Old Mac of the Month: the Macintosh IIvx

Editor’s Note: This month’s “Old Mac of the Month” entry is written by Eric Jorgensen. His blog can be found here and he is on Twitter here.

I am twenty-six, which means that I’ve never known a time when the Macintosh didn’t exist.

Like the Macintosh, I was born in 1984. I first met that machine thanks to my grandparents, who, for a reasons now unclear, had an original Macintosh in their home office. I’m not sure why, as neither grandparent is what anyone would ever describe as “computer-savvy.” Fittingly, I don’t think that I ever saw either one use it. During visits to their house, I would sneak away to boot up the Mac and play with MacPaint.

Artistic endeavors in MacPaint aside, like many children of the late 80’s/early 90’s, there was basically one reason to use a computer: to play games. As a kid, video games were my proverbial forbidden fruit. While my cousins and many of my friends had their Nintendos, Super Nintendos, and Sega Genesises, I didn’t grow up with video games in the house. Judging from their stern faces and the conspicuous lack of a video game system under the tree each Christmas, my parents thought that Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were part of a nefarious cabal that would sneak swiftly from their cartridge homes, crawl into my head, and rot my brain.

I was certain that every other child in the universe spent their free time earning power ups, jumping on the heads of enemies, and, of course, rotting their brains the whole time; thanks, to my parents’ No Video Games policy, I was forced me to get my fix elsewhere. Lucky for me, my school had a computer lab full of Apple IIs. There, I got my first regular taste of computer games. Every week, my classmates and I got to spend an hour or so playing “educational” games like Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? on 5.25“ floppy disks. Those games taught me a few things, none of which probably would have fit a responsible teacher’s definition of ”educational":

  1. Dysentery killed just about everyone on the Oregon Trail
  2. International super villains wear trench coats and fedoras but don’t ever really do anything all that villain-y
  3. Computer games — even those with an “educational” bent — are a lot of fun

I loved playing those games at school, but my nights at home remained game-less. Finally, fate smiled on me. In late 1992, my parents decided that it was time for us to get a family computer. I’m not exactly sure why they ended up deciding on a Mac, though my dad claims now that I “wouldn’t have let him get anything else.” Probably, my experiences at my grandparents’ house with that original Mac and the computer lab time at school had convinced me that Apple was the only way to go.

On a sunny fall afternoon that I still remember in vivid detail, the entire family — my parents, my two sisters, and I — headed to Computer City — a big box retailer that sold computers and software. In the words of my parents, we were “just looking” at the Macs available. While they talked with a salesperson, I wandered throughout the cavernous store to check out all of the software on display. Especially the games. Aisles and aisles of games.

As I took in the seemingly endless racks of super-sized, multi-colored software boxes, it became pretty clear to me that I didn’t need Mario, Luigi, or Sonic for a gaming fix; computer games would be more than adequate.

Eventually, I found my way back to my parents and the salesperson. “Just looking” turned out to be a clever ruse to keep me out of the way while they figured out which model to buy. They ended up deciding on a Macintosh IIvx, and, according to my parents, I could barely contain my excitement when I realized that we would be leaving the store with a computer of our own. On the way out, I even managed to talk them into picking up a couple of games as well — the original SimCity and the flight sim Hellcats Over the Pacific.

We loaded up the goods and headed to a nearby furniture store to buy a computer desk, my parents $3,000 or so poorer and visions of the games I would soon be playing — maybe even that night — filling my head. Dad, however, had other ideas. He has always been what I would describe as a good-natured sadist. Rather than doing what my eight-year old mind thought most logical — assembling the new desk, unboxing the IIvx and getting everything up and running right away — he decided that he was “too tired” to do anything with our new purchases that night. So, for about a week, on the floor the boxes sat, taunting me. Teasing me. Whispering to me.

Each day that week, I came home from school and anxiously awaited the sound of my dad opening the garage door. And, every night, after seeing the expectant look on my face, he told me the same thing: “Not tonight. Maybe this weekend.” I moped and pouted, but he refused to give in. Patience was not one of the qualities I possessed as an eight-year-old, especially when dealing with something as exciting as a new computer.

Finally, that Saturday, he lived up to his word. To the sounds of Nirvana’s Nevermind — it was 1992, remember — he unboxed the IIvx, and I “helped” him assemble the desk. After a few hours, the Mac was up and running, and I can say, unequivocally, my life changed forever: a Mac nerd was born.

Though it would quickly be eclipsed in computing power by the Centris 650, the IIvx was, in some ways, a pretty revolutionary machine: it was the first Mac to have a completely metal case, and, more important, it was the first model to ship with an internal CD-ROM drive. Unlike later models, the drive didn’t have a tray loading mechanism. Instead, the IIvx came with a plastic, cartridge-style device that opened by squeezing two buttons at its edges to hold a disc. The cartridge was then closed and inserted into the slot. If you never had the pleasure of dealing with such a device, here’s a picture.

That snazzy 2x speed CD-ROM drive would have been useless without multimedia titles to take advantage of it, and when we first bought the computer, those titles were few and far between. Fortunately, the IIvx shipped with a CD-ROM of shareware games like Price of Persia, Armor Alley, Glider, and Pararena. I didn’t have the money to buy full-versions of the games myself, and I was afraid to ask my parents to buy them for me, so I played the limited demo versions of the games over and over again. Somehow, probably due to my lack of skill, I never got bored.

The Mac gaming in our house got even better when full-length games started shipping on CD-ROMs instead of floppy disks; Myst and the 7th Guest were two of the first that we bought, and they proved to be even more engrossing than those demos and floppy disk games I had been playing up to that point. I was transfixed by the games’ seemingly impossibly great graphics and embedded video. Even my dad was sucked in by the puzzles in Stauf’s mansion and the photo-realism of the Miller brothers’ mysterious (no pun intended) island. Mac gaming was definitely one of the ways in which my dad and I bonded; during weekend breakfast conversations, the two of us often compared notes on the progress we’d made in solving a particularly difficult puzzle.

To my parents’ relief, I didn’t just play games. Looking out my educational development, they had bought a Stylewriter II inkjet printer with the IIvx. My sisters and I used ClarisWorks and Kid Pix to write and illustrate ridiculous and terrible stories as well as type up our homework, all of which seemed to deplete ink cartridges at an incredible rate. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel slightly superior turning in pristine, double-spaced assignments while other kids in my elementary school classes turned in messy, hand-written sheets of torn notebook paper.

The many hours of gaming and those (significantly less numerous) hours of school work were done on what was not, by modern standards, a powerful machine. The IIvx’s specs sound laughable compared to the multi-gigahertz processors and gigabytes of RAM common in today’s desktop computers: a 32Mhz processor, a whopping 4MB of RAM (which we eventually increased to eight) and a 160 megabyte hard drive. Granted, the 3.5" floppy was the software distribution medium of the time, and this was well before most everyone maintained a library of MP3 music, but it still boggles my mind to think about how paltry the built-in storage was.

The OS was System 7, which, among other deficiencies, lacked protected memory. Not that I knew what that meant at the time, but I definitely remember lots of these error messages, which would force me to try and figure out which third-party extensions were in conflict with one another before I could get back to my games.

The IIvx was also a rather low point in the history of Apple’s customer relations: Low End Mac explains:

Although [the IIvx] wasn’t officially discontinued until October 1993, with the introduction of the 25 MHz 68040-based Centris 650 in the same enclosure and at the same price just five months [after the introduction of the IIvx], Apple slashed its base price from US$2,949 to US$1,899 overnight. Needless to say, a lot of recent IIvx buyers were none too happy with Apple over that.

As a result of this debacle, the IIvx is probably the only Mac to have ever become a verb; according to Wikipedia, my family was part of the first group of Apple customers to have been “IIvx-ed.”

Despite the crashes, the limited computing power, and the fact that the model we bought was quickly eclipsed by a much better machine, I had a blast with our first Mac. I spent — or wasted, depending on your perspective — hours upon hours playing games that I will never forget. More important, I developed an affinity for all things Mac that, even through Apple’s darkest times, has stuck with me to this day.

For many in the online Mac community, computers in the 1980’s and 90’s were a doorway to other worlds — for me, our first Mac was merely an egress window. I didn’t learn to program with it, nor did it help me understand me what a “megahertz” was or how RAM worked. But our first computer did teach me something very Steve Jobsian that I’ve never forgotten: computing technology can be magical.

My family has gone through at least five Macs since the IIvx, and I’ve gone through two on my own, but I don’t think that I’ll ever again feel the wide-eyed-wonder and excitement that I felt when I used that original machine. There was something inexplicably great about being eight-years-old and discovering what felt like an amazing parallel universe, one that I had the power to influence and control. It felt exciting and new and uniquely mine.

Thinking back on my experiences with the IIvx and living now in what appears to be another golden age of computing, I hope that at least a few kids today feel a similar sense of possibility and promise when they play with their iPhones and iPads.

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