Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 1    December 1997

Your BASIC Article

By Chris Federico and Adam Trionfo

For me, English is a simple language to use. Sure, I make mistakes, but I can work through them. Errors may occur from time to time, but I can find them and correct them. I could even write an extremely technical newsletter about animal species without using Latin names, but in this case, pure English would be difficult and cumbersome. There are faster ways to describe species. "A large, gray, four-legged animal with a big nose" may very well describe an elephant, but what kind of elephant? I could spend an entire paragraph explaining what I mean, when the simple Latin word would suffice. (Guess what? I have no idea what the Latin word for "elephant" is!)

Okay, I guess it is time to spill the beans: What the hell am I talking about? Programming. I would like to compare any variation of BASIC to other languages that are faster. BASIC has taken an awful amount of slack over the years. There are many reasons to complain about BASIC, and I will list only one here. Everyone has heard that BASIC is slow. Well, I can't deny it. Yes, folks, BASIC is slow. So is this 8088 notebook that I am writing this article on. I boot to IBM DOS 3.2 and use the 360K disk drive to boot a simple text processor. This notebook serves my needs well. I can say the very exact thing about BASIC.

BASIC allows the user to create a program much easier then if that same program were being written in a lower-level language like Assembly. I have spent some entertaining time writing some programs using a language called AMOS on my Amiga. It is a variation of BASIC that places high emphasis on game development. I have never written a complete game with it, but I have made several interesting starts. Actually, Chris and I have put a bit of effort into a game called Pig Blaster; I would not have even bothered to write such a learn-as-you-go game if I had to do it in Assembly.

BASIC gives freedom to the user. It allows for the user to have more control over the computer he is using. Have you ever used Microsoft's Visual BASIC? Yes, it is slow. Yes, you can complain about it if you must. But it gives you freedom to create. It gives you power over your PC. You can even use it to customize some programs. I would not say that it is the pinnacle of all BASIC languages, but it is certainly a worthy product. -- AJT

I agree with Adam; and I have another take on it.

The problem in the early 80s -- the element that spread the computer market so thin that it went temporarily down the tubes -- was a failure to simplify or standardize. There were just too many options for the potential enthusiast. We'd already seen it briefly, in the form of the video game shakeout: "Do I buy a 2600, or should I get something with better graphics, like a ColecoVision? Do I want an Intellivision or should I wait for the Odyssey 3?" and on and on and on. Many consumers took the best available choice: not to buy anything.

Then the personal computer market broke into three sects, all fiercely opposed to one another: Commodore (the most popular), Atari and Apple. Each of these companies released too many products on too many market bandwidths (types of targeted buyers) to afford researching anything actually innovative. The exception was the acquisition (not the development, which was already complete) of Amiga technology by Commodore.

Modern computers -- even Pentium-driven PCs -- are in danger, like their ancestral counterparts, of driving buyers away by being rendered obsolete within minimal time frames. Everything is instantly improved, added-to, upgraded, or made "deluxe" nowadays, and by the time you've chosen a language to learn, developed your savvy, gotten the code together, debugged it and run-tested it, the lanuage either won't run on the average chip set-of-the-moment, will require obsolete video cards, or will be guilty of some other form of inadequacy that didn't exist when you first chose that language. Q-BASIC has mutated, with our point-and-click penchant, into Visual BASIC; C had pluses added to its name every few months; and Java seems just another "revolution" to be made obsolete by some other kind of data-transfer application. Here's what I'm leading up to: There is no risk-free platform. It endangers the personal computing industry at large, and discourages one's urge to create his own software (not a mistake; you can see why modern companies would love this hampering of creativity).

BASIC was guilty of none of these things. If I sit down today, and write a program in C-64 BASIC, I know that if my computer breaks and I go to the used-stuff store to buy a different one, the program will work identically. It doesn't matter what year the actual model was made in; all it has to be is a 64, and my BASIC code won't let me down.

The era of Compute! magazine, and the inclusion of BASIC as a standard startup program in every home computer, are sorely missed aspects of the computing world. What the industry desperately needs today is a community of home programmers with fresh ideas. Everything about the industry discourages such a possible threat to the top dogs' wallets; Windows doesn't even come with Q-BASIC, and Microsoft's Office throws in, as a bone to the hackers of yesteryear who might opt for IBM patronage, a script language based on Visual BASIC. Do you think there is any sort of tutorial in the Office manual? Do you think modern computing publications help users become skilled in using the scripter as a possible step toward actual Visual BASIC? If so, then you're as buried in yesterday as this article might seem.

BASIC caused no worries about a chip being replaced (consider the Pentium II and its inevitable following chips) that made half your code unusable; BASIC was simply to be learned, mastered, and used, and it didn't have to be mutated to run on your friend's computer down the street. It would always work, provided that you stuck to one brand of computer. And if you wrote a BASIC program that didn't utilize your computer's special memory locations for sound and graphics, your program could even be typed into the Microsoft BASIC of yesterday with minimal or no translating effort. The keywords barely differed from brand to brand.

BASIC encouraged programming imagination and creativity in every possible type of user; but kids, especially, used the language's wide availability and widespread media support to take their first steps toward becoming full-fledged, multi-platform programmers, many of whom went on to become the creators of imaginative software, the ilk of which is lacking in 1997.

If you have a computer, buy and learn a good language and start adding to the underground programming community before it's gone. Corporate dominance means high prices and low quality. Not that we've seen signs of that yet...

So there's my $002. -- CF