Back in the early 80s, at the dawn of the information revolution, every kid wanted a home computer. They were the things all of us little nerds wanted. We dreamed of owning the latest must-have machine, of which there were many back then.
Of course, we weren’t necessarily entirely sure what we were going to do with them. My first home computer was a Sinclair ZX81, which I got for my ninth birthday in 1983, and for the couple of years I got out of it before it broke, I mainly used it for BASIC programming. This produced mixed results. Some things I wrote myself, others I typed in from magazine listings and stuff. The key thing about my early home computing experience was that I couldn’t afford any commercial software – pocket money didn’t really go very far back then, as most computer software was expensive. I only ever owned one tape for my ZX81, which came with it – Space Raiders and Bomber, written by Psion and sold under Sinclair’s in-house software brand.
This was clearly a common problem for those of us who got into computing right back in those early days. If you look at the ZX Spectrum, which I graduated onto a few years later, it eventually spawned a vast collection of software, and in later years you could get reasonably good games for an extremely cheap two quid a pop. Once people began upgrading to 16-bit computers as well, car boot sales were awash with cheap software, and I picked up plenty there.
Anyway, for early adopters, who’d eagerly unwrapped their computers, mucked about a bit with whatever came with them, and typed in a few simple programs – what did they do next? If you look at a Sinclair software catalogue from 1982 or 1983, it’s all quite dull and earnest stuff, not particularly appealing to a young kid wanting to embrace cutting-edge technology. Although there were a few good things out there early on – The Hobbit was a revolutionary game – the prices were astronomical, and completely out of reach of a kid who might get something like 50p to a pound a week in pocket money. That might keep you well supplied in Black Jacks, Fruit Salads and Pannini football album stickers, but it wouldn’t buy you much software.
How could you acquire a decent collection quickly? Well, if you look at any British computer magazine from around 1983 to 1988, you’ll see – without fail – a prominent advert for “Cassette 50”. This was, as the name suggests, a tape with no less than FIFTY games on it. It was available for all the major home computing platforms of the day (as well as a couple of obscure ones!) for only ten pounds – wow, that’s only TWENTY PENCE a game! How could any budget-conscious kid resist that? It even came with a free calculator watch!
I didn’t own the tape at the time, but plenty of people did, and soon discovered it didn’t quite live up to the hype. It turned out to be a collection of dreadfully bad programs coded in BASIC that in many cases barely worked properly. Cassette 50 was famously an early example of “shovelware” – possibly the first-ever example. It was software sold purely in quantity, with virtually no regard for quality. And boy, does it show!
I was always aware of C50 and its dreadful reputation, but I didn’t play any of the games until a couple of years ago, when I got a Spectrum version of C50 on eBay for three quid. My son and I spent a couple of lockdown evenings playing through all the games on my Spectrum +2, and spent most of the time howling with laughter at how ridiculously bad they were.
Whilst a couple of them were OK, many bore the hallmarks of truly shoddy coding, and I suspect most of them were barely even tested before going on the tape. A couple of themes developed pretty quickly – many of the games used absolutely painful colour combinations (magenta and yellow instruction screens, anyone?) and ear-piercing “sound effects” that makes some of the games actually physically distressing to play. Spelling mistakes, misaligned text, and really terrible bugs abound. Many of the games are similar to each other and completely lack any originality. Most are so bad you’ll give up within a couple of minutes and never play them again. This is of course highly amusing now, when you can access these games for free, but back then, if you’d carefully saved up your pocket money and parted with a tenner, I can imagine the sinking feeling that would come over you as you realised you’d been sold an absolute stinker…fifty times over. It isn’t nice to feel you’ve been conned, and this was ultimately a really awful product. It took some nerve to knowingly sell something this bad.
The origins of C50 proved bit of a mystery for years, although the guy behind making it probably coined it in, given how little effort went into making it a quality compilation. The selections seem incredibly slapdash. Apparently for most editions, the games were coded in generic, non-machine-specific BASIC and transferred onto the relevant platforms using RS232, but that didn’t work for the Spectrum, due to its unique method of entering BASIC commands, so the games had to be found from somewhere. Here is a fascinating interview with one of C50’s authors! That’s how they got hold of their games. They bought them for a tenner a pop, but never actually told the authors what they were going to do with them.
It sounds incredibly mean now – buying work off kids for a measly tenner, after they’d put their little hearts into coding something they were proud of. It’s worth pointing out that to a little kid in the early 80s, though, a tenner was a lot of money, and enough to make you feel pretty loaded. Translated into whatever you were into, that’s a lot of cool stuff, whether it was a couple of albums from Our Price, a plentiful supply of magazines, a personal stereo or maybe one of the cheaper locomotives from Hornby. It went a long way in the Argos catalogue as well! So…it’s not to be sneezed at, especially when it came with the prestige of being a published game author!
Cassette 50 frequently gets mentioned on retro-computing forums, not often fondly, and subsequently inspired several annual Crap Games Competitions, for coding terrible games in the spirit of C50. I entered the Sinclair one several times, before I ever played any C50 games for real, and it turns out my own efforts were far, far too good!
Because I clearly have too much time on my hands, and because I don’t appear to have anything better going on in my life, I’ve decided to play and review all of the Spectrum Cassette 50 games on this here blog, so you don’t have to! I’m taking one for the team here. 🙂 I envisage much hilarity ensuing as I show you just how exciting everything is here. We can also see if I agree with the previous owner of my copy of Cassette 50, who helpfully marked the programs they consider to be particularly strong or weak efforts.
Anyway, faffing about with tapes is a fiddly business, and my copy of C50 is a bit unreliable at loading, so I decided to transfer all the programs onto my vDriveZX for ease of use. It took three virtual Microdrive cartridges to fit them all in, and for loading I wrote a little menu program which allows any of the fifty games to be selected and loaded automatically. This was a fun little coding project, that I put some effort into, using Taswide to create 64 characters per line for the menu. I also devised a clever little system to select and load the right game. If you want to do this yourself at home, here’s the program:
10 CLEAR 63222: LOAD *”m”;1;”taswide”CODE
20 DIM x$(50,4): FOR a=1 TO 50: READ x$(a): NEXT a
40 PRINT INK 7; PAPER 2;” Cassette 50 Menu “
50 PRINT : RANDOMIZE USR 64300
60 PRINT CHR$ 3;
70 PRINT ” 1. Muncher 18. Ski Run 35. Field”
80 PRINT ” 2. Ski Jump 19. Tanks 36. Draggold”
90 PRINT ” 3. Basketball 20. Solar Ship 37. Space Search”
100 PRINT ” 4. Frogger 21. Ten Pins 38. Inferno”
110 PRINT ” 5. Breakout 22. Cars 39. Nim”
120 PRINT ” 6. Crusher 23. Stomper 40. Voyager”
130 PRINT ” 7. Star Trek 24. Pinball 41. Sketch Pad”
140 PRINT ” 8. Martian Knockout 25. Cavern 42. Blitz”
150 PRINT ” 9. Boggles 26. Laser 43. Fishing Mission”
160 PRINT “10. Alien Attack 27. Alien 44. Mystical Diamonds”
170 PRINT “11. Lunar Lander 28. Cargo 45. Galaxy Defence”
180 PRINT “12. Maze Eater 29. The Race 46. Cypher”
190 PRINT “13. Microtrap 30. The Skull 47. Jetmobile”
200 PRINT “14. Motorway 31. Orbit 48. Barrel Jump”
210 PRINT “15. Labyrinth 32. Munch 49. Attacker”
220 PRINT “16. Skittles 33. Bowls 50. Space Mission”
230 PRINT “17. Race Track 34. Raiders”
240 PRINT CHR$ 2;
250 INPUT “Choose a game “;n
260 IF INT n<1 OR INT n>50 THEN GO TO 250
270 CLS #: LET dr=VAL x$(n,1): LOAD *”m”;dr;x$(n,2 TO )
290 DATA “1MUN”,”1SKI”,”1BAS”,”1FRO”,”1BRE”,”1CRU”,”1STA”,”1MAR”,”1BOG”,”1ALI”,
300 DATA “2TEN”,”2CAR”,”2STO”,”2PIN”,”2CAV”,”2LAS”,”2ALI”,”2CA2″,”2THE”,”2TH2″,
310 DATA “3MYS”,”3GAL”,”3CYP”,”3JET”,”3BAR”,”3ATT”,”3SPA”
I think it’s worth pointing out that this represents a classic example of turd-polishing. FAR more effort has gone into my coding of this menu than went into ANY of the games. If I’d coded this in the true spirit of C50, none of the text would align properly, it would all be in magenta, green and yellow, and the whole thing would beep aggressively at you in a way that would instantly raise your blood pressure. C50 would actually make a pretty effective method of torturing someone.
Anyway, that’s the background of my next major blogging project. Brace yourself for the reviews!