Wednesday 16 January 2008

The history books tell it (part 1)

Nothing is particularly grabbing me in current gaming (still enjoying Guitar Hero 3 and X3, but there's nothing particularly blogworthy there). Reading Tom's Top 20 Games list prompted me to make a bit of an attempt to come up with a top 20 myself, but delving into the gaming past for candidates turned into an extended Wikipedia-driven session of extreme nostalgia, so I thought I'd go with some sprawling free-form reminiscing instead as narrowing a list down to a mere 20 would be terribly difficult.

I'll group up games according to the machine I played them on, so to kick things off... the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Like many others in the UK, my formative computing experiences were shaped by the good old Speccy in the early 1980s. We got one for Christmas, probably in 1983 or '84, and it included the Horizons Software Starter Pack. That featured the strangely truncatedly titled Thro' The Wall (perhaps an early attempt at edgy, hip street lingo without resorting to the barbarism of the more phonetically correct Thru), a Breakout clone that was the greatest (only) computer game ever seen (up to that point) in the history of time (in our house). Everyone loved Thro' The Wall, even my parents and their friends. My dad could even get to the dizzying heights of level 2 (and possibly beyond), I'm not sure I ever cleared the initial wall (damn half bricks).

In general, I was a bit too young to really get into the Spectrum (being under ten, and computers only just coming into the home). It was just one of a wide portfolio of things to play with, alongside Lego, plastic soldiers, comics, Star Wars figures and the like. I typed in a few bits of BASIC code from books without really getting a handle on programming (past the obligatory 10 PRINT "ZOSO IS SKILL" 20 GOTO 10), not helped by the cunning Spectrum system that didn't just let you type, say, "NEW", oh no. You had to hunt around to find which key it was on ("A", logically enough), and then use some combination of keys to actually get it on screen, depending on the colour of the word on the keyboard. Hours of fun. I was far more interested in Battle Action Force than any of the Spectrum magazines so critical opinion wasn't really a factor in game purchases; instead, it was whatever Woolworths happened to have on the shelves that I could afford (dependant on not blowing pocket money on sweets for several weeks), cover art being the deciding factor if that still left a choice. Although most of my friends had computers, it was a motley assortment of systems (someone's dad used a BBC Micro at work so they had one at home; one friend had an Amstrad CPC-464, another had an 8-bit Atari), so the playground wasn't a hotbed of tape swapping. Only a couple of other Spectrum games particularly stick in the mind; early on, Daley Thompson's Decathlon, a button pounding sport 'em up similar to Track & Field/Hyper Olympics, and later Saboteur. Saboteur was part of a compilation with Combat Lynx and Turbo Esprit (Googling suggests it was Durrell's "Big 4", and also included Critical Mass but I don't remember that at all), and I just couldn't get on with the other games, which was a shame as I probably bought the pack on the strength of Combat Lynx, being slightly plane-obsessed at the time. Saboteur, though... I finished Saboteur. I got the disk and made it back to the helicopter, I remember being dead chuffed about that.

The only other thing I particularly remember about the Spectrum was that, unlike those fancy-dans with... well, just about any other home computer at the time... the original Spectrum didn't have a joystick port. The keyboard was a bit tricky for anything more than the left and right of Thro' The Wall, so we got a joystick interface to plug into the back of the Speccy. Not one of those simple boards where you just plugged in a joystick and played, though, no. This thing looked like an Enigma Stecker board, with sockets for each key of the keyboard, and six plugs for the joystick up/down/left/right/fire buttons. Terribly ingenious, it let you map the joystick to whatever keyboard controls the game happened to have, though I'm not sure I entirely grasped the principle at the time. Thanks to the magic of Google, I've just found out it was a COMCON interface. Truly, the internet is a great thing.

Anyway, that was the Spectrum, my introduction to the fell world of computing, but it wouldn't be until my next machine that I really fell under its sway.

As an aside, while drafting this, I was browsing the Onion and found the terrifyingly similar:

The Onion

Half Of 26-Year-Old's Memories Nintendo-Related

BROOKLYN, NY—According to an fMRI of Philip Jenkins' brain during memory recall, his parietal lobe is activated equally for the words "mother" and "Banjo Kazooie."

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