Remember Cassette Games?
Posted by ZX KNIGHT on Jul 17, 2011 18:22
Retrofusion -

It may seem crazy to us retro-heads but believe it or not, there is a generation of gamers growing up who can barely conceive of a video game being stored on a cassette tape. I know, weird isn’t it?

I had such an experience myself recently when I casually mentioned Spectrum cassette games in a conversation and a younger friend made a sort of awestruck comment about the notion, as if they came from a semi-mythical past, “oooh I’ve heard about when games used to be like this...” he said in a slightly confused manner, as if something in his brain was saying ‘DO NOT COMPUTE. PLEASE RE-DOWNLOAD’. I felt like I may as well have been talking about the Moon landing for all the relevance it had to his life.

I realised that to him the Megadrive was the beginning of his gaming life, with most games earlier than that existing as a sort of pre-historic fossilised gaming era, whereas to me the Megadrive still holds the promise of a gaming wonderland as when I first plugged in Sonic the Hedgehog all those years ago.

I say all this as a man yet to hit his thirties and of course I’m sure to many older gamers the entrancing colour clash of the ZX Spectrum represented a similar fabulous future as the Megadrive did to me. But as I suffer the caress of times withered claw (copyright Armando Iannucci) it’s still something that freaks me out.

I was reminded of this when watching Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on BBC2 recently. He digressed into a joke about the 80s containing physical things such as letters and sticks compared to today’s non-physical world of the internet and communication by email,

“Older people, remember things? Actual things. And you could touch them. The physical world I’m talking about, remember, older people? And there were loads of things...there’s letters know...a stick...and there’s clay. Loads of stuff. And it was all real and it all existed, yeah? Not like now.”

He returned to the theme later in the show to explain what a vinyl record was to the crowd,

“For the younger people a record was a...was like a massive, flat MP3. And there was almost no information on it at all, and it was very impractical...could break or warp in the heat, get scratched...but it was better than your life.”

The sketch perfectly skewers the very human tendency to over-romanticise the past when compared with the present and reminded me of that moment when I realised that cassette games are very real to me but simply don’t exist in my friend’s world, where they’re more like a historical artefact from a simpler age, from other people’s worlds but not his own. And in fairness, it’s not really surprising when you think about it, storing games on cassettes seems so ludicrous now.

Cassettes were ridiculous, they took ages to load and you couldn’t speed it up no matter how powerful your machine was. Even a 128k+2 Spectrum took as long to load a tape as an old 48k one did. The screeches while the game was loading were legendary and if you weren’t careful you could easily end up taping over your games, or numerous classic albums of your dad’s with saved games of Football Manager...and that’s if the tape didn’t get chewed up.

People today complain about waiting times literally of over ten seconds, yet when I used to sit around waiting for the Spectrum to load I’d play something else like a Fighting Fantasy book (link) to keep me entertained. I was playing a game while waiting for a game to load!

But there was also something magical about them. When you finally got to the loading screen you had minutes to drink in every detail and every feature, raising the excitement and promise of the game to come. If it didn’t crash first. Which it often did.

Mini-games are all the rage in today’s gaming industry but surely ‘Getting the game to load without crashing back to the BASIC screen’ was the ultimate mini-game – you got one free with every purchase!

The promise of undiscovered treasure on what was contained within, particularly on big compilations like the Cassette 50 series or the Live Aid compilation always kept me coming back for more. For some reason I had tonnes of these tapes hanging about, some were official compilations, others were just copies we’d put onto a big T-90 cassette. I spent many an afternoon cataloguing the games on these tapes and rating them out of ten, noting down their position on the cassette by writing down the number on the dial of the cassette player, hoping to discover a forgotten classic to rival my old favourites. I never found any of course, but I still look back on that time fondly.

And now a large piece of my childhood has become something like a legend that belongs in a museum. It feels weird.

But I’m OK with it. If it wasn’t games it would be something else, like music and vinyls and downloads. It’s called growing old (I’d say growing up but it’s a purely subjective opinion on whether that takes place). It’ll happen to my younger friend too some day. He’ll be sat around with friends casually chatting about games, and he’ll make a passing reference to his struggle to get an oxidised cartridge to work (as you do) and be met with an awkward silence and confused stares.

“Cartridges? Like...print cartridges?”

And his heart will sink as he realises his childhood is now everyone else’s ancient history. Don’t worry for him though. I’ll be waiting in the pub with a pint to share commiserations on growing up (and it is a commiseration, the only good thing about being an adult is all too infrequent sex and not having to go to bed early, and even that denies you the thrill of furious teenage masturbation and secretly staying up past your bedtime, often both at the same time).

With the move towards cloud storage for gaming profiles and the massive expansion of the digital download games market it probably won’t be too long before the dominant format for the production of games only exists as a series of zeroes and ones on a server in Redmond or somewhere.

How long will it be before I’m sat with my grandchildren saying “Remember when games were things? Actual things? The physical world I’m talking about. Cartridges, CDs, put them in your console and played them. And there was almost no information on them at all, and they were very impractical...could break or warp in the heat, get scratched...but they were better than your life.”

ZX KNIGHT blogs at