My name is Joe, and I’m a video games addict.
Been playing them all my life. A lot. Quite a bit less over the last couple of years, what with the writing and the child and all the rest of it, so there hasn’t really seemed an apt moment to begin to discuss them. But, as some of you may be aware, Grand Theft Auto IV came out recently, as a result of which I treated myself to a Playstation 3. So over the last few days, rather than waste all my writing time pissing about on the internet, I’ve been wasting it revving a stolen motorbike through the mean streets of Liberty City, and gunning down gangsters. More of this later, for the time being let me only say that I’ve found it not quite as magnetic as the previous installment, San Andreas, but still completely brilliant, and – very rare and very welcome in video gaming – the thing that really makes it is the humour, the personality, the writing.
But since, at 33 (a young and spritely one), I’ve pretty much grown up along with the computer games industry, and witnessed a lot of it take shape first hand, I thought it might be amusing (for me, at least), to push back the mists of time and reminisce about my long association with the medium. To pick out some of the landmarks that have entertained me, transported me, amazed me, and dare I say influenced my writing over the years…
I think we were the third household in my neighbourhood to own a computer when I was…maybe 7 or 8? My old mate Al’s dad had a Sinclair ZX80 (huge metal box with clackety-clack-clacky clear plastic keys, action something like the stops on a 1700s organ), my old mate Tom’s dad had a home-built Tangerine (the case was made out of wood. Yes, wood, painted magnolia as I recall.) We got an Acorn Atom. It had a staggering 2K of RAM. That’s 2000 bytes, or 16,000 bits, biatches! I can still remember the excitement as we swtiched it on and saw that > cursor flash, flash, flashing on the monitor (greenscreen, maybe, or it might even have been just a black and white telly with a screen the size of her majesty’s 3p stamp.) Gaming opportunities were limited, however. Probably stuff like space invaders and pac-man were out there at the time in the arcades, probably asteroids and a few others too, but on the Atom all that was really available was Stargate, in which you maneuvred a triangular block of eight or nine massive pixels left to right and tried to shoot other blocks of massive pixels which dropped from above (leaving a fizzing cathode-ray trail behind them). We were utterly gripped and stunned by it, played it madly, hammering at the clackety-clack keyboard until half the keys broke off leaving little metal bars covered in razor-sharp solder, then hammering at those until our fingertips were red-raw. Ah, happy days.
Some time later we got a BBC Model B. It had a staggering 32K of RAM. 32,000 bytes, read ’em and weep, mofos! It had eight colours! You heard right – colours! A whole bold new world opened up. Admittedly, not as much of a one as opened up for owners of the (relatively contemporary with the BBC) Commodore 64, or the sexy rubber-keyboard Sinclair Spectrum 48K. They got top-whack fly shit like Lords of Midnight (very early fantasy adventure/war game which I played about three times round a mate’s house and affected me so strongly that I still dream about it), Way of the Exploding Fist (the great, great, granddaddy of all beat-em-ups), and Marsport (whose crap side-to-side graphics and boring gameplay were hailed as revolutionary). The BBC was sold on a semi-apocriphal academic-cum-educational tip, so fun was out, at least to begin with. But we had rocket-raid, horizontally scrolling shooter, which we often played with three of us round the keyboard, my brother steering the ship, me shooting, and my dad dropping the bombs. Wicked times, bro! We also had text adventures. That is games where everything was described by text, and you would enter commands by text. Not much of a development beyond fighting fantasy gamebooks, in fact a step back in some ways. Anyone who remembers those text adventures ever complete one? I remember Philosopher’s Quest, Castle of Riddles, and Adventure Quest early on. The ludicrous thing was that, especially in these first efforts, you had to come up with exactly the right phrasing to make something work. To younger people the following will sound inconceivable:
You are standing outside a castle. To the north there is a forest.
You cannot do that right now.
You cannot do that right now.
You cannot do that right now.
You cannot do that right now.
To older people it will no doubt bring back tears of fist-clenched frutstration.
We had the BBC a long time, maybe 4 or 5 years, so things came a long way in that period. Every new game would herald some new development, and noticable genres started to appear which are still around today, albeit it in forms so hugely evolved that they are barely recognisable. Platform games, like Killer Gorilla, Blagger, Manic Miner, and later isometric stuff from ultimate like knight lore. Racing games like Revs. Horizontally, vertically, and diagonally scrolling shooters of all descriptions, always provided with a high score table that you couldn’t save and would hence be lost whenever you turned the computer off, occasionally prompting you to try and leave the computer on for ten days straight.
All this magnificent software was supplied on her majesty’s audio cassette, probably at around the cost of 8.99, which is seven thousand pounds in today’s money (or three million dollars). You’d blow thirty weeks’ pocket money, then spend ten minutes loading a game, though it felt like hours, and the machine would make a noise like, “wheeeee-gah-gaaaarrrrrggghhhh-wheeeee-gah-gaaaarrrrrggghhhh-wheeeee-gah-gaaaarrrrrggghhhh-wheeeeee” the whole time while a hexidecimal counter went from 0 to what seemed like 7000 and D, a brightly coloured pixelly picture in the background loudly proclaiming what it was you were missing. Some of you know what I’m talking about. Later floppy discs appeared – not the hard-cased 3.5inch ones that have only recently disappeared to be replaced by CD and DVD ROM and flash drives, but the proper 5.25inch floppy, wibbly-wobbly ones. The double-disk drive we had weighed about 70 kilos, and made a noise like a washing machine. But it moved like the proverbial shit off a shovel compared to audio tape, let me tell you.
The BBC also featured the first Word Processor with which I was ever acquainted. Wordstar, a piece of software so powerful that you had to send your computer away so it could be installed on the motherboard on its own chip. Me and my mate Tom actually tried to write a fantasy masterpiece on it, believe it or not. I don’t remember the title, but it featured the attempts of three mismatched young companions to reclaim the lost kingdom of their people, and featured the timeless sentence: “they will never forget their long-forgotten land.” Hugo, anyone?
So what really stands out from those sunny slopes of long ago, in terms of gaming? What do I still fondly think of, draw inspiration from, not perhaps for what it was, but for what
it made me feel? Well, for me, a game called Twin Kingdom Valley, which was a graphic adventure (basically a text adventure but with pictures) in a magical valley split by the lake of Watersmeet into a desert and a forest kingdom. The amazing thing was there was a picture for pretty much every one of its hundreds of locations. They’d seem absurd now, perhaps, but at the time it was magical. I still don’t know how they coded such a massive game into 32K. It was a also a lot more free-form than the adventures I’d played heretofore, not an impossibly grammatical puzzle in every location, and featured combat, which was WAY cool.
>HIT TROLL WITH BROADSWORD
A troll is hit with a broadsword. A troll is dead.
Now that’s more like it!
Then there was Citadel, a colossal side-on platform game from Superior Software which featured a massive game world with all kinds of settings, and some puzzles which actually made sense. Gasp. I actually completed that one, which was a real rarity back in those days. Turned out to be about an alien invasion, in the end, of all things. Doesn’t everything, though…
And finally, the game which represents by far the biggest quantum leap forward in gaming I’ve ever witnessed, which saw mind-expanding innovation in pretty much every area, which was literally YEARS ahead of its time … Elite. It was basically a space combat game, but also featured trading, piracy, bounty hunting, exploration. It was probably the first game to be entirely open-ended, so you could do whatever you pleased on it, set your own goals. The universe was indescribably massive (repetitive, perhaps, but not by the standards of the day, and undoubtedly massive). Above all, it was the first serious game to feature 3d graphics. Wire-frame, see through vector-graphics, but still. Can you believe the impact? Before, and for quite a while after for that matter, everything was cardboard sprites, usually seen side-on, often moving round single static screens. In Elite you were plunged into a three dimensional world, of objects tumbling in space, of planets and suns, of dogfights with pirate ships, of fumbling, fatal attempts to dock with space-stations.
With games that take huge leaps in one area or another, they often suffer in others. Ground-breaking graphics is all too often accompanied by shoddy gameplay. Not so here. The structure of trading, to make money, to buy better weapons, to kill pirates, to get better combat ratings, to make more money, seems simple now, obvious, maybe, but was compelling beyond belief at the time. And the flying itself was revolutionary, swift, responsive, effortlessly intuitive. The ships seemed to have weight, inertia. The AI was like nothing seen before – enemies would break off, spin, tumble away, evade. The radar was easy to read and always worked. Hard to believe it was released more than 25 years ago. Looking back on this game now, it seems such a vast leap forward that it’s almost an anomaly, an aberration that you have to consider separately from everything else that followed for about five years. It was to other games of the time as the human being is to the amoeba. This was a game so mind-blowingly good that it was successfully released, years later, on the next generation of computers with only the most passing of cosmetic changes.
Elite. Greatest game of all time? For me, probably. It’s certainly hard to imagine, in this much more jaded age, anything having such an impact across the board as that game did.
Anyway, that takes me up until about age 12, I think. If any of you give a toss, by all means share some of your own gaming experiences in the comments section. Nothing past about 1985, though! We’re going to get there later. In the next thrilling installment, I get me an Atari ST. 1024K, man! That’s right, we call that a frikking MEGABYTE! And what’s this big grey, squeaky box? It’s a little thing called a MOUSE, motherf*cker!
EDIT: On looking some of these games up on the internet, I’ve found Wikipedia links for a lot, with screenshots that might bring back some memories, so I’ve added some in where possible. You can also find video walkthroughs of some, complete with sound effects on google video. A lot of them are actually available through various emulators. Lords of Midnight is apparently still quite widely played twenty-five years later, and has a few thriving communities dedicated to it. Twin Kingdom Valley can be downloaded to play on your mobile phone, believe it or not. That’s an interesting point, actually, how as technology changes some of the classics get new leases of life on different platforms…