditto, and his doodles were worth more than those math problems ever could have been, at least to him.

A few weeks into the game project, Mike and I attended a child testing session at the Imagination Center at Mattel in the main tower building.  We were both happy to see that our game was the favorite among the kids testing that day.   On the elevator ride up to the Cafe for lunch, we were talking about the game, when the car stopped on the 2nd floor and in walked none other than Stanley Jones.   He was working on the mail crew at Mattel.  Mike and I both greeted Stanley, and asked him how he had been.  With a huge grin on his face, Stanley told us he was living in house in Manhattan Beach with his family, and how much he loved his job delivering the mail.

When we got off the elevator later and walked back to our building, I turned to Mike and asked him, "Hey, when we were in Kindergarten, did you ever think you, I and Stanley Jones would all be working at the same place almost 30 years later?"

"Never" he replied.


Click To Play The Game

By the way, the game,  Crashzilla Crusher,  turned out okay. While the game looks primitive by today's standard, the kids in 2003 LOVED it.  The game was played millions of times, and it proved the Hot Wheels brass that we should make even more games down the line.   We went on to produce over 200 games for Mattel web sites, making them some of the most successful kids web sites in history.

However, Mike and I never got to work on another project together like Crashzilla Crusher.  Mike got moved around to other projects and managers who did not appreciate his skills, and soon he left to work for Sony Imageworks.  I stayed at Mattel for many more years.  The web team moved to several different buildings, before ending up in the main Mattel building, where we stayed until I left.  Even though Mike was gone, I saw Stanley Jones more often, delivering the mail and and doing other odd jobs on our floor. Sometimes he recognized me, and other times not.  On the good days,  we often talked in passing about the Hometown Fair, and the beach volleyball tournaments he watched when he walked to the beach  He even lamented one time about how he missed all of the kids we went to kindergarten with, and wondered what had happened to them.

On my last day at Mattel, as I was carrying my boxes out of the building, Stanley rode the elevator down with me.  He told me again about where he lived, and how much he liked his job at Mattel.  Sometimes he told the same stories more than once, but I never mentioned it to him. One of my last memories from my 15 years at Mattel was Stanley's smiling face disappearing into the elevator as I walked out into my future.   When I think of Mattel now, I like to think of Stanley Jones, happy, riding the elevator with the mail cart and talking to people as he walks the cavernous floors and back-ways of the Mattel corporate headquarters, hopefully finding success and happiness in his life, working between the lines just like Mike Jackson, and just like me.



Video Games Are My Hobby: My Essay From English Class, March 1982

My essay for Mr. Davis' 6th grade English class, March 22, 1982, Foster A, Begg, Junior High, Manhattan Beach, CA.

(text below)

Steve Fulton



My favorite thing to do is play a video game. After school on Thursdays I run home, grab 10 dollars, and nag my mom to take me to the arcade.  When we get there, I jump out of the car and run into the arcade to change my money.

When my money is changed, I run over the nearest GALAGA machine and start to play.  What great fun it is to blast space ships out of the sky, and when it is over I slide another quarter in and play again.  The sounds and colors the game makes are crisp and real.

When your playing the game its like your mind goes blank and all you can see is your ship blasting other ships.  You usually play for about 5 hours, and when you finally leave you have a very bad headache and are dizzy.  You feel so bad that for the next 7 days your sick and on the 8th you recover and on that same day you go back to the arcade.

(end of essay)

First off , it's not even a proper essay.  Where are the 5 paragraphs and the conclusion? Slacker.  Secondly, The whole bit about having $10 and playing for 5 hours is a total fabrication. It was more like $2.00 and playing for 2 hours because they gave 8 tokens for a dollar at Castle Park in Redondo Beach on Thursdays.  I probably did not mention tokens at all because I did not think the teacher would understand.

M., Davis must have assigned an essay where we had to use the numbers 10,5,7 and 8 or something like that.  She also probably wanted us to describe an activity in detail. By the way, not every kid wrote about video games in those days.  In fact, I imagine I was going out on a limb with this essay because Ms. Davis could be fairly strict and straight-laced (as far as I recall).

The 3rd paragraph is the most interesting to me because it describes how my 12 year-old self felt when I was playing a video game.  Pretty scary stuff for the video game naysayers at the time I would believe!



8bits in the Attic – Atari (and Intellivision) Treasure Trove

About 12 years ago I realized that I wanted to play my original 1986 Atari 7800, but had no idea where it was. After searching the garage at my parents house, I found the original system in its original box, but no games. This set me out on a mission to find games to play on it. This mission ultimately resulted in my acquiring smallish stock of retro games and systems. We moved houses 2 years later and all of those games and systems seemed to have been lost somewhere along that way...until today. Today, while searching for Easter baskets and decorations in the attic, I uncovered 5 boxes of retro gear. The first contained many of of the 8-bit Atari games (400/800/xl/xe, 2600, 5200, 7800) and a couple Intellivision games.

2600 Games

The box contained 51 Atari 2600 carts. Only 2 of them were doubles, and 4 were signed by the original programmers/designer. While at Mattel we had the pleasure of working with David Crane and Gary Kitchen (both with  Skyworks at the time). They agreed to sign some carts that I brought in.

(click to enlarge photo)

The games starting from the top row and moving left to right and down:

Super Breakout, Asteroids, Casino, Video Pinball, Defender, Human Cannonball, Surround, Video Olympics, Home Run

Adventure, Maze Craze, Warlords(2), Football, Haunted House, Street Racer, Pele's Soccer,  Space Invaders

Yar's Revenge, Pac-Man, Mario Bros, Pole Position, Real Sports Tennis, Centipede, Vanguard,  Real Sports Baseball, Kangaroo,

Ms Pac-Man, Sears Tele-Games Golf, Bowling, Combat, Breakout, Basketball, Sears Tele-Games Pinball, River Raid, Sea Quest

Enduro, Pitfall (signed by David Crane), Grand Prix (signed by David Crane), Keystone Kapers (signed by Gary Kitchen), Spider Fighter(2), Megamania, Donkey Kong (signed by Gary Kitchen), Frogger,  Phoenix (in Box)

Riddle of the Sphinx, Q-Bert, Star Wars (the Empire Strikes Back), Trick Shot, Atlantis

A couple of these games I got from Steve as he had been care-taking most of our older 8-bit stuff (I got the Atari ST). Some of these games I found at garage sales, mom and pop thrift stores, and on the internet, but by far the largest portion were grabbed from the TV department of the local Salvation Army for $1.50 a piece (you can see the shitty non-removable sticker on many of them).  The Phoenix cart (in box) was purchased with a lot of 7800 games off the internet.

7800 Games

The box contained 18 Atari 7800 carts (9 in box, 9 loose).

(click to enlarge photo)

Pete Rose Baseball, Xevious, Food Fight, Desert Falcon, Robotron, Touchdown Football, Galaga, Asteroids

Baseball (in box), One on One (in box), Ms Pac-Man (in Box), Dark Chambers (in Box)

Donkey Kong (in box), Donkey Kong Junior, Choplifter, Tower Toppler, Centipede

Like the 2600 carts, a few of these came from Steve's stash of our originals while all of the in-box carts were purchased over the internet.

Atari 400/800/xl/xe computer game carts

My favorite retro machines are the Atari 8-bit computers (the mini-Amiga as Jay Miner had his hand in creating both). It was the most elegant and arguably one of the most powerful of the 8-bit computers. Game-wise it was much more powerful than the early IBM's, Apples, and Timex's, and it fought on even ground with the C=64 (each machine having it's own advantages).

This is the machine I was (and maybe still am) most interested in collecting carts for. I don't know If I will ever start up my collection again though. I was burned too many times by e-bay sellers who never sent he carts that paid for. This was the major factor that stopped me from collecting in the first place.

There are only 9-carts in this box for the Atari 8-bit computers, but I am sure I have more some place (or did they never arrive in the mail?).

(click to enlarge photo)

Millipede,  Demon Attack (will not work on my 65xe or 800xl), Qix, Dig Dug, Star Raiders, Miner 2049er (I know the cart pic is obscured by my lame photography skills, but most of the printing is also gone form the label), XE Game System Food Fight, XE Game  System Donkey Kong, and River Raid.

5200 Carts

I never had a 5200, but when these two babies showed up at the bottom of a pile of junk on the 99 Cent store "media isle" I jumped on them.

(click to enlarge photo)

The two carts are Pole Position and Pac-Man, but I could have sworn I have an in-box Berzerk some place also.

It has been 12 years, but I still go to that 99 Cent store media section hoping to see Atari carts at least a couple times a year. No more have ever shown up.

Intellivision Carts

I have a soft spot in my Atari heart for the Mattel Intellivision. Steve and I used to play the system all the time at Eric Barth's house down the  street (he might be your professor now if you attend college in the South).   I worked at Mattel for 13 years and was astounded by how little homage they paid to this lovely device (none-what-so-ever). That, in a nut shell, explains (to me at least) why they will never "get it" and will never be the digital company that they hope they can be.

Anyway, I found these four babies at a Goodwill Shoppe (the expensive one with the boutique). These were actually only a couple bucks each because they didn't have the word Nintendo written on them anywhere.

(click to enlarge photo)

The games are Mission X, Football (was NFL Football), Triple Action, and Burger time.

There are more boxes in the attic. I know there are Genesis, 32x, Jaguar, Atari ST games and much more up there. Maybe I'll get to them next week, or maybe it will be 10 more years. It all depends on how busy Zynga keeps me. (By the way, Zynga is a an awesome place to work)

(8bitjeff is Jeff D. Fulton)

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