Retro: Atari & Commodore days 1981-1990

My life with computers started like this:

It all began in 1981 when I first saw my cousin in Beirut, Lebanon playing PacMan on the Atari 2600. The colors, the sounds, and the animation fascinated me.

I was six or seven years when my passion first started to take shape.

We traveled to Nicosia, Cyprus that year to avoid the start of the 1982 Lebanese civil war and Israeli invasion. My dad bought me the Atari 2600, which came with the game Combat. Level 10 of the game was my favorite. It lets two tanks in a two-player mode shoot bullets that bounce off the walls just like the game Pong. Hiding behind one “trench” and locking in the enemy was my strategy to win against my friends each time. Ironically, the war game timed perfectly with the civil war in Lebanon at the time. As a young boy, I felt emotionally stressed with the news, newspapers, and magazines that my late journalist-dad would bring home every day. Maybe the game made me feel like a soldier wanting to defend my country against the enemies. My obsession with the game Combat later moved to Pacman and Defender. Those three games were the games that I.

As the home computer industry was rapidly exploding worldwide, computer clubs were popping up in various cities, including where we lived in Nicosia, Cyprus. One summer day, we were at a swimming pool in Cleopatra Hotel in Nicosia when my parents found me a computer club inside the hotel.


Cleopatra Hotel in Nicosia Cyprus.

Unfortunately, the club was closing because it was the last day of summer. To my luck, they were clearing the computers by selling them at a discounted price. My father got me this beautiful machine that connects to the tv and would kick off my journey with computers from that day on – the Commodore Vic 20.

My parents also hired a tutor for my sister and me. His name was Chris, and I could never remember his last name. Chris and my dad took me to a computer store where we bought all sorts of educational games for the Vic 20: Chemistry, Physics, Math, etc. I recall that each game was expensive – around 20 pounds each. They would come in tapes along with a catalog each. At the time, the Commodore 64 was taking over the Vic 20. I cannot recall if we got the educational stuff because there was nothing else there to get. Either way, I was not never interested in using them. It is also likely because I was just a kid! At the time, I had not a single game for the Vic20. Whenever I go to a newsstand, there will be magazines for the Commodore 64, BBC Micro, and others, along with program listings but nothing for the Vic 20. One exception though was finding two program listings for a Merry Xmas Jingle Bells song and another for a game called Rhino 6. Both of which I would spend hours copying the code one character at a time from the magazine and onto the computer. Chris also taught me the BASIC commands PRINT, INPUT, VAR, GOTO, and then I learned POKE and PEEK just for changing colors. But that was about it. I recall Chris showing me a Commodore 128 and how he can magically switch into a Commodore 64 mode by typing the command “GO 64”

The Commodore 64 … let’s talk about it …. By 1984 I have gone to know about other home computers, the Sinclair ZX81,
ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro, and
various other 8-bit computers. But the Commodore 64 was more appealing to me mainly because of how the game advertisements looked cool in the computer magazines, especially in Computer’s Gazzette magazine, and
Commodore User.

To my despair, I could not convince my parents to get me a Commodore 64. At the time, they had more financial issues to worry about, along with the situation in Lebanon. At the same time, I ran out of anything to do with the Commodore Vic 20 and the Atari 2600. It’s not that I perfected the machines. I had no resources to leverage. If I knew then like I know now about the essential books like the Programmers Reference Guide, things could have been different. I felt that I was the only one in the world that still had a Vic 20 when everyone else had something better, such as my neighbor friend that showed me the text adventure game Hobbit on his Spectrum Sinclair computer. Hobbit running on his Spectrum Sinclair.

After returning to Lebanon in 1985, I tried again to convince my parents to get me a Commodore 64. It never worked. My frustration
grew so much that I became obsessed with the Commodore 64 that I built dreams around ultimately having one. The cost of the computer was $240 – a number that I can never forget. My parents could not differentiate why a Commodore 64 is any different from a Vic-20 other than playing games. They didn’t get it. I did. It is not about games nor about how the computer looks. It is everything about the computer! The Computer!
As an 11 year boy, the Commodore 64 was the only thing I ever wanted at that time. So what I did is that I started buying
computer magazines from the pocket money that I saved, and I also began buying games for the Commodore 64 even though I didn’t have the computer. The colorful game tape covers and the beautiful art in the magazines became my salvation rather than the computer itself. It took me another two years until I finally got the Commodore 64. Thanks to my late uncle who offered to give me money to buy one.

After getting the Commodore 64, I found my passion in adventure games: Zork and Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy
But the pleasure of finally getting the Commodore lived short and was replaced with a newfound passion of using computers with either a CP/M operating system, an MS-DOS 2-11 operating system, a Microsoft Windows 3.0, and the Macintosh Mac in the period between 1990 and 1992. That would be the topic of a later story.