By: Gary Warner; Guest Blogger.
“Why do you play those rubbish old games Old Man?”
So speaks youth! The question came from my 20 year old son and as I went to answer him with a snappy, witty and devastatingly logical reply, I found that I couldn’t actually tell him why!
I sat there, opening and closing my mouth. “Can’t say, can you Old Man?”, he smirked. As he walked off, all I could come up with was a rather lame, “Because, I like ‘em. Without ‘em you wouldn’t be playing Red Dead Redemption 2 at the moment!”. Even to my own ears that sounded a pathetic and desperate argument.
See, I’m not one for rose coloured specs. I know that the old games are, by todays standards, a bit lame. Yes, in their day they were amazing, especially the earlier games, and I spent large chunks of my youth playing them to death. But, they haven’t aged very well, in my opinion. They cannot compete with massive open worlds such as Grand Theft Auto 4 & 5 or Far Cry 4 & 5. They can’t compete with the deep role playing mechanics of titles such as Skyrim or Mass Effect. They can’t compete with the edgy thrill of competing against real human beings in titles such a PUBG or World Of Warcraft.
So why, I thought to myself, do I actually love them and still play them despite all of the amazing newer titles that I also play regularly?
I found that to answer that question, I needed to go back into my past…
England. The 70’s. Even I pull a face when I use England and the 70’s in the same sentence!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fiercely proud Englishman. But England in the 70’s was a pretty depressing place. Strikes : Postmen, Miners, Dustmen. The three day week in ’72. The “Winter of Discontent” in ’79. The drought of ’76. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee with all of the street parties and false cheer!! Don’t even get me started on the fashion!!
In amongst all of that in Essex, Basildon, to be more precise, was I, living in a run-down council house with my brother and our Mum. The house was subsiding into the swamp-land upon which it was, apparently, built. Mum struggling in the days before the seemingly endless benefits single parents get these days, to keep herself and her two sons alive!
We didn’t have much. Me and my brother lived in hand-me-downs and any toys we had were usually hand-me-downs too. Our two favourites were a battered old Scalextric set, with knackered old cars and rusty, brittle track, and an ancient Hornby electric train set.
I’m sure we weren’t the only ones living in such a way and there were no doubt people worse off, but that was our situation and it meant that 70’s England holds no real special place in my heart. Until, that is, some time around ’79 or maybe ’80, not too sure, we were taken on holiday with our Nan and Grandad. Not sure where, may well have been Camber Sands, but wherever it was there was an arcade.
OMG! Space Invaders, Galaxians, Lunar Lander & Super Breakout spring to mind but there where more. All amazing and all totally different from any other leisure activity that I had seen before. As I said, we had no money so only managed 3 or 4 goes in the week that we were there – even the 10p required to play was expensive as far as we were concerned. But, hanging around the arcade with the sounds, the atmosphere and the potential for fun was amazing and certainly, for a few, all too brief hours, in that week away, made all of the single-parent, lack of money existence disappear for a while. It didn’t matter that I had no money to play, simply watching people play was more than enough.
Then I became aware of the Atari VCS (not the 2600, that name came later – one of my pet peeves!!). Video games: at home!!! Wow!! I had no chance of getting one and none of my friends in the poor council estate were ever going to own one. But, the very thought was amazing!
Fast forward a bit to sometime around 1982(ish) and things were looking up. A move from Essex to Milton Keynes saw Mum re-marrying and, with me and my brother getting a little older, she was able to work part-time so we had a little more money. Eventually we managed to persuade her to get us an Atari VCS for Xmas and birthdays combined. Not sure how she managed it but I think she must have done some kind of HP, bless her. We had our very own games at home. My god did we hammer the hell out of that console!! It was played to death – mum certainly got her money’s worth out of it. It was the best “toy” we’d ever had. Over time favourites were Space Invaders, Spider-Man, Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Star War: Return of The Jedi and River Raid to name but a few.
A couple more holidays followed and more arcades. Still not too much money to spend but games such as Missile Command, Defender, Scramble and the mighty Gorf still held an amount of wonder. Gorf especially intrigued with its speech synthesis – “Got you space cadet!!”
Then a mate got a Vic 20. Wasn’t that impressed with the games really but he did have a “silly sentence” generating program that made us laugh and somehow (might have been his older brother telling us – can’t really remember), we found out that we could break into the game and hack the Basic “Data” statements that the sentences were built from, and add our own “naughty” phrases that made the program generate some rather ruder and fruitier sentences that perhaps it was meant to. Made us laugh a lot but, perhaps more importantly, it ignited a slow burning fuse that programming a computer could be fun!
Then mates started to get home computers – most notable the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. C90s full of games were starting to be passed around in the playground. Multiple games on one cassette for free (yes, very wrong, and I don’t condone it, but those were the times!!). I decided I had to have a home computer.
So, a paper round, loads of 5am starts and lots of birthday and Xmas money collected together later, I was the owner of shiny new 48K Spectrum. I loved that machine to bits. I spent all available hours on it. Gaming and typing in the game listings from magazines (Crash etc).
Games such as Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Pyjamarama, Jetpac, TLL, Turbo Esprit and many more consumed my every waking hour. It began to dawn on me that I could write my own games. How hard could it be?
It was now that the programming bug bit hard. I taught myself programming using Spectrum Basic and Z80 Assembler. I did manage to write a few, frankly not very good, games but mainly I became obsessed with understanding coding and how computers worked. I spent far too many hours of my life learning to code. But it led to a Computer Science A-Level and a programming job with a bank.
I’ve done that ever since, now with my own family and considerably more comfortably off than the early years. I still game daily and, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t really consider retro games to be better than todays games. Todays games are far better, more realistic and more absorbing than the older game could ever be.
What retro games are , though, is the very soul of gaming. They are the seeds, the genes if you will, from which modern gaming has grown. Each and every retro game contains, in some small way, part of the very essence of what makes gaming fun and enjoyable. They contain the very rawest of whatever magic ingredient it is that makes gaming so absorbing and rewarding.
So, why do I still play retro games? I play them because they remind me of where I came from. They remind of darker times but also more innocent times. They remind of a time when I thought anything was possible. When a new world of computing and programming was beginning to open up to council estate “oiks” like myself. They remind me that when absorbed in a game, any game, you can be what you want to be and can leave, for some small amount of time, the worries and cares of the world behind. They remind me that they are the very spirit of gaming and they should be replayed, loved and remembered just as we do long lost relatives.
So, I explain all of this to my son. I finish. He looks at me in silence. I await his response. I expect something like, “Wow Dad, I never knew they meant so much to you. I never realised how important they were to you spiritually and mentally and how they basically shaped your and, ultimately my life!”.
He opens his mouth to speak, spins on his heal and starts to walk upstairs towards his room where Red Dead Redemption 2 is paused, awaiting his return.
“You are such a nerd” he says, chuckling gently to himself…
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