I’ve been meaning to add some more stuff to the “about me” section for a while now. Inspired by our visit to the Game On exhibition this morning, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite computer and video games.
Elite (BBC Model B)
Aaahh… Elite… In a gaming world dominated by blocky animation and simple sprites, Elite was stunningly different. It had three-dimensional vector graphics, nail-bitingly tense dogfights, and a vast, vast universe of planets and trading routes so you could increase your wealth and upgrade your ship. I couldn’t begin to count the number of hours I spent after school, clibming into the virtual cockpit and setting off on another merchanting spree. The nervous anticipation each time I did a hyperspace leap, wondering if I’d get jumped by Thargoids… The slow climb up the ranks: harmless, mostly harmless, poor, average, above average, competent, dangerous, deadly, and finally the silly number of kills you had to rack up to get all the way to elite… I’m sure my parents must have worried about me, the amount of time I spent on that computer!
Some nameless MUD (University of St. Andrews Computer Network)
Looking back on this game, I worry about me having spent so much time on it. I don’t remember the name of the MUD, I don’t remember the name of the character I played, and to be honest I don’t remember much about the game world, or the quests. In fact, there are large chunks of time during my second year at St. Andrews that I just can’t account for at all. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t abducted by aliens, so I must have spent them in late night/all night sessions at the University computing labs, totally immersed in this…thing.
Summer holiday after that second year broke me of the habit. This was partly because I got a Mac of my own and didn’t need to hang out quite so much in the computer labs where the networks were, and partly because more of my time was taken up on other things, like corresponding with Abi, and, oh, studying. But a lot of it was that I knew how addictive it was, and how easy it would be to get sucked back in.
Since then, I get the urge to play MUDs every now and then. I’ve tried to find out what the name of the St. Andrews MUDwas, and whether it’s available anywhere else, but without any success. Also, even if I did find the vanilla MUD it was based on, so much of a MUD is wrapped up in the modifications that the admins and gods make to it. It’s a little sad that I can never go back to it, the way I can do with all the other games on this list. But on the other hand, all of those other games are wrapped up in their own times, too. Playing them now will never be the same as experiencing, and getting immersed in them, for the first time.
Tetris (Apple Mac)
The Mac Classic was the first computer I bought myself. The two games I had for it initially were Tetris and Risk. I spent–again–innumerable hours playing both of them. But Tetris had the edge. I found myself taking the keyboard into my lap so that the j, k, l and space keys were more comfortable under my fingers. It was hypnotic. I was conscious of slipping into and out of “The Zone.” When I was in it, I was one with the blocks. I didn’t have to think about where they should fall, fingers just did it.
I think most people experienced Tetris first on the Game Boy. I have the cartridge for my Game Boy Color, but it’s the Mac version I’ll always treasure.
The Fool’s Errand (Apple Mac)
When Abi and I first moved to Edinburgh, we lived in a flat in Dickson St. We bought a huge desk for the bedroom, and we spent long evenings with both of our Macs set up side by side on it, working in parallel on the fiendishly difficult puzzles of The Fool’s Errand. No puzzle game I’ve played has ever come close to the quality, the cleverness, and the polished craftmanship that was apparent in every screen of this game. All of the puzzles locked together intricately, and worked as one perfect unit. And you can download it for free, now!
Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past (Super Nintendo)
In 1995, after I had been a teacher for a few months, I got very, very ill. It wasn’t pneumonia, but I had to have x-rays to confirm that. I was off work for two weeks, and in addition to being a physical wreck, I also hated my teaching job, and was severely depressed about life in general. I had asked for a second-hand Super Nintendo system for my birthday (which was a couple of weeks away), but Abi bought one for me before then, to cheer me up.
There are a few games I vaguely remember playing on it (Star Fox, Donkey Kong Country), but the one that still sticks clearly in my mind is this Zelda game. No one thing in particular was unique, or extra-special, but the way it all came together was a thing of beauty. Simple yet challenging, with fluttering music that enhanced the child-like fantasy atmosphere. For me, Zelda is all about happiness in times of personal darkness. It always has the power to cheer me up.
The puzzles didn’t quite measure up to The Fool’s Errand, but the graphics just blew me away. Again, Abi and I solved it together, spending long winter evenings in front of our new, home-built PC(Frankenstein, whose latest incarnation still sits on my desktop today… the only thing left from its original body is the floppy disk drive, though), working our way through the ages, looking for the red and blue pages. This game was one of the main reasons I wanted a PC, and it didn’t disappoint. Even today, it’s still beautiful. Back then, it was revolutionary.
I first saw Half-Life at work. Richard Brunton had it running on his PC in the Model Office, and when Graeme Reid took me round to see it, I knew I had to go out and buy a copy. It was genuinely scary. You never knew what was going to be in the next room, or around the next corner. It was the first first-person shooter I’d played that had a real story to it. That’s what set it apart from other 3D action games: it was about more than just running about and killing everything that crossed your path. The puzzles were about more than just finding the key to the next level. Weapon upgrades, ammunition, and health packs were not left scattered around at random: they were in locations you’d expect to find them in real life. This attention to detail, the attempt to make it more like an interactive movie instead of just a shooter, made it a truly great game.
Deux Ex (PC)
Just as Half-Life brought the importance of a solid story into the realm of the first-person shooter, so Deus Ex really brought home the idea of freeform play. You have goals and objectives, but there are many different ways of going about achieving them. You gan go in with all guns blazing (making sure that you get all the armour upgrades and heavy artillery along the way), or you can sneak around the back, and even take out the enemy with non-lethal weapons.
Computer games so often tout “interactivity” as their selling point, but how interactive is a game really if there is only one way to finish a mission? Deus Ex blew this idea completely apart. That would have been a great achievement in its own right, but it had an excellent storyline to go with it as well. And it allowed you to improve your character in an almost RPG-style, where your choices influenced how you would approach future missions. Absolutely fantastic, and I can hardly wait for DX2…
SSX Tricky (PS2)
I bought my PS2 bundled with Gran Turismo 3, which was fantastic. The first game I bought separately was SSX Tricky. I had hoped someone was going to buy it for me for Christmas, but no-one got the hint 😉 so I went out on Boxing Day and grabbed a copy then.
Fabulosity! Unfortunately, my PS2 broke down the next day.
It was February before I got a replacement PS2, and I played little else than SSX for a good long time. I’ve brought all but three characters up to Master level, and I can hit a gold medal on the Alaska course in freestyle mode pretty reliably with most of them now. It’s fun, it’s fast, and gloriously fluid. The basic actions are so simple to learn that even Alex (only 18 months old now) enjoys playing it. But the tricks are satisfyingly hard to complete. It’s just a marvellously balanced game.
Ico is art. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful to look at. The character design and animation is fabulous, simple and graceful. The architecture and landscape are–quite literally–stunning. The lighting effects give the scenery en ethereal quality that takes the whole game environment to a level of gorgeousness I’ve never seen before in a game.
The story is simple: escape from the castle, and save the girl. But along the way you are thrust into such mortal danger, and you find that the girl is so vulnerable and relies on you so completely, that you form an incredibly strong attachment to these characters. I have never had such a strong emotional reaction to a videogame as I had to Ico.
At the end of the game, I cried. It’s that good. (Just make sure you watch all the way to the end of the credits!)
Of course, I’m playing new games all the time. Right now, the ones with the most promise for hitting this list of all-time favourites are Super Mario 64 (yes, 64, not Sunshine–I bought a second-hand N64 earlier this year, but don’t have a GC…yet), and Grand Theft Auto 3 (PS2). Both are fantastically immersive, and allow you a great range of freedom to do whatever, and go wherever you want. I want to finish them before I give my final judgement on them, though.