Book review: The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech

The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech: Computer, Consoles & Games by Peter Leigh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Retro Tech provides just what it says on the tin. Starting with systems in the early 1970s, it provides a summary of virtually every video game console and personal computer released up until the debut of the original Xbox in October 2001.

Each summary includes a generous number of photos, sometimes including controllers or oddball accessories, or more mundane things like the power supplies. Leigh offers both an historical overview and also his own personal assessment on each device, which at times stands in contrast to how I saw some of the systems, accounting for the differences in reception between the UK and North American (and in particular U.S.) audiences.

Each summary concludes with a look at three games from each system: The Must-See, the Must-Play, and the Must-Avoid. A lot of the Must-Avoids are typically obscure fare (no, E.T. did not make the list for the Atari 2600–though it does get mentioned alongside the “winner”).

Leigh keeps the writing light and at times droll, never being afraid to call out lemons and questionable marketing of years gone by.

I was struck by the sheer number of systems that came out in the 70s and early 80s. It seemed that nearly everyone tried to get a slice of the video game pie before the famous crash of 1983. While there are systems that never sold well here in Canada that I was aware of–like the MSX computers, there are many listed here that I was utterly unfamiliar with, even leaving aside the UK-specific machines that never made it over here.

For anyone who grew up when these machines were coming out (as I did), this is indeed a heady dose of nostalgia. For others, it serves as a brief and well-illustrated history of the early days of video games and personal computers. In fact, my only real knock on the book is that each write-up only amounts to a page or so. I would love to see a more in-depth look at the same topic. As it is, I was able to tear through the book all too quickly.

Still, this was an enjoyable look back and an easy recommendation for those who would enjoy seeing the sometimes wacky products that came out in the quest for the early gamer’s dollars (or pounds).

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Melancholy and Google maps

I’ll expand on this later, but Google Maps and its street view mode, is incredibly handy for scoping out a place ahead of time (assuming the street view is recent enough to be reasonably accurate).

But you can also use it to travel back in time, in a way, by using a slider to select previous street view scenes, some stretching back 12 years. This may not seem very old, but Google itself only existed for eight years prior. It’ll feel like looking at ancient history in a hundred years, when everyone is driving flying cars.

These snapshots in time can also produce a sense of nostalgia or, in my case, a kind of melancholy.

I used street view to travel around my hometown of Duncan. I last lived in Duncan in 1986–32 years ago as I write this–and while I’ve visited numerous times since then, the frequency of the trips has dwindled over the years and my last visit was in 2011. So I turned to street view to see how it looks now.

Some things are virtually unchanged. The Duncan Lanes bowling alley is still there. All of the schools I went to are still standing, though some have been repurposed. But other things are gone. The 2009 street view shows the small building that housed Paks Grocery, owned by the father of one of my school friends. By this point it was no longer a grocer. By 2015 it was gone altogether, replaced by a new residential complex. I have distinct memories of going there to buy candy and gum, goofing off with friends, and it is odd to think I can never step into the store again.

The same is repeated around the town, with many businesses and places I recall fondly replaced with new buildings and businesses, or, more depressingly, reduced to nothing but a vacant lot.

It’s a reminder of the eternal march of change, and underscores how precious memories are. The Duncan I knew in 1986 is long gone. Where the McDonald’s that opened in 1978 was a major event, the area is now home to every chain store and restaurant you can imagine. The Duncan I grew up in is not preserved in amber, but in my memories and the memories of others. Every time I forget a little detail, another piece of the Duncan I know is gone forever. It kind of bums me out.

Also, the city has way more roundabouts now.

More on this in an upcoming post.

The internet is getting old

I don’t mean old as in tired and passe–though others might make that argument, with some justification–but rather, it’s actually been around a good long while now.

I recall articles in computer magazines (almost as quaint now as the pre-internet days) in 1994 were touting two major developments in the tech world: the forthcoming release of Windows 95 (originally known only as “Windows 4”) and the rise of this new form of online communication known as the Internet.

I was already a regular participant on some BBSes (my roommate in the late 80s had a BBS running off four Commodore 64s) and participated in early forums that were part of FidoNet. Looking back it seems hilariously primitive. You connected to the host, downloaded all of the new messages on the forum, made your replies, then uploaded them and…waited. The conversations were not only not real-time, they weren’t even same-day. It would typically take two to three days for the turnaround. It didn’t prevent people from hurling insults and contributing little, of course, but it helped.

By comparison, my first cable modem and the actual internet–first introduced to me as a separate “premium” service by my ISP–was like stepping into the future. Your connection was always on (!) and you could visit multiple sites at the same time. There were multiple sites!

A big part of the early days for me revolved around gaming and one of the first games I got into online was Tribes, released in December 1998 (I bought it a month later). It got me into a gaming group and I still regularly converse with members of that group twenty years later. Back then I had the reflexes of a thirty-something, so I was already behind the curve, but I held my own. I read a bunch of gaming sites, many of which are either gone now after living on in a zombie state for awhile, like Voodoo Extreme, or have been abandoned after the parent company vanished, like PlanetQuake, which is still up, but hasn’t been updated since 2012 (its parent company, GameSpy, was shuttered the next year).

And then you have something like Blue’s News. Not only is the site still being updated regularly (by the same person, no less), but visually it is unchanged. Yes, the site looks pretty much exactly like it did 20 years ago. It was my home page for a long time, but I haven’t regularly visited any dedicated gaming site since consoles entrenched themselves as the primary way to game. There’s something both admirable and awful about not changing your website design for 20 years (for the record, I find the look today to be pretty ugly. Dense, small text on a dark background is not my idea of readability. On the plus side, the layout is about as straightforward as you can get).

The internet is an inescapable part of our lives now, and much of it is a terrible place. Facebook and Twitter serve as staging platforms for hate, enabling the spread of misery, violence and death. The wealth of information is vast and impossible for any single person to even begin to sift through. You choose your interests, put your faith in Google (or Bing, or DuckDuckGo if you really want to go full rebel) and hope for the best. Sure, you can find stuff through the recommendations of friends, but most of those will come via Facebook, anyway. And there’s always the echo chamber effect, too.

In the olden days the array of content was exponentially smaller. Sites themselves were smaller and updated less frequently. Messages downloaded as pure text at a rate slow enough to read as it downloaded. It wasn’t better, per se, but it was simpler. And in a way, that made it better. Or it created the illusion.

Fun Fact: this site turns 14 years old (!) on February 4th. In my first post I ranted about sites using white backgrounds. How things change. :P

Curious people at Disneyland (thanks to Street View)

The last time I went to Disneyland was in 1982. I was 17 years old and Trudeau was prime minister.

Today, 36 years later, I am not 17 and Trudeau is still prime minister. Okay, his son is, which is kind of weird.

Anyway, Google now offers Street View for a bunch of Disney parks (because they have a bunch now, instead of just the two they had back in 1982) as this story on The Verge points out. I immediately felt the pull of nostalgia draw me to the Disneyland map and while I’m familiar with the many changes made since I was last there, it is another thing to “walk” around and see them.

For every part that looked familiar–the Matterhorn is still the Matterhorn–there were as many that were completely new or dramatically changed. Tomorrowland is almost unrecognizable compared to its 1982 counterpart. Back then it went for a more realistic, science approach. Today it’s basically Star Wars rides with a few others sprinkled around. Space Mountain survives and still dominates the skyline with its 1970s future aesthetic–imposing and a bit sterile, clean lines that say “this is serious stuff,” which was kind of funny given that it’s a rollercoaster.

The People Mover is sort of gone–for some reason they never removed the elevated rail, which has that same 1970s future look that Space Mountain has. I’m sad that it’s gone. It was a strangely soothing experience to ride around in.

But what inspired this post were the people in these Street View shots. Google blurs the faces, but it’s not the faces I am interested in. It’s the crowds. The mapping was done in August 2017, which is prime tourist season, and the place is jammed, far more than I ever remember it. Also there seems to be about a million strollers parked all over. They either have a massive stroller service or people are bringing a massive number of very young kids to the park. Also, the general size of people has…uh…grown.

Mostly, though, I noticed these two as I was virtually strolling about.

First is “What did I step on?” kid:

Stepped in it or preparing to crush under heel?

Zooming in, it sort of looks like there’s something on the ground–gum, maybe? I’m not sure. He seems fully enthralled by it.

Also drinking blue bathroom cleaner. Also also the Google text is not actually in Disneyland, just Street View.

The next one is more straightforward. Here a man has found sanctuary from the sun, the crowds and the tens of thousands of strollers. At first glance he almost appears to be experiencing quiet anguish…

Traumatized? Perhaps. But look closer…

But then you realize he has taken his shoes off, suggesting he is merely resting his tired feet. And head. And everything else. Or perhaps the shoes are the source of his trauma and he is caught up in the existential dread of how can he leave the park without any shoes on his feet?

Shoes off. This is a man resting in a cozy nook. That’s my story, anyway.

Anyway, the pseudo-tour of Disneyland left me feeling a mix of sadness for the quaint park that was (not to mention my youth, though not my hair) and a deepening realization on how change is constant and inevitable.

I’d still like to go back someday, though, assuming the U.S, doesn’t meltdown before I get a chance.

Best YouTube comment ever

This is admittedly a very low bar to clear. It’s actually rolling around on the ground.

Still, in a comment for America’s “You Can Do Magic” video (their last notable hit, released in 1982), this is offered:

Love this video. It’s like a bunch of dads from the neighborhood got together to write a killer tune the last Sunday before football started.

Now watch the video and tell me if you disagree. You can’t, because it’s totally true. Or should be.