Retro spotlight: Andy Remic and the 8-bits

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Published on 11 January 2024 by Andrew Owen (7 minutes)

Andrey John “Andy” Remic was a writer, filmmaker and retro computer enthusiast. In Februart 2022 he died from cancer at the age of 50, leaving behind his wife Linda and two children. Before his health began to deteriorate, he was working on a new documentary called “The 8-Bit Evolution” looking at modern recreations and evolutions of 8-bit systems. He was planning to interview me because of my involvement in the Mega 65 project. We had a long-running conversation on Facebook that culminated with me providing written answers to interview questions to be filmed at a later date. I think enough time has passed that I can now share some of my responses. But first, more about Andy.

He was born in Manchester, England in 1971 to Yugoslav and English parents. As a child he combined his love of creative writing and computing to create text adventures for the ZX Spectrum that were distributed with high street magazines and by mail order. He studied English at university and went on to teach at Counthill School and Branston Community Academy in Lincolnshire.

In 2003 he published “Spiral” the first of more than 20 novels, concluding with “Twilight of the Dragons” in 2016. He mainly wrote thrillers and science fiction, but in 2015 he turned his hand to independent filmmaking when he wrote and directed horror feature “Impunity”. For this project, he was able to cast Frazer Hines, best known as the longest serving companion in the original 26-year run of “Doctor Who”.

After an 18-year break, in 2009 he wrote his twelfth text adventure for the ZX Spectrum, adapted from his novel “Biohell”. This returning interest in 8-bit computing led him to create a series of crowdfunded documentaries, starting with “Memoirs of a Spectrum Addict” in 2017. He followed this up with a sequel “Load Film 2” where he interviewed industry figures including Simon Butler, Mel Croucher, Andrew Hewson, Jon Ritman, Fergus McNeil and Clive Townsend.

His unfinished 8-bit documentary would have covered emulation-based consoles like the C64 mini, but focused mainly on “next generation” machines like the Apple IIGS, Chloe 280SE, Commander X16, Mega 65 and the MSX Turbo-R. So without further ado, here is the abridged interview:

AR: What’s your personal overview of the whole 8-bit scene of the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s? How did you get into 8-bit computers? Do you have you any memories to share? What’s your opinion of the company leaders of the day?

AO: Of those periods, I really only experienced the 1980s first hand. In 1984, I wanted an Apple Macintosh. I still have the first ever issue of MacUser. But what I got was a Sinclair Spectrum+. I taught myself to program BASIC by reading the tokens on the keyboard and figuring it out. I was always more interested in programming than playing games, but “Millionaire” from Incentive is a great strategy game. I would have liked to have been at the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley with folks like Steve Wozniak in the 1970s because I think that was the most innovative time in 8-bit computing. It would also have been nice to be part of the early days of the online retro scene in the early 1990s, when it was still a relatively small group of academics and enthusiasts.

Of the major industry players, I have to give credit to Bill Gates for getting his version of BASIC on almost all the 8-bits. Jack Tramiel was probably the shrewdest businessman of them all. Steve Jobs was a visionary in the sense that he saw the potential that personal computers offered in a way that other people weren’t even considering. Clive Sinclair was decades ahead of his time with solid state and electric vehicles, and the ZX81/Timex 1000 was the forerunner of modern FPGA and SoC systems. The unsung hero of the low power / high performance RISC revolution is Herman Hauser who co-founded ARM Holdings.

AR: What is your favourite 8-bit machine of all time, and why?

AO: The Mega 65 is the best 8-bit computer by a country mile. It can take advantage of the full potential of modern displays, networks and storage and so on, but you can still use original expansions. It’s also the only 8-bit computer that comes with a decent keyboard. Full disclosure: I was heavily involved in the development of the Mega 65 keyboard.

AR: What are your likes and dislikes of the various 8-bit systems.

AO: The Commodore 64 is the standard by which all other systems are judged. In the UK it was hampered by the high cost of disk drives, so most software was sold on cassette and took ages to load. Also, the BASIC didn’t make it easy for the programmer to access the full potential of the machine. But for a long time it had the best video and sound. And it was just about possible to use it as a general purpose computer.

The Amstrad CPC was an effort by Alan Sugar to get in on the microcomputer boom. If you look at the architecture, it was supposed to be a cheaper BBC Micro. It was even supposed to have a 6502 CPU before that had to be abandoned because Locomotive Software was called in to do the BASIC, and they could only support the Z80.

It’s not a popular opinion, but the ZX Spectrum was a toy. The keyboards were terrible. The BASIC was technically ahead of its time in some respects, but horrendously slow. There were so many disk storage solutions that no standard emerged. Timex turned it into a general purpose computer, but Sinclair didn’t share that information with Investronica when the 128K model was commissioned. What the Spectrum did do was make computing affordable, which gave a huge boost to the fledgling UK video games industry.

The BBC Micro is virtually unknown outside the UK. It was popular in schools, but too expensive for most home users. It would be little more than a footnote in computer history if Sophie Wilson hadn’t used it to design the ARM chip. Her version of BASIC was also far superior to Microsoft’s offering.

AR: What about less well-known systems?

AO: Outside the UK, the Apple II is a well-known system compared to the obscure Acorns, Amstrads and Sinclairs. Wozniak and Altwasser had a similar approach to doing as much as possible for as little money as possible. The Apple II and ZX Spectrum both feature a design that just about generates a usable television picture without being remotely standards compliant.

The VIC-20 was a stepping stone from the PET to the C64, but the PET was really significant in launching the home computer revolution, together with the Apple II and the TRS-80. The ZX80 was inspired by the TRS-80, but it wasn’t comparable. MSX came late to the market, but the final Turbo-R models did a great job of transitioning users from 8-bit to 16-bit machines without having to abandon their entire software collection.

AR: What’s your opinion of 8-bit consoles?

AO: Atari started it all. The NES was obviously a phenomenal success. The GameBoy and its successors owned the portable market. But I always had a soft spot for the Sega Master System, possibly because my brother had one. The ports of the Sega arcade games were very playable, and the first Sonic game is better than the original Mega Drive version.

AR: What are your opinions of the new “evolutions” of the 8-bit machines?

AO: In my view, people who want to run original software should use emulation. Devices like the C64 mini are great for that. If you’re going the FPGA route, then I think you have to create a system that’s more powerful than what you could emulate on a Raspberry Pi. Otherwise, how do you justify the cost?

AR: What are your opinions of the retro scene?

Except for one or two individual contributors, commercial magazines’ retro output is essentially vanity publishing. I would rather read the fanzines. That said, all power to people who create things for the love of it. But I think the retro scene needs to evolve or face extinction. The computer industry as a whole is very bad at inclusion and diversity, but gaming is particularly bad, and retro gaming is the worst. If a community has a reputation for bullying, mobbing and gatekeeping, then it’s simply not going to attract new members.

AR: What are your views on software piracy?

AO: I’m opposed to unlicensed copying of commercial software, even when it’s no longer on sale. GoG has done a fantastic job of making old software available again on new platforms, and I encourage people to support it.

As a final thought, I’m glad I got to know Andy a little. He struck me as a very fair and open-minded person who had a real enthusiasm for his subject.