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BBC Micro: The 2MHz PC That Changed Video Gaming

Micro marvel.


In 1981, a revolution was taking place. The personal computer market, once famously dismissed by 70s computing powerhouse Ken Olsen with the immortal words "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home," was rapidly expanding. The Apple II, released in 1977, was dominating the home computer market in the US, turning a once small operation run out of a garage in Cupertino into a multibillion-dollar company. Alongside the likes of the Atari 2600, it was also shaping the nascent video games market. Revolutionary games like Mystery House, Ultima, and Castle Wolfenstein made their debut on the Apple II, and--thanks to its decade-long life span--the machine would play host to a multitude of genre-defining releases.

But for those in the UK, owning an Apple II was something of a pipe dream. Its graphics system, designed specifically for NTSC monitors, wouldn't work properly in the UK without modification. Even then, importing the machine from the US was an expensive proposition. By the time the Apple II made its European debut in late '79 with the Apple II Europlus, the UK was already churning out machines of its own. The 1MHz Commodore PET would be the first to market, but it was eccentric inventor Clive Sinclair's Sinclair Research, former Sinclair employee Chris Curry's Acorn Computers, and the broadcasting might of the BBC that would come to define UK computing in the early '80s.

The story of how collaboration between one of the most respected public broadcasters in the world and a small computer outfit from Cambridge took place is a sprawling tale of British ingenuity and questionable business practices, one that's humorously (if not entirely accurately) told in the BBC comedy drama Micro Men. In short, 1981 saw the BBC announce its Computer Literacy Project, which aimed to latch onto the growing trend in personal computers and create a TV programme to teach the public how to use them. To keep the programme simple, the broadcaster wanted a single computer to base the show on. This caught the attention of Sinclair and Curry, who knew full well what having a trusted name like the BBC adorning their computers would do for sales.

Acorn, staffed by Cambridge University's finest, was quick to move on the idea. After showing the BBC its prototype--famously created in just one week--it was awarded the contract to produce the machine. Based on an 8-bit 6502 processor clocked at 2MHz (the same as in the Apple II), either 16kB or 32kB of RAM, and featuring a high-res graphics mode, it was a powerful computer for the time--on paper at least--more so than its competitor, Sinclair's ZX81. "It was an awesome machine, because it was like a Rolls Royce compared to anything else out there," X-COM creator and early Micro developer Julian Gollop tells me. "I was shortly to acquire a ZX81, but comparing the ZX81 and the BBC Micro was like chalk and cheese."

The BBC Micro was a familiar sight in classrooms across the UK.
The BBC Micro was a familiar sight in classrooms across the UK.

More important than its specs, though, was how the Micro's television show and its ubiquity in education would introduce computers to an entire generation. The vast majority of UK schools would soon be stocked with the machine, which sold more than 1.5 million units in its lifetime. Notably, the Micro booted directly in BBC BASIC (beginners all-purpose symbolic instruction code), a simple programming language. To do anything with the machine, you had to learn some basic text commands. It was this that captured the imagination of an entire generation of youngsters eager to unlock the potential of the Micro's hardware. One of those youngsters was David Braben, co-creator of Elite, a highly influential space combat and trading game for the Micro that featured some of the most ambitious visuals and gameplay mechanics of its time.

"The thing that was brilliant about the Acorn Atom [the Micro's predecessor] and the BBC Micro was that they came with everything you needed," Braben tells me, "which, from a kid's point of view, is brilliant, because you don't have to then say, 'Oh, I need this compiler, or I need this sort of thing.' You could write a game in machine code; you had everything you needed. And another thing was there were very few games around. You were expected to program. Magazines had type-in listings, and you'd learn a lot from doing those things. But I think also, the fact you could write in machine code from day one on the machine without buying anything, that's probably the biggest thing."

It might not look like much now, but Elite was a groundbreaking game when it was released in 1984.
It might not look like much now, but Elite was a groundbreaking game when it was released in 1984.

The Micro's presence in schools (as well as strong sales for its cheaper competitor, the ZX Spectrum) not only spurred the creation of games like Chucky Egg, Labyrinth, and Castle Quest, but also helped foster a generation of programmers and games industry pioneers. Braben would go on to create Frontier Developments, a studio that has created games such as Frontier, Kinectimals, and LostWinds. Inspired by the Micro, Braben also formed the Raspberry Pi Foundation, an effort to get cheap computers into the hands of youngsters and reintroduce computer science into schools. Julian Gollop released classics like X-COM and Magic & Mayhem. Most famously of all, the Darling brothers--who began creating Micro games from their bedroom in 1982--went on to form the hugely successful Codemasters, which created games like Fantastic Dizzy, Colin McRae Rally, and Grid.

Even recent indie talent Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell owes a lot to the Micro's ubiquity. "I can't have been much more than 6 or 7 years old, and we had a BBC Micro," says Bithell. "I think we had one per classroom. I remember playing a lot of Granny's Garden with its awful witch squeal. But the big one for me, and this kind of makes sense now, was that I was playing a lot of adventure games on there. I can't remember the name of it now, but there was this one game where you had an editor so you could build your own adventure. Like any kid playing with these tools, I never made anything of value; it was always half an hour here and there, and I never finished anything. But I realised that I liked making stuff more than I liked playing it. Looking back, that was probably the most important thing I learnt in primary school."

"A lot of people probably wouldn't have learnt programming, had the BBC Micro not been around."

Unfortunately for Acorn, the IBM PC (also released in 1981) was gaining traction. By the time the '90s rolled round, PCs that ran Windows instead of BASIC were becoming the de facto standard in the classroom, and the BBC had dropped its Computer Literacy Project. Students who were once being taught how to code and create, rather than just consume, were now a part of dumbed-down ICT (information and communications technology) classes teaching Microsoft Word and Excel.

Codemasters founders David and Richard Darling started off programming games for computers like the BBC Micro and Commodore 64.
Codemasters founders David and Richard Darling started off programming games for computers like the BBC Micro and Commodore 64.

"A lot of people probably wouldn't have learnt programming, had the BBC Micro not been around," says Braben. "Looking now, a generation on, when I'm asked by parents or my own kids about how to learn that sort of thing, bizarrely, the best answer is to buy something like a BBC Micro on eBay, at least until we started Raspberry Pi. You could abuse the Micro, you could send programs to all the machines in the classroom if you knew what you were doing, but the point was that it was brilliant from a classroom point of view. If a kid had a problem, they pressed break to restart the machine, and they were back to square one. It's a very, very good teaching aid."

While it has been 30 years since the last BBC Micro rolled off the production line, its influence on computing and video games lives on--and not just in those who've gone on to create blockbuster hits or revive its educational spirit. Thanks to the Micro's early success, Acorn was able to fund development of a new processor based on "reduced instruction set computer" research from the University of California, Berkeley. The Acorn Archimedes computer it powered wasn't the hit that Acorn might have hoped for, but with some help from Apple and VLSI Technology, the Advanced Risc Machines--later shortened to ARM--processor division of Acorn was spun out into its own company.

The first ARM chips powered Apple's much-maligned handheld Newton device, but they soon found use in other low-power devices like mobile phones. Today, ARM chips are found in 99 percent of the world's smartphones and tablets, with around 4.3 billion people--60 percent of the world's population--interacting with a device carrying an ARM chip each day. The 50 billionth product containing an ARM-designed chip shipped late last year.

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