Back before downloads and torrents and ridiculously large (let’s just say unlimited) capacity hard drives and USB sticks; the amount of storage for software piracy could be determined by the physical size of the would-be pirate’s table or desk (those piles of disks were all over them), and the distribution and exchanges were determined by the physical size of their pockets – you could only fit so many floppies in them per day! That being said, the ultimate downfall of the retro gaming scene (back when it was simply called “gaming”) was undoubtedly software piracy.
It was everywhere; on the streets, in the pub (I assume), at work and at school. Kids were swapping floppies like Panini stickers in the yard and taking 50 pack boxes of disks to their friend’s house and not leaving until every one of them had the name of a new game freshly scrawled on their labels with a pencil.
However, one place you would not expect this kind of thing to be going down was the most righteous (you’re lead to believe) place on earth.. yes, you guessed it, in a church! I was never a church-goer and still am not, but one day in the 90’s I discovered that the house of God was indeed the very venue for pirates to meet up and copy disk after disk, after disk. I’m not talking about sneaking games from pew to pew while everyone else belted out songs of praise; I’m talking about a dedicated community room where anybody who was interested could come along with their computer and as many disks that they could carry, and engage in software piracy of biblical proportions in a safe, open and very friendly environment. Jesus would have overturned those floppy disk filled tables!
Deliver us from evil (Software Piracy excluded), Amen.
When you’re young and you’re invited to the “computer club” by a friend, and you turn up at the entrance of a church, you do not expect to be getting involved in illegal activities; but when I walked in to that room it was the most amazing sight I had seen. Holy mother of God, it’s a crack den for gamers! Around the room were, I’d say, 20 or so Amiga’s each with it’s own 14″ television, all set up with the infamous X-Copy running. Each was whirring and clunking with the main computer’s “DFO” disk drive and a “DF1” external floppy drive; all lights blinking and flashing to indicate illegal activity was happening. Praise the Lord!
Mountains and mountains of blank labelled disks were everywhere, and each person had a number of plastic disk storage cases full of games that you could approach and look through. If anything took your fancy, you could ask the respective disk peddler to make you a copy, handing over one of the blank disk’s that you had purchased for 50p at the entrance from a friendly Vicar. This was organised crime, this was an abomination; this was awesome.
Not being told what the “computer club” was and unaware at the services that would be available, I did not readily arrive with much money to buy blank disks. So only being able to be involved with stealing intellectual property in a small way, I scanned through the disk boxes of each of the game dealers looking for hidden gems. With not being able to see screenshots or cover art I just had to go by the title of the game (if I could read their writing). I may have only acquired perhaps 2 or 3 games that evening and I really can’t remember which – but the one I do definitely remember getting a copy of was the brilliant “Hill Street Blues”. I knew nothing about this game, what it looked like or how it played, and only took an interest because I had seen the TV show; but it was quite ironic that I participated in committing an illegal offense in order to obtain an interactive experience that had you on the right side of the law.
Hill Street Blues (1991, Krisalis Software Ltd) was a fantastic game that could really have been the inspiration for the original Grand Theft Auto, 5 years later. Quite the opposite of Grand Theft Auto; the game had you trying to stop the crimes in the role of a police officer, running or driving around a city with the perspective from overhead, responding to dispatch calls from HQ that informed you of some minor crimes such as bag theft to more serious serial murders. It was a very enjoyable game; it really had that sandbox feel to it that not many games had mastered at that time. I felt that I was really walking and driving around a living and breathing city and I could either respond to the crimes and catch me some criminals, or just go on a shooting spree myself. I can’t remember whether there was a church on the map but if there was, the writers of the game definitely would not have included a dispatch call to go and bust an illegal software piracy ring. For not knowing anything about the game before pirating it I was pleasantly surprised at how original and enjoyable it was and I would definitely recommend that you get your hands on it (I will not be held responsible for the method of how you obtain it).
It was the first and last time I went to the “computer (piracy) club”, regrettably, because in spite of the software theft it did have a nice atmosphere. In closing, I will say this: Just in case the above story will get me in to trouble 20-ish years later; I will neither confirm nor deny that the event’s in this article that mention my involvement in software piracy are true; but I do hope it entertained you! The church, however, they were in on it all the way (if I’m going down, I’m taking a whole religion down with me!) Either way, do go and check out “Hill Street Blues”.