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Polymer Picker, and why 8-bit programming matters to me

Late last year, I released a BBC Micro game, Polymer Picker. Realising that 2022 marked the centenary of the BBC, as well as the 40th anniversary of the release of the BBC computer (which was designated as one of the BBC's 100 Objects), I wanted to work on something that related to the BBC's mission of being able to 'educate, inform and entertain'. So what better way than to release a game for the BBC computer, that in a sense, fulfils those values?

But, with video games being so widely available, and playable on all kinds of devices, why did I decide to create my own game for such a niche platform? 

Video games are big business. They have been for a number of years. In May 2023, it was reported that Nintendo's latest edition of The Legend of Zelda sold in excess of 10 million copies in three days

However, there remains sustained interest in video games from yesteryear. Children who grew up in the 8-bit computer revolution are now into their 40s and 50s, and have children themselves. Retro gaming is therefore a potent nostalgia fix. And I'm very addicted to it.

Having played many games back in the 1980s and 90s on the BBC Micro - and later - the Acorn Archimedes, I did eventually make the jump to writing my own games for both machines in the mid 1990s. 

These titles - Androidz, Headcase Hotel and Cavern Duel - were effectively frozen in time, as the number of BBC and Archimedes computers reduced due to age, and being superseded by newer machines. Emulation existed, but required extra layers of computer literacy, which raised the bar in getting anyone outside of these platforms, to play them.

How the world has changed. 

With the increase in computing power, and developments in web browser technology over the last few years, my games now enjoy being played online, thanks to Matt Godbolt's jsBeeb and Paul Stone's Archimedes Live! project, which itself only came about because of Web Assembly, or WASM, the ability to convert non-web code into portable, usable experiences on the Web.

I dug out Androidz sometime in 2020, a time of great upheaval. Firstly, the pandemic kept me at home, giving me more time during lockdown alongside remote working. Secondly, a bit of a medical scare, which required life changing surgery later that year. In those funny months of that year, I played the game in my web browser. That time, and the personal fears I had, made the nostalgia hit even more potent. And what a joy it was, to be able to share the fruits of my labours from nearly 30 years ago, with a new audience, without any need to learn how to use the BBC Micro!

Later, in 2021 (with the surgery becoming more and more of a distant memory), I decided to remaster Androidz, making use of the new suite of software and tooling available to developers. Visual Studio Code (with the BeebVSC extension), alongside basictool and Beebasm, made coding far, far more pleasurable than a single screen, with limited editing capabilities. Androidz Redux took the original game, and added more colour, and fixed various bugs present in the original code. 

Retro programming really gave me a buzz. I wanted to do more!

Later that year, I started work on an idea, one that percolated for some time in the back of my head. Having grown increasingly aware of the increased levels of plastic pollution, and initiatives such as the Big Ocean Cleanup project, I gave my fledgling game a 'work in-progress' title of Polymer Picker.

Online coding tools such as allowed me to share in-progress demonstrations of the game, at the time, written in pure BBC Basic. Contributions were made by users of Stardot, a forum for Acorn computer users and fans of the platform. One forum user noted how the game's concept stayed true to the origins of the BBC Micro, and having an educational purpose, matching the BBC's core values referred to at the beginning of this article.

It took 18 months on and off development, before the game's release in December 2022. By that time, the game was utilising both BBC Basic, and 6502 assembly language, with - by then - the help of various Stardot users. 

The fact that such games are not only easier to develop with the new tooling available, but can also be played online, offers a wealth of possibility. Games previously closed off by the obsolescence of the platforms they were written for, could suddenly be played again. Archimedes Live! now offers the same possibility for all of the games written for all the different Acorn 32-bit machines in the late 80s and early to mid-90s. 

The Internet Archive offers a retro gaming archive of various machines, while emulation software is becoming more and more user friendly, making it far easier for a new generation to enjoy the wealth of titles older generations were spoiled by.

This mix of nostalgia and ease of development is why 8-bit programming matters to me. I am now thinking about a sequel to Polymer Picker, and considering ideas on how best to realise it.


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