Computer gaming in the Tameside area
Today, we think nothing of spending a few hours on our favoured games console, or on social networking sites like Facebook. The personal computer and games console has become part of our lives, possibly responsible for dwindling TV viewing figures, along with multichannel television channels. The X-Box 360 has become as ubiquitous as The X Factor, likewise has the Wii and the PS3 in today’s homes.
As recently as, say the mid-1980s, you were probably lucky to have your own system to yourself. You probably blackmailed your parents enough to get a ZX Spectrum for your homework – when you really wanted to play Jet Set Willy on it! If you were really really lucky, you may have had one of the dearer computers, like a BBC Model B or a Commodore 64, or even in later years an Amiga 500.
My entry into home computing came very late: it was 1990 when I first saw a Commodore 64, and a year since I used one properly. Three years on, I acquired a ZX Spectrum – in the format’s dying days. Five years before then, it was the school’s BBC Model B which got me interested in computers in the first place. Despite writing to Father Christmas for a 128k BBC Master System, I never got one!
Even in this early period of computer gaming, Tameside had a fair few independently owned computer shops. The national chain stores did pretty well too. In what is now the Ladysmith Centre, Boots was a dependent source for ZX Spectrum games of the national chain stores, as was Currys. Woolworths, then on Warrington Street, too sold software for the main computer formats.
Today, the computer gaming scene has shifted towards national chains, ridding the borough of real computer shops where enthusiasts rather than accountants sold home computers and actually played the games themselves. The only independent computer shops in the borough have shifted towards building custom-made PCs.
The independent stores:
Vudata (Old Road; Stamford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne): the first computer shop I enjoyed visiting was Vudata. In 1993, I considered it to be the best place for all things of an Amiga nature. Sega Mega Drive and SNES gamers were also well catered for too. It also supported the 8-bit formats till the end of their commercial lives, extended also by a system called EDOS. EDOS (standing for Electronic Distribution of Software) enabled shops to duplicate on demand, via a database, tape or disc games without waiting for Codemasters, Ocean or US Gold to send them a few copies of their latest games. It also supported the MSX as well as popular 8-bit and 16-bit formats.
The original Vudata shop was a small unit on Old Street, opposite the Jubilee Home Video Library, backing onto Roberts’ Alternative Place. The NHS Trust offices occupy this site. Expansion saw them move to Stamford Street next to the Oddfellows’ Hall, where they stayed till the late 1990s. The unit is vacant following a recent fire.
Jubilee Home Video Library (Old Street, Ashton-under-Lyne): though not strictly a computer shop, this place deserves a special mention, given its local reputation with mid-1990s console gamers.
Opposite the original Vudata, Jubilee Home Video was the place to go to for most discerning film lovers. Whether you had a VHS, Betamax, V2000 or Laserdisc player, it was heaven on Earth (and great for The Witchwood a few doors away). In the mid-1990s, it became a fertile source for 16 and 32 bit console games. It had a wide range of European and Japanese titles for Sega and Nintendo gamers. It was also among the first to embrace the 3DO and Sony Playstation, though skipped the Atari Jaguar. Even in the late 1990s, it continued to support the SNES and NES systems and offer the odd Betamax title!
Sadly, Jubilee Home Video is no longer with us. In later years, it moved to more modest premises as falling prices made VHS and DVD titles more affordable. The ultimate death knell was probably the internet and superstore chains undercutting the independents.
Computer Base (Staveleigh Way, Ashton-under-Lyne): I always remember that shop being closed on most of my early wanderings. Computer Base occupied a first floor unit in the precinct above Cardshops which was next to Boots. According to the shop’s window display it supported a plethora of systems including the Oric-1, Atari 800 and the Acorn Electron, as well as the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum.
Stewart’s Electronics (Penny Meadow, Ashton-under-Lyne): whilst the outdoor market was being refurbished in 1993, temporary stalls were moved over to a car park behind Penny Meadow. One side effect of this was its proximity to Stewart’s Electronics. Back then, it was an ardent supporter of the Amiga and Atari ST formats. This dovetailed neatly with its other specialism of sound equipment, given the Atari ST’s built-in MIDI port which made the machine popular with musicians.
In 1994, it was an excellent place for commercially released titles and public domain titles too. Following an upgrade to the Amiga, this was our first stop for all things of a PD nature, including the Assassins discs which gave you three PD games or demos at pocket money prices. By 1996, it moved into next generation consoles with the 3DO and Sony Playstation its pet subjects. The shop is still trading, though seemingly sporadically as I’ve seen the shutters down on many a 346 down to Ashton.
Soundtracks (Trinity Street, Stalybridge): occupying a unit in the former Fish Market, Soundtracks was a record shop which sold computer games for a while. On a personal level, I remember it as the place where Dad purchased Arnie (Zeppelin Games, 1992) for the Commodore 64. Two years or so from there, it became a personalised fancy goods shop. Today, it is now the home of Witzend Gallery, a small art gallery which offers picture framing services.
Vortex (St. Michael’s Square/Old Street, Ashton-under-Lyne): as well as being the place where I bought my first Windows PC (333 MHz Intel Celeron, 4Mb shared graphics, 64Mb RAM and 4Gb hard drive), it is probably the oldest computer shop in Tameside. Vortex has always appealed to the business customer or serious home user, though offered gamer-friendly PCs in recent years.
Ace Computers (Old Street, Ashton-under-Lyne): this place has a lot to answer for on a personal level. Several years after purchasing my Commodore 64 games there, I later saw the woman who served me back then at The People’s Gallery in Stalybridge. I have known her ever since in recent times as the artist Lizzie Van Dottie.
Ace Computers occupied the front unit of Pinkertons Shopping Arcade, a mini shopping centre with an upstairs café and other weird and wonderful shops. Its pet microcomputer of choice was the Commodore 64, though there was also a good selection for Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum gamers. It was also the best place for used C64 peripherals. Sadly it would have took me several paper rounds to save up for that Sound Expander which occupied the front window with an EPROM programmer that nobody wanted. Opposite the shop were a few used arcade machines, available for sale.
Game Zone (Hyde, Ashton-under-Lyne and Glossop): in more recent times, Game Zone became a leading independent computer games shop with three branches. Its strong point was games consoles, albeit the systems which followed on from the SNES, Amiga and the C64. Sony PS1 and PS2 titles were a strong point with support for the N64 and Sega Saturn also available.
Arcade machines and amusement arcades:
Some time around the 1980s and 1990s, amusement arcades were the preserve of proper games like Defender rather than video poker. The main source for arcade machines in Tameside were often the local pubs or chippies. In fact my very first experience of computer gaming was a Space Invaders machine at the Lamb Hotel. 27 years on I scour seaside arcades in vain hope of finding some retro gaming goodness, ideally a Taito Space Invaders machine.
The main amusement arcade for video game fanatics was, and remains to this day, Slotworld. The Ashton one was created using odd space inside the Metro cinema, with a door from the cinema lobby. There was a second branch in Stalybridge on the right hand side of the Palace Cinema. This has been long demolished and replaced by a car park for the Palace Cinema’s present guise as the Rififi club.
Even public buildings had the odd arcade machine. In 1988, the bar at Dukinfield Community Centre had a gorgeous arcade table with a primitive overhead racing game.
Personal recollections of the social scene:
During my adolescence, there was no such thing as a download. If you wanted games for free, you hoped your best mate could copy them on his twin-deck hi-fi and – hey Presto! you got Matchday II for zip all. Computer games were either swapped or copied with the playground its marketplace.
At secondary school, from my experience, the cool kids had Commodore 64s and read Zzap! 64. The swots had BBC Micros, the ones whose parents were pretty loaded had Amigas or Atari STs. Standing out like a sore thumb was the odd geek who had an early IBM compatible who knew their way around MS-DOS, in the same way I knew my Mayne’s Daimler Fleetlines from my GMT Standards. I had access to a Commodore 64 and, fortunately for me, my form group were mainly C64ers. Better still, one teacher who taught me German was a fan of the Dizzy games.
The most popular consoles at the time were the NES, Sega Mega Drive and Master System machines and the Nintendo Gameboy handheld. In the console stakes, my form was pretty much into the Nintendo systems.
From 1992 – 1995, I had a paper round which also kept me in budget games and copies of Commodore Format for a bit. Being a fellow C64 user did wonders for interacting with peers in my year group. Two of them even had letters published in Zzap! 64 and Commodore Force.
How I would love to return to the days when playability rather than Hollywood style graphics were King. Even now I still prefer to play 3D Deathchase or Sensible World of Soccer rather than Halo. Probably because I’m an old fart who’s mad enough to wait 14 minutes for Trashman or 3D Ant Attack to load!
Before I go…
I would like to hear your recollections of purchasing computer games or early home computer systems within the Tameside or wider Greater Manchester areas. Especially welcome are comments from gamers who spent the best part of their lives between 1980 and 1995 on an Atari 2600, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amiga 500 or any other system for that matter. Whether you spent your adolescence playing Cuthbert in the Jungle, Treasure Island Dizzy, or Sensible World of Soccer, feel free to comment.
S.V., 13 October 2010.