Friday, 27 May 2011

My Most Important Games Ever - Part II

This is part 2 of a series of blog posts about my most important computer games.  You can read part 1 here.

The first game for part two is a true Commodore classic.  Released in 1984 by Epyx, Pitstop II may actually be the first memory I have of playing a proper computer game.  I’d played games before on the Phillips Videopac but nothing like this.  Pitstop II was the first 3D racing game to have a 2-player split-screen mode, a staple of racing games right up to the modern day, despite the proliferation of online modes.  The game implemented six real-world tracks, full-colour car sprites, tyre wear, fuel levels, a controllable pit crew, three difficulty levels, an overhead scanner and invented and successfully implemented 2-player split-screen racing ALL INSIDE 64K OF RAM.  In 1984.  The cars are beautifully drawn, scenery is understandably spartan but nicely coloured, gameplay is very fast and the sound is just fantastic.  Engine sounds have an almost musical quality and the sounds during the actual pit stops are to die for.  Replacing worn tyres was a slight chore control-wise but worth it just for the sound of the wheel being fitted, and refuelling produces a pleasant bell sound.  Apparently the game is available on Nintendo’s Wii Virtual Console for a few hundred Wii points (as is one of the games from part 1, Zombies Ate My Neighbors).  If you have a Wii I recommend you get it and give it a go.

Next up is an arcade classic from Taito.  Football Champ is probably my favourite coin-op of all time and it hasn’t aged too badly.  I must have spent a fortune feeding money into this game over the years at holiday camps and theme parks.  It’s a side-scrolling cartoonesque footballaction game with a great sense of humour and a bit of a nasty streak.  You can knock out the referee in order to get away with shirt pulls, punches and flying knees.  The fat, balding ref can’t keep up with play.  Animation of the players is brilliant, with overhead kicks, diving headers and spectacular volleys all possible, and goal celebrations are simply fantastic.  Sound is also top-notch, with sporadic sampled speech, good crowd sounds and great arcadey thuds when the ball is kicked.  The game is also known as Hattrick Hero and you might be able to find a copy for PC, PS2 or XBOX on Taito Legends 2.  Failing that, grab MAME and the game ROM and get playing.  It’s great.

If the last two games are classics, the next one has become legend, if not in its own right then at least by association with its older brother.  Back in the early 80s, computer games could be primitive, and the media and general public thought they knew what a game was and what sort of entertainment computers were capable of.  Then along came David Braben and Ian Bell.  Elite changed everything.  For me it was the first real watershed in computer gaming.  At first glance, Elite is deceptively simple.  It’s a space-based trading game.  And it wasn’t even the first one of those.  Under the surface there is much more depth.  But what makes Elite special for me is that the depth is often provided by what isn’t there.  The genius of the developers seems to be that they knew exactly how much content to provide and what that content should be, and how much to hold back to allow the player to provide for themselves.  Of course, this was aided by the limited hardware of the BBC Micro and the other 8-bit machines common at the time.  But the developers chose substance over style and everybody was rewarded.  Elite also raised the bar for games marketing.  Publishers Acornsoft pushed the game, bundling a novella with the game and holding a special launch party at Thorpe Park theme park, an event almost unheard of for a computer game at the time but fairly common now.  The number of copies sold for the BBC Micro catapulted the game into the national news and the game was converted for virtually every platform then in existence.  Elite is one of the most influential titles in gaming history, setting the scene for the current plethora of open-world sandbox-type games and MMORPGs popular today.  However, all this is background (necessary background) for the game I really want to talk about.  In 1993, almost a decade after the release of Elite, the sequel was finally released to great fanfare.  Frontier: Elite II is massively ambitious in scope.  As with the first game, there is no real ultimate aim, no path to final victory.  Players are free to decide on a goal and how they want to reach it.  Do you want to be rich?  Be a pirate?  Bounty hunter?  Explorer?  Navy pilot?  Courier?  You’re free to proceed how you wish.  An entire galaxy is contained on a single Amiga floppy disk.  Attention to detail borders on the anal.  The game features actual, real-sized planets on which it is possible to land, and sometimes to mine for minerals.  Everything occurs in real-time.  Clocks in surface-based cities display accurate time and planetary motion is accurately modelled, with true day and night cycles, sunsets etc.  For gamers who crave detail, this game has got it.  There are seemingly endless worlds to explore and plenty of ships to explore them in - from small fighters to massive bulk freighters - if you can afford them.  Trading is the main, and safest, way to make money and get by in the Frontier universe.  Careers in the Federal or Imperial navy are also available.  Frontier can be extremely unforgiving.  Players are cast into a hostile universe and survival can be difficult in some of the more violent star systems.  The flight model is based on true Newtonian physics, so your ship simply does not behave like an aeroplane.  Forget to perform maintenance on your hyperdrive and mis-jump?  Tough.  You’re now several YEARS (yes, YEARS) from the nearest star system without sufficient fuel to get back.  Load your last save.  The game will not patronise you.  The MIDI soundtrack is wonderful, with classical pieces from Wagner and Mussorgsky, as well as the old favourite during docking: Strauss’ Blue Danube.  If you’re willing to invest some time and thought into a game of such enormous and ambitious scale then I can’t recommend Frontier highly enough.  It is a true gaming milestone the importance of which is still to be fully realized even today.  It is simply one of the greatest achievements in gaming history.

The next game is one of the best sports games on the Mega Drive.  NHLPA Hockey was one of my favourite games on the console.  Graphics, sound and gameplay were all fantastic and there was a decent amount of (possibly unintentional) comedy value to enjoy.  And like most great games, it had an absolutely brilliant theme tune that takes me right back to the days of 3-button controllers and cartridges with yellow tabs on.  I played this one to death and you should grab an emulator and do the same.

I first played the next game on the Mega Drive, but remember it more fondly from its days on the Amiga.  Graphically there isn’t much to choose between the two versions but the Amiga version undoubtedly had the better music, and I can’t put my finger on it but it just seemed to play better too.  Road Rash was a bike-racing game with a difference – you could use violence to get ahead.  The game took place in the world of illegal street racing in California.  Kicks, punches, clubs, all were fair game.  There can be few more satisfying feelings in gaming than knocking that bell-end Viper off his shitty bike with a big stick.  Try to grab WinUAE and find a copy of this.  Failing that I suppose the Mega Drive version would do.

Finally for this part is Syndicate on the Amiga.  This game was nothing short of mindblowing at the time and it’s still a great experience now.  It put you in charge of a corporation vying to take over a near-future, dystopian cyberpunk world.  To this end, you controlled a squad of up to four cyborg agents carrying out various missions in order to expand your corporation’s territorial control.  These missions ranged from assassinations to combat sweeps, equipment theft/industrial espionage, rescue and recruitment-by-brainwashing.  This is not Rainbow Islands.  It’s dark, gritty and morally suspect.  But it’s also brilliantly realized.  The game has a graphical style all its own.  From the excellent intro movie to the green-screen-terminal-style menus to thewell-designed main mission screen with its creepy pulsing sound, the game hits all the right notes.  If you haven’t already, you must play this game.

Part 3 is available to view here.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

My Most Important Games Ever - Part I

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot over the past few weeks.  I’ve been playing through one of my favourite games again recently (you’ll find out which one later in the series) and a thought process began.  The game always makes me feel a certain way, remembering the time when I first played it.  A very powerful nostalgia.  Almost a longing to be able to go back to a simpler time, when everything seemed easier and there was little to worry about.  I suppose it’s most likely to happen when a game catches you in the right place and time, like this one did with me.  It seemed to gel perfectly with the time in the 90s that it was released and the time I played through it the first time round.  It’s a very similar thing to hearing a song or album that immediately takes you back to a specific time and place in your life and this is the only way I can think of to try to explain the feeling to a non-gamer.

With all this in mind I started to write down the games I can remember which have this effect on me.  I expected there to be maybe 10 at the most.  But the list kept growing.  Interestingly though, very few of the games seemed to be recent titles.  I don’t think this is an indictment of today’s games.  I definitely play less games now than I used to but I don’t think games in general are worse than they were.  Maybe a certain amount of time has to pass for the game to achieve this sort of status in your mind, or it could be that I don’t engage with games now in the same way I did in the past.

As the list continued to grow I realised that this wouldn’t be a throwaway blog post but a pretty large undertaking.  I just couldn’t justify leaving some games out and including others.  So this will be the first in a series of blog posts where I’ll focus on six of these games at a time.  Most of the games I’ve chosen are from the 80s and 90s and span multiple formats, from Spectrum to C64, through Amiga and Mega Drive, PC and PlayStation and into the arcade.  Not all of the games will be great.  Some won’t even be good.  But this isn’t all about quality.  All of the games will have helped define a particular time in my life.  All will have meaning to me.  So let’s begin with the first six games…

The first game came out in 1986.  I played it to death on the Spectrum and it’s one I can still go back to with Spectaculator even now.  It’s called Footballer of the Year and it’s still brilliant.  The game is a weird cross between board game and arcade football game.   All aspects of the game are controlled by cards you either purchase with your footballer’s salary (which starts at something like £75 a week) or you receive when a random “Incident” (something like landing on a Chance square in Monopoly) occurs.  You start out as a 17-year-old footballer and the ultimate aim is to win the prize which gives the game its name.  But that’s not how I played it.  My aim was always to sign for Liverpool, score goals and win trophies.  Graphically it might not look much nowadays, and even then it was probably pretty average.  Soundwise it was quite spartan (a mix of soft beeps, sudden, grating, blaring and quite inappropriate klaxons and a great little tune right at the start, except for one wonderful, magical thing – I’ve played the C64 and Amstrad versions of the game and neither came close to the Spectrum version on this one aspect – the vidiprinter.  This, almost more than any other part, cements the game in my mind.  After every set of matches the results are “printed” on the screen by a dot-matrix printhead that looks like a bad attempt at a sprite from Kick-Off.  And the sound it makes as it prints is one of the most glorious in gaming history.  Just this sound is enough to take me back to late-80s weekends in front of the portable hoping the game wouldn’t crash before the European Cup final.

Another football game, but this time one for the Sega Mega Drive.  Released in 1990 to coincide with that year’s World Cup, World Cup Italia ’90 hasn’t aged well.  As with a lot of games at the time, the perspective is a bird’s-eye view.  The pitch looks like it was coloured in with a wax crayon and sound was a bewildering array of what sounded like muffled trouser-based accidents.  There were no free-kicks or penalties during the game because fouls simply didn’t exist.  Scoring was a simple process of playing long balls into the box and putting headers or overhead kicks into the corners (Roy Hodgson's dream game).  The music, however, was brilliant.  Each continent had its own distinct theme-tune.  South American sides played to a sort of Samba-style tune, European sides played to something like a driving rock anthem and Asian teams seemed to play along to an Elton John number.  The real fun starts though when a game ends in a draw.  The penalty shootout is easily the best and most fun part of the game and it’s one of the great gaming travesties that it wasn’t a game-mode on its own, despite the ludicrous goalie animations.   It’s not a great game.  It’s probably not even a good game.  But it was the first game I played on my Mega Drive.  I ignored Sonic the Hedgehog until I’d finished this.

The next game is one that can almost make me genuinely teary-eyed for times gone by.  From the sound of the A500 disk-drive as the game loaded (you could often tell what game was in the drive just from the sound of the disk being read) to the mind-blowing opening music to the menu screen to the game itself, Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 is note-perfect.  This game was one of the first I experienced on the Amiga and it’s still a joy now.  Before I got my own Amiga I’d spend all weekend playing this on my uncle’s machine.  The game is sort of an Out Run clone, but so much better than Out Run in every department it hurts.  The sound is beautiful and the gameplay is fast.  Each level or stage had a theme; forest, fog, night, snow etc. and on completing a stage you were given a password for the next one.  Just the passwords alone are enough to bring it all flooding back; TWILIGHT, PEA SOUP, E BOW etc.  While loading each stage a representative picture of the stage was shown and each one had its own brilliant theme-tune.  The race was against the clock and involved checkpoints, which I don’t normally like but the difficulty level here is perfect.  Just enough challenge to keep you going and keep you enjoying the brilliantly drawn scenery and fantastic sound.  It was worth crashing into a pile of sand or snow just to hear the gorgeous sound it made.  A brilliant game.

Another genuine classic next, this time for the PC.  This game began a series which was undoubtedly the best computerised Star Wars experience you could get.  X-Wing is basically a Star Wars flight sim.  And it’s brilliant.  Note-perfect from the cinematic intro to the climactic final battle.  Graphically fantastic, immersive sound-wise and appropriately ambitious with the story, which is a brilliant fill-in-the-blanks exercise surrounding the lead-up to the Battle of Yavin (if you don’t know what that is I already hate you), including delivery of the Death Star plans to Princess Leia.  The game completely immerses you in the Star Wars universe and it’s the first game I remember playing that made me want a PC, like, yesterday.  I played this one to death on someone else’s PC, and then again on my own.  You genuinely feel like a part of the ultimate success at the end of the first movie when you play it.  X-Wing spawned a couple of sequels (TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance).  Both sequels were better games in many ways but X-Wing was the beginning and it’s the one I remember most fondly.

Next is a slightly more recent release.  It was autumn of 2000 and I was in a job I couldn’t stand and had therefore stopped attending (I basically went on a 6-month sickie).  So I bought a couple of games.  One was X-Wing Alliance (very good game).  The other was Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, the one I consider the best of the series.  A (mostly) great soundtrack featuring the likes of Fu Manchu and Rage Against the Machine and wickedly addictive gameplay in single- and two-player mode.  We spent hours at a time completing the challenges on the various levels, often playing through the night to collect S-K-A-T-E at the school or whatever when I should have been in work the next day (I usually didn’t go).  The sound of polyurethane on concrete and Evil Eye by Fu Manchu define this time for me (along with Golden Virginia tobacco and lack of sleep).

And now back in time again.  I came to this one a bit late, but it seems a lot of people did because I only remember this being a hit years after it came out.  Zombies Ate My Neighbours is one of my favourite Mega Drive games ever.  Gameplay-wise it’s reminiscent of Gauntlet.  The graphics are well drawn, colourful and full of humour and the two-player co-op mode is brilliant fun.  The game takes plenty of nods from old B-movie horror fayre.  You (and an optional friend) basically run around the neighbourhood avoiding classic horror-movie monsters (zombies, men in hockey masks with chainsaws, werewolves, swamp creatures) or killing them with a variety of imaginative weapons, including water pistols, fire extinguishers, soda cans, silver cutlery and bazookas, while attempting to rescue the neighbours.  The soundtrack is fantastically judged and could have been lifted from any late 20th century horror B-movie and this really helps the game stick in the mind.  

I’m not sure about Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, but the rest of the games above can be played pretty much flawlessly using any of the excellent emulators available.  Try the following resources:-

Part II can be read here.