Retro: Atari & Commodore days 1981-1990

4 minute read

This is how my life with computers first started.

It all began in 1981 when I first saw my cousin in Beirut, Lebanon playing PacMan on the Atari 2600. The colors, the sounds, and the animation fascinated me.

Tarek next to Atari game at National Video Game Museum

I was six or seven years then and that’s when my passion first started to take shape.

We travel to Nicosia, Cyprus that year to avoid the start of the 1982 Lebanese civil war and Israeli invasion. My dad buys me the Atari 2600 which came with the game Combat. What a classic game in which I picked on and mastered level 10! Level 10 basically allows two tanks in a grid to shoot and allow bullets to bounce off walls. Hiding behind one “trench” and locking in the enemy was an art that made win my battles every time. Ironically, the war game timed perfectly with what was happening in Lebanon and, as a young boy, I felt emotionally stressed with what the news, newspapers and magazines that my late journalist-dad brought home every day. Maybe the game made feel like a soldier wanting to defend my country against the enemies.

Atari games that weighs gold to a young kid at the same

Pacman and Combat later followed by Defender. Oh Defender! What a marvelous game that span multiple screens left or right.

By then my parents have noticed my passion for games. It only took one accidental visit to a computer club in summer of 84 that took place at the Cleopatra Hotel in Nicosia Cyprus. The computer in the room rubber stamped my passion for computers ever since. A white device with keys connected to a color-screen tv with a cyan screen display and a flashing icon. The all-mighty Commodore Vic20

Tarek and Vic20

The most beautiful moment is when my dad bought me one. I vaguely remember if the story was that the club was closing and they were selling the computers. Can’t remember but at least I got one. A beautiful white computer that became my best partner for a long time. My parents hired a tutor for my sister and I. Our tutor, who’s first name was Chris and I can’t remember his last name, also took me and my dad to a computer store where we bought all sorts of education games… Chemistry, Physics, Math, etc. I recall that my dad paid a lot for those but, for some reason, I was not interested in them. Not that I didn’t dislike anything that is related to computers but education games at a 9 years of age simply has no meaning. I don’t know what my father was thinking (maybe a future strategy ?) but I never opened them .. barely once and that’s it. I had no games for my Vic20 nor was able to easily get hold of BASIC programs from magazines that I can TYPE and RUN. Chris has taught me the BASIC commands PRINT, INPUT, VAR, GOTO, and then I learned myself POKE and PEEK. But that was about it. I recall Chris showing me a Commodore 128 and how when he typed “GO 64” it took him to the Commodore 64 screen.

The Commodore 64…let’s talk about it…. By 1984 I have gone to know about other home computers, Sinclair ZX81, ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, and various other 8-bit computers. But the Commodore 64 was more appealing to me from the computer magazines that i kept buying especially from reading the Computer!’s Gazzette magazine, and Commodore User.

Tarek and C64

I just could not get a Commodore 64 while, at the same time, ran out of anything to do with the Commodore Vic 20 and the Atari 2600. It’s not that I perfected the machines - no.. far less from that… I was having mixed feelings between the limitations that I quickly came to realize with the Vic20 compared to the newer computer with better graphics, the better video, and the better sounds. Moreover, there were couple of incidents where I felt even more helpless when my best friend and neighbor at the time in 1984 showed me the text adventure game Hobbit running on his Spectrum Sinclair.

After returning to Lebanon in 1985, I tried convincing my parents to get me a Commodore 64. It never worked. My frustration grew so much that I became obsessed with the Commodore 64 that I built dreams around ultimately having one. The cost of the computer was $240 - a number that I can never forget. I think my parents could not differentiate why a Commodore 64 is any different than a Vic-20 other than playing games. They didn’t get it. I did. It is not about games nor about how the computer looks. It is everything about the computer! The Computer! As an 11 year boy the Commodore 64 was the only thing I ever wanted at that time. So what I did is that I started buying computer magazines from the pocket money my parents gave and also began buying games for the Commodore 64 even though I didn’t have the computer. The graphics on the tape covers and the vibrant colors in the magazines became my salvation rather than the computer itself.
It then took another 2 years when I finally got the Commodore 64 with the help of my uncle who offered to give me money to buy one.

Tarek and Zork

After getting the Commodore 64, I found my passion in adventure games: Zorkand Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy But the pleasure of finally getting the Commodore lived short and was replaced with a new found passion of using computers with either an a CP/M operating system, an MS DOS 2-11 operating system, a Microsoft Windows 3.0, or a a Mac around the period between 1990 and 1992. That would be the topic of the next story.