When I was a kid, I distinctly remember when the first Nintendo came out. It was glorious. Full-scrolling screens! A robot that would play for you! TWO buttons on the controller, and a direction pad. And the games had a depth previously never seen in home video games. Super Mario Bros. blew previous Atari and Colecovision games out of the water.
The problem was, my mom wouldn’t let me buy a Nintendo. Huge bummer! I think she was afraid it would rot my brain. But she did let me buy an old computer that could still play games: a TI 99/4a. This baby had been abandoned by Texas Instruments many years before as a commercial failure, so I was able to pick up a unit for $50, and some cartridge-based games could be found for as little as $3. It wasn’t a Nintendo, but it was still *video games*. I was in.
However, those games quickly got boring, and I found myself wanting more. One day a member of a local TI 99/4a users group showed me an animated Christmas card one guy had made using TI BASIC. This concept blew my mind. I had assumed that to write computer software, you had to be a genius, in a company, and it had to be on a cartridge. You mean to tell me that I can write my OWN games, using a programming language, and I don’t even need to put it on a cartridge? I couldn’t believe it.
I was given an introduction to TI BASIC, and I was off. Man, I was doing all kinds of cool stuff… playing musical tones, changing the color of the screen, and printing “Hello Vern!” on the screen 100 times in a row. It was awesome!
One of the limiting things about the TI 99/4a, however, was that you couldn’t draw just any graphics on the screen. The screen was divided up into “blocks” — each one 8×8 pixels. There were 32 blocks horizontally, and 24 vertically. In each block, you could use only two colors (out of a total of 16 available), including the background color. That’s kind of limiting when you want to try to draw a picture!
Soon I set off to make my first game: Maze Mania. My brother designed mazes on graph paper. Then, inside each square, we converted each maze “block” into a corresponding letter. (A = top-left wall, B = top-right wall, C = bottom-right wall, and so on… including blocks with 3 walls, 2 walls, 1 wall, etc.) Some of the mazes stretched on quite a bit farther than a single page of graph paper, and required many hours to convert.
Then I typed each line of letters into the computer, and coded a program that drew each piece accordingly. I remember running the program, and finding lots of mistakes, either in what was typed in, or in the original conversion. It was a lot of work, but in the end, I had my OWN GAME!
Once finished, Maze Mania had 13 mazes ranging from short to huge, with options to print mazes out on your printer, or play them by guiding a marker through each maze, with an optional gray trail showing where you’ve been. It even included flashing text saying “Congradulations!!!!” when you beat the maze. (My spelling at age 9 wasn’t the best.)
Fast forward to today, and I’m still making games. But now I’m fortunately selling more than 10 copies of each game I make. (That was the total sales volume of each of my first two games. Quite a return on an investment, eh?)
All in all, my mom’s attempts to steer me away from video games, by not letting me get a Nintendo, were exactly what got me *into* video games, because the TI computer I bought instead is what led to my discovery of programming. So thanks, Mom!