If you went to school during the 1980’s the chances are your school computers would have been the big beige slab that was the BBC Micro. This home computer was incredibly popular with schools due to it’s incredibly sturdy construction, and the fact that the British Broadcasting Corporation put their name to it which led to it being adopted as the default computer on any BBC produced show about computers. This then meant that all the posh kids at school got a BBC Micro instead of a Spectrum or Commodore 64.
The BBC Micro was originally launched in two forms, the model A, sporting 16K of RAM, and the model B, which had 32K. To all intents and purposes this was the main difference in the two machines (the A also lacked some of the connector ports on the back), and it made the model A almost redundant, since you couldn’t even use certain graphical modes on the model A due to a lack of available memory. You think a PlayStation 3 is expensive today, but the model A cost Â£299 and the model B a whopping Â£399, and that kind of money had significantly more value than it does today!
The BBC Micro had 7 different graphical modes, each with a different number. These ranged from 640×256 in monochrome through to 160×256 in a choice of 16 colours. One note about the number of colours though. The BBC could only display 8 different colours (the usual suspects of Black, White, Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue and Magenta) but you could set up another 8 colours which could flash at different speeds between any two of the available colours.
The default graphical mode, and one which most people will be familiar with was Mode 7, or Teletext mode. If you’ve ever used a TV set with teletext you’ll know what this mode looked like. All the colours were available in this mode, but it was a block based display that meant you couldn’t alter individual pixels. Instead you had to make do with each square being split into a 2×3 grid of squares that could each be on or off, hence why a teletext display is so blocky. One saving grace was allowing you to use double height characters as well.
It also had a quite well developed synthesised sound chip, although the use of the BASIC “ENVELOPE” command to define what the sound would actually be was a bit of a black art, as it seemed to feature around 16 numeric parameters!
Talking of BASIC, this was one of the biggest reasons the machine did so well in the educational market. The version of BASIC built in to the BBC Micro was second to none amongst 8-bit home computers, and the machine was also fast enough that much of the software could be written in BASIC, making it easy to code for. Games could be written in BASIC, but all the good ones would still be written in Assembly Language, which on the BBC Micro was 6502, the same CPU family used in the Commodore 64, but running at twice the speed of that computer (a massive 2MHz!).
The BBC Micro could use a normal tape recorder to load and save programs, but most people, especially schools, would have the add on 5.25″ disc drive instead, which allowed for much faster, more reliable and quieter loading. I say quieter because like the Spectrum, you had to get the volume level just right for the BBC Micro to load, which meant you had to listen to a strange series of squeaks and crackles whilst waiting for it to load. At least you got some kind of idea of how far along the process was though, as a little counter ticked up as loading proceeded.
Games wise the BBC wasn’t spoilt for choice, but the games it did feature were often quite good. Undoubtedly the best known game to have come from the BBC Micro was Elite, the space trading game, which is still a revered game today. Personally my favourite BBC Micro game that a friend had was a brilliant version of Donkey Kong called Killer Gorilla. I loved that game!