Kids Guide to 80s Computers & Consoles

This is post number 17 in the series “30 Days of Tales from the Loop,” a celebration of the game set in an 80s that never was.

The technological wonders represented in Tales from the Loop–magnetrine ships, robots, artificial intelligences–are a key part of showing that the setting is “an 80s that never was.” But just as the game advises us to mix scenes of mystery with scenes of Everyday Life, so should we ground the game in background description that is mundane and realistic. The following is a sampling of the state-of-the art in computer and home video game tech in 1980s America.


The Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 was the best-selling home computer in the early 80s, until it was overtaken by the Commodore 64 in 1982. The TRS-80 was an 8-bit system with 4K of memory and a 4.7MHz processor, offering data storage on cassette tape or floppy disc.

1981 saw the premiere of the IBM PC, in the form of the IBM 5150. This was the machine that solidified the term “personal computer.” It featured a 16-bit 8088 CPU that ran at 4MHz, used 5 1/4” floppy discs for storage, a monochrome or color display, 16K of memory, and ran version 1 of Microsoft’s new Disk Operating System (DOS).

The Commodore 64 premiered in 1982, boasting an 8-bit architecture, 64K of memory, and a 1MHz processor. Like the TRS-80, data was saved to cassette tape or 5 1/4” floppy disk. Even at the time of this writing, way into the 20-teens, the Commodore 64 remains the best-selling computer model of all time, at 17 million units sold.

My own Commodore 64, as it appears today.

In 1984, the Apple Macintosh helped popularize the graphical user interface and the mouse. It included a 16/32-bit architecture, 128K of memory, an 8MHz processor, and a 3.5 inch floppy drive for storage. The Macintosh was especially popular for educational and desktop publishing tasks.

Commodore’s Amiga came out in 1985, featuring a 16/32-bit operating system, 256k of memory, and a mouse-based graphical user interface. Like the Macintosh, its storage was on 3.5 inch floppy discs.

Although the Internet didn’t exist in the 80s, computers still did a lot of talking to each other using phone-line modems and dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSes). These systems allowed 80s Computer Geeks to trade files and communicate on message boards and in chat rooms.

Video Games

The Atari 2600 came out in 1977 but got a renewed boost in 1980 with the release of Space Invaders. It used simple (but iconic) joysticks and its games came in cartridge form. Like many game consoles at the time, it connected to a television to use as its display.

Mattel released its Intellivision console in 1980, and is perhaps most recognizable for its wired, remote-control-looking controllers containing a numeric keypad at the top and a circular thumb pad at the bottom. Popular Intellivision games included Q*Bert, Donkey Kong Jr., and BurgerTime.

The ColecoVision appeared in 1982, using controllers that looked like the inverse of the Intellivision’s, with a numeric pad at the bottom and a circular joystick at the top. Popular ColecoVision games included Gorf, River Raid, and WarGames.

The Nintendo Entertainment System (1983) helped revitalize the market after the video game crash of 1983. The NES used a distinctive style of rectangular gamepad controller, and an add-on light gun called the Zapper was also available for some games. A popular activity among 80s video gamers was blowing on the bottom of NES cartridges in an attempt to improve a sometimes-glitchy connection.

The Sega Genesis (1988) was a 16-bit console and a major Nintendo competitor. Although the game it is arguably the best known for, Sonic the Hedgehog, didn’t come out until 1991, the Genesis had plenty of notable late-80s games, including Altered Beast, Golden Axe, and Ghouls ’n Ghosts.

Handheld game consoles such as the Nintendo Game Boy (1989) and Atari Lynx (1989) weren’t available until the end of the decade, but the 80s saw the use of numerous specialized LED-driven handheld video game systems such as football, hockey, and driving games.

Did I leave off your favorite computer or game system? If so, tell me about it in the comments!

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