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February 20, 2008

The Sentimental Sound of Spinning

Like many nerds, I get nostalgic when I think back to my childhood in the mid-late 70s and 80s and the computer games that I played during those years. Best I can remember, it started with the original Colossal Cave adventure on my dad's enormous NorthStar Horizon computer, with its wooden case and dual 5.25" floppy disk drives. Later, it was some of Scott Adams's great text adventures like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure, and a host of other text-based games like the old Star Trek grid game and even an old game about the Battle of Midway very similar to this one. Not to mention a whole mess of games that I typed in by hand from David Ahl's incredibly awesome book from 1978.

Then it was on to the famous Apple ][ days. I spent countless hours with so many games, I couldn't possibly remember even a fraction of them. But there are certainly those that stand out in my memory: Planetfall, Deadline, Castle Wolfenstein, Lode Runner, Karateka, Mask of the Sun, Prince of Persia, The Prisoner. And of course, Wizardry.

I have seen and tried a few Apple ][ emulators in the past, and I've been able to play a few of those old games again. Some don't run properly, some don't run at all. But many of them do, and it was great fun to see those old games again. But a little while ago, I came across an emulator I hadn't heard of before: Virtual ][, a program that emulates the Apple ][, ][+, and //e. It's a great piece of software, with a lot of cool features, like being able to save a virtual machine and load it back in later to resume. But one of its best features is that it not only emulates the machine, it also emulates the peripherals, including the floppy drives.

The images of the drives at the bottom correspond to the two available floppy drives. To use them, you click on one and specify which "disk" file to load into the drive. The fascinating part of this, to me, is that the emulator does three things: (1) it emulates the Apple ][ at its native speed, so programs "load" from the drive at the same speed they did back in the day, (2) it animates the red light on the floppy drive, and it lights at the appropriate times (not just randomly), and (3) it actually emulates the real sounds the drives used to make -- the sound of the drive door opening and closing, as well as the sound of the drive spinning and reading from the floppies.

I emphasized the last part because I think it's a really important point. Hearing the old sound of the Apple ][ floppy drive, I realized how much of an impact that spinning sound had on me as a kid, and how the sound of the drive was really a significant part of computing (and gaming) back then. In some cases, I had booted, loaded, and played certain games so many times that the specific pattern of sounds made by the drive as the game ran was burned into my memory. I can still remember some, like the sounds from Wizardry and The Prisoner. Firing up Virtual ][ and loading in those games brought back memories not just from seeing and playing the games, but also from hearing the same floppy drive sound patterns that I remember from childhood.

But it also got me to thinking of some of those old text adventure games on my dad's NorthStar Horizon, like Colossal Cave. Although I don't recall any specific sound patterns from the big floppy drive the same way that I do for the Apple ][, the sound of the spinning drive still had significant meaning. Back then, when there wasn't much memory to spare, a lot of information was read from the drive as it was needed. So as I played those adventure games, I would type in a command, wait a few seconds for the computer to process the command, and listen...waiting expectantly for the drive to start up again, which meant the game needed some new information from the floppy. I had done something different. The result, I hoped, would be a new message indicating I had figured out something in the game, and had made some progress.

Occasionally, I would stay up late into the night, playing Colossal Cave or some other text adventure, in the darkened living room with only the glow of the terminal. Sometimes, I would wait so anxiously that the sound of the floppy drive starting up again would give me shivers. It was an important sound. It was inseparable from computing, an odd byproduct of the limitations of those systems. It's something that, with gigabyte hard drives and RAM modules, has disappeared from the computing experience.

I'm fine with that -- I much prefer the ultra-fast loading times we get today to the strangely melodic sounds of a slowly spinning floppy drive. Still, I'm glad to have been able to experience those sounds, both back in the day and again with Virtual ][, and to realize the importance that those sounds played in the old gaming experience. Or at least my gaming experience.

It kind of reminds me of a scene from the movie "American Beauty", when the main character (Lester) is buying some pot from the next door neighbor's kid (Ricky):

Lester: "Well, now I know how you can afford all this equipment. When I was your age, I flipped burgers all summer just to be able to buy an eight track."

Ricky: "That sucks."

Lester: "No actually, it was great."

Kind of like those slow, loud floppy drives, and the sound of the spinning.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Wow, how right you are. Just reading about that brings back fond memories of my own. Thanks for taking the time to write about your experience.