Friday, 30 November 2012

My Life in Computer Games: Part 1

I’m coming to a realisation that has slowly been dawning on me for a while now: I’m going to give up playing computer games. For someone who has been playing them since childhood that’s quite a big thing to say, but it is for several reasons.

First and foremost I do not have the time anymore. I’ve got a full-time job and a family to support so free time for me is extremely precious. I’m currently playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, but I’ve been doing that since Christmas 2011! And I still haven’t finished! So far I think I’ve clocked up about 40 hours gameplay time but that is very much spread out across a year, playing maybe a couple of hours a week at best. Finding the time for anything more involving than Angry Birds is simply difficult these days.

But it’s not just a matter of finding the time anymore, I actually don’t feel that bothered about computer games anymore. In the limited free time I have left I would rather actually be doing something constructive (such as writing this blog) and learning more about programming. I’m still interested in how computer games are made – I found the code reviews that Fabien Sanglard did on the Quake and Doom game engines really interesting – and I still appreciate them – I think Halo 4 looks amazing. But playing them? Meh.

So I thought I would make a list of all the memorable games I’ve played during my life so far and reminisce, which is going to span a few posts.

The ZX Spectrum

When I first asked my parents for a computer to play computer games I thought I would be getting a Nintendo or a Sega console. Instead what I got was a ZX Spectrum +2, so not quite what I was expecting.

In the end it did shape my entire career by introducing me to programming, but as a game machine all I remember was having to load tapes which took minutes – and also provided a lovely whining noise and hallucinogenic loading screen – only for me to play it for 30 seconds and give up because I didn’t find it entertaining. Maybe the next one will be better… (wait another 5 minutes to load the next tape).

A ZX Spectrum loading a program. Wow, my head hurts…

So I gave up on the Spectrum and got myself a Sega Master System, which then led to a Sega Mega Drive, which then led to…

Sonic the Hedgehog

Back in the 16-bit days you were either with Nintendo or Sega, Mario or Sonic. I chose Sonic and have many happy memories of those games, because they were fast!

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was my personal favourite, the video above showing one of my favourite levels due to the sheer speed you can crank up to – so fast that the screen sometimes can’t even keep up with you!

But the real gem of the series was Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Both individual games on their own were great, but the “lock on” technology that Sonic & Knuckles brought made them combined into an amazing experience – extending the Sonic 3 game, or by joining Sonic 2 to it you could turn an old game into a brand new experience.

Recently I actually wondered how they even did the “lock on” bit; how do you turn one game into three games? And how do you take an old game which wasn’t even designed for this kind of thing and make it into what is effectively a brand new game? Turns out that actually it was a clever ROM trick, by joining ROM chips together to make a new one; this long forum post explains it in far more detail.

The 32-bit Years

After the Mega Drive I got a Sega Saturn – not sure why in retrospect and not a PlayStation which was the latest hotness at the time. There were some good games such as Sega Rally and NIGHTs Into Dreams but this was the advent of 3D graphics and things were just starting out. One game caught my attention though which made me rethink everything…


Need I say more? Oh, alright then

I remember going round to my friend’s house and they were playing GoldenEye. I had a go – the Nintendo 64 controller looked a bit weird to hold – but I started playing it and I realised quickly that I was completely hooked on the multiplayer. Every console before the N64 supported two players but this one could support four, meaning that multiplayer shooters actually made sense outside of a PC.

So I got an N64 with GoldenEye as my first game for it. The single player missions were great with lots of challenges added as the difficulty ramped up, but my single defining memory of this game was spending nearly all my free time between A-Level lectures playing deathmatch games against my friends. And beating them. Over and over again.

Super Mario 64

Now that I had a N64 I wondered what other games to play on it, so of course I got the N64 killer app: Super Mario 64.

Now before then I hadn’t actually played a Mario game before but this game was great. I remember just wandering around the castle hub-world doing all sorts of acrobatics simply because I could and the analog stick finally let me move around in 3D which made sense. Although I have to admit the camera controls did suck.

Throw a dinosaur four times my size into a bomb? No problem!

I also came to realise that games that Nintendo made really were top quality; they were fun, inventive and imaginative.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

This game came out during Christmas 1998 and was snapped up by just about everyone at the time. I was very lucky to get this on Christmas Day and spent the next two weeks solid becoming immersed in it.

Just like Mario I had never played a Zelda game before so I never experienced the sense of adventure previous games conjured up, and this did feel like a real adventure. It introduced concepts like “locking-on” to your target during combat so you could always see them (something every game afterwards copied) and split the world into two times: current and future, meaning you played as Young Link and Adult Link. And you got to ride a horse!

Looking back I simply remember the variety of the gameplay, the sense of scope (looking into the distance at the volcano or riding across Hyrule field), and the final climatic battle with Ganondorf.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The sequel to Ocarina of Time, this was like a Zelda game and also not like one at the same time. With the benefit of hindsight I think this had a lot more emotional depth than Ocarina.

The main selling point of this game was that you had to save the world from destruction in just three days (game-time, not real), but of course you couldn’t do everything in that kind of timeframe. This meant that a “Groundhog Day” concept was used: you could relive the same three days over and over again to make progress and also watch the lives of each inhabitant of the world happen over and over again, making notes of key points in time when they would do certain actions. It was a bit harder than Ocarina and there was an added sense of urgency (what with an evil-looking and ever looming moon constantly visible in sky) but still worth playing.

That doesn’t look promising. Image courtesy of

The emotional depth I mentioned though was something I wasn’t expecting; every character had a backstory and it was your job to help them. One little girl’s father had turned into a monster yet she tried to shield him from the world to protect him. A baby had lost his father and brought depression to everyone around him. Probably the most poignant one was having to re-unite a wife and husband – the longest of all the side quests; you eventually did but only just in time, by which point the moon was nearly about to crash into the world – you brought them back together long enough for them both to properly say goodbye to each other. This adventure was not about stopping a singular enemy, rather it was about healing the wounds of the people of the world.

Next Time

There’s still a lot more to go, so stay tuned for the next part.

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