Rubber Keys and Pirates

Aug 23

My story starts in the late 1980s, in a tiny prep school in Paignton, Devon. I am a nine-year-old child, and I’m sitting in the front row of the class. Next to me is a girl called Heather. Heather is the prettiest and cleverest girl there. She’s pulled off the near-impossible trick of making both her teachers and her classmates like her. Everyone wants to be Heather’s best friend. And Heather wants to be my best friend. But I don’t know why.

It’s only my first term, but I’ve quickly established myself as the boy no one notices. Even the bullies don’t bother with me. I’m the child the teachers make sit at the front with the naughty and thick ones, not because I am naughty or thick but because it helps them remember my name. Maybe Heather feels sorry for me; whatever the reason, if I just hang around with her, I’ll have everyone’s respect. Fate has dealt me a winning hand in the shape of her companionship.

But I don’t want to be Heather’s best friend. I want to be Rob’s best friend. Everyone hates Rob. Rob smells of wee and his family all live in a cardboard box. Rob tries to kick the ball in the playground and misses it because he’s a cripple. No one wants to go with Rob for any of our group exercises, except me. But why?

To answer this question, we have to go a few weeks further back in time. My parents know Rob’s parents, so we’ve gone to his house to visit them. The most important thing about this visit is what Rob and I aren’t doing. We aren’t watching Fraggle Rock. This is strange, because right now it is airing on ITV, and under normal circumstances nothing short of a house fire would stop me watching the Fraggles eat some Doozer scaffolding. In fact I’d probably have taken my chances and jumped out the window once it was over. Something really has my attention.

The something in question is a cassette, which Rob is about to insert into a small white box beside his Commodore 64. I’ve never seen one of these before; is it going to play music or something? The tape whirrs and clicks.

“You have to see this,” he says.

So we sit and wait. The words “Press play on tape” appear on the monitor. Rob presses the button. We wait some more. I’m starting to get annoyed: I want to see Gobo and Mokey eating buildings and sharing their dreams. Then, suddenly, some blippy music plays, and the title screen comes up against a coloured static background. It says Emlyn Hughes International Soccer in bright letters.

“Let me show you how you play it.”

The pitch and the players appear. The footballers are somewhat cubiform, but they’re definitely people. Rob starts to play. Most of what he’s doing is going way over my head, because I’m not really into football at this age: he’s backheeling to onrushing midfielders, he’s lobbing the keeper, he’s making his winger sidestep the full back – I don’t understand any of this. All I know is:

“I want a go.”

“Wait till this half’s ov…”

“Give me a go!”

“In a min…”

“Give me a go!”

I snatch the joystick off him. Knowing nothing of the intricacies of football, I fail to see the point in passing. Instead, whenever I get the ball I attempt to dribble it past everyone in an effort to reach the opposition goal. It doesn’t work. Pretty soon I’m bored and pissed off. And more to the point, I’ve now missed Wizbit.

But over the next few days, Emlyn Hughes International Soccer keeps impinging on my consciousness. I want another go. And in order to do that, I have to stay good friends with Rob so my parents will go to his house again. Heather can go to hell: I concentrate on my Machavellian endeavours to make him like me. And so a precedent was set: video games were to take precedence over my social standing, popularity and the opposite sex for the next twenty years.

Emlyn Hughes inculcated me into the world of the C64, but the game that had me bouncing around in the back seat of the car with anticipation whenever we went to Rob’s was Sid Meier’s Pirates! The title alone gives it the aura of a classic. How many films do you know where the writer’s name is a titular selling point? In the 80s and early 90s the name Sid Meier was exactly that: I didn’t know who he was, but the name carried gravitas. In fact, Meier was a genius and a visionary. Nowadays we’re used to the idea that video games have depth. That they can appeal to adults as well as children. That they might be tests of the mind as well as the reflexes. Meier saw this potential nearly 30 years ago.


Here’s how Pirates! works. The game was set over the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. First of all, you chose the era in which you were going to operate. Was it to be “The Silver Empire” (1560-1600)? Or the “War for Profit” (1640-1660)? What with being a pre-pubescent, not having an A Level textbook handy and not that I’d have much more of an idea today, I used to pick randomly. Next you chose whether you were English, French, Dutch or Spanish, which was easier. Then you chose your special skill. Were you especially witty or charming, which helped with chatting up maidens and securing contacts? Were you a trained Doctor, thus able to cure your wounds? I usually went for the option that made me good at shooting people.

And after that you could do pretty much whatever you wanted. You might choose a peaceful route, and make money through trade. Rob liked to work as a bounty hunter, hunting pirates for his country’s King, sometimes looking for buried treasure on his behalf, or occasionally searching for a noble’s long-lost family members. I’m an only child, so I’d just rape and pillage my way around the globe while picking fights with anyone in my vicinity, even if they were from my own country. There was no linear progression – the game finished when you chose to retire. Rob would usually amass a wealth of friends, admirers and riches, and would finish the game as a Duke or some such. I would generally die penniless after a few hours, having been stabbed in a swordfight while attempting to invade Panama on my own.

But the point is that Pirates was an incredibly sophisticated game. One had to learn rudimentary sailing (“Have I checked my weather gauge? Which way are the clouds blowing? What the hell does tacking onto a frigate even mean?”), one had to display people skills (“If I marry this lady, will that make the French angry? It will? Good.”) But one still needed the reflexes required for more rudimentary games in order to win sword fights and cannon duels with other ships. Pirates! was a game in which one becomes engrossed; more accurately obsessed. It’s no wonder it was the basis of my weekends for at least a year.

Comparing Pirates! to that which had gone before – the Space Invaders, the Asteroids – tells you rather a lot about the era in which Rob and I grew up. It’s because of games like Pirates! that I was doomed.

*

The next year, our family moved to Portsmouth. I was sent to a pretty rough state school. I arrived for my first day, and despite my trepidation, the morning passed without incident. The bell went for lunch, and the teacher told us to pick up our lunch boxes from behind her desk and decamp to the playground.

My parents were better than some at noting the fashions of the time for 10-year-olds. They were perceptive enough to realise that a Tupperware box was simply not an acceptable way to carry one’s sandwiches. What a 10-year-old child needed was a small plastic lunch box with matching Thermos that had an illustration of a cartoon character on the front. Within half a term these boxes would have their designs worn off because they’d been used as impromptu sleds for racing around the playground, but it wasn’t the point. What mattered was the fact my parents had bought me one, but they hadn’t got it quite right. I looked around the playground. Beside me, a boy was opening his Thundercats box. Next to him, someone with a Visionaries design. I looked at my own Rainbow Brite illustration, and felt a cloying, portentous sense of dread. A thin boy with a weasely face walked over to me.

“Rainbow Brite? Loser.”

People started to look up. I wasn’t sure quite what to do.

“Better than yours.”

I looked at his box. It had GI Joe on the front. Not quite as cool as Thundercats, but certainly better than mine.

The boy began to adopt a strange pose. He stood on one leg, with the other bent at the knee and his arms outstretched. I wasn’t sure what he was about to do. This was because I’d never seen The Karate Kid. He suddenly hopped onto the other foot and planted a perfectly-directed kick into my balls with his standing leg. I crumpled to the ground. The pain took a couple of seconds to register, and then I began to cry uncontrollably. Through the haze of my tears I heard a shout.

“Autobots transform!”

Out of nowhere, a stocky boy with blonde hair charged up to my assailant and started whacking him around the back of the head. The ginger boy was beaten back. Again, he attempted to adopt his Karate Kid pose on one leg. My blonde saviour just gave him a little shove, and he fell over. Then he walked over to me.

“Are you ok?”

I staggered to my feet and wiped the tears from my eyes. And that was how I met Dan Clifton, who became my best friend.

Dan loved Transfomers. He lived around the corner from me, and a visit to his house was an object lesson in jealousy. I coveted the obscure action figures he owned like Unicron (this was the one that transformed into a planet and was about half our height: apparently you could only buy it on the continent, and his father had duly obliged on a business trip) When we played in the playground, he would pretend he was Jazz (who turned into a Porsche Carrera), and I would be Sunstreaker (who turned into a Lamborghini Countach).

Why was Transformers so popular? The cartoons were excellent, especially the film which, believe it or not, reworked Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays into a grand space opera that is without doubt the most underrated film of the 1980s, but I doubt they’d have gripped us quite so much had it not been for the trimmings. Young boys tend to love things more than people, and the era in which I grew up was prolific in terms of how boys’ entertainment took a story and turned it into a franchise. For Transformers there were lunchboxes, T-shirts, duvet covers and of course the most popular accoutrements; the toys, which were always a little disappointing. Decepticons on the horizon: transform! Arses: his arm’s snapped off.

The cream of Transformers merchandise for me was the Commodore 64 game, which Dan owned and which we’d play whenever I went to his house.  It really wasn’t very good, but it had plenty of things about it which gave the impression it was. For a start, the title screen featured a faithful rendering of the famous “Robots in Disguise” music from the cartoons. It gave you control of favourite Autobots like Optimus Prime, Jazz and Bumblebee [1] which any aficionado would have to admit was a good thing. You were able to make them transform which was of course essential, and you had a full complement of Decepticons to fight. But everything else was rubbish. The characters were incredibly difficult to control; it was almost impossible to fly and manoeuvre at the same time, so you spent half the game impersonating a dying mayfly and the other half restarting after you’d pathetically floated into a bottomless pit despite not being under any kind of attack at all. While the Transformers themselves were well-rendered, the game took place against a background that seemed to have been drawn by someone with a pencil and a wonky ruler.

And yet Dan and I played Transformers for hours. I’d turn up at his house, we’d switch the computer on, and we’d play until it was time for me to go home, usually with a thumping headache and acute tendonitis. This crude representation of a much-loved brand was the best way that we could actually become participators in the Transformers story. We might have recreated those adventures in our imaginations at school, but we turned to primitive technology when we had the chance, and it tells us rather a lot about the era in which we grew up. Dan and I, you see, grew up during the Second Generation of Video Games. The games of this period were more refined than those we’ve seen in the first chapter, but more importantly, this was the period when they really entered the home.

*

The Second Generation of Video Games

The Second Generation of Video Games lasted from 1977 to 1983. “Generations” are usually used by historians when describing the story of video games consoles in the USA. Consoles didn’t have a real foothold in the UK at this point, but here and across the pond things were changing. It’s in this period that many of the gaming features we recognise today began to appear. There was an explosion in games publishing houses and consequently in the number of games available. Computer games were easy and cheap to make; anyone with a decent knowledge of a simple programming language (usually C or C++), could do it. Many of the games we played back then weren’t produced by companies per se, but by spotty teenagers tapping away on computers in their bedrooms on their behalf. A lot of these games weren’t very good, but it still matters: this was when the foundations for the games we play today were laid. There would be no Final Fantasy without Maniac Mansion, no Street Fighter 2 without IK+.

We British children had one of two machines on which to play our games. Our parents were hopelessly optimistic; they’d bought us a home computer for work and play, and it was either the aforementioned Commodore 64 (C64) or the ZX Spectrum. The Second Generation of Video Games was all about the struggle between the two, which took place during the 1980s and is obviously best conveyed by thinking about the parallel careers of reggae-influenced rock groups Men At Work and The Clash.

Early in the 80s, Men At Work/the ZX Spectrum seemed to be everywhere. Men At Work/the ZX Spectrum were considered by many to be a great deal left of centre, a lot cooler than their competitors. Men At Work announced themselves to the world in 1983 with a superb album, Business As Usual, which was instantly considered a classic, while the ZX Spectrum hit the market a few months earlier in 1982, making its name with great games like 3D Death Chase.

By contrast, The Clash/C64 seemed an overblown dud in the face of its competitor. The Clash/C64 cost more to produce, and there was a genuine feeling that for the amount of money you may as well get Men At Work/the ZX Spectrum to do the same job, even if they wouldn’t do it quite so well. The Clash were wracked by substance abuse, infighting and political differences. The C64 wasn’t, but there was a dispute in its manufacturer’s marketing division over how it should be sold which almost amounts to the same thing.

However, Commodore Business Enterprises, an American company that had made its name first in calculators, knew it had struck gold when it released this machine. It delivered more advanced graphics and sound than any of its competitors and was perfect for homes, so the company realised that it could set the price relatively low and dominate the market. This dominance meant a huge amount of software was available  – like games, over a thousand of which were released in its lifetime. If there was a popular book, film, TV show – anything really – it’d be licensed and made into a C64 game before you could say, “Well, that was a bit disappointing.” Rambo? An absolute abomination. The A Team? Space Invaders as envisaged by a gibbon. The real C64 classics were the strategy games like Zac McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders.

The ZX Spectrum was the hare to the C64’s tortoise. While it’s not that shocking to find the people who backed one of Clive Sinclair’s inventions lost, let’s celebrate it. The Spectrum was the first affordable home computer: for many people in the UK it was their first computing experience. Until the Spectrum, Sinclair had been selling pocket calculators and electronic watches. He is a man of huge ambition – often his ideas were too much for the technology of the time, and the Spectrum is an example of that, a limited piece of hardware which was easy to program, which meant developers were constantly pushing it to its limits.

By 1983 it had sold 200,000 units, helped in part by the fact it was even cheaper than the C64 (£125 – half its rival’s price). However, the Spectrum could only manage 256 x 192 colours on its screen – two colours per 8 x 8 block.  If just one pixel in a block was recoloured because a moving part of the display touched it, the entire block would change colour. Thus moving graphics caused fringes of colours to follow them around, which meant the character you were controlling ended up blending into the scenery like a blocky chameleon. The C64 had separate technology to deal with the sprite graphics (the game characters that were laid on top of the background graphics) so while many of the same games were released for both computers, they would usually look far worse on the Spectrum.

C64 users found all this very funny indeed: the ZX Spectrum vs. the C64 was the first great hardware war. Both computers’ respective fanzines carried endless amounts of vitriol and satire directed at the competitor and its users. Like most journalists, of course, the people who wrote for them were writing for their audience: they usually owned both computers. And an Atari.

By the end of the 1980s, things had changed. The Clash/C64 had secured everlasting critical acclaim, and everyone had forgotten about the ZX Spectrum/Men at Work. Well, almost. The C64 certainly outlived the Spectrum, which was eventually discontinued in 1990, and it had done so because it was being marketed in supermarkets and toy stores, coupled with the fact that it had a huge number of add-ons, like disc drives and printers. It was a proper family computer, while the ZX Spectrum looked more like a cheap games machine that you could program. However, it has left the fondest legacy: many of today’s developers cut their teeth by fiddling around with it. It started a revolution.

 

*

The next year both Dan and I moved to a new school in Portsmouth. The junior school was an old Victorian building which had been renovated. It was a massive change for both of us: many of its pupils didn’t come from the city of Portsmouth itself but from the middle class suburbs surrounding it: this was a world of rugby, cricket and good behavior, a long way from our previous school.

I didn’t realize how much the values of the place were at odds with the world in which I was growing up. When I look back at my parents’ old photo albums, I see that the photos of me in the 1980s belong very distinctly to that period, while the photos of my parents from the 1960s and 70s seem to blend into one single decade of atrociously tight T-Shirts and ludicrous trousers. The reason is simple: this was the era when technology became universally affordable and exciting.

Here’s a picture of my father with our first CD player, which means the house is going to reverberate to the sound of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s 10-minute drum solos and Marillion’s pretentious lyrics for the next decade. Here’s one of my mother with her new Christmas present: a Casio keyboard, which will allow her to take up playing the piano again, and me to take up pressing the demo buttons while she’s doing it to annoy her. In this photo is our first Betamax video recorder (we gambled; we lost) and in another is a Christmas present for me; a Walkman, which means I’ll never be without The Frog Chorus when we go for a drive.

The toys and games which had inspired children a few years earlier are still in abundance. But they’re starting to seem too much hassle. Roald Dahl and Brian Jacques are entertaining me, but books are books. When they try to become games, as in the Fighting Fantasy series (do you pick up the Gold? Yes. Then turn to page 247. Flick flick flick…a dragon eats you. You are dead.) it doesn’t really work because they’re too hard and you end up cheating. Tom, a rather tubby boy who lives in the same road as Dan and I, is given a Lolo Ball (a large bouncing ball with a disc around its circumference that one could stand on, transforming it into a kind of pogo stick) by his parents in a bid to get him out the house, but it was very hard to bounce at any great height and one day he tries too hard, falls off and breaks his leg, which means he gets even less exercise than before. My collection of Panini stickers might inspire awe in the playground, but no one’s prepared to swap me the one of Ian Wright in his Crystal Palace shirt, which means I end up spending all my pocket money on packs of them like a demented Roman Abramovich before giving up.

No, technology is what’s gripping our attention. In particular, the car is becoming the hero of children’s television. Quite apart from the Transformers, we had M.A.S.K (Mobile Armoured Strike Kommand, the most forced acronym ever seen on TV) with their super-powered helmets and transforming vehicles, and Pole Position, a cartoon series about crime fighting stunt drivers and their talking cars. Of course, this series paid homage to (or ripped off, if you prefer) the most exciting television programme one could possibly imagine, which was Knight Rider. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it had me counting down the hours until the next episode appeared. As I said, boys’ imaginations are gripped by things, not people. While I don’t remember the plot lines and the only human aspect of the show that intrigued me was the fluctuating size of David Hasselhoff’s hair, I do remember the turbo boost, the flashing red light on the front of KITT and the futuristic and funky theme tune.

What all this meant was that while I wasn’t old enough to drive, I really wanted to. Once again, I turned to Dan’s Commodore 64 for the opportunity to do so. The best game he owned was, without a question, Spy Hunter. It seemed to take a lot of inspiration from Knight Rider, which was why we loved it so much. The game was viewed from above: you controlled a sports car which was speeding down a perpetual road. As it ventured forth, it had to attack the bad cars by either ramming them off the road or using its weapons, which included machine guns, smoke and oil. If you blew up one of the many innocent cars that were pootling along the same road, you lost points (though this rarely stopped us navigating with the same aggression as a white van driver on the M1). Occasionally the road would fork and the car could drive off a ramp into some water, whereupon it would convert into a boat and the action would continue in much the same way.

Rather like Transformers, Spy Hunter was far from perfect: for instance, there was a weapons truck that would occasionally drive up alongside you: you could enter the back of it in order to pick up smoke and oil. It was a nice idea, but the truck usually ended up shunting you off the road by mistake, which was certainly something Michael Knight never had to deal with. The graphics were basic at best, but this was the closest thing Dan and I had to a Knight Rider toy. It may not have looked much, but if you squinted enough, there was KITT, charging down the open highway. In the words of the TV intro, we were entering “A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.” Again, we couldn’t rely on the graphics to do the work for us: this was a feat of imagination. So whoever was playing became David Hasselhoff. The other person would always sit next to them and say things like “Michael, use the turbo boost” in a slightly camp, robotic voice. It was great fun. And it usually put the other person off so they died and you got a go.

*

For ten or eleven-year-old boys, there was a clear hierarchy of birthday parties. At the bottom end of the scale were the ones which took place at the birthday boy’s house. In these instances, the parents had probably got it a bit wrong. We were too old for some feeble children’s entertainer to keep us occupied; jelly and ice cream were all very well but there needed to be some substance there or we’d get bored and probably start fighting each other. On the next rung up were mini-football tournaments at the local sports centre. These were better, and gained extra commendation if they were followed by a trip to McDonald’s afterwards, but they’d usually be refereed by the Birthday Boy’s father, which meant the child in question’s team always won, with him taking at least three penalties he shouldn’t have and spending the rest of the game hacking people’s shins. So I would like to humbly submit my own 1990 effort – a visit to Lazer Quest – as an example of the very first order of birthday parties.

“This,” said Dan, “Is going to be amazing.”

There were ten or so of us, and we were all breathless with excitement. We looked at the dismal structure surrounding us. We were in Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre. It has now been demolished, but it was a hulking grey Brutalist shopping centre and car park. It had gone into decline over the last few years. There were rats scurrying everywhere, boarded up windows and seedy looking characters peering out from among the damp, dark pillars. If ever we wanted to pretend we were grizzled soldiers in a barren, apocalyptic landscape, this was the shopping centre in which to do it.

“It smells of wee,” said Melissa, a girl who, despite the fact none of us liked girls, had been invited. I had my reasons.

We walked up the cast-iron stairs, and entered the foyer. I had previously been to a branch of Quasar in Devon which had plush carpets and a functioning lighting system which made you feel you were about to go bowling; this place was dark, gloomy, and differed very little from the rest of the Tricorn. My parents took care of the administration, and soon, it was time to go in. Our party, along with some other groups of kids, entered the equipment room. A member of staff did some very bad acting in which he pretended to be an alien or something and informed us of the rules: those of us on one side of the room were the red team, those of us on the other the green team.

You probably know the rest: we wore back packs which would register shots from the opponents on the chest or back and disable our gun for one minute if shot, and the aim of the game was to protect our base and attack that of the opposition. Except it wasn’t. The aim of the game as far as we were concerned was to find someone who looked vulnerable and follow them round the maze shooting them in the back in a bid to have the highest personal score. Dan had set his sights on our friend Alex, who’d injured his foot the week before and could barely walk. And you can probably see why I’d invited Melissa.

We walked into the arena and took a deep lungful of dry ice. Suffice to say it didn’t go to plan for me. There were some older kids there who were able to go without their parents and who practically lived among the tunnels, ramps and disused barrels like some malformed tribe of mutants, and they spent most of our session picking us off from one devious sniping position after another. With my single-minded determination to take out the girl among our group (who as it turned out, was a hundred times better than me), I was particularly vulnerable. I was shot dozens of times; as soon as my gun came back to life I was picked off again by someone I’d not even seen, let alone fired back at. I didn’t shoot anyone, and came last.  I finished the game and stormed over to my parents in a tremendously bad mood: it was MY birthday, and it WASN’T fair.

My parents had a challenge on their hands: a repair operation had to be mounted, and mounted fast; otherwise this birthday would be doomed to failure. As my friends were being taken home, they came up with the answer: we wouldn’t go home – we’d go for a trip to the beach. We’d get an ice cream which would begin to placate me, and then I could play on the games at the arcade. This was something I’d never been allowed to do before. And so half an hour later, I took my seat in an Outrun cabinet. My palms were sweaty: this game was every bit as exciting as Lazer Quest. This was a driving game, but nothing like Spy Hunter. Here, you sat behind a proper steering wheel with an accelerator and brake pedals by your feet while loud music and sound effects blared into your ears. It was a sensational experience, quite unlike playing a video game at home. The game actually created resistance in the wheel when you turned a corner and shook violently when you came off the road. You viewed the car from behind: this was one of the first games that had a ‘camera’ following the car, with other cars and background scenery whizzing by at a furious pace. You would finish your game full of adrenaline, your ears and hands tingling from the game’s effects.

I finished that game, and moved straight on to Operation Wolf. My parents tutted, as they thought it was a very violent game. They were right: you simply pointed a plastic Uzi 9mm machine gun that was attached to the cabinet at the screen and shot other soldiers, helicopters, tanks and in my case a great number of innocent civilians. As with Outrun, it was incredibly noisy and the gun vibrated when you fired it; it was another exhilarating assault on the senses. Also, as with Outrun, you never managed to play for more than about three minutes before you died and had to put another coin in. But I’d already moved on to Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, the classic platform game in which, as King Arthur, you attempted to save your girlfriend from the clutches of a huge demon. Very, very hard, and very good.

Nice they apologise

What does this story illustrate? Well, firstly it shows how it’s hard to lose at anything when you’re an only child. But more importantly, it shows how rapidly arcade technology was developing, and has since. Designers were thinking outside the box, using the cabinet in which the game was housed to make the game more engrossing. All of these games now look incredibly basic, and their effects – shaking steering wheels and the like – would be taken as standard for their genres today. But because of them, they could provide just as much excitement as a day at Lazer Quest, which is really saying something. In the first chapter we looked at the Golden Age of Arcade Games which is defined as having taken place earlier in the decade, but for me it took place towards the end of the 1980s, as developers realised exactly how much interplay there could be between hardware and software.

*

At our age, some lessons were more exciting than others. Music, for example, was loved by all: even if you couldn’t play an instrument it was still enjoyable; perhaps more so as it meant you’d get to spend forty minutes bashing cymbals together. But IT was everyone’s favourite. The school’s IT centre was a thrilling place. It was equipped with twenty or so BBC Micro computers, the chunky white standards of their day, which operated with truly floppy disks and on which we’d learn to programme things using Logo (usually drawing rubbish pictures or writing insults about the person sitting next to us in big flashing letters). But the best thing about the IT centre was the opportunity to visit to play educational games. Granny’s Garden and Geordie Racer were, quite simply, great.

Granny’s Garden was a puzzle game set in the Kingdom of the Mountains where you had to look for the King and Queen’s children. You also had to avoid the Wicked Witch. And by God, was that witch scary. If she caught you, it was game over. In a recent interview, Mike Matson, the game’s designer, he said he regretted making that witch the nightmare of every child growing up in the 80s, because he’d met a lot of witches since and they’d all been really nice people who wanted to save the planet. Too late I’m afraid matey. If I ever saw a witch today I’d run away screaming, and that’s because I spent half my childhood fretting about the one you created, the one who’d appear out of nowhere as a result of the tiniest cock-up, even if you’d been playing for hours, and end your game. She didn’t even kill you: the patronising cow just said: “I will send you home at once.” No continues, no extra lives, if you’re going to make a mistake then piss off home. The game was supposed to be educational, but at the time I couldn’t see why. Having worked in financial journalism I’ve revised my opinion, but it still seemed a harsh lesson.

There were a huge variety of different puzzles you had to solve. The one everyone remembers is the Magic Tree. They remember this because it was really frustrating. They don’t usually remember that it was also the most stupid. You had a grid of trees, several rows by several columns. And you had to input the coordinates of the magic one. How did you know which was the magic one? You didn’t. You just guessed – and if you got it wrong, it was game over. This might not seem very fair. It seemed less fair when you’d just been caught by the Witch after hours of toil, and you had to restart there.

The other puzzle that no one really understood was the dragons. You had four baby dragons. You had some food – oranges and chips. And you had to feed them. You were given clues as to what should be given to whom: e.g. “The green dragon sometimes eats chips. The red dragon doesn’t eat them.”, and you had to choose how to distribute the food. This might not sound too hard, but it was bloody impossible. In the aforementioned interview, Matson said he didn’t realise how hard he’d made it until he went back to it after receiving a load of letters complaining about the dragons, and discovered he couldn’t do it himself. Which, given that Granny’s Garden was designed for children in pre-prep, is a sure sign he might have gone a little over the top.

Once I’d got over Granny’s Garden and stopped having perpetual nightmares about unfair witches and impossible-to-feed dragons, out came Geordie Racer, which meant I carried on spending every break and lunch hour in the IT centre. Geordie Racer was the game tie-in to a programme that was part of the BBC’s Look and Read series for schools, which combined programmes and books to tell a story. It was set in Newcastle. The main character was young Spuggy Hilton, who unlike the rest of his family wasn’t a marathon runner, but he was a keen pigeon fancier (needless to say the repeated use of this term in each episode had predictable effects upon a class of already-giggling children).

Spuggy can’t be bothered to train for the Great North Run with his family; instead he does what any self-respecting young man would do: he spends his entire time up in the loft with his bird. This is his special pigeon, Blue Flash. One day he meets another pigeon fancier called Baz, and sees some secret messages that Baz receives by pigeon. Spuggy and his friend link the messages with a series of robberies that have been taking place. This bit was quite exciting. Then it all got ridiculous. They spy on the robbers and Spuggy is shocked that his unemployed Dad is their driver. When Spuggy eventually talks to him, his dad says he didn’t know they were actually committing theft; he just wanted a job. Hmm.

Anyway, there’s a final big burglary, Spuggy’s friend gets kidnapped, sends a message to Spuggy thanks to his stupid pigeon in the nick of time and the denouement unfolds with a tedious inevitability that left us feeling that for all the well-constructed dialogue and Kevin Whately’s solid acting the narrative structure rather lost its way. But Geordie Racer was redeemed by the BBC Micro game that accompanied it. Spuggy’s rather hackneyed adventure might not have been too enjoyable to watch, but it sure as hell was fun to re-enact in virtual form. The game was similar to Granny’s Garden; you had to decipher the codes attached the pigeons to work out where the robberies were taking place. You had to talk to other characters to gather information. Baz the bad pigeon fancier played the role of the witch. If he caught you: game over.

It’s a horrible and near-meaningless phrase, but both these games encouraged what is often called “lateral thinking”: they encouraged you to look at things differently, to challenge your own preconceptions about how a puzzle might be solved. How odd that this form of education never really took off. We wouldn’t see anything similar for another two decades or so.

*

Dispatches From The Front Line: Marcus Berkmann

The best games magazine of the late 80s was Your Sinclair. It was ostensibly about the Spectrum, but it was much more: funny, quirky and inventive, features like “Peculiar Pets Corner” meant at times it felt like reading a copy of Viz. Marcus Berkmann was one of the men who made it so good.

Alan White: When did you start at Your Sinclair (YS)?

Marcus Berkmann: I worked at YS between 1986 and 1988. The basic idea was that Your Spectrum (the old title) had been a very spoddy magazine; it was all about programming. There was another magazine run by a load of hippies with beards called Crash, which was about games and had done well. It was badly written, mainly by teenagers. So YS decided to model itself on Smash Hits. There were four of us doing the magazine, none of us older than 27.

When I joined I’d spent two and a half years out of university being unemployed, and then I’d spent two years in PR, feeling miserable. I was always into games: I had a Spectrum and a C64 and all I wanted to do was play games on them: I wasn’t interested in any other aspect of computing at all.

AW: What was the culture like at YS?

MB: It was fascinating: you realised there was an enormous market for an amusing and clever and self-aware magazine on the subject. We had a totally free hand. I had to write vast amounts of copy and rewrite reviews: a lot of the reviewers were good at playing the games but couldn’t write – they were unbelievably inept. There were two writers, me and Phil, and Sarah (the sub) and Teresa, the editor.  It was a great combination: the women were good at having an overview and multi-tasking, the men were better at having a tunnel vision and writing lots of copy.

AW: You played up the C64/Speccy rivalry.

MB: There was the underdog aspect. Commodore was a big American company, and wasn’t very nice, while Clive Sinclair was just a strange man with a beard. The whole thing was clearly run on about 5p and was very amateur, but that’s why people loved it. There was that strange explorational aspect; that sense that you were part of an odd little club, a nice place to be.

We also took the piss out of the Spectrum relentlessly: it was this tiny thing with rubber keys, it took fifteen minutes load the smallest game, and unlike the C64, it hadn’t been designed for the games industry. But programmers said that the Spectrum inspired great creativity, because there was so little to it. They had to push it to its limits. All you could really have was one colour on a black background, but an imaginative programmer could do great things.

AW: What was the wider gaming culture like?

MB: You’re looking at the pioneer days. Lots of very young people trying to create something. It was very similar to punk (laughs). It really was. Anyone who wanted to do it could do it. There was that DIY ethic which isn’t there now. At 16 or 17 you could be publishing your own games. They cost sod all to make. There were teenagers driving sports cars, seriously. Even a game costing £5.99 – it was quite a lot of money then.

AW: What were your favourite games?

MB: The two games I absolutely loved were Head Over Heels and Batman, both by a guy called John Ritman. They were puzzle solving games which required a lot of arcade skill. They were very hard games: I never finished either. Every screen was a 3D diamond and you had to get from one side to the other. They were completely geared to the Spectrum, like a beautifully designed cartoon in one colour. The collision detection – now there’s a phrase I’ve not used in a while – was spot on. The whole thing worked beautifully.  The use of the machine was amazing.

AW: Why did you stop being a video games journalist?

MB: I was employed by YS for the princely sum of about £6000 a year. This raised to £9000 after 18 months, because I was deputy editor (laughs). I was living at home because I spent my wages entirely on Tenant’s Pilsner in the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, and on Lucozade the next day to kill my hangover. I’d never drunk so much in my life. At the same time, I sold a column to the Spectator and then the Mail phoned me up and asked to start reviewing for them. By 1988 I was earning more freelance than from my day job.

AW: Did you carry on playing games?

MB: The beginning of the end was Super Mario 64. It was fucking amazing. It completely blew me away and I played it incessantly. Then I stopped for two reasons. First, I had a daughter, and video games are quite a solitary pursuit: they’re up there with wanking and Angel Delight. But secondly, I found that games started to make me really tense. I think there’s a real age thing here: you get to the point that you can’t do it any more. It’s almost the same thing that stops good sportsmen playing sport in their mid-30s. Ten years on, I still have dreams where I’m playing a fantastic game. I want to get to the next screen but I can’t bloody do it. It’s video game cold turkey.

When I started playing games you were considered a weirdo to be doing it. Somehow it’s flipped somewhere along the line. In a way it was more fun to be doing it when it was a minority activity. Two years ago grosses from video games rose above the level of films, a huge movement in the culture for me. It was a bit like when your favourite band becomes successful: you feel slightly left out.

*

Dan’s parents and mine had a lot in common. As well as living on the same road, they were exceedingly middle class. There’s middle class, and there’s middle class. For instance, Dan and I did not join the Scouts: we joined the Woodcraft Folk. You may not know about this shadowy organization: it’s basically the Scouts, but imbued with the Woodstock generation’s values. The adult volunteers tend to be left-leaning members of CND, environmental groups and the like. As with the Scouts, there are age groups – we joined as ‘Elfins’ and became ‘Pioneers’ – and I seem to remember one could win badges for various achievements and skills – navigation, wood carving, and quite possibly cous cous making and sandal wearing.

Of course the most exciting thing about any of these youth groups are the camps. These are events where the group would set up tents and marquees and have all sorts of exercises. Ours took place on Southsea Common, a weekend full of workshops and exercises which would embody the creed we said before each meeting:

Ish Ash Osh.
This shall be for a bond between us,
That we are of one blood you and I;
That we shall cry peace to all,
And claim kinship with every living thing;
That we hate War, Sloth and Greed…

“RAT-A TAT!!! DIE! DIE!!”

“GRAAGH! I’ve got a knife, I’ll stab you!”

“BLAM BLAM! I shot you!”

The assembled group looked up to see Dan and I emerging from one of the marquees. We were playing Platoon: this game wasn’t based on the Oliver Stone movie that called into question the nobility of guerilla warfare, because we hadn’t seen it. It was our version of Cowboys and Indians: an attempt to recreate the Commodore 64 game that was based on the film. The game didn’t quite portray the same sense of moral ambiguity. In the game, the fact that the US Soldiers were indiscriminate killers was a good thing, because it revolved around gunning down huge numbers of Vietnamese soldiers. Dan’s older brother, who had seen the film, would often add his own little snippets of dialogue while he played it, and Dan would tend to repeat them.

“BLAM BLAM! That’s a good gook – good and dead,” he announced to a dozen or so bemused Elfins and several open mouthed parents.

Needless to say, our little game didn’t go down particularly well, and we were instructed to stop playing with all due haste. But how telling about the changing relationship between us and the games we played. You see, Platoon was not only a great game; it bucked the aforementioned trend of film tie-ins being hastily-produced, low-standard representations of their source material. With its excellent graphics and 3-D tunnel sequences, it had actually created a believable world of its own which we could take outside and offend people with. And this is how games were starting to change: they weren’t just linear action sequences like the road of Spy Hunter or the maze of Pac Man. They presented complex, multi faceted worlds and cast you as the protagonist in them. And there were two games, above all, that defined this trend.

First of all, we have Maniac Mansion. The game was developed by Lucasfilm Games, a branch of Star Wars director George Lucas’ production company. The influence of cinema was everywhere: this game was a hilarious parody of the B-Movie genre. The plot involves six high-school friends exploring an ominous Victorian mansion inhabited by the mad Dr Fred and his family in a bid to find a local cheerleader. The whole game was full of brilliant characters, from the mad Dr Fred’s hamster-loving, army-obsessed son Ed, his dead cousin Ted (who didn’t say much), and the disgruntled Green Tentacle who never made it as a rock star. There are dozens of little in-jokes: for instance, the Green Tentacle has “THX” speakers in his room; THX being the sound technology developed by George Lucas’ production company.

The interface[2] was simple – you had a range of options like “Go To”, “Open”, “Pick Up”, and you could simply select your action and direct it at something on the screen. The format is perfectly designed for humour. You “Pick up” Weird Ed’s hamster. You see a microwave in the kitchen. Did you want to “Use” the Hamster with the microwave? Of course you did. One aspect of Maniac Mansion which made it totally different to other adventure games was the fact your characters all had different skills: Razor was a female punk rocker who could play instruments which was good for charming the tentacle that was roaming the house, while Bernard was a nerd who could fix gadgets but would run away when he saw something scary. This meant that your path through the game would vary depending on who you selected, and that it had a different array of endings depending what they did in the course of the game.

So Maniac Mansion gave us a setting and characters to compare with any movie, and it allowed us freedom to determine how the plot developed. But a few years earlier, in 1984, we had seen a game which really demonstrated the potential video games had for creating a world in which we could lose ourselves.  Elite was designed by Ian Bell and David Braben, two young designers who’d just left Cambridge and whose imaginations had been fired up by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The game was, unbelievably, first released on the BBC Micro. It was like living in an episode of Star Trek. It had space combat sequences (lovingly rendered in 3-D lines) galactic trading and the opportunity to explore eight galaxies, each containing 256 planets.

There was so much more: this was a sandbox game: like Pirates! there were no objectives that absolutely had to be obeyed. You could devote yourself to bounty hunting or piracy, to asteroid mining or exploration. One of the toughest challenges was refueling: this involved matching your ship’s rotation to that of the space station. As you built up wealth, you could build up a more powerful ship and combat rating: after hours and hours of play you could become Elite. The game came in a huge box which contained a chart, stickers, a post card to register one’s Elite status and even a novella set in the game’s universe. Well over twenty four years ago, Braben and Bell saw the potential for video games: not only could they give you with a narrative: they could provide you with the raw ingredients you needed to make it yourself. To play Elite or Maniac Mansion for the first time was to engage with a work of art, one that offered an experience quite unparalleled to anything else the decade had to offer.

*

The years 1985-1990 were, in terms of the games we played, formative. However old we may have been at the time, we don’t remember most of the games, because they weren’t very good. But the foundations were laid for the rest of our childhood and beyond. We had home computers and consoles, we had the first in all sorts of different genres of game, and we had a large market that was interested in them. But these trends had caused mayhem in America. Two years previously, the aforementioned Second Generation of Video Games had come down to earth with a bump.

The American video game crash of 1983 saw the bankruptcy of many companies that were trying to produce consoles and games. There were many reasons for it, but the main one was that the American market was saturated with poor quality consoles. There were dozens, all with their own games, and you won’t have heard of any of them. The Fairchild Channel F System II, anyone? No? How about the Magnavox Odyssey 2? Gamers were left with too many choices, so they simply stopped buying new hardware. At the same time there were some extremely high profile games released for the most famous console, the Atari 2600, that turned out to be no good (ET [3] was the most famous example), because they’d been programmed by start up companies eager to grab a slice of what was a booming market.

At the same time, home computers like the C64 were becoming relatively inexpensive and their manufacturers persuaded the market that they were a better thing for parents to buy their children than a games console. Now anyone who grew up around this time knows that if you had a C64 the percentages regarding the time and things you did on it were roughly:

  • · Word processing, music composing, any other software: 1%
  • · Sid Meier’s Pirates!: 80%
  • · Waiting for Sid Meier’s Pirates! to load: 19%

But the argument still worked. This was a shock to the American market, where there were more companies marketing consoles. We Brits carried on playing our home computers, but didn’t see any new consoles for a while. The health of video games consoles would eventually improve beyond all recognition in the USA, and one man lay at the centre of the renaissance. Unusually, he wasn’t Japanese; he was Italian. And he was a plumber.



[1] Two of the lesser ones, Hound and Mirage, had also managed to creep in. I had to look them up on the Internet: Mirage was a Formula One car, which isn’t exactly a conspicuous disguise for life on earth, while Hound took it too far and transformed into a Mitsubishi Jeep, which is about one step away from turning into a Toyota Prius.

[2] Known as SCUMM – Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, later to be used in a load of Lucasarts games from The Secret of Monkey Island to Sam and Max Hit The Road. Another little joke: Razor is the singer with the Scummettes.

[3]. A popular urban myth is that Atari buried thousands of copies in a desert in New Mexico. This isn’t necessarily true – evidence suggests it was actually broken cartridges, because the games themselves could have been recycled to save money. Don’t let this distract you from the fact that ET was rubbish.