Atari 800XE: My first computer

In 1986, my parents bought our first family computer. My first computer. We were living in a small village in Communist Poland. I’m not even sure if there was a second telephone there in addition to the one at the rural medical clinic where my parents worked. Yet, my dad, convinced that computers were the future, convinced my mom as well, and they bought the computer so that my brother and I could learn computers.

The Atari 800XE was the last 8-bit machine produced by Atari. It was almost the same machine as the 800XL with a case almost the same as the 130XE. It was only sold in East European countries, mainly Germany and Poland.

Source: Old Computers, Atari 800XE

We did learn computers, but mostly we played videogames. It was long ago, and my memory is hazy, but I think my brother was not as interested in it as I was. He preferred to take apart gadgets, whereas I was thrilled to issue arcane instructions in BASIC and watch the machine obey. Since the instructions were in English, which of course I didn’t know, it only made it more exotic.

Computers felt like magic. Sometimes they still do.

Loading up a video game was cumbersome. The computer had only a cassette tape drive. If you are imagining giant reels, un-imagine that.  Imagine a cassette, like you would put into a walkman. That’s what the computer read.

It took about half an hour for a complex game, like Montezuma’s Revenge or Joust, ten minutes for simpler games like Pong. Sometimes I’d wait half an hour only to find that the loaded game was corrupted. The tape deck dive was delicate. If any vibration disturbed it while the game was loading, it was liable to get wonky.

I was pretty good at the games. My older cousin, whose family visted us almost every weekend, accounted for my superiority by claiming I had more practice than him. I didn’t, actually. While I was allowed to play with BASIC programming any time, video games were only allowed on the weekend. He refused to believe me.

Now that I’m older, I get why a boy couldn’t stomach the fact that an 8 year old girl beat him at River Raid. But I did, not because I played a lot, but because I was just better than him.