In celebration of the publication of Michael Clune’s Gamelife, a memoir written around the seven most formative games the author played in his childhood, the Turnaround marketing team have picked those PS1 side-scrollers and 8-bit adventures that we hold most dearly from our own earliest experience with video games.
Final Fantasy was a big part of my pre-teen years, and I’ve carried on replaying the RPGs well on into my adulthood. While 7 gets the most attention traditionally and it was the one my brother – the owner of our house’s Playstation and the person who introduced me to one of my most long-lasting hobbies – was really into, 9 has always been the one I loved most. Vivi’s storyline was probably the first narrative that dealt sensitively with identity and discrimination I ever encountered, and the moment the castle of Alexandria sprouted actual wings was the most beautiful thing I could think of for many years.
These games were my introduction to the world of storytelling, and it’s a pity their narratives aren’t given more attention in the literary world, however naff their dialogue may be. Before I embarked on Lord of the Rings or any particularly long sagas in text form, I was journeying through giant worlds and multi-faceted adventures with Final Fantasy, and it definitely played a part in my blossoming love of stories. I do mourn the emergence of downloadable content and the demise of a game so big it took four discs to hold it all; playing through a something as sprawling as Skyrim still doesn’t offer the kick of reaching a new disc like back in the good old days.
Special shout-outs must be given to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, a series of games which I continue to slaughter any rivals in after a long youth battling family members in rounds of Graffiti or Horseshit – hands up if you remember changing the Horse word to something obscene? And Road Rash, a perhaps lesser-known motorbike racing game in which you could run over grannies walking along the side of the road. These crippled grannies were the only thing that could draw my dad into the Playstation room, offering a simple yet sinister joy to this man who shied away from all tech. Also Abe’s Oddysee for being so totally bat-shit crazy. I could go on.
In the early 90s I was pretty much glued to our gigantic PC whenever I wasn’t at school or sleeping. We only had a couple of games that my Dad had brought home on floppy disks, but they were the best things ever and all my mates wanted to come over to play them. The most exciting was Commander Keen, about a kid called Billy Blaze who always ended up in space. My particular favourite was the episode called “Aliens Ate My Babysitter!”, in which Commander Keen had to rescue his babysitter Molly from the planet Fribbulus Xax.
Compared to video games these days, Commander Keen was a little…um…rudimentary. He had a spaceship that was made from about three pixels and I made him move about with keyboard arrows and numbers. I think I remember that 4 did something good.
When I felt like a break from Keen and Fribbulus Xax, another favourite was James Pond, in which an anthropomorphic secret agent (who was also a fish) was hired to save the seas from an underwater villain. It was basically James Bond, but with a cod instead of a human and terrifying pink “sexy” mermaids instead of Bond girls. It was also quite trippy. I remember one level when James Pond went to a land made out of desserts and bounced around on huge blancmange. I couldn’t find a picture of that, but here he is in a world made of frost.
Other notable mentions (when we upgraded from the PC games) include Mario Kart, Chuck Rock and Micro Machines (especially the school desk level, where you used stationary as ramps).
My most vivid early experience of gaming was with the Sega Genesis classic Comix Zone (which I actually played on my parents’ PC). The idea was to wander through the panels of a comic book beating the living shit out of anyone who came near you. It was ridiculously fun until the final level which was savagely difficult. I remember it being far more futuristic than the screenshot below would seem to suggest:
Next up is the Star Wars shoot-‘em-up Dark Forces. Weirdly this one wasn’t really attached to any of the films, just set in the same world. Anyhow, I had lots of fun lobbing hand grenades at heavily pixelated stormtroopers like the ones below. A genuinely immersive experience which is surely due a reissue at this most Star Wars-y of times.
Another game which involved the frequent use of hand grenades (and I really am beginning to see a worrying pattern emerge here) is the very excellent turn-based strategy game Worms 2: Armageddon. Building on the chaos-filled promise of the original, the follow-up saw a vast increase in the available weaponry. Me and my fellow tweenage friends passed literally hours doubled up in hysterics as we turned rocket launchers, exploding sheep, concrete donkeys and banana bombs on each other’s unsuspecting invertebrates.
Eventually I graduated to a Playstation 2 and was introduced to what are still considered some of the greatest gaming experiences available: The twin peaks of Grand Theft Autos III and Vice City; lost classic Shadow of the Colossus; and the game which actually runs Goldeneye very close for Greatest FPS Ever, Timesplitters 2. I could play that opening level over and again and never get bored. And if you play it on Difficult you’ll have to do that anyway because it is literally impossible.
I barely used technology recreationally as a child, or as a teenager. This fact has been remarked upon before whenever I have to ask for instructions for how to do something on a computer that others seem to find instinctive. “Oh, you just do it like this,” they say, spinning their hands over the keyboard in a series of indecipherable moves as images flash onto the screen. “There! Fixed!” I return silently to my own machine, expected to recreate this fix while having absolutely no idea how to do what they just did.
Though at the age of 21 I did get Facebook, and now at 22 I have Twitter too and do sometimes email friends in the evening, I still don’t use technology in my free time anywhere near as much as my peers. I’m often impressed by their stamina. “You were able to look at your laptop for a whole evening?“ I think. I get irritable if I have to type out a long text message.
I do, of course, use a computer for work, and have worked hard to address the imbalance in my skill level in that area with that of my peers. Perhaps though, I wouldn’t have had to do catch-up work if I had used tech for pleasure as a young person. What am I saying? That gaming is educational. Take it from someone who didn’t do it – I definitely felt behind all of you speedy-fingered, confident computer users when I first started using one for work at my library Saturday job aged 16.
To hammer my point home about my lack of skill in areas that probably come so easily to you that you don’t think of them as skills, I leave you with the anecdote that while learning to navigate the library database, I had to ask what left and right clicking did on a mouse. I wasn’t used to holding one so moved it around very gingerly, and typed with one finger. “You want a copy of War and Peace, you say?” I checked with a customer on my first day. With one, trembling finger, I laboriously typed, W-A-R into the search bar, guiding my mouse to right click there, unaware that it was the enter key or to double click that would make my typing register. Several, full minutes passed while I waited patiently for the machine to start doing something and the customer looked increasingly uncomfortable.
So – game away. In the same way that research shows that the most effective way of effecting national literacy rates is to encourage reading for pleasure in children, I’d wager that the best way to encourage technological literacy is to encourage being at a computer for pleasure in young people.
*It would be a lie to say I never gamed for fun. I do remember playing competitive solitaire sometimes with my Dad.
Gamelife is published 26 November by Text Publishing.