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?