Update: It’s the last day of Thanksgiving weekend in the US, and our staff is enjoying one final bit of rest before taking on that stretch of work from now ’til the winter holiday season. A day like today is perfect for the type of stuff found in our old “First Encounter” series, which revisited moments when an Ars staffer first came across some new bit of tech that would eventually change their lives. You may not be able to browse COMPUTE! on your couch today, but you can read how it forever shaped Ars Deputy Editor Nate Anderson. This piece originally ran on December 28, 2012, and it appears unchanged below.
My first computer was an Atari 600XL, a 16KB model with a cartridge slot and no disk drive which my parents suffered through a high-pressure time share sales pitch to obtain for me. And I loved it, not so much for playing the cartridge version of Star Raiders (though I did that, too) but because the machine opened the door to BASIC code and to writing one’s own programs. It was like a LEGO kit for the mind: if you could think it—and squeeze it into 16KB—you could build it.
But how to save these masterpieces? I quickly acquired a finicky, used tape drive to store my programs on standard cassette tapes, picked up some books from the library, and I was off, coding versions of “Hunt the Wumpus” and other early Unix delights that had been ported to BASIC for the new breed of home computer user. Then, as I was browsing the magazine rack at our public library one day in the mid-1980s, I came across a wondrous magazine called COMPUTE!. It contained cutting-edge programs—including plenty of games—with decent graphics. And the code was all free. I quickly grabbed every back issue the library would let me take and headed home.
COMPUTE! made you work for those free programs, though. If you wanted to play a rudimentary strategy game like Beehive or experience the “haunting” 8-bit graphics of Witching Hour—and I did, badly—you had to type the programs in by hand. (Disks were available for some versions of these programs, but these cost money and required mailing away for subscriptions and using checks; I wasn’t about to do any of this at the time.) Whole sections of the magazine were dedicated to code for these programs, a situation made exponentially worse for the magazine’s editors by the fact that they had to write for so many platforms, including the Commodore 64, Apple II line, Atari, IBM PC, TI 99/4A, and more.
The process of typing this code into my Atari 600XL was exactly as tedious as it sounded. For hours, I would lie on the floor of our living room and read lines like “
2510 POKE 705, PEEK (707+C(I-1, BR/3)):A=24*(BR/3+2):BL=32+I*B:POKE 53249, A" while my long-suffering father banged them out on the keyboard. (This tag-team process ensured maximum speed of program entry.) Each line printed in the magazine contained a small checksum value which would ensure that the line had been entered correctly—but to use it, you first had to enter another checksum program. On a machine with 16KB of RAM, having both the checksum program and the actual game in memory at once could create space problems, so I generally went without the checksums.
This resulted in obvious problems. After an hour or two of typing in BASIC code, my father would lean back from the computer, type
RUN, and hit return. If we were lucky, the title screen appeared before a show-stopping bug brought the whole thing down. The next hour was then spent having my dad read back the code off the screen, which I checked against that printed in the magazine until we had squashed all the bugs.
And this was the best-case scenario. The worst case came when the editors decided to print your platform’s code that month as machine language, which made the whole process almost eye-stabbingly horrible. But kids still have enough free time to do even eye-stabbingly horrible tasks, and so I would indeed spend my time after school hand-entering code like this:
I didn’t actually play the games that much—they were, on the whole, fairly simple—but the thrill of building something out of letters on a page and then troubleshooting it until it ran correctly always kept me trying new code. Sure, I spent plenty of time on this, but it wasn’t costing me any money. This was key, since I didn’t have any money, and it was a major selling point of COMPUTE! in those days. The magazine used to run full-page ads encouraging you to subscribe because you could “Get up to 30 new programs and games for less than 15 cents each—every month in COMPUTE!”
And we weren’t just talking about games here. Personal computing, still in its early days, was at a stage where a magazine like COMPUTE! could promise subscribers the world. “Your children will find learning fast and fun with First Math, Guess That Animal, and Mystery Spell,” went the pitch. And Cash Flow Manager, Coupon Filer, Dynamic Bookkeeping, and Utility Audit all promised to turn these early computers into Serious Business Machines. (Though if anyone truly trusted their retirement planning or business ledgers to a 16KB computer with a flaky tape drive system, I weep for the eventual heartache they experienced.)
Commercial software had blossomed in the early to mid 1980s, though, and it soon became clear that however cool (and cheap!) the type-in programs were, they could not match the wonders of the disks you plunked down cash to buy. Not knowing any computer user groups or having access to bulletin boards or the Internet, my sole knowledge of these programs came, for years, from the ads in COMPUTE!. These could be lavish, expository ads such as those for Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which took two pages to describe how text adventures worked and how this one in particular responded to your input.
Ads didn’t even require screenshots. I can still remember one particular ad from Electronic Arts that made me lust after titles like Sky Fox, Music Construction Set, M.U.L.E., and Pinball Construction Set. What did they look like? How did they perform? Had they been well-reviewed? Who knew—this wasn’t information that was easily available to me, but what I did have was box cover art, game titles, and descriptions of the “3-D flight & simulation with 5 skill levels and 15 different scenarios.”
Those were heady days to be a young computer enthusiast, but they couldn’t last. As machines grew more powerful and as software increased in complexity, programs became ever longer and took up more space in the magazine. At the same time, computers reached more and more people, few of whom wanted to type in code for hours, even to save a few bucks. And so, in May 1988, COMPUTE! wrote the editorial that broke my 12-year old heart. “COMPUTE! begins a new era,” announced editor Gregg Keizer, “one that doesn’t include type-in programs.” The magazine had bowed to the inevitable after realizing that it was “not possible to offer top quality type-in programs for all machines.” Instead, each issue would feature a buyer’s guide for various genres of commercial software.
I had moved on to an Apple II and would soon migrate to a PC, but I still missed those type-in programs. Though a fantastic amount of work, they provided access to free software, new code I could use without spending more money. Would I be stuck buying commercial software, never knowing if it would prove entertaining or useful until I had already plunked down my money?
The magazine, which survived for several more years, was eventually sold, changed its font, and dumped the exclamation point at the end of its name—but it added one just about everywhere else. The last issue in September 1994 had lost most of what made the magazine so compelling in the 1980s and was running articles called “Get rich! Stay Rich! Retire Rich!” and “How to upgrade your PC!” and “Modem combat!” and “7 color notebooks—under $2,500!” (Thanks to the Internet Archive, one can now download every issue of COMPUTE!—a vast storehouse of awesomeness for anyone who came of age with computers in the 1980s.)
But it all turned out alright in the end—for me, anyway. COMPUTE! went under, but bulletin boards had arisen to offer gobs of free code, shareware, and even online games. Wolfenstein 3D might take an hour to download on my first modem, a 2400bps model, but who cared? The game handily beat anything I had ever coded by hand, and the only work I had to do was begin a download. Thanks to the wonders of the ZMODEM protocol, even a download interrupted when my mother lifted a handset upstairs posed no problem and was easily restarted. COMPUTE! and the programs I had spent all those hours entering still held a place in my heart, but I could even then recognize the feeling as nostalgia. The future belonged to the BBS—and eventually to the Internet—but my childhood belonged to COMPUTE!