Adventures in PETSCII

Personal Computers in the 1980s, while also gaming machines, invited tinkering. Unless you stuck with cartridges, you had to learn the basics of the command prompt if you wanted to load any software at all. And since the BASIC programming language was built in, you probably tried some variation of this:

10 PRINT "HI!"
20 GOTO 10

...and it felt like you just performed a magic trick.

Some users stopped there. Others found themselves laboriously typing in "free" games from computer magazines, which lead to purchasing "how to" programming books and modifying sample code. This can lead to slippery well as graph paper.

All in all, I was an indoor kid. I won't lie. And I tinkered quite bit with the Commodore 64. While I won't claim to be offering anything of quality, I kept some of my "best" stuff and later figured out how to convert it into a format that emulators, such as VICE and CCS64, run fine.

- Ben Langberg

BASIC Programming

Shuttle is a game I wrote in BASIC, in which you are test piloting a new space shuttle for NASA. There are several arcade-like levels connected with a menu interface. The code is spaghetti and several bits are based on type-in programs. Looking at it now, Shuttle is in Alpha state at best and could use quite a bit of polish. It's not much compared to a better type in program, let alone a commercial game, yet I present it to you anyway. Let me know what you think.

I have vague inklings to go back and remake it, either in BASIC, or using modern game development software, maintaining the C64 style.


BASIC Programming Media

Keyboard Graphics

Before the public knew of the Internet, modems were readily available for home computers. Bulletin Boards, or BBS's, would have places for people to chat, download software, and, on the Commodore, view crude images via "PETSCII" keyboard graphics. If you look at the bottom of the keys on a Commodore 64, you'll notice a bunch of strange symbols. Based on the ASCII standard, Commodore computers used an expanded character set with various shapes that could easily be combined to create images. By today's standards, the data rate for modems in the 1980s was incredibly slow. Being able to send pictures, however crude, was a pretty big deal.

I was fascinated by keyboard graphics and played around with them quite a bit, usually planning out my work on graph paper first. When I would log in to BBS's at night, tying up the phone line, most Commodore boards would use PETSCII for title screens and section screens, and would even have areas where users could upload their creations. Some of these would even be animated. I submitted my own work, both original art and as screens for other boards, but I don't remember if much of it was used outside of some of my friends who ran boards of their own. Nevertheless, I think my PETSCII work holds up a little better than my crude game in BASIC. The disk image below contains my keyboard graphics and animations as well as a viewer to display them. Fair warning: I was a hormonal teenager at the time. A few of these images are a bit naughty, but in the age of Google Image Search, they are tame.


Keyboard Graphics Media

Scroll Writer

Scroll Writer was a program that friends of mine and I used to make animated "demos" to upload to bulletin boards. The software basically recorded your keyboard animations, with the addition of few special animated characters, and set the whole thing to music, selected from a small assortment of SID chip tunes. One big draw of logging into BBS's was downloading pirated games, and most boards required users to upload new stuff to be able to download new stuff. While creating these animations was its own reward, being able to generate new content for better access to new games was a nice, illicit bonus.

Similar to message boards on the web today, BBS users would pick a handle or persona to go by, rather than use their real names. My Commodore cohorts chose nerdy, yet respectable titles like Slartibartfast and Shuttle Commander, while I chose...Lord Catavision. I know how I came that name, it's a variation on the Tigervision software company, but I can't for the life of me remember why I thought it was a good idea. Perhaps I thought it was better than my first handle, Beans Baxter, but honestly, I'm not so sure.

Anyway, if you watch these, you're going to see Lord Catavision all over them. You'll also see some early online smack talk, complete with misspellings. How I became a productive member of society and spawned offspring is beyond me! The download includes various self-running demos as well as the demo maker program.


Scroll Writer Media