This is the fourth article in the Where We Came From series.
As Professor Steven Furnell tries to show me around the department, he is stopped and questioned, a man in demand. It's what you would expect of the Head of Computing and Mathematics at the University of Plymouth.
I'm here because I heard Furnell was organising a "retro computing archive" containing electronic objet d'art of decades past. Most of it – not all – revolves around gaming. Furnell tells me, 'Partly we've done that deliberately to reflect the things that people would have encountered and also to sort of raise awareness of how things were. The average student now will have a PS2 or PS3, a Wii or Gamecube, that sort of generation. So here's an Atari 2600 and you've probably seen the name Atari but maybe you don't realise it has this heritage that goes back that far.'
Every corridor is home to a display of some sort, showing off all sorts of lost computing treasures. A ZX Spectrum. An Atari 800XL. A Texas Instruments TI99/4A. An acoustic coupler modem. A BBC Micro. A VIC-20. One cabinet contains handheld games that were the rage before the dominance of consoles and home computers: Logic 5, Simon, Invader From Space and more.
For Furnell, this is not about a fascination with gaming – it's the continuation of a life-long romance with consumer electronics. 'The first thing I owned that played games - other than the handhelds - was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. I was interested in what Sinclair had done before and so I suppose a couple years after I got the Spectrum I managed to get hold of a ZX80 from one of the other guys I was going to school with. I wasn't hoarding the stuff at that point but I clearly had an interest in what other bits I could get hold of. When I started my PhD and had a bit more money I gradually started to accumulate a collection – OK, let's get an Atari 2600, a Commodore VIC-20...'
That desire was previously satisfied by car boot sales and second-hand shops but there are quicker ways to get hold of antique equipment these days. 'eBay came along and that really opened the floodgates – there were all these bits that I could remember and had heard about. Stuff like the Vectrex and ColecoVision. I was interested in not so much the sitting and playing but the having, you know, the plastic, the metal, the bits of technology. The design of them in many cases is quite interesting.'
But how did his personal collection metamorphose into a retro computing archive? 'We needed something give the environment some identity. The original idea was to get some display cabinets and see what colleagues wanted to put in them, like examples of student work and things that were more specific to Plymouth. I thought, for now, let's just fill the corridors with microcomputers and more video gamey sort of stuff.
'Once something was there, people who were visiting would just stop and look, saying, "Oh I remember that, I used to have that..." That was enough of an incentive for me to think, okay, we can buy a few more cabinets and I've got more of this stuff I can put on display. Then colleagues started coming out with "well I've got an MSX computer, do you want that too?"'
In Furnell's office, a dishevelled Sega Game Gear box peers out at me from a carrier bag in the corner. It's just one piece of rescued miscellanea that's strewn across the department's offices, waiting for its place in cabinet posterity. Look carefully in this digital elephant's graveyard and you'll be sure to spot something you haven't seen for a long, long time.
I haven't played one of these machines in the silicon flesh for years, cheating on my childhood loves with emulators like Stella for the Atari 2600. Furnell has his own views on that: 'Unless you're using the particular controllers and seeing the image as it was displayed on a TV screen, you're not having the full experience of what it was like. And having that particular "will it won't it" question whether the device will actually work properly, too. That's actually more the case if you're thinking about loading some of the games off tape because on the early computers it was quite an achievement in itself.'
We dig out an Atari VCS which apparently has been working, but refuses to cooperate today. We switch to a machine I'm unfamiliar with, a Phillips Videopac G7000, although I do remember it from home shopping catalogues and shop displays from way back when. We waste more time trying to find the console signal on the TV. Most consoles transmit on RF channel 36, but not the Videopac. Only once we tune to channel 32 does a picture coalesce out of the white noise, revealing something that looks like a golf game.
The Videopac is a showcase of interface mistakes. Starting a game requires unusual key presses depending on the cartridge plugged in. The console also has a full keyboard, over-elaborate for a machine that relies heavily on joystick play. The golf game defeats us as we can't work out how it is meant to be played: without a manual we are helpless. A football game proves to be more successful and we fight the worn chunky sticks to play a game which apparently has no end. Furnell is about to claim victory when the time reaches zero... but the game doesn't stop and I score another goal. This amuses us.
With the Videopac I feel no nostalgic warmth, just frustration with an antiquated interface from pioneering days when little was known about game console design. But Furnell, with a soft spot for the underdogs of those years, will have none of my cynicism.
Perhaps he is right. The ambition in some of these titles in staggering. Furnell shows me a Pac-Man clone called Munchkin that allows players to create their own mazes. Understand that this is on a machine released in 1979. I try it out. It's got a clunky interface and you would lose the maze as soon as the machine was powered down. But someone went to the trouble of creating a maze editor, despite the constraints of the hardware, despite its novelty value. These are heroic feats of passion, up there with the massive world-building of modern titles.
Ian Bogost may have got a group of students to simulate television artifacts in the Stella emulator but nothing can compare with the real thing, a picture made of pixels whose edges are frayed and loose. After years of PC emulators feeding me monitor perfection, experiencing the raw, flickery glare for real is like being reunited with an old friend again.
One of Furnell's colleagues, Dr. Paul Dowland, then shows me around the website they've been building for the archive. Considering the haphazard origins of the project, the effort invested in the website is impressive. It's not just some video console scrapbook, it's a dedicated, searchable archive with system specs, dates, images and – in time – 3d photos you can rotate. The archive has grown beyond just a few glass cabinets.
The archive was officially launched in December 2010 at a meeting of the South West branch of the BCS (previously the British Computer Society), of which Furnell is Chair. Furnell takes me to the Sherwell Centre where it was held. Even though it's just a large, empty space, Furnell tries to set the scene for me, indicating an array of computers and consoles plugged in and switched on, the smell of both discovery and nostalgia in the air.
He says, 'There were the traditional BCS members who had clearly been around when some of this technology was current and they were reminiscing. Whereas we had a fairly equal proportion that were current students, or in some cases even younger, and were just coming along to find out what it was like. Things like the Atari VCS and the older bits that we had there were things they'd never seen working before.
'It's strange for me to think that there are people now for who this is history from before they were born. They are looking at this stuff like "wow it's black and white movies."'
We take our discussion, as all discussions should be taken, to the pub where I ask why the archive is important. 'I think it's relevant to know where we have come from,' Furnell says. 'Some of this stuff is just 20-25 years old and that's clearly, looking forward, within the career lifetime of the students we are now teaching. And so it's relevant for them to see what they're learning today, in and of itself, is very quickly going to be yesterday's technology. This is quite an exciting domain, it all moves forward and the archive will give them an illustration of how far it's moved forward in a relatively short period of time.'
I recall spending hours pouring through the video game pages of home shopping catalogues, wishing we had the money to buy practically everything that was there – but whilst I no longer hunger after these arcane electronic machines, Furnell still does. He is excited by every new acquisition in the archive.
But are these relics going to remain stored in glass cabinets? Are the curators the only ones who will see these technologies in action? 'Ideally,' Furnell says, 'it would be good to have at least a subset of the devices up and running for people to use on a regular basis. We’ve had one major practical outing for part the collection, with around 20 or so items being set up for a BCS Retro Computing evening last year.' He hopes to have more events like this in the future.
I ask him what he considers to be the legacy of all this yesteryear gaming technology. 'It’s ultimately come to the point of carving out a whole segment of the entertainment industry in its own right, with games now being productions rather than programs. The early technologies would’ve been the things that encouraged today’s pioneers to enter the area. They also served to establish some of the key principles about what ‘works’ in terms of video gaming, and it’s been possible to see some of those same paths re-emerge as mobile platforms have become able to support increasingly substantial games.'
The day draws to a close and we leave the pub. I ask Furnell one last question before he disappears into a taxi. The electronics of the first few decades could be described in terms of distinct hardware platforms with tangible, boxed software products. The PC, console and mobile platforms are shifting towards digital distribution with both operating systems and game software in constant flux due to automatic patching. Revisions often delete elements wholesale in the pursuit of perfection.
So what should be considered the baseline system? Which version of application software should be considered canon for future generations? I wonder if we are exiting a unique period where it was possible to pin down all of the hardware and software like a butterfly collection. Furnell is not phased by this.
'The product is still, in a sense, the device you're playing on. Where you buy or how you get the software to run on it is just part of the story. I mean if you look at the different generations of iPhone, one has the gyroscope, one has the accelerometer, but the earlier ones didn't necessarily - so they've still got different capabilities.'
But will it get harder to maintain a "retro computing archive"? There are no cartridges, only a multiplicity of similar devices all tweaked differently to one another.
'Possibly. I still think it's like the whole change in the microcomputer market when then the PC effectively became the standard – a lot of the variety and scope for different... just disappeared. But there's still been a lot of innovation on the back of that so the whole domain didn't die it just evolved.'
We say our goodbyes and I head back on foot through the university. I want to take one last look at the department. Although the building has now closed for the day, dim light still bleeds from the windows – I can't help but imagine someone hooking up a console for a quick play in the evening, just to keep the electrons moving through the old silicon.
All of those machines are our heritage, the precursors of modern video gaming, ancestors in a complex digital family tree. They shaped an entire generation and the technology hopes of the future. The retro computing archive and all such initiatives are about more than just the nostalgia of an ageing generation, they are about carrying our history forward with pride. It's good to know they are in the safe hands of people like Furnell.
You can find out more about the Retro Computing Archive at the archive's website.