The 20 greatest home computers – ranked! | Games

Sinclair ZX81


20. Dragon 32 (1982)

Manufactured by Swansea-based Dragon Data (an offshoot of traditional toy company, Mettoy), this 32k machine featured an advanced Motorola MC6809E central processor, decent keyboard and excellent analogue joypads. However, its eccentric graphics hardware gave every game a garish green tinge, and its most iconic gaming character was a bespectacled schoolboy named Cuthbert. Admittedly, I put the Dragon on the list instead of another great Swansea-made machine, the Sam Coupe, because I designed two hit games for the system: Impossiball and Utopia. Despite this, Dragon Data went bust in 1984.

19. Atari ST (1985)

The first home computer to feature a colour graphical user interface and powered by a 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU, with 512KB of RAM, the Atari ST seemed like the future … until the Commodore Amiga arrived two months later. A legendary digital music machine thanks to its built-in Midi interface, the Atari struggled to compete as a games platform. I know: I bought one.

18. Acorn Electron (1983)

Designed to compete with the ZX Spectrum, the Electron was a budget version of the BBC Micro, using the same Synertek 6502A processor and operating system, and similar BASIC language. It was initially well supported with games, many of them converted from the Beeb, but it was costly to manufacture and too sensible to really trouble the puckish Speccy.

17. Sinclair ZX81 (1981)

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BASIC start for British programmers … Sinclair ZX81.
Photograph: PhotoDreams/Alamy

The follow-up to the ZX80 brought home computers into British high-street stores, making this cheap, hardy machine even more accessible to the masses. Many games industry veterans got their start typing BASIC programmes into its touch-based keyboard. Titles such as 3D Monster Maze and Mazogs were a revelation.

16. Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (1981)

With its 16-bit processor, 16KB of RAM and advanced TMS9918 video display chip (later used in the Sega Mega Drive), the TI-99/4A was one of the most powerful machines available at the time. Initially retailing at an expensive at $525, a vicious price war with the Vic 20 brought it down to $100 and it sold well for a while, but Texas Instruments’ decision to completely control software development for the machine limited its appeal as a games platform.

15. Altair 8800 (1975)

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Vintage Computers At The Computer History Museum, Mountain ViewA vintage 1970’s MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer, taken on May 21, 2009. (Photo by Mark Madeo/Future via Getty Images)
Gateway to the future … the Altair 8800. Photograph: Future Publishing/Future/Getty Images

Available via mail order for just $400 (a fraction of the cost of commercial computers at the time) and built around the 2MHz Intel 8080 CPU, the Altair effectively kickstarted the home microcomputer industry. Initially only programmable through a series of RAM switches on the front, it was hardly a mass-market product, but it got a lot of young nerds into coding (most famously Bill Gates and Paul Allen), and adding a terminal and monitor allowed simple games development.

14. Amstrad CPC 464 (1984)

Unfairly considered the also-ran computer of the 1980s, the Amstrad was acclaimed on arrival thanks to its impressive specs and integrated design, which included the keyboard and tape deck into one stylish unit. With excellent graphics and sound, it was a good gaming workhorse and many users cherished its outsider status amid the Spectrum v C64 playground wars.

13. Sharp X68000 (1987)

A key Japanese personal computer of the late 1980s, the X68000 featured a 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU, like the Atari ST and Amiga, but with added graphics performance including support for hardware sprites and hardware scrolling, allowing almost perfect conversions of coin-op classics such as R-Type and Final Fight. Basically an arcade machine disguised as a PC.

12. Apple Macintosh (1984-)

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>The 1984 Apple Macintosh.
Thriving indie scene … the 1984 Apple Macintosh. Photograph: Tribune Content Agency/Alamy

There has always been a game-development scene on Apple Macintosh computers, although it remained comparatively small thanks to the dominance of the IBM PC, and the fact that the original Mac 128k computer had a monochrome display. It was on the Mac though, that we first played hugely popular adventure title Myst, and where Halo developer Bungie started out with Marathon and Myth. The computer also saw a thriving indie scene through the 1980s and 90s.

11. MSX (1983)

Designed by Microsoft Japan, the MSX wasn’t one machine but rather a hardware standard – the VHS video of computers – supported by a range of manufacturers including Sony and Toshiba. Using the same Z80 processor and Texas Instruments TMS9918 video chip as the Sega Master system, it was an excellent games platform – and famously, the MSX2 hosted the original Metal Gear title.

10. Tandy TRS-80 (1977)

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Text favourite … the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100,
Text favourite … the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100, Photograph: Nicole Lacourse/Guardian News & Media Archive

Originally paired with a monochrome monitor (basically a cheap black-and-white TV set) and a standard cassette deck, the TRS-80 was nicknamed the Trash-80 by fans of the Apple II and Commodore PET. But it was affordable and widely available in the US from the omnipresent RadioShack stores, leading to a healthy software development scene. Text-based adventures flourished, including Zork and the first titles from genre legend Scott Adams.

9. Commodore Vic-20 (1981)

Sold as “the friendly computer” the Vic-20 was designed for accessibility, with a low price ($300), colourful graphics, a ROM cartridge port and lots of accessories. Following the more business-orientated Commodore PET, it was one of the first home computers to really acknowledge the importance of games in its marketing and despite its teeny 5KB memory, saw plenty of landmark titles such as Sword of Fargoal and Attack of the Mutant Camels.

8. NEC PC-88 (1981)

The dominant Japanese personal computer of the 1980s faced stiff competition from the Sharp X1 and Fujitsu FM7, but held on to its leading position through a series of ever more powerful models. The PC-88 boasted games from all the major arcade and console developers including Sega, Namco, Square, Hudson and even Nintendo, which released the little known Super Mario Bros Special for the machine.

7. Atari 800 (1979)

Launched alongside the technically inferior Atari 400, the 800 was a true gaming home computer, with custom co-processors to handle graphics and sound and four joystick ports, allowing multiplayer titles such as MULE, Airline and Dandy. Atari was also able to call on its own team of experienced developers for classic titles Star Raiders and Missile Command as well a community of bedroom coders via the Atari Program Exchange (APX) initiative, essentially creating its own formative indie scene.

6. BBC Micro (1981)

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>British primary school children learning maths on a BBC Micro.
British primary school children learning maths on a BBC Micro. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

If you went to school in the UK in the 1980s you’ll instantly recognise the BBC Micro, the 32bit machine designed by Acorn and the BBC Computer Literacy Project to bring programming to the mainstream. It was a serious, expensive machine, but its ubiquity in classrooms provided a gateway into games development for wannabe whiz kids and will be for ever known for Elite, Repton and Granny’s Garden.

5. Apple II (1977)

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>firing up an Apple IIE 1983 model.
Attracted a burgeoning generation of coders … firing up an Apple IIE 1983 model. Photograph: Zuma Wire Service/Alamy

While the UK had the BBC Micro, the US had the Apple II, a serious, highly expandable, multipurpose home computer, which was accessible enough to attract a burgeoning generation of game coders. It the first major computer to ship with BASIC in ROM, colour graphics and up to 48k of RAM and its successors kept refining the specs to maintain its popularity. As for games? Lode Runner, Choplifter, Prince of Persia, Castle Wolfenstein, Ultima, John Madden Football … they all debuted here.

4. ZX Spectrum 48K (1982)

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People’s choice … Sinclair ZX Spectrum
Photograph: Alamy

The people’s choice, the gaming platform of the everyman, Sinclair’s 48K Spectrum, with its rubber keys, strange clashing visuals and tinny sound was absolutely pivotal in the development of the British games industry. From Jet Set Willy and Horace Goes Skiing to Knight Lore and Lords of Midnight it drew the absolute best from coders, many of whom would go on to found the country’s biggest studios.

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Revolutionary … the Commodore C64.
Revolutionary … the Commodore C64. Photograph: Interfoto/Alamy

With its huge 64KB of RAM, vibrant colourful visuals (including hardware-supported sprites and scrolling) and revolutionary SID sound chip, the C64 was the most powerful and multifaceted games machine of its era. It could handle everything from arcade conversions (Bubble Bobble, Green Beret) to experimental puzzle games (Sentinel, Hacker, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) to brilliant multiplayer sports sims (every Epyx Games title), and coders kept finding new depths throughout its 20 million-selling lifespan.

2. Commodore Amiga (1985)

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Rich adventures … Commodore Amiga 500.
Rich adventures … Commodore Amiga 500. Photograph: Felix Choo/Alamy Stock Photo

The last truly great gaming home computer before the dominance of the PC and the 32-bit games consoles, the Amiga saw an explosion of creative talent with studios such as Sensible Software, LucasArts, DMA Design, Bitmap Brothers and Psygnosis creating complex, visually rich adventures and opening up new game design conventions and ideas that stand today. It also inspired a vast demo scene of underground coders and artists, many still creating work today.

1. IBM PC (1981)

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>IBM developer David Bradley with a 5150 computer and DOS floppy disk.
IBM developer David Bradley with a 5150 computer and DOS floppy disk. Photograph: Bob Jordan/AP

Fighting through the myriad competitors of the 1980s, the x86-based PC is now inarguably the dominant computer platform for games. The original IBM 5150 was expensive at $1,565, but its open architecture and adoption of MS-DOS allowed multiple third-party manufactures to build cheap clones and establish a technological standard. IBM may have lost control of the PC industry years ago, but its decision to use off-the-shelf components and to publish the technical reference manuals behind its technology are why you’re playing on a generic PC and not the ZX Spectrum 16GB.



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