Two things happened to me in quick succession the other day: I watched the excellent How Videogames Changed the World documentary and I realised that it was exactly twenty years since my last day of high school. The combination of videogame history and a more-soul-crushing-than-usual bout of nostalgia inspired me to trot down my own gaming history. In chronological-ish order, here’s a list of videogames that changed my world*:
When I was very young – I’m assuming pre-school – my grandparents were looking after me for the day while my parents were off doing who-knows-what (sleeping, if my experience of early parenthood is any guide). We walked down to the dairy near their house, and while they were buying things I wandered over to the Asteroids cabinet by the entrance. As it happened, someone must have put some coins in and then wandered off before using them all, because there was enough credit left on the machine that when I started playing with the buttons, a game started up. Obviously, I had no idea what I was doing, and spent a couple of games spinning in a circle and firing wildly before blowing up. If that wasn’t my first exposure to videogames, it’s certainly the first I remember.
Some driving game on the VIC-20 (early 80s, I guess)
In the years before home computers were commonplace, my dad would occasionally be allowed to cart one of his workplace PCs home for the weekend. The first exposure to home gaming that I can recall was some vertically-scrolling driving game on a borrowed Commodore VIC-20. All I remember is bright colours, rapid movement, and wishing I could keep playing it forever – certainly the idea of having to give the computer back (or giving my brother a turn) seemed unbearable.
Moon Patrol (1982)
I’ve played Asteroids on an actual arcade machine; I’m old enough that I must have played the original Space Invaders for real, though I can’t recall any specific occasions; I can remember playing Donkey Kong in a cafe in Greece and Dig Dug in the lobby of a Japanese hotel, but Moon Patrol was my most formative arcade gaming experience, purely because it was on the cabinet in the local dairy when I was a kid. Any time we’d go down there, if Mum was feeling generous, my brothers and I would be able to throw a few coins in it and have a play.
Omega Race/Robotron: 2084 (1982)
Eventually we got a VIC-20 of our own. As well as playing games off a cassette tape and typing in program listings from magazines (some in vaguely comprehensible BASIC, others a mess of indecipherable PEEKs and POKEs and a few in honest-to-goodness machine code), we had games on cartridges that plugged in the back – these are the two I remember playing the most. Omega Race was an Asteroids clone and Robotron was the classic shooter that’s inspired numerous remakes and ripoffs over the years. The setup is that you’re protecting the few remaining humans after evil robots have taken over the world – I remember being mildly traumatised every time I failed to save one.
Golden Axe (1989)
Next door to the local dairy was the local fish & chips shop, which for a long time had a machine running Golden Axe – this is undoubtedly the arcade game that ate the most of my money. A good old-fashioned fantasy hack-and-slash game, where you controlled a Conan-esque protagonist (loincloth’d man, bikini’d woman or sensibly-attired dwarf) and took to a variety of monsters with swords, axes and ride-able monsters. There was a spin-off for the PS3 that tried to focus on the two most memorable aspects of the original: riding monsters and staring at the warrior woman’s bum – strangely, it didn’t do very well.
Flimbo’s Quest (1990)
The family VIC-20 was eventually upgraded to a C64 and then to the mighty Commodore Amiga 500, which is what I spent most of my time gaming on from late childhood to early adulthood. I had dozens of games, almost all pirated – that was just how it worked back then. Kids swapped cracked copies of games, which spread across the world like diseases – years later when I got an Amiga emulator for the PC and downloaded disk images of all my old games, I was surprised to see that they were the exact copies I’d run all those years ago.
Flimbo’s Quest represents the first time I found myself emotionally invested in a videogame. The game itself was nothing amazing – a pretty enough platformer for the time, but repetitive and difficult to the extent that I only ever completed it by using cheats. But the ending sequence, where you finally rescue your girlfriend and hold hands as you watch the sun go down, was the first time I got vaguely misty-eyed staring at sprites on a screen.
Turrican II (1991)
Turrican II is the Best Amiga Game. Those who would deny this can just… just bugger off, OK? An action shooty platformer, it had smooth gameplay, great graphics, enormous levels and an excellent Chris Huelsbeck soundtrack. This game is the one I completely mastered – I knew every level like the back of my hand, I could complete it without resorting to cheat codes, and did over and over again. It’s good, is what I’m saying.
By 1991, I was an old hand at videogames – I knew all the genres and the tropes of each. Lemmings was the first game to stop in me in my tracks by being unclassifiable; by inventing its own genre (the save-em-up?). And by being stupid amounts of fun. I’ve no idea how much time I spent guiding the little buggers through each level (or gleefully herding them into traps just for fun), but it was a lot – I can still recall most of the in-game music (mostly jingly adaptations of classical or public domain tunes).
Supercars 2 (1991)
Supercars 2 is the Weezer of my Amiga gaming experience. I wouldn’t call myself a big Weezer fan – I own a couple of their albums – and yet whenever I had to grab a bunch of CDs for listening to in the car or at my desk (before the advent of MP3s), a Weezer album has always been among them. Similarly, Supercars 2 isn’t the best or most significant or most technically spectacular game, but it was The Game That Was Always There. After I’d played out everything else, after the Amiga had been thoroughly supplanted by PCs, it was the game that I still came back and played – mostly because it was a great two-player experience.
Cow Wars (1993)
Two reasons this obscure freeware “catapulting cows at each other” two-player game makes an appearance here: one is that it was the game I showed to friends who didn’t play computer games – it was a funny little joke that you could play for ten minutes and have a good laugh with. The other reason is that it was made in AMOS, a version of BASIC that was released for the Amiga in 1990. I had a copy of AMOS myself and used it to make various primitive games that I still have on floppy disks somewhere. Of course, no computer has a disk drive anymore, and even if I had access to one that did, Amiga disks were a different format that doesn’t load in a PC, so all my old games are basically locked in their plastic prisons, with no way of getting out to remind me of what a creative teenage dynamo I assume I used to be.
Actually, there’s a third reason: if both players timed their shots so that their cows passed each other in mid air, they’d say “hello” to each other – brilliant.
Resident Evil (1996)
I was, and remain, a PlayStation gamer – it was the console that got its hooks into me, and I haven’t had the motivation to change brands yet. We used to rent them for a weekend as a special treat, and once I was in regular (part-time) employment at University I went out and bought one as a Christmas present to myself. I’m actually not sure what the first game I played on the PlayStation was, but there’s a good chance it was Resident Evil – if it wasn’t the first, it’s certainly the one that sticks with me. When I got a PS2, it was because of the latest game in the series (Resident Evil: Code Veronica, which turned out to be rubbish). Zombie games are a dime a dozen these days, and Resident Evil is why.
Tekken Tag Tournament (1999)
I’d always been a fan of the Tekken series, especially as I was getting into Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong action movies at the same time as Tekken 3 introduced drunken boxing and animal styles to its Chan-alike character Lei Wulong. By the time Tekken Tag Tournament debuted, I was a regular Internet-goer, and found online communities devoted to the game. TTT became the first game I played socially – every Friday night, I’d go to an arcade to play with a bunch of regulars I’d met through a local Tekken site. I even went to a local tournament and did OK for myself. These days I interact with other gamers online from the comfort of my sofa, which, frankly, is how it should be.
Shadow of the Colossus (2006)
This one featured in How Videogames Changed the World as an introduction to how games could make you feel guilt; I include it because it’s just so goddamn good. Good enough that, despite owning it on the PS2 I actually paid real money for the HD release of it on the PS3. It does do a good job of making you doubt that you’re doing the right thing as you play it – the first time I took down a colossus and the music changed from action-packed intensity to a sorrowful dirge as I watched the majestic beast collapse to the ground in slow motion, I thought “wait, what? Where’s my triumphant victory music? Where’s the celebration? Why am I sad all of a sudden?”
I don’t like open world games – I’ve never got into the Grand Theft Auto series, for one – but I found myself, as I played through the game again and again, just wandering and exploring – even though I knew there wouldn’t be any hidden collectibles or secret minigames to find, its world is so well-realised that I still wanted to see what was over the next hill or through the next pass. And then there’s the bit where they (seemingly) kill your horse. Bastards.
Guitar Hero/Rock Band (2006)
My introduction to the rhythm game genre was Vib Ribbon on the Playstation, followed by Gitaroo Man on the PS2 – both excellent games, but they could never approach the majesty of the competing Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. I got my first plastic guitar with Guitar Hero 3 in 2008, then went back and got 1 and 2, then branched out into the Rock Band series, then got a PS3, which meant I could download new tracks to play on it. Then I spent rather a lot of money. A few dollars for a track isn’t much, but after a few years fiddling with plastic guitars, drums and keyboards, it adds up – I’m frankly a little frightened of counting up exactly how much money I’ve dropped on Rock Band games…
Uncharted 2 (2009)
From the earliest days of Amiga gaming (and probably before), the phrase “playing the movie” has been thrown at players by marketing people with a questionable understanding of what the word “playing” means – most games that claimed to let you “play the movie” mostly just made you “watch the game”. The likes of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls show that this kind of diseased thinking is still with us, but in Uncharted 2, decades after “play the movie” had become an annoying cliche, the vision was finally realised. This game is an action movie that you’re in control of. About halfway through, it occurred to me that there hadn’t been any level-ending boss fights of the sort you’d expect in an action game, then realised that instead of those, the game had been serving up “action sequences” to bookend its sections. Being chased through collapsing buildings by an attack helicopter or fighting your way along the world’s longest train gave all the excitement of a boss battle with much more immersion.
The Last of Us (2013)
Like Shadow of the Colossus, this one featured in How Videogames Changed the World. As with SotC, I include it, not for the reasons it made the show (namely that it represents the rise of the “game as critically acclaimed HBO box set”), but because it’s just so goddamn good. Since I wrote this review, I still haven’t had the nerve to play through it again – it’s not that I don’t want to, I’m just honestly not sure I can handle it yet.
And that’s my life in gaming. I left out a few memorable ones that didn’t quite seem significant enough (I thought about including Ape Escape for its technical breakthrough in using analogue controls, and Llamatron because Jeff fucking Minter), and there are many popular franchises that I’ve never got into, like Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid or anything by Nintendo. It’s possible the omissions tell you as much about me as the ones that made it in – on the other hand, that sounds like something a total wanker would say so we’ll just leave it there.
*I considered googling to see if anyone had already used that as a title, then figured of course they have – why depress myself with how original I’m not?