Sunday, April 23, 2006

Games people play

Perhaps the question I'm asked most when I (almost always) agree to give an interview in some games publication, website or such is "what's your favourite game" or "what's the best game you've ever played?". The answer to both of these are pretty damn difficult since much like music, it depends what mood I've been in, there's a certain amount of fashion element involved and it depends what we're also building ourselves. I do know that this is a crap answer and not what people are looking for :-)

So, in a bid to keep a log of this stuff, I'm going to try and periodically mention what I'm playing, why - and also letting you know what I think of it - although don't anticipate any full reviews of stuff despite holding the firm belief that I could do at least as equally well as some of the niiave, cynical "games journalists" out there. As a profession (and it's a shame more don't see it that way) I think it's got a lot of maturing to do.

So, on with the games and to start with - here's a random bunch of games I'd probably consider to be safely stacked in my top drawer in terms of their sheer impact upon my life & reasoning and also sheer fun value.

Atari VCS Space Invaders.
My first, magical, game console - and I heard its noises in my sleep for weeks. Sure, I'd been heavily captivated in arcades before it, but owning it was something else. I was about 10 at this time. I don't even want to imagine how many hours I racked up. And all this despite knowing it was a pretty lame conversion of Taito's 10p-gobbler.

Flight Simulator on the ZX81.

My introduction to "computers" on this flat, touch-pad 1K computer with a wobbly ram-pack in 1981. It was incredulous and magical that this tiny box could produce something that was almost real. Apart from the fun of "flying" and "landing" this was all I needed to really make me realise that computers and video games were where I wanted to be. My Spectrum followed soon after and for a while the creation of my own games and exploration of programming, music, art and other creative forms were all I really cared about for 30+hour spells at a time. This was a period of my life that lasted 6-7years and took me from being an adolescent through my teens without any of the usual pain of getting drunk and chasing girls - I just didn't really care about either of those. Some people could suggest I wasted a lot of time - but I've yet to discuss making up for it (and then some) by using my twenties fairly wisely :-)

Football Manager, Lords Of Midnight, Match Day and Manic Miner, ZX Spectrum.
All four of these titles stick out in what was a golden age for me personally - and that's before we even get to mention my beloved Amiga days! It was on the Spectrum that I first began tinkering with code, BASIC at first and later assembly language and I self taught myself Z80 since that was the thing to do. In 1984, myself and colleague at College, Andy Bigos, finished and got published (under the "Alternative Software" banner) our first game - a fairly mundane Jet Set Willy/Manic Miner title called "Henry's Hoard". It was reviewed in "Crash" magazine and for me, that was it, I'd made it. We shared £500 and we'd made a game. I immediately went out and bought a C128D.

Back to the games, well I spent countless hours hiding behind the couch waiting for results in Football Manager (as I know did other people in the games industry!) and the magic that Mike Singleton weaved in Lords of Midnight is legendary. Matt Smith's amazing miner game was genre breaking and very inspiring. The Ultimate games were always super-highly polished arcade affairs but they weren't as charming as some of the other, mainly UK based "eccentricities" that were around. I'm also lucky enough to have been "out on the lash" a couple of times with Mike Singleton who is a fairly eccentric genius. (Image of "Lords of Midnight" (C) Beyond).

Racing Destruction Set, Ghosts & Goblins, Commando, Leaderboard on the Commodore 64/128.
I actually think that there are less great gaming memories for me on the C64, which may sound a bit unkind, but I was more into creating my own stuff rather than playing others. I went through a period of great research in terms of games, playing and looking at as much as I could. But my C64/128 days didnt last that long and I'd soon upgraded and got myself an Atari ST and entered the world of super-powerful, desktop/icon based 16bit computers!

One thing the C64 era did bring was my subscription to Compunet and many late-night chats with people on their boards. This was back in 1984/85 when I was at college doing a BTEC in microelectronics (not that any of the electronics could safely be labelled "micro" back then!). It also opened my eyes up to sound synthesis and I spent many hours listening to the likes of Hubbard, Galway and Follin's stuff - the ultimate irony being that Tim Follin's last ever game project seems to have been our own PSP Lemmings released the other month.

Elite, on the Spectrum - not the BBC Micro, which was the fashionable thing to do.
There's this thing about BBC owners - pretty much like Mac advocates (cough) which really prevented me from ever going anywhere near a BBC apart from at College as we used them to write 6502 assembly programs on. I did have an Acorn Archimedes at one point, but not for very long at all. Anyway, getting back to the point, Elite was amazing in it's day and has rarely, if ever, been done better - most likely because such originality and total awe-inspiring newness is very, very tough to repeat. I mean sure, there have been very many "Elite-em-ups" over the years, but people always tend to wax lyrical about the original. The Spectrum version was ok, but marred by a bizarre contraption called a "Lenslock" which used refracted images as a copy protection. After 20mins buggering about you could usually get it to play.

Dungeon Master on the Atari ST.
It seems a bit rough to pick only one ST game, but I can't say just how ground-breaking and amazing this game was when it first appeared. It was HUGE. It was also the first game I had imported from the USA - something that just didn't really happen back then. I'd paid a fortune for it, but had it months before anyone else and since I was managing a game store at the time (Microbyte in County Arcade, Leeds) - I was able to whip up enthusiasm for the game and help people through the game - it was one of the shop's all time selling titles - and I hammered it, play-wise. There were a number of really good ST titles as well, but in truth the short period I had my ST was just whilst I was saving up to get myself one of the things I'd just seen in action on "Tomorrow's World" TV-show... a Commodore Amiga.

More on this later.

BTW, inbetween watching "Curb your Enthusiasm" DVD's I'm currently playing "Phoenix Wright" on the Nintendo DS (lite!) after being recommended it by a mate at Codemasters. It's a game you play a young lawyer and is a detective story. It's interesting because its fairly original - I'll do a mini review when I've played it some more.

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