Monday, 27 June 2011

My Most Important Games Ever - Part V

Read part 4 here.

For the final part of this series I’d intended to focus on two games, the two most important games I’ve ever played.  But I quickly realized that I’d need to focus on each game in turn, so this part will focus on one game, and the next part will focus on the other.  Both of the games almost completely define the time in my life that I first played them, and their feel, atmosphere and the music chimed perfectly for me at the time.

Nostalgia is a difficult emotion to describe, but everyone knows how it feels.  In its literal form, nostalgia is severe homesickness.  The word comes from a contraction of the Greek nostos (returning home) algos (ache, pain), but is now more commonly used to describe an interest in or longing for an often idealized past.  It’s hard to say why these games have this effect on me.  Anyone with an attachment to something from their past knows how powerful this emotion can be.  The best I can do to describe it is to ask you to think of something that may affect you the same way.  It could be a TV programme, an album or a toy from childhood.  This feeling is essentially what drove me to write this series.  For example, just the music alone from the C64 version of Uridium could almost make me cry with longing to go back to a time I remember barely anything about.

I think nostalgia reflects more on the person than it does on a certain point, or the comparative differences between two points, in history.  The longing is less for the general “time” than it is for the person you were at that time, and for the experiences you had then that have helped define who you are now.  A lot of nostalgia seems to be for childhood and it’s no coincidence that this is the time in our lives when we have the least pressure, the least responsibilities, and the time when we are most impressionable.  I’ve wondered whether this sort of nostalgia affects us in the present.  I tend not to play any modern computer games and I don’t really know for sure why I don’t find them appealing.  I don’t really accept the argument that games were just  “better back then”.  This strikes me as a conservative, overly sentimental and overly simplistic explanation.  I can only conclude that the answer lies within me, or rather, in the difference between the me of then and the me of now.

Some of the games I’ve mentioned so far haven’t aged too well.  Some are just as playable now as they were then.  The final two games though are the most special to me.  The most important of all that I’ve played.  And this is the first of those two...

Wolfenstein 3D
Back in 1993 I’d been playing PC games for a while.  I’d just bought my uncle’s Amiga and he’d replaced that with a 486 DX-based PC.  I remember playing games like Dune II, Alone in the Dark, the LucasArts adventure games and X-Wing.  PC gaming was starting to come into its own and the capabilities of the machine were starting to make the Amiga look like old news.  Not long before this, a game called Wolfenstein 3D had come out.  It was the first of its kind really. I’d never played anything like it before; a game where you saw everything from a first-person perspective.  And shot things.  It was the first REAL first-person shooter.  At first we had to put up with using the PC speaker for sound.  Just beeps and pops and clicks and not much else.  But some time after getting the game we got hold of a cheap Soundblaster card and the game felt like it had been transformed.  Now there were proper gun sounds.  Chunky clanking sounds when the metal doors opened.  And a small range of speech.  The game took on a real atmosphere and you thought “How can they improve on this?”  The sequel/prequel, Spear of Destiny, was more of the same.  Little more than an add-on pack really.  Different, slightly harder levels.  

It begins
But then in late 1993 something happened.  A game was released which changed the world.  Literally.  I’d heard rumours of a follow-up to Wolf3D for a while but I wasn’t online at the time so I had no access to all the chatter on the BBSs.  And at first, when we finally got our shareware copy of Doom, I didn’t know what to make of it.  I knew everything had changed as soon as I saw it.  It was such a leap forward from Wolf3D graphically, sonically and gameplay-wise that it seemed almost miraculous.  The same basic game concept (find the exit, find the key, kill everything that moves) was taken to another level entirely.  Maps were far richer in detail and texture.  Walls could be at angles instead of always at 90 degrees to each other on a grid system.  Floors and ceilings were textured.  There were stairs and sloping floors.  Ceilings at variable heights.  Outdoor areas.  And the lighting.  Lighting was used as an active part of the game, with often terrifying results.  Graphically the game is almost a literal work of art.  A lot was drawn or painted but several monsters were actually modelled in clay by or latex and then digitized.  

The implementation of stereo sound allowed the programmers to use sound as more than just audible window-dressing.  Sound was used to scare the player, or to provide the player with information, such as when a monster was nearby or when a switch or button had triggered a distant door.  The direction and distance of a sound could be roughly determined by the player by its volume and panning position.
All of this combined to create a hugely impressive and immersive game world; one where atmosphere, gameplay and scares combined brilliantly to push the game along.  All of this is set to one of the most iconic game soundtracks ever, supplied by now living-legend Bobby Prince.  The music suits the atmosphere of the game perfectly and is often more than a little reminiscent of popular heavy metal tracks.

Blake Stone
The Doom engine was a marvel of the age in gaming terms, a wonder of the world.  When the shareware version was released it caused a sensation.  There was a rush to download the freely distributed first episode from BBSs on the Internet.  First impressions for me were shock and amazement at how far gaming had come.  X-Wing from earlier the same year was hugely impressive as a space “sim” but it didn’t reinvent the wheel.  Games like that were being released all the time, albeit few as good.  But this – it was relatively new.  Wolf3D laid the groundwork and Doom was going to build a cathedral on it.  In comparison, the same month that Doom was released, Apogee put out JAM Productions’ Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold.  While a decent game based on the Wolf3D engine, it just wasn’t in the same league.  And for years after, games struggled to be in Doom’s league.

The storyline (or lack of it) was a major point of controversy during development.  Director Tom Hall had written a design document he called the Doom Bible containing an outline of a detailed narrative and several playable characters for the game, while John Carmack favoured a much simpler, stripped down design.  Hall was eventually forced to resign from id, and many of the ideas from the Doom Bible later appeared in Rise of the Triad, which Hall helped design for Apogee.

Certain games require a tight narrative structure and some can get away with having little story.  And some games excel due to a lack of narrative detail.  One example mentioned in this series would be Elite.  The lack of any real story gave these games a very open, sandboxy feel, allowing the player to fill in their own story as they played.  Doom is slightly different as it lacks the open-world aspect.  Indeed, Doom is as linear as gaming gets.  But the lack of real detail helped to push the game along, and helps immerse YOU in the game world rather than have you act out the actions of a named protagonist.  Everything about the game, graphics, sound, music, the mindblowing game engine, and just the right amount of storytelling, really pulled you into the game and helped you believe you were there.  This is what gaming is supposed to do.  It’s not supposed to be a passive, detached experience.  It’s an interactive medium.  The game provided moments of real foreboding, when you went into a dark room with no idea what could be lurking there, and moments of real fright.  It tapped into the subconscious desire to be scared into exhilaration in the same way a good horror movie does, and provided interactivity beyond the scope of films, in a way only computer games are capable of.

Need more rockets
Big movie fans tend to get snobbish about games.  They might as well get snobbish about the LP record format.  Games are a medium unto themselves.  Movies, games and music can never be compared.  The ultimate aim of each is to entertain, but that is such a broad purview.  All three also often tell stories and it seems to me that here lies the movie industry’s largest constraint.  When looked at this way, almost the sole expectation of a film is that it tell a story.  You can argue about the art all you want but if a film doesn’t tell a story it’s probably a failure.  Games don’t have this constraint.  They are perfectly capable of telling stories, but it can often be at the expense of engaging gameplay, as anybody who has sat through Metal Gear Solid 2’s cutscenes will know.  Where some games excel is when they deliberately don’t tell a story, where they provide the world and the atmosphere for the gamer to tell their own story, and to play again and this time tell a different story.  The only limit is the player’s imagination.  And in the hands of a good developer this can be dynamite, and you get true works of genius.  Like Elite.  And like Doom.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, Doom also popularized multiplayer gaming over the LAN.  It was the first 3D game to allow friends to play against each other over the network, and actually coined the term “deathmatch”.  Doom helped to bring gaming to a wider audience through a mixture of innovation, excellent design and no shortage of controversy.  Religious groups attacked the game for its violence and overtly satanic imagery.  One level in an early version of the game lowered a maze-like set of walls to reveal that it’s was shaped like a swastika (this was later altered).

Kill Bill
By 1995 it was thought the shareware version of Doom was installed on more machines worldwide than Microsoft’s game-changing operating system Windows ’95.  Bill Gates even gave a presentation superimposed on the Doom world to advertise Windows ’95 as a gaming platform.  Workplaces were formulating policies designed to curtail the playing of the game on company networks.  A worldwide community built up dedicated to modifying and creating new levels for Doom, made easier because the developers had actually designed the game to be easily modified.

For a while, the first-person shooter genre was fresh.  Following Doom and its sequel Doom II were games like the average Rise of the Triad, the half-decent Heretic, the half-boring Hexen, the over-the-top Duke Nukem 3D, id’s own fantastic Quake and Quake II, the wonderful Unreal, Valve’s brilliant Halflife and at the back-end of the 90s came Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament, essentially network-only FPS games, with no real single-player mode to speak of.  And the FPS hasn’t stopped.  Nowadays it seems to be everywhere.  It seems that Doom’s legacy today is for every major developer to have its own online post-apocalyptic brownscape, or military grey world, populated by 12-year-old boys with headsets who seem more interested in holding contests to find out who can say “faggot” the most in a 15-minute period, turning the whole experience into nothing more than a long-distance bellowing contest.

And my memories of Doom’s latest sequel, the third in the series, leave me with just one impression of the game: how beige everything seemed to be and, following the success of the Halflife franchise, how by-the-numbers it felt.  At least until the game crashed and dumped me back on my XP desktop.  I didn’t reload.  I downloaded Legacy* and played the first two again.  And remembered why I started playing games in the first place.

Legacy is an enhanced source-port of Doom.  Get it here.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

My Most Important Games Ever - Part IV

Part III can be read here.

First up something slightly obscure from the 8-bit era.  The standard for the football management genre at this time was, not totally surprisingly, Football Manager.  It was pretty much the first game of its kind and many at the time thought it was the best 8-bit football management game of them all.  But they were wrong.  Because Advanced Soccer Simulator was better.  Better graphics, better sound and a tougher learning curve, with quicker gameplay (i.e no pauses to calculate the league table) and the ability for 8 players to play in hotseat mode.  The game came out q while after Football Manager, at the arse-end of the 80s which probably helps explain why it was so overlooked.  Sound consisted of pleasant bips and beeps when a key is pressed or the ball is kicked, and when a goal is scored (or missed) during the highlights sequence the sound seems to be a variety of bird-calls, which is simultaneously odd and brilliant.  The goal nets and ball are fantastically drawn and the crowd in the stands is animated.  Also a bit strangely, English and Scottish teams are mixed together in the same four-division pyramid.  Pitch colour was selectable from 7 options and you start out at the bottom of the league pyramid whichever team you choose to play as.  Grab an emulator and have a go.

Next is quite possibly the first Spectrum game I ever played.  Witchfiend came free with the machine and it wasn’t a complicated game.  It probably wasn’t even that good.  It did have lovely sound.  But along with the other free games (mainly Treasure Island and Punchy; more in a minute) it defined my first few months of owning a Spectrum.  It’s a pretty basic go-from-screen-to-screen-collecting-stuff-while-avoiding-monsters-and-obstacles kind of thing, although playing it now I wonder how the king ever managed to get around his palace.  Presumably everyone in this universe has the power of flight.

As for Punchy, that game was a grim psychedelic nightmare plucked from the darkest corner of the world’s most acid-burned imagination.  As a kid I had no idea what it was about.  The music was odd, the digitized speech was terrifying, obstacles were puzzling and the main sprite appeared to be a horrifically deformed semi-human with a death-wish and a fetish for flying sausages.  But when you were 7, trying to see what was on the next screen was compelling.

Next, onto the Amiga.  This game had a massive impact on me when I first saw it.  From the mind-blowing intro sequence to the brilliant graphics and animation during the game itself, Another World broke new ground in gaming.  The use of cutscenes and the cinematic gameplay have been enormously influential.  Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame cites this game as one of his main influences.  It plays like an interactive movie and for the time it looks breathtaking.  The mix of platform action and puzzles kept the game interesting, although trial and error could sometimes be necessary.  The multifunctional weapon was a real innovation.  The game screen is intentionally Spartan, with no HUD at all.  The idea here is immersion, tension and atmosphere, and all the more impressive that the game was conceived, designed and programmed by one man.  The game might be a bit short but it’s a good challenge.  Play the Amiga version – you won’t be disappointed.

Next for the Amiga is probably the granddaddy of all modern football management games, Championship Manager ’93.  It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this game to the genre.  The first game in the series, just prior to this one, seemed to be stuck between worlds – not quite as basic as the 8-bit games before it, but not quite as detailed and polished as some 16-bit contemporaries.  Thisgame, however, saw that change, bringing real player names, the Premier League and foreign players into the mix, and for realism and challenge, contemporaries were left floundering on the ground like Titus Bramble.  It was by far the best game of its kind around at the time and it still holds up today.  For me, the game delivered on the promise of an earlier title: Tracksuit Manager by Goliath Games.  I think there’s a clear influence there, especially with the text commentary during the match.  After this game, the competition were always trying to catch up and they never quite managed it.  This game started a dynasty that has lasted almost two decades and is still going strong.

N.B.  Modern Championship Manager titles aren’t related to this series.  Following a split with Eidos, Sports Interactive took their game and renamed it Football Manager.

Finally for this part is another Amiga classic.  Displaying Sensible Software’s special sense of humour and uncanny ability to make wickedly playable games, Cannon Fodder is simultaneously ridiculous and very smart.  Much too smart for the media of the time, who were outraged by the game’s over the top comic violence and seemingly casual attitude to war, all clearly satirical.  The game’s sense of humour can be a bit dark; the main screen is a grassy hill with gravestones representing each soldier you’ve lost, while a queue of new recruits lines up in front of it, and total casualties are listed like a football score at the top (HOME : AWAY).  The game’s music is fantastic, going from ridiculous to poignant and back again several times.  Each individual soldier has a name and this makes you genuinely care about their survival – losing one can be a moving experience when the casualty list is shown after each mission.  Graphically the game looks great, sharing a style with Sensible Soccer and Powermonger, and it’s wildly addictive.  One of the best games on the Amiga.  Ever.

Friday, 3 June 2011

My Most Important Games Ever - Part III

Part II of the series is available to view here.

The first game of part 3 is a Commodore 64 classic.  Uridium is a side-scrolling space-based shooter.  The graphics are beautifully drawn and the main ship sprite’s animation is brilliant, but what really sticks out for me and takes me right back to being 6 again, and sitting in front of an old beige and fake wood portable and the breadbox C64 at my nan’s is the simply stunning title music.  It’s so good I could cry.  It still sounds fresh today.  The C64’s SID chip was a marvel back then and nothing has ever sounded like it.  Sound, and especially music, were just unique on the C64.  I think truly creative original music for computer games is something that’s being lost as studios cram more and more licensed or professional studio-recorded tracks onto their DVDs and Blu-Rays.  I’ll probably do a bit on game music at some point in the future…

I’m torn on the next game as to whether my fondest memories of it are from the C64 version or the Spectrum version.  I played the C64 version of Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing before the Speccy version.  I loved the colourful graphics and the ability to customize your boxer’s race, hair colour, shorts and gloves colour, as well as their boxing style and personality.  Using your created boxer, you worked your way up the world rankings to take on McGuigan himself.  I got the Spectrum version for Christmas during the late 80s after the Mastertronic rerelease.  The graphics and sound weren’t as good on the Speccy but the gameplay was still great.  It was a good challenge too.  There were 19 boxers to face in all, each with their own style and attributes, and some of them could be a right bastard to get past.  But the satisfaction when you finally beat them made the hard work worth it.  It was a bit of a shame though that when you finally beat Barry himself and became the champ you could only defend the belt against Barry.  Ad nauseam.  Until you topped his $13 million in prize money, which I never had the patience for.  Fights were atmospheric, with an arena full of people, including camera flashes, and between rounds you were given an idea of the level of excitement among the spectators.  It was simply the best boxing game around.  I don’t think it was topped until the fairly recent release of the Fight Night series.  Get an emulator and play it.

The next game is very, very special.  I first saw it on my cousin’s Amiga.  I thought the name was a bit stupid.  Sensible Soccer?  What did that mean?  Then I saw how many teams there were.  Something like 64 European club teams.  A load of national teams.  And a load of custom teams, some with brilliantly humorous names.  And the kits could have stripes?  Or hoops?  Or sleeves, like Arsenal?  Brilliant.  And it was all editable?  Then the match started and something hit me: football games had changed forever.  This was a watershed moment in the history of gaming.  There was nothing really like this.  Kick-Off was like chickens on a pinball table.  Emlyn Hughes was great, but it was slow and there weren’t many teams.  But this was quick, intuitive, and wickedly playable.  And it looked great.  The cartoony players took a bit of getting used to but the pitch looked fantastic.  Sliding tackles, diving headers, mad curling shots were all here and all easy to perform, yet hard enough to master that it kept you coming back.  You could play a fast, possession-based passing game and it was a joy.  The matches had real atmosphere and a real tension if there was only a goal in it.  And to top it all off, the music (by none other than Captain Sensible) is just brilliant.  From the excellent title music as the opening credits rolled to the memorable menu music which takes me right back to spending hours in front of my uncle’s Amiga before I got my own.  The game spawned a host of mostly rubbish clones, and several titles were added to the series, culminating in the release of Sensible World of Soccer, which is now available to play again on XBOX Live Arcade.  It’s well worth getting.

Next up is another bona-fide Amiga classic that was expected to change the world but never quite managed it.  It was, however, very influential (see Team 17’s Worms).  Lemmings is a work of genius by DMA Design, now known as Rockstar North of Grand Theft Auto fame.  Graphically it’s not much to write home about but it does the job.  Sound is sparse but pleasing and the music is pretty decent with good variety between levels.  But the real strength of the game is the addictive gameplay.  The basic idea was to save as many lemmings as possible as they made their suicidal way across various hazardous levels.  To do this you were provided with a limited number of special roles you can assign to individual lemmings, from “Builders” to “Blockers” to “Climbers and so on.  You had to use the appropriate role at the appropriate time to interact either with the environment or with other lemmings.  For example, you would use the Builder to build a bridge over a chasm which your lemmings would otherwise walk blindly into.  A Blocker would stop other lemmings from passing and force them to turn around.  Using these ideas you would guide your lemmings towards an exit door at a specific point in the level.  At first it’s a serene and only mildly taxing experience.  Later levels do require some thought and planning but as everything is against the clock, panic could set in and you shouldn’t take too long.  All your lemmings explode when the time runs out.  I can only really recommend the Amiga version.  The Atari ST and PC versions are inferior in just about every way.  Just grab WinUAE and the game ROM and have a go.

Computer games are stupid aren’t they?  Little wastes of time for snotty-nosed kids to gawk at when they should be doing their homework or weeding the garden or sewing Nike Air Max for a dollar a day.  The little shits.  Well it’s a bit more complicated than that.  There are lots of games, lots of variety.  So some will be horseshit.  But some will be good.  Some are mindless bollocks (50 Cent: Blood on the Sand anyone), and some tax the brain a bit (see above).  Some developers couldn’t give a shit about history.  Sometimes it’s not applicable.  But some developers like history.  Some even include it in their games.  And history is a key thing for the next game.  Knights of the Sky is a pretty simple World War I flight-sim.  You begin as a green pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and fly missions between then and winter 1918.  Combat patrols, bombing, balloon-busting, all are here.  As are real World War I aces like Manfred and Lothar von Richthofen, Max Immelmann, Rene Fonck, Charles Nungesser and Albert Ball.  And you could meet up with some of them in the air.  Or once you joined their illustrious company you could issue them with challenges (just the Germans though, you didn’t want to kill your own side).  The game is hugely atmospheric and this is in part down to the authentic World War I game world, with the Western Front mapped accurately.  And this game proved particularly useful for me.  I used the game to help write a history essay when I was at school and it allowed me to provide a level of detail and authenticity that went beyond what the school curriculum had taught us.  I knew the geography of the Western Front and could include that, all thanks to this game.  And the essay was basically just an account of a short time playing this game, with any reference to the fact it was a game omitted.  Graphically it’s showing its age.  It wasn’t the best on the market at the time.  But the graphics do their job alright.  Sound is excellent and suitably atmospheric.  And as with most classic games the title music is superb; a very catchy period piano piece.  Music is also present sporadically in the game.  If you can get hold of WinUAE, play it.  The MS-DOS version is also excellent and should be playable in DOSBox. Here’s a video of the game in action on the Amiga.

All the way back now to the early 80s for another football game, one that I’ve mentioned once today already.  Every version of Emlyn Hughes International Soccer I’ve played (Spectrum, C64 and Amiga) is brilliant but I’ll focus on the original one, the C64 version.  The game is a true classic and probably the best C64 football action game there was.  It was clearly designed as the thinking gamer’s football game and it set the standard for the genre for several years afterwards.  There was nothing like it at the time for complexity of gameplay, probably until the first Playstation console featured ISS and FIFA.  The game features an enormous array of options to tailor your game, including 10 difficulty levels, whether or not to include backheels, and up to 5 kick directions so you could play the ball in directions other than the one your player was facing.  This was ideal for cross-field passes, crosses and angled shots.  Once mastered this makes the game hugely enjoyable.  Graphically it wasn’t a huge leap forward and sound during the match is limited to the odd airhorn or whistle or crowd sound during goalmouth action.  The menu music, however, is hugely memorable and very catchy.  The menus themselves take their inspiration from 80s computer operating environments such as Workbench, with a moveable mouse cursor and a toolbar with drop-down menus.  Eight teams are available in all and all are fully editable (team names, player names and abilities, kit colours), as is the match environment.  Pitch colour, line colour and ball colour are all selectable.  Playing with an orange ball was a particular favourite of mine.  The game still had an active online community as of 2009 and it’s simply the best of its kind for the C64.

Part 4 can be read here.