Turn back the clock to the early 1980s and blot all this talk of PlayStations and Wiis from your mind for a moment – nobody really cares about consoles all that much anyway. Games will just rot you brain afterall, so it’s best to stick with a home computer that lets you do other, educational things if you’ve got any sense at all.
Or, at least, that’s what companies like Sinclair and Acorn were telling everyone in an attempt to secure a corner of the market and stave off the growing threat of Nintendo’s NES. Home computers were pushed for their educational aspect first, business uses second and games a distant third.
Either way, the early years of popular home computers extended across the late 70s and early 80s and Britain was right there at the very front of the battle between cassettes and cartridges.
At the same time as this international battle was being waged, Sinclair Research was fighting a marketing war with Acorn that nearly buried both companies - though the upside of it was that there was a lot of consumer interest in microcomputers. Both companies were desperately trying to lower their prices, while making grandiose promises to parents that buying a home computer would further their children’s education dramatically. Buy a computer, father a genius. Your son or daughter might even grow up to be one of those smart, essential, young businesspeople that owned a digital watch or used a Sinclair Executive calculator.
Jet Set Willy - nowadays that sort of profanity would be cause for a banning!
Nowadays, we know better. Give a kid a PC and, assuming they dodge the perils of the ‘net, they’re more likely to boot up Call of Duty than they are to fiddle with spreadsheets. If all else fails, there’s always Solitaire – the card-based saviour of bored, internet deprived users everywhere.
That doesn’t mean that the kids weren’t learning though, just that they focused their lessons around what interested them or what tested their limits. The availability of Sinclair and Acorn machines in the UK meant that children all across the land were learning how to reverse engineer games and create their own levels for games like Jet Set Willy, while more adventurous kids were making their own games. It was the golden age of the bedroom coder and games were being quickly churned out by prodigiously young talents, like Antony Crowther – a Sheffield born developer who had his first game, Aztec Tomb published at the age of 18. It wasn't a rare story - countless other programmers, from Peter Molyneux to David Brabben got their start bashing out code for simple games sold on tapes. Every other week another fresh-faced wunderkind would appear to make their millions before they could grow facial hair. The trend continued for years.
One of the biggest factors in the UK’s early start in the games industry though was the BBC Micro, which changed the face of education and appeared in most schools across the country. We even had one in my own primary school and those of us with a geeky inclination and a deep-seated love for the clack-clack noise of the built-in keyboard would spend every breaktime trying to defeat games like Granny’s Garden and Martello Towers.
Elite. Need we say more?
Speaking personally, even my Father had a go at game creation through the BBC, using his NHS work terminal to create elaborately told stories with simple pictures and interactions similar to a Choose Your Own Adventure book. One of my first truly technical experience came from modifying these games, mainly to correct the spelling.
The 80s and early 90s were a great time to be a well-connected geek in the UK. Experiences, tips and photocopied copy-protection sheets were traded in the playground by those who could tear themselves away from the latest crudely animated escapades, while another luridly coloured and deeply humorous title was always just around the corner.
The novelty of something being new was enough to blot out the annoyance of insane difficulty curves or bugs, so nobody ever really complained that the original release of Jet Set Willy couldn’t be finished. Instead, everyone giggled and wondered what a quirkafleeg was until it was time for lessons to start again.
It was here that the UK first started to learn what exactly it was that it could contribute to the UK games industry – namely, a cynical and irreverent sense of humour. Games like Super Mario Bros., which was released in Europe a few years later than JSW proved immensely popular for their polished game mechanics, but people still returned to lesser known games from UK developers for a long time purely because of their wit and originality. There were times this tipped over into controversy (think of Syndicate, where, in early versions, you could set mothers with prams on fire), but the UK's standout games often have a strong thread of anarchic humour in them.