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A YOUTH WELL WASTED / CHAPTER 3
October 2, 2009, 8:45 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: ,

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In a particularly grey and drab spot of West London sits Earl’s Court, one of England’s largest and oldest indoor arenas. Over the years it has been home to a massive variety of events, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 19th century, to Metallica gigs and WWE Smackdown in the present day. It’s a bit of a British institution.

Another, slightly less glamorous sounding show held there is ‘The Amusements Trade Exhibition International.’ As the name suggests, the ATEI is an industry expo in which various coin-operated machine manufacturers get to show off their wares to potential buyers.

Sadly, a quick search through the list of confirmed exhibitors for 2010 reveals that not one single videogame company will be present. Not one. Instead, tens of thousands of square feet will be taken up with air-hockey, fruit machines, pool tables and kiddie rides.

It was not always like this.

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Back in 1989, the event was completely dominated by videogames, with just about every single manufacturer, including Sega, keen to show off their latest machines. It was an infinite sea of arcade games, with classic, stand-up cabinets, massive, hydraulic-powered driving sims and everything in between. Year after year, every new game of note from around the around world would be there.

The ATEI was, without a hint of hyperbole or exaggeration, a 10 year-old boy’s gaming nirvana. The holy land. And, in an act of unprecedented awesomeness that I am thankful for even 20 years later, Damian convinced his Dad to take us. We were actually going.

What’s more we were going on the Thursday, when all the exhibitors would be putting the final touches to their stalls before the influx of potential buyers the next day. With Damian’s Dad busy doing whatever it is Sega Europe V.Ps do, we would have hours of unfettered access, without queues or interruptions, to every single game on show. I honestly can’t think of a time in my life when I have been more excited.

The night before the show we stayed at Damian’s castle. Staring into the darkness, we whispered across the room until the early hours, alternating between hushed excitement for the next day and musing over what terrible accidents might stop us going.

– Maybe the car will break down…
– Or explode!
– Oh god yeah, it’ll blow up.
– In the car park as we arrive.
– Definitely.

We simply couldn’t believe our luck.

AAAAAA

Entering the massive hall was as intimidating as it was exciting; a cacophonous jungle of bleeping, blaring, flashing, strobing machinery. We didn’t know where to start. Each machine screamed louder at us, desperate to be heard over all the others. It was too much.

Thankfully, Damian’s Dad had arranged for one of his team to give us a guided tour of all the must-play titles at the show.

We saw a lot of games that day, many of which have since fallen to the back of my mind, collecting in a messy heap with a million other random arcade memories. But I remember one very, very clearly.

Led by our tour-guide, we were introduced to a spin-off game from some bizarre American TV show. “It’s going to be absolutely massive, a phenomenon. The American kids are nuts about it,” he said.

Damian and I shared a cynical look. The machine was splashed with an image of a questionable looking green thing and it had the most ridiculous name we had ever heard, the ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.’

Heheh – silly Americans.

We played the game anyway, clicking the free credit button more out of politeness than desire.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (Europe thought the word ‘Ninja’ would warp our souls), is of course, one of the most fondly remembered arcade games of all time – providing the blueprint for such massively popular beat-em-ups as X-Men and The Simpsons. Turn up to any battered, decaying old seaside arcade in England to this day and the odds are you’ll find one of these games sat in a corner, clinging to life among the fruit machines, Dance Dance Revolutions and sandy, trampled chips.

So we played through the entire thing, marveling more at the graphics and characters than the limited, slightly repetitive gameplay. It was just so bright and colourful, populated by bipedal hogs with guns, masked foot-soldiers, and the kind of samurai/ninja hybrid boss that made our young, kung-fu obsessed brains pop.

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You could choose characters with katanas, a bo, funny fork things and even nunchucks! It should be noted that up to that point, British television removed nearly every nunchuck reference, most famously censoring the Enter the Dragon scene where Bruce Lee uses the weapon against some guards. Rather than block nunchucks from our consciousness, this treatment afforded them an illicit thrill that only served to make us more fascinated with them. Nunchucks were cool.

TMHT only has 5 levels, it isn’t a particularly long game. But in that old-school arcade way, it’s despicably cheap in it’s attempts to rob you of money. It was a good job we had free credits.

We died and died and died again until finally we beat the game, rescued April, and stumbled off to find something else. The whole experience can’t of been more than 30 minutes from start to finish, but it is something I will never forget.

Returning to school and boasting of my experiences brought the now familiar mix of scorn and disbelief. Because my school friends had never met Damian, they simply didn’t believe my increasingly outlandish stories. For a while they even took to calling him my “imaginary friend.”

They laughed even harder when I told them about the four pizza-loving turtles who talk and know ninjitsu.

Just a few short weeks later and the last laugh was mine. They had no choice but to believe. The turtles had indeed turned into the phenomenon the arcade man predicted, selling a crap-ton of merchandised tat and mesmerizing a million kids with their adventures. I was vindicated. Finally, they believed me.

But it wasn’t all good. Having such close links with Sega had certain disadvantages. The late Eighties saw the first Nintendo v. Sega console skirmishes break out in playgrounds across the world. War was coming, and at one small school in London, the Sega supporters had a reluctant leader.

(Chapter Four… Coming Soon)
(Chapter Two)

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AN ODE TO THE UNFINISHED GAME

ODE
Some people feel the need to finish every game they start; it’s a odd compulsion. Some also won’t walk out on a bad film because it’s been paid for, or put a book down when they fail to connect with it. But if a close personal friend didn’t make the game, take you to the cinema, or write the book, why care? Why put yourself through the slog of reaching the end of a game you stopped enjoying or caring about 20 hours ago?

I used to be like this. Until recently, I simply had to finish every game I played. More than that, I had to get at least 500 achievement points on each one. It was horrible. Like some kind of self-inflicted, life-sapping, terminal illness. It meant that not only did I have to slog my way through games I tired of quickly, or just lost interest in, I then had to go back again afterwards on a depressing fucking collection hunt.

The fact that F.E.A.R. 2, long since traded in, appears on my Gamercard with a mere 380 achievement points, used to keep me awake at night.

But now I’m free. I’m an inveterate unfinisher and I’m encouraging others to be the same. Now once I cease to be interested, a game is usually finished for me, no matter how much of it remains. So, for me, Assassin’s Creed will always be a beautifully rendered vision of the holy-land, with one of the most fully realised environments I’ve yet encountered. Not the dull, repetitive snorefest I know it becomes. Similarly, Lost Odyssey will forever be a gorgeous paean to a bygone era of JRPGs, rather than a long, over familiar trawl through outdated game mechanics.

Until relatively recently, my new attitude would not have been remarkable. Games just were not supposed to be completed. Indeed, they employed just about every tactic they could to make it hard as possible. With infinite levels, super-spamming bosses, insane bullet hell and even Ghouls and Ghosts‘ nasty trick of making you do it all over again upside down.

Now, as we find ourselves slaves to the videogame narrative, we are eased towards completion, given infinite lives, or even invulnerability. Anything to get us to the end.

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Was I being unfair to Rockstar by abandoning Grand Theft Auto IV at around the midway point? I didn’t have the will to play it any more. Especially as the narrative, so engaging and propulsive early on, was quickly beginning to derail itself. I’m sure they don’t care. After all, they were the ones that picked up all those awards, critical adulation and an impossibly large truck full of cash.

Would the guys at Bethesda care that I never completed Oblivion, instead spending about 20 glorious hours exploring and encountering a wonderfully diverse set of distractions? I doubt it.

I don’t hold it against people, that I didn’t finish their games, nor do I proclaim a lack of talent. Like Oblivion it’s sometimes just a matter of time. So many titles drag on and on and while the core of the game is compelling and fun, it wears a little thin after the 30th hour. Fallout 3 is a undeniable masterpiece. But it sits there on my shelf, untouched for months, after my attention was diverted by some other shiny thing.

Some days, on the other hand, I’ll start a game only to decide I’m not in the mood for something new, and return instead to an old favourite to revisit a cherished opening level or scene. Occasionally, friends are surprised and annoyed when I return a borrowed game and admit I couldn’t get through it. These might be the same people who don’t share my passion for the work of Petri Purho or Jason Rohrer, so it evens out in the end. There is, after all, no accounting for taste – as a friend who saw Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus on my recommendation will never let me forget.

So I toast all the half-finished, half-played games that have passed through my hands, saluting both the creativity of those who made them and the fortitude of those who completed them. And finally, I confess to having played every last second of Sonic Unleashed. I could have stopped after the first appearance of that damned Werehog, but I found it, like a gruesome highway accident, horrifying yet impossible to look away from – until I defeated the final boss, ripped the disc from the tray and hurled it across the room in disgust.



A YOUTH WELL WASTED / CHAPTER TWO

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A YOUTH WELL WASTED / CHAPTER ONE

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THE NOSTALGIA BUSINESS

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(This article also appears over at BitMob. Should you lose your mind and decide to read it twice, you can find it here)

A quick glance at the flood of wistful reminiscences pouring into the Mobfeed reveals one thing; gamers are a nostalgic bunch. Give us a chance to write anything we want about videogames and we’ll jump at the chance to get all misty-eyed about ’the good old days’. I should know, I’ve indulged in a fair amount of it myself.

We are the first generation to grow up with games. It has been a part of our lives since before we can remember. Whether it’s the blocks and bleeps of the pre-8-bit era that first fired out imaginations, or the dawn of the PlayStation, gaming and our childhoods are inextricably linked.

It is possible that we may never recreate the excitement and wonder of the first game that got its claws in us. Like heroin addicts we are destined to keep coming back for more in an attempt to recreate the high of that first hit. But the rapid pace of technological progress can only just keep up with the rosy-tint of our memories.

Take a look back at the games that meant the most to you as a child. If it’s one that you haven’t seen in a while, you’ll doubtless be amazed by how bad it looks. I had this experience recently, while talking about the old Master System shooter, Fantasy Zone. Not the best game I have ever played, admittedly, but nevertheless one that I devoted many hours to as a kid and then promptly forgot. I remember it as a cutesy confection of brightly coloured, curvy wonder. Looking the game up after 20 years, it now looks like 3 year-old’s crayon drawing.

It’s a fact not lost of the games industry, with a growing rush to re-boot, remix, re-release and re-invent the games of our youth. As the gaming kids grow up and get jobs, the industry is falling over themselves to sell us back our childhood. It’s a seductive proposition.

But there are right ways and wrong ways of treating our revered classics. Projects like Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Super Street Fighter II: Turbo HD Remix get it right. They are the perfect way to address our gaming sentimentality. Developed (or rather, redeveloped) with genuine love for the original, these games are re-presented just they way we remember them. Perhaps my imagination has died since I was a child, or perhaps my memories are just completely skewed, but I remember SFII: Turbo looking exactly like HD Remix does now.

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These games, and those that display a similar approach, are utterly respectful of their roots. They tidy up the visuals, refine the gameplay and only mess with what was broken in the first place. Think of it as preservation. This is how it should be done.

Punch Out!On Wii follows the lead of these two re-imagined classics. The visuals, the ‘enemies’, the music and the sound remain essentially thematically familiar, with just a few concessions made for the platform’s new control scheme. It doesn’t attempt anything ridiculous like facial damage health meters or boxing manager metagames that follow your career. It keeps things nice and simple, just like the original game did. As a result it’s rekindling old loves and creating new ones even as we speak.

But not all remakes/reboots get it so right. Some get it wrong. Some concentrate so hard on one element of gameplay from the original, or so hard on trading on a well-regarded title, that they forget what made it fun in the first place.

Take Bionic Commando. Despite the difficulties of implementing a functioning arm in a 3D world, Grin do a remarkably solid job. If the project was to be judged on that element alone then it would be considered a minor success. But the original was far more than a grappling gimmick.

By relocating a classic game in the realm of third-person shooter aesthetics and online-multiplayer, Capcom believe they have a recipe for commercial success, combining the love of the old with the lust of the new. But judged against their own remix of the original game, judged against Punch Out!, Bionic Commando is a failure.

The current iteration of the series is too much of a departure to be called Bionic Commando. It takes the central premise of the original and distorts it, stretches it so think it almost snaps. Sure it has some of the same characters, yeah it carries over a little of the first game’s legendary toughness, and of course it has the arm and the music. But it lacks qualities that its progenitor showed in abundance; charm, character and near faultless design.

This game isn’t Bionic Commando; it’s a focus-grouped ‘cool’ guy with inspector gadget’s arm. Call it something else Capcom, and quit fucking with my memories.

I will happily part with my cash for the games of my childhood to be polished up and squeezed down my broadband. I can’t help but be seduced by the promise of being beamed back to my carefree youth. But it needs to be done right, it needs to be done with respect. These aren’t merely ‘products’ or ‘franchises’, they are our collective gaming history. Please don’t mess them up.



THE SEARCH FOR ARCADE BOY: UPDATE
May 26, 2009, 2:42 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: ,

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(I’m on a quest to track down somebody I played Street Fighter Alpha 3 with almost a decade ago, half-way up a mountain in the Himalayas. The reason for this madness? To deliver a Dreamcast and a box of games to his makeshift arcade, a place I visited in my youth while travelling around India. The original story is documented here, the full details of my task, here. This is an update on my progress.)

The internet is an amazing thing. Just minutes after accepting my mission impossible I had tracked down the hotel we stayed at in 1999. Perhaps the management at the Snow Lion could help.

A quick email later and I was informed that this Snow Lion only opened in 2003, 4 years after I visited. I can’t have stayed there. Another hotel called the Snow Lion was open at the time, but closed it’s doors a few years ago.

Regardless, I asked if they remembered an ‘arcade’ in Darjeeling back in 1999. Unfortunately, according to The Snow Lion’s manager Mr Gailly, there are many what they call “game parlours” in Darjeeling, too many to list. Really!? I don’t remember there being many of them, in fact I only remember the one.

Despite the thousands of miles separating us, it isn’t geography holding me back from completing my task, but my memory. Other than the details disclosed in the original story, I don’t remember a thing. How am I supposed to single out Arcade Boy’s parlour?

My quest looked like being over before it had begun. But I had one more trick up my sleeve.

As a last throw of the dice, I attempted to get in touch with Barun Roy, respected journalist, author, creator of the Himalayan Beacon and resident of Darjeeling. Surely he remembered the videogame parlour in the clouds?

Reaching out to Barun through his ‘contact me’ comments section at the Beacon, I appealed for help. As a resident of the area, does he remember the game parlours in Darjeeling at the turn of the century? Would he be able to put me in touch with the owners? I sat and waited for a reply.

Assistance was to come, but not from Barun. Instead, a helpful member of the Himalayan Beacon community stepped up to lend a hand. Noticing my plea for help, Darjeeling resident and nostalgic gamer ‘Mr. Nepali’ replied:

“1999, a decade ago… A great era for games…

According to my personal knowledge and experience, there was a game parlour in ‘Orient Ko Ukallo’. That shop had couple of PlayStations and also a pool/snooker board.

If thats not the one then, there was one more at Fancy Market… again that’s ‘Orient Ko Ukallo’.

If the above two are not the ones then, definitely it has to be my fave haunt, the game parlour in J.P Sharma Road (Faspan Hatta).

After 2004, a number of game parlour opened. But back in 1999 – only 3 were there…”

Perfect. What a helpful man! Though I remember very little, there definitely wasn’t a pool table in Arcade Boy’s parlour. So we’ve now narrowed it down to two. Who would have thought when I started this that I would have to ‘narrow down’ the selection? I’m still amazed that so many exist.

As I write I am currently awaiting another reply from Mr. Nepali. Worryingly, this final hurdle may yet be prove to be the biggest obstacle. I have asked him if he would go to those two parlours and take some pictures to send to me. If one of those pictures is of the parlour that lingers so strongly, yet so clouded, in my mind, if one of those pictures is of Arcade Boy, then we will be able to send him the Dreamcast and the games.

I wonder if Arcade Boy remembers beating the cocky British boy at Street Fighter so long ago? Perhaps – and this has just occurred to me – perhaps he’s now on Xbox LIVE! Is that so unreasonable to think? If he is, then a rematch is definitely in order. I intend to ask.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before any of this can happen I am utterly reliant on the generosity of Mr. Nepali. Will he be willing to do this for me? Does he even have a digital camera? When he replies, if he replies, then all will be revealed.

Now we just have to wait.



A YOUTH WELL WASTED / PROLOGUE
May 22, 2009, 12:03 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , ,

YOUTHWELL

Like many others, my videogame education began in the sticky-carpeted, cigarette encrusted locals of the bowling alley. Thanks to my Dad, evenings, weekends and just about every spare second we had was spent at the local lanes. As a result, I was presented with two ways to occupy my time; join the questionably-shirted community of bowlers, with their funny shoes and bizarre wrist-supports, or lose myself in the glowing embrace of the arcade. I chose the latter.

I wasn’t the only one to be seduced of course, there was a gang of us; wary of each other at first, then offering advice over a shoulder, then chatting and sharing tips. Before long we were inseparable, the kind of friends you didn’t have to say hello to, you would just carry on the conversation from last night.

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, OutRun, The Empire Strikes Back; I dread to think how much money we stuffed into those cabinets over the months and years. But it was never enough, every coin was of infinite value.

Gauntlet, that cash sucking leach, was tantamount to theft, slowly ticking down your health until you slipped in some extra coins. Luckily for us we discovered a way around the problem that didn’t involve superhuman gaming skills. Thanks to a dodgy slot, two penny-pieces could be stuck together in a rough approximation of a pound coin and slid in just the right way to fool the sensor.

Four of us would cram elbow to elbow around that blaring cabinet, its blistered plastic skin scarred by stubs and sticky from spilt slush puppies. We’d scream at the fool that let all the ghosts out too early, laugh at whoever had to be the Valkyrie and swear loudly in unison whenever the dreaded Death made an appearance, all the while topping up the machine with our makeshift coins.

Of course our subterfuge didn’t last long.

Every week the arcade attendant made his rounds, checking the slots were still working and emptying the coins into his bucket. During this process, Bucket (that’s what we called him) would open up the cabinets and check the microswitches in each machine, a process that involved adding free credits. If he was in a good mood he would smile to himself and leave the credits for us, but if he was in a bad mood he would reset the machine and trudge back silently to the office. He was a God, of sorts. To us anyway. His very whim could decide the happiness of our day.

When Bucket eventually opened up Gauntlet to find a sticky mess of pennies and chewing gum jamming up his machine, it didn’t take a genius to work out who the culprits where. We didn’t get free credits for a long time after that.

He became a friend of sorts in the end, the arcade attendant. I think he saw that we weren’t bad kids really. Never did find out his real name though, he was always Bucket to us.

This isn’t the first article to get all misty-eyed about arcades, nor will it be the last. To some of us of a certain age, the arcade wasn’t just a place to play games; it was a place where friends were made, where you met girls, where you had your first rank puff of a cigarette. So when we bemoan the death of these spaces, it is not just the passing of arcades we lament, but the passing of our childhood. Those dark grubby rooms will always have a special place in our heart.