Spin machines: the curious history of video games on vinyl

Guardian Technology 07 Jul 2021 08:45

It’s almost unthinkable now, but from the 1970s until the early 1980s, vinyl records were explored as a means of storing computer data – including video games. Some magazines of the time tucked code-packed flexi disc inserts into their pages: paper-thin plastic records that could be fed into home computers from an ordinary turntable, magically manifesting a game on screen. Long before Travis Scott was attracting 12 million players to a gig hosted in Fortnite, there was a coming together of a British game developer, a magazine and a pop act that marked the beginning of the intersection between the music and games industries.

The Thompson Twins Adventure Game came cover-mounted on a 1984 issue of the beloved magazine Computer & Video Games, the first UK magazine devoted to games. Almost everyone involved in the project – a promotional item linked to the release of the single Doctor Doctor – admits the game was imperfect. It was a weird text adventure garnished with incidental visuals, in which the members of the Thompson Twins had to locate the ingredients of a potion to be made by the song’s eponymous medic. The idea was that readers could load the disc from a turntable linked directly to a Spectrum, or copy the audio on to a cassette, which could then be used to load the game on a Spectrum or Commodore. Getting the recording level right could take multiple attempts, as users experimented with audio settings, and some of the disks got damaged as they dangled exposed on the cover.

“It was a very competitive era for magazines,” remembers Tim Metcalfe, then editor of Computer & Video Games. “There were loads of titles coming along. They were putting cassettes on the front, which cost a lot more to make and to distribute. So it seemed to us the flexi disc idea was the best. I remember them from when I was buying music magazines, and the Beatles used to do a flexi disc every Christmas. It seemed to be the most straightforward way of distributing something, because you could just mount it on the front cover without any fuss; it just needed a bit of Sellotape.”

“I definitely have very fun memories of being involved in the project, and particularly the kind of innovation that was going on all around then,” says Mark Eyles, who served as Quicksilva’s creative director and was charged with the task of assembling a small team of freelance coders to work on the Thompson Twins game. “It’s not that there isn’t innovation now, but it was a particular period when the games industry was inventing itself, and it was great to have been part of that. A lot of the stuff that we were doing then was being done for the first time. We were making it up as we went along.”

The earliest documented effort to put games on to vinyl actually came earlier, from US electronics company RCA, which in the early 1970s experimented with vinyl records as a data storage format, and is believed to have used games to prototype the format internally. At least one example survives, in storage at the Sarnoff Collection technology museum. Meanwhile, Atari Archive curator and game historian Kevin Bunch identified an RCA internal memo at the Hagley Library and Museum listing records as a data format dated 2 July 1973. RCA had been working since the 1960s on “capacitance electronic discs” – a vinyl-like, stylus-read video format that ultimately lost out to the brief reign of the LaserDisc.

It was the rise of home computing in the 1980s, and the boom in computing magazines that went with it, that opened the doors for flexi disc games to go public. They let magazines put the code in the grooves of records, freeing up valuable pages from “type-in programs” – hundreds of lines of printed code for the reader to painstakingly type out and run on a computer. That’s what game vinyls were at a fundamental level: a program sheet of code stored as binary data in a record, readable by an ordinary stylus.

Soon after, floppy ROMs reached the UK. A 1982 issue of Your Computer magazine debuted a single-sided flexi disc containing Othello for the Sinclair ZX81. According to an article in that issue of the magazine, the team working out how to cut the master for the disk did so between takes of a Tight Fit record at Pye Records’ London recording studio.

In 1983, one artist released a quite remarkable 7” single. Chris Sievey, who would go on to be known as Frank Sidebottom, was both a passionate coder and a synth-pop performer. His single Camouflage packed its B-side with ZX81 programs, including a self-coded rudimentary graphical music video for the song, a sci-fi railway game called Flying Train, and an alternative version titled LT. The video was perhaps the standout, and is billed as “The World’s First Computer Promo”.

The following year, Sievey released a cassette titled The Biz, which included alternate takes of songs by his power-pop band the Freshies, an interview conducted by Frank Sidebottom, and a text adventure game that asked players to make it in the music industry. The Biz was Frank Sidebottom’s first ever appearance. It was also a very tough game: Sievey told Crash magazine he had never himself completed his creation. Also of note was ex-Buzzcock Pete Shelley’s 1985 solo LP XL-1, which included a computer promo video for the entire album in its grooves.

“The UK was such a fertile and inventive playground for video games at a time when the music industry was also very [inventive],” Cousens concludes. “I did think we were part of a revolution that was going to bring change in the world. And here we are today.”

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Travis ScottUK magazineTim MetcalfeFrank Sidebottom
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