How I experienced the home computer revolution of the 1980s in Finland

copyright © 2017 Kalevi Kolttonen <kalevi@kolttonen.fi>

Introduction

The main goal of this document is to provide a compact, subjective description of how I experienced the home computer revolution of the 1980s in Finland.

If I recall correctly, the very first computer I ever touched was a Commodore VIC-20 in my friend's place in 1984. I remember that we first played a little bit of Commodore's Omega Race. It was on a cartridge. After that we tried to load Mastertronic's 3D Maze from a tape and maybe after three failures, we finally succeeded. However, the game was a letdown. We did not know what to do in the game and its appearance was pretty boring. Despite that, I thought VIC-20 was a really wonderful machine. How could I not to, since it was the first computer that I ever got to see and test? The difference between having never seen a computer and having tried one was absolutely huge. Llamasoft's famous programmer Jeff Minter has told in an interview that just being able to type characters and seeing them appear on your television screen was impressive. I can certainly agree with Jeff. It all seemed like magic. Instead of being a passive television watcher, using a computer you could suddenly become a creator.

There was a whole new world of computer graphics, sounds, text and program codes to explore.

A rare computer called Sega SC-3000 was probably the second machine I saw and played games on. I played Sindbad Mystery on the SC-3000 in an electronics store until they threw me out for spending too much time there. I was very impressed with the nice colourful graphics and good gameplay. A Commodore 64 in another friend's place was the third computer I saw, I think. We played Mastertronic's Magic Carpet, Mastertronic's Chiller and Software Projects' Manic Miner. All of those were loaded from tapes. The fact that Chiller had 5 different rooms and Manic Miner a whopping 20 rooms seemed amazing for someone like me who had previously played mainly primitive handheld games.

I liked all three computers, but the Commodore 64 seemed to be the best of them.

The home computer revolution

So the home computer revolution had just taken off in Finland and especially the kids and youngsters were impressed by the arrival of the new machines. Compared to the primitive Pong games and Nintendo Game & Watch handhelds and tabletops, the home computers were a huge step forward. Not only could you play much better games, you could also use the keyboard to type your own programs and then save them on tape or disk. I do not know why, but plain gaming consoles such as Atari 2600, Mattel Intellivision or ColeceVision were never that popular in Finland. As far as I know, Commodore VIC-20 was the first really popular home computer here.

Thinking of history, it must be admitted that the very first home computers arrived already in the 1970s (Apple 1, Commodore PET, Atari 400, Atari 800), but I do not think their emergence qualifies as the revolution. The earliest home computers sold only in small quantities and paved the way for the later home computer revolution of the 1980s. In my mind Atari 400 and Atari 800 (TODO pic A800) were probably the breakthrough machines that really started the revolution. I do know that both of them were released in November 1979, but I guess it is still fair to say that the actual revolution took place in the 1980s. In any case, pinpointing the exact date or even the exact year seems difficult. What is important is that the revolution took place sometime during that time era.

Before getting my own computer, I spent lots of time doing preliminary research and simply dreaming of getting a computer. That period lasted for some months. There is a magazine called Tekniikan Maailma in Finland. It translates as "The World Of Technics". It published several home computer related articles and I probably read about 99% of them and many times too. I also got Commodore advertisements such as the following:

commodore64 finnish advert front
commodore64 finnish advert back

My very first own home computer was a Commodore 64 bought for Christmas in 1984. I had seriously considered VIC-20 because it was cheaper, but all the articles that I read kept affirming that 64 kilobytes of RAM (Random Access Memory) was the way of the future. An unexpanded standard VIC-20 had only under 4 kilobytes of memory for programming in BASIC language. I remember having a completely wrong idea of what it would be like to write programs in BASIC. I thought the datassette could be used so that while you typed in your own BASIC program, the tape would keep on rolling until it ended. So my entire conception of RAM and mass storage such as tape was seriously flawed. In the end I was glad I chose C64, since I fell in love with that machine right away. The user manual that came with it was excellent and it explained the basics of BASIC language programming from the ground up, even for complete beginners. My only regret was that I did not have money for getting the 1541 disk drive and so I had to settle with a datassette and tapes.

In addition to programming in BASIC, my biggest fascination was arcade-style games. I did not care for utility programs except for one notable exception: tape fastloaders (often called "tape turbos"). The tape turbos made life with tapes tolerable, because they shortened SAVE and LOAD times considerably.

Fantastic 8-bit games

The 8-bit games were an important part of the revolution. Along with the C64 hardware, I bought Activision's Ghostbusters UK tape release (for 120 FIM) as a Christmas present for myself. I played Ghostbusters a lot, since it felt incredible: it had nice music, graphics and even featured speech. Soon after Christmas I decided that I needed to buy another game. I went with the proven Activision brand again and bought Pitfall 2 - Lost Caverns UK tape release. It cost 120 FIM just like Ghostbusters. What a fantastic piece of software it turned out to be. Even after all these years, I still think Pitfall 2 is one of the greatest games ever made.

Back in the 1980s, I never managed to complete Pitfall 2, but I finally reached the end of the Commodore 64 version using the VICE Emulator in 2006. When doing so I did not use snapshots to save games or any kind of cheating such as disabling sprite collision detection. It was an honest retrogaming effort that required some determination and good timing. I used a very basic and affordable Logitech USB Rumblepad as a "joystick".

By the way, there is a very interesting story behind the Commodore 64 port of Pitfall 2. From a Wikipedia article I learned that the Pitfall 2 was first released on Atari 2600. The original version was designed and programmed by David Crane. The game was a huge success, so Activision decided to port it to Atari 5200 console, Atari 8-bit home computers, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and MSX computers. Tim Shotter was appointed to do the C64 port. Apart from the sound and graphics, Shotter decided to rewrite the game from scratch. Mike Lorenzen did the Atari port but unlike Shotter, he made a good use of David Crane's existing Atari 2600 code. Lorenzen's choice turned out to be a wise one and he finished writing the game much earlier than Shotter. Having time to spare, Lorenzen continued programming and added a completely new second level to Pitfall 2. Despite being a huge C64 fan, I must be honest and admit that the Atari port is indeed the best.

Not long after buying Pitfall 2 it occurred to me that obtaining original games was expensive. Luckily a close friend of mine knew a guy who was selling pirated copies. We both had Commodore 64s and desperately wanted to get new games, so we contacted the pirate. He agreed to sell to us, and after some consideration, we bought the following games:

  1. Synapse Software's Blue Max
  2. Llamasoft's Revenge Of The Mutant Camels
  3. Commodore's International Soccer
  4. Synapse Software's Zeppelin
  5. Cosmi's Forbidden Forest

How did we choose just those? Only based on simple descriptions given by the seller. He gave us a photocopied list of games that had a short description after the game's name, e.g. "Blue Max - an airplane game", "Zeppelin - a flying balloon game", "International Soccer - a football game".

The seller charged 20 FIM per game, so the total was 100 FIM and that did not include the blank C-cassette's price.

Being still new to computers, we did not realize it made no sense to buy an identical set of games. Thinking back, it is obvious that I should have bought my set and my friend should have chosen another disjoint set. Then we could have copied each other's games and had 10 games each for 100 FIM. Being a greedy bastard, the seller did not give us a tape turbo program. Instead, he copied our games without it, so the loading times were quite long and less games would fit on our tapes. Later on we found better contacts who had C64s and through them we were able to get pirated games without having to pay.

Conclusion

All in all, I am extremely grateful to Jack Tramiel, the CEO of Commodore Business Machines back in the 1980s, for pushing the price of C64 so low as to make it affordable for the general public such as myself. I learned the rudiments of computer programming and indeed of logical thinking on a Commodore 64. I enjoyed a plethora of fantastic 8-bit games too. The home computer revolution of the 1980s was definitely a life-changing event for me and I was not alone: Commodore 64 was even named "Tasavallan Tietokone", meaning The Computer of the Republic. The exact sales numbers are not known, but of all countries in the world, it was Finland where the Commodore 64 was the most popular. Hundreds of thousands units were sold in a small country that had only 5 million inhabitants at that time.

However, despite C64's huge popularity, there were lots of other 8-bit machines that got people started with programming. Back in the 1980s there was a certain kind of rivalry between different computer camps, but nowadays the 8-bit computer wars are over. Hence I am more than willing to give due credit to all 8-bit computers that were part of the home computer revolution. Let me mention just a few in no particular order of significance: Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Spectravideo MSX 728, Atari 800, Atari 800XL, Commodore VIC-20, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro and Sharp MZ-721. I feel fortunate to have been part of that 8-bit era.