The lost art of the type-in game

Originally published at: The lost art of the type-in game | Boing Boing


Some of the compatibility problems were solved by how these programs were distributed. In the mid 80s UK there’d be different magazines for the 3 main computers, each with their own hardware, software & games reviews, then programs that’d work on that computer - i.e. Amstrad magazines for Amstrad users, multiple Commodore mags for C64 users etc.


I vaguely remember typing in some simple games on the BBC Micro about 45 years ago. One benefit was you could then tamper with the code to cheat. It probably taught me something about variables but I don’t know what.


Oh my, this takes me back! I didn’t type in a ton of games or apps, but I did it at least a few times. So frustrating to get to the end, and then find that the program didn’t work. Troubleshooting was a nightmare. But unlike MAD’s pithy projection, I did get everything I typed in to work eventually.

(P.S. I am old.)


I remember hacking “Hall of the Mountain King” on my Tandy Model III. It was written in BASIC and they tried to hide the code by adding ’ + ASCII(254) at the end of each line of code.

I also did a lot of DEBUG to customise programs that were not written in BASIC.

It was all fun.

Yes, I am way old.


I don’t recall BASIC programs being obfuscated in any way and copying the code by hand tended to spoil the game a little bit.

I keyed in quite a few games that were provided as page after page of assembly code in the form of POKE statements and decimal values that got plugged directly into memory. A friend would recite the numbers as I typed. Then, when the game wouldn’t run, we’d check every single number. It sometimes took two or three iterations before getting it right.

Later, each POKE statement included a checksum that helped catch errors.


… and they were not wrong


Well, part of what many of these older games were intended to do was to give the geeks a view behind the scenes, a chance to figure out the underlying logic behind how Eliza worked, how tricky it actually was to land on the moon, and so on.

When BASIC died out, I saw a lot of fellow geeks complain that kids didn’t have that gateway drug any more. But then HTML came along, and then JavaScript, so I think the kids are doing all right. Even if the purists keep trying to ruin things with XHTML, or TypeScript, and generally trying to raise the bar again.

200 GOTO 10 indeed.


Did many, many, many of these on the Coleco Adam, Commodore 64 and Apple IIe. At least those had basic built in and could provide some consistency. the PC books never really got the hang of it, as GW-basic seemed to have inconsistencies between versions.


A more recent take on the genre is Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes’ Secret Coders

My kids had great fun with this graphic novel series, even when I completely procrastinated on setting up a decent LOGO interpreter for them to play with the programs in this book, because they actually walk through most of the code in an un-tedious way.


What a shame that almost no microcomputer ever came with Pascal built in - portable thanks to running on a virtual machine, powerful and a well-designed programming language that encourages good practice.

Instead we got a babel of incompatible BASICs - hell even Microsoft BASIC wasn’t that compatible between machines; doubly so if you got a Commodore computer and were stuck with a 1977 version of BASIC in 1985 just because Jack Tramiel wouldn’t pay Microsoft for an updated licence.

The only machine I can think of that had Pascal built in (sometimes) was the original IBM PC which was offered with the UCSD p-System (as well as IBM PC DOS and CP/M-86).


1 hour to type in the game, 2 hours to debug, 10 minutes to play before bedtime. Computer turns off, code evaporates. Later had a cassette deck to save to, but not a quality one, so after loading in a saved game, the debug was even worse as random tape noise got turned into ‘extra’ symbols. ZX-81 I inherited from my uncle.


Great example! I remember going into a Radio Shack and perusing the source code for Eliza. I think it was in a book with a 5.25" TRS-80 floppy in a pocket. That was the first time I got acquainted with the concept of heuristics, although it would be many years later until I learned the word.


I wonder what would have happened if the Z80 Turbo Pascal had come out several years earlier? (It was for CP/M, but I imagine some cassette/ROM abomination could have been made.)

The lack of simple native programming environments for phones seems odd. I recall Apple quickly jumped on a C64 emulator, in part because of the IP problems, but also because they didn’t want any programming environments on the iPhone.


I suspect that it Just Wouldn’t Be The Same; but if one were perversely dedicated to the attempt it would probably be possible to treat the UEFI shell as a contemporary alternative to the various ROM BASICs of the before times. (and if you’ve got profile Debug1 there’s even a hex editor thrown in; so you’d be able to generate arbitrary efi executables, in addition to scripts, with sufficient perseverance and secure boot sufficiently out of the way to let you run them)

It would be ugly and joyless for reasons not limited to the user’s diminished supply of childlike wonder; but it’s a programming environment of a sort in firmware; as once it was.


It was in the middle of “typing” a long BASIC listing from a magazine on my Timex-Sinclair 1000 when the lights came on, and I finally had the epiphany “HEY! This language is language. I understand this!” Lines that just minutes before were gobbledygook I could now now read with perfect clarity. Still think it’s the best way to learn programming.


If you’re looking for a similar kind of buzz, you might enjoy digging into fantasy consoles. One of the more mature is pico-8, but there are quite a few nowadays. Many are free, and lots of them run directly in browser, so it’s easy to get your feet wet.


The 8-Bit Guy’s Commander X-16 project is trying to bring back the turn it on and get programming fun of the 1980s. The early versions are going to be expensive small-batch devices, but they hope it will get cheaper.

Details and the emulator are here:


I think for a similar experience these days you can just follow tutorials for whatever game engine you prefer. (So long as it’s not using visual scripting.) Right now I’m having a lot of fun learning GDScript in the Godot Engine.


In my case it was “Get up early and start typing, 1 hour to type in the game, 2 hours to debug, then play the game ALL DAY” as I also had no save media and was going to get as much enjoyment out of this as I could, before repeating the process the next day, including the 2 hours of debugging as I was an idiot and didn’t think to take notes.

On a ZX81 that I bought with my own hard earned cash, thus starting a loooonnnggg habit of buying computers that still continues to this day.

As others have commented, I’m also old. Although I don’t need them to tell me that, my knees and back do that job just fine.

And just for the nostalgia value heres an example: