We revisit the classic 1980s personal computer
It may not have slain its rivals, but the Dragon 32 is fondly remembered
FLASH BACK TO 1982 and put your hand up if you had a Dragon 32 computer on your desktop.
There may not be a huge number of you. Put your hand up if you wanted one. Again, there may not be too many of you. Why, then, is the Dragon 32 so fondly remembered and so quick to be mentioned when people talk about the computing they did when they were young and carefree? Perhaps because of its charm.
The Dragon 32 was produced by Dragon Data, itself a part of a metal game company called Mettoy, which made trains and Dan Dare toys. The machine was a reasonably late entry to the growing UK computing market, but it sold reasonably well, and had its share of decent games. It was built around a large keyboard design, and was manufactured in Port Talbot, Wales, which might explain the moniker.
On its release, the Dragon was competing against monsters such as the Spectrum 48k, which might have put it at a disadvantage overall. Around 40,000 units were sold in the first year.
Mettoy, traditionally found to be working in metal and clockwork, had seen how computing was spreading across the UK in the 1980s, and felt well placed to meet the market demand. Work began on such a machine, and eventually the Dragon took form, with its cassette and cartridge options for games, printer peripheral slot, and a world of opportunity in front of it.
The 32-bit model, which was available in exciting beige, was swiftly followed by the 64-bit model a year later. This was released in a light grey shell. Both machines were criticised for their poor game graphics – they were deemed to be inferior to the Spectrum. However, classic titles including Chuckie Egg, Manic Miner, Football Manager and Jet Set Willy were represented thanks to early developer support.
JOIN THE JET SET
You might recognise the titles, but the games looked a little different on the Dragon because of its screen limitations. Dragon fans will tell you that this is not the end of the differences, and tip you to the fact that it had more Jet Set Willy levels than any of its rivals and an in-built cheat mode that let you switch and select levels.
The Dragon was based on Microsoft’s Basic interpreter, which Microsoft assisted with, in 16KB of ROM and a Motorola data sheet design for the MC6883 SAM (MMU) chip. Some say that its design had strong similarities to the Tandy TRS-80 from the US. Which it does.
One very unfortunate issue with the Dragon was its inability to display lower-case letters. This put it at a big disadvantage. History tells us that the more capable computers of the day, such as the BBC Micro, went on to have great success in schools. Dragon Data let out its last fireball in 1984, when the firm was bought by a Spanish company. That was extinguished a few years later.
Of course, the Dragon lives on and there is a reasonably strong market demand for the computer and its games. As recently as 10 years ago, new games were still being released for it. These included Glove by Cronosoft, which offered a cassette format for shoppers with well-dusted shelves.
The Dragon might not be the most recognisable of all the 1980s personal computers, and it certainly wasn’t the best. But to know one, with all its idiosyncrasies, was to love one.
⬆ The Dragon 32 was made in Wales by Mettoy, which made model trains and Dan Dare toys