Day 93 - the objects of my affection

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , , , , ,


One of the great things about the British is our love for the absurd.  We can take anything, no matter how ridiculous, and fashion it into something not just acceptable, but ground-breaking.  Take Monty Python's Flying Circus, for example.  A lot of their comedy sketches were bizarre, and a fair number of them didn't work in hindsight, but they were embraced the world over and are still revered today.  British computer games used to be like that.

If you consider today's multi-mega-million dollar industry, it's all about the lowest common denominator.  Make a product that ticks all the boxes for the masses, and it's a go.  It's much trickier to get backing if you have a brand-new, off-the-wall idea.  That's probably why indie games are having such a resurgence.


Attack of the Mutant Camels... on my iPhone.
Pity the controls are rubbish (not Jeff Minter's fault!).
If British games in the Eighties had to go through the same sort of committee approval as they do now, then we wouldn't have had much to choose from.  It's fair to say that a decent number of them were quite mental.  With talented, often maverick individuals holed up in their bedrooms or tiny offices with little to reference other than arcade games, any subject was fair game, and nobody thought anything of it.

This was great, and led to some incredibly imaginative, unique games.  And in the grand spirit of Monty Python, some of the adversaries we had to contend with, or some of the protagonists we played as, were about as unlikely as you can get.  I thought I'd look at a few.


Even if you've never watched Monty Python, this might look familiar...
Miner Willy was one of the first true gaming icons.  Playing as a miner isn't necessarily that odd... it's just another human character.  But Matthew Smith put the poor fella in some real nightmare scenarios.

Both Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy are legendary names in the world of gaming.  And although at their core they are simple platform games, each is blessed with the twisted heart of an evil genius.  The games, that is... I'm not saying that Matthew Smith is evil, although I will level the charge of genius at him.


I need a wee, but I think I'd be better off holding it in...
When Willy starts exploring the abandoned mine in Manic Miner, it doesn't seem that odd... OK, so finding penguins in a long-lost cavern underneath London is a bit mental, but you can run with that.  It's when you find yourself having to leap over animated toilets, their lids flapping wildly and angrily, that you realise something darker is at work here.  Vicious telephones only serve to compound the bizarre nature of the dangers at hand.

That darkness was expanded upon with the sequel, Jet Set Willy.  Doing what all good sequels should, it increased the size and scope of the game massively, and threw far more off-the-wall enemies and situations your way.  Forced by your maid to tidy up your mansion after an epic party if you want to sleep it off, you find there's far more to this abode than meets the eye.


What in the name of all things Holy is that thing?  And why is it in my house?
Chainsaws, spinning razor blades, secateurs and ice creams are all out to get you this time, but that's only the half of it.  Nightmare visions await, with mad chefs, dancing rabbits and scary floating heads which will freak you out, and if they don't, well, there's always the room that turns you into a flying pig...

It's heady stuff, to be honest.  The design, whether intentional or accidental, is such that you're compelled to keep playing after yet another irritating death.  And, as with many games of this type, you want to keep exploring so you can see what's around the next corner.  It's a template that was followed for quite a while, until platform games grew up a bit and started being either cartoony or a bit more realistic.  For a couple of years, though, they were gloriously... manic.


Something tells me that alcohol wasn't the only thing ingested at this party...
Another gaming legend that refused to bow to the norm, whatever the norm may have been back then, is Jeff Minter.  You might have gathered as much from the moment you saw his company was called Llamasoft, although strictly speaking, maybe it should be called Ungulatesoft, as no hooved animal is left unloved by the Yak.  Attacks by mutant camels, deep-space sheep and. erm, lawnmowing are just some of the unconventional situations you'll find in his games.

Possibly his finest example of beast/object cross-pollination, though, is Ancipital.  Playing the role of Cippy, an anthropomorphic goat-like creature from an unnamed planet far away, wasn't enough, as far as Jeff Minter was concerned.


A 'No Smoking' sign on a cigarette break? Is that ironic, or not?
You found yourself trapped in a 100-room complex where you were asaulted by all kinds of common-or-garden earthly objects.  Apples, boots, hammers, spanners, hamsters, floppy disks... all these and more roam the complex, looking to bring an end to the invading critters.  Better still, you returned fire with a range of equally mundane yet appropriate objects, almost antidotes in fact, such as bananas, washers and cassette tapes.

Ancipital is an excellent game, and provides a ton of entertainment even today.  I'm of the opinion that it would make a superb iOS game... let's hope that Jeff Minter has similar thoughts.

David and Richard Darling formed Codemasters, who are now renowned for producing some of the fastest and flashiest current-gen racing games.  But they didn't start out like that.  They started out as an 8-bit budget game label, selling games with the word Simulator in the title for £1.99 a pop.  That was relatively successful for them, but things really took off when they published a series of games which put you in control of... an egg.


Like a whirlpool, it never ends...
Dizzy was its name, and it had arms and legs, and a big smiley face.  It jumped and flipped and rolled its way around a variety of landscapes, searching for the correct items to use in the correct places.  More of an arcade adventure than a platform game, it had been done before, but thanks to Andrew and Philip Oliver's eggy vision, Dizzy really popularised the genre and gave it legs, so to speak.  Six sequels were testament to the egg's popularity, and even today, people clamour for a new game.  I doubt that a game starring an egg would get greenlit today, even at Codemasters, although with the way the iPhone market is going these days, who knows?

Who remembers Fat Worm Blows A Sparky?  No, it wasn't Ron Jeremy's first gay porn film.  It's actually an ingenious game where you controlled a worm that was stuck inside your ZX Spectrum.  The object of the game was to collect fifty items called Spindles, then find a disk drive and clone yourself.  Unfortunately, roaming around inside the Speccy were Creepers and Crawlers, and if these bugs managed to pounce on Fat Worm then eventually he would perish.  His only defence was to fire Sparkies at the bugs.


Hope there aren't any seagulls inside this Spectrum...
You what?  If you pitched that now, you'd be laughed out of the room.  And yet, back in November 1986, CRASH gave it a massive 95% score.  It really was quite an achievement for its day.  Of course, this wouldn't be the last time worms would play an integral part in a game...

There were many others, of course.  Monty on the Run featured a mole versus a whole host of marauding household objects.  Fox Fights Back saw you playing as a gun-toting fox, defending himself against the likes of cycling beagles, mad squirrel bombers and egg-chucking chickens.


To progress, you must get past the flying clock and roaming teapot.  Naturally.
Even an early game like Casey Jones, a clone of Moon Patrol, Britished the whole thing up by putting you in a train rather than a moon buggy, and had you attacked by flying burgers, Horaces going skiing, and rogue Melbourne Houses (did the author have a game rejected by them or something?  Maybe I'll get to ask!).


We all love a bit of Horace. There's something not quite right about this, though.
This led to many early computer games feeling slightly amateurish, but that's because they were.  They were also very endearing, with a charm that was lost when games became soldier versus soldier, space marine versus space marine.  And while there's no arguing that current mega-budget games are polished to the nth degree, finely-honed, slick and ultra-professional, you can't help but wish that someone would throw in a daft gun that fired bananas, or something.


The quick brown fox can't outrun the lazy dog on a bike.
That's why he's carrying a shotgun.
I think a large part of the reason household objects played such a part in early games was the 'one man band' factor.  It's quite likely that a number of programmers in the early days could make a game, but were not graphic artists, and so used characters that you would see in every day life and which were easy to draw.  As games, and the process of making them, grew more sophisticated, you saw dedicated graphic artists producing stunning works of art and some great sprites and characters.

This was an important step in the evolution of video games... they would never be quite the same again.  It's something I'm planning to talk about in the book to a degree, with comments from programmers and dedicated graphic artists hopefully providing some interesting insight.  It'll certainly be interesting to me... I'm absolutely terrible at drawing!