Archive for the 'Interview with a Geek' Category

Interview with a Geek: Chris Hart

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Chris as a young lad, mentally preparing for the annual British Open Dungeon Crawl Championships.

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Chris today, rendered impressionistic by so many years of hard role-playing.


Full name and/or handle: Chris Hart, a.k.a. Dirk Malcolm
Birth year: 1968
Hometown: Bolton, United Kingdom
Occupation: Customer Service Manager (Call Centre)
Website(s): http://dirkmalcolm.wordpress.com


2W2N: You wrote recently about a 1981 Starburst article that “lured” you into the world of role-playing games. There was a powerful advertisement in that issue we likely wouldn’t have seen in the U.S., because at the time D&D and the concept of role-playing were met by adults with trepidation or outright hostility. What was the overall attitude in the U.K. towards the new games?

CHRIS: An interesting question. Certain sections of the British Press have a hard won reputation for creating hysteria and using inappropriate methods in the name of freedom of speech. They liked to stoke up a moral panic about D&D and role-playing games, making a connection with paganism and the occult. Gamers didn’t really help themselves in the early days as it was part of the heavy metal lifestyle. Many gamers would be photographed with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden tees, so the moral majority got the quivers. I was once interviewed by a group of students at college who produced a documentary entitled Devil Games (complete with a red spot-light).

What is interesting about those adverts that you refer to is that there is a sense that Games Workshop, who were responsible for importing games into the UK, were reaching out beyond the core audience of war-gamers and heavy metal fans. Livingstone and Jackson, who founded the company, were entrepreneurs who realised that in a small country like ours, they would need their company to reach the mainstream games market. At the age of 12 my life revolved around Starburst magazine and 2000 AD (the home of Judge Dredd), so the adverts reached me perfectly.

However, it wasn’t quite a mainstream hit. It remained a narrow audience. I spent most of my teenage years trying to recruit people to play. We put an advert in White Dwarf, the Games Workshop house magazine, to find more people to play with. My friend Steven and I were desperate to build up a club, but everyone we recruited either got bored, got on our nerves, or got a girlfriend.

Games Workshop had an interesting strategy. Their business model was really about selling lead figures through their sister company, Citadel. We bought the lead figures before we understood the games. They produced some brilliantly sculptured models for Runequest and Traveller, which were the two games that we played the most. D&D was not really part of our game playing until later. We had an unwritten rule that you could not Gamesmaster a game that was being run by another player. This resulted in us playing some real odd-bod games: Gangbusters, Gamma World, Top Secret and (another favourite) Stormbringer.

D&D has become a shorthand for the hobby now, but I think most of the trouble with role-playing back then is that it was difficult to explain it without it sounding weird. “Does it involve dressing up?” We managed to persuade our local community that it wasn’t anything to be scared about and ran a sponsored dungeon to raise money for the church.

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D&D Basic Set ad from 2000 AD (1983)

2W2N: There wasn’t a real connection between the heavy metal crowd and D&D in the U.S., except in the sense that D&D and heavy metal were both lumped together in the apparent things-Satan-really-enjoys category. I had the same problem finding people to play, so most of the time I just read and re-read the manuals, drew dungeons on graph paper, etc. It was sort of like trying to start a rock band, wasn’t it? Except not nearly as cool. Among the young, even punk and heavy metal were better understood, even by those who didn’t like the music. Role-playing was just weird.

You’re right that D&D is shorthand for the industry today, and that’s unfair. To be honest, I only remember seeing D&D ads at the time, thanks to TSR’s unrelenting marketing. This is the first I’ve heard of Runequest, Traveller, and Stormbringer. I just found out that there was an RPG based on Watership Down called Bunnies and Burrows!

Wasn’t it confusing switching from game to game, or were the rules pretty similar? You mentioned that your favorite game is Runequest. Why? How does it differ from D&D?

CHRIS: It is interesting that you compared it to being in a band, because when people ask us what role-playing is all about, we always reply, “it was our punk.” What we mean by the comparison is that the punk ethos was all about doing it yourself and having the guts to be creative in the face of people who said you can’t do it.

It was never confusing playing different games at different houses. It made life easier when there was only one Games Master who knew the rules as it stopped any arguments. We have started playing Runequest and Call of Cthulhu again recently. Now that we are all Games Masters there are endless debates over the finer points of the rules. Sometimes it is fun to have a debate, but when we were 12 it got in the way of the flow of the game, so we were much more willing to concede to the greater knowledge of the GM.

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Young geeks pause for a photo after a late night Call of Cthulhu session (Chris is on the left).

Runequest and Call of Cthulhu are both based on Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing (BRP) system. It is great. Comparing it to D&D is a bit like comparing an early PC (MS DOS) with a Mac. It is an intuitive system based on percentage chances, and most situations can be dealt with by converting attributes into percentages or competing one attribute against an opponent. The fights are more of a simulation of real battles with hit locations, critical hits, impales and fumbles that can turn a skirmish in an instant. It’s possible for a lucky, well-aimed sling shot to bring down a giant, for example.

The unique selling point of Runequest was Glorantha: a fully realised game-world. The backdrop is ancient rather than medieval, where the gods are worshiped in Cults and progression as an adventurer is measured through advancement through the cult. Imagine Jason and the Argonauts with new, out of this world monsters, such as Broos (chaos hybrids), Morakanth (who keep humans as slaves) and a complex society of trolls with many different breeds. The whole backdrop is very atmospheric, but a bit stifling for a young teen. We felt like we needed to have all the supplements and adventures to really understand the world. I also felt a bit inhibited by the world as I didn’t want to make significant changes just in case a future supplement disagreed with what I had done.

Another downside to Runequest was having to have fully rolled NPCs [non-player characters]. The NPCs had the same complicated stats as the PCs so that the battles and the interactions could be more authentic, but it put a lot of work on the Games Master.

Gangbusters was set in 1920s America in Lake Front City, a game-version of Chicago. It was part of the TSR stable of games and loosely based on D&D rules (like Top Secret and Gamma World). The problem with RPGs involving guns is that they are lethal when the combat begins. There is no escaping that the PCs will probably die on impact, which always caused a problem in Traveller. Our planet hopping was often cut short by a laser gun!

2W2N: In the Starbust post I brought up earlier, you joke that you would have “had a rich and interesting adolescence” and generally could’ve been somebody (to use Brando’s phrase) if not for the 1981 role-playing article that sent you down the rabbit hole. Any real regrets? What’s the downside to “playing mind-games with dice”?

I sometimes wonder where I would have ended up without RPGs, comic books, Ray Harryhausen, and everything else I held dear before “geek culture” was cool. Banking? Competitive cycling?

CHRIS: It’s difficult to have regrets as I had so much fun. I look back on my adolescence with nothing but affection. Role-playing games were the main focus of our activity, but we were doing other stuff and I suspect that if I went back in time, and did it all again, there would be another distraction in the way.

It’s a paradox. The frustration and the joy of role-playing is that it is so consuming. When you are not playing, you are preparing, reading and thinking about it. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t fallen into the ‘Wonderland’ in the rabbit hole.

If I hadn’t spent so long reading the Five Eyes Temple supplement for the borderlands campaign, would I have got better exam grades at school?

If I wasn’t carefully constructing Azir Voon, a sorcerer in the world of Elric, would I have been engaging with interesting people and entering into fun and exciting relationships with exotic women?

If I’d have read the works of James Joyce, Emile Zola and Leo Tolstoy instead of numerous rule-books and gaming magazines, would I be a more fluent bon viveur?

I doubt it.

Being a geek has served me well in corporate life, providing me with a prism to see the world through in a way I can understand. Every day I seem to encounter people with high CHA and low WIS. Runequest equipped me with the ability to calculate every situation as a percentage chance of success or failure.

You are right about the ‘geek chic’ thing too. I found myself in a bar the other day with a range of Star Wars figures lined up on a bookcase containing Space: 1999 and Happy Days annuals. Where were these people in the early ’80s?

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2W2N: Your blog, The Dirk Malcolm Alternative, is primarily focused on the intelligent discussion of film. Do you think your geek tendencies and activities led you to a finer appreciation of the higher arts? My first love is English literature (especially the Romantic and Victorian eras) and the entire Western humanistic tradition, really. I feel like the imaginative experiences I had as a kid kind of prepped me for Joyce, Byron, Dickens, et al.

CHRIS: It’s very kind of you to say that it is an ‘intelligent’ debate about film. You’re probably right about FRPGs exercising the imaginative muscles to appreciate the finer aspects of culture, but it has also affected my approach to everything: borderline obsessive and based on insane challenges.

The site came from Derek Malcolm, a well-known film critic in the UK who created a list of 100 greatest films at the end of the 20th century. His list was peppered with controversial, obscure and extremely esoteric choices from all over the world that set a challenge for any film buff. Me and my friend Dominic set about trying to find and watch them all.

It was hard work, like eating cultural vegetables, and I think it was after watching Shoah for 9 hours that we started to waiver.

Part of Derek Malcolm’s motivation was to convince the multiplex generation that cinema history didn’t begin with Star Wars. This seemed like a gauntlet being slapped in my face.

Dirk Malcolm was born, and I have set about selecting a personal list that imagines that film history did begin with Star Wars. It’s interesting because unlike most of the films in Derek Malcolm’s list, all of these films have been released in my lifetime and there is interplay between the films and my memories of them. To support the film selections that I have made I have been exploring my collection of old magazines and books.

As a geek, I suppose my response is to see everything as a challenge and a list to be conquered. I am keen on literature too, but I must admit I take a similar approach. I am presently working through the complete works of Charles Dickens, as it was his 200th birthday last year, so I wanted to get through them before it reaches his 205th.

So, you’re right, RPGs gave me breadth of imagination to explore literature and film, but it also gave me an interest into pointless games too!

2W2N: You mentioned that you were doing “other stuff” in addition to role-playing. How much of your time was spent obsessing over Star Wars? And why do you think Star Wars was as big as it was? Lucas was much criticized by the sci-fi community at the time for making this lowbrow kiddie movie, but that’s exactly what he had set out to do. He knew what we were all dreaming about, and he put those dreams on the screen. As much as I hate what he’s become, and as awful as the prequels are, I’ll always cherish him for giving us that gift.

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Homemade gaming newsletter – only 25p!

CHRIS: I think I could do a pie chart of how my activity was composed in the early ’80s. School would be in there, but FRPGs would dominate and inform other things too, such as watching TV and renting VCR tapes: we would spend hours working out how many dice damage a long bow from Hawk the Slayer would inflict. I was into progressive rock—Genesis, Marillion, Yes—and would spend many hours listening in a dark room to songs that would go on for hours and hours. I also spent many hours on my Sinclair Spectrum, the first mass market computer that was a massive seller in the UK. It would take ages to load the games, but then I would spend hours trying to progress on Manic Miner, Chuckie Egg or Jet Set Willy.

Star Wars works because it is bigger than the films. Its success has been hooking successive young kids into its force; decade after decade, pitching itself differently, to appeal to a different wave of kids. I often wonder if George Lucas would trade all of the gazillions of dollars that he has made in exchange for artistic credibility. He never strikes me as being happy with his lot; he is disappointed, deflated by the realisation that he was a better entrepreneur than filmmaker. I admire his courage to produce Empire Strikes Back using his own money. Its success was not guaranteed and he has gone on to build and build his universe with careful attention to his core audience—very young children.

I love Star Wars, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. I am not that precious about the universe or what directions Lucas/Disney take the idea. Of course the prequels were rubbish and compromised the narrative of the original trilogy, but it doesn’t matter. They introduced some new characters that kids love. My 5-year-old loves the Star Wars characters from the prequels—Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor-style) and General Grievous. He hasn’t really seen the films, he has just picked the culture up by osmosis.

I am about to do some pieces about Empire Strikes Back for the site. It’s interesting because we knew much about the film before we saw it, as it was released in the US months before we could see it in the UK. We read the comic and the tie-in novel and collected magazines containing stills, so our anticipation was increased. I remember talking about the AT-AT walkers months before I saw the film!

2W2N: You brought up 2000 AD earlier, a British comic that debuted in 1977 (what a year!). I ate it up in the early ’80s when it was reprinted by Eagle Comics. Judge Dredd is the most famous character to come out of the series, as you mentioned, but there were many other brilliant strips (Strontium Dog was another favorite). Many now-famous writers got their start in 2000 AD, including Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. And Brian Bolland‘s artwork literally destroyed the notion that the comics industry could not produce fine art. His Eagle covers are nearly peerless, and when I think about his black and white interior work the only comparison that comes to mind is Albrecht Durer. How many light years ahead of its time was this series?

CHRIS: 2000 AD was an important part of my life from ages 10 to 13. I was totally absorbed in the stories of Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock and The Mean Arena. You are right, there were some great comic book artists and writers working with them at that point who would go on to be recognised internationally. At the time they were considered ‘droids’ in the employ of Tharg the Mighty, who had come to Earth to charge ‘Earthlets’ with ‘Zarjaz Thrill Power’.

What may have been missed to some US readers is that many of the strips were clever satires on the emerging social policy in Britain. Mrs. Thatcher and her brand of monetarism was causing a great deal of social unrest, high unemployment and increased deprivation in parts of the country. The stories were reflecting the growing unease about the increased powers that were being given to the police and authorities to marginalise people who opposed the regime.

Judge Dredd #4 Bolland

Judge Dredd #4 (1984) with cover art by Brian Bolland.

So, in answer to your question, it was incredibly ahead of its time thanks to the quality of the work it published, but in many ways it was firmly located in that period when Thatcherism began its economic revolution: turning a country that was based on fair play and reason into one motivated by greed and oppressive policing towards anyone who opposed this redistribution.

2W2N: I think it took American comics longer to experiment with satire and social commentary, but we were dealing with similar policies starting around the same time. (Reagan and Thatcher were great friends, of course.) There’s a tendency to romanticize the 1980s today, but it was a hard time for a lot of people: the inner city was born, violent crime reached an all-time high, the divorce rate peaked, pollution was rampant, and so on. For me, it was a great time to be a kid. I realize now that it was because my parents worked long and hard to give me that largely worry-free childhood.

Chris, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I hope we can do it again sometime.

CHRIS: Thank you. I have really enjoyed the discussion and it has been very revealing how it’s possible for people living thousands of miles apart to have a common experience lived through pop culture.

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All personal photos and illustrations used in this interview are © Chris Hart.

‘Press Any Key To Begin Your Mission’: Space Assault Lives!

Space Assault 1

Space Assault 2

Space Assault 3

Space Assault 4

Space Assault 5

If you read my interview with Mikey Walters last month, you’ll know that he wrote an Atari BASIC game called Space Assault in 1983 that was published in A.N.A.L.O.G. magazine.

Well, Lefty Limbo and I basically begged him to get it up and running again, so he retyped all that code, plugged it into an emulator, and bam!—the Clovis Aliens are back!   

I’d say we were all in the process of kicking old school alien ass (last I heard, friend J. was up to 8500 points), but in my case, the aliens are the ones doing the ass-kicking. That’s okay. The ‘Game Over’ music is so cool, I don’t really mind.

If you want to give the game a try (you really should), send me an email and I’ll pass along the game file and instructions.

A profound thanks to Mikey for giving us back a piece of 1983, and for being awesome enough to create the game in the first place.

You can see more Space Assault screenshots on his Flickr.

Interview with a Geek: Mikey Walters

Walters Trekkie 76-77

Mikey, clearly not yet a geek, in ’76 or ’77

Walters 2010 Batcave

Mikey posing as Superman at the Batcave (Bronson Canyon), 2010


Full name and/or handle: Mikey Walters (WEBmikey)
Birth year: 1967
Hometown: Sacramento, California
Occupation: Software Developer
Website(s): http://www.webmikey.com (updated from 2000 to 2012)


2W2N: I’ve been raiding your Flickr for months now. When I saw your homemade D&D modules, I just had to get the scoop. How and when did you get into D&D? Do you still play?

MIKEY: My experience with Dungeons & Dragons began with my love of animation, which led me to see Ralph Bakshi’s version of Lord of the Rings in 1978. Seeing the movie led me to reading Tolkien, and my naturally geeky tendencies led me to some great school friends with similar interests. I really don’t remember which one of us bought the first Basic Set (in the classic blue box), but soon we were all reading D&D books and literature (such as Dragon magazine) like crazy. Right from the beginning I loved the idea of being the Dungeon Master, not from a power trip standpoint, but because I got to act out the parts of all the non-player characters (NPCs)!

My friends and I would get a private meeting room at the local public library and experience our adventures together. I was actually more taken with the creative aspect of the game than the actual play, which is why I got so into making my own modules and monsters, painting pewter figures, and so on. I loved working with felt-tip markers, construction paper, my typewriter (I didn’t have my beloved Atari 800 yet), and designing all this peril for my friends to enjoy! Most of my D&D works were created in the early 1980s. Eventually all of us became dedicated to Star Wars fandom and our D&D days slowly ended, but I’ll always have fond memories of those times and the way they inspired my creative side.

2W2N: I can’t remember if I saw Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings before or after I started reading Tolkein’s books, but LoTR is definitely how I got into D&D as well. Your modules are incredibly sophisticated and accomplished, especially considering you were about 13 when you made them. Do you remember how long it took you to finish them? Did you get to play them with your friends? You also wrote and drew an entire sci-fi comic book, Questar, when you were even younger. All the text is typewritten!

Walters Questar

Questar, pg. 1: “DANGER! Nuclear WarHead”

MIKEY: One of the things I enjoyed about D&D was the complexity of the rules and the detail found in the hardback manuals and official modules, so I wanted my work to have the same feel, including illustrations and maps. Sometimes it was difficult to get my entire group together at the library, so I made “mini-modules” that a friend and I could complete separately. These were finished very quickly, with most of the time spent cutting out construction paper covers. We played these several times (with variations), almost as a way to “level up” characters. The huge Golden Scepter of the Troll Fens module took quite a while to evolve, but we played sections of it as I finished them, and some parts were edited based on player response, especially the “DM Notes” section, which answered common questions that came up during the game.

My typewriter was one of my favorite childhood possessions, and I used it all the time to try to make things look “professional.” I wouldn’t have been happy with my Questar comic book if the word balloons were filled with my childish printing, so I insisted on typing everything, even when I had to do extensive cutting and pasting (before those were only metaphors!).

2W2N: Your modules and artwork really capture the unique spirit of the era we grew up in. Compared to kids from different generations, I think we spent a lot more time in our own heads, dreaming up new worlds and trying to express them, whether it was drawing comics, inventing games, writing stories, learning to program, role-playing, building models, and on and on. Do you think it’s because we were exposed to so many different inspiring and motivating novelties (Star Wars, D&D, arcades, the PC revolution, etc.)? Or were we just killing time waiting for the internet?

MIKEY: I really think the ’70s and ’80s were an explosion of inspiration for budding geeks like me. It seemed like everywhere things were totally new, exciting, and unbelievably cool, and the ability to create and emulate was in our grasp. However, the tools to do what we wanted weren’t handed to us, so we had to figure things out ourselves. For example, after reading about special effects secrets in Starlog magazine, I couldn’t just fire up iMovie and apply a laser beam plug-in. Instead, I kept reading until I discovered that I could shoot a Super 8 movie and scratch my own laser beams on each frame with an X-Acto knife! I have such fond feelings and appreciation for nearly everything created in these decades: beautiful hand-drawn animation, 8-bit video games introducing amazing new things like “scrolling,” movie special effects with handmade models, and so on.

However, I think creativity always finds a way out. The incredible environments my friend’s kids have built in Minecraft are just as fantastic as the space stations I used to build out of paper towel rolls. And although I would rather admire the miniature buildings in a Godzilla movie, I’m still blown away by the CG characters and environments in today’s films. It’s an interesting question, and ultimately I really don’t know why I created what I did, other than the fact that it was so much fun!

Walters Slave I

Ink washed Slave I, 1981

2W2N: Are you an only child, by any chance? I am, and that certainly played a part in the development of my daydreaming, bookish, nerdy tendencies. I had friends, but when they weren’t around I had to find ways to entertain and challenge myself.

MIKEY: Excellent guess! I am indeed an only child and happy to be one. Having time to be alone simply allowed my childhood mind space to breathe and express itself in ways that might not have been possible otherwise. I was lucky to have great friends and fantastic parents (who always encouraged my creative side), so I was rarely “lonely,” but even today I cherish times of solitude. My friends in my adulthood have learned that I need extra time to putter around with my toy collection and read comic books to recharge!

2W2N: I want to talk about your experience with computers for a bit. You mentioned your “beloved” Atari 800 earlier. That’s exactly the word I would use to describe mine. It was the best gift I ever got. When did you get yours? What’s the first computer you ever used? Would you say Tron and War Games are partly responsible for the career (Software Developer) you eventually chose?

MIKEY: My first computer was a Sinclair ZX-81, complete with the awesomely overheating 16K RAM expansion pack. I think I started programming almost simultaneously with the release of Tron, so I don’t know which came first, but of course I was a huge fan. I started writing text adventure games and simple graphics programs, but then one day a friend showed me his Atari 800 with its incredible graphics and games, as well as the world of BBSes he could access via modem (very War Games-esque).

Thankfully, my dad loved to play video games (hence our huge collection of Intellivision cartridges), so it was easy to convince him that we needed this amazing new computer to really have some fun! We bought our Atari 800 in late 1982, first with the classic cassette tape drive, and later stepping up to multiple floppy drives. Along with the hours of game time my dad and I put in together, I became obsessed with programming in Atari BASIC, and started submitting my own source code to Atari computer magazines like Antic and A.N.A.L.O.G. One day in 1983, I was reading the latest issue of A.N.A.L.O.G., and suddenly realized my original game Space Assault was published! A few days later a check arrived in the mail for $360, which was huge money to a 16-year-old-kid in 1983. From that moment on, my career path was set!

Walters Analog #13

Walters Analog #13-2

2W2N: What a great story! You know what my next question’s going to be: what did you buy with that $360? My mind boggles at the possibilities.

MIKEY: I wish I had a more spectacular answer for you, but most of the money went towards an Epson FX-80 dot matrix printer (bought jointly with my dad), which was pretty exciting to me since I could print using interesting Atari fonts. The printer quickly usurped my typewriter, and I was soon using it to print letters, art projects, and even college papers as I got older. I can still hear that lovely printing noise!

Considering the year, the rest of the money probably went towards Return of the Jedi action figures (I still have my complete Kenner set today) and comic books, since in the early ’80s I had a 15-issue per week habit and over 2,000 bagged and boxed! I finally gave up single issue collecting, but now I can’t stop buying trade paperbacks.

2W2N: This was all in Sacramento? Tell me about your extended neighborhood. What were your favorite places to go? I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, about 30 minutes away from Disneyland, the mere mention of which would send me into a state of near rapture. There was also the comic shop, the pizza place, the hobby shop, the book store with the huge sci-fi/fantasy section, the used book store that sold old comics, the mall arcades, a Malibu Grand Prix, a Chuck E. Cheese, the batting cages, three small movie theaters, a drive-in theater, the bike jump behind Stater Bros. It sure seems like kids had more to do 30 years ago.

MIKEY: My childhood was neatly divided between California (1st to 6th grade) and Oklahoma (7th grade and up), so I have fond memories of both places. My family made several treks to Disneyland, by the way, lighting the fuse that causes me to visit there nearly once a year even today! One of my favorite things to do with my California friends was ride the bus to Sunrise Mall where we could shop for toys and things to our hearts’ content – I usually ended up buying Star Trek posters. My neighborhood was pretty amazing, with a dentist who always gave away 3-packs of comic books on Halloween, a professional magician who levitated his wife in his front yard, and a great hill where I learned to ride my bike with no hands.

In Oklahoma, some of my favorite places were Crystal’s Pizza (where I spent way too many quarters playing Tempest), Le Mans Speedway at Crossroads Mall (where I spent way too many quarters playing Dragon’s Lair), the comic book store, plus a local Atari-focused computer store where my dad and I would decide what we should upgrade next. I remember buying the slick, black Indus GT floppy drive there, which was a big improvement over the Atari brand drive!

2W2N: Mikey, thanks so much for the interview. It’s really generous of you to share all of this with us. How about talking some kaiju next time?

MIKEY: You’re welcome! It was great to have a chance to dig through my own memories, which seem to be so similar to yours (and to your readers’ as well, I’m sure) and as precious. And I’m willing to talk some kaiju or tokusatsu anytime!

***

All images used in this article are © Michael Walters.


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