Day 134 - oh, the Payne

by PaulEMoz in , , ,


Hey there!

Yeah, I know... it's been all quiet on the They Were Our Gods front of late.  To be honest, that's a problem most bloggers have... you can only write every day for so long.  And when I'm using up words for this book project too, then eventually something has to give.

Also pulled from the excuses hat is the 'work' card... I've had loads on, and as I've been attempting to get promotion there on two fronts, it's meant I've had to put in a lot of extra work to try and get my applications looking good.  But that's all done with now, and I'm just sitting waiting for the outcome.


It might look dramatic, but that's going to hurt when he lands.
I've now got a well-deserved week off, in which I intend to give this blog, and the book, some right hammer.  But I thought I'd do a bit of gaming first... and a game I rented a little while ago was Max Payne 3.

Now, I'm not a big fan of first-person shooters.  I'm rubbish at them.  Third-person shooters, I enjoy a lot more.  I'm still not that great at them, but for some reason I just find them more enjoyable to play, as a rule. Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, for instance, has been one of my favourite gaming experiences of the current generation.  And as Max Payne 3 is also published by Rockstar, I expected more of the same  Well, maybe with less animal skinning...


Pure evil, in digital form.
So far, it hasn't quite worked out to plan.  I'm absolutely terrible at this game.  I blundered through the first bit reasonably well, which gave me hope that I'd improve as things went on.  No such luck.  I'm only on the second chapter or whatever it is, and I'm repeating the same section over and over and over again, and dying every time, making absolutely no progress with it whatsoever.  It makes me want to give up already.

In some ways, though, that's a remarkably old-school bit of game design.  After all, how many times in the Eighties did we play a game and, in particular, one section of a game over and over again, before finally triumphing heroically?  Personally, I have particularly painful memories of the C5 section of Monty on the Run.  I must have failed on that section of the game at least a hundred times, and it's scarred on my brain.


Ahhh, there's lovely. Until I get to the bosses, anyway. Then I'm rubbish again.
Eventually, however, with perseverance and no little amount of skill, I made it through that section and managed to complete the game... yes, without cheating.  It still stands today as one of my proudest gaming accomplishments.  And if I could do it back then, I can damn well do it today.  Max Payne won't be the beating of me.  I'm going to crack on with it, and I'm going to complete it.  I will be triumphant!

Well, unless I get distracted by NiGHTS into dreams...

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!

Day 67 - happy birthday, dear C64... happy birthday to you!

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


Ahh, if only this had been three days earlier.  Or I had started my blog three days later.  One of those.  Anyway, in August 1982, the Commodore 64 was released unto the world, and so began a decade-plus of top-notch home computer entertainment.


It was Christmas 1985 that saw me enter the world of home computing, when my parents got me a Commodore 64 as my present.  So I was hardly an early adopter.  I'd used one at friends' houses before then... probably starting around the summer of 1985.  Other computers I'd been able to use through friends included the ZX Spectrum (16K and 48K), Commodore Plus 4 and ZX81.  But the C64 was the one that really captured my heart and has remained my favourite to this day.


Fortunately, I'm an open-minded and level-headed individual, and I'm able to see the good points and bad points of all the systems I've used over the years.  If that wasn't the case, I would have no right starting a project like this.  But for today's purpose, on its 30th birthday (or around, technically), I will indulge my Commodore leanings, if you don't mind.


Mmmm... beigey goodness.
The first time I ever had an experience with the Commodore 64, it was as a tease.  I was walking through the housing estate where I lived, when a mate of mine popped his head out of some kid's window and told me to "listen to this".  He then turned up the volume on the telly to full blast, at which point I heard the music from Master of the Lamps blasting out.


I was floored.  I'm not sure why... I'd heard some great tunes on the Atari VCS/2600.  But that had been some time before then, and I was used to the Spectrum's less accomplished sounds by this time.  To hear this stunning music blasting out of a computer was a revelation.


It made me want one of these machines.  Which was a bit of a problem... I'd already agreed with a mate that I would get my parents to buy his Spectrum from him, for me, for Christmas.  Why was he selling his Spectrum?  He was getting a Commodore 64...


That's my dad on the left. Yeah, he's always been cool.
I was somewhat amazed, then, when my dad sat me down to talk about this Spectrum and asked me "wouldn't you rather have a Commodore 64?".  I'd considered it to be out of our financial range, but I presume he must have asked around before committing to any monetary outlay.  Naturally, I said, "Yes".


Christmas Day that year was a great one.  It didn't matter that I had a black and white telly.  It didn't matter that I only had a handful of games.  It didn't even matter that some of them were dreadful.  I spent all day glued to that telly, playing and loading and loading and playing and then re-loading and playing some more.  That chunky beige power pack was as hot as the sun by the end of the day, and I was as happy as... I dunno.  A sandboy?  Larry?  What makes them so happy, anyway?


My software library on that day consisted of: Fight Night (great fun), BMX Trials (dreadful), Booty (very disappointing after playing the great Spectrum version), The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (well, I'd read the book so it was OK) and educational stuff like The Very First and the Commodore Music Maker.  An inauspicious start, but it kept me going until I could beg, steal, borrow or buy more.


Yeah, alright, I've used that one before.
In the short term that collection grew very rapidly, whether by the purchase of budget games or compilations like Yak's Progress and Off The Hook, or by receiving cassettes filled with copied games.  Yes, back then we were very happy to have as many games to play as possible, without even realising what the consequences might be.


I'd buy games wherever possible, though.  To help me in that regard, there were some great computer magazines out there with reviews of all the latest games.  I'd go into John Menzies or RS McColl and stand there for ages, comparing the reviews in the likes of Commodore User or Computer & Video Games.  But the only magazine I really took notice of was ZZAP! 64.


If you took all the computer magazines that were available then and laid them end to end, you'd just have to pick them all up again.  But if you were in the know, then the one you would pick up first would be ZZAP! 64.  Maverick in every way, there was something special about it that the others just didn't have.  Whether it was the great cover art, the reviewing staff that was made up of gamers rather than journalists, the ratings system (percentages always just sounded better) or the cool awards given to good games, it was a refreshing read when compared to those that were run by (seemingly) old men.


The first issue I ever bought. I didn't own a C64, I just loved the mag!
A big contributing factor to that was the way it gave the reviewers personalities, with each having a series of drawn heads accompanying their comments... you could see at a glance how they felt about a game, before you even got down to reading their opinions.  You grew to trust them, to gravitate towards certain reviewers, to want to be like them!  In fact, I applied for a Staff Writer's job at the age of sixteen... I was (rightly) turned down...


Some of my greatest gaming achievements and memories come from that era.  I completed Monty on the Run without cheating on a black and white telly... something I'm still proud of today.  I completed the cassette version of The Bard's Tale... it took me thirteen months, but I did it, dammit.


I have so many memories from that time.


I remember buying Barbarian II: The Dungeon of Drax and Bon Jovi's New Jersey album on the same day, and playing them both at the same time when I got home.  I remember spending my youngest brother's birthday money on Bounder when he wanted The Eidolon.


Ahh, Bounder. Where is Christian P. Shrigley now? No, seriously... I've tried to contact him with no luck.
I remember holding a cassette recorder up to the TV to record my favourite tunes.


I remember standing outside The Computer Shop in Newcastle, watching and listening to the whole of the opening of Parallax.


I remember dragging my computer, tape deck, power pack and games down the stairs to play on the colour telly when my parents were out, and then having to drag the whole lot back up the stairs again.


I remember laughing my head off at the traps in Cliff Hanger, at the beat 'em up antics in Street Hassle, at my mate gunning grannies across the entire screen in Death Wish III.


I remember the shock when I loaded Impossible Mission and Professor Elvin Atombender shouted his immortal words at me.  And then his robots did, indeed, destroy me (the devious bastards).


I remember being stunned by every single one of Epyx' Games series.  I remember laughing at friends who had bought Quickshot II joysticks, only to see them break within days.


I seem to remember we called this the "Quickshot Poo".
I remember the amazement the time I transferred from a 001 to a 999 in Paradroid.


I remember buying a disk drive, far too late, and being enthralled by the wonder of Wasteland.


I remember that the Commodore 64 was responsible for a number of important things in my life, too.


It was responsible for turning the lad I sat next to in German into my best friend (well, it was either that or the time I slapped my head in anger at a bald-headed German teacher who'd had a go at me).


It was responsible for the re-kindling of my friendship with someone I'd stupidly fallen out with (I remember being asked if I could go down there with some games as he'd just got a C64... when I got there he had Crazy Comets! Fuck!).


It was probably responsible for distancing me from my brother... he had no interest and just called me "Spacey Boy".


It was responsible for my school grades declining.  Who wanted to study when there were games to play?


It was responsible for some of the best times of my life, and I'll never forget that.  Happy 30th Birthday, Commodore 64.

Day 5 - Game on!

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , ,


It's only early days, but it's interesting to note that the poll seems to have split opinion down the middle.  I'll be curious to see how it turns out once it's run its course.


One of the best things about writing a book like this is the research.  And for today, research involves playing games.  Whether it's to take screenshots or purely as a refresher for the writing, it's always great to revisit the "old" days.


I'm about to play Monty on the Run.  It's a game that is renowned for two things: its awesome Rob Hubbard music, and its high difficulty level.  I actually completed it without cheating back in the day.  I know my skills have waned somewhat since then, but it'll be interesting to see how far I can get today.


This is happening.




After that... well. we'll see where the day takes me.  If I can stay off Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which I recently bought for the XBox 360, I'll write up something else.


I mentioned Kickstarter and crowdfunding in my first blog post.  It's not a road I need to go down yet, but I do keep an eye on Kickstarter as there are a lot of retro-themed games (or games-related) asking for funding there, which are often of interest to me.  The biggest successes are well-know at this point: Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure; Brian Fargo's Wasteland 2; and Jordan Weisman's Shadowrun Returns.  All surpassed their wildest dreams in terms of funding. But there are other, lesser-known projects out there that are worth a look, and I'm going to leave this post with a few links of interesting projects that are ending soon.


Turrican Soundtrack Anthology by Chris Huelsbeck - interesting for anyone into Amiga music, ends in three days.
Drifter: A Space Trading Game - an Elite clone that actually looks like it will be worthwhile, ends in four days.
Pinball Arcade: The Twilight Zone - the Pinball Arcade developers aim to recreate one of pinball's most revered tables.  They've now been able to add XBox 360 support - quite exciting!


I'm backing those three... have a look!