"When 300 Baud Was the Bomb"

By N.Z. Bear

By Salon Staff

Published June 20, 2002 7:21PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

Hey man, just thought I'd let you know that your "Back in the Day" column was amazing. I'm not generally a very nostalgic guy, I just try to make the best of whatever day I find myself in, but you got me all teary-eyed now. Although I was sorry to hear that you were one of the poor schlimazels stuck in Atari-land -- the STs were pretty sweet (better than the Amigas even, in a couple of areas), but the 800s blew ... hehe. (I'm just kidding, really. Funny how your brand affiliation seemed to matter so much back then, eh? Then again, I guess it's not funny at all, if you think about it. For us it was Commodore vs. Atari; nowadays it's Nike vs. Adidas or whatever ... )

Anyways, now I'm gonna go pull out the tapes I used to listen to (Whitesnake, the Cult's "Electric," Scorpions' "Love at First Sting," etc., etc.) and the comics I used to read (mostly "Savage Sword of Conan" and "Wolvie") while autodialing and get really stoopit sentimental. My only regret is that I don't have my 64 anymore, with the attendant huge collection of pirated games.

That's another funny thing about those days, at least in the Commodore world -- among those I knew nobody ever thought twice about pirating games. There was a real culture about it, you know? My uncle used to be one of the kingpins of distributing the newest and greatest games, 'cause he swapped 10-disk packets (5.25", DSDD, with the write-enable tab cut out on the other side, 'cause Commie drives were single-sided, which wasted a whole side) with guys in Europe (I recall being the first in my city to play Tetris, aside from him -- it came out for the 64 years before it did in the arcade, and he got it about two weeks after it was released initially in Russia. He brought it in, said to me, "This is a brand-new game from Russia, and it's going to take over the world.").

Anyways, the piracy scene (it wasn't actually called that -- it really had no stupid moniker like "warez" or any such foolishness --and it certainly wasn't right, but it was just what we did) was thought of as sort of a friendly competition between us and the video-game makers. The real game was them coming out with some crazy new copy-protection scheme, and then the hackers trying to break that scheme as fast as possible. And the video-game makers of the '80s had some brains, more so than the geniuses at Sony these days. They never developed a copy protect that could be defeated by a friggin' marker -- more like requiring extra wires being soldered into your 1541 floppy drive for the 21-second backup program -- which was, of course, soon defeated.

There was also the demo scene, which seems to have completely disappeared, as far as I know. See, back then there was none of this reliance on bigger and better hardware to improve game technology. The C64 was the same machine when it started as when it ended -- and yet there was a consistent increase in game quality over the many years that it reigned supreme. That's because the programmers had time to get into the guts of the thing, figure out how to tweak it into doing things even the makers hadn't conceived of. They wrote using fast, efficient machine code. They maximized what they had -- they were the Beatles/George Martins of the '80s, using equal parts technological and artistic brilliance. The demo scene -- what an amazing thing that was. That was programmers, brilliant minds, making the 64 do new and exciting things on the screen with no game to play, no interaction, just graphical and aural displays for the sheer joy of it. Again, big and friendly competition, with the warring factions pushing each other to new heights on a completely level playing field.

The demo scene is another casualty of that era. It peaked, I would say, with the legendary Juggler demo on the Amiga. I recall going to a meeting of the Keystone Commodore User's Group here in Winnipeg one evening and experiencing the most profound amazement of that decade. It was Amiga night, with several of the members bringing their Amigas in to show what we naively believed at the time to be the future -- and let's face it, the Amigas consistently beat out all comers for their entire life span. They kicked so much ass that there are still people carrying the banner. They loaded up this demo on the big front-projection TV. Today, it doesn't seem in the least bit impressive -- I don't even recall the actual specs, but what it was, was about a half-second looped video of a 3-D animated man juggling three reflective balls. You can download an AVI version here, but it fails to convey the excitement, really -- it looks so small and ... ancient on a 1,024-x-768 true-color display. You have to imagine it on a standard NTSC screen (TV screen for all you people who had girlfriends in high school). You have to put yourself in the frame of mind where Pac-Man, Galaga and Defender are pretty gnarly, because that other '80s relic, the arcade, was what we compared everything to. "Arcade quality" was a common refrain on home video-game boxes. Of course, it wasn't until the NES and its Super Mario Bros. cartridge that a home system could truly make that claim. But I digress ...

The Juggler demo was a revelation, a notice that we were moving into a whole new world. If Commodore hadn't brought out the Amiga and proved that this level of beauty could be brought to the home, the VGA display and the Sound Blaster would never have come along. If Commodore hadn't had such idiots running the company, the Amiga would still be putting PCs everywhere to shame. After the meeting, a bunch of us went over to Pizza Hut, as was our custom, and there wasn't a guy in the place who wasn't promising himself an Amiga as soon as he had the money (sadly, I myself never did join that lofty group).

Anyways, there were abortive attempts at keeping the demo scene going as far ahead as the 486 era -- I recall buying a shareware CD with a few PC demos on it, but the heart of it was gone -- the Wintel model of constant upgrades of both OS and CPU removed the level playing field, and removed the spirit of maximizing what you had from the makers of games and what was now called multimedia. It was in this era, the early '90s, that programmers the world over became lazy, fat and slow, using less and less machine code and more and more of these so-called high-level languages (which is as Orwellian a name as I've ever heard) and inventing the new phenomenon of Bloatware. Microsoft was the key proponent of this loathsome practice, and whenever I think about I still feel a rage simmering deep in my craw.

Wow. What an amazing time.

-- J. Paskaruk

This article brought back some fond memories of the days when I ran my own BBS. The first time I beheld the glory of ANSI text, I knew where I belonged, running a BBS of my own. It was a small one- and occasionally two-line affair that I managed to link up to FidoNET, the precursor to the newsgroups of the Net, and whiz bang, all my users were part of a global community. I take pride in being one of the forerunners of our global online community and hope that these kinds of experiences can be discovered by new generations.

-- Jeff Green

Wow. What a trip down memory lane. I only came across the BBS scene in the early 1990s, and only got my own modem in 1995. A brand-spanking-new USR Sportster 28.8. Was I the talk of the town!

By then the Internet was just starting to take over from BBSes, but there was yet some fun to be had. Like running your own and talking to all the crackpots (no offence) who logged on.

But times changed, I went to university, and my hard drive crashed. Besides, in South Africa local calls have not been free for a long time.

So the BBS went and with it, in a way, my childhood. Sometimes I wish those days were back, but they now belong forever to the past.

-- Neilen Marais

Just wanted to respond to N.Z. Bear's article on BBSes. You did an excellent job bringing out the nostalgic quirky atmosphere of the good ol' BBS days, when dragons roamed the land, beer was free, and people were valued based on their ideas. I think it was the only time in history when mankind broke the generational communication barrier.

Thanks for the fuzzy memories :)

-- Gili, aka "Shadow Lord"

I just want to get a message out to N.Z. Bear: I know where you're coming from, man. I can't express how much I feel what you said in your article about the old days.

No carrier.

-- Jared Hoag

Very nice. I got a little misty, even. I don't remember what 300 baud sounds like.

-- Matt

I remember the days gone by where I would sit on my bed with my little Everex laptop (grayscale, 80-MB HDD, Win3.0) and use Procomm or some other such terminal program and dial in to BBSes. I can't believe the world it opened up to me. It was like coming into a whole new existence where people didn't really care what race you were, how old you were, or what you thought as long as you could back it up. I recall many days typing at other posts on the boards I used to visit. This article brings back a lot of memories, though I do have to admit I'm not old enough to remember the beginning days (no offense to the ones wiser than me), but I still miss the days I had, and I hold them dear to me. The advent of mass messaging and public chat rooms (à la AOL) has since overtaken the BBS, but I know somewhere out there, in this vast space called the Net, there are others like me that yearn to find a place away from it all, and rediscover oneself and the rest of us.

-- Jayson M. Sperling

Awww, you don't remember the real old systems? I first used a Hewlett- Packard, with a 24-character LED display, no drive, only 8 KB of RAM. To make any use of it you had to work with punch cards.

Writing code for it to play a simple tank battle game took 20,000 cards.

And we had to print the playing field in *s onto paper to be able to track out shots, unless you had an extremely good memory.

We never did quite get it to accept code to give you the coordinates of your own tank: not enough memory for that.

-- Jaqui

N.Z. Bear's article "When 300 Baud Was the Bomb" is a prime example of tunnel vision. The fact is that people were sending data over voice-grade telephone lines at speeds greater than 300 bps long before the Atari 800. As for Hayes, their claim to fame was the AT command set; as far as modems were concerned, they were Johnny-come-latelies.

-- Shmuel (Seymour J.) Metz

I loved this article; it made me feel like I wasn't alone. When Bear was back in the day, I'm where he was right now. Except my true day was back when I was 15. I loved the world of computers and had built my way up from video-game consoles. When I got my first PC it was the powerhouse PI 233, a maddening 32 MB of RAM and a 4-MB video card. It was ideal for playing some of the greatest games out.

Then I became obsessed with networking. Just to get a game of Hearts going over the primitive school LAN was a kick-butt feeling, like finishing Tomb Raider 1, you could say. Then I remember the day when the magic of video games disappeared ... it was odd ... Now computers and their workings intrigued me. I wanted to know about networking and programming -- suddenly the allure of the amazing Internet was in full swing.

I was 15 when I got my modem, 56K of raw buzzsaw-sounding power, which was like music to my ears. [But] the D-Dial attitude and style of communication has taken over ... chat rooms full of seedy unpleasantness have taken over somewhat intelligent, speedy and poor-grammar-driven conversation.

One of the worst things, though, is that the world has made the Internet, my world, too easily accessible to the dumb and mentally incompetent. When I was 15 mIRC was the bomb for me, it was never the Web I used, it was IRC. I quickly learned how to use it and became fluent in the "programming" of mIRC. The early and basic version I got of it was great; I loved the lack of ads and censorship. Soon I found a quaint server and channel listing where I could hang out and talk to people who had the same basic interest as me at the time, anime.

Now like everything else, the Internet has had its soul torn out by the commercialist '90s attitude that the '80s bequeathed us. I'm almost 18 ... I'm about to graduate from high school. And I'm a bigger loser than I ever was and I love it. Soon my power over computers will pay me back, hopefully. Instead of a toy I'll have a tool to make money with, I hope. Here's to the little pieces of the Net and the people that keep them as pure as they can. Back in the day ... well, I'm still in my day ... so here's to the old school that I'm sure if I lived during the existence of I would have loved and appreciated. Cheers.

-- Chris "Rusky" Baker

Salon Staff

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