23/09/2020

billbaud.net

Life in 8-Bit

My Dick Smith Wizzard Adventure

Back in the early 80s, I was “published” for the first time.

I think I was about 12 years old.

It all began when I wrote a computer game called “Omega Battle” for the Dick Smith Wizzard.  

Now if you have never heard of the Dick Smith Wizzard, then don’t despair.  Not many people have.

The Dick Smith Wizzard was an early 80s cross between a video gaming machine, and a personal computer.  

My research tells me that The Dick Smith Wizzard was otherwise known as the VTech Creativision, Hanimex Rameses, VTech Laser 2001, and Salora Manager (although it seems that the Salora looked nothing like the others).

The Dick Smith Wizzard had a range of games in cartridge form, that were basically blatant rip offs of other popular games.  See if you can spot the similarities…

Police Jump vs Donkey Kong

Sonic Invader vs Space Invaders

Planet Defender vs Scramble

The console used an 8-bit Rockwell 6502 CPU running at 2 MHz, it had 1KB of RAM and 16KB of Video RAM, with a graphics resolution of 256 × 192 and 16 colours.

It had these funny little joysticks that also formed a QWERTY keyboard when they were docked.

The keys were these relatively difficult to press membrane keys that had to be felt to be believed.  Press too lightly and nothing happens.  Press too firmly and you get keyboard bounce (that is, double letters).  But once you found the sweet spot, they were kinda ok.

Later they released a rubber keyboard which was also pretty terrible, but was a massive improvement over the membrane.  

The only other peripheral available at the time was a cassette module, which included a demo tape with Dick Smith’s actual voice over it.  I recall him saying something like “And here’s something you’ll really like… graphics”.  

I figured out that only one of the audio channels was used for loading / saving the code, and if you recorded music in the other channel, it would play out of your TV speaker while the program loaded.  Hence, this is how Dick managed to speak during the demo tape load.  Kinda cool.

I wish I had one in my possession today that I could show you – and I am desperately keeping my eyes on eBay and Gumtree for the right one to come along.

I wrote all kinds of things in BASIC on my Wizzard, but I guess Omega Battle was the most polished and complete program.

Now let’s not get too excited – the game was almost impossible to play and incredibly BASIC (pardon the pun).

My mother thought the idea of me writing a computer game was simply wonderful and promptly took me to Dick Smith Electronics in Newcastle, Australia to peddle my wares.

The manager was enthusiastic on my behalf, and handed me a piece of paper with a phone number on it, and told me to call a particular guy in Dick Smith head office who would love to discuss my computer game.

Now here was the kicker:  This was a Sydney phone number, and we were in Newcastle.  That meant an STD Phone Call.

And if you have no what STD stands for in this instance, it’s Subscriber Trunk Dialling, which basically means a long distance phone call.

Back then, this was a big deal.

These days, most people would not blink an eyelid no matter what number they were calling.  But in those days, the STD pips (several little beeps at the beginning of the call) meant the clock was ticking.

And having an area code meant so many digits to dial, or finger into the rotary dialer!  I am even now feeling breathless just thinking about it.

My resourceful mother though, had a cunning plan.  

We were visiting my Uncle in Sydney in a couple of weeks, so we could make the phone call then – as local call.

Imagine waiting a couple of weeks for something so exciting to save a couple of bucks.  

However, back then STD phone calls were so mysterious and ominous that one would not want to risk making one, in case your next bill arrived with some huge bank breaking figure.

Anyway, once in Sydney I made the phone call and the guy on the other end of the phone offered me $150 for Dick Smith Electronics to have the rights to own and sell the game for a period of 24 months.  I still have the letter of offer today.

I was a kid, this was insane.  Family and friends assumed I was some kind of child prodigy and would be a computer millionaire by the time I was 15.  Ummmm… that part never quite turned out.

Omega Battle went on to be published in the Dick Smith Wizzard Second Book of Programs.  

The game itself was terrible.  But looking back the animation was kinda cool, and I’m proud of my rotating ball aliens and the designs of my various space shooters.  

But the gameplay… ummm… you have to shoot as many aliens as you can before one of them randomly appears on top of you and you die.  You can’t avoid this.  It just happens… randomly.

Flappy Bird is way more reasonable.

I often wondered if anyone actually went and typed in all 300+ lines of code to play the game.

And if you have no interest in typing in the game but want to see for yourself how terrible it really is, there is an emulator for Windows that allows you to run Dick Smith Wizzard programs on your PC, and you can actually download and play Omega Battle.  I’ll leave a link in the description.

Luckily for me my junior self had coded my name into the game on Line 80, which was subsequently picked up by Google and allowed me to stumble across it when searching for my own name… and the memories came flooding back.

So while I never did become a software millionaire, I did hold up my Dick Smith letter of offer at all of my early job interviews, and the interviewers were always impressed.  In fact I ended up working at Dick Smith Electronics in Newcastle for a couple years.  Back when Dick Smith Electronics was for real geeks.  But that’s another story…