The Duffers’ Guide to 8-Bit Computing #1: Software on Tape

The first of a new Duffers’ Guide, celebrating the joys of 8-bit computing

I have recently found a YouTube channel that celebrates the wonder of audio tape. It is headed by a fellow from Lancashire who knows his TDKs from his Maxells, and his chrome tapes from his ferric tapes. What has amazed me is how no two audio cassettes are the same in terms of quality.

To use a classic 1980s cultural trope, we used compact cassettes to tape the charts from BBC Radio One. We created mixtapes, we rescued jammed cassette tape with a pencil or a Bic biro.

We used to play computer games on cassette tape.

If you were born in the early noughties, the experience of playing computer games on physical media may be alien to you. A few readers will remember using cartridges, DVDs, CDs, or diskettes. During the 1980s, most UK households had Jet Set Willy or Skooldaze on cassette instead of disc.

Why cassettes?

Compact cassettes had two advantages: one was price, the other was availability. For saving programs, the humble cassette could be purchased in supermarkets, specialist retailers like Tandy, Dixons, and Currys, or variety stores like WHSmith, Woolworths and Boots.

Compared with the price of floppy discs, they were cheaper, and you didn’t need to go to a computer shop or Dixons. Cartridges require customised ROM chips, which added to their cost.

When Clive Sinclair launched the ZX80 in 1980, there was only one way to save your programs: on a cassette. Likewise with the ZX81, and the ZX Spectrum. With the ZX80 being usurped by the ZX81 (and the ZX Spectrum thereafter), a nascent games industry was born. Much to the chagrin of Clive who wanted to see his machines in use for calculations and productivity (yeah, try writing your memoirs on a ZX81 keyboard).

Though cheap and cheerful, cassettes had one drawback. They were slow. Unless a fast load program was added to the cassette, games could take minutes to load. Tens of minutes in some cases.

Saving and loading programs

Depending on which home computer you had in the 1980s, this varied according to each microcomputer’s interpretation of BASIC, and as to whether you could use your own tape deck or buy a proprietary one.

On the ZX80, ZX81, and ZX Spectrum micros, you could use your own tape deck. Loading a game meant plugging the EAR lead from your tape recorder to your Speccy. Saving a program meant plugging your Spectrum’s MIC lead at one end as well as both ends of the EAR lead.

To load a game, this meant LOAD “” or LOAD “eastofthem60”. The red and sky blue borders would flash until you press PLAY. Within seconds, an unforgettable high pitched noise. Most importantly, the volume should be set at three quarters that of full blast, with the tone set at TREBLE (if you had a posh stereo instead of a cheap ass tape recorder).

When your program finished loading, you needed to stop the tape.

On the Commodore 64, VIC 20, Atari 400/800/1200, Sharp MZ80A, things were a little easier. You could only use the manufacturers’ cassette recorder, or another one that used the manufacturers’ own interface. With the C64, Commodore’s 1530 C2N Datassette was the main model. This had its own dedicated interface (no faffing about with volume controls!), and you didn’t need to stop the tape once Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins had loaded. (The cassette recorder did that for you).

There was one problem: speed. After pressing SHIFT and RUN STOP, you could brew up whilst the Datassette went its merry way. Waiting 10 minutes or more to load a game was the norm. Without a fast loader routine like Freeload and Novaload, the speed was 60 – 70 bytes per second on a Datassette. On a ZX Spectrum, 160 bytes per second on your Realistic computer tape recorder.

Was this enough to drive UK C64 users towards buying a 1541 floppy disc drive? A massive ‘no’. Back in 1991, the 1541-II 5.25″ disc drive used to cost as much as a new C64C computer: £149.99. A Datassette would set you back £29.99 (and Zzap! 64 and Commodore Format magazines carried ads for cheaper non-CBM alternatives).

By 1987, the Amstrad CPC 464 and ZX Spectrum +2 computers solved the volume related woes of Sir Clive’s machines. By adding a tape deck to the right hand side of the keyboard. In June 1984, this was part of the Amstrad CPC 464, which was sold with its own monitor (in colour or green screen versions). Three years on, with Sinclair Research now an Amstrad brand name, the +2 followed suit. In 1990, a tape drive was added to the sleek CPC 464plus – in a more discreet position than its predecessor.

The Ocean Loading Theme

Being as C64 users waited an eternity to load their favourite games, Ocean Software sound maestro Martin Galway thought of one way of easing the tedium. The Ocean Loading Theme.

One thing that set the Commodore 64 apart from its contemporaries was Bob Yannes’ Sound Interface Chip. The 6581 SID chip gave C64 users many memorable tunes and made celebrities out of its musicians. As well as Martin Galway, names like Rob Hubbard, Tim Follin, Martin Walker, and Jeroen Tel.

From 1984 to 1993, the Ocean Loading Theme would be heard halfway through loading any Ocean and Imagine title. The first two themes were composed by Martin Galway, which for me conjures up images of Hyper Sports or Head Over Heels. The third theme was written by Peter Clarke, better known for his infectious transcription of the Bubble Bobble theme. The fourth and fifth themes were written by Jonathan Dunn. A special one was written for Rambo First Blood Part II.

The joys of a misspent youth. Now, where did I put that Quickshot II Turbo joystick…?

The Covertape Wars

As almost everyone with a home computer had a tape deck or two, cassettes were cheap enough to be cover-mounted onto computer magazines. Apart from developing some rivalry between titles, the addition of a cover mounted cassette saved one magazine from being axed.

Back in 1985, Future Publishing was a wee upstart compared with Newsfield, East Midlands Allied Press and Dennis Publishing. Chris Anderson (late of Zzap! 64) formed the company as travelling from Yeovil to Ludlow was a pain in the proverbials. His first title was Amstrad Action, which was slow to catch on and close to folding. He then added a cover mounted tape for its Christmas 1985 issue and the rest, as they say… Britain’s most successful title for the Amstrad CPC family of computers. The magazine amassed 117 issues with its last edition published in June 1995.

Four years down the line, the addition of cover mounted tapes became the norm. If you only had a fiver, you could have bought a copy of Crash and Your Sinclair, and increased your software collection for the price of a budget game.

At first, cover mounted tapes had full games that were exclusive to the magazines. Later, previews of forthcoming releases bundled with full games of the software publisher’s older titles. In a bid to gain readers, magazines would try and jam as many programs as possible on a cassette. This would include adventure games (where the next part would appear in a subsequent issue), music demos, games by their own readers, plus the odd utility. Sometimes, two cassettes for a Christmas issue.

As the eight bit systems reached their commercial twilight, there was a shift towards readers’ games. On the cover mounted cassettes of Commodore Format and Zzap! 64 magazines, shoot-em-ups created with The Shoot-Em-Up Construction Kit became the norm. Public Domain titles increased in number, too.

For the publishers, cover mounted tapes were a necessary evil, even at the expense of declining page counts. They made for a cheap way of building your software collection, as well as a possible shop window for your coding talents (if you sent a game to Newsfield, EMAP or Future Publishing). For a more frank description on The Covertape Wars, we thoroughly recommend Kim Justice’s video.

Before I go…

We hope this is the first of many 8 Bit Memories type Duffers’ Guide posts, based partly on my experience with the C64 and ZX Spectrum formats. Do you have fond memories of waiting 14 minutes to load Manic Miner? Did you copy a few games for your mates? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 25 September 2019.

RadioShack Tape Recorder image by, J. Smith, 2006 (Creative Commons License: Attribution-Share Alike).

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. gayjeanne says:

    Remember this well Stuart. I also remember learning to code in basic.
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    >

    Like

  2. Marnanel Thurman says:

    I learned to count in hex from watching the block numbers tick round when loading games from cassette on the BBC Micro.

    A few years ago, someone posted a clip on YouTube of a Thames TV programme where they’d played a BBC Micro saved program over the credits, so you could (sort of) download it.

    I had to write some signal processing stuff in Python, but I did manage to rescue the program!

    Like

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