Jay McDonald -- Web and Marketing Communications Professional Since the 90s, Computer and Video Game Player Since the 70s

Jay McDonald - Web and Marketing Communications Professional Since the 90s, Computer and Video Game Player Since the 70s

Jay McDonald has been a web and marketing communications professional since the mid 90s, and a computer and video game player since he was a young boy in the mid 70s. He recently decided to combine these two interests, and started writing on the web about the joy and benefits of retro gaming.

I hope this romp through my story stirs up warm nostalgia for all retro gamers.

My father worked for computer maker Sperry UNIVAC (now Unisys) starting in the early 70s. One weekend, I went with dad to the office and ended up playing text-based computer games on a BC/7 minicomputer. Right around that time, my best friend got an early Odyssey video game system, and I got a Pong. I was hooked.

The home version of Atari Pong, and a Sperry BC/7 minicomputer
The home version of Atari Pong, and a Sperry BC/7 minicomputer.

By 1980, my new best friend (I had moved), whose father was a programmer at Sperry UNIVAC, taught me how to program in BASIC on the brand new Tandy Color Computer our elementary school had gotten. My first program was written longhand on a legal pad, and was a Choose Your Own Adventure-inspired branching story game. The idea was sparked by the time my friend and I had spent playing Colossal Cave Adventure over his dad’s home computer terminal (connected to the office via an acoustic coupler modem, of course). Not long after, I got my own Color Computer (with cassette drive, no less!), and started typing in games from David H. Ahl’s book BASIC Computer Games.

David H. Ahl's BASIC Computer Games books
David H. Ahl's BASIC Computer Games books were a huge part of the late 70s/early 80s home computer explosion, since all the popular home computers came with BASIC.

Having a father who was into tech had real benefits, because I didn’t have to convince him how fun it would be to own various computers and video game systems. We had a great time as we collected various systems - including Atari, Odyssey 2, Intellivision, and Colecovision. I was a big fan of Atari’s Adventure from the outset, and really enjoyed Activision’s games as well. I spent untold hours on end playing that Atari. I recall being wildly impressed by the Intellivision’s speech synthesis when I played B-17 Bomber, and LOVED stuff like Microsurgeon and Sea Battle. I’m not a big sports game fan, but I still enjoy playing Mattel’s brilliantly simple Major League Baseball, and NFL Football. The Coleco blew my doors off with its version of Donkey Kong, which felt so much like the arcade, and blew away all attempts at arcade ports on earlier systems. I’m sad this system didn’t have more success.

The Magnavox Odyssey 2, ColecoVision, and Mattel Intellivision
Among the many consoles I have owned over my lifetime, the Magnavox Odyssey 2, ColecoVision, and Mattel Intellivision are some of the more off-beat ones.

At the beginning of the 80s, dad took me to COMDEX, which was THE computer trade show. It wasn’t too long after that we ended up getting an Apple II+ (the black Bell & Howell edition). Much play ensued, with noteworthy touchpoints being Castle Wolfenstein, Infocom games (of course!), Karateka, Miner 2049er, and Taipan.

A few years later, dad brought home a Sperry PC/XT clone, and I got to fiddling with graphics programs, early Sierra Online games (like King’s Quest), and dialing up BBSs (early pre-internet, computer-to computer online culture). I also spent a lot of time writing short stories, and programmed a framework for text adventure games. I was pretty proud of that. It let you create a map of rooms with descriptions, pick up and use objects, and had a semi-sophisticated natural language parser roughly akin to Infocom’s games.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, with Tetris
The wildly popular Nintendo Entertainment System, with Tetris. Points of both present fun, and real nostalgia for us.

By the close of the 80s, I picked up an NES, and spent lots of fun times with my girlfriend (who is now my wife), playing Tetris, Batman, Strider, and more. I think it’s particularly cool that when she and I sit down today and play our NES console (not the same one, sadly), we’re not just having fun playing old games, but reliving good times we had together years ago, while creating new fun memories together, and with our daughter (and friends we rope into retro gaming!).

I started working in the tech industry myself in 1991, working with digital audio and audiotext (voicemail systems) creating entertainment properties. I tried to get my company to do an audio-drama Choose Your Own Adventure (which digital voicemail would have been GREAT for), but alas, it was not to be.

By 1993, I was doing computer-based graphic design (graphic design used to be analog, and its merger with digital technology was still relatively fresh). In 1994, I got my first look at the web, which was pretty brand-spanking-new at the time, and only available to me on this one computer in the server room at the design company I did work for. By 1996, I had started my own web design studio, doing work with large companies like American Cyanamid, and various pharma clients. Throughout the 90s, I was playing lots of computer games, and being a part of the FPS craze launched by Wolfenstein 3D. It was the era of shareware stuff, either downloaded, or bought on 3 1/2” floppies from mail order catalogs. Over time, more play transitioned into massive CD games (like Myst!). 

Shareware (downloaded or mail-ordered) was a big deal in the early 90s.
Shareware (downloaded or mail-ordered) was a big deal in the early 90s. This Software Labs catalog from 1993 contained the big names of the era, like Commander Keen, Lemmings, and Wolfenstein 3D. 

2000 was a turning point, when I became a partner at Chicago-based Ergo Creative, running the web and multimedia practice, as well as doing tech training for our design team. We worked with a variety of clients building websites and web-based communications - including Walgreens, Grainger, and the Chicago Mercantile exchange. During that time, we spun off a game we created in Flash (a popular web multimedia tool at the time). I also got back into consoles in 2001, deciding on the spur of the moment to camp out for the Playstation 2 launch. Good times.

In recent years, I started getting an itch to play retro computer and video games - wondering if it was just nostalgia, or if there was real fun to be recaptured. I began picking up retro consoles, and then later retro computers, fixing them, and playing games. Pretty soon, my young daughter was hooked on Infocom text adventures, and then things like Atari Breakout. From there, I connected with the Dallas retro community, and it was on.

A recent noteworthy experience was being a part of the liquidation of a trove of retro computers here in the Dallas area. Computer Reset had been in the area since the early 80s, and had stockpiled machines in a moderate-sized office building plus a 38,000 sq ft warehouse. My treasure hunting turned up many fantastic items, including a lovely Commodore PET,  a luggable TRS-80 4P, and some IBM PCs and XTs. I must say that playing Infocom stuff on my XT, with a monochrome green screen… is just glorious. Shortly after I rescued these machines, Clint of LGR came down and did a great video about the place.

Two of my retro computers - the PET Model 4016, and TRS-80 4P
Two of my retro computers - the PET Model 4016, and TRS-80 4P. I also managed to rescue a TI 99/4A, a couple of Kaypros, and several IBM PCs and PC/XTs, along with a PCjr.

Today, I continue to enjoy retro gaming, and telling others why they need to be retro gaming (and helping them do it). Worth mentioning, we are a homeschool family, so we do a lot of thinking about parenting, and education, and of course technology and games mix in with that. I don’t just enjoy gaming, but have some serious thoughts about how games and technology shape us (especially kids). Part of my interest in promoting retro gaming is to counterbalance some of the distortions in contemporary culture. Check out my piece on why we need text adventures, to get some of this.

In parting, I hope that what I’ve created on this site helps you on your retro gaming (and maybe life enjoyment) journey as well.