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.

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