Do you remember your first computer or games console? I do. I won’t try to surprise you with what it was, because quite honestly, the answer is in the title of this piece, and I’m fairly certain you’ve clicked on it because you too were an Amstrad kid.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I got my Amstrad CPC 464 with full-colour monitor for Christmas, but I remember how excited I was to see this monolith sized piece of tech in the corner of our dining room after opening all of my other presents. I recall how my parents had hidden it under a sheet, and I’d noticed – because how could you not? Amstrad’s were MASSIVE – but I had no clue just what they were hiding.
Once the surprise was unveiled I stood in awe at my very first computer. I’d never owned a single games console up to this point – although I had played on my cousins NES many times over – so this was a whole new world for me and I couldn’t wait to fire it up.
The Amstrad CPC 464 was released by Amstrad way back in 1989, a time when biblical heroes roamed the earth on their pet dinosaurs. I know you hear it all the time, but it truly was a different time back then, much simpler and full of wonderment than this modern world we live in. It was a great time to be a kid, and I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. Not even your best slammer pog, so back off! Amstrad devised their CPC 464 as a way to compete with the mighty Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, which were the kings of the market at that time. It proved to be a highly successful home computer, and became increasingly popular with businesses as well, due to the low price.
Unlike today’s computers, the 464 came with a built-in tape deck which is where you stuck your games. This proved to be a real ball-ache for the small-child version of me who just wanted to jump right in and play games because once the cassette was physically entered into the deck, you then had to perform a command on the keyboard and press play to load the damn thing, which in some cases could take hours! Some games even needed you to turn over the tape in order to continue the loading process. It wouldn’t work in 2019, not with the short attention spans of modern gamers.
Once your game of choice was loaded (and you’d made a note of how long it actually took to load for future reference) you were presented with some of the finest 8-bit graphics you’d ever laid your eyes on. I was lucky too. My parents had forked out the extra money to buy me a color monitor, instead of the standard green screen that everyone else I knew had, and as such even at that tender age I knew what it must have been like to drop acid – because the colour pallet for the CPC 464 was trippy as hell!.
I remember the first game I ever played, and probably the first I ever owned, was Hunchback, the 1983 arcade port by Century Electronics and Ocean Software. The game involved taking control of Quasimodo as he hopped, skipped, and swung his way across a series of perilous screens in the hopes of being able to ring a bell and advance to the next level. It was incredibly basic, even by 1983’s standards (bearing in mind I probably played this is 1989 or 1990) but was incredibly difficult to master.
The Roland games were also firm favourites growing up, with Roland in Time being the best. The titular hero had actually been designed by Sir Alan Sugar and was intended to be Amstrad’s answer to Mario, an instantly recognisable character that was owned in-house and couldn’t be picked up on any of the rival systems – although they probably relented eventually and sold the license. The game itself was a Jet Set Willy clone and was comprised of a series of side-scrolling puzzles. Over the course of 53 very different screens, Roland would run, jump, and swing his way across a series of obstacles in order to make it through time. It borrowed heavily from sci-fi TV show Dr. Who, and included a T.A.R.D.I.S. and the exact same theme tune.
Perhaps the most recognisable character in Amstrad’s short-lived history though had to be Dizzy and his fellow Yolk Folk. Originally drafted by the Oliver Twins on a roll of wallpaper, the character started off as a smiling face with hands that cartwheeled its way through life. After gaining instant success with 1987’s The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure, the brand took on a life of its own, with the developers eventually caving into popular opinion that Dizzy was actually an egg and not just a face, completely rebranding him and giving him his own kingdom of egg-people to rescue.
Much like in today’s gaming world, you could also pick up branded titles for the CPC 464, including games based on popular movie and TV licenses of the era. There was far too many to name here, but some of the very best included Robocop, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Big Trouble in Little China, and Bart Vs The Space Mutants – which was also perhaps the hardest title ever released on the Amstrad.
To play these games, you either had to rely on incredibly dextrous fingerwork or you could fork out silly amounts of money to buy one of the many fine looking joysticks available at the time. Unfortunately, far too many of the games required players to shift the sticks from right to left at an alarming rate to make things move, which almost always resulted in them snapping and becoming completely useless. I’ll never forget my parents banned me from playing Daily Thompson’s Decathlon after I broke at least half a dozen joysticks, and they would scan the cases of any future games I asked for in case there was a chance it would cost them a small fortune in peripheral sales.
I must have played on my CPC 464 every chance I got, until one day my parents brought home a SEGA Master System 2, with Alex Kidd built in and I quickly had my eyes opened to a world in which games didn’t take 2 hours to load, and 8-bits didn’t mean you had to skip out on quality entirely. From this point on my Amstrad just sat gathering dust, occasionally being booted up if I found an old copy of Amstrad Action magazine with a cool code I wanted to try out. As my taste in video games developed, and we started to pick up more and more modern consoles, I finally made the difficult decision to give it away to someone who needed it more than I did. In truth, they probably broke it and it will have died a horrible death in a dustbin, a horrifying end for such a brilliant piece of kit, but I try not to think about that too much.
It’s a real shame that the Amstrad CPC 464 doesn’t get anywhere near the level of love it deserves as a retro gaming computer. It is so often overlooked as a poor man’s answer to the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64, but if it wasn’t for the Amstrad – which by comparison to its competitors was a budget computer – many of us in the UK would have never discovered the amazing world of video games we now immerse ourselves in on a daily basis. Over the years I’ve owned – or still own – more consoles and gaming computers than I care to imagine, but the Amstrad CPC 464 will always have a special place in my heart as my very first computer.