When I was ten years old, most of the computer games I played on my Commodore 64 were not very good. They weren’t the classics we all remember; they mostly weren’t Impossible Mission or Way of the Exploding Fist (though I did play those too, I wasn’t a barbarian).
Every week my mum would take me to Wythenshawe library in South Manchester where you could rent games for 10p each. The best ones were constantly unavailable, so I’d grab what I could – weird titles no one else wanted.
This is how I discovered the roguelike adventures Aztec and Sword of Fargoal with their strange glitchy visuals and endlessly changing tombs. It’s where I found Terrorist, the prototype action strategy title from Virgin Games, where you had to defend a town from incoming insurgents – but it only showed you the map for a few seconds so you had to memorise all the weak points. I found sailing and flight simulators, I found Theatre Europe, the terrifying nuclear war strategy game, which fed into all the nightmares my school had given me by making us watch Threads.
Later, in the 1990s, the success of consoles like the Snes, Mega Drive and PlayStation and the relative low cost of developing and distributing software, led to a huge proliferation of offbeat, idiosyncratic games that may have been useless compared to the accepted classics of the era, but were often all we had when Auntie Jane misunderstood our birthday or Christmas lists.
For me, that meant evolutionary titles like Mega Lo Mania, which helped invent the real-time strategy genre, or Runabout, a Japanese vehicle destruction game which contributed toward the arrival of the open-world driving genre.
And did you ever play Interstate 76, the driving adventure set in an alternative 1970s? Or Ephemeral Fantasia, the Konami role-playing game which incorporated the company’s guitar controller, allowing the player to serenade drunken sailors?
The accepted history of games is a rather tyrannical thing – it wants us to believe that there was a narrative to game development; an accepted route from Pong to Portal.
But there wasn’t. The history of video games, like all art forms, is littered with failed experiments and eccentric offshoots. It is peppered with things like multi-puzzle musical tie-in Frankie Goes to Hollywood and paranoid full-motion video (FMV) thriller Spycraft: the Great Game, one of the first titles to have its own dedicated website.
Some of my most treasured gaming memories are of titles that I don’t talk about much because hardly anyone remembers them. The 3DO space flight game Starfighter was so stark and beautiful; the prototype stealth title Bonanza Bros, had these supremely challenging burglary missions, and how sad that Irem’s inventive and tense Disaster Report series of urban disaster games ended.
Whole genres have been lost to history now. Multi-stage titles like Beachhead, which offered a range of war experiences in one package; the lost arena brawlers of the late-1990s, such as Spike Out and Power Stone.
When I look back, if I’m honest, it often wasn’t the big games that I got stuck into, it was the also-rans. It wasn’t Street Fighter or Tekken, it was Ehrgeiz, Tobal No 1 and Toshinden. It wasn’t Gran Turismo, it was GTI Club: Rally Côte d’Azur and Sega Touring Car Championship. At the time, this wasn’t because I was some sort of video game hipster, it was because I was reviewing games as an inexperienced freelancer and these were the ones I was offered. But through it I ended up havingsome very odd, memorable experiences.
Everyone has their own version of video game history, just like everyone carves their own route through pop music, literature and fashion. Sometimes the best experiences are the most private and personal and flawed.
By their very nature, video games are so complicated to make well, there are so many competing voices, pressures and ambitions – and these are often pitched against difficult and demanding technologies. It’s so sad, in a way, that the ever-evolving nature of gaming technology means that so many eccentric and obstinate experiences will be lost to most of us.
The revival of old titles though things like Nintendo’s Virtual Console store is of course a curated process – the best games are selected for update. The old ones live on dusty cassettes and cartridges that degrade like memories. There is a rush to preserve them through projects like the National Videogame Archive, but they will live as museum relics rather than living interactive experiences.
The tyranny of video game history has a habit of devaluing the offbeat, nuanced and arcane. Games aimed at girls come off really badly in this re-evaluation process, because often, the people who get to decide what has merit and which genres were “important” often weren’t playing Barbie Fashion Designer or Rockett’s New School or Crystal’s Pony Tale. But those games meant something to people; people spent hours playing and enjoying them.
Of course I put in reservation requests at the library for the big hits – for Paradroid, Last Ninja and Summer Games II, and those were the games I asked for at Christmas. But the reality of gaming for me was the cast-offs on the shelves, and the budget games they sold at video stores and in newsagents. The Mastertronic, Firebird and Codemasters games. £1.99 for Super Robin Hood or Chiller or Clumsy Colin Action Biker. A lifetime of memories for a week’s pocket money.
The best games, in the end, are the ones you loved for their flaws, their charms and for the fact that you actually owned them and played them to death. History cannot take that from you.