The Nostalgia Project – Part 3: The BBC Micro

The Nostalgia Project – Part 3: The BBC Micro

The BBC Micro was the computer you had in schools when they started putting them in schools. It’s the same BBC that makes Sherlock and Planet Earth today – the computer was part of an educational effort. It’s a thing of beauty, look at those red function keys:


(Picture credit: By BBC_Micro.jpeg: Stuart Brady derivative work: Ubcule (BBC_Micro.jpeg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

My primary school got one, it was on a trolley that got moved between classrooms. I loved it, and wanted to write all of my work on InterWord instead of using boring old pen and paper. You turned it on with a huge rocker switch on the back, and it made a two-tone beep when you did this which equals, if not betters, the Mac startup chime.

I also learnt my first programming on it:



My dad brought one home during the school holidays, and my sister and I would kneel on the floor, taking it in turns to play the games. We never owned one full time, but several friends did. In those days kids weren’t allowed indoors unless it was raining, and we’d wish for terrible weather just so that we could go in and play on computers.

At school there were some educational games on the (single) computer. I mostly remember Granny’s Garden (still alive and kicking on iOS nowadays!) and Martello Tower. My other memories were:

  • Citadel, a puzzling adventure
  • Imogen, where you morphed between a wizard, a cat and a monkey to solve puzzles
  • The Repton series of games, where you’d go round mazes digging dirt, avoiding falling boulders and collecting diamonds.
  • Mr. E, which turned out to be a remake of the arcade classic Mr. Do, which I’ll be covering in the arcade post.

A tour of the few excellent BBC Micro nostalgia sites made me remember Castle Quest, which I think we never got more than a few screens into, Frak, where a caveman kills monsters with a yo-yo, and Knightlore, which… well, I can’t remember what happened in the game but the monochrome isometric maze was very familiar.

But there’s no emulator…

As mentioned in the previous post, there is no BBC emulator included with RetroPie. However, I did find this post which, in essence, tells you to download the source for BeebEm and compile it on the Pi. It also includes instructions for adding BeebEm to the EmulationStation front end, but this has some problems, particularly if you want to save games or change discs – it does this by opening a file browser window, and if you’re not running in a desktop then it just crashes. Also, you really need a keyboard – all the BBC games were played using a keyboard, and remapping each one to use a pad instead seemed like too much work. I have very little patience for messing about with the system instead of using it. Which brings me neatly on to…

BeebEm has no sound when you run it on the Pi

A few of the comments in the above blog post mentioned this. I experienced it too, and it’s a real shame, as the sounds are part of the memories for me in a lot of these games, particuarly the synthesized speech that Superior Software used to put on the front of all their games (citadel – Citadel – CITADEL – CITADEL). Some of the commenters also mentioned that they’d got sound working by using AdvMESS. All the instructions I found for this seemed to be a few versions old. I downloaded the source and followed the build instructions, this just gave me advmame, and not advmess.

I couldn’t work out how to compile advmess. Instead I downloaded the package (I hadn’t noticed that link at first) and installed that. That worked, but I needed to get the operating system roms for the BBC. I got these and put them in the appropriate folder… and it still told me it couldn’t find them. At this point I’d got to the end of my “messing about with the system” tether and decided to play the games without sound instead.

You need a keyboard

Not only were all the games designed to be played on keyboards, it’s also not possible to quit the emulator without using the menu (F12, or fn-F12 if you’re using a Mac keyboard). The menu itself requires a mouse, too. Maybe you can replace these with clever controller remapping, but at this point I just wanted to play. And why not play on a keyboard, the point, after all, is nostalgia.

Imogen

If you’ve ever played Imogen, you probably still remember it. Within a few minutes of starting the game I’d whipped a dog, saxophoned a baby to death, made a dog fill an inverted umbrella with its own drool, burned the rope a parrot was holding on to and, most memorably of all, crushed a hamster with a log and used its pulverised remains to grow a tulip bulb. It matches my memories almost exactly. You can change between three characters – a wizard, a monkey and a cat. The cat can do big jumps, the monkey can climb ropes, and the wizard can use the objects that are scattered around each level.

The levels are quite small, and each one has the same goal – you have to reach a sort of sparkly diamond, then change to the wizard and use it. The name of the level usually gives you a clue about how to solve it. You can’t die or go wrong in the game, which is nice, but you start with a limited number of changes, and if they run out, you’re stuck. There are a couple of tricky sections which mean you can burn through those changes quite quickly – on my first play I got about eight levels in (there are sixteen levels, and you start at a random one each time you play the game) before I ran out of changes, mostly from a stupid change-from-cat-to-monkey-and-grab-a-rope-in-mid-air part which is very easy to get wrong. Here’s the bit where I’m about to kill a hamster:


There’s a rather cruel humour running through the game and the puzzles are pitched pretty well – this made me want to play through the entire thing, which I’m not sure I ever did (though with the random start level and the ability to enter a level name and go there, I probably played each level individually). I haven’t done that yet, so I’ll continue writing when I’m done.


Right, that wasn’t too hard! A couple of frustrating jumping sections, but mostly fine, and good fun. I like to finish games, so endless runner types or Tetris-style games have never really appealed to me. The puzzles were perhaps a little too simple, but it was a simpler time back then. Next!

Citadel

I remember playing this at a friends house, mostly. He not only had a BBC, but later on got an Archimedes, which was the vastly more powerful successor. Rather neatly, the Archimedes was the first ARM-based computer, and the Pi is one of the latest!

My memories of Citadel are that the game was massive, you could shoot ghost monks in the eye, and at some point there was a huge satellite dish and maybe you spent some time on the moon or something? Let’s play…


Well, I shan’t be playing that through to completion. Walk miles this way, pick that up, walk miles the other way, use it. I gave it a good half hour or so but it didn’t grab me or light my memories up the way that Imogen did.

I remember drawing a map of the game on some taped together bits of paper, but then I did that for quite a lot of games.

Castle Quest

All I remember from this is being trapped in prison. Played it for a bit and, yep, trapped in prison. I think this was probably very technically impressive at the time, with the scrolling, but like Citadel, it isn’t actually all that much fun. I watched a walkthrough on YouTube of someone else completing the game for me, and it didn’t look like they had that much fun either.

Repton 2

Brutal. You die, you get trapped, you’re stuck in dead ends, you have to commit suicide to get out. It’s an interesting game mechanic, digging and having things fall and so on, but the game feels huge and it looks like you’d need to put in hours of trial and error to make any real progress. And hours of trial and error is, frankly, not what I’m here for.

Frak

Absoutely dreadful. A platformer which doesn’t seem to obey the standard rules of all other platformers, so I was falling through platforms despite definitely landing with my feet on them. Also daggers that kill you rain randomly down as you try to progress.

Granny’s Garden

You can still buy this today, for PC and iOS, and so the copyright is quite aggressively defended, meaning I couldn’t find it on any of the ROM sites. So I gave up.

Martello Tower

I played this one right to the end, to my wife’s disgust. It’s a text-based adventure with all the associated frustrations (there’s a locksmith, and a key cutting machine, and you have some metal – CUT KEY (he wants metal) GIVE METAL TO LOCKSMITH (I don’t know how to do that) KILL LOCKSMITH (I don’t know how to do that) and so on…). There are a series of maths puzzles in there such as solving triangular numbers, finding the lowest numbered door given a description of what the doors add up to and so on – I nerded out on this and wrote an Xcode Playground to solve the puzzles for me, which to be honest was more fun than the game itself. High five to any primary school kids that managed to complete this game, it was not easy.

Conclusion

I only really enjoyed Imogen, and Martello tower a little bit. But it probably isn’t fair to judge these games by today’s standards. Back then a new game was a big deal, and resources were restricted – you couldn’t make games that were particularly big, so you had to make them incredibly hard, otherwise people would finish the game in less time than it took the tape to load it.

It also feels like a lot of these games were designed so that you’d die quickly so that it could be someone else’s turn – I definitely remember hoping that my friends would miss a jump or get hit by something so it could be my go again.

Also, the lack of sound takes away quite a lot of the Proustian nostalgia rush I was hoping to experience. It’s almost eerie playing these games in silence.

Luckily, the next system in my list, the ZX Spectrum, is supported “properly” in RetroPie, so I should be able to enjoy it with sound.

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