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.

No comments:

Post a Comment