What is retro computing and why is it still a thing?

Retro computing is a hobby that has been around since the 80’s, when the first mass market computers created, began to become obsolete. As these computers began to fall from grace, we as humans of course kicked up our collector gene and started hoarding the machines as they were phased out. This hobby has seen continued growth over the past 30+ years and has in recent years even become a very mainstream hobby, as people want to show their kids the games they played when they were little.

This has sprouted two different and equally interesting movements, in people who collect, repair and use old computers and people who create something called emulators. Emulators are tech speak for programs that run on modern computers, but pretend to be another device, usually another computer that can then be used to run old programs and games.

Although most people can make do with emulators and like to play old games on these, there are still some games that have issues with emulators and more importantly some gadgets that essentially require the original computer to function. The reason for this is as I mentioned in a history lesson in computers, that there weren’t really any standards back in the day, so a lot of components were custom made and by extension so were a lot of peripherals.

Some of the more interesting of these custom made systems happened with consoles, where creative solutions were needed to overcome limitations or just to add new game play to the small computers. To mention a few, Duck Hunt for the old Nintendo used what ended up being called a light gun, which was a device that used a weakness in old cathode ray tube TV’s to simulate a gun shooting at the TV. Nintendo and Atari were also both in their later years using some hacks with their game cartridges to add extra components to their consoles, boosting their ability to run more complex games.

Light Gun
The fabled light gun

Game cartridges are plastic squares that have a little bit of computer memory inside them, just like I talked about in how computers work. This is also why it makes sense that emulators can have a hard time with some games or programs, as some of these may require a special component inside the cartridge. As these no longer exist inside an emulator and the same goes for gadgets like the light gun requiring an old TV.

On top of this, running the games on the original computers they were made for can be part of the experience people are trying to bring back and the games will almost always function as they were intended to be played. With an emulator there can usually be a delay in response to controls or audio not working quite right, which can in some cases take a bit away from the experience.

Arcade Cabinets
Some refurbished Arcade machines

There is another reason why people preserve old computers, besides games though. This is their simplicity of construction, most older computers can be repaired by hand and therefore also be modified by hand. A lot of the programs for them are also a lot simpler and can make a much easier entry into programming, especially because a lot of old systems came with thick manuals, teaching programming and other tricks for these systems.

This essentially makes them a really good entry into hobby electronics and hobby programming, which are also hobbies that are on the rise, along with the DIY aka Do It Yourself movement. So in the end it all ties together with a lot of other reasons that might not seem related to the hobby as is.

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