Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 18/10/2004There is little as unappealing as an ancient fart grumbling about the good old days. But it's good for you so pin back your ears, young squirts.

Monday 18/10/2004
There is little as unappealing as an ancient fart grumbling about the good old days. But it's good for you so pin back your ears, young squirts.

When I were a lad, computers were fun. You got a Z80 processor, a couple of K of RAM, an operating system that ran in 8K, a bit of bodge logic and off you went. None of this namby-pamby GUI swank, no gigabyte-gobbling office suites, no giant, ill-tempered registry demanding arcane prayers: you had to get your hands dirty with the hardware. And you ended up knowing about computers, right down to the nuts and bolts.

I'd thought those days had passed. It's not that you can't go and repeat the experience -- you can, just by downloading a ZX81 emulator for your Wintel monster -- but why would you bother? There are 10 zillion distractions, and the thrill of making something work for the first time has long since been replaced by the frustration of trying to make something work for a second.

I was wrong. This week, an old comet has returned to blaze a new stripe across the sky. Take a look at the XgameStation. It is a cut-down games console, and on the face of it one stuck in a 1980s time warp. Costs $200 as well -- which for hardware that's got less whoomph than a Game Boy Advance looks like something other than a bargain.

But that's not why it's here. It's designed for one purpose: teaching yourself how games work. It comes with everything you need: a powerful assembler-based development environment; an online community of like minds; plenty of download fun; and copious documentation down to the last bit. You could build your own from the instructions, but you won't need to: it's ready to rumble.

Get one of these and you'll be right back in the groove of messing about with seriously fun hardware that repays your attention with gratifying results. It even comes with a vintage Atari joystick: that's how cool it is. The end results -- well, you know what they say about the old games being the most fun: fast, furious, colourful, noisy fun. You don't get the movie-quality 3D graphics and AI gameplay, but you don't need the Hollywood budget and the team of hundreds either. It's you, the machine, your imagination and your skills. The fact that it may be an on-ramp to life in one of the most exciting industries on the planet is mere glitter on the pixel.

I haven't seen anything for years that reinvigorated my want glands quite so effectively. This deserves more than cult status -- it should be the Meccano for the digital century. If you have any digital DNA in your genome, you should go out, get one, log off and write yourself a huge grin. In assembler.