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Archive for July, 2009

…a gamer

zx80May sound ludicrous to you, but I’ve never thought of myself as “a gamer” although others have.  Their reasons behind my being “a gamer” are that I’ve been a lover of tabletop games and handhelds since I was a kid.  I’ve been sat in front of a computer, almost constantly, for the last 29 years since I first got my hands on a ZX80 and then my first “real” computer, the Oric 1 48k.  Other reasons are that I scoured eBay for a mint condition Mini Munchman complete with mint condition box and manuals.  I also have a Vectrex that Lorna got me for Christmas one year, much to my sheer joy!!  I actually played it a few minutes before starting to write this little ditty… and it was goooooood.

The thing is, it’s mostly nostalgia for me.  I’m not into retro gaming as such, but I love to remember how Mini Munchman was the absolute best thing in the whole entire world ever.  I remember it being my birthday and mum taking me to Toy Town in Paisley where we went upstairs (past a pair of boxing gloves and a punchball which I remember vividly) to where the electronic toys were.  I’d originally gone in for a remote controlled K9 from Doctor Who, but mum and I both agreed that it wasn’t worth the money when we saw it outside of the box on the counter… it was tiny.  It was at that point I turned around and saw the most glorious sight that my young eyes did ever behold…

Grandstand-MiniMunchmanIt was a stand advertising the all new Mini Munchman from Grandstand which meant I could play Pac-Man (sort of) wherever I was AND it came in a gorgeous shiny silver box too! Well that was it really, my 9th birthday back in 1981 consisted of Mini Munchman… and a bunch of other things that weren’t.  I was a happy boy… until one day in school I was talking with Caroline McCormack in the playground and went into my bag for it so we could sit down and play it… and the LCD screen had cracked and leaked.  I was devastated, but that’s why I had to get myself a brand new replacement recently – I wanted to relive that feeling of having Mini Munchman.  It wasn’t about gaming, it was about nostalgia.

From the point that I got my Oric onwards, it was never about gaming and all about the computers themselves… what they could do, what I could do with them, and how far they could be taken.  From the Jamar Speakeasy voice synthesiser through to the Trojan Cadmaster Light Pen, I played around with all the different peripherals you can possibly imagine.

the_pawn

The Pawn... an actual in-game screen shot from way back in 1986

After going through several computers, most of which were Commodore, I got a letter from Commodore themselves inviting me (by “me” I mean the parental units with the cash) to buy this wonderful new machine… the Amiga.  The main marketing tools for the Amiga were the stunning graphics capabilities and the fact that it could handle 8 bit stereo sound and digitised samples.  This made for a much more attractive option over the bog standard qualities of the PCs at the time.  The Pawn was, quite simply, breathtaking in terms of graphics.  By today’s standards it has about as much wow factor as a broken Casio calculator watch… but back then there was nothing like it.

When I got my first Amiga, it was on the strength of The Pawn and it’s graphic capabilities.  Oddly enough, I never owned the game… and still haven’t had a copy to this day.  It was never about the games though, it was about how impressive the graphics were and how powerful the machine was.  Sure, I played games such as Magic Pockets, Xenon II, Superfrog and even Rick Dangerous to name a few… but I spent most of my time playing around in Deluxe Paint to see what I could come up with next.  Most of my hours were spent redrawing Danger Mouse, Duckula and even the little “savage pumpkin” illustrations from inside Helloween album covers.  I even dabbled with music by taking samples of other songs and creating new ones in ProTracker, and went as far as to create a whole 90 second audio collage in Audiomaster IV which ended up becoming the end of one of my band’s songs “Red Rain” and I’m still very proud of how it turned out, even today.

When I discovered ray tracing, I was hooked!  I’d spend DAYS creating wireframe objects in Imagine and Lightwave, rendering them all over the period of days and even weeks… watching the screen with my chin resting in my hand when suddenly it’d display “0.10% complete” and my heart would jump knowing that in… oh…. several hundred hours… I’d have a very realistic looking hourglass on a chequered floor.  Ray tracing swallowed up a lot of my time, but it was great fun and the results were very much worth the wait.

Then something happened.  During a trip to see my friend Graham at his weekend job (I’ll leave it at that eh?) he brought a game to my attention… a game called “UFO: Enemy Unknown”.  It wasn’t that big, only two floppies, but there was just something about it that no other game had.  It was extraordinarily interactive with amazing management capabilities, but it was also quite a nerve wracking game to play if you were actually invested in your characters.

ufo2b

UFO: Enemy Unknown... it checked all the boxes for me back in 1993, and still does to this day. My Vaio has it installed for when I go travelling, and I even had a version for it on my O2 XDA a few years back. Let's hope it gets released for the iPod 😉

You could build your own earth defense bases, train your squadrons, research and build new earth based technologies as well as alien weaponry and gadgetry if you had remembered to loot the bodies and take their corpses back to the base.  If you were really smart, and used stun weaponry, you could even take live aliens back to your base for interrogation… and that’s when the fun really began.  I played that game to death, several times over, and have still never got bored with it.  The sequels have all been pretty dreadful, but it gave me the bug for gaming like no other game had before and when I finally ventured in to the world of PCs after they (eventually) caught up with the power of the Amiga, I bought UFO: Enemy Unknown for the PC and marvelled at how the ground lit up as you walked… which it never did with the Amiga.  I had the gaming bug again.

This bug was further reinforced when my friend Pat gave me the first Command And Conquer game for Christmas one year.  I looked at him sitting there all chuffed as I gazed at this boxed game in front of me (remember when games came in decent boxes??) while I looked at it thinking something like “OK… how do I react here?  I’m neither a gamer, or someone who is even remotely interested in war… yet I’m holding something which encompasses both… hmmmm” so I just smiled and said thank you.  Pat then assured me that it was apparently a great game and that he thought I’d enjoy it because it was very much strategy based like UFO, but without the turn based battle system.

He was right.

That was back in 1995, and I immediately fell in love with the game.  The graphics were quite crude in comparison to the latest C&C installments but they were probably pretty good for the time as I remember wondering how they managed to get so much detail into such little on-screen characters.  I played the game through several times, and over the years I’ve moved on through every single release to date.  The newer games haven’t floated my boat quite as much as the earlier games, and I totally despise Red Alert 3 and everything it stands for.  The gameplay is terrible, the graphics are abhorrent and look like some kid has gone crazy with day-glo crayons, and the use of Jenny McArthy in anything other than an acid bath just makes me heave.

Having said that… the whole Command And Conquer series really renewed and reinforced my love of games.  I still wasn’t a gamer though.  I only played those games.  I didn’t play them constantly and I didn’t queue up to play them online with strangers all over the world.  I’d play them whenever it suited me, so that still doesn’t make me a gamer.

xbox

The original XBox, and the first console I owned since 1983

In 2003 I bought my first console since the CBS Colecovision that I brought back from Canada in 1983.  This new console was the XBox, a dark and sinister looking container from the people who brought us (read that as “forced upon us”) the beast that is Windows.  The first time I saw the XBox in action was in Electronics Boutique in Glasgow, which I believe is now GAME.  The graphics were incredible, the frame rates were incomparable with anything I’d ever seen before and the realism… the realism was out of this world.  I’d look at it every time I went past the store, but never took that leap into console gaming until my Philips DVD Recorder ate itself and Comet couldn’t afford to replace it under warranty.  Instead I got £500 of Comet vouchers and decided that it was time to get myself one of those XBox thingies.  From memory, I bought it along with Morrowind, Turok, Halo, Midtown Madness, The Sims, Splinter Cell and Time Splitters 2… something like that anyway!  I only ever played Morrowind and The Sims though and the others remain unplayed to this day.

I DID play it a lot though, putting in countless hours with Morrowind and also getting quite into Jurassic Park Operation Genesis… although my most vivid memories of that game are receiving a ‘phone call late one night after I’d fallen asleep playing.  I woke up to find red lights and sirens all over the place, multiple distress calls on screen… as well as a T-Rex stomping around the place looking for more food.  Apparently there’d been a storm… it blew down the fences in several areas and let the T-Rex out, who then went on to eat every other dinosaur and human on the island.  I loved my XBox and really enjoyed taking time out to play on it now and again.

Enter the XBox 360… the little box that dreams are made of.  I was presented with it at Christmas, along with Lego Star Wars, Gears of War and Oblivion.  Wasn’t that impressed with Lego Star Wars, couldn’t even attempt to control Gears of War, and so I settled in to Oblivion… it would probably end up being just like Morrowind, right?  Wrong.  It was everything that Morrowind wasn’t capable of being, because of the limitations of the original XBox.  It was incredibly realistic, very immersive, total escapism… and written almost as though they knew exactly what I wanted from a game.  Several months later, I completed everything that there was to do in the game – every location, every special item, every achievement… you name it, I had it.  With bells on.

Oblivion... simply stunning

Oblivion... simply stunning

My games collection grew and grew… and I continued to just play Oblivion on the 360 and the C&C Generals games on my PC.  The other games sat by the wayside.  They didn’t impress me enough.  I had, I have to admit, put in more than 230 hours on my first run through of Oblivion… so surely that MUST mean that I’m now a gamer??

Nope.

The realisation that I was now a gamer came this evening just before writing this note.  I suddenly came to terms with what I do every evening, what I spend my money on, what I immerse myself with.  Every night I’ll venture upstairs and sit down with either Fallout 3, wandering around the Capital Wasteland taking headshots at Raiders, or I’ll be tearing through the streets of Paradise City with Pete with the familiar “woohwooooh” of KITT filtering into my earhole in between random “fecks” and “sorry doods”.  I recently spent a fair bit getting the room painted in a very dark maroon colour so there was less glare from the projector to make the playing much more immersive.  I also consider upgrading the projector from a 720p model to full 1080p but I just don’t have the throw distance… and that bugs me.

Fred... 9ft of menace

Fred... 9ft of menace

A week or so ago, I shelled out over £500 on a 9ft statue of one of the Brotherhood of Steel soldiers from Fallout 3, and then spent another three days trying to find a way to get it shipped up to me.  One of the considerations was to fly myself and Willie down to London, hire a van, then drive to Surrey to pick it up before driving the horrendous trip all the way back up to Glasgow.  For a statue.  A statue of a guy from a game.  We call him Fred.  You can see where I’m going with this now, can’t you??

I then think about the DAYS I spent redrawing the map of Cyrodiil so that it could be printed out as a large canvas for Lorna’s Christmas present.  OK, it wasn’t for me, but I still paid enough attention to each and every pixel so it would be just right.  I’ve also spent the last THREE days redrawing one of the propaganda posters from Fallout 3, the “Courage Today, Victory Tomorrow” artwork that you can see gracing various walls throughout the game.  Every single piece of retro art within the game is stunning, and I said to Lorna the other night that I was also considering reproducing the “Freddy Fear’s House of Scares”, “Lend a Hand for Uncle Sam” and “Sugar Bombs” posters.

courage_today_new_canvas_clouds

After finishing the work on the “Courage Today” poster, I sat back and admired the results of my three days of hard work and utter torment.  I cursed myself for getting bogged down with the colouring and sketching the soldier far too realistic in the first place.  I literally wasted more than a full day of my weekend.  Yet I’d do it again… and I can’t wait to see the finished printed canvas up on the wall of the gaming room upstairs.  Yes, the gaming room.  I used to call it the cinema room because I’d spend most of my time watching movies but, since moving here in October of last year, it has probably been used for three movies at most.  When I cast my mind back to the cinema room of our last house, I can only really remember watching a few movies, and the rest of the time was spent playing Oblivion and Two Worlds.  Tonight I realised it was no longer a cinema room.  Tonight I came to that weird realisation that it is, and always has been, a gaming room.

That revelation cements the fact that I am, as weird as it is to admit it, a gamer.  Feel free to taunt me with cries of  “Gobble gobble, one of us, we accept him”… I don’t care.  I may have a higher gamerscore than you anyway :p

My name is Mark, and I am… a gamer.

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