Well, for our purposes I will be covering the systems I think were notable enough to be mentioned.
Some systems, such as the Japanese computers from Sharp (X1, X68000), NEC (PC 88,98), the late 70s black and white almost no graphics machines (Commodore PET, Tandy TRS 80, Sinclair ZX 80 and 81), or machines that were so niche as to nobody really owning or caring about them (Dragon 32/64, Oric 1, Timex Sinclairs) I will not be bothering to cover.
As this is also going up at Something Awful if any goons there wish to add in info for those machines I will credit them here, or to fill holes where I just don't know or care about the machine.
I will list the machines as such:
Name: (A general name for the machine line.)
Description: (Rough outline of the machine and picture probably taken from Wikipedia.)
Specs: (Some loose technical specifications. For RAM I am generally going with what the more mainline machines carried.)
My Experience: (Do I have any experiences with the machine?)
Recommended Model: (Which model of that line I think you should try to get.)
Release Date/Original Price: (When known this will be the year it came out and its US MSRP in that time's money ignoring inflation.)
Notable Games: (What games I think are worth checking out or which were big on the machine. I am a big arcade, RPG, and turn based strategy guy so my game thoughts might differ from yours.)
Emulation Options: (If you are cheap or want to try before buying here will be an emulator to look at.)
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: (What they seem to go for a working system on Ebay and how much I would probably pay. These will generally be 2 different numbers because I am cheap.)
Note that this is not an IN DEPTH LOOK at each machine. I will do more posts covering the machines I know and love the best, and others will hopefully do the same for the ones they know.
The 8 Bits: The 8 bit machines were cheap and cheerful for the most part. I am designating 8 bit machines as ones that had both 8 bit level graphics systems and CPUs. There were some machines that only had one or the other. In consoles the Mattel Intellivision was a 16 bit CPU but I mean its graphics were far worse what most 8 bit computers did. So.. let's just call em 8 bits meaning more era than what its CPU actually was.
Amstrad CPC 464 and Color Monitor (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 4mhz Z80 CPU, 64K RAM. 640x200 2 color-160x200 16 color. 27 color palette. 3 channel, 8 octave sound.
My Experience: None. These machines were really unknown in the US.
Recommended Model: I would say the CPC128 but they were only sold for a short period of time, and there are some compatibility issues with the Plus line. So a stock color 464 is your best bet to run the most stuff.
Release Date/Original Price: 1984/684 pounds
Notable Games: No real idea. The Amstrad didn't have a ton of exclusive games. Some low effort Spectrum ports that failed to take advantage of the machine, and a number of arcade conversions which usually looked good but failed to have the scrolling and speed of the Commodore 64 efforts.
Emulation Options: No real experience here either.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: Around 120 US without monitor/60 without monitor, 120 with color.
Apple IIe System (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 1 mhz 6502 series CPU, 64K RAM, 40x40 16 color-560x192 2 color, 16 color palette, 1 channel sound. (II E version)
My Experience: Like most people in the lower middle class my experiences with the Apple II line was at school. Nobody had these machines in the home. Apple's offerings were almost always 3-4 times as expensive as other computers that usually were better. In general most Apple II games were closer to 5 colors on screen and using composite techniques so even text looks multicolored.
Recommended Model: IIc Plus is the best bet. It is a sharp looking machine and even has a 4mhz CPU. But it comes with a 3.5" drive while most programs are on 5 1/4" so you will need a second drive. The IIc is more a nice looking IIe without the IIe's expansion slots. Which is why the IIe looks big and fat. So any one of those 3 would do you nicely. But.. there is another way. See me in the 16 bit section!
Release Date/Original Price: 1977/1300 dollars. (Original II)
Notable Games: Most of the Apple 2's best games appeared in better form on the Atari 8 bit and Commodore 64. But some games were identical over the 3 formats. But as a historian many of the earliest Sierra titles appeared on this machine. So: Mystery House and Akalabeth are worth playing for this machine alone. Honestly buy a C64 or an Atari 8 bit and get most of the good games in a better format.
Emulation Options: AppleWin is always a great emulator, and the Virtual Apple site has games you can play online if you are lazy or slacking at work.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 300 or so for complete systems with monitor/ 200 for the IIe or c, 250 for a IIc plus.
Atari 8 Bits:
Description: Somewhere in between the Apple 2 and the Commodore 64 in power the Atari 8 bits were a special odd duck. The first machine whose innards were used for a console (the 5200), and in fact it was also used for ANOTHER console that was compatible with the computer line later! (XEGS) Also the first machine I know of with 4 controller ports (x00 series only). Its not a must have machine but its a cheap alternative to an Apple II or a C64. Or you just really like Star Raiders....
Specs: 1.79 mhz 6502 series CPU, 64K RAM, 320x192 with various modes, 256 color palette, 4 voice 3.5 octave sound.
My Experience: This is a machine I didn't get to see till last year. Thanks to Steve Benway's videos showing the machine I felt like splurging and got myself a setup. I really enjoy the computer. Its better in some ways than a C64 as far as disk based speed goes, and its got a decent DOS and a ton of inexpensive cartridge games.
Recommended Model: This is a funny one. There are THREE series with three distinct looks. And a minor suite of incompatibilities. So to run everything you need an x00 series and either the XL or XE. But in general the XL and XE are better machines unless you dig the 800 looking like a gorgeous 70s uggo tank. Soo either a 800 for the oldest of software, or either a 800xl or a 130xe. The xl has 64k ram, the 130 128k. Almost nothing needs 128k of ram outside of a few fan made games. Pick either of those 2 you want.
Release Date/Original Price: 1979/1000 dollars.
Notable Games: Many games are the same as on the Apple II or Commodore 64. On the Atari 8 bits they are usually in between the 2 machines in quality. But there were some exclusives like Star Raiders and Eastern Front that were quite good. (Atari 2600 SRaiders is a PALE imitation.)
Emulation Options: The best emulator is Altirra. It covers the odd color issues many people seem unaware of. If you see videos or screencaps of Pac Man with wrong looking color this is why.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 75 for the base unit, sometimes 110 or so with the 1050 floppy drive. (The good 5 1/4 drives go for 40 or so online.)/60, 85 with 1050 floppy drive.
BBC Micro/Acorn Electron:
The BBC Micro (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 2 mhz 6502 series CPU, 64K RAM, 640x256 8 colors, 16 color palette, 3 channel 7 octave sound.
My Experience: Another UK computer nobody knew or heard of in the US even though it was apparently released here.
Recommended Model: The BBC B is generally the most compatible though the Master had some improvements and a LOT more RAM. The B is probably your best bet.
Release Date/Original Price: 1981/335 UK Pounds.
Notable Games: In general most of the games on the system weren't all that notable. It is considered to have the best version of the original Elite however. Any UK folks know some great exclusives?
Emulation Options: Another system I never knew about when it was actively produced and another one I simply don't bother with.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: (None currently on ebay!)/ 60 dollars.
Commodore Vic 20:
Commodore Vic 20 (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 1 mhz 6502 series CPU, 5K RAM, 184x176 8 color 16 background/border, 16 color palette, 3 voice 3 octave sound.
My Experience: This is another computer I have never seen in live use. I knew one kid about 6 years older than me who claimed to have one, and some relatives had a nonworking machine. But.. I have never seen one used. Basically it did really well but nearly everyone moved up to the C64 who had one I guess.
Recommended Model: There is only one to the best of my limited research.
Release Date/Original Price: 1981/300 dollars (At this point roughly 100 bucks or so more than an Atari 2600.)
Notable Games: The Vic 20 didn't really have too many exclusives. A lot of arcade ports and is the original home system of Sword of Fargoal, but that game has a C64 port, a massively superior iOS remake, and its sequel just got successfully Kickstarted. There is a recent RPG made for it called Realms of Quest that looks pretty good but more because of what its on than anything else. Its another system mostly for the historian or someone who had one back in the day.
Emulation Options: Winvice. A good solid working emulator that covers most of the 8 bit Commodore machines.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: About 100 for the unit, sometimes with tape drive/60 bucks with tape drive, 40 without.
Commodore 64c variant with aligned monitor and 1541 II floppy drive (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 1 mhz 6510 CPU, 64K RAM, 160x200-320x200, 16 color palette, 3 channel 8 octave 4 waveform sound.
My Experience: The first time I saw one was a friend had the original model that was a browner Vic 20 (part of how it was made so fast and cheap. Lots of recycled bits from the Vic and compatible with a lot of its hardware, holding the C64 back in many ways) but the games and the graphics in Fall 85 were beyond anything my Atari 2600 could do. And once I saw what the floppy drive could put out? I had to have one. It would just take two years and my machine would be the better looking (and more reliable) "c" model. So many amazing RPGs and strategy games were played on this thing. While the NES had better action games the C64 had games of depth and detail that the NES couldn't match.
Recommended Model: I recommend the C64c. Its a sharper looking unit than the ugly old "breadbox" model. You could also go with the 128 which is an enhanced 64 with a bunch of stuff nobody really used as most publishers just kept to C64 specifications. If you live in Europe or want the UK games you will need a tape drive and I commend your damned soul. In the US you need a 1541 drive. Sometimes games if on the right format will work on the other but will run a little too slow or fast. I remember pirates brought TONS of UK only software out in the west.
Release Date/Original Price: 1982/600 dollars
Notable Games: Much like the Apple II and Atari 8 bits, the C64 shared a lot of software with them. It also shared games those 2 didn't get with the IBM DOS machines, Atari ST, and Amiga. It has the best playing versions of Defender of the Crown, Ultima, Last Ninja, and many more, and some late era UK only games like Creatures & Mayhem in Monsterland don't even look like the same system those earliest 1982 releases are.
Emulation Options: WinVice. There is also a plug and play joystick that has a good suite of games on it if you want to hack it up and make an actual C64 out of it. Because its a full 64 on a chip with pinouts to make it a full machine.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 125 with floppy drive for US systems/75 with floppy drive.
Coleco Adam (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 3.58 mhz Z80 CPU, 64K RAM, 256x192, 16 color palette, 3 voice 5 octave sound.
My Experience: There was a friend down the road from me who had one. His dad was a DJ for the Top 40 Radio station in the area. His dad was a cool enough bloke and the first person I knew with CDs (like 87). The machine itself was big but cool and they were fortunate to have a working model. IT WAS A COMPUTER COLECOVISION. Sadly his son was kind of a douche who would trade stuff with people then get his mom to get the trade reversed. Also eventually he would constantly try to get in fights with everyone in the neighborhood and he would lose them all. Even to me. It was the only fight I was ever in and I won. (Mainly because I made it a wrestling match and wasn't actually trying to hurt him. I had previously thwacked him in the noggin multiple times trying to get it through his skull I wasn't interested in fighting him. He.. he tried fighting nearly every guy in the area. I think he lost every single one. Even to people younger than him. MUCH younger.) The computer was cool though. He sold/traded it to another friend who sadly got rid of it before I could get it off of him. Was the first system I played Miner 2049er on. I like the Adam in spite of a pathetic goober having owned it.
Recommended Model: The original model I guess? There was an expansion version made for the Colecovision console but.. I like the beige/white version over the CVision being black and silver.
Release Date/Original Price: 1983/700 dollars.
Notable Games: It had great for the time arcade ports as the Colecovision did. But in modern times most of the library is.. kind of pointless. I suppose if you count Colecovision titles as Adam ones you can play Cabbage Patch Kids, Smurfs, and Wargames if you are a real early 80s nostalgia type.
Emulation Options: Any good Colecovision emulator really. I used to use ColEm back in the day. But again.. the Colecovision and Adam were great "for their time" arcade ports. Now most arcade classics have legit home arcade perfect ports. Or MAME. Also its basically a proto MSX machine and that one had more popularity and versatility. We will get to that...
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 150 (with 100 dollars or so shipping)/ 200 (including shipping)
Mattel Aquarius with Tape Drive (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Description: Another odd machine from the early 80s. Mattel whose Intellivision game system was outspeccing and basically being the early 80s X Box to the 2600's Playstation 2 (and generally selling to a similar more sports and multiplayer audience) was supposed to have a computer expansion that had been promised since the machine's release in 1979. It kind of came out twice but.. not really. Yet Mattel also teamed up with a small company in Asia and released this machine. Which was LOWER in ability than the Intellivision and came out while the US videogame industry was collapsing and the computer market was oversaturated with machines, most of which kicked this thing's ass, leading it to be sold in those Job Lot type stores within months of release.
Specs: 3.5 mhz Z80 CPU, 4K RAM, 80x72, 16 color palette, 1 voice sound. (3 voice with expansion)
My Experience: The Aquarius holds a fond place in my heart. It was my first experience with a computer. My first experience with Astrosmash, AD&D, Burgertime, and Snafu. My first experience using a control pad. On a mid 80s rainy Thanksgiving I was over at my aunt and uncle's house with my family. As I was a good 5 years younger than my cousins, and the fact most of my family was mostly glued to football on TV I had nothing really to do but sit in my youngest cousin's room (said 5 years older than me) and play with the computer on a little black and white TV. I think I spent a good 4-6 HOURS playing it. As my mother was an idiot I wasn't supposed to have anything to do with Dungeons and Dragons so there was even a tad of illicitness to playing Tower of Tarmin. Sadly they lost or sold or broke the thing before I could buy it off them. I loved the little thing in spite of its suckiness. Its charming!
Recommended Model: The Computer and Game System bundle which has the base unit with the all but required Expansion Module which contains 2 game controllers, expanded sound, and 2 cartridge ports allowing for a game and a ram pack if you decide to do HAHAHA. Ok ok let's not get silly here.
Release Date/Original Price: Can't find out much info. Base unit went for around 100 dollars. But it was sold for like a single quarter and most people bought the Game System bundle at Job Lot sort of places for less than that.
Notable Games: None. As far as I can tell every game was a reduced version of an Intellivision game.
Emulation Options: Its called the Intellivision Lives! collection packages. Play the real versions of the super tiny game library!
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 150 bucks or so for the bundle/ 60 for the bundle and that's just out of nostalgia and I think the computer is a great looking machine.
Sony "Hit Bit" MSX Computer (Image Wikimedia Commons)Description: Similar to the 3DO, the MSX was a computer standard that allowed for multiple hardware manufacturers to make said hardware with a Microsoft Basic and such internal to them all. It did well in Japan and other parts of the world but was a giant wet fart in North America.
Specs: 3.58 mhz Z80 CPU, 64K RAM, 256x192 16 color - 512x212 16 color - 256x212 - 256 color , 19000+ color palette (Turbo R), 9 channel sound.
My Experience: Another machine I would love to have but never even saw, the original MSX was basically a slightly upgraded Colecovision or Sinclair Spectrum. They had multiple revisions with better specs though Japan got most of the upgraded machines and Europe and South America did not. I mostly want one for the Castlevania version exclusive to this machine.
Recommended Model: If you are a US NTSC type you want a MSX 2+ or Turbo R machine if you want to run the most stuff. Original MSX machines don't run a lot and it seems compatibility with older stuff is REALLY high in this series.
Release Date/Original Price: 1983/various
Notable Games: Konami basically owned this machine like a BOSS. Its the original home of Metal Gear 1&2, Parodius, Snatcher SD, and that Castlevania version I want so bloody badly! MG 1 and 2 are on some later Metal Gear Solid 3 collections if you want a slightly modified yet translated version however.
Emulation Options: Blue MSX works really well. Some fans even made a wee set top box MSX thingie a couple years back but its out of production now. Also there was a company selling legit roms and emu packages for MSX titles in English but I can't find hide nor hair of them now.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: Around 200 or so for the various MSX 2 standard family systems/ 75 bucks.
Sinclair Spectrum +2 Computer (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 3.5 mhz z80 CPU, 16K-48k-128k RAM, 256x192 8 two tone colors, 1 voice 10 octave beeper sound.
My Experience: Again none. These machines in a somewhat incompatible form did come over courtesy of Timex, but they bombed out FAST in the US. And for good reason. The Spectrum.. kind of sucks. Its a nostalgia machine for UK kids who grew up with them, or something for historians.
Recommended Model: The 128K +2 model shown above. None of the interface nonsense of the earlier machines and it both has a real keyboard and a cassette drive built in.
Release Date/Original Price: 1982/125 UK Pounds
Notable Games: Hmm. Like most UK machines it shared a ton of ports with other systems, most of which were best on the Commodore 64. But it was the home machine of Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, 3d Deathchase, THE FIRST BATMAN VIDEOGAME, and Rare's original releases.
Emulation Options: I don't really like the Spectrum so no real idea here. I do recommend a lot of the Retrospec remakes of Spectrum games for your PC.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 30-100 dollars depending on model/ 50 for a complete working +2. (Mainly since I would need to spend another 50-100 bucks to make it work in NSTC land.)
Tandy Color Computer:
Tandy Color Computer 3 (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: .89 or 1.79 mhz Motorola 68b09e CPU, 4k-128k RAM, 320x200 16 color - 640x400 4 color, 64 color palette, 1 voice 6 bit DAC sound.
My Experience: Another machine I saw but never owned as most Radio Shacks had them in the 80s but I rarely went into Radio Shacks and by the time I did I had a Commodore 64. I was jealous seeing some of the Sierra games on it though. Even if they were generally better on the DOS machines.
Recommended Model: The Color Computer 3 model.
Release Date/Original Price: 1980/400 US dollars.
Notable Games: No idea. Most CoCo titles were ports or knockoffs of other games. I do know there were a good half dozen or so Ultima clones I would play the hell out of. But finding information on them is like pulling teeth. Dungeons of Daggorath is somewhat well regarded too.
Emulation Options: Need info because like many machines I just don't see a need to bother with them.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 80 for a complete CoCo 3 setup/the same.
Tandy 1000/IBM PC Junior/CGA-EGA DOS:
Tandy 1000 HX (Image Wikimedia Commons)
In 1983 IBM made a system designed for the home called the PC Junior which had an improved version of the CGA graphics standard that was competitive if not superior to the 8 bit micros of the day and improved sound in a standard that would really be the only good and standardized PC sound until the Ad Lib music card. While the PC Jr. did not do well, Tandy made a clone of it and this became their 1000 series. The 1000 series is really THE 80s PC to get for retro gamers.
(Yes the Intel CPUs are 16 bit but given the graphics qualities of the machines till the 386 CPUs and VGA graphics became standard you might as well call DOS machines pre 1989-90 8 bit.)
Specs: XT: 4.77-9.56 mhz Intel 8088-86 CPU, 128k-640k RAM, 320x200 16 color - 640x400 4 color, 16 color palette, 3 voice 1 channel sound. (AT machines had a 7mhz and up CPU and normally an EGA graphics card which could do 16 colors but was not the same as Tandy/PC Junior 16 color graphics. The Tandy 1000 series had most machines as XT ones, even with super fast 86 and 88 CPUs. These are also the ones with Tandy Graphics mode.)
My Experience: My first real experience with a DOS computer was the same year (Xmas 87) that I got my C64. My friends up the street got a Franklin DOS PC with DOS 3.33. The joystick was this awful analog thing that was terrible for Jordan vs Bird & Skate or Die and the graphics were these terrible 4 color CGA non composite (DOS CGA machines with a composite monitor could manage a 16 color hack) graphics usually using either bright green and orange, or a purple and soft blue. I would later get to mess with a Tandy 1000 series which looked a lot better and had tons of sweet features. Though the Franklin my friends had was a NICE looking computer. It just cost like triple what my C64 setup had and looked worse for gaming. I knew another friend who said he had the same machine as the picture, but he was more an acquaintance I kept from getting greased on the bus in high school than anything else. He let me borrow his Game Boy for a few weeks though. Was supposed to sell me his copy of Phantasy Star for 25 bucks in 1992 but didn't show up that day. I wouldn't get to play it till the early 00s as a result.
Recommended Model: A Tandy 1000 SL/2 is probably your best bet for an early DOS machine. Just pop in a 5 1/4" drive to go with the 3.5". The SL had the 5 1/4. The only issue is they both used low density drives. If possible put in high density drives and you can run a TON of stuff in its best possible format. For EGA stuff without a Tandy mode see me in the 16 bit section as we have your back there. They had hard disk options available as well but you need to look into that yourself. Multiple drive sizes, bay sizes, and even formats. I have managed to fit a 1 gig drive into a 486 machine running DOS 6.22 so who knows what you can manage? The TL series and the RL/HD are also good choices. Pay attention to specs to get the 1000 that does what you want. You want to be able to run PC Booter software which was 5 1/4" floppy disks and stuff that doesn't have EGA, MCGA, or VGA graphics modes but does have Tandy graphics. Or those REALLY old DOS games that just hate faster CPUs.
Release Date/Original Price: 1984/1200 US dollars (Tandy 1000. Original IBM PC 1981, PC Jr 1983)
Notable Games: 81-88 era DOS was mostly the same stuff as on every other machine though sometimes inferior, other times superior. If I need to list great DOS games something is wrong and why are you reading this? (Also see resources entry after the 16 bit list.)
Emulation Options: DOSBOX baby! With the right front end and the correct options chosen you can pretty much run everything ever made from 81-97 in a great form, though some composite mode CGA stuff doesn't translate properly.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 300/200-300 depending on what comes in the machine.
Texas Instruments TI 99/4:
Texas Instruments TI 99/4. The Superior 4A has a real keyboard but otherwise looks quite similar. (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Specs: 3 mhz 16 bit TI TMS 9900 CPU, 16k-52k RAM, 256x192 16 colors, 3 voice 5 octave 1 noise sound.
My Experience: I had a pal who got one from a yard sale. (He got cool stuff at yard sales because his mom was awesome.) I played a bit of Microsurgeon on it which was kind of rad but.. it didn't leave much of an impression on me. Wasn't bad though. I kind of wonder if he still has it, if it works, and how much he would want for it...
Recommended Model: There is really only one model you want. The TI 99/4A. Its a shiny machine and the revised version which came out in 81 for 525 bucks.
Release Date/Original Price: 1979/1500 US dollars with color monitor.
Notable Games: All I remember playing was Microsurgeon on it. Also Parsec, and Tunnels of Doom.
Emulation Options: Another one I haven't bothered with emulation of. Tunnels of Doom has a fan remake, and a lot of games were either arcade ports or knockoffs.
Average Current Price/Amount I Would Pay: 50 bucks/the same.
Join me next time for GAMES TO PLAY/GAMES I REALLY WANT TO PLAY for these 8 bit machines and after that we can hit the 16 bit era in the same manner. Thankfully waaay less machines to cover.