The Men Who Stare at Sprites: A Review of From Bedrooms to Billions (2014)

‘For the British people the advent of the early home computers was perfect… and why we were so dominant in the world is because the British have got this crazy creativity going on… it was all about invention… it was all about creating things that had never existed before.’ – Peter Molyneux, From Bedroom to Billions

Okay, so I’ve previously briefly made mention of the Netflix documentary From Bedrooms to Billions… you can find its IMDb entry right here… but, as of yet, not shared my thoughts on it.

Time to correct that.

What I can say is that it is like I am the perfect demographic for this film – that is to say a British guy of a certain age (*cough!* north of forty *cough!*) whose very first home computer was a ZX Spectrum +2 in the mid 1980s.

Aaaah…… the memories…… these were the heady days of monochromatic graphics, horrible attribute clashes, bleepy-bloppy sound effects and having to endure screeching, seizure-inducing loading screens for five to ten minutes every time I wanted to load a game from cassette tape (disc drives??? pfft! …they were a luxury, I tell ya… a luxury!).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buFBNQbzrxs

But do you know what? Back at that time I absolutely loved it… this was how I first got into videogames, this sparked off a decades-long love affair with the medium, and this is how I first got really curious about computers and what they could do… and the Spectrum, as primitive as it was, was my ‘gateway drug’ (mind you… if I’m truthful, I was slightly jealous of many of my peers who’d been gifted Commodore 64’s instead… because, as it mentions in this film, the Commodore had better sound and allowed for more than one colour in each 8-bit character block).

But still, ‘You never forget your first‘ and all that, I guess.  Plus, even despite its limitations, the Spectrum wasn’t a bad little machine… it really wasn’t the Ŝkoda of home computers that some people unfairly make it out to be (indeed, there’s a lot of love for that little machine in retro-gaming circles to this day – something which, thanks to crowdfunding, has led to the recent emergence of the ZX Spectrum Vega). But I digress.  Back to the film:

At two hours and twenty nine minutes in length it cannot be accused of understaying its welcome, that’s for sure; but it certainly isn’t a chore to sit through, has real replay value (I’ve already watched it about two or three times) and does a really good job of giving a snapshot of what was going on with this then very new, burgeoning cottage industry in bedroom programming back in the 80s, prior to the emergence of consoles.

It is particularly gratifying to see people like Jeff Minter, Mike Montgomery of The Bitmap Brothers and Matthew Smith make appearances in this film… the latter (looking like he’d seen better days, to tell you the truth) being the creator of ZX Spectrum classic Manic Miner.  The contribution of these people and many, many others should not be understated.  What’s most surprising is just how young most of these guys were… many of whom, ultimately, weren’t prepared for the tough realities of the multi-billion dollar industry that they helped create from their bedrooms… hence why it’s gratifying to see the work of these individuals getting rediscovered and finding a new lease of life on platforms like Steam.

Just as an aside: I was really interested to recently read that a redux of The Chaos Engine (an old 90’s classic by The Bitmap Brothers) is out on Steam.  Since I have fond memories of playing that on my younger brother’s Amiga back in the day, I may well purchase that.  I loved the whole steampunk aesthetic of that game, the evocative industrial music score and the clever A.I. controlled two player co-op of that game… well worth revisiting (it could make for an interesting future review on here, come to think of it).

So overall, when it comes to the documentary and everything that it covers, it does a good job and Anthony and Nicola Caulfield (the film’s directors) deserve special praise for their tenacity in pursing crowdfunding for this project, having had knock-backs from both Channel 4 and the BBC prior to this.

It’s on the long side, sure, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome and is also (unexpectedly) moving.  You come away from viewing this film with a renewed appreciation for this artform and the efforts of the young British pioneers who played such a pivotal role in what would evolve into the important creative industry that we enjoy today.

 

Respect long overdue‘, in other words.  Recommended.

I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on this film.

If you’re interested in this subject matter, some other films that you may well be interested in checking out are (in no particular order):

Videogames: The Movie

Indie Game: The Movie

Atari: Game Over

Author: Gary Bell

Gary Bell is a writer, illustrator and teacher based in Hartlepool in the north east of England. The Sinclair Method (a revolutionary pharmacological treatment for alcohol addiction) saved his life nearly 5 years ago.

2 thoughts on “The Men Who Stare at Sprites: A Review of From Bedrooms to Billions (2014)”

  1. I must watch that! I’m a bit older and was introduced to computers in my six form on the bbc micro. I then learnt basic programming and then C as a student. I can remember seeing valve computers where my dad worked in the 1970’s and when I started at the BBC they still had machines driven by paper tape with holes in it which made your cassette look space aged.
    I come from South London and can remember the first Apple shop in the UK which was a tiny shop in Mottingham which now sells plumbing supplies. None of us could afford one of them for many years! Things have certainly changed.

    1. Oh the BBC Micro was a sweet machine. It had really nice colour graphics, I recall.

      As for programming in BASIC? Yup, I remember that well… I remember all of these old computer magazines that used to have all of these programs in BASIC that you could stay up til 4 O’clock in the morning transcibing onto your Spectrum or your Commodore or whatever… ah, those were the days! 🙂

      My older brother Graham was really into all of that (he went on to study a BSc. in Computer Science at Coventry University and got a first, in fact)… as for myself… well, it’s very telling that I got a much higher GCSE grade in something like Chemistry than I did in computer Studies; it just goes to show that a poor teacher can make the most interesting subject miserably boring (and vice versa).

      Heh …you know what? From what I remember (which – most tellingly – frankly isn’t very much) my GCSE Computer Studies teacher was so boring that he was kinda like the twin brother of Steve Coogan’s swimming pool supervisor character from The Day Today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob1rYlCpOnM

      Talk about losing the will to live!

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