Flashback to 1984: The Challenge Chamber

Australian PCGames magazine cover, December 1984One of the lesser-remembered 80s Australian computer games magazines is PC Games. At least, I assume it’s lesser-remembered because it doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia entry, although its UK cousin does.

PC in those days simply meant personal computer, not necessarily the IBM/Microsoft platform it does today.

Australian PC Games ran for, I think, perhaps about two years in the mid-80s, during the boom of 8-bit personal computers. It was put out by the same publisher as Australian Personal Computer, which is still around, but had more of a games focus.

Apart from games reviews and tips, it also had features and reviews of new microcomputers — at the time, 8-bit computers such as the Commodore 64 were incredibly popular, and the likes of the Atari ST and Amiga were just starting to appear on the scene.

The magazine also had games listings — something unheard of these days (thanks to cover discs and the Internet), they’d print program code in the magazine for readers to type in. Apart from games they also had a running series called PCG-64, which was machine-code listings of BASIC language enhancements for the Commodore 64, many of them sent in by readers.

I’m only reminded of PC Games because the Retrogaming AUS web site has started up a Wiki which has a page on it. To my lasting regret, at some stage in the 90s I cleared out almost all of my copies of PC Games, except for one: December 1984.

The Challenge Chamber

One of the regular features in PCG was the Challenge Chamber. People could send in their high scores in various games for listing in the magazine, and PCG would periodically call in some of them to play in their “Challenge Chamber”… just to make sure they were as good as they claimed.

My friend Merlin sent in a dizzyingly high score for the Commodore 64 pinball game Night Mission, and one Saturday in late-1984, PCG got him and another 13 year-old called Paul (who was a whiz at Pogo Joe) to come in and play.

It turned out the PCG Challenge Chamber (the Melbourne version at least) was a magazine office next to Elwood Post Office — and just down the street from my house. I managed to invite myself along and watch the challenge unfold.

After a while getting the C64s organised and hooked-up, both Merlin and Paul played. The account of the Challenge appeared in the December 1984 edition of the magazine…

Australian PCGames: Challenge Chamber (1/2), December 1984

Australian PCGames: Challenge Chamber (2/2), December 1984

Geek Idol

I’ve had few real idols; people of whom I could genuinely say “I want to be like them.”

In my early-to-mid 20s, Ben Elton was one of them. Amazingly funny, both on stage and in his writing. I wanted to write stuff that was half as good as his books, but never quite managed to write anything that was engaging enough to last over the length of a novel. My best attempt was The Year 2031, and even that wasn’t terribly long.

Ten years earlier, it was Tony Crowther. He was perhaps five years older than me, and a game programmer extraordinaire, writing hit after hit on the Commodore 64. I loved his game Blagger, and the sequel Son of Blagger, then got through Monty Mole (but only with help from a walkthrough). For a while I was hooked on Potty Pigeon, then Loco, which I enjoyed more than its astoundingly similar-looking followups Suicide Express and Black Thunder.

After that I moved off the Commodore 64 onto other things, and lost track of him and his games.

I suppose I dreamt in some ways of writing my own games and making a fortune from it. Back in those days many commercial games were written by solo programmers, or small teams. These days the gaming industry is dominated by borg-like big development studios, and Suits.

Retro GamerThe other week I was in MagNation and noticed a copy of Retro Gamer which featured an interview with the man, as well as a big feature on Pacman. Wow. I was in a rush and made a note to go back and buy it the next day.

When I went back in, it was gone. Replaced by the next edition. I asked if maybe it was lurking somewhere in the shop. Nope. Everywhere else I looked was the same. Gone.

I had a look online. There are quite a few articles about Crowther, but most of them are reprinted from the 80s. I was also interested to know what he was up to these days, and what he thinks looking back at those old games — precisely the sort of thing Retro Gamer does well when they find people to interview.

I could order the mag from the publisher, of course. It would cost 5 pounds. Fair enough. But with 6.50 postage (!) it’d be a total of 11.50, or about $25 — double the Australian retail price.

While I was pondering that, Rae (who had been kindly checking newsagents near her work for it) pointed out I could look on Ebay, which was a brilliant idea. I found a copy for UKP 7.70 including postage, about $16. Much more reasonable. I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival from the UK.

In the mean time, I’ve discovered that Crowther has in fact been assimilated into the borg that is Electronic Arts. One of the games he worked on recently-ish was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which was one of the last games I bought for the XBox.

And me? Well, I did start writing a few computer games, but never quite finished any of them. But I did end up making a living out of writing software.

Who were your childhood idols? Where did they end up? Did you get to be like them?