The Majesty of Welcome Tape

By RPS on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:00 am.

The American readers are totally going to be lost.

[Continuing RPS' guest week, I give you Al Ewing. He's a one man infinite-monkey. His fingers spew universes. If you know him, it'll probably be for his 2000AD work. If you don't, you'll know him for this, a guide to Welcome Tape for the Great British Home Computer, the BBC Micro.]

Oh! The miracle of the internet! I thought I’d have to describe the majesty of the Welcome Tape in mere words, but fortunately ‘cpmisalive’ at YouTube has recorded enough of it to give you a taste. Admittedly, he’s gotten hold of the Welcome Disc for the Acorn Thingy – presumably some kind of Fancy Dan system that’s too good for mere tapes – but it’s the same stuff all around. Just imagine that to switch between programs you need to PRESS PLAY ON TAPE and then wait twenty minutes.

That wierd alien bug-zapping sound while it draws the owl is pretty much exactly as I remember it. There were no ‘keys’ to be collected in the Welcome Tape – no ‘doors’ needed opening, no ‘princesses’ had to be rescued or ‘rings’ collected by a ‘hedgehog’. There was only one goal in the Welcome Tape, and that was to get to the end of the Welcome Tape, passing through all the strange and wondrous minigames – or ‘programs’ as we cave people called them – on the way. Let’s see what we have here…

INDEX: Aka YES YES GET ON WITH IT. Tells you what you’re doing calmly and clearly, in case you should suddenly GO MAD from the strain of mind-melding with the ADVANCED ELECTRONIC BRANE of the BBC Micro Model B. As far as I know nobody did go insane from playing the Welcome Tape and this is why.

KEYBOARD: I remember this just being called KEYBOARD but evidently on the NANCY 2000 with its OOH LA LA FANCY DISC DRIVES, it’s called KEYBOARD FAMILIARITY.

Frankly, the video tells you all you need to know.

Press R.

You pressed R that is correct you took 0.66 seconds.

Press J.

You pressed J that is correct you took 0.76 seconds.

Press Q.

You wrote an incisive commentary on Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce you took 8.77 years THAT WAS INCORRECT PRESS Q.

It gets quite exciting later on when you have to type entire words of three letters or more. But moving on.

SKETCH: Again, it was just called SKETCH in the old days. I’m sure of it. Once again the video accurately shows we future men of the year 2007 the unremitting boredom of simulating an Etch-A-Sketch on a computer screen. Not much to be said here except that b3ta and that lot don’t know they’re born with their fancy MS Paint.

CALCULATOR: Oooh, CALCULATOR PROGRAM is it now. You and your fancy discs. Readers might be forgiven for thinking at this point that the Welcome Tape was complete rubbish but you have to understand how brain-meltingly astonishing this kind of thing was at the time. I mean – JESUS CHRIST WORDS FLOATING ON A SCREEN IN BLACK AND WHITE AND EVERYTHING OH MY GOD I JUST HAD AN ACCIDENT IN MY PANTS!! Try and imagine someone handing you a device that CREATES LIFE, and then imagine having to write a blog a quarter century later saying that it wasn’t rubbish at all even though it only created mice. The point I’m trying to make is that the Welcome Tape had to start slow, with things everybody could handle like Calculators and Etch-A-Sketches, because if it went any faster OUR MINDS WOULD EXPLODE.

Like they exploded for… ALPHA SORT. ALPHABETIC SORT my ass. It was ALPHA SORT. Boyeeeee. You type in a list of words – AND IT SORTS THEM. RIGHT THERE ON THE SCREEN IT MOVES THOSE WORDS AROUND. Hold onto your chair and dial 999 because YOU MIGHT HAVE A STROKE WATCHING. Seriously, I can’t stress enough how insanely incredible this was. THE WORDS MOVED ABOUT!

And then we have POEM. On the fancy-nancy poncy-noncy discy-wiscy drivey-wivey it’s OOOH NOW PRESS RETURN! OOOH MY POEM’S GOT A PROPER TITLE! OOOH! by Twatty McTwatkins, but on the rugged BBC Micro Model B with tape player it was POEM.

Look at it. Just look.

Thank you ‘pmsdowney’ for that in-depth peek at the poetic genius of POEM.

Anyway, bitter stuff. Roger McGough gives the impression that he’s got better things to do than piss around writing a poem for what he appears to see as a novelty gonk of a machine, a slightly fancy version of a scientific calculator. Indeed, he spends most of the poem actively hating what the shadowy men of the BBC are forcing him to write. He’s probably being a bit tongue-in-cheek – you don’t get to number one with Lily The Pink by taking yourself too seriously – but even so, you can tell he’s having more fun blasting his own verse to bits with a gun than he is scattering computery-sounding words like ‘diode’ and ‘transducer’ around the place.

In fact, there’s a massive contrast between the slightly cringeworthy computer-babble that’s sprinkled liberally throughout (allegedly against McGough’s will) and the exciting interactivity that actually demonstrates what these new-fangled computer things might be capable of, once you get past all the hyperbole and actually put them to work. Lots of yes/no choices, user input and of course the gun blasting the words to pieces.

McGough knew his audience well – a mixture of goggle-eyed kids and gadget-minded dads, freaking out at this new machine, closer to middle-class than anything else – hence the frankly bizarre reference to ‘parking the Jag’, a touch of affluence that presumably helped lift the BBC Micro Model B above the likes of – ugh! – Atari Tennis.

We’re left at the end with the reference to ‘a plastic daffodil in a Grecian Urn’ – a reference there to Ode On A Grecian Urn, a semi-famous, not too obscure bit of ‘proper’ poetry by Keats that those Jag-driving dads can nod and feel intelligent for recognising. It might be inferred that the plastic daff represents the vulgar bleeping machine that’s forcing the poet to grind out his COBOL-packed verse – but the line is set up so that the ‘plastic daffodil’ is more likely to be the poet himself, trapped inside the Grecian Urn of the BBC Micro Model B, painfully aware of its full capabilities but unable, yet, to make use of them.

Or something like that. Any opposing literary commentary can be left in the comments box.

TELEPHONE - yes we’re stepping back towards CALCULATOR territory again with this one. After POEM the new BBC Micro Model B owner needed to be soothed with the fact that not everything was different in this terrifying future and even in a world ruled by a sinister electronick brane we would still have crappy address books that we never used. Bollocks to it anyway – who has time to think about boring old telephone nonsense when POEM by Roger McGough is still fresh in our minds? Let’s have a look at the second half and see if things pick up a bit.

After the extreme yawnery of TELEPHONE we come right back in with BAT ‘N’ BALL, which wonder of wonders is an actual game. Of a sort. It’s sort of like Pong – or rather Breakout – but the ceiling moves lower and lower until either you run out of space to manoeuvre or you die of boredom. It tries to add the ‘educational value’ that is the hallmark of the Welcome Tape by giving you the commands that you need to draw the bat, the ball and the walls but strangely skimps a little on detailing the bit that makes things actually happen. Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing when you’re dealing with the awesome power of the BBC Micro Model B! Note the awesome sound effects in particular.

Presumably that awful flat beeping was to prepare the virgin ears of the unsullied young for MUSIC. But MUSIC like no MUSIC that any human has heard before, for it came from the BBC MICRO SPEAKER! There was no telling which letter on the computer keyboard corresponded with what note as they all played something utterly divorced from any scale known to man or God and the resultant polyphonic diarrhoea was shat onto the screen in wholly alien tongue. In fact it looked a lot like the sheet music from the Excessus Machine in Barbarella, so presumably it was meant to make new users spoff half to death at the amazing sonic power of the Beeb. It’s telling that ‘cpmisalive’ spends less time here than he does on CLOCK.

CLOCK, as you can see, comes in three varieties, each of which it draws painstakingly for you – analogue, analogue and digital, and just digital. One of these takes less time to draw than the others. Coincidentally, one of them is considerably more rubbish. This would probably have been the first time this kind of analogue clock display would have appeared on the computer screen, but the problem here is that in order to learn the time you have to spend ten minutes loading up a tape cassette and during this process the time will almost certainly change. It’s no good for boiling an egg, for example. Not a soft-boiled one anyhow.

PHOTO. I’ve made my point earlier about how the Welcome Disc, for the fancy disc driiiive, sucks all the life out of these things. Digitised Photograph. No wonder it just lies on the screen like a squashed turd. This is much like CLOCK, in that what is now a useful part of every computer in existence was then just a useless bit of emphemera seemingly jammed on the tape to fill space. Like PATTERNS.

PATTERNS.

God.

It’s… it’s like the BBC Micro being sick on you. I don’t know, all I’m seeing at this point is MUSIC, CLOCK, PATTERNS… this is the Dark Side Of The Welcome Tape. This is where the bloom came off the rose. This is where even the idealistic young minds watching through the window into the future sat and thought: we know. We know. It can draw lines. Yes. Thank you. What else? What else?

The Welcome Tape isn’t very good, is it?

Disappointment sets in. This too, is a function of the Welcome Tape, for it has much to teach us. it has taught us the meaning of joy – now it teaches the meaning of despair. How can we go out and spend money on new games to feed our hunger if we are always playing and re-playing the Welcome Tape? So the cycle begins here – early joy, wide-eyed amazement, quickly turning to disappointment as even this marvellous new aquisition is not enough to satisfy us. We must go out and buy more games. More and more games. Then, as they evolve, more and more computers to play them on. More and more. It’s a cycle that’s brought us to our current technological paradise, and it’s a cycle that began here, with the Welcome Tape. Like the apple that brought the downfall of Eden, the Welcome Tape gives us knowledge, but the price is our happiness.

Oh, foul serpent of the British Broadcasting Corporation! Oh time, Oh death, Oh fall of man!

Moving on.

KINGDOM. An actual game again and one that’s familiar to all of us. it’s primitive, but it works. The object of the game, contrary to the instructions, is not to keep your village prosperous and happy. That is far too easy, thanks to the creators of the Welcome Tape wanting to make this first true ‘gaming’ experience a happy one. No, the object of KINGDOM is to KILL THEM ALL through your poor leadership. Watch as the yellow river slowly floods the plains! Do you have no workers in the fields, so your people starve, or do you leave them out so that the river destroys them? Or might the river get in the way of the thieves who would otherwise creep from the mountains (marked MOUNTAINS) to pillage and kill? There are so many choices and such a short time to kill your entire population. I managed to do it inside a year once, through good fortune and careful planning.

This is a style of gaming that’s continued long since – Sim City, with the monsters you could call up at a moments notice to ravage your painstakingly-built town, Die Hard Trilogy on the playstation, where you could plough into sidewalks filled with pedestrians until your windscreen was awash in blood, and of course The Sims aka Vengeful God Simulator.

Finally, BIORHYTHMS - ending the tape with some seventies psychobabble. BIORHYTHMS is at best protoscience, a hypothetical fancy. It has its proponents, but it’s become lost inamongst the great wash of holistic medicines and pseudofacts that babble over us day by day. But back at the turn of the eighties, it was presumably seen as science fact. More from the world of tomorrow. Another chunk of the golden future – even something that might become as boring to us as CLOCK or PHOTO, in time. Were we meant to have Biorhythm-calculators on our desks, charting our personal rhythms from moment to moment? What other tools did the greatest computer minds of 1981 imagine us having? What other dreams? Did we achieve them? Did we go beyond? Or have we taken a path away, into darkness, that great flash of optimism and hope decayed?

Are we living in the future the Welcome Tape was supposed to welcome us to?

Who can say?

__________________

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36 Comments »

  1. TheArmyOfNone says:

    God damn that was brilliant.

  2. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    The Yellow River and rice! And thieves, pesky thieves. That program must be about China, yes?

  3. Eamo says:

    You Bleed. I
    See Crocodile Tears. I
    Withdraw. You
    Feel The Impact.

    I think this is almost certainly the first poem about rape ever written by a computer.

  4. Ian says:

    Oh. My. I thought I’d never live to see the glory of the WELCOME TAPE ever again. Thank you, Al Ewing, and thank you ‘cpmisalive’.

    I seem to recall the Vic-20 came with an equally turgid WELCOME TAPE that came with a Mortgage Calculator and, too, offered to plot your biorythms. Useful in planning which days to bunk off school, thereby avoiding embarrassment during sports lessons (“But Sir, my physical biorthyms are at their lowest; it would be folly for me to run around this muddy field against my computer’s advice”).

    Shoddiness of WELCOME TAPES aside, I do think it’s a little sad that computers have become about as remarkable as toasters.

  5. Sarble says:

    Ah, the BBC Welcome Tape, my Red Pill, my personal gateway drug.

    Kingdom in particular, a game that kickstarted my love of management sims and thence RTS games. Among which was SimCity, on the Beeb and running the entire game in the memory allocated to disaster management on Amigas, waking my parents in the night with earthquake noises after being left on for far future experiments.

  6. Inigo says:

    Podd can:
    >EXPLODE

  7. cullnean says:

    the poem vid made me think of eighties movie electric dreams

  8. Tei says:

    Something that was fun at the time, is that computers where advertised as USEFUL. Maybe nowdays are useful, but these days we just pretend where useful, but whas more like novice wizards playing with demon summoning (only getting imp’s, anyway).

  9. MacBeth says:

    Ah, Welcome. And what a welcome. It really did open my eyes to What Computers Could Do… of course being about 6 at the time I don’t think I had any real conception of why you might want to do any of these things, or where they might lead, but they were fascinating…

  10. Hi!! says:

    I remember buying PD-collections on the C64, and it seemed that every disk or tape I got had one or two biorhythm-programs on it. People must have been pretty keen on biorhythms back then.

  11. Fenchurch says:

    Thanks, Computer!

    Thomputer.

  12. idespair says:

    To think the Beeb went from this to Exile (via the Doctor Who game that made you install a ROM chip on the motherboard) in just a few years.

  13. Paul Moloney says:

    This reminds me of the Horizons tapes that came with the Speccy, including the Survival game:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_Horizons_Survival

    I’m going to go off and load that up on a Speccy emulator for a dose of nostalgia…

    P.

  14. PC Monster says:

    We had three BBC Micro’s in our school: 2 BBC B’s and a BBC Master (to this day I have no idea what the differences were but then that’s what Google is for, isn’t it?). I seem to remember us using 5.25 inch floppies?

    Sadly, there was no Welcome tape, meaning my first introduction to the world of computing was EDUCATIONAL. Thankfully my mother, seeing my interest, soon bought me a ZX Spectrum which rapidly undid all that damage. Thro’ the Wall FTW!

  15. theanorak says:

    @PC Monster

    The Master had 128Kb of RAM. It was a (PC) monster.

    At my school we also had the AWESOME Domesday system – a BBC master connected to a videodisc player. Full motion video! Sound that wasn’t bleeps! I could see the future from the comfort of my plastic seat in the library computer room.

  16. Chaz says:

    Wow, that brings back the memories, the BBC Model B was our first home computer. I think I was about 7 or 8 when my dad bought it, and yes we were a middle class family, but we didn’t own a Jag. I remember the Welcome tape well, I guess Kingdom and Bat ‘n’ Ball must have been the first computer games I ever played. I think my dad bought the Beeb to educate us in the hope that my brother and I might become wealthy computer scientists or some such, but all we did was play games on it. I think the closest we got to computer science was spending hours typing in games from magazines.

  17. Confidence interval says:

    I’d forgotten all this but remember it now: Kingdom, Biorhythms, that funny pattern thing… And I remember, a little later, engaging in home pirating of BBC games using two cassette recorders wired together. No DRM could stop me! I subsequently learned the error of my ways, of course.

  18. Ginger Yellow says:

    Ah, Kingdom. So much fun, but I was rubbish at it. And I loved Patterns.

  19. Gothnak says:

    Those were the days… Happy Memories….

  20. Bhazor says:

    That poem program was really bloody sinister. Honestly, this is the first time I’ve seen it and that was terrifying.

    It’s like a cross between Skynet, Sisyphus and Keates. A sentient computer forced into an eternity of slavery, longing for an end to it’s eternal punishment. It mocks your freedom in that you could be out swinging a cat or loitering but are instead just sitting there tormenting your prisoner. Then theres the rape, oh deary me the rape.

  21. Carra says:

    I remember the welcome tape on my Amstrad 464.
    -A word game where one would hang a little fella if you answered wrong.
    -A drawboard! 8×8 board where you could move through with your cursor and make board pieces white or green!
    -A push buttons to make sounds!
    -The computer drawing circles line by line!

    The interesting programs weren’t on that tape. I remember a game of checkers/draughts where I could never win on highest difficulty level. That was fun! Or a game of centipede. Or bomberman or 1942 or commando or…

    And yeah, we programmed an analogue clock in 1 hour in my computer science education…

  22. techpops says:

    Only good thing I can remember about the BBC computers was Vince Clark running heaps of them together sequencing his awesome analog synth music.

  23. Clovus says:

    The first time I saw something like Patterns, I thought it was awesome. But that was because it was the first thing I wrote in BASIC that actually looked cool (to me). My little creations were surprisingly similar to what was in the video. For some reason I find patterns and things (like fractals) really fascinating in a “staring at fire” kind of way.

  24. Shadowcat says:

    Happily, there are some excellent Beeb emulators out there, so everyone can experience the glory of the welcome tape in person! :)

    http://www.stairwaytohell.com/emulators/homepage.html

  25. Jonas says:

    You crazy Brits and your fancy “computers”.

  26. jonfitt says:

    The BBC Micro was always a school computer for me. From the one that was used to drive a Turtle, and play Granny’s Garden at primary school, to the ones we used in secondary school for driving electronics (The beeb had 8 I/O pins which you could use).
    The home computer for me was the Speccy.

  27. Carra says:

    Someone has to say it: “Bubble sort, omg!”.

  28. kafka7 says:

    Never mind your edutainment. Let’s not forget that Elite, the prototype for all open world games, was first written on a BBC Micro. It only appeared on other platforms much later.

    Right On Commander!

  29. Meat Circus says:

    FINNEGANS WAKE (no apostrophe)

    That’s why it took exception to your Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress.

    I wish I could find a youtube of the ZX Spectrum 48K Welcome Tape.

    In the absence of that, here’s Manic Miner loading:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHn_BvTBALI

  30. Serondal says:

    This is one of the funniest things I’ve read in years ( The part about Music was my favorite)

  31. Cynic says:

    Ahh the beeb, I was lucky enough to have one at home, bought just 6 months before my birth. Elite, Repton, many copied floppies and some text adventures whose names sadly elude me.

  32. caramelcarrot says:

    My dad got a BBC B much later, like late 90s, for the purpose of using it for robotics – since the interface is pretty easy to use and I’d found some books about it. I remember going through the Welcome tape and being distinctly unimpressed. The tape with some flying game on it didn’t work and I was sad. Luckily we also had a disc drive, and I learnt BASIC. I was mid-way through making a RPG before discovering QBASIC on our PC :)

    I also remember playing the granny game in infant school, along with some others that I can’t quite remember the nature of. Would love to have a play-along of Granny’s Garden…

    also: Cambridge colleges, bit left field.

  33. Pod says:

    @carra: that wasn’t a classic bubble sort.

  34. SleepyMatt says:

    Ahhh the Beeb…. A BBC B was my second computer (after something my dad built from scratch, including the monitor. If only technical wizardry was inherited). I can recall Kingdoms as if it were yesterday… damn those pesky thieves!

    I don’t suppose there was ever somewhere that might have a PC friendly copy of Exile these days??

  35. solipsistnation says:

    Clearly KINGDOM was the spiritual ancestor of Dwarf Fortress.

  36. Shadowcat says:

    SleepyMatt: Emulation is your friend! (see previous link)

    Also this:
    http://exile.ovinebydesign.com/

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