I started with bare bones AVR. I switched to Arduino. I could see from online community support Arduino would jump start my experience. A year or so later I have made several higher ended projects including the electronic payload for a near space balloon. I would have not achieved so much so quickly without Arduino and the community support. One can still go small with Arduino (Nano, Micro, etc) and one can go barebones as well: http://arduino.cc/en/Main/Standalone. I generally prototype with the Uno and switch to the Nano or barebones when moving beyond the prototype stage.
As an American traveling through Russia on a motorcycle 6 or 7 years ago I took a Polaroid and quite a bit of film. I cannot tell you how great it was at times to take a photo with the locals and hand them a print. End of an era.
I am holding my Hexbright now! Admittedly, I went into this with rather low expectations knowing how difficult product development can be. I thought it was interesting, fond memories of the original Battebots and it was my first Kickstarter support; probably not the best criteria for investments... Product exceeded my expectation.
Spinning in the wrong direction...
I had typed-in programs from the various mags at the time into my Commadore and peeked and poked a bit. However it was the game "Robotwar" that got me really interested in programming. My first original programming was done on an apple ][. A turning point for me; pointed me toward programming, math and science. Cheers to the apple ][! BTW, I still boot one from time to time to play Robotwar!