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.

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