Why 80s BASIC stillĀ matters!

By Gary Plowman

A few years ago I was playing an old computer game on an emulator for the ZX Spectrum, a machine I grew up with, when I suddenly reset the machine and was then greeted with the BASIC prompt.

The prompt was inviting and so I started to type some commands and see how well I could recall the BASIC language that I used back then — over 20+ years ago.

I was surprised I could recall so much, but I was also rusty and needed to brush up on this programming language that I knew so well back in my teenage days. So, for fun I practiced with it and found that BASIC, being the the 80s-equivalent to python, was still quite a lot of fun to use! And I was actually enjoying trying to work around the limits of the language. With its lack of modern concepts such as Functions or OOP etc. It wasn’t just nostalgia-based fun — it was a puzzle to solve!

Example of some Sinclair BASIC code

What surprised me most was that for a such a short amount of code, I could achieve quite a lot. I ended up writing a small flappy bird clone in less than 50 lines of code. I then increased that to just under 99 lines so that I could have a neat little title screen for the game — giving it a tiny bit of polish. Not bad for only 1 hour — the time it took me to devise the first draft of the slow, but effective flappy bird like clone! It wasn’t pretty, but it worked and it was a hell of a lot of fun and kind of meditative.

Back in the 80s, there were many micro computer magazines on the shelves and many contained something called “Listings”. These were long sections of of type-in code for users to type into their machines (providing the code was compatible), after which the user would then attempt to ‘RUN’ them. Frequently these would fail first time and need some debugging, with the blame falling on the end-user or the magazine itself — having printed and not tested the code. I remembered that process and how beneficial it was for me in learning BASIC without having to study a full manual.

I took my flappy clone and I posted that code to a forum to allow people to start using it; typing it in. I was delighted to discover that many users, not only tried to type in the code, but also completed and shared screenshots of the end result! One proud father even went on to say that the short program I posted managed to convince his daughter to try coding for the first time. This was old school BASIC, but still the simplicity of it was appealing even today. Just think, if I had coded that 99 lines back in 80s I could have got up to £30 in payment from a magazine — if they chose to print it! Not bad for 1 hour!

1982 – the arrival of the ZX Spectrum 48K

Over the next few months, I decided to put together a book with other such type-ins, but I would format it as a learning guide on building small but simple video games. I decided that 20 was the magic number and the hard part was structuring the order of the games and which games would suit for the concepts I wanted to convey. Also the stealth-learning approach I wanted for the book was achieved by introducing the book as an activity book, where the activity is making simple games with the option to implement some improvements to the games. I also needed to incorporate some standard gamedev topics such as collision detection, game loops etc.

It took several months and lots of work — but I managed to get my 20 games and the book draft all together and finalised — some of it is a blur, as I was juggling other work and releasing my mobile games in tandem. But I still enjoyed it!

A lot of ZX Spectrum fans signed up for the book and that made it all worthwhile and kept me going when the finish-line was still far out of sight.

ZX Spectrum Games Code Club

Well in the end the book was released and people bought it and used it, and had lots of fun with it! STEM events bought and used it too — that made me feel very proud, but not just for my own efforts. I was proud of the giants who had invented, created and gave us all BASIC!

80s computers are responsible for sparking and creating the games industry as we know it today — many of the veterans will tell you of their first experiences of coding and computers — and most, if not all, will say …

…“It all started with BASIC!”

Nowadays, UI and UX is all about simplicity and python is applauded for its ease-of-use and English language commands etc. but before all of those came BASIC! Okay, we all know that GOTO is ‘baaaaadd’ in the dev world — but it’s okay once in a while…right?

If you grew up in the 80s or early 90s and you have some experience with coding, why not fire up the emulator, or better still, the actual machine that you grew up with, and re-introduce yourself to BASIC. Hell, even if you’re not a coder — that’s a better reason to try BASIC!