Welcome to our computer laboratory of horrors!
Come as we take a tour of some of 8-bit computing’s most unloved monstrosities.
Our terrors today come in two categories: First, you may not know this, but not every 1980s home computer was a success. Some were major flops!
Second, some of those that were successful sought to extend their time in the spotlight with a bit of literal plastic surgery. Oh, the humanity!
The Jupiter Ace
Almost all home computers of the day used BASIC, so this was an incredibly ambitious proposition, and unfortunately one that was doomed to failure. Although Forth was much faster and used less memory, it was difficult to convince people, especially developers, to learn a different language, and with little published software its case was not helped. It flopped. Badly.
The Franklin Ace
Franklin Computer Corporation came into existence with a singular aim: to clone the Apple II. It called its abomination the Ace. Its motherboard was practically identical to the Apple II; Franklin also copied the Apple II ROM verbatim. They released the Ace in 1982 and unsurprisingly Apple sued… and lost! Franklin argued that because computer code wasn’t printed on paper it couldn’t be copyrighted. In 1983 a judge ruled against Franklin, but it would take five more years of legal battles before Apple was able to force it from selling Apple clones. Nightmare!
The Sam Coupé
After Amstrad bought the rights to the Sinclair Spectrum, they did little with it aside from release some trivial modifications to the Spectrum 128K, mainly adding a built-in tape / disk drive to make the line similar to its CPC offerings. Two former Sinclair Research employees, Alan Miles and Bruce Gordon (two people with four first names!) thought that more could be done with the aging 8-bit platform and set out to make a Spectrum-inspired (and compatible) computer of their own. They developed peripherals (including a disk drive) for the Spectrum to finance their super-Spectrum project.
Bruce Gordon was meticulous in the machine’s design, aiming to drive down costs while making the machine expandable for those with deeper pockets. On paper, it looked great: it could run thousands of existing Spectrum software packages, it had additional graphics and sound features to allow for new, better games and applications, it was much cheaper than other (mainly 16-bit) computers on the market, and there was scope for peripherals such as mice and hard disks – but Gordon may have taken too long with his design, because by the time the machine was released it was late 1989. MGT missed the Christmas sales rush, where the Coupe may not have done well anyway, given aggressive discounting of the Atari ST.
To make matters worse, the machines they did sell had a bug which meant they had to ship a new ROM to customers. The company collapsed twice, first in mid-1990 and then in July, 1992. Scary!
The Atari XEGS
Jack Tramiel saw how Nintendo was cleaning up the market and the man he was, he wanted a piece of that action. In 1987 he released the delayed Atari 7800 and the smaller, cheaper Atari 2600 Jr. in an attempt to do that, but he thought, why not put all of your cards on the table? If the 5200 had failed because it wasn’t compatible with Atari 8-bit computer software, why not make a console that was? A repackaged Atari 65XE, the XEGS could be made into a fully functioning home computer, with an external keyboard, disk drives, modem, etc. or just be plugged in to a TV and used as a game console, with joysticks and light gun. There were new light gun games and older games repackaged in cartridge format, which also worked with existing Atari 8-bit computers (and were popular for that reason). But retailers discounted the 65XE in response to the XEGS and so it sold but not well.
The Amstrad GX4000
Hey, it worked for Atari, didn’t it (didn’t it?) Amstrad had spent the late 80s milking the heck out of its 8-bit CPC computer line, but sales had begun to slow, chiefly because of 16-bit competitors such as the Atari ST. So the thought occurred, why not make an Amstrad CPC console? And they actually kind of went all in on it – the GX4000 looks like they made an effort. Magazine reviewers were impressed – although they weren’t fond of the NES-style controllers and the sound was a bit shaky. Amstrad thought it had a winner, spending £20 million on advertising in Europe. But it had a hard time pushing developers to continue making games that would work with the console, and interest from magazine publishers quickly dropped off. Amstrad discounted the GX4000 to as low as £30 in an attempt to grow the userbase and encourage developers but they were more interested in making games for the Sega Mega Drive and the Super NES. At least the GX4000 left a good looking corpse!
The Commodore 64GS
So Commodore was like, hold my beer. It was pretty desperate by 1990; sales of its flagship 16-bit Amiga computer weren’t stellar and Commodore 64 sales were starting to drop off, as publishers were no longer making new games for the platform. In an attempt to revive it, Commodore decided to thinly repackage the 64 as a game system, thinking that it might get a new life in the console market. However, software publishers would need to tweak their games to work without a keyboard, and many were unconvinced it would be worth their time to do so.
Ocean Software in the UK was one of the few who were willing to give it a go, and so the 64GS was released in Europe in December 1990, just in time for Christmas. A few other British publishers also converted some of their cassette-based games to work on cartridges – but not many. It probably would have helped if cartridge-based games had been more common on the Commodore 64, but they were not, and the small number (compared to cassette and disk) that did exist typically needed the keyboard.
Anyway, if someone was interested in playing Commodore 64 games, they just bought a Commodore 64 – it was the same price, so you got a keyboard for free! (ooh!) And the ability to use a cassette or disk drive (wow!). Commodore’s weak death-spasm just hastened its eventual demise four years later, after its Amiga console similarly failed.
The IBM PCJr.
By 1982 IBM had been growing increasingly envious of the profits made by manufacturers of computers oriented towards the home market, such as Commodore and Atari, and made the decision to start development of a home computer of its own. Its 1981 IBM PC, a response to the intrusion of microcomputers into its mainframe business, had been a success, and IBM felt there was no reason why an IBM product targeted at the home user shouldn’t do similarly well – after all, it would be an IBM. Codenamed Peanut, news of the new computer shook up the existing home computer market, with wild speculation regarding its features and eventual price. “Peanut Panic” ensued as rivals worried that if the Peanut was compatible with the PC it would quickly take over the home computer market, and their stocks were punished by investors with similar concerns.
However, it turned out their fears were largely unfounded. On November 1st, 1983, Big Blue, in its not-so-infinite wisdom, announced the PCjr. It was not cheap – IBM figured that its target customer for the machine was white-collar parents who used an IBM PC at work, and who would want compatibility so they could run software at home.
However, IBM seemed incapable of deciding just who the computer was for. They decided to give it a ‘chiclet’-style keyboard that would appeal to kids. Okay, but adults hated that keyboard – so what was the point of compatibility with a software library of what was largely business applications? But more perplexing, the cheap model didn’t even come with a disk drive!
“But that’s not a problem!” IBM said, “you can load software off of cartridges.” Cartridges? But my copy of Lotus 1-2-3 is on disk!
I’m sure they would happily have sold you a copy – if they could have, but the cheap Peanut (still US$669 – US$1683 in 2019) only had 64K of memory, not enough for PC business apps – may as well buy the much cheaper Commodore 64; it had much better games, and you could get it with a disk drive for the same price as the PCJr. A lot of people did just that.
Anyway, the Peanut bombed. How spectacularly, you ask? Pretty darn spectacularly. First, they missed Christmas 1983 and didn’t release it until the following March – for a computer that was supposed to be for your kids to do schoolwork, this was an odd time given North American children start school in September. The more expensive model only had 128K of RAM which was the same as the Apple IIe, except the IIe could run virtually every program made for an Apple II, and most of its business software was still holding up in 1984.
So, if you were buying a computer to share with your kids you probably went with an Apple; if you had deep pockets you would buy an actual IBM PC. This left Junior out in the cold.
Initial sales were tepid. IBM panicked, offering new keyboards with a more traditional design and an upgrade to 512KB of RAM, but there were still numerous compatibility issues with existing software and the only way people would buy the Peanut was if they got it at a serious discount. Obviously IBM was not in the business of charity, and soon put a stake in Junior, discontinuing the computer in March 1985.
Alas, poor Peanut, we hardly knew ye.