My history with computers, Part 2- “Mid 90s

Context

Picking up where I left off last time: we’d got a first, new computer, the first set of simple games, and a first operating system (ye olde DOS).

QBasic

As I’ve mentioned, the only programming environment, programming interface, programming tool, programming editor I knew about or used, was the version of QBasic that came bundled with MS-DOS.

This might sound pathetic now, but felt very cool to me back then. I hadn’t experienced “programmable calculators”, so this was also the only “programmable thing”.

This beige box was the only thing that could compute at all. All this sounds redundant, because we have so many little computers all over the place now and they’re ubiquitous, but it’s hard to give an idea of how unique one of these was.

(Like this, except in black and white)

Everything was one giant file, with jumps all over the place. Incredibly messy, and IMO a terrible way to learn how to write anything (so much to unlearn later, sigh). But still, a great way to get started MAKING stuff.

Using it

Just to give an idea, here’s how a sample interaction might go (say I wanted to make some random patterns or drawing, in my “computer time” that day):

  • The computer is off, put it on (the idea of leaving it on all the time would have been crazy!)

     

  • It boots into the C:\> prompt, pretty quickly (no logins, single-user!)

     

  • I run QBASIC, see the screen above

  • I write some small fragment like

    SCREEN 1
    LINE (35, 50) - (100,150), , B
    
  • I hit run, and see a small rectangle (in the beginning, coming from LOGO, this is most of what I did)

     

  • I press a key, back in the editor, make some changes, repeat.

Game programming books

The installation of QBasic came bundled with an impressive game that gave the impression that a lot was possible (the code was very spaghetti-zed, but I supposed relatively okay).

(Like this, except in black and white)

At the time there were also a lot of books with games — by which I mean they had programs that you could type out and run (remember how I said everything is “just one large file”?)

I was fortunate my mother could bring these from the library of the school she worked at, and I learnt a lot (okay, questionable, but it definitely felt good) from reading through them.

I was also fortunate that my younger brother (with great patience!) would read aloud each line for me to type in, so we could play the game later.

One of these was a Star Trek game, the longest of the bunch, that we painstakingly typed in over several days, slowly making progress page by page (sounds ridiculous as I type this, but … yeah, you had to be there), and inevitably I must have made some small typo somewhere, that was then … impossible to track down, so we were quite dejected when it didn’t work.

However, the opening theme did play, with its signature tune, and that felt good. I should note that there were no speakers, so there was no sound, just a beeper with different frequencies.

I did try to read the source code, and it was essentially a “first RPG”, with an energy level that got depleted by actions, movement in a grid in space, ability to fire phasers and photon torpedoes, all that good stuff.

(I googled it, and … of course there’s a Youtube video for this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLKw4AU4KHU)

Windows

I had seen Windows machines at school, when I finally got a chance to play with one of two computers that had a mouse. All I did was use MS Paint, because moving the cursor, pointing and clicking and seeing dots of color appear was such a novel experience!

Finally, one day, my dad brought a stack of floppies (because that’s how anything got installed) for Windows 3.11. It required baby-sitting the whole install experience, removing and inserting each floppy in the precise order in which they were labelled.

GUI

Now, after starting up the computer, at the c:\> prompt, it was possible to run win, and then see a brief splash screen.

(Like this, except in black and white)

After which there would be, well, windows on the screen.

(Again: this, except in black and white)

Things were getting exciting.

Remember though, still no mouse (that would come a few months later). So we got really good at keyboard shortcuts for selecting windows, moving, resizing, whatever.

Apps

A big boost came from getting (in another long bunch of floppies) Microsoft Office (!)

Each app took about a minute to load up, but we could now use (still one at a time) Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Access!

I remember Access has a dialect called AccessBasic that I read the manual for, tried to use, and failed. I wanted to make a “home library system”, but spent all my time prettifying the frontend and never quite got the flow of entering books and looking them up to work properly.

I vaguely remember repeating this painful install process a couple times, and using Norton Disk Doctor and a bunch of other tools that simply have no analogue today.

Games

Bundled games included Minesweeper and Solitaire, though I never quite liked them all that much.

At this time, windows was very much (until Windows 95, I think) a “shell within DOS”, so it was quite normal to play some games within Windows, and to exit Windows and play some games within DOS.

As far as I can remember (again, I wish I had written something down), there were better games in DOS, especially the ones my brother got from his friends.

One game stands out: Wolfenstein. Again, this was black-and-white without sound, but … it was the first-ever FPS. Let me repeat that: the first-ever first-person shooter (for me, at least). All I had seen were flat, 2-d games, maybe a few platforms, and … here was something totally different.

(Again, like this, except black-and-white, and no sound)

In today’s world of bloated “built on Electron” apps, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the skill that went into creating an experience like this on a limited computing platform such as we had.

I do remember a visual Chess game on Windows, perhaps Chessmaster?

Transition

Time to stop again, so I can come back and write again later. Next time: an upgrade.

2 thoughts on “My history with computers, Part 2- “Mid 90s”

  1. I remember playing the same “Star Trek” game on my friend’s Commodore 64 (I see the linked reference says the game was originally written in 1971). It was pretty fun.

    Your series got me thinking of a similar blog series I wrote about my computing experience, called “Reminiscing.” If you’re interested, here are the links:

    Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

    Like

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