Tears, Tantrums and Tetris

Aug 23

n.b. certain names have been changed. In retrospect I probably should have changed my own, too.

THE stresses and strains at my new school had been quite different to those I had experienced in the state system. There were the teachers: furious, ex-military men who seemed to have marched straight off the set of Where Eagles Dare, and who perpetually seemed to be either threatening to dangle us out of the window by our ankles or attempting to bond with us by telling stories about hideous deaths they’d seen in the Falklands. If you avoided them you were usually taught by one of several cardigan-wearing harridans, the worst of whom had teeth that looked like they had been put in by a lunatic and who considered late homework a personal affront akin to murdering her cat. I was one of the few people in the school who managed to be in one of her classes for three years in a row.

Worst of all was the relentless assessment of you as a human being. The school had one main corridor, in which were displayed everyone’s completed Red and Blue Badge tasks. One could attempt these tasks during lessons: once the entire set had been accomplished, you were allowed to wear a Red or Blue Badge on your blazer. The Blue Badge, for example, required you to recite twenty lines of poetry in English, swim 400 meters in swimming class, throw a cricket ball forty yards in PE, and so on. There were dozens of these little challenges, and to obtain the Red Badge the difficulty was doubled.

To reach any of the classrooms the child had to traverse this corridor, which meant that between every single lesson he was reminded of his standing – academic or sporting – in relation to that of everyone else. It put you in the kind of dystopian nightmare envisaged by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, in which every human being is graded and categorised. Were you an Alpha Plus, successful at every discipline and set to be a ruler of all those badgeless plebs, or were you an Epsilon Minus, half an evolutionary step up from a monkey at best, and set to one day work as a lift operator if the rulers were feeling generous? I was fresh from a rough comprehensive and had never played much sport, nor worked particularly hard in class. The teachers felt I had ape-like manual labourer written all over me. I achieved a blue badge after three years of graft (and because a teacher kindly, and subtly, replaced the cricket ball I was trying to propel for the ‘throwing’ task with a rounders one), but was almost alone in leaving the place without a red one.

In years to come, once my addiction to gaming took hold, was there some part of my memory that was pining for the success I never achieved on those primitive high score tables? That will to compete, that indefinable urge to improve on what had gone before, to make sure the job was always done, the badge always earned – was it engendered in these corridors? Was gaming just another outlet through which I could tell myself that I was good at something? You see, video games are usually a male pursuit, and a major reason for this is the fact that the average male – whatever he might say – is incredibly competitive. Despite any evidence to the contrary, he knows, if really pressed, that he is superior to his friends. He’s fitter than them (or will be once he makes it to the gym; for now he’s surviving on natural athleticism), he has a better looking wife or girlfriend (in the right light), and he has a better career (pending). His friends can’t be better than him at video games. If they were, they wouldn’t be his friends. This world-view is bubbling under the surface: all it takes is the right game to bring it out.

Thus: decades later I am invited by Dan – the very same – to his flat, along with Tom, an old friend from my school days. Dan has dug out his N64, ‘just for a laugh’, and we are playing an old classic from our youth: Goldeneye. The aim of the game is simple – run around an Aztec Temple and shoot each other. In this version, we have a selection of pistols lying around the level which can be used for this purpose, and have set the game so that you only have to be hit once to be killed (at which point you reappear somewhere else, without your gun). This makes things incredibly tense, as you never know when someone will suddenly appear around a corner and gun you down. First to ten kills wins.

It's BRILLIANT

I stumble across an automatic pistol and immediately see Tom up ahead. He has his back to me. As soon as he sees my bullets flying over his shoulder, he knows he’s screwed; finally one hits him. Laughter all round, compliments on achieving the first kill of the day. A minute later Tom and I come face to face in a corridor. My bullet misses: his hits me between the eyes. “Some of your own medicine!” he laughs. I don’t.

Tom kills Dan, picking him off from an elevated position as he sees him running across the floor below. A superb shot.

“Well, I guess you’ve had a bit of time to practice,” says Dan. Tom has been struggling to find employment for a couple of months. He frowns.

Meanwhile, I have been creeping up on Tom, again. I shoot him in the back of the head, again.

“Some of your own medicine! Some of your own medicine!” I say, in a mocking voice that somehow contains elements of rage, contempt and pride all at the same time. He nods, silently. A look of cold determination sets in on his face.

“So, how’s Suzy?” asks Tom, trying to make polite conversation. There’s no way he’d ask that if he knew Dan was going through a painful break up with his girlfriend, surely? Dan shoots Tom with a Cougar Magnum. This is impressive: the Magnum is powerful compared to Tom’s Walther PPK, but of course, when it only takes one shot to kill someone you want the gun with the least recoil so you can get your shots off as quickly as possible, and the Walther is far superior in this regard. Such are the minute considerations passing through our minds at every instant, along with larger concerns such as whether one of these smug bastards is going to shoot me if I don’t turn this corner in the next half a second. The weight of these pressures always boils over.

“In your FACE! IN YOUR FACE!” Dan screams, appropriately enough into Tom’s face. Tom tries to look appalled. He doesn’t fool anyone. Decorum has long since passed. In fact it went out of the window the moment we picked up our controllers.

The time is running out. Tom and Dan have nine kills each, while I have five, mostly because I am rubbish, and also because I find the whole game so tense the only thing I can do is find somewhere to hide and take occasional pot shots as people run past me. Tom and Dan are in the temple’s central chamber. Tom has a gun: Dan doesn’t.  Dan is wheeling around the room as Tom’s bullets fly past him, frantically trying to find a weapon.

“Oh shit! Oh shit!” He’s screaming.

It's really BRILLIANT

There are no guns for him to pick up. Suddenly, I stumble into the room, having been aimlessly meandering around the maze in circles for the last five minutes. Tom sees another target; another way to complete his elusive ten kills. He fires at me and, complete luck though it is, I sidestep the bullet and try to fire back. One bullet hits the floor a couple of yards away from my toes, the other flies 30 yards over my target’s head. Dan, meanwhile, runs up behind Tom and punches him in the back of the head. He has won, despite not even having a gun.

“RAAAAAAGH!”

Tom’s howl is one of pure rage. He glares at me.

“What the FUCK did you think you were doing?”

“I was just…”

“You put me off – why couldn’t you just stay out of the way?”

“But.”

“You wanker. You absolute WANKER.”

There are few pastimes where Tom’s uncontrolled rage would be quite so understandable. If this tantrum had come after a game of Trivial Pursuit or Pass the Pigs there would be a good case for us to have him sectioned. Yet so engrossing is this game that it has had an effect on him that few other hobbies could. Such passion, such will to win, such expectations disappointed – these are rare feelings for a mild fellow like Tom to feel. So swiftly have the competitive instincts been drawn out of him that his failure has essentially become a metaphor for scores of similar disappointments throughout his life; and Tom’s has, make no mistake, been a life of never quite making it – to his first choice of university, as an artist after university, with the first girl he ever loved while he was there. Is it any wonder that a single game of Goldeneye could take on such significant weight in this fundamentally disappointed man’s eyes, and provoke such a violent reaction?

I almost reply.

*

The Best Toy Ever

Aged 11 I was in town shopping with my mother for a friend’s birthday present.  As usual, I didn’t really care what she bought him: I was there to point out the toys I wanted for my own birthday. In the corner of the store there is a television screen. Beside it, a plastic gun. A Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I have seen this toy advertised on television, but there it had an improbable air to it: there seemed no way it could work. I pick up the plastic gun. On the screen, a dog walks across a field. He sniffs the air and dives into some long grass. And suddenly, a duck flies up in the air. I look at the gun, a hideously orange piece of plastic. I point it at the screen and pull the trigger. There is a bang, and the screen flashes. For a second the duck is suspended in mid air, a look of shock on its face. Then it flutters to the ground, and the dog reappears holding it in its paw. A direct hit. Oh. Oh my. It really does work. This is the best toy ever. Or so I thought.

Twat.

Let’s go back in time. Nintendo was founded in 1889 as a company which manufactured hanafada cards (a variety of Japanese playing card).By the middle of the 20th Century it had moved into the electronics business, selling light gun games and other titles such as Computer Othello for arcades, and distributing American consoles in Japan.  In 1983 it launched its family computer (the Famicom), which was its own home video console. Its major innovation was the D-Pad controller: VCS joysticks usually gave people cramp after an hour or so of play and tended to break. It became a huge success, selling 500,000 in its first two months on the market. The company’s president decided it was time to take it to America.

However, the great Video Games Crash which had happened the year before had left a very difficult North American market: suppliers thought video games were just a passing fad, while consumers were haunted by the memory of numerous terrible Atari 2600 releases. The man leading Nintendo’s American division, Minoru Arakawa, loved his product, but felt that the United States had simply given up on video games.  “Console” was a dirty word.

He set up shop at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The CES is a nerds’ party, with pumping music, models in sexy outfits wandering around and walls of televisions everywhere. The aim of the CES is for electronics companies to impress journalists. To this end they might spend up to $5 million on a single show and on the spectacular parties that follow. Arakawa had a little booth with one Famicom and a few games. Not a single order was placed.

He knew he had a tough challenge. He started by changing the name to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Then he introduced ROB, which some people think saved video games. ROB was a little white and grey robot that was bundled in with the console in America. He came with a game called Gyromite. It was a platform game, in which you had to run around collecting sticks of dynamite. But there were blue and red gates in the way. ROB could open these by putting one of his spinning tops onto a blue or red pedestal (they’d only stay there if they were spinning, so you had to make ROB put the top on a spinner before he transferred it to the pedestal). You controlled both ROB and the character on screen via your controller, so while you were shifting the spinning tops around your character was vulnerable. This interaction between human, robot and television sounds great, but the game was about as much fun as passing a kidney stone, and marginally more difficult. Gamers usually managed to avoid the temptation to cheat by doing Rob’s spinning themselves for about ten minutes.

Rubbish.

But that’s not the point. ROB (together with the aforementioned light gun game Duck Hunt) constituted one of the cleverest Trojan horses ever deployed by a company. It gave the impression that the console was an innovative new toy – as opposed to a console. However, at the next CES, the NES still received a lukewarm reception. Many people liked the games, but there were no orders. Arakawa tried focus groups, which did little to inspire confidence. One eight year old said the NES was “shit.” Arakawa wanted to pull out of America, but Nintendo’s CEO told him to stick at it: the Famicom was still popular in Japan, which meant it was just a matter of time. He said the best option was to test the NES in the toughest market of all: New York City.

Arakawa told team members that they were not to use the term “video game” at any point in the selling of the console to retailers. The 500 retailers who first sold the NES were made a risky offer by him that went against the wishes of the company’s CEO: a money back guarantee. Any merchandise they did not sell would be bought back. Arakawa and his team worked themselves into the ground, demonstrating the system by day, delivering products by night. After three months of exhausting work, they had sold 50,000 units: enough to prove video games weren’t dead.

ROB was dropped by Nintendo in America the year after the NES had been released. The console had sold a million units – but was the NES, bereft of its gimmick, another dud? Not a bit of it: from here on, word of mouth (and the quality of the new games for it) would do the rest. In the following year, 1986, three million more were sold, a figure that doubled the following year. It was an incredibly rapid development for the game cards company, and it might have been so different had it not been for a little robot and a plastic gun.

*

I really, really wanted a NES. Soon the nagging began in earnest. Please, Mum, please, Dad. If you get me a NES, I promise I’ll come top of the year in my exams. Honest. How about that? The child’s campaign is run with a pathological intensity. He accompanies his parents on every trip into town, just so that he can stop by a shop that has it in its window and paw mournfully at it. He tells them that Nick’s got one, he tells them that Mike’s got one; he has, in fact, no idea whether Nick and Mike have one or not. If Nick or Mike do happen to have one, he invites them round to tell him all about it in great detail, making certain Mum or Dad overhear. Apologising for the lack of such basic amenities in his own house, he then asks if, in their absence, Nick or Mike might like to perhaps do some homework with him, at which point they both politely decline and say they are going home to play with their NES. Effectively managed, such an onslaught can get the goods delivered prior to the child’s birthday.

It soon began to dawn upon my parents that the NES was, in fact, not for them, but for me, and me alone. And at the same time, it was dawning on me that this toy was utterly brilliant. Duck Hunt and ROB had, of course, quickly lost their appeal. Like most people, I remember the first single I ever bought, but unlike many, I also remember the first game.

Megaman 2. The first thing you should know is that it was very hard indeed. A lot of games are hard, but not in the way Megaman 2 was. This game psychologically bullied you. It got under your skin. It highlighted the things you should do, and then mocked you when you couldn’t do them. It would lull you in with an easy bit, then hit you with a hard bit that took you a week to get past, and once you’d managed that and cheered up because you assumed you were about to finish the level, it’d slap you down with another five hard bits. Aged ten, this was all a bit much too take.

Arguably the most confusing thing was the box art

You were an android, who, for some reason I can’t quite remember, needed to fight other androids. You would progress through a level of your choice, each containing a number of platforms and enemies, until you reached the android at the end. Each one had a special power. Airman blew tornadoes at you. Freezeman froze time and shot you, and so on. Once you’d killed the android, you gained their power. And those powers might help you beat other androids. So if you couldn’t kill Airman, you might try to kill Freezeman, and see if having the ability to freeze time helped.

What really made the game a bastard was that if you were good at games, it wasn’t that hard. This might sound obvious – but the problem I had was that I’m only alright, and in Megaman 2 that made the difference between romping through the game and abject failure. Take your battle with Quickman. He was a complete shit. If you were locked in a room with him and just your laser gun, you were essentially fighting yourself, but twice as fast and powerful. He wasn’t impossible, mind. Oh no, a good gamer could just about overcome those odds; would, indeed, relish them. But I wasn’t a good gamer. It took me two weeks. Quickman was my first inculcation into gaming frustration.

That's the prick. Right there.

Gaming frustration works in three phases. The first phase is pure frustration, and this occurs after about three days. It builds from annoyance into white-hot rage remarkably quickly. “Agh.” Agh no.” “Aggh.” Agggggh.” “AGGGGGHHH!” The second phase, after a week or so, is bitterness. You begin to feel angry with the game; it’s punishing you; and you don’t know why. You think bullets have actually missed rather than hit you – that the fault is not with you but the game. “Oh yeah; yeah, that’s going to happen, isn’t it?” It just did. “Oh yeah, that’s fair, isn’t it?” It was. And all the while the rage is building up, until you are just sitting there in your room unleashing primeval howls. You stop eating. Your parents presume you’re masturbating and, terrified as to how you’re going about it, maintain a dignified wall of silence. And yet after another week there is still phase the third. And the third phase is despondency. When you are playing but don’t really know why. It’s probably time to get a new game. You’re trying, but not really. It’s just impossible. Surely no one can do this?

And that’s why Megaman 2 introduced me to that nirvana that lay beyond the stages of gaming frustration: the Nintendo Helpline. How on earth did those people – if indeed they were people – know the answer to every question? How could they have such a complete knowledge of every game? Whenever I called, it was quite clear they were speaking without using any kind of reference book.

 

“Hello, is that the Nintendo helpline? I need you to help me. Please help me.”

 

“Alright, calm down. What’s wrong?”

 

“It’s Quickman. He can’t be beaten. He just can’t be beaten.”

 

“Oh, Megaman 2.”

 

“Yes…how did you….”

 

“You just need to kill Crashman first and use his weapon. He only takes a couple of hits if you have it. Bye now.”

Extraordinary. I remember calling them another time about a bit that contained a number of very tricky jumps across collapsing platforms with a dragon chasing you. Was there some sort of cheat that could get me across? There was not. Instead, I was told: “You kind of have to think about it beforehand, and just feel it.” So I did. And it worked. The only possible explanation is that the helpline had been outsourced to a team of Buddhist monks. Anyway, Megaman 2. You needed to be the complete gamer. Oh, it was all very well working on your reactions and timing, trying your damnedest to win fair fights – but if you didn’t think outside the box, it just kept on kicking you, again, and again, and again.

Scary as shit

A game like this would haunt you. In class, I’d look around, say, the biology lab. The benches would become platforms. The Bunsen burners would become enemies. My eyes would trace Megaman’s path around the room, bouncing over that tripod, circumnavigating that Petri dish. The bell would go after school and I would sprint to my locker, retrieve my bag and sprint back home. Then I’d play until it was time to go to bed. I’d get up, and repeat. A few weeks later I completed the game, and it all stopped, just like that. I felt a bit like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, except the game never killed my pets.

All of which might sound incredibly bizarre to the uninitiated. Why on earth would you play with something if it makes you so frustrated? Aren’t there enough annoyances in our day-to-day lives? Certainly, it was something my dad couldn’t understand: he’d had hobbies in the past; and while some of them might have had an element of challenge there, there was a crucial difference. What did my dad do in his spare time when he was that age? Made model kits, played his guitar, a bit of football. I can see why he’d worried. If he played his guitar, for example, at least he had a musical talent, from which he could profit in some way – economically or socially. Football makes you fit, and if you build a model kit then at least you’ve got a toy at the end of the time you’ve invested. Video games, on the surface at least, don’t seem to offer you anything; they just seem to put you in a bad mood. What is the point? The answer returns us to that ill-tempered game of Goldeneye. It is all about the competitive instincts.

When I look at the adults I know who play video games – and I am talking about real losers here: men in their 30s, who will, of a weekend, choose to stay in and play games over any other options – they generally tend to share one very specific trait. They may be borderline social autistics, far more interested in things than people, and they may well suffer from a great many self esteem issues. But somewhere, flickering under the empty pizza boxes and crusty socks that cover the floor of their lonely bedsits, there is a competitive fire that never goes out. When it comes to video games – and indeed other little challenges: a game of pool in the pub, for example – theirs is a severe will to win that makes Lance Armstrong look a bit half-arsed. A lost game of table football wrecks the evening for them and everyone else. They are the sort of men who study Ordnance Survey maps for weeks before they go paintballing, and who think nothing of aiming for their opponents’ testicles during the game itself.  What they could achieve if they ever learned to apply this attitude to the rest of their lives.  What holds them back? Fear of failure on a bigger stage?

*

We are the talking animal: the only one that has a craving for narrative. It doesn’t matter if you are nine or ninety: a good story will grip you. Young children have their stories: fairy tales, Dr Seuss, Spot the Dog. Adults have theirs, be it Shakespeare, Dickens or Jeffrey Archer. But the early teenage years…ah, there we have a problem. Today there’s Harry Potter, admittedly. For me there was Roald Dahl. But to be honest, for a few years there was little else of any quality. Look at children’s TV: you had a half hour window – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – which came in between the programmes for younger kids like Playbus, and the interminable ‘mature’ programmes like Blue Peter. And no it wasn’t a national treasure, unless you considered Yvette Fielding bothering some lifeguards a fascinating piece of television.

That’s what made the NES different. In the previous chapter I argued that some games had reached the level of art. These trends continued: we were moving further and further away from the likes of Pac Man.  NES games were produced by huge game developers like Konami and Capcom that could afford to employ scores of programmers, not knocked out by clever nerds weaseling away in their bedrooms. On the C64 you could barely recognize who the characters were supposed to be: on the NES the characters were not only iconic; the programming houses pushed the machine to its limits in an attempt to place them in believable worlds. And once again, you had control over the sequence of events that comprised the plot. Samus Aran, Metroid’s intergalactic bounty hunter, was not stuck on a set path within the game world: she could explore wherever she liked. What initially looked like a simple platform game was in fact one of the first truly non-linear gaming experiences. As with The Legend of Zelda, this meant you spent a lot of time wandering around trying to work out exactly what the fuck you were supposed to be doing, but the game was so cleverly designed that you were never left waiting for too long.

With Pong you know exactly what to do – hit ball, repeat – but with these games you hadn’t a clue what to do beyond the most basic interactions – “attack”, “use”, etc. You have to look around and receive feedback. You eventually realize, in Zelda, that if you hit a rock with your sword, you might discover a secret passage. But that doesn’t always work: you might have to give a jar of water to a man on a previous screen, or pour it on a plant or something else instead. The game’s made up of hundreds upon hundreds of such moments; it’s entirely comprised of a subtle reward structure. As the academic Stephen Johnson argues, the intelligence of video games lies in their cognitive challenges, not their depth of theme or character, nor even their aesthetics. But this isn’t what makes a video game a work of art, for me, is the way that it manipulates this intelligence in order to arouse one’s emotions. For example: in one version of Zelda you might play for hours in order to find a temple containing the Master Sword which will, it is said, bring peace to the land of Hyrule. This seems like a huge step forward, but when you step outside you find that Hyrule itself has been decimated: the world in which you have been playing has totally changed, and now you must find out why. Joy at the apparent reward for your endeavours has been quickly replaced by shock and intrigue.

Two other things strike me about the games I used to play at this time. The first is that, further to my Megaman 2 experiences, a lot of them were really sodding hard. Games for the NES were designed to frustrate you. If you couldn’t complete them, you kept trying until you went mad. Buying a new game was for wimps. It’s fair to say business models have evolved, which means they’re easier today.  Take Batman: I had to buy this game, obviously. It was very expensive (£39.99 if I recall correctly). This was because sumptuous graphics and sound cost a lot, and it did look like the entire game was directed by Tim Burton. It took me months to reach the Joker at the end of the game, and I never once beat him. He was able to kill you by summoning bolts of lighting. Jack Nicholson never did that in the film, which I know doesn’t excuse me breaking my controller by slamming it on the floor.

Batman, apparently

Double Dragon was incredibly difficult too: we’ll do beat-em-ups in full, but this superb game introduced many staple rules to the genre. To whit: a) You fought to save a girl who was dressed like a prostitute. B) Any other girls you encountered in the game were also dressed like prostitutes, and would attempt to whip you. C) Most of the male baddies looked like they were rejects from either Grease or The Village People. Another tricky one was 1943 – The Battle of Midway. This was a vertical shooter where you had to pilot a plane off the coast of Midway Atoll and attack the Japanese. Just like the Second World War, you only had one life. Just like the Second World War, you had little chance of survival. Unlike the Second World War, it was fun.

One of the toughest was Contra, an incredibly difficult platform shooter which for some reason no one seemed to mind took its title from the opponents of Nicaragua’s Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional in a conflict which claimed 30,000 lives in the early 80s. Fortunately Contra had a cheat code; a series of buttons you could press on the title screen to give yourself extra lives. To this day it is worth saying “Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start” in any number of social situations, assuming you want to meet people as sad as me.[1] Hardest of all was Battletoads, which managed to seamlessly blend fighting, platform leaping, racing, climbing and almost every other type of game together. I think it might be the best game ever to have appeared on the NES, a landmark title that has rarely been emulated and never bettered. I say “I think,” because that’s what other people tell me: it took me two months to get past the third level, at which point I realized I had better things to do. Like have another go at the Joker and his invisible lightning conductor.

The other thing about NES games was how offensive they could be. Make it to the end of Bionic Commando, for example, and you are greeted with the endearing sight of your nemesis’ face exploding as a rocket hits it. He happens to be an army captain who looks like a certain German leader of the 1930s and 40s. And then there’s Mike Tyson’s Punch Out: possibly the most politically incorrect game ever. Here are some of the opponents you fought: Soda Popinski, the drunk Russian (he was originally called Vodka Drunkenski, but having had his name changed, he still referred to the fact that he was pissed between rounds); Von Kaiser, the German who’d taunt you with such lines as ‘Surrender! Or I will conquer you!”, and Francesco Pussi from Italy, who’d change sides midway through the fight and try to help you. Actually I made the last one up. At the end of the game you’d get to play Iron Mike himself. I can’t remember if his special move was the ear chomp or the aggravated assault charge. Probably both. And what about S.C.A.T: Special Cybernetic Attack Team? [2] I didn’t own this, admittedly. But what a title.

He in no way reminds me of anyone from history

*

Video games were just another part of a whole world of play. For a child of ten or eleven, this world is defined by its limits. I knew where I was allowed to play (within the confines of the estate we lived in), I knew with whom I was allowed to play (children who lived in my estate), and I had some idea of what I was allowed to do (hide and seek, football, cricket, riding my bike/skateboard all ok; lying under a makeshift ramp and daring Nick to leap over me on his BMX apparently not: one learned by degrees).

And therein lies the problem faced by every boy. The outdoor world of play is reliant on the imagination. The shrubland at the back of the estate? An Indian burial ground. The old lady who lives on her own and shouts at us when we go near her house with a football? A witch, of course. The old house up the road, which has been boarded up for years? Haunted, obviously. But imagination can only go so far. The boy learns every nook and cranny of the roads where he lives, knows every hiding place backwards, and soon all the fun has run out. A block of flats appears on the Indian burial ground, and it is soon forgotten. The wicked witch becomes friends with your parents, and now she keeps inviting you into her musty little house for interminable cups of tea. The haunted house turns out to contain some broken furniture, a few dead rats and someone’s decaying stash of porn mags, which was actually more exciting than a ghost at the time, but still.

What all this leads to is a desire to break the rules: to go further than you are allowed to, to do things you know you shouldn’t be doing. Most of the time this tendency is held in check by the very imagination that makes playing so much fun. For instance, my school put up a metal barrier on one side of the playground because it was next to a car park, which was in turn next to an army recruitment centre. The school felt that this might be a potential IRA target, and so we were not allowed to play near it. Paranoid? Perhaps. The move of a teaching staff containing several old sea dogs and war horses who, given free reign, would have gone a step further and set up machine gun turrets on the school’s roof? Very possibly. It did, however, have an extraordinary effect on those in the playground. Every so often, a football would be booted over the barrier, and whoever had kicked it would have to sprint round the barrier to retrieve it, convinced – absolutely convinced – that they were in mortal danger, seconds from being blown to pieces. Five seconds later and ten yards away from the fence they would continue playing football, utterly assured that they were safe from harm. Aged ten, they didn’t know about the dynamics of a bomb explosion or indeed the likelihood of Irish republicans attacking a provincial army recruitment office: they just knew adults don’t get this sort of thing wrong.

So it was that when my mother told me it was dangerous to go out of the estate, I didn’t: because out there be monsters. This was why John presented a problem. One day he turned up while I was playing football with Dan and another couple of kid from my road. He had, I assumed, been dropped off by his mother to stay at one of their houses. A slovenly looking boy, his clothes and general demeanor made him look like a cross between Sid Vicious and an unmade bed. It transpired that he had come to the estate under his own steam (one of those black Raleigh BMX bikes that had a sound effect box attached to the handle bars: cool was still a hard-to-grasp quality, but John, it need not be emphasized, was it). John began to hang around with us and play football more and more often. His mother, apparently, didn’t care where he went of an evening. Soon, we became best friends, whereupon we hit a snag. John couldn’t understand why I never wanted to leave the estate where my house was located; was I lazy or something? Yes, that was it, lazy, I’d reply. Of course, the shame of my over-protective parents was something he could never – never – discover. But I had to do something, or the truth would be revealed.

Dan’s parents, meanwhile, had never specified where he could and couldn’t go, for the simple reason that none of the other kids ever left the estate. He was merrily going on jaunts with John whenever the need took him. I had to take the plunge. So one day, John asked if I wanted to go to the shop about half a mile from the estate. Why not, I replied. Off we began to trot, John whistling and counting his change, me with my heart racing and trying very hard not to wet myself, peering round corners to make sure no adults who’d recognize me were around. John bought, if memory serves, several Referesher bars and a Feast for each of us. After such a reckless venture, it seemed the sky was the limit. And this was the second problem: John was a very naughty boy indeed. His parents were undeniably laissez faire, and as such he would find any way he could to amuse himself. We began to take more and more excursions. Once we broke into an empty building and, upon our entry, we were confronted by an angry security guard, who asked for our details. John ran off. A terrible situation. Panic flashed through my mind. What would my hero do?  He’d unsheathe his adamantium claws and kill him. No good. Bereft of alternatives, I elected to cry my eyes out. He let me go.

John was becoming a real problem. I knew it was only a matter of time before one of these adventures would land me in trouble, but we were friends – it seemed I was trapped on a runaway train of mischief. One afternoon I asked John if we could go to his house. If we could just spend more time here, the limits that had been placed upon me wouldn’t be apparent to John, and I’d stay out of trouble at the same time. Once inside, we tramped up to his bedroom, and there in front of me was a Sega Master System: the answer to my prayers.

While this console would keep us out of trouble, it did make John one of them.  The Master System was the NES’s rival machine, another console born in the aftermath of the 1983 crash. It was released a year after the NES, and only ever took off in Europe. It was a very similar console to the NES (though slightly more powerful), and it even had its own equivalent of ROB. While they didn’t fulfill quite the same role in tricking the market, the Sega Master System’s 3D glasses were a hilariously pointless and utterly unworkable gimmick which rendered the few games on which you could use them entirely incomprehensible. Still, 5/5 for effort. Anyway, the Master System vs the NES had been one of the playground debates of the time (Wright vs Rush, Ambrose vs Younis, your dad vs mine in a fight etc), and these arguments usually followed a familiar format: “Master System!” “NES!” “Master System!” “NES!” “Why?” “Because screw you!” and the territorialism was felt strongly: there were NES boys and there were Master System boys, and n’er the twain would meet.[3] John was one of them. I didn’t like this, but I had to go along with it.

So he plugged in his favourite game: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. I don’t quite know where to begin with this. Mr Big, a drug dealer, had kidnapped a bunch of children, so you had to be Michael Jackson and save them – or at least pull them out of that particular frying pan. And so Jacko had to defeat Mr Big’s henchmen by beating them up, throwing his hat at them and, most lethally, dancing at them. This killed them all. Really. Sometimes he could pick up Bubbles the Chimp, which turned him into a robot, making him impervious to gunfire. The best aspect was the fact that the soundtrack was all old Michael Jackson songs, if in rather primitive and blippy form. It’s the fact that games like this exist that make me wonder whether my childhood wasn’t just one drawn-out and especially bizarre dream.

The whole cultural phenomenon was plain bizarre

“You like it?” asked John. “Then you’ll love this.” He plugged in Golden Axe: this, too, was bloody brilliant. It was a side-on fighting game which was great for several reasons. Firstly, you could control fantasy characters, like a dwarf and an Amazonian warrior, but everyone knew the only one to be was the big bloke with a sword. Secondly, you could ride animals to facilitate your progress through the levels. One might have thought you’d be astride an imposing stallion, but instead you usually rode a tiny dragon. This made it look like you were marauding through the enemy’s land on a Shetland Pony, which was even better. And thirdly, from time to time, midgets would wander onto the screen. If you smacked them over the head, they dropped treasure. Which I never bothered to collect, as I was already looking for more midgets to beat up.

The other game we played rather a lot was Streets of Rage; interesting, in retrospect. Like the other two games, it was a beat-em-up. The difference was that Streets of Rage had pretensions to realism. The plot ran that Mr. Big (another crime boss, presumably no relation to Jacko’s nemesis) had taken over a city, and two police officers had decided to put an end to his reign. As they were martial artists, they had to do this by thumping the crap out of everyone who came near them.

In some versions of the game you would see little flashes of blood when you punched or kicked someone. It was set in a gritty urban environment. Among Mr Big’s henchmen were some women, who were dressed like prostitutes. They sometimes tried to whip you. Women tended to act like this in video games; in fact, they still do. Nearly twenty years later, in March 2008, the Daily Mail carried a piece (one of many similar articles) entitled Anne Diamond Gives Her Chilling Verdict On The Violent Video Games That Are To Carry Age Ratings. [i] Anne had been playing Dead or Alive, another beat-em-up, and had this to say: “The girl characters are overtly sexy, half naked, with gravity-defying breasts and unbelievably long legs. The men are Ninja-style hefty, muscly warriors, so this is all about machismo and bravado. I watched and played this one and thought it was pretty mindless and stupid.”

We could point to the sophistication of Dead or Alive’s graphics, (so skillfully rendered are those overtly-sexualised women), or the complexity and subtlety of its control system – the elaborate button combinations required to pull off those martial arts moves – in order to argue that the game is far less mindless than she claims. But the important point is that it has been this way for twenty years at least: and back then this violent game was the one thing keeping me out of trouble. There have been dumb, violent video games and intelligent, imaginative ones for years – they are no different to movies in this regard. Yet contemporary media coverage has always implied that this is a brand new phenomenon. Here’s a line from Anne’s review of Resident Evil 4:

“This game shouldn’t be allowed to be sold, even to adults […] When I played, I was stabbed to death with pitchforks amid fountains of my own blood. This kind of violence can only be bad for you.”

Well, no shit. What’s that – I’m taking it too literally? Maybe I’m not the only one. Since the 1980s the media has seen violence in video games as a factor behind a rising tide of negative youth behaviour: they are a bad influence. The Columbine High School killers were reported to have been obsessed with the video game Doom, and it was cited as a factor behind the murders. But this simple correlation between youth violence and violent video games is too easy a generalization to make. A US Secret Service study found that only 12 per cent of those involved in school shootings were attracted to violent video games, while 24 per cent read violent books and 27 per cent were attracted to violent films.[ii] When we look in more detail at the Columbine case, it seems that the two youths involved were latching onto any piece of culture, from songs and films to the work they produced in creative writing classes, in order to validate the murders that they were to commit. Doom was certainly another outlet for these tendencies, but could it have sparked the fuse and caused the tragedy to take place? There’s little scientific evidence to support this theory: a 2007 report by psychologists at the University of Toronto demonstrated that other factors such as families and schools were more likely to play a part in youth violence than video games.[iii] But this debate is more complicated than it seems: when we return to it in the next chapter, we’ll see how much the effects vary according to the type of game and the person playing it.

*

I was developing a passionate relationship with video games, as were many of my peers. Of course, what was happening was not just new to us; it was new to everyone. When you are older, things don’t tend to change much, so when a genuinely new social phenomenon appears, you’ll tend to have a strong reaction to it. When mobile phones came along I was enthralled. I thought a new era had been ushered in, that we were entering a Golden Age of communication and, by extension, human progress. On the other hand, reality television made me think it would be matter of weeks before we were living in caves and eating each other’s crap.

Such is adulthood. But as a child everything is new and exciting – so it was that as I first fell in love with my NES, I was in the process of moving to senior school. The fancy art department with the Sixth Formers’ godawful attempts at pottery strewn around it, the IT suite, the strange sight of my new English teacher with a group of Sixth Formers – these pupils, like adults – these manchildren – talking with their teacher in class like he was one of them, the tuck shop and its cans of Tab Clear[4] – all of these were part of the brand new world into which I was entering, and video games were just a part of that. I had no inkling that over the next few years they would be the one thing that held their appeal.

And this was not the only new place that I was experiencing. It was, according to my parents, ok for me to hang around John’s house and ‘that area’. What they had never defined, more fool them, was where ‘that area’ was. As far as I was concerned, it included the beach, the funfair and – most importantly – the arcade beside it. So that was where we went, most evenings and weekends. We soon discovered that we were not the only ones from our school spending our time there. In fact, everyone was heading to the arcade.

An official history will tell you that this was the era in which arcade games died out. The advent of decent video games at home meant there was no need to bother going to the arcade any more. In America, this was certainly coming true – especially as in America a trip to the corner shop usually means a 100-mile drive in a car that’s more powerful than most European buses. In England, the arcade would also die, but the symptoms took some time to materialise. In fact it was only when the SNES and the Megadrive rose to prominence in the latter half of the 90s that people really stopped bothering to go. Before then, the arcade in Britain appeared to be in rude health.

As a boy, Saturday afternoon usually ran along these lines: Midday, meet on the common to play football. After that, head to Wimpy for lunch. After that, we’d head to the beach and spend all our pocket money in the arcade. As time went by, some of the naughty kids would have bought some cider from a dubious newsagent, and everyone would go to the beach to drink it, and sometimes smoke cigarettes. Quite often, the boys would have fights. This usually involved lots of headlocks and rolling around, because we were too bourgeois to punch each other. We’d do our best impressions of teachers and people everyone bullied at school. We’d talk about football and who we fancied.

The girls and boys would always stay separate, until they were “drunk” (which they usually weren’t), at which point the two groups would converge on each other and start snogging. My first kiss happened after I got taken behind an 18th Century gun emplacement by a girl called Sophie who had very large breasts, and who everyone therefore fancied. My heart was beating incredibly quickly. Her breath was horrible, and she was sloshing her tongue in my mouth like a washing machine on a particularly fast spin cycle. It was fantastic.

We sat in silence, her tying her hair back and proffering me a cigarette, me surreptitiously trying to adjust my shorts to disguise an erection that would have put the Cerne Abbas Giant to shame. I was still riding a wave of adrenaline: this was to be my first cigarette: every bit as exciting as the kiss. This was only something the really naughty children did at school. It tasted horrible, but the trick, I knew, was not to cough. I didn’t inhale any of it.

“So, who else have you been with?” asked Sophie.

I wasn’t sure what to reply. Should I reel off a list of conquests and blow her away like a young Don Juan, or instead charm her with my innocence and make her feel like all this had been incredibly special? After all, it was, to me – and the former would require naming names, and that meant constructing a tissue of lies into which the popular kids would soon be blowing their noses once the word had spread that I’d been telling porkies. On the other hand, there was the distinct possibility she might think I was a bit of a loser if this was my first kiss. Shit.

“I…er…well…”

The walls of the gun emplacement started to spin. It was partly a head rush, and partly the fact that I was having a panic attack. Suddenly, life was moving too fast. Suddenly, I’d accomplished a couple of the things I’d dreamt about for months. My world had changed, changed utterly. I needed to get a grip on things that were constant.

“You know, erm, I’ve got to go. But, well, thank you very much for all that. And the fag. Er.”

I ran down the seafront, over the common, and back to the arcade. There I found John and Dan. My heart was racing and my face was bright red, but I had to act cool.

“I just snogged Sophie.”

“Well done,” said Dan.

“She’s a munter,” said John.

Conversation over. I still felt very strange: the excitement had left me craving a sensation of security and permanence. I walked over to a cabinet and began to play Splatterhouse. I couldn’t have chosen a better game. Splatterhouse was indicative of the arcade scene in the early 90s. It was actually released earlier than that, but it seemed to be everywhere. It was a very simple game indeed. The story involved every B-Movie cliché you could think of: two university students, Rick and Jennifer (who are majoring in parapsychology) go to visit a Dr West who lives in an old mansion. Once they enter, everything goes black and Rick wakes up dead. Yes, dead. Jennifer has been abducted, but Rick is still conscious because a mystical hockey mask has attached itself to his face. He has to fight his way through the house to save her.

The hockey mask has given Rick special powers, which mostly revolve around the fact he’s now incredibly hard. If a zombie walks up to Rick, his standard mode of attack is to punch it in the face until its head flies off. I told you it wasn’t a subtle game: essentially it was a platform game without any platforms. You’d just walk from left to right and occasionally punch things in the face. To break the repetition, you’d be given the chance to smack things in the face with a big bit of wood, or occasionally shoot things in the face with a shotgun.

This is why arcade games in the early 90s were so brilliantly designed. The makers knew that the experience of playing Splatterhouse would become incredibly boring were it taking place on one’s console at home. But at the arcade, where the screen was so big, the sound so loud, and taking into account the fact that you usually had £1.50 or a couple of hours left before you were wanted back home, it was all that was required.

And this was the joy of the seaside arcade. In a tranquil area, it is a hub of external stimuli, which makes it a joy for a child: there are so many flashing lights, loud noises and people shouting that the only comparable experience from my youth was the time someone managed to set the school science lab on fire. It is also an arena of sporting contest. There is an audience and there are opponents. The received wisdom about the video game generation is that they grew up in their bedrooms, lost in imaginary worlds when they should have been out fighting and fucking. It isn’t quite true. Many of us did indeed sell our souls to a virtual reality: but we entered it together, and our battles did not take place alone.

The arcade held a different significance for different people. To understand how youths behaved in one back in the early 1990s, you could easily replace arcade games with gambling, and imagine, say, a downmarket casino today. The girls aren’t there for the games at all. They’re there to hang out with their friends and perhaps to meet the blokes, some of whom won’t even look at the Roulette table and will spend the entire night chatting them up. Others are dividing their time between the girls and the games. There’s one arsehole spending the entire evening wandering around dispensing hints and tips without ever gambling himself.  I’m begging people for change because I spent all my money in the first ten minutes. And terrorising everyone are some rough lads who are there for the games but who would also like to fit a fight in if they can manage it. Like any social setting, the arcade had its dramas and conflicts. From time to time, they would be played out on the games it contained.

A kid called. Steve had been bullying me for a few weeks. Decent chap, Steve, and not easily provoked. The reason Steve had been bullying me was that I’d told someone I thought his girlfriend was too good looking for him. I wasn’t the only person who thought that; everyone thought so, and Steve knew everyone thought so. He could hear the murmurings of discontent in the classroom, but didn’t know which bastards were making them. Anyway, it came to pass that he discovered I was one of them, and so he set out to make an example of me. Which he did by hitting me over the head with a tennis racket, putting me in an arm until I admitted my mother was fat, hiding my cricket box when I was about to head into the nets, and a host of other little tricks designed to wear me down. It was coming to a head. Steve and I were going to have a proper fight soon, with fists and everything. And I was going to lose, because he was bigger than me.

I was at the arcade playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game.[5] It was such a great game. It was great because the graphics made it look like you were playing a cartoon. It was great because you only had two buttons: jump and hit. And it was really great because four players could play at the same time, controlling Michaelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo. I was always Raphael, because I always thought “cool, but rude,” was a better epitaph on the cartoon’s title lyrics than, say, Donatello’s, which was “does machines.” That just sounded weird, and it wasn’t going to help you beat anyone up. This four player option generally meant people came and went – they’d pump 30 pence in, play for twenty minutes, die, then someone else would take over.

I rarely came and went. I loved TMNT, and I was good at it. My problem was that I could never get anyone to stick with me long enough to complete the game. One day, I was playing and people were coming and going. For a time there were four of us, and we were doing very well. Whoever was playing Leonardo bought the farm. Then Donatello went. This left me and Michaelangelo with the entire final stage – the Technodrome – to negotiate. Which we did. All the enemies, followed by every boss (repeated), followed by Krang (a large robot with an alien stomach) and then the Turtles’ most famous and incredibly taxing adversary: Shredder. It was momentous. I’d never completed the game before. But this Michaelangelo – he’d draw the enemies to one side of the screen, and I’d attack from behind. If either of us were surrounded, the first thing the other player would do was leap in to help out. It was like we had a telepathic connection – whoever was controlling him knew exactly what my tactics were and how to complement them.   I looked up, and as you’ve probably guessed, it was Steve. He gave me a big grin. We actually hugged. Through the medium of video game endeavour, we had re-established a bond of trust and friendship. Though sadly, two months later, I made the same comments about his ex-girlfriend’s new partner, and duly received the beating I’d deserved in the first place. She was, of course, my first crush.

*

Boing Boing Bouncy Bouncy: Why Super Mario Brothers Is The Most Important Game Ever

One game looms over the late 80s and early 90s like a colossus. It is the highest selling game of all time (40 million copies at the last time of asking). Yet despite this popularity, there are plenty of things you might not know about Mario. For a start, you probably don’t know he was originally called Jumpman, but was renamed by Nintendo of America’s staff, who thought he looked a lot like their office landlord, Mario Segali. You might also not know the idea of the magic mushrooms was stolen from Alice in Wonderland. And it’s very unlikely you know Mario has a surname: Mario. This makes him one of the few people in the world with the same first and last names, a select group which includes footballers Phil and Gary Neville’s unfortunate dad, Neville Neville. And Tin Tin.

Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who invented Mario, was a dreamer. In the 1970s he grew his hair long and played the guitar in Tokyo coffee houses. It took him five years to finish art college. He only got a job at Nintendo because his father knew the CEO, Mr Yamauchi. Nintendo was moving away from making playing cards and Yamauchi was dubious about employing another artist, but there was something about this boy.

For three years, Miyamoto designed the art for the side of arcade cabinets. One day in 1980, Yamauchi called him into his office and asked him to work on an actual game. Miyamoto immediately burst forth with a series of opinions on the games of the day: they hadn’t learnt from the cinema about how to make products that were artistic. They’d sacrificed aimless shooting over themes like honour, and good against evil. He mentioned Shakespeare, the Bible, and King Kong.  He wanted his game to be a delightful experience, with characters jumping around like in the flip books of his youth.

His character, Jumpman, first appeared in Donkey Kong. Nintendo’s American salesmen were sceptical. There were no aliens or lazers from outer space. But Mr Yamauchi took a gamble on it, and shipped it overseas, where it was an instant hit. And then came Super Mario Bros, Miyamoto’s first console game. Soon, there were children camping outside stores, desperate to play the game: in Miyamoto’s neighbourhood, they followed him as he rode his bicycle to work, chanting “Dr Miyamoto!”

Let’s start with the basics. What makes the first Mario so great? It is ostensibly a simple platform game. One of the major differences between video games and real life is that there aren’t many gaps in the floor in real life. Those that are there are usually signposted and you tend to either walk round them or fall in and sue the local council. If you want to reach a higher floor in a building, there are usually stairs or a lift. So one thing we as a race rarely do is jump. Perhaps that’s why platform games – those in which the player must traverse a series of gaps, usually by leaping across them – hold such fascination.

There had been platform games before, but the thing that made this one different was the fact that it featured smooth-scrolling levels. There had been platform games that scrolled, like Pitfall and Jet Set Willy, but that had been a case of the fixed ‘camera’ shifting to the right to reveal the next room. Mario broke the mould by having non-stop movement. This might not sound important. It’s crucial. The fact that the scrolling didn’t stop meant that the experience of playing the game was unlike anything that had gone before. Each level, rather than being fragmented, had a continual narrative of jumps and enemies, one with an internal logic. As your control of Mario improved, so each level gradually tested you more and more.

And what really makes Mario so enjoyable is the programming that’s gone into the main character. No, he doesn’t look very good, especially not in the early versions. You’d do well to realise he’s not supposed to be Wee Jimmy Krankie, let alone a plumber. But that’s not the point. I challenge you to find a central character in gaming history who’s more responsive to your controls than Mario. There’s such precision in the physics regarding how far he jumps according to how long you press the button. There’s a keen understanding of momentum; of how long it takes him to slow down according to how far he’s been running, of how much further he’ll jump according to the run up he’s taken. Try playing those online versions that people have attempted to make: the reason they’re not as good is because Mario doesn’t respond as you want him to; he usually floats through the air when he jumps or he plummets down too quickly after reaching the peak of his jump.

It’s better to gloss over Mario 2. Nintendo America knew the Japanese sequel was too hard for most gamers, so they pinched the code from a game called Doki Doki Panic, and changed the characters to Mario et al. Super Mario Brothers 3 gave control back to Shigeru Miyamoto. The degree of imagination that it brought to the series was astounding. You didn’t move from one level to the next; instead you traversed a map which split into different paths – so you chose which levels you wanted to play. Mario could fly. He could turn into a frog and swim quickly. He could throw hammers. He could jump around in a big shoe and land on whatever he wanted. There were little mini-games, and an option to fight a friend in a Mario battle. It was just astounding in its scope and ambition. Every time you played it you’d discover a new route or secret that stunned you in terms of how much thought had been put into it. Mario created the platform game. Later, we will see how he would go on to destroy it.

*

Dan hadn’t moved with me to the same senior school, but there was one day every term when he’d desperately try to meet up with me and the other pupils in town. He’d be rubbing his hands with glee for several days before Mufti Day. It was a simple concept: on the last day of term you paid a pound (which went to charity), and for the privilege you were allowed to wear your own clothes, rather than school uniform. Among children aged eleven to thirteen the results were nothing short of spectacular. The girls, eager to impress themselves upon the developing hormonal instincts of their male counterparts, usually dressed as if they’d bought their outfits from Ann Summers, if Ann Summers had existed at that time and had a range for the thirteen year old girl who really, really wanted to spice up her sex life. For boys, ridiculously baggy jet black jeans with names like ‘Spliffys’ which gave the impression the child had been hit by a mad scientist’s shrinking ray were, apparently, en vogue at the time, though they had passed under my radar. We’d often go ten pin bowling after Mufti Day, with the result that the alley looked like it had been invaded by a hoard of MC Hammer impersonators and their underage prostitute girlfriends.

Anyway, the point of Mufti Day wasn’t, for me, about the appreciation of which bits my female classmates were showing off, nor making any fashion statements of my own (if I was making one, it was: Yes, Mother Still Buys My Clothes): it was the fact that Mufti Day was a day of no work. You were, apparently, allowed to bring your own games in, to amuse yourself. In theory, this meant Top Trumps, or perhaps those rubbish handheld water powered games where you have to propel a ball into a basket – in fact I’m not too sure what they meant. In practice, it meant that those with Gameboys brought them in, and everyone else begged for a go.

Nintendo had tried its hand at portable video games before releasing the NES. The Game and Watch series was a collection of sixty-odd little LCD games – small handheld devices with a directional pad and a couple of buttons. No device could play more than one game because the graphics were pre-printed on the screen. The Gameboy, released in 1989, was a logical progression: you could play more than one game on it. It still had a little LCD screen – and although the objects on it moved smoothly, they were prone to blurring beyond all recognition if they moved at any great speed. The Gameboy couldn’t handle graphics unless they were as basic as possible. The best it could hope to emulate was the C64 games of a generation before, and even then they would be in black and white.

It’s only when you look at the competition, and why it failed, that you see just how right Nintendo got it. I owned a Sega Game Gear, because it was a better piece of hardware. I really loved it. It was a lot more powerful than the Gameboy. It had a TV Tuner that you could plug into it, which really worked. I watched an entire day’s Test Cricket on a car journey up to Manchester on it, although the massive aerial, which had to be extended out of the car window, did pose something of a threat to any low-flying aircraft in the vicinity. Yet every Mufti Day I would bring my Game Gear into school, and every Mufti Day no one would care. I’d be stuck in the corner playing it on my own. Like my side parting and my regular fit jeans, the Game Gear just wasn’t cool. Why did everyone think Gameboys were better? The answers tell us a lot about how the video game market works.

Part of the issue was battery life. Six AA batteries on the Game Gear lasted five hours, while two on the Gameboy lasted about twelve. Couple that with the fact that it was about twice the size of the Gameboy, and you had a portable device that wasn’t really portable at all. I liked the ambition of the thing so much that I was willing to overlook all this, but there was a more compelling reason people didn’t go for it. The Game Gear[6] was seen to suffer from a lack of good games. Now I simply don’t agree with this. Sitting in my cupboard, beside my Game Gear, are Earthworm Jim and Double Dragon, G-Loc, Mortal Kombat, The Terminator and a host of others. And if I got bored of those, I could have bought an adapter that let me plug Master System games into it.

 

This is actually a VERY GOOD game

But here’s the thing. I don’t think the games shortage for my handheld was perceived because there actually was a deficiency of titles. I think the reason that the Game Gear was seen to lack decent titles was because the Gameboy had nabbed the one game that was seen as the embodiment of handheld gaming. Nintendo understood the limitations of its device. It knew a big name title like, say, Megaman would be no good among the games they launched with the Gameboy. It would be a disappointment, because the Gameboy couldn’t handle it. A version of Super Mario Brothers was complete in time for the Gameboy’s launch, but it wasn’t bundled in with it.

No, the game Nintendo bundled in with the Gameboy was Tetris, and that was an incredibly clever move. The game was first invented in 1985 by a programmer called Dmitry Pavlovsky, who was working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. You will have played it, somewhere: the one with the descending blocks that you have to rotate on the way down in order to fit them together, and thus make them disappear. A very, very simple game, mathematically perfect in its design. It is almost possible to play the game forever – a graduate thesis on the game revealed that the chance of receiving an impossible sequence of shapes (this would be 150 “S” and “Z” shapes, which would be impossible to clear) is only one in 2×10-82.[iv] Pavlovsky was a genius.  It was quickly the subject of numerous legal battles: by 1989, half a dozen different companies claimed rights to create and distribute the software. Nintendo fought a legal battle with Atari which it eventually won.

 

Bosh.

It might seem a lot of hassle to go through for a simple game that involves rotating blocks so that they fit together. But Nintendo had the right idea. The game had been a smash hit on PCs, had a huge appeal to all ages, and was a flagship title that wouldn’t show off the Gameboy’s technical deficiencies. It made the Gameboy incredibly popular. Had it not been for Tetris, the likes of Konami and Capcom wouldn’t have lent their skills to the Gameboy. It could all have been so different for the Game Gear, had it not been for a few spinning blocks.

*

Pandora’s box had been well and truly opened. The early 1990s was the era that would define the rise of video games to global dominance. Game publishers were consolidating – the weaker players either disappeared or were bought up. As a result, the budgets going into individual games were increasing, which meant they were much, much better than before. This period was my induction into the world of video games: as an eleven, twelve, thirteen year old child, I was young enough to have the amount I played them limited by my parents. Even then they found them a concern. I couldn’t understand why – but of course what seemed a natural pastime to me was deeply unnatural to them. It was a concern for my parents, and looking back I can see why. It was about to get a whole lot worse.



[1] Other losers’ greetings are based around the occasionally sloppy Japanese translations in video games, most notably “A winner is you” (Pro Wrestling), the classic “All your base are belong to us” (Zero Wing) and my personal favourite “All acts of hostilities are prohibited in this area. If violated, you will be attacked” (Bionic Commando).

 

[2] All of these games bore the coveted gold Nintendo Seal of Quality on the box. At the time I thought that this little badge meant that Nintendo had checked the game to make sure it was, ooh, at least as good as Mario 2, and that you couldn’t go wrong with it. I now know all it meant was that the game designers had paid Nintendo a license fee. The seal kept designers under Nintendo’s control: under the license it was able to censor whatever it liked from games, and decree how many copies of a game should be released, which damaged small houses who’d made popular games, as they could only profit as much as Nintendo decided they could. Not only that, it was a tool with which Nintendo manipulated the market – the company organised several game shortages in order to increase customer demand. When the Megadrive was released, Nintendo finally had to rethink its attitude towards game developers, who were quite prepared to produce Sega games due to Nintendo’s tight restrictions. The Seal of Quality was the kind of monopolisation that would make Bill Gates blush, a monopolisation that relied on deluding its young customers. Video games were becoming a market in which the stakes were high.

[3]  Time and hindsight have settled this argument: the NES was better. The Master System was more powerful, but Sega, operating to a more limited Market, didn’t have the quality of games available for it. But then, as a NES boy, I would say that.

[4]  For those who don’t know, this was Coca Cola, but it was clear. It was utterly pointless. And yet, for some reason, I would always buy it. I’d like to think another lesson about the effectiveness of a well-devised Marketing strategy could be drawn from this, but it appears I was the only person who bought it, which would suggest I’m just a gullible prat.

[5] Of course, I was also a huge fan of the cartoon. Did you know that the voice of Shredder was provided by Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air? Extraordinary.

[6]    The same can also be said of the Atari Lynx (which I’ve elected not to write about) but more so. It had about three games of any description, and it needed a car battery or some such to power it. A shame, as those three games were good.



[i] Anne Diamond Gives Her Chilling Verdict on the violent video games that are to carry age ratings, Daily Mail, March 28, 2008.

[ii] Vossekuil, Bryan; et al. “Safe School Initiative Final Report” U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education. 26, 2002

[iii] Johnathan Freedman, Do Video Games Kill?, University of Toronto, 2007

[iv] John Brzustowski, Can You Win at Tetris?, University of British Columbia, 1988