Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Memories of the 1980s: Space Invaders

Having a clear out at home, I chanced upon an old book of cartoons. This was Micro phobia: How to Survive Your Computer and the Technological Revolution (1982), drawn and written by Martin Honeysett, whom the Guardian described in its obituary in 2015 (when he died, aged 71) as " one of the greatest gag cartoonists Britain has produced and also one of its most brilliant artists".

What is really fascinating about this particular book is that it comes just at a time when the microcomputer was starting to reach out into the workplace, and even into the home.

Schools were gradually getting the BBC Micro (as did the home market) and in 1986 the BBC launched an ambitious project to record a snapshot of everyday life across the UK for future generations largely using the Micro to compile computerised and digitized Domesday book. A million volunteers took part across the British Isles, including Jersey. Here's one snippet:

"Jersey's 4,200 milking cows provide the Island's co-operative dairy with 45,000 pints of milk each day. This is collected from the 145 dairy farms on the Island. Once at the dairy (Jersey Milk Marketing Board) the milk is treated and fat separated. Seven different types of milk are produced and packaged in waxed cartons."

"Milk bottles were last used in 1966. These were stopped because they were expensive and unhygienic. Each week 21,000 cartons containing one third of a pint of milk are delivered to the island's Primary Schools. The cost of a 'Pinta' is 27p for all the different types except "Full Cream' which sells for 28p a pint. Unsold milk is recycled into animal foods."

Incidentally, 3,000 cows in the Island were recorded in 2015, a reduction of 4,200. School milk was stopped some years ago as part of a government cut back in 2010. The milk cut plan was put forward by Economic Development Minister, Alan Maclean.

But the 1980s was also the age when computer games invaded pubs and hotel lobbies, with computer tennis being the first. Two paddles and a moving square, extremely primitive, but quite addictive in its way, and a complete novelty. It would get faster and faster until you missed it with your paddle.

I remember they had it in the lounge at the Cheslea hotel in Gloucester Street, the one owned by the three Binnington brothers (Bernard became a Deputy and then a Senator) - that's now been demolished and replaced by flats. When he was running for Deputy for the first time, the Cheslea was his election HQ, and we played electronic tennis to pass the time.

But the big one was Space Invaders! That four tone beat of music as the aliens came at you was unmistakable, and the graphics (for its time) were way ahead of the tennis game.

There was at least one local company which bought (using finance leases) masses of different games, including Space Invaders, which was the mainstay, and were busy putting them in pubs as an attraction.

Electronic games seemed here to stay. This is what we see in the cartoons in this book. At its release in 1978, Space Invaders was a cultural and technological phenomenon, and everyone wanted to try it out. 

Space Invaders is one of the earliest shooting games and the aim is to defeat waves of aliens with a laser cannon to earn as many points as possible. Looking in part for inspiration at Star Wars (1977), it build on the same kind of idea as space shoot out scenario at the end of the movie, when the bad guys keep on coming, and the goodies need to zap them.

I remember the student coffee bar at St Luke's Exeter had two Space Invaders consoles, and they were forever in use. While the boom lasted, they must have made a fortune. But they were quite large, bulky consoles, so they were not the kind of games people could buy for home use, and the capital outlay was also fairly expensive.

The pubs were full of the beeping noises as the players attempted to get high scores in each round of the game. But by the end of the 1980s, the technology had advanced and home operated consoles, which could be fitted to your television set, were becoming the vogue, and were cheaper as well. The pubs began to lose their electronic games machines, and now they are almost completely gone, part of a lost world.

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