It's Apprentice hirer Lord Sugar - really looking
"like he hasn't got a bloody clue" what he's doing here!
One of our favourite shows is The Apprentice. We're sure that you all know already that Sir Alan (now Lord) Sugar made a great deal of his money on the back of his Amstrad computers. The format of The Apprentice usually involves the setting of a business task to a gaggle of would-be apprentices vying to work with him. A typical show is also headed up by the man himself announcing to the assembled populace that "the fashion/food/cleaning/app [delete as applicable on a per episode basis] industry is big business". Now we may be a few years yet from an announcement that "the retro-game industry" is just as big - but, frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if it came sooner rather than later. Whereas, once upon a time, writing and collecting up programs for old and obscure computer systems was a somewhat solitary pursuit, we seem, in 2014, to be living in a golden age.
Now, seeing as there has been neither new game nor new EUG issue for over two years, you might wonder what on earth we're talking about. Surely, you might think, interest is waning rather than increasing. If you do, then that's because you're not sitting where we are. If you visit the Acorn Electron World site to see what's "new", for example, a lack of "new" stuff tends to make people think this way. In addition, we've regularly summed up previous years in articles called "That Was The Year That Was" - and no more articles in this series could be easily interpreted as being due to nothing has in fact happened during the previous years.
However, a fully-fledged retro-gaming renaissance is, as we write this, in full swing. Games for the Amstrad, Spectrum, Oric, Vic 20, Commodore 64 and others are being produced again on a scale that was unheard of a few years ago. And no, not just as emulator files. In front rooms, bedrooms and sheds across Europe, there are talented coders producing games and utilities for these 30-odd year old machines again. They're not learning to code by using books or laboriously typing in VDU statements of course, nor are many of them working in solitude and sleeping on the floor between coding sessions (as was very much the fare of the downtrodden Eighties programmer!). Instead, games are emerging as more of a collaborative effort from easy-to-use, open-source tools available free on the Internet. And the result is that games are appearing not only of extraordinary splendour but also which take full advantage of a team effort in their production.
You can see the evidence of this seismic shift by considering the current "norm" when these new games are released on an unsuspecting world. For instance, when I shifted the Acorn Electron World programs to DVD a few years ago, it was precisely that, a blank DVD with the site burned onto it and 'Acorn Electron World DVD' scrawled over the inlay. The operation was sort of reminiscent of the Eighties themselves with a solitary bedroom coder (me!) creating a masterpiece of coding - only to then advertise it by mail order and send it out recorded on a blank tape bought from Dixons! If you've bought a DVD from Acorn Electron World recently though, you've have encountered an altogether different animal. Not only have its contents been boosted with hundreds more reviews, instructions, galleries, videos and books - but the whole package now comes in a professionally designed DVD case.
What's behind this is more than natural progression. There's something singularly attractive to a great deal of people about having the entire history of a microcomputer "safe" on a DVD that they can play with at any time. In addition, you might have noticed the same seismic shift in prices for which retro software is selling on eBay these days. Savage Island Part 2 for the Electron selling for £156.99 tells its own story, but on other formats, even titles which sold in quite significant numbers, are garnering small fortunes for their sellers. Boxed Dragon Data titles, which are the Dragon 32's equivalent of Acornsoft's big box packages, now regularly sell for over £50.00 each! Indeed, if you do a search on eBay right now, you're found to find some Spectrum and Memotech software listed with Buy It Now prices significantly higher than even that.
Indeed, there seems to be an intriguing, and quite significant, fusion between perceived rarity and the burgeoning retro software industries that are now springing up. It's easy for BBC and Acorn Electron officiandoes to feel like the ghosts at the feast as far as these retro sites are concerned, mainly because their focus is Commodore 64, Spectrum and MSX. A little exploration of the quality of these sites, with which you may well be familiar if you ever read Retro Gamer magazine (and/or the Retro Mart column of Micromart magazine), does however perfectly illustrate just how sites in broadly the same bracket as Acorn Electron World, have recently raised their game.
Take, for example, Cronosoft, which began supporting practically the whole 8-bit range back in 2003. Eleven years later it's still going strong - but the days of its inlays being hand-drawn, badly-cropped and laser-printed seem a long way back. Its current range boasts some spectacular artwork; its prices are also somewhat higher. It also doesn't carry BBC and Electron titles any more, meaning games like Weenies and Dominion - which may have had print runs in single figures! - have immediately become some of the rarest titles anyone could own. In fact, you can apply such an observation to the entirety of Cronosoft's back catalogue, as the following e-mail from its founder, Simon Ullyatt, reveals:
"Regarding the cover artwork for the deleted titles, unfortunately, I no longer have them. They were all stored on an old PC that went down a few years back, so we took that opportunity to start again with the new 'uniform look' titles. However, there may be a few images lurking around on old hard disk drives somewhere, and I'm sure some of them would be archived on the www.worldofspectrum.org site."
Now let's just consider this for a moment and ask a series of questions. Firstly, why do games sell for humungous fees? Usually, it comes down to the single element - scarcity. eBay is just one example. Examine RetroGames' Spectrum section - those games priced at hundreds of pounds are the very ones that archive site World Of Spectrum is missing. The link is pretty clear; some people genuinely have a desire to own what is quite possibly the only copy of a retro game remaining in existence - and will pay for the privilege.
Secondly, what makes a scarce game? The answer is, unsurprisingly, that few people bought it. From that, it's not a great leap to see retro sites like Cronosoft in a completely new light. They are, quite literally, a replaying of the Eighties in the modern day. History repeating itself. And for half the price of a meal in a restaurant, you can get your hands on a game which has not only had a very limited print run - but a print run that could come to an immediate end thanks to a single PC giving up the ghost. So, quite apart from supporting the production of further, rare games with your cash, you could quite well be investing in something that, a few years from now will be so scarce that you'll be able to flog it to another collector for many times what you paid.
Still not convinced? Look how much Cronosoft's deleted titles and old Electron User Group mags are now going for on eBay...!
The Wonders Of The Web
Nor is Cronosoft is unique in offering games on the old, original tape and disc formats. Check out Psytronik Software, RGCD, RetroWorks, RWAP Software and Defence Force. The former even has a game on sale at the moment, Sceptre Of Baghdad, which it will issue only 100 copies of on the original tape format. Remember 3D Pool for the BBC/Electron, where Firebird ran off just 100 copies before abandoning the market? Did you ever see a 3D Pool on eBay? If one came up, do you think it would end at more than £3.99? The parallels are clear to see.
In the case of Psytronik Software, the wealth of retro items on offer extends even further. CDs of new Commodore 64 music, DVDs of the best Commodore 64 demos in action and posters also vye for position. I have ordered a selection of these and the quality of the finish, not to mention the product itself, is superb. Again, these are probably extremely limited edition items. It's also no coincidence that, like Acorn Electron World, they are supplied on a mail order basis. There's something extremely alluring about ordering from a retro site and waiting for your goods to arrive. Even if you choose to have a CD or DVD instead of the original media forwarded to you, you still get that nostalgic feeling of waiting for it to arrive.
In the case of RWAP Software, you've got a very peculiar setup indeed, for the outfit is selling newly-written homebrew games on the original formats but only doing so via a customised site (sellmyretro.com). The name "sellmyretro" immediately conjures up images of second-hand software doing the rounds but look hard enough on this site and you'll find yet more limited edition ZX81, Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64 titles for sale, all with cover art of the same ilk as the full-blown professional releases of the Eighties.
Why It's So Easy
Sites offering services in the same way that eBay offers sales, are also driving cover art design to new levels of professionalism. Once upon a time, to get decent cover art, you'd either have to design it yourself (if you just happened to be a good artist) or convey your thoughts to a company, and pay them megabucks, to design it for you. Astronomical printing costs would then need to be added on top. The combination of peopleperhour.com, where you can choose a designer for your project for less than £20 and only pay them when you're satisfied with the final revision, and stressfreeprint.co.uk, where you can have professionally printed inlays of that design shipped to you for just £40, mean you're taking very little financial risk in marketing a retro-based product at all.
BBC And Electron Owners
BBC and Electron owners are by no means excluded from this party either. Quite apart from Acorn Electron World's selection of DVDs, there's Dave M's excellent Retro Software site, which currently carries two games on the original format: Mountain Panic (BBC) and Repton The Lost Realms (BBC/Electron). We know for sure that the Electron version of Repton The Lost Realms had an initial print run of just 50 (!) discs. It's quite difficult to imagine a game rarer than that! And, if you need more evidence, then consider that no further print runs of Zap! and The Krystal Connection are even planned, let alone available. Mountain Panic (reviewed this issue) is similarly limited - so our advice would be to grab it while you can.
Whatever is driving this golden age, it is pretty wonderous to be living through it. Don't forget that, when EUG stopped producing its bi-monthly discs, it had about ten subscribers. There were, officially, ten people still interested enough in the BBC and Electron computers to pay £1.25 bi-monthly for new games, reviews and utilities. There is now rarely a day that passes without an order, enquiry or programming question appearing in our Inboxes that is not Acorn computer related. It is almost as if the Acorn computers are on the periphery of a pond; the ripple effect of new releases on the more major formats of the Eighties slowly extending...
So What's New At Acorn Electron World
So much for the wider retro scene. Earlier we touched on the cosmetic improvements to Acorn Electron World DVD, some of which you may just about discern from the web site itself. Whereas it was once a purely manually generated collection of html files which we would edit whenever a new review was typed up or a new cover scan added, it is now centrally-generated from a selection of PHP scripts. In fact, these same scripts also generate two brand new sites - Personal Computer News (www.personalcomputernews.co.uk) and Dragon 32 Universe (www.dragon32universe.info). These sites also exist purely on the back of the success of the Acorn Electron World DVD - the number of people who purchased it convinced me that other sites combined with DVDs would provide an invaluable service and sell just as well. In the case of Dragon 32 Universe, our only wish is that we started collecting Dragon games earlier - having to fork out £50+ just for the satisfaction of adding a cover scan is a somewhat perplexing feeling.
And so, how has all of our work behind the scenes benefitted Acorn Electron World over the past two years? Firstly, we've been treasure hunting the last remaining Acorn Electron books, and, at time of writing, we have just published a brand new version of the Acorn Electron Books DVD which contains an additional 30 books, including another collection of French games. We have, with the help of the framework tools created, been able to almost completely obliterate broken links, and to add our famous one minute video reviews as links in all of the categories. We've been able, on the DVD, to format all instructions, articles, solutions and reviews with Chapter Stops, greatly assisting navigation throughout the pages. We've added galleries of all the screenshots available for any particular item - and we've added all the Personal Computer News reviews too. You'll even find that we've finally, finally given all the images a coherent naming standard too.
On the collecting front, there were two significant treasure hauls in 2012 and 2013. You may remember that, in 2006, we reported finding the text adventure Dreamtime by Heyley Software. Heyley produced five adventures in total, of which Dreamtime was one. The other four had been written off as practically irrecoverable. They were only available via mail order back in the day, and only to Plus 3 owners who ordered them via ACP/Pres. The advertising of these adventures by ACP/Pres was under par, to say the least. Hope of recovering them from the original authors were dashed when one of them, Howard Roberts, got in touch to state that the original discs were lost in a burglary many years earlier.
But it turned out that all was not lost at all! One of the Pres team had kept the original distribution masters of all five of them. And... they still worked perfectly. With the help of Dave M, they were recovered and added to Stairway To Hell, and from there to Acorn Electron World.
The second find was another text adventure library. This time that of the Electron A&B Computing adventures. Again, a single disc from the library: 2002: A Space Oddity, turned up in an eBay auction won by Dave E some time ago but the rest of the library had stubbornly remained missing in action. Again, advertising had been sparse in the A&B magazine itself; only a few references in the Adventure columns of Electron User pointed to further adventures - The Island, The Snow Queen and The Pobjoy Special - being available at one time.
Where did these turn up? Why, in a sort of face-palm moment, they came bundled with the Adventurescape utility that Dave E picked up on RetroGames in 2013! Adventurescape, an adventure-authoring utility program, was originally published in A&B to type in, but readers could send off for a special disc-based version of it if they wanted to save their aching fingers. Few copies of this Electron disc-based version probably exist, so when one popped up on RetroGames, Dave E was digging out his creditcard within a few moments despite the £50 price tag. It turned out to be money well spent however, when five individual discs arrived - the first being the Adventurescape program, the second being another copy of 2002: A Space Oddity and, well, you can probably guess the contents of the rest! Whahoo...!
Deekay Train Simulations
Another obscure "company" (An Electron-loving trainspotter more likely!) which published games for the Electron is Deekay, whose library received a further boost from a number of train simulators that were kindly donated to Acorn Electron World by a Mr. Scott Green. The updates to these libraries are in progress at the moment. Also on the train theme, we picked up a rather spiffing double-pack of Southern Belle and Evening Star which we'd never seen anywhere before!
BBC Micro World?
The BBC doesn't have a site like Acorn Electron World, which is a shame, and which is something we're seriously considering remedying in the very near future (despite the colossal amount of work we know will be involved). However, if you put in the time searching the Stairway To Hell forums, you'll find a whole new batch of archived software in the form of the Michael Browne discs. In an operation very similar to Acorn Electron World, he has put together the definitive versions of each item of BBC Micro software, and added on-screen instructions and compatibility information to each of them. The difference is that (a) there is no real web presence for them, i.e. screenshots, etc, and (b) he has made his discs compilations, so you will find many games on the same disc. Of course (b) is no bad thing at all if you're playing them on the original hardware.
However, the Browne project has unearthed some real never-before-seen gems for the BBC. Two of the best are Enigma and Paranoid, which are such superior games that we have "temporarily" added them to PD World on the Acorn Electron World site itself. Yes, we know they don't work on an Acorn Electron... That's another reason we're considering a BBC Micro World type website; so we can finally filter out all of those BBC games that have found their way into our Acorn Electron Public Domain World archives.
However, before you all get too excited about a potential BBC Micro World website, then please note that we believe it would take at least two years to put it all together. And we've also got similar plans to create a Colour Genie World website, which may take precedence.
Sticking with the BBC, over at 8BS, there have also been quite a few updates recently, mostly in the form of scans. Unfortunately, there are not yet any Electron User scans available. Watch this space though.
Last year's only new game - Eastor
- only available in Drag 'N Drop
Our Voyage Through Cyberspace
Now, if you've stuck with me throughout this article, which has, by necessity, sort of jumped around virtually the whole of retro-themed cyberspace up until now, you'll doubtless be extremely excited by all of the new projects at various stages of development. Certainly, we are. As we have always loved archiving and retro gaming, to see it becoming more mainstream on the backs of genuinely excellent work, actually feels quite emotional. However, there's a sad truism, touched upon earlier, that Acorn computers are on the outskirts of this party.
In recent years, the BBC and Electron have been blessed with some additional amazing games. Think Jungle Journey, which could easily have been an Ultimate software title. Think To Hell In A Hamper, which took Interactive Fiction to a whole new level of fun. You might think that, even on the periphery of all the above frantic retro-based action, we might have seen at least one new game in 2013. Well, BBC owners did - Mountain Panic, reviewed this issue. But for Electron owners, the only new game is Eastor, buried within the pages of Drag 'N Drop magazine (another DVD compilation that's probably worth snapping up for posterity!).
The End Of An Era
Finally, this EUG magazine has taken a long time to arrive for a great deal of reasons. Despite being involved in retro projects outside of the Acorn Electron World site, we haven't rested on our laurels as far as developing it goes. We do, however, want to do something new now, something which perhaps introduces more new readers to the Acorn computers themselves. The EUG magazine, nice as it is, feels buried away in a corner of cyberspace into which few people tread... that is, unless they have had specific exposure to Acorn computers in the past.
Of all the work on the retro-based projects we are now involved in, reporting what's new through EUG accounts for just 1%. That's because it's better that we archive instructions on how to play fifty existing games than spend that time writing a single new one. It's also better to make some more crazy YouTube reviews and reach 400 retrogamers in a minute, than spend a month creating a magazine that a handful of people will read. When there's only a single new game for the Electron in a year, it's better to concentrate on projects with a wider ambit - because, for whatever reason it's happening, the enthusiasm is infectious.
We remember that, originally, EUG #62 was going to be the last word for the Acorn Electron. Now, if subsequent events have proved anything, it's that you should never write off any of the 8-bit machines. However, barring some sudden phenomenal stirring of re-interest, EUG #75 is going to be the last magazine in this specific format. We will continue to find and include any missing items that we can, and we will continue to write, review and code for the Acorn Electron. With a new framework powering our site like never before, we will no doubt come to document every last item in the entire archive - but this corner of the site, the EUG libraries, will no longer see any additional discs.
Instead, the time has now come to play a bigger role in the retro community as a whole, rather than specifically to the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro. At our feet sits a box of almost a hundred brand new games for the Eighties machines, and on our minds are a hundred reviews for a diverse new retro themed website. In fact, we have even greater plans than even this... For this golden age is something we definitely want to be a bigger, rather than a smaller, part of. We'll keep you posted when the end of 2014 arrives...