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Going back to a more BASIC time

Island of Secrets, book, Usborne, mansion, lake, mountains, trees

I usually credit The Secret of Monkey Island for starting my gaming adventure.

As explained in a post about my favourite character from the series, it was the first game I played on my Amiga 500 when I was nine. After being gifted the machine by my parents for Christmas and spending all morning trying to hook it up to our television, my dad had asked me what I’d wanted to do next.

Various sets of floppy disks had arrived with the Amiga. One of these, contained within a cardboard box depicting a mysterious skull and fierce-looking pirates, caught my attention immediately. I remember both my dad and I being slightly confused once the game had loaded up because it didn’t look like anything we’d seen before on the family’s Commodore 64 or NES.

We’d never heard of The Secret of Monkey Island before, but I was hooked after sliding the disk into the machine. My young brain was completely blown away by realising that worlds I thought only existed inside books could be brought to life through a video game. My grandparents were with us for Christmas day so eventually I had the whole family joining in with the start of Guybrush’s adventure.

I continued playing with my dad once the festive period was over and eventually, we came to the section where you must break Otis out of his prison cell so he can join your crew. We struggled with the puzzle for a while until he eventually drifted away from the screen – and I was so proud of myself when I managed to figure out how you needed to use the various mugs scattered around the Scumm Bar all on my own. Something had clicked inside my brain, and it was like I finally understood what the game wanted of me.

And so began a lifelong love of wannabe pirates, fine leather jackets and point-and-clicks. But although The Secret of Monkey Island is always the answer I give when people ask how I got into gaming, there’s something which came before it. It was Guybrush who ensured I continued to play video games well into adulthood but without Island of Secrets a few years earlier, there’s a chance those adventures on the Amiga might not have captured me as much as they did.

I mentioned above that my family had owned a Commodore 64, and this had been bought due to my dad’s hobbyist interest in coding at the time. It was something I became curious about myself because I’d enjoyed anything to do with maths or logic puzzles as a kid. We had a book which gave the commands which needed to be entered to create an analogue clock on the screen, and I spent hours typing away on the keyboard while trying to figure out how it worked.

This curiosity led me to begin borrowing the Usborne coding books from the local library. I managed to teach myself a little BASIC by working through the introduction series and then moved on to the four adventures. It’s Island of Secrets I remember the most. It told the tale of a young scholar named Omegan, who was selected as the first person to visit the Sky People and then tasked with collecting secret objects of power to restore a war-darkened Earth to normal.

The book explained that the game could be typed into your computer and that the colour pictures it contained were clues to some of the places, characters and items you’d find within the text adventure. Getting the nine pages of code to work in its entirety always seemed impossible and I never did manage to actually get around to playing Island of Secrets. But I did realise I could find story snippets hidden within the program listings, and so I managed to follow the plot in this way.

It was far more exciting than any of the platformers my dad and younger brother had been playing on the Commodore 64 and NES. Rescuing a girlfriend from demons or finding a princess in another castle was boring; I wanted to explore fantasy lands and save the world from evil curses. These narratives were more in line with the sort of fiction I read a lot of back then, and I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that it was possible for similar stories to exist in video games.

Island of Secrets made me truly appreciate The Secret of Monkey Island when I found it, and this in turn led me to seek out other point-and-clicks. I saved wizards from evil forces in Simon the Sorcerer; jumped between linking books in Myst; and explored alien planets while trying to get back home in The Dig. When I was slightly older, I scared myself silly while trying to recapture the Ixupi in Shivers. And I went on a quest to restore the Balance in what ended up becoming one of my favourite games, The Longest Journey.

As explained in a recent post about my attraction to the adventure genre, point-and-clicks now account for more than a third of the titles in my entire Steam library. The only downside to spending so much time with them as a kid was that I never really learnt to use a keyboard-and-mouse with any degree of skill or got involved with online multiplayers But it’s safe to say that without trying to type Island of Secrets into our Commodore and then finding The Secret of Monkey Island on my Amiga, I might not have the interest in gaming I do today.

Having to learn Python for my Data Fellowship apprenticeship this year reminded me of those times I spent with BASIC as a kid. The nostalgia made me yearn for the Commodore 64 and serene hours spent typing in code copied from a book. I was pleased then when I found a machine at the London Gaming Market in November, along with a copy of Little Computer People for it, a ‘social simulation’ game by Activision I used to play with my brother when we were very young.

I’ve been trying to track down a physical version of the Island of Secrets book too but it seems these are few and far between nowadays. Luckily, digital copies can be downloaded from their website for free so I can still get my hands on the BASIC. Pete and I are planning to dip our toes back into streaming on Twitch in preparation for our plans for the annual GameBlast marathon in February. I’d love to finally get the code running, so maybe you’ll see me typing away on the Commodore soon.

So, there you have it: it wasn’t only The Secret of Monkey Island that got me into gaming. What’s your own story?

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