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Games before CD and HDMI

Shawn Carpenter on Flickr

If you own a games console, or you play games on your PC, you’ll know about CDs, cartridges, and downloadable games. These are really useful ways of playing games, but what did people do before these things were invented? Yes, that’s right; there was a time where people played games that weren’t on CDs or downloaded off of the internet!

You may remember a few issues ago, we discussed how developers used to distribute their games over floppy disks. These were sort of like CDs, but they were very fragile and, well, floppy! They had to be housed in a square, plastic shell to keep them safe.

They didn’t store a whole lot of stuff – they only had room for 1.44MB of data! As such, if you wanted a game that was larger than that, you’d have to get multiple floppy disks, all with a different “part” to them. You had to swap them out during installation, or even during gameplay!

Did you know, however, that people could distribute games before even these disks were around? Once upon a time, games came on cassette tapes. If you don’t know what these are, cassette tapes were an early way to play music. They were music files on long strips of tape, which were played on tape recorders. It was like music on a mini scroll!

Of course, keeping tape with music on it would be messy, so cassette tapes were small plastic houses to keep the tape safe. You put the whole cassette into the player, and it would read an exposed piece of the tape to play the music. It would even automatically go through the tape, reading all of the data on it.

Some smart people realized they could use cassette tapes to load programs into computers. You hooked a cassette player into the computer’s microphone port, then played a tape with a program on it. The tape would then make an awful screeching noise which wasn’t pleasant to hear. This noise wasn’t for us to listen to, though; it was data in audio form for the computer to hear.

Do you know about binary? It’s those weird 1s and 0s that appear when computing stuff is shown on TV, or in the movies. It’s the very base of computer language, and it represents ‘on’ and ‘off’. 1 is on, and 0 is off. The tape played two different tones depending on if it wanted the computer to load a 1 or a 0, and the computer would hear it and load the corresponding data.

Of course, in order to load the data, you had to play the tape and have it transmit all the sounds to the computer. This took a long time to do, so it wasn’t uncommon to wait up to 20 minutes for your game to load!

Because games could be loaded using noise, this means you could share entire computer programs over sound alone. There was an experiment where games and pictures were sent over the radio, and people could record the sound and play it on their own cassette tapes. Of course, it didn’t quite take off, but it must have been exciting to record these games and wonder what you’re about to be playing!

The next time you download a game, imagine what it’d be like if you had to record your game off of the radio and play it to a computer for 20 minutes. Once upon a time, that’s how games got around; if anything, it makes you appreciate broadband connections more!

Learn More

Download Radio Games


Loading retrogames on tape on C64


Remembering Commodore 64


When games used to be downloaded from the radio


Downloading games from the radio