Prior to the late 70’s, most people’s exposure to computers was limited to college campuses and old reruns of The Jetsons. But once the 80’s reared its beautiful head, technology began advancing as rapidly as the prices of hardware dropped. It wasn’t long before the idea of microcomputers becoming a staple in every home, controlling everything from personal finances to household appliances to Culture Club songwriting (see below), was on the minds of many. The future was then.
While people weren’t quite turning their homes into automated dens of tomorrow as quickly as imagined (technical limitations were still significant hurdles), the realistic possibilities of the home computer were still fairly exciting.
Ohio-based Antioch Publishing Company decided to get future hackers (the good kind, not in the modern pejorative sense) started young with a series of books touting the wonders of the family Commodore or Apple or Spectrum, featuring a tiny man with a computer monitor for a head. And these books could be yours by filling out you Troll Book Club order form.
Our square-headed host went by Mr. Byte. Along with his friends Jennifer and Jay, Mr. Byte illustrated the finer points of computer technology. There were books on Computers in Space, Computer Art, Computers and Robots and, the book I owned, Computer Games. These books all came with stickers. Mine are missing, presumably in an old sticker book that is long gone.
When we are introduced to Mr. Byte, he is surrounded by an assortment of food more fitting for a hackneyed sitcom trope about a pregnant woman’s appetite. Mr. Byte is a big eater, as the book reminds the young readers. It’s worth noting the existence of the unfortunate stereotype of computer-enthusiasts not making the healthiest of snack choices. I can’t decide whether it was just an innocent coincidence or an observation casually slipped-in by creator Jean Rudegeair.
As not only a young child, but also a avid computer gamer (with, perhaps, eating habits as bad as Mr. Byte), I immediately recognized that the fictional games this book presented sounded about as fun as wax paper. “Car Hop Capers”, “Find The Food”, “Gobbling Ghosts”, “Blue Plate Special” – and these were just the food-based games to keep that running gag chugging along. But then the book tried to sell the young reader on checkers. The overly exuberant illustration, complete with checkeriffic background and utterly confused cat, did nothing to convince me that it was somehow better than typing cryptic directions into my copy of Zork.
Although, I do imagine “Quest for Salami” would make for an interesting game, if only because of the immature giggling that would accompany such a title.
And I also wish “The Amazing Mathematico” was a real game with the same flamboyant bombast described in the book just to be greeted with basic arithmetic questions. It’d be like the computer version of Rip Taylor as your remedial math teacher.
As the book progresses, Jay, Jennifer and Mr. Byte collectively decide that they all should create their own computer game. While some promising, exciting ideas were tossed around, they instead realize that the best course of action was a number-guessing game. Nothing better than a computer version of a game people in cars play while stuck in traffic. To say my younger self was disappointed would be one of the top ten understatements of 1984.
In a clever twist of fourth-wall breaking, the actual computer program they created is provided for readers to type in and play themselves. Type-in programs were all the rage back then.
Per the book’s advice, I asked a grownup to help me enter the program. They told me to leave them alone or they’ll call the cops. So I did the best I could on my own.
I had to use an emulator because modern keyboards has made typing on a real Commodore 64 painful and frustrating. That doesn’t mean I didn’t spend precious minutes of my life correcting minor typos that made the computer output vulgarity at my ineptitude.
Once I ironed out the glitches, the fun began. I guessed a number. I guessed again. And again. And again. Then it was correct and I felt, somehow, sadder for my accomplishment.
Suddenly, checkers doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe that was Mr. Byte’s intention all along.
Good job, Mr. Byte. You magnificent bastard.