Game Like It Is 1983

The first computer I ever physically saw — I think — was an IBM System/3. You might not remember them. They were business computers for businesses that couldn’t justify a big mainframe. They were “midrange.” Nevermind that the thing probably had the memory and processing speed of the CPU inside my mouse. Time progressed and IBM moved on to the System/3x (for example, the System/32). Next up was the AS/400 and finally the IBM i, which is still in production. Here’s a secret, though, most of the code I’ve seen running on an IBM i dates back to at least the System/3 days and maybe even before that.

If you are interested in history, or midrange computers (which are mainframe-like in their operation), you might want to actually play with a real machine. A quick glance at eBay tells me that you might be able to get something workable for about $1000. Maybe. That’s a bit much. What if you could get time on one for free? Turns out, you can.

The Cloud Option

Head over to and register for an account. This won’t be instant — mine took a day or two. The system is for educational purposes, so be nice and don’t use it for commercial purposes. You get 150MB of storage (actually, some of the documentation says 250MB, and I have not tested it). While you are waiting for your account, you’ll need to grab a 5250 terminal emulator and adjust your thinking, unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool IBM guy.

Even though the IBM i looks like an old 1970’s midrange, the hardware is quite modern with a 64-bit CPU (and the architecture can handle 128 bits) and well-known stability. However, the interface is, well, nostalgic.


Depending on your host computer, there are several IBM 5250 terminal programs available. They recommend tn5250 or tn5250j which use Java. However, I installed Mochasoft’s emulator into my Chrome browser. It is a 30-day free trial, but I figure in 30 days I’ll be over it, anyway.

Keep in mind that IBM loved the screen-oriented terminal (so did HP, for many years). So unlike what I think of as a normal terminal. So you move the cursor around the screen and fill out the screen. When you press enter (or certain other keys), the entire screen goes to the remote computer at once. That gives the software applications a distinctive non-interactive feel. On the HP terminals, you could force them to send keystrokes and you probably can on the 5250, but it is unusual. Normal programs are screen oriented.


For example, mostly you’ll interact with the computer via some simple menus (see below). You press a number and hit enter. The whole thing is set up mostly to run batch jobs using cryptic commands — although no more cryptic than ls and df to the uninitiated.

While you are waiting for your account, there are a few things you can do to get ready. There’s a welcome document you’ll get in your welcome e-mail that you could start reading now. There is some per user setup you may need to complete, so be sure and read that.

You can also watch some tutorial videos. There are plenty on the AS400Tutorials channel on YouTube, including a basic tutorial you can find below.


Once you log in, do your setup as explained in the welcome document, and you are ready to go. Go where? Depends on what you want to do. However, a good way to get a flavor for what interactive computing was like in the 1970’s, try issuing this command:


Actually, you can leave off the PUB400SYS/ since it is in the default search path. That will lead you to a menu where you can play state-of-the-art computer games of the day.

If you want to edit a file, try EDTF. There is a Linux-like shell at QSH. Don’t get too excited. I’m using Linux-like in a very liberal sense. Use “help” instead of man to see what you can do. There is an FTP client, and who knows what else. The DSPLIBL command will help you find libraries and DSPLIB will list out what’s in a library if you want to experiment.

Just browsing, it looks like there are facilities for Java, RPG, Cobol, C and C++. I’m sure Rexx is on there, too.

Memory Lane

Is any of this practical? I don’t know. There’s still a lot of these out there chugging away. I suppose you could learn a job skill. But to me, it seems like this is an area of old computing you don’t hear much about. Before “small” computers exploded, these things were everywhere.

Keep in mind the IBM i you’ll use if you get an account is the real deal. But if you want to play with some old hardware and don’t mind it being virtual, there are plenty of browser options. You can also use SimH, and even build some hardware around it if you like.

33 thoughts on “Game Like It Is 1983

    1. I remember my drafting instructor at Mississippi State University. A. W. Stewart. His criteria for grading was “can you produce this part from this drawing.” He might count off a mark or two for a visible erasure or a line that wasn’t quite evenly drawn. If you had an extra dimension you didn’t need or something like that, that was a few points. But if there was something you couldn’t tell what size it was supposed to be from the drawing that was a quick fail. I’m going to assume you were smart enough to take my meaning even without the additional letters.

      1. I had an Electronic Lab instructor who was so picky about the “look” of the lab reports we were supposed to turn in, I felt I’d never get a decent grade on any of them, so I didn’t submit any. He gave me a “C” for the Quarter grade…

        1. You know, I had a grad student lab instructor that in retrospect I should have handled with more finesse. He counted off massively because my hand-written reports on blank paper didn’t have straight lines. I have a poor grade for that lab even though even at that time I could have taught the thing. Looking back, I think, “You idiot, if you put ruled paper UNDER the blank paper and used it to write, you could have had an A.” But back then (this was 1980 or so) I wasn’t that good at handling situations like that ;-)

          1. Yeah, nowadays one can go to sites like “Free Graph Paper” and print out some neat looking report forms.
            But, back in the day, we had make sure our reed stylus was sharp and the clay tablet was just the right consistency.

        2. I had a picky electronics teacher from1989-1991.I ended up doing most of my lab reports on my Commodore 64. I can’t remember if I was using SpeedScript or moved to GEOS by then.
          1983 I would most likely have been gaming on an Atari 2600. Probably 84 or 85 and on would be the Commodore 64, Bards Tale, Choplifter, Commando, Beach Head, MULE, LaserChess

  1. Back in 1985-1986 our Computer Repair Training Lab had an IBM System 3. It originally cost $750K, but at that time was worth $750! B^)
    I think it took over 15 minutes to load BASIC via punched paper tape and modem.
    The FORTRAN, COBOL, and BAL classes were taught with an IBM 4360 (an IBM 360 successor).

  2. The hardware is fascinating but the operating system is just flat out boring. Not much to do unless you want to code something yourself. AS/400 programming is still a lucrative field though.

        1. Funny enough one of them is my cable company (now Spectrum) although they’re not the biggest payees. I imagine though one would have to move to enjoy such wondrous pay, just like most high-paying jobs.

  3. For the record, i just signed up for an account and was logged into the system within about 3 minutes.

    Always been interested in the IBM systems. Unknowingly used one for years at a retail store before i got into the IT game.

    I got an AS400 Midrange machine a few months ago to get familiar so if i see one on the field i could possibly make some sense of it. It was $15 and a drive to pick it up on Ebay. Admittedly haven’t done a whole lot with it yet, but the price was right. I suspect gaining proficiency in the OS will be more and more lucrative every day, as more and more of the original engineers will no doubt be retiring.

    Time will tell if curiosity overcomes laziness.

      1. Yeah, i was super impressed. I submitted for an account with the anticipation of playing with the system over the weekend. But the BAM, theres the email maybe 45 seconds later. Its not perfect but, you can just telnet in “telnet” Rather than futzing with bespoke clients, at least to see if its something you even want to dare play with. How bout that sick Tetris game though. Hours of fun.

      2. Unrelated, but if you are interested in old ass IBM machines in relevant culture, look into the guy from ThePirateBay getting arrested on charges of hacking IBM mainframes. It would seem the guy knows his IBM stuff. So i suppose knowledge of the system is lucrative in more way than one.

  4. used to work for the state.
    they had purchased an as/400 a year before i hired on. this was 1998/99 timeframe. I was a systems analyst level 1. anyway the state had paid 80k for the machine and it sat unused in a closet for a year plugged in the whole time. they sent me to 2 as/400 classes one for administration and another later lame one for database selection for managers class (it was just them selling you on IBM Websphere and DB2). after that my boss decided to use the as/400 to migrate our email system over from an old dell desktop running OS/2 warp4 and Lotus Notes to the as/400. I sat in the meeting listened to the consultants tell us we needed to spend 68k to upgrade the system board to run x86 code with a daughter board add on with a pentium 233Mhz, add a network card (there were 2 ports already in the machine), and rebuy licenses for DB2 and the new version of websphere. I waited patiently for the presentation to end and when they asked if anyone had questions i politely asked after the original 500 licenses we already owned for websphere and DB2 and also why the 80k machine wasn’t capable to be an email server. while I had the floor I also asked if it wouldn’t be a better idea if we just don’t get a 10k actual server and use our other unused licenses for either winows nt/4 and migrate Lotus notes, or migrate the database to novell netware 4 which we also had licenses for that sat unused. I also recommended anything other than as/400 for our critical services as no-one else in office could use it. I was shot down and told we’d already went ahead and spent the 68k to do the upgrade and the meeting was a formality. I still recommended we move the email server over to anything but as/400 as the consultants would have to be called in if anything went wrong and we’d be without email the whole time.

    got quietly fired 3 weeks later for “personality conflict” with undisclosed employee (was an excuse because the head of the technology budget wasn’t aware of the major purchase they’d made without his permission and after most of the several asses in charge above me were chewed after said meeting with consultants). 4 months later with no-one in house able to use the as/400 they went ahead and rolled out the changeover for the email system. consultants came in on friday, transferred email database, set up accounts, wiped old server drives of everything including operating system (which they weren’t contracted to do), and left sunday night for hawaii for a week long vacation courtesy of the states purchasing department.
    monday morning rolls around no-one can access email system. emergency meeting called at noon when still no email. at meeting my old boss gets asked what’s the fix. she states there isn’t one. tech budget lead asks when consultants are coming back in. she tells him about hawaii for a week. he asks “wasn’t there someone who sat in this very room and warned us this might happen? remind me again what happened to him?” (helps to have friends who still work where you did sometimes to fill you in on life’s fun stuff)

    anyway don’t have too many fond memories revolving around IBM’s weird 3 word abbreviated command system

  5. I program on the IBM i, 5 days a week or more and love it. Rock solid machine, and OS. We have a Java front end calling RPGLE Stored Procedures. CRUD takes place by accessing DB2 via either RPGLE’s file/table operations or via SQL. It also runs PHP. Most development takes place in IBM’s flavor of Eclipse called RDi. I know this is going to sound crazy, but in terms of speed of data entry, the “green screen” as we call it, is much faster than any web page or Windows thin client could ever hope to be. So, we still have many people who prefer the terminal 5250 session. Our next IBM i is going to have something like 24 cores with 16 threads per core, 1TB of RAM, SSD and disk hybrid SAN. They have something called Flash which is apparently a little faster than SSD but quite a bit more expensive. Anyway, I love this beast.

    1. I grabbed a PUB400 account earlier this year, after feeling nostalgic for the old days. I left my AS400 sysadmin job about 1998, when management, like so many others, thought it would be cool to move everything to “client/server”, i.e. lots of windows servers to replace the AS400, and lots of PCs with Windows and MSOffice software. Anyway, I dragged out an old (circa 1996) Control language source printout, keyed it into a source member file on PUB400, and voila! It compiled! Then I tried the same with the RPG400 program it talked to, which produced a fail. Something about certain types of data structures weren’t supported anymore

      I have never met an operating system that has better user process control than OS400/IBM i. Contrary to an upthread poster, the OS is NOT boring, but it’s definitely complex, and needs an attitude adjustment if you’re coming from *nix, and re-training if you’ve only ever used Windows. It has fine-grained control over what happens in user land, and lots of in-built tools to automate and supervise that control.

      I had fun telling *nix admins that AS400 CL programs – roughly equivalent to shell scripts – could be compiled into native executable code.

    2. The best thing that happened to mainframes is when they took the “BIG” out of BIG IRON. Reminds me of some IBM commercials toting that fact. Another article noted both the trickle-down of technology to personal computers, as well as the, not as reliable nature (which has gotten better, but still could be improved) of PCs.

    3. @Kris B. what you described doesn’t sound crazy at all to me! The old green screen command-driven terminals delivered the fastest transaction times: both at the computer AND user end. Sure, there was a bigger start up cost in training new employees to use these systems. But once ‘acclimatized’ to the software running on the green screen, people seemed to be very, very fast…much faster than using mice and GUIs.

      My experience was with airline reservations and departure control systems, weight&balance, flight ops – that sort of stuff. Any half-decent, but experienced user could rip through functional transactions (make a booking, dispatch a flight etc.) extremely quickly. In fact, huge airlines systems like AA’s Sabre system and even ‘newish’ Amadeus actually keep the green-screen mode today. They call the mode ‘cryptic’ which is a bit of a misnomer: ‘abbreviated’ would be a better word!

      Years ago I had noticed this first-hand in Denver with UA’s system – they’d invested big-time in a semi-GUI adaptation of their checkin systems (departure control – or DC in airline terminology) for use at the airport. But the staff kept going back to the command line driven terminal method of interacting, through which they were able to work much faster.

      You used to see airline staff at the gates doing boarding etc. – a very time critical environment – working away to close the flight while making sure everything balanced (number of pax (passengers) and bags etc.). Tapping away on a green screen at a million miles an hour, they were able to enter literally hundreds of transactions really quickly in order to get an on-time departure. I was always so impressed by these people – often on bare minimum wage – get flights out on time. And thanks to green-screens they could do it, something that would have been far more difficult with mice and graphics!

  6. I worked on OS/400 for IBM back in the 90’s. This system continues to be a workhorse for many large companies. The OS had a built in relational database, message queueing, advanced job control/resource allocation, an object based command line that prompted you to input the correct fields and allowed you to automate pretty much anything.

    The application environment was very advanced for the time. Applications did not have to manage memory because disk/RAM storage was abstracted to the coder. Added a programming language abstraction layer in 1992 so all applications programs essentially ran against a virtual processor (which made hardware upgrades and eventual virtualization much easier). Sound familiar? .NET and Java do the same things. IBM had this working at customer sites in 1992.

  7. Fond memories of those ‘mid-ranges’ beasts! I cut my teeth on RPG on an AS/400. Coming from college COBOL, I thought it was the most ridiculous language ever invented. But later on, when I installed Hercules, I discovered the pre-PERL beauty of the loop-reporting concept (ie. forget the loop, just deal with the data). By the time I’d got to the AS/400 RPG/400, the software we sold had become a mis-mash of the honest, but basic sequential processing of its previous versions, and some hybrid bastard that insisted on using screens for everything. Fun days, but those bloody indicators in RPG were the most bizarre programming concept I’ve ever come across, even more crazy than SmallTalk!

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