Long Tales, Quicksaves And Sunshine

I didn’t play Computer Space. Mainly because I wasn’t born, but also I’ve never had the desire to even try to find a way; Bushnell’s futuristic cabinet always seemed too alien, and, well, it’s just too retro – even for old hands like these.

Instead, my childhood was spent with an altogether more industrial linege of hardware, a ZX Spectrum at around four or five or thereabouts (my earliest memory is being soaked with a sponge at school, disappointingly) and the considerable leap to an Amiga once my father and I had spent a good couple of hours in a shop comparing Commodore’s weighty 500 against Atari’s springly, more musically minded ST.

I’ve never touched an ST since, either, Bushnell, sorry; funny how things like that go around.

When I was growing up, gaming was a different place to be: it wasn’t cool, it wasn’t as expensive, and there certainly wasn’t what we now call the internet; indeed, even whilst a student learning how to relate databases and drawing lines about supply and demand I’d never use once graduated, the World Wide Web (remember that?) was confined to monochrome text.  Pine, Lynx, Tin.  You’re staring.  Don’t.

I never really naturally gravitated towards Windows powered PCs, other than the apparent requirement for every household to have some kind of Microsoft badged beige box that ran Netscape – instead, my Amiga (swapped out for a luxurious 1200) would see me right until pretty much my final few months at University, the campus Unix machines, finally upgraded with some now long-dead visual web browser adequate enough.

But since then, the internet has become all consuming, omnipresent.  I joked once with an ex-housemate from my student times who I’d not seen for years about things that’d changed since leaving behind the requirement to attend lectures and drink cider whilst collecting traffic cones – it was baffling to think that, back then, you’d have the internet on a mobile phone.  Now, it’s not only commonplace, for most it’s compulsory.

What’s all this got to do with gaming?  Here’s the thing: if you’re as old as I feel (work it out) then you’ll remember the good old days as fondly as I do – and yes, they were good.  Playground squabbles over which computer was better (quieten down, C64 fans) were a daily routine, but they were always ended amicably, these were mates.  People you knew.  People you played football with before tea.

It’s not like that anymore.

Sure, there’s still the fighting, but it’s behind a keyboard, bashed with the kind of vitriolic temperament that would result in a crowd shouting Fight! Fight! and at least one bloody nose, all before the morning tuck shop opened.  I don’t dislike how things have changed, not entirely, but they have.  Anything you write can come straight back at you, and whilst it’s often complimentary or constructive, it’s occasionally not.

But that’s not the only thing that’s so distinctly different: I’ve been playing Portal 2 this weekend, as you’ll know. And whilst you obviously couldn’t play Portal 2 on a ZX Spectrum (although I’d love to see something similar in 2D staring a mole and colour clash) I couldn’t help be reminded about how gaming was before the internet took over.

If you were stuck on game in the 80’s, struggling with a section of a particularly tricky level, you’d ask your mates.  If they didn’t know how to beat it, you’d write a letter to a gaming mag like Crash! and, in a month or so, you might get a printed reply in a future issue; in essence, you had to figure most things out for yourself and, due to the fact that Portal 2’s not out yet and the web’s not flooded with FAQs, guides and maps, this has been the case for me.

Not that I’ve been particularly locked out at any point for any length of time, but a couple of other journos have, and we’ve been firing messages back and forth – like playground chatter.  It’s been surprisingly refreshing – and with a plot-based game like Portal 2 it’s something of a shock to me that things haven’t yet been spoiled: I’m playing through this game without fear of the story being ruined or – and here’s the trick – without the temptation to cheat. It feels fantastic.

Of course, when you’re reviewing a game ahead of release you need to envelope yourself in it, locked away from the sunshine until you’ve finished the story and tested the multiplayer – and you’re not expected to ask for assistance.  Luckily there’s little sun to tease me, and the game’s compelling enough to make it worthwhile, again: something of a rarity these days.

Where’s all this going? Well, at not for the first time, I’m wondering if, in another 25 years, when the gaming industry’s imploded in its own self importance and AAA budgets, that we’ll look back on these times of instant access and text-based scraps as fondly as I recall my gaming youth.  It’s not about the 8-bit graphics or bleeper sounds – they look and sound like shit now – it’s about an ethos, a subculture, a passion. It’s about memories.  It’s about playing games.

Maybe part of me wants to just be four again.  Or was it five?

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20 Comments

  1. I remember playing 3d monster maze on my lovely ZX81 with the 16kb memory expansion pack. My dad bought it for me second hand and had to go to WHSmiths to get their endorsed cassette player so all the free tapes that came with it I could play.
    Still have the cassette player in the cupboard under the stairs.
    Traded the ZX81 in years later for money towards the C64, which I remember when they first released here in the UK were a bugger to get hold of the commodore tape deck for, as they were in short supplies. My dad had many a heated phone call trying to get hold of one for me so I could have it all in time for christmas!
    Good times…
    Jeff Minter where are you now??? Loved his games! Met him once at a computer fair where he had spray painted his Atari computer. One mellow man!

    • Jeff Minter is currently producing games for iOS devices, under the banner of Llamasoft. As only he could.

      • Thanks for the info Mugsybalone, hopefully there maybe a few remakes in there somewhere :)

      • No worries. If you are of the Apple-inclination, check out Minotron 2112 – it’s a remake of Llamatron, as far as I can tell.

      • Yes I just checked them out on the App store. Cant believe I missed all his stuff!

      • I know, they’ve been pretty low key releases, I only picked them up by chance, hadn’t heard anything about them beforehand. I suppose it’s only the old gaming gits like us that are too bothered about them!

      • Oh yes bought them both, Minotron is a classsic, Robotron and Mino Rescue is the classic Combat on the Atari VCS.

    • I would read all the time about Jeff Minter in the magazines but the only game i got to play was Revenge of the Mutant Camels which was awesome and i think still has some burn-in on my retinas! ;)

  2. I struggled a bit with the first Monster Hunter, I didn’t have anything internety around so I would’ve been stuck being murdered by the Yian Kut Ku… shame I gave up, until MHFU was released. That really changed things now with a PS3 and pc I could check out guides for a few items only to learn that they’re only obtainable through G-lvl quests.

    Adhoc Party also helped, there’s not a chance that any of my friends would have owned a PSP or have lost interest, but Adhoc Party was a godsend. The community helps low ranks very kindly, I’ve done this a lot.

    Times have changed drastically haha…. since the Sega Master System and Mega Drive years

    • Yes Adhoc party is a God send! A very good system to get into PSP multiplayer games with.

  3. Back on the older systems I used to love inventing pieces of the storyline in my head, it wasn’t fat with information covering who’s had what for dinner last week like Oblivion etc (don’t get me wrong, I love that game, just a bit much to read through !).
    Using your imagination was key to playing any game, just as it was when you read a book or a comic. Even in the days of a master system or nes there were less than 1/2000 words containing plot facts and dialogue, in the most in-depth of games like FF or Zelda too. Creating the relationships between the characters in the game and wondering how vast the universe of it is was amazing fun. Now it seems like it’s all been laid out for you to just collect, ignoring what you want to create in your own mind. The web hasn’t helped there either, it just makes it an even lazier gamer out of the lazy.
    Another this is a bit of friendly competition amongst mates, if someone else was further into a game than me then you could bet your backside I was going to stay up all night trying to get even further than that. If I was already further into the game then you could bet your backside I would stay up all night trying to retain that gap.
    Why ?
    The reason is this, If a mate or myself were the greatest at that game then we were the best in the world ! Our world and that’s all that mattered. In some cases people even gained notoriety as being ‘The Best’ and if they were then it seemed like they truly were the best in the living world. But again, the web now diffuses a large chunk of that charm in being great locally and speaking for myself, it de-motivates becoming great as the leaderboards usually show me just how rubbish I am.

    Great piece Al, think that’s my longest post ever !! :D

    • “Back on the older systems I used to love inventing pieces of the storyline in my head”

      Me too. Shame we don’t / can’t do that anymore.

  4. Lovely article, i’m reading it sunday “morning” having just stumbled out of bed – and i haven’t had my coffee yet.
    I also cut my teeth with a ZX81, bought by mail order myself by earning money doing a morning milk round. I remember going in to the post office every second day for 2 weeks until it arrived – such was my anticipation and impatience! :)
    The nearest computer store to me was over 50 miles away and very few others at my school had a home computer so i devoured every magazine i could get my hands on. Occasionally, the family would make a trip to the city and i would head straight to the computer store where sadly they had nothing for ZX81 but it was wonderful being able to chat with people who shared my hobby.

    Then one day i spied a 2nd hand Vic-20 in the window of our local electrical store – i must have stared at it longingly through the window for a few weeks before deciding to sell my ZX81 to a kid at my school ( at a profit! ) and used that as a deposit. It was a remarkable upgrade from the ZX81 as it had both sound and colour! :D
    Around the same time a neighbour got a ZXSpectrum and persuaded me to swap for a week but i was’t impressed and after 2 days i was knocking on his door asking – no demanding to swap it back… i guess that was the start of my fanboy-ism as i stuck with commodore until the end of the Amiga days. :)
    Anyway, i’ve probably rambled on a bit now so i’d better go get that coffee!

  5. I wasn’t as early as you guys. Started on a hand me down NES in ’93 iah. Mates all got megadrives not long after. I held out until PSX. Still – it was the same thing. Got stuck? Ask a friend, wait for a magazine to print a walkthrough, or eventually work it out yourself.

    Great times.

    LAN parties were awesome, only time I’ve enjoyed Halo.

  6. Damn I feel too young when people even discuss the days of the NES and SEGA Mega Drive (although I played both at the tender age of 3). I’ve never had the kind of friends I could share game information with, but i definitely cherish those days of isolation, and especially with the Gamecube and PS2, when I really started to get into gaming. I didn’t get the internet until 2 years after i got those consoles, and it was really nice just to play them without distraction and temptation, or the temptation to read reviews to check if they’re good enough to purchase, ruining surprises in the process.

    I guess my current illness hasn’t helped me in enjoying new games, and i’ve definitely had fond times on the Xbox 360, but games just seemed so much more exciting when I picked up that Gamecube demo disc in Woolworths and watched it over and over again. It makes me hope that the new Nintendo console will feel like the Gamecube again. X(

  7. Ahh, speedball on the amiga 500. Many hours of my youth sunk right there.

    Have got it on iPhone now and it is just like I remember.

    • I didn’t really get on with the iPhone version. The graphics looked a bit smoothed, and the controls were fiddly. Great original though.

  8. Cool article :-)

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