I was born thirty-four years ago, dear readers, in 1982. You know those flattering requests for ID when buying booze? They are increasingly rare. Sometimes my back hurts. The hour of the morning at which it is no longer tolerable to lie in bed without needing to piss ebbs further and further from dawn with each passing year.
I am old.
I am but a child of nostalgia.
And yet, sociologists classify those born as early as the late 1970s as “Millennials”.
I am an old Millennial, then – but by golly there’s quite a difference between the decades.
Say what you like about the questionable music, fashion, politics and hair-dos of the 1980s, it won’t detract from my generation’s wonder in witnessing the exponential progress of technology, specifically in computer games.
Conversely, if you were born just a little later, in the 90s, games appeared before your doe eyes in the 2000s with seamless graphics and epic scale as standard, without any hint of how they reached such quality. With the 8-bit retro revolution making an aesthetic comeback among older gamers, you 90s babies must look upon them and frown – “But it looks all blocky and shit?”
Well, yes, you’re right. Games did look shit, in comparison. But, well… just fuck off, will you?
These are the games that influenced me during my formative years. And each and every one of them is beautiful in its own special way.
International Karate + – 1987
One of the first games I remember playing and having a real emotional connection with was International Karate +, an early beat ‘em up on the Commodore 64. My older brothers preferred the earlier karate game Way of the Exploding Fist, for some reason, but it was impossibly slow in comparison to the slick, beautifully animated and fast-paced IK+, not to mention the inclusion of that third pugilist.
I also fondly remember the music and animated background, which cycled through day and night, with little fish jumping out of the lake and birds flying in the distance. Totes immersive, yeah?
It was the first game I can humbly say I mastered, as well. I played it so much, I got my character to black belt and even forced a score reset by beating 999,999 – the only game I’ve ever done that on.
I remember the tension in each bout, the timer counting down, when I’d taken too many hits to come second and stay in the game, but managed to scrape through by punching Blue in the spine before the clock ran out. I can still feel that sense of relief, those last-gasp moments. It was the one game on the C64 that really got my adrenaline pumping.
(Also, inexplicably, if you held down the letters T, R, O, U, S and E on the keyboard at the same time, the fighters’ trousers would fall down for no reason.)
Dune II – 1992
Dune II was the forerunner to the real-time strategy games like Starcraft and its ilk, but as much as I loved playing it, I remember it most for its stirring intro sequence, which remains one of my favourites in gaming. It’s the bit when the woman says,
“And the EVIL Harkonnen!”
… gives me shivers, that.
This was the first time I’d encountered a game in which you could choose to play the good guys, or the bad buys. There wasn’t much in terms of storyline or plot to separate them, but each House’s mentat (the adviser who assists you) had their own unique voice, whether it be noble and brave like the Attreides, calculating and suspicious like the Ordos, or downright mean like the Harkonnen. It was an eye-opening narrative concept for a 10-year-old.
The only intro that beats it is Soul Blade’s, by the way, which is AMAZING.
Doom – 1993
Doom was a groundbreaking marvel when it first came out, and for a number of reasons. There had been first-person 3D shooters before it, notably Wolfenstein 3D from the same developers, id Software. But Doom brought dynamic lighting effects, innovative level design and a far wider range of interesting enemies to plough through.
But the first time I played Doom was on my Dad’s 486 PC, before we’d ever considered buying a sound card. That meant all the sound effects were generated by the PC’s internal speaker, so shooting the face off a zombie would be accompanied by a digital flourish of beeps.
It was SHIT. See for yourself:
So we went out and bought a Soundblaster 16 from PC World (I don’t recall whether I paid for it, though; I would have been 11. Maybe I saved up?).
Installing it was the first time I saw the inside of a computer.
After we’d finally got the Sandblaster working, we had to format a boot disk to get the right balance of RAM and extended memory assigned in order to cope with the extra processing it needed for stereo sound.
I played that game to death – so much so, I ordered developer shareware through the mail so I could design my own levels. Soon enough, I was editing the .pak files to change the graphics, the sound effects and the music.
In the end, this controversial and gore-filled game, roundly derided by conservatives and religious folk for propagating violent tendencies in the minds of the young, taught me:
- how computers work;
- about varying forms of software distribution;
- how it was possible to modify computer games with user-defined graphics and sound;
- how level design worked – essentially Cad with programming for door functions and lighting; and
- how to explode a load of imps around a barrel of toxic waste.
Doom was one of the most educational games I ever played.
(Saying that, I doubt my teachers would have appreciated the zombie-filled replica of our school I designed).
Day Of The Tentacle – 1993
Easily my favourite point & click adventure from the ‘90s, Day of the Tentacle was visually glorious, comically melodramatic and consistently funny, even if as an 11-year-old, I didn’t understand every gag. Or, indeed, as a British 11-year-old, I didn’t understand almost anything in the entire game.
Outside of movies, DOTT was my main source of American history. I didn’t know about Benjamin Franklin “inventing” electricity by flying a kite in a storm, I had no idea George Washington chopped down cherry trees (the cherry tree myth isn’t exactly common knowledge in the UK), and I didn’t know Maniac Mansion had been a successful computer game.
But the puzzles of time-travel logic were ingenious. Need a bottle of vinegar in the future? Leave a bottle of wine somewhere in the past and pick it up distilled in the future. Need a Tentacle costume? Give Betsy Ross in the past an anatomical drawing of a tentacle from the doctor’s office in the future and use the resulting tentacle-shaped American flag in the future as a disguise to walk freely among your Tentacle overlords.
TIE Fighter – 1994
When I was 12, I was into Star Wars in a big way, especially Return of the Jedi. Yes, I know now, Empire is the superior film, but the three-tiered story-telling of the finale in Jedi remains one of my favourite cinematic sequences. I’d watch it on VHS, rewind it, and watch it again, but louder. “It’s a trap!” was my shiver-inducing moment. That to me is the climax of the freaking trilogy. Awesome.
For those unaware, TIE Fighter was the sequel to X-Wing, a space combat simulator that had you learning to pilot with the Rebel Alliance and take on the Death Star. TIE Fighter turned that on its head and let you fight as the evil Galactic Empire, filling in the narrative between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
When I got a demo copy of TIE Fighter to work, I loved it – the graphics, the immersive Star Wars feel, the perfect surround-sound effects. Even the music reflected the action: when a ship warped into the system, the music announced its arrival with a trumpet flourish, which escalated to a rallying march if it was a rebel ship, or dropped again to atmospheric background music were it an ally.
The sound made it for me – I would play with these giant headphones on, each laser blast screeching from alternating sides. Sometimes, I’d hook up a microphone, into which I’d breathe heavily and pretend to be Vader.
I think that shift of narrative perspective was really interesting too. I was rooting for the evil guys, and taking great pleasure in disintegrating the rebel scum who dared oppose my beloved emperor. It was at total odds with the movies, yet somehow felt all the more satisfying.
The writing was good too, filled with propaganda and misinformation; but it never tried to make me side with the goodies. It nurtured my dark side of the force – and that gave it narrative authenticity.
Frontier: First Encounters – 1995
The beauty of this game – other than the realistic Newtonian physics engine that underpinned its space travel mechanics, the memorable ship design and the sheer enormity of its explorable universe – was that everyone who played it came away with a different experience.
Sequel to the pioneering open-world game Elite and its sequel Frontier: Elite II, the player had the ability to pursue a career with the military, or make a fortune as a trader, smuggler or pirate, or even delve into the underworld as an assassin.
Here was a game that did away with story, plot or character, and instead concentrated entirely on world-building. And thank heavens, frankly – the CD-ROM version came with full-motion video messages that would play upon entering the bulletin boards in space stations. I don’t know where they found the “actors”, but they resembled people dragged off the street, clad hastily in fancy dress and told to read clunky meaningless lines into a tin-pot camera.
Incredible, really, considering the amount of copy they produced for the manuals and the in-game fictional journals. Teams of writers must have worked for months to collate all that material, which still puts many games today to shame (if purely word count were a measure of fiction).
Civilization II – 1996
I started playing Civilization with the second instalment, and it came close to replacing Doom as the most educational game I ever played. It did give me a wide array of general knowledge, specifically in historical monuments and characters. I learned about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Library of Alexandria, about Copernicus, Marco Polo, Adam Smith and Sun Tsu.
I’m not saying I could write a thesis on the wonders of the ancient world, or Medieval trade, or Chinese philosophy. But I do recall, when elements from the game came up at school, I knew more than the next kid, and that spark of recognition inspired me to learn more. It instilled in me a healthy thirst for knowledge.
Thanks, Sid Meier.
Wipeout 2097 – 1997
Wipeout was one of the first titles I played on my brother’s PlayStation, and it blew me away. The graphics were so fast, so detailed, the gameplay slick, the controls meaty. You could feel those air breaks on every corner. But the sequel, Wipeout 2097, was the best in the series.
2097‘s race mechanics were fine-tuned to perfection, the combat system was hugely improved, and the graphics and level design were gorgeous. Furthermore, the typography had a big impact on me – I remember I drew inspiration from it in my design graphics class for a number of projects, designing my own typeface in the composition of a videogame idea. (I wish I still had that project – I wrote an entire instruction manual for a game that didn’t exist.)
That game basically got me into dance music, to which I have since partied with abandon.
Final Fantasy VII – 1997
Probably my favourite game of all time, Final Fantasy VII was a masterclass of epic fantasy, Manga sci-fi and dystopian fiction. With sub-plots galore, the mixture of lovable characters, fabulous music and grand drama repeatedly plucked your emotions like a harp. The redemption of Red VIII’s father, for instance, made me choke.
But, famously, it was the first game to take Stephen King’s writing advice so literally: kill your darlings.
Never before had a game irrevocably put to death one of its main characters (that I am aware). Yes, your characters can die during the game – Game Over – but it was never a big deal, you can restart from a saved game, or if mid-battle, use magic to revive a fallen teammate.
But Aeris – oh, dear, sweet Aeris – in her case, death was final, inevitable and completely unexpected. It was done for the sake of narrative, to further the plot. You cannot play the game to its conclusion without Aeris perishing at the hands of the evil Sephiroth.
It’s one of the most iconic and memorable moments in computer game history for precisely those reasons. Kill your darlings, indeed.
Super Mario Kart, Super Tennis, Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Super Bomberman
One thing I think the games of today are missing is the sheer visceral joy of playing your mates on the same console. Playing over a network is all well and good, but an additional element to playing with my brothers was, if you were losing, you could jump on your competition to put them off, usually while crying “DOUBLE K-O!!!!!”
These games were pure gameplay. No complex story lines, no world-building, no fleshed-out characters. Just fun – pure and simple.
One of the great cyberpunk games of the 90s, I remember wishing they’d make a movie based on the corporate, mind-controlling, cyborg murderers. But no, they picked Super Mario Brothers to make a movie. NICE ONE, HOLLYWOOD.
Rome: Total War
Before this game was released, it featured on a TV show where members of the public were invited to assume the role of Roman commanders in a state-of-the-art, 3-dimensional reconstruction of some of the greatest battles of the ancient world. They were all idiots. But, two years later with the PC release in 2004, you could be an idiot too, in your own home!
It did, however, teach me a lot about warfare circa 2,000 years ago, and gave a real sense of scope to battlefield tactics and geographical advantages. Good for the epic fantasy scribes among you. Also, nicked the British barbarian use of head-hurling for Citadel. Thanks, Sega! (Or, thanks History, I suppose.)
Tomb Raider fostered some of the most incredible moments in gaming I can remember. Discovering the Jurassic cave and being chased by a T-Rex – giant statues bursting to life – discovering a towering Egyptian statue underground. I loved it!
But, of course, the best thing about Tomb Raider was, if you were feeling really low, you could spend time drowning things.
Got any games that really left a stamp on you? Leave a comment – BUT ONLY IF YOU’RE OLD. I don’t want to hear anything out of you wee whipper-snappers.