The Making of a Geek Part Five: Terminate And Stay Resident

My family bought a computer in 1990. An actual computer, an IBM PC compatible. A Leading Edge Model D3, with a 386 processor, 30 MB hard disk drive, 640KB of RAM. This was not the first computer in our household, but it was the first computer with any staying power.

The first computer I remember seeing at home was the Timex Sinclair 1000, the American version of the classic Sinclair ZX81. It had a god-awful membrane keyboard, and you used a run of the mill tape deck to launch the software. I remember using it once, when I was four, to play some Bowling game. Mostly I remember watching my dad learn BASIC programming on it.

Our second computer was a beast, the massive ColeoVision ADAM, with an actual keyboard, two built-in tape decks, a cartridge port, and a printer. The printer was a loud monstrosity that housed the power supply, so when it finally died sometime in 1988, that was the end of the ADAM. We printed banners, we played Buck Rogers and the Planet of ZOOM and Donkey Kong. I learned a little BASIC, so I could alter some of the games my dad wrote for us. But outside of gaming (time-limited for us kids), my sister writing college papers on it, and the odd programming use by my dad, the ADAM didn’t see much use. What did we even need this thing for, taking up room in the living room (it connected to the TV, so it was always in the way when you needed to hook up a VCR). My interest in computers, even the Apple IIs at school, waned and faded.

Then we unpacked the PC. The only desk it would fit on was in my room, so I had more access, unfettered access, to it than anyone. It was exciting. My dad used it for budgets and accounting. My mom put her recipes into some oddball card collection software that came with it. My brother and I wrote stories in WordPerfect and playing games. Shareware games.

The same bookstore where I purchased most of my paperbacks also carried a selection of shareware disks. These were software titles that either asked for money when you started or closed the program (nagware), were limited in scope or length (crippleware for productivity; most games like this were trialware, or part 1 of a series), or just asked you to donate money if you continued to use the product. You paid a few bucks just for the cost of the disk, the titles were rotated over time, and there was a catalog where you could special order other shareware titles.

Most PC gamers will remember Apogee Software’s (now id Software) Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, and Kingdoms of Kroz, or Epic MegaGames (now Epic Games) J_azz Jackrabbit, Jill of the Jungle_, and ZZT. We played the hell out of these games. I was a loyal-ish Apogee fan, picking up all of their shareware disks. But since I never had the cash available at one time to pay for a whole series, I was in essence the worst fan in the world. The money I paid went to the bookstore to produce the disks. I don’t think Scott Miller or Tim Sweeny saw one dime from me. But I didn’t realize that at the time. I thought they got a cut of my $4.50 or whatever it was.

The turning point for me, in addition to reading Compute! and Byte at the library, was trying to get enough RAM free to play Wing Commander. I bought Wing Commander at Costco in late 1992, devoured the manual on the drive home, and then sat down to install the game on our huge 30MB hard drive. Then the problems began.

The available RAM was 530K out of 640K. Wing Commander required more than that. Not that it said as much on the box. The box very helpfully states “640K RAM Required”. No one ever said shit about how much of that had to be available. Thus began my dive into memory management, computer optimization, the ins and outs of DOS, and the bleeding edge of PC technology in the early 90s.

I got a copy of MS-DOS 5 to install to replace the creaky 4.01a nightmare the system came with. I had multiple AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files for multiple games. I devoured articles on RISC processors and Intel’s 486 development. I debated PC versus Amiga and Macintosh with friends, who in retrospect just humored me rather than caring one way or another. And I finally discovered what was really at the root of my problem: TSRs.

TSR stands for Terminate and Stay Resident, a piece of software that would load itself into RAM then quit, so that it could be called back up as needed. It was a workaround for DOS only being able to run one program at a time, and disappeared with the advent of Windows 95. Many TSRs were device drivers (for that newfangled CD-ROM that DOS 4.01a doesn’t support natively) or utilities. Like the antivirus software we had. That did nothing. Literally, I don’t think it was ever used in our house, as we either bought commercial software, shareware from a reputable vendor, or had our disks scanned by the antivirus at the community college. I remember calling my dad while he was at work just to ask if I could please uninstall this AV thing so I could play Wing Commander.

5 minutes later I had the game running, and it was all downhill for me. I played that game multiple times in 1993, picking up Secret Missions 1 and 2, picked up all the novels coming out, played Wing Commander 2 at a friend’s house who had a 486, a sound card, and an honest to God joystick; quite an upgrade from my keyboard flying. I started picking up more and more games, reading more and more gaming magazines. This just added to my video game obsession that started back in Christmas on 1989, but that’s another story.