I started to tell a story and three hours later I was still not done. It was supposed to be a short trip down the memory lane but situation escalated quickly.
It was a regular school day in mid ’80s when my teacher came in the class and told everybody she needs to select a few kids to attend a computer course. I was about 7 at the time and didn’t know what a computer was.
It sounded interesting but unfortunately I was not selected, most of the ones who made the list had moms and dads working in the IT industry. It was common back then to try to steer the kids towards the same areas of interest as their parents.
In the classroom we were sitting two in one bench. My bench buddy was on the list. He was doing great at school, he was a very smart guy. Perhaps driven by my competitive nature, perhaps it was faith but to this day I don’t know what made me raise my hand and ask if I can be part of the group.
So I went.
Even today those stairs give me goosebumps, all the memories…
In one of those rooms they had a few HC-85s and one TIM-S, all of them Romanian ZX-Spectrum compatible computers.
We learned LOGO and wrote instructions to draw shapes on the screen. Later they introduced BASIC. I was not impressed. I could totally see myself living my life without these so called “computers”.
Then, one day we had some time left at the end of the session. The instructor fired up a cassette tape player and loaded up a game.
My mind was blown.
I used to read a lot of adventure books and enjoyed the feeling of being part of the story, imagining everything. This new experience was much better, on a scale of one to ten this was a solid billion.
I could not believe I was able to use these machines to interact with cartoon characters in a rich environment, move around, dodge enemies, feel like I am living the adventure. Sure, I played pong on a TV before but this was completely different.
This was the first click.
From that day forward I could not think about anything else but computer games. I was living, breathing and sleeping with games in my mind.
Started imagining how it would be to program my own, drawing characters and maps on pieces of paper, sketching up stories to go with them and imagining situations to put them in.
A Z80 computer in those times was very expensive if you could find one. They were sometimes sold on the grey market but the price was about half a car. My parents didn’t see the need for such a device but even if they did, paying so much money was bananas. You could find unofficial kits that you could assemble yourself. They were much cheaper but I didn’t know anyone with enough skills to do it at that time. They were also sold in places I didn’t have access to at my age, university campuses mainly.
After many hours in the computer lab at school, my mother’s workplace or friends who owned one of these I finally got my wish. My parents bought a HC-90 months after the Romanian Revolution in December 1989.
I remember the setting, someone who had connections at the factory selling computers from his living room. We had to wait in a long line to get our hands on the precious device.
It had the same brains as previous generations, a nice black-green TTL monitor and a russian cassette tape player named Elektronika 302.
It was amazing.
I played so many games and wasted so many evenings much to my dad’s disappointment who expected me to program and study. Sometimes my cousin would visit me and we would play for hours driving my parents nuts.
In my defense I did try to implement games in BASIC but it was just too slow. It was impossible for me to use it the way I imagined.
I knew about machine code and how you can write blazing fast code with it but my mind was not ready to understand how hardware and software get glued together.
I was living in a nice area in Bucharest close to Circus Park.
Every evening I used to go to this large open field and leave the dog free to play with other dogs. It was a very nice community, lots of interesting people and discussions, a great improvised socializing venue for everybody to unwind at the end of the day.
I happened to mention I have problems understanding machine code for Z80 and someone out of the blue offered to give me a xeroxed copy of this book:
He brought it the very next evening. It was a bunch of pages copied multiple times by many people, some writings were barely readable. Didn’t matter though, I was heading towards the summer vacation at the countryside and had two full months in front of me to finally understand how my computer worked internally.
That summer I had my second click.
It was like I was blind and I can now see. Everything I read over the years, everything I thought I didn’t understand, all the numbers made sense all of a sudden. It was like magic!
When I came back for school that year I was an expert at using GENS / MONS, the Z80 assembler and debugger software.
For the first time in my life I felt like game playing was interfering with my research. I was hungry to understand everything there is to know about my computer.
About this time a neighbor of mine who was also a classmate got a brand new Romanian ZX Spectrum clone named Cobra. It had this amazing feature, you could push a soft reset button and it would change the BASIC ROM with something else while keeping the RAM contents intact.
That something else was a suite of programs, the most notable being an assembler and a disassembler. I could load a game in the usual way using the cassette tape player, push the button and inspect the code.
Clearly I had to put my hands on something like this. Because they were cheaper than they used to I asked and luckily my parents gave me some money to try to build one. I even found another neighbor who helped me buy the parts and build it.
We ended up spending a few nights trying to put this thing together. The main board was improperly made, there were broken traces, missing connections. The parts were a mix of USSR, Romanian and other manufacturers. It was very close to a nightmare but we managed to do it and the very evening it started working I remember playing this game on it:
Funny fact, my neighbor was left-handed so he was using QW-PL keys instead of the usual QA-OP. If I remember correctly you had to reload the game to change the keyboard layout so I used his way of playing and I adjusted just fine. For some obscure reason this stuck with me over the years. Every time I played a game which required 4 directional keys I always used this layout.
Another funny fact, I sold the HC-90 through a newspaper ad to a kid who came to get it with his grandmother. I remember he was just as excited as I was when I got it.
Since that day forward I used my Cobra exclusively. The soft reset feature alone was the thing which helped me to properly understand how games are made. I used to load them and instead of playing I would spend hours looking at their routines.
I had a special fascination for sound and music routines and ended up extracting them from games for my own enjoyment.
About this time I made contact with something called a PC. It was a 286 which was running DOS and looked really weird to me.
It had a keyboard detached from the main unit, something called a mouse and a color monitor
Coming from the ZX Spectrum the games looked impressive: F29 Retaliator, Prince of Persia, Scorched Earth.
I slowly started to be drawn towards the int10h, int13h and int21h world, leaving my cobra unused for days at a time. As with everything in life I wanted the new shinier thing but could not afford one.
I started visiting friends who had one a lot more. I learned everything there is to know about DOS and continued to be fascinated by graphical and audio programs but also PC viruses. Studying how viruses accomplish their mission helped me understand OS internals better than any book could. Thelp tool (tech-help) and disassembled source code were the only references I had in those times.
I would still play games on my Z80 but research time was going towards the PC.
Through connections from my highschool I had the opportunity to visit a non-profit association who owned a satellite internet connection. Speed was insanely low for today’s standards, I think it was something like 4kbps.
I didn’t care, after the initial visit I started to go there regularly, sometimes even staying overnight. With a box of floppy disks I would surf the FTP servers in search of cool programs and source code. In those days WEB was in its infancy with only a handful of sites being available worldwide.
I was going everywhere with a box of floppies in my backpack. I had tools, rescue disks and was fixing computers left and right. I just didn’t have one at home.
After a long time with me sketching assembly programs on pieces of paper or repairing my friends computers, it finally happened: my father rebuilt a 4x4 automobile from scratch and managed to sell it. He had enough spare money to buy a computer!
I remember like it was yesterday when he told me to look for ads and try to come up with a configuration which would be good for me.
We got it sometime in August 1995, it was an AMD 486 Dx4-120MHz, 4MB of RAM, 820MB HDD, an ISA video card and a chinese Soundblaster SB16 knockoff soundcard. I don’t know why I remember the exact month
I know that I completely forgot about my cobra computer. I don’t even remember what happened to it. I think I gave it away at some point but I know for sure I haven’t powered it up since I got the PC in the house.
About the same time as I, my classmate who owned a cobra got a PC too. He got the Pentium 75 (yes, the one with the FPU silicon bug) with an original SB16.
He was living one floor down and you can imagine what followed. We used a serial cable to play games in multiplayer mode. We had so much fun that a neighbor living upstairs wanted to join so he managed to get three coaxial based network cards and we made a proper LAN.
Those were the days…
The length of the story is getting out of hand and I haven’t even scratched the surface. I skipped so many details but maybe I will continue it some other time.
Over 35 years have passed since then and computers are still my life. I am working in IT and I can’t imagine life without games, computing or electronics.
Lately I started to get a bit nostalgic and hence I created this website to try to remember my initial days tinkering with computers. I am planning on trying to recreate that experience using new technologies while having some fun on the way.
If you happen to pass by, please don’t be shy and say hello. I know you have a great story to tell.