Jerry's Reviews > Giant Book of Computer Games

Giant Book of Computer Games by Tim Hartnell
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it was amazing
bookshelves: retro, conviction

I deliberately wrote the programs in this book in the most general version of BASIC I could. Therefore, you’ll find no PEEKs and POKEs, no use of graphic character sets, and no use of such commands as SOUND or PLAY. I’ve assumed you have access to READ and DATA, and that your screen is around 32 to 40 characters wide… Of course, you’ll probably have to play with the display little, in order to make it as effective as possible. I expect, by the way, that you’ll modify and adapt the programs to make the most of your system, adding sound and color, plus your own system’s graphics, whenever you can.

This is a collection of purely text games from about 1983. Most of the games should benefit from adding graphics to them, and that’s the assumption, that you’ll add whatever graphics your own computer supports. The code is “in Microsoft BASIC on an IBM PC”. The only restrictions are memory: some of them won’t fit in 4k: chess requires 8k, and one of the adventure games requires 17k.

Whatever computer you’re using, it will probably be best to get them working as written first, and for this an emulator such as PCBASIC will be invaluable. I’m not sure if the PC Hartnell was using was very slow, or if PCBASIC runs faster, but I found that delay loops often needed to be increased—ten times was a good number; when translating for the TRS-80 Color Computer 2, I increased the delays by about four times.

There is a conversion chart in the back, but it is very rudimentary. It charts differences in clearing the screen, in looping for character input, and in the MID$ function, but it doesn’t mention differences in getting random numbers, which tended to vary widely.

There’s also a glossary, but it has no relation to the text and isn’t of help when typing the programs in.

The games are all potentially fun games (I’ve only typed in three so far, but I’ll be doing more.) Hartnell opens right up with the most complex game he possibly could: chess. In BASIC. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, a short BASIC program does not play chess well, but you are surprised to find it done at all. The instructions are full of caveats about what to do when the computer doesn’t play right. For example, it may not immediately get out of check (“it will usually manage to do so within the next move or so”).

The board game section contains chess, gomoku, four in a row, checkers, shogun, award, knightsbridge, and reversi. I typed in both chess and knightsbridge, and knightsbridge is confoundingly fun. Each player starts with seven knights on a chessboard; at each turn, which knight you must move is determined randomly. Whoever takes five of their opponent’s knights first wins. So far, the computer has been doing very well.

The second section has four adventure games. I haven’t typed any of these yet, but I will. They build on the instructions in Hartnell’s Creating Adventure Games On Your Computer.

…despite the adventure programs you can buy for your computer, the thrill of creating your own programs for this most special of computer games is one which you should experience.

There’s also a section of simple simulations, such as planning the farming of a planet in order to best line your own coffers before your twenty-year reign is finished; a section of dice games, which seem to be, like most dice games, strategy-free. The house has the advantage in every one.

The Artificial Intelligence section contains a version of Eliza, the ubiquitous Rogerian analyst; and a random poetry generator. There are a whole bunch of puzzles in the Just For Fun section, including a version of Robot Minefield, which I’ll probably type in just because I always enjoy a good Robotwar.

There’s a moonlander (using an asterisk falling down the screen for the “graphics”) and a variation on the starship captain that does not use terminology from Star Trek. And a mastermind variation (fastermind), a hangman (executioner), and many more. There’s even an attempt to emulate a Rubik’s Cube in two dimensions.

All of the programs are amazingly small, and easily typed in. The large adventure is fifteen pages; chess is ten pages. But checkers is only four pages, and knightsbridge only three. And the text is readably large; a page isn’t a lot of code. My only caveat is that the text uses the same character for the number zero and the letter O, which means you’ll have to be careful about those characters when typing them in.

The code is generally well-designed and the logic, at least for the less complex games, easy to follow I may or may not take a crack at deciphering his chess code, that will be more difficult; but it was easy to convert the other games, so far, into more modern code. Some of them do seem unfinished; Eliza has some data that is not used and that, either because they rely on not-yet-created functionality or there’s a bug in the code, cannot be easily enabled simply by increasing the size of the data array. Eliza was always pretty weird, though. Even in the early days of computing I found it hard to believe some of the legends about how seriously people took her. In BASIC, at least, she was always very obviously a computer program, and not a very good one.

Hartnell strikes exactly the tone I was looking for with 42 Astounding Scripts. Breezy, informative, and filled with useful code.


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Reading Progress

January 13, 2020 – Shelved
January 13, 2020 – Shelved as: to-read
January 14, 2020 – Started Reading
January 14, 2020 – Shelved as: retro
January 26, 2020 – Shelved as: conviction
January 26, 2020 – Finished Reading

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