My blog of COMPUTE's Gazette games is reaching the end of its run. COMPUTE's Gazette was a magazine for the Commodore 8-bit computers in the 1980s and early '90s, and I've been reviewing every "type-in" game they offered - over 300 items. I think my nostalgia for the magazine is largely driven by the fact I didn't have to type every game in - as a kid I was lucky enough to inherit a pile of the accompanying floppy disks with programs preloaded, and binary copies of those disks are what I've been using for my reviews.
Besides the reviews, I fill out up the blog by writing about what was going on in the industry (and bearing witness to the sad withering away of the Commodore community as PCs came to take over everything) as well as the UI of the disk itself. In some ways, it seems a little obtuse to be critiquing 30 year old UI, but I find it of historical interest to see what they did and of intellectual interest to think about how they could have done it better.
For the earliest issues, they didn't always get the loading quite right; the most canonical way of loading the "main thing" on disk (first in the directory listing) was
But sometimes if it was a BASIC program, the ",1" would throw things off (the "8" was just the usual device number of the disk drive, and the "1" referred to loading it in memory like a binary program rather than as BASIC source.)
Still, the menu system was pretty decent, even from the earliest disks (Spring 1984):
The deprecation of generic function keys represents progress in UX: we now prefer top level menu items, context menus, or keyboard accelerators. (Interesting that none of these are predominant features for modern touchscreen computing). It seems a lot smarter than the MS-DOS days of Word Perfect 5.1, where you might just slap this handy piece of plastic above your keyboard:
So, back to Gazette... the menu was all well and good until February 1991 when they unleashed this upon their audience:
GEOS, a GUI system, was gaining some popularity, and let the Commodore act more like the Mac/Windows machines, and so they probably tried to take a cue from that. It's an odd choice though: you could use the joystick or the arrow keys (or the mouse if you had one - I think, they were never a big part of the culture) to shove the cursor key around, but it never felt like a natural thing for the system.
Making it worse, to get to the main function of the menu program (i.e. loading the other programs) you had to go to "Monitor" and then "Directory". The next month they improved things a smidge in that the directory listing would automatically load:
This unfortunate era lasted 2 years, and in March of 1993 they were back to text-based, numeric menus.
The last change to their menu system happened when they switched to being a disk-only proposition (they had already lost their standing as an independent publication and were merely a cheap-paper supplement in their parent magazine COMPUTE) For three months, the menu lead off with this return to function keys:
By March they replace this (possibly slower loading? And I wonder if they crafted the large month and year graphic by hand, or had an automated system...) with a humbler version of their old standby:
("Press X to Return to BASIC"... I have said before that this era of computers was special to me, in part because using an accessible programming language as a bootloader was so empowering, an invitation for kids and adults alike to make something...)
So a final note before wrapping up. With the switch to disk only (actually before, when they started including bonus programs on disk that they didn't have the page space to print as type-in listings) they were reliant on a text reader program for providing program details or for article content. So for a program you would get through this screen:
The other final thing: I give them kudos that the text reader is pretty well integrated to the menu program, in that when you hit M to go back to the menu, you don't have to wait for disk access, it has stayed in memory. But then to get back to the main menu from the submenu, you hit X instead (and usually there is disk access) - just an odd bit of asymmetry, probably reflecting a programmer's shortut.
So there it is, a decade of Commodore menu UI. It was a fun time... and reviewing these games is some of the most pleasant video game activity I've had all year.