A Life in Games

I come from the first generation who grew up with computer games. Since I was interested in computers anyway, the games have been an ever-present in my life. I don't spend nearly as much time on them now as I once did, but still take an interest in what's going on. Here is a potted history of the systems I've had and the games that took up a lot of my leisure time.

Tennis

Pong

The first computer game we had at home was Pong. Well, actually it wasn't because when Pong came out lots of other companies released their own versions slightly modified to avoid copyright. It plugged into the telly and had rotating paddles to move the bats up and down. I think there were four game varieties you could select. This was great but certainly simplistic.

Arcade

Asteroids

My first acade experience with video games was on a school trip to the Magnum leisure centre in Irvine. There was a fair out the back and they had an arcade section, where I came aross an Asteroids machine. Asteroids used a vector display rather than a pixel based one, so the lines were very clean, and it was a long time before a home system could provide a decent version.

On my holidays one year in the Norfolk Broads we stopped at a place that had a swimming pool and a climbing rope, and also a Scramble machine. This was a whole level beyond what I'd seen before with colour, scrolling graphics and enemies moving in patterns. I remember managing the initial level over the rough terrain, then the cave level with the floating UFOs, but the next level with the fireballs was too tough for me.

I didn't really spend much time on Space Invaders, but I remember playing another game in Girvan quite a lot. It was a refinement of Galaxians, which was a refinement of Space Invaders, called Galaga. The best bit was when the enemy captured one of your ships, you could rescue it by shooting them and you ended up with two ships side by side.

ZX81

3D Monster Maze

I wanted a computer to play with at home, and in 1981 the options were a BBC for the rich kids or a ZX81 for the rest of us. I think it cost around 70 for a wedge of plastic with flat keys, no sound, a black and white character display and 1K of RAM. After a while I was able to save up enough (30) for the 16K RAM extension, which you had to blue tack to the main machine or the slightest wobble crashed it. Amazing how the same price will now get you 256GB on a much smaller chip. That's 16 million times the storage space.

I didn't buy many games for the ZX81. At the time it usually meant sending a cheque away in the mail to some address advertised in a magazine, and receiving a cassette tape a week or two later. Mostly I copied out programs printed in magazines, and tried writing my own ones too. I had a decent pyramid exploration game at one point.

The star of the ZX81 game scene, though, was 3D Monster Maze. A first person perspective game was very rare, and done with character blocks it was quite an achievement.

Electron

Elite

With all the limitations of the ZX81 I longed for a beefier machine. A 400 BBC was out of the question, but then Acorn announced they were bringing out a cut-down version called the Electron for 100. It lacked a few of the BBC's features but had a great keyboard, colour, sound, 32K RAM, a great basic and even an assembler. It took a while to get one as Acorn ran into some problems and put back its release for quite a while.

I managed to write a few more games, including a moon buggy game that used a bit of assembler to speed up the graphics. The games were miles better too. Acornsoft released quite a few arcade copies that were very well written, including a Pacman that had to be altered when they were sued. There was also a version of my old arcade favourite Galaga, called Zalaga. There was also a series of games based on the Boulderdash style, featuring a green faced guy called Repton who dug through dirt and collected diamonds. These were excellent puzzle games and took up a large amount of my spare time.

Not as much as Elite though. Elite was a wonder, fitting a full space exploration, trading and combat simulation into the Electron's 32K, with great wire-frame graphics. I played this until I'd worked my way up the ranks to Elite status, which was no mean feat.

Atari ST

Carrier Command

Into my university days, and the student grant was put to good use with the purchase of an Atari ST. The ST and the Amiga were competitors and the Amiga was better for any sprite-based games with its hardware acceleration, but the ST coped well with 3D games. 300 got me a machine with 512K RAM and a 16 bit processor, plus a floppy disk so I didn't have to load games using audio tapes any more.

One of the games that immediately impressed was Star Wars. It was pretty close to the vector-based arcade game, and moving the target with the mouse was great. Later on Carrier Command came out, and it was such a wide-reaching game. You could guide your carrier about, or send out aquatic tanks or planes to attack islands that you encountered on the long search for the enemy carrier. The other 3D game that I spent a lot of time on was Formula 1 Grand Prix. This was an excellent rendition of F1, that started you off easily with lots of driver aids switched on, and gradually removed them as you improved. You could actually compete in full length races, and it was just as gutting as real life when you got through 70 laps of a race only to crash out on the final lap.

Atari Lynx

Robotron 2084

When everyone else got a Nintendo Gameboy (that name seems really strange now!) I hung on for Atari's handheld option. The Lynx was fairly powerful, had a colour screen and some great games. Robotron 2084 was an amazing port of the two-stick arcade classic, Joust was a similarly great port and I enjoyed the quirky Ramparts, a sort of tower defence game way before there was such a genre.

The Lynx did have its problems. The screen wasn't great and it ate batteries. And with the Gameboy selling like hot cakes Atari were in trouble. It did mean a brief period of bargains as the games and systems were sold off by shops just trying to clear their stocks, so I got a second machine and lots of games very cheaply. I fired up the Lynx recently and it still works. I see you can send it away and get a fancy new screen fitted, which is very tempting.

Atari Jaguar

Tempest 2000

As the console wars raged the fight was mainly between Nintendo and Sega. As an Atari loyal I plumped for its Jaguar machine. It had a 64 bit graphics processor, which gave it a lot of grunt, and it was generally a great machine. But it was badly let down by software support and poor marketing. Maybe the Japanese heavyweights were just too much for Atari to take on.

So it didn't last long, but it did have one of the best versions of Doom at the time. It had a luscious 2D platformer called Rayman with great animation, and of course the mighty Tempest 2000, Jeff Minter's masterpiece update of an old arcade game, with pixel shatter, video feedback and pumping rave music. After a bit of practise you could find yourself in a sort of mental zone where the game just flowed, you could see through all the particles flying everywhere and feel really connected with the game. There aren't many games which have come close to this sort of effect.

Nintendo Gamecube

Super Monkey Ball

Atari was dead, so it was time to step onto another bandwagon, and I picked Nintendo and the Gamecube. The Nintendo machines weren't always the fastest but they were well designed and had some of the best exclusive games on them. Zelda: Wind Waker was a great example of a 3D world drawn in cell-shaded style which just begged to be explored. I was also impressed with Crazy Taxi, where you drove round in a totally unrealistic indestructible car, taking passengers to their destinations as quickly as possible. It was great fun.

The favourite from this generation though, has to be Super Monkey Ball. Controling this game with the analogue controller was an actual skill you could develop, to the point where you could guide the ball across the thinnest of platforms. It also had some great mini-games, in particular Monkey Target, which gave friends and family endless hours of fun. My skills profile at work still says "Super Monkey Ball - expert level 15" to this day.

Nintendo DS

Advance Wars DS

I never really took the Lynx out on the road much, so the DS was the first proper hand-held machine that I used on the move. It has two screens when you unfold it, and uses a stylus to control the bottom one as well as buttons. The Nintendo classics such as Mario Kart worked well on it, and the gentle life simulator Animal Crossing was good for lots of short bursts. But it was Advance Wars that took the prize for most hours on this machine. A turn-based strategy game wasn't something I'd really been interested in before, but this was very accessible and challenging at the same time. It often gets mentioned among the greatest games ever.

Wii

Super Mario Galaxy

The Wii was a breakthrough in getting your granny to play video games, with its TV-remote style controllers that you could just wave about to play tennis, bowls or whatever. Again it took a while getting one of these as they were constantly sold out for about a year.

The Wii Sports set of games that came bundled with it was great fun and challenging despite the ease of playing. I was also impressed that they managed to work out a decent control system for Mario kart, with tilting the controller working for steering. They also released a steering wheel, which was just a plastic holder for the controller and so was pretty cheap.

Star of the show though was Super Mario Galaxy. This and its sequel have kept me occupied for so long that I'm still playing the Wii 12 years later. The first one died and I had to buy a replacement, but I haven't got a Wii U or a Switch to replace that. I haven't finished with the Wii yet.

iPad

Room

I haven't really done much on console machines recently but have dabbled with games on the iPad. Jeff Minter's Llamasoft had some good arcade style games for a while, and I quite like the puzzle games. The Room series of games are a great example of puzzle games that work well with a touch screen. There have been occasional ones that have annoyed me enough to make me try and defeat them. Usually this is due to requiring actual cash to enhance the player's ability or speed things up. I try to beat these games without paying anything. I also like Bejeweled, which used to be a Flash game on the web, and which was blatantly copied by Candy Crush.

Home Computer

Nethack

Apart from the consoles I've had a series of home computers over the years. After the Atari ST there was a gap before I took an old work PC home and stuck Linux on it. That was useful for a while but I replaced it with an Apple Mac Mini, and that lasted for 6 years, when i upgraded to an iMac in 2014. This has 8GB RAM and a 1TB hard disk fronted by a 128GB solid state drive, which means it's fast, quiet, has a great display and is still going strong 6 years later.

I haven't played games too much on the computer. One of my favourite games over the years was Nethack, a terminal-based dungeon crawler, which I still go back to on occasion. For a while I enjoyed Desktop Tower Defense, where you set up little automatic guns to deal with rampaging enemies and try to kill them before they cross the screen.

The other one that stays up in the browser is Cookie Clicker, a silly game that involves collecting cookies by clicking or by buying upgrades that automatically generate them. It starts really slowly but soon has you collecting millions of cookies per second. It just sits there and gets the occasional click, but I enjoy the mathematical challenges it poses.

I've dabbled with writing a few games or demos on home or work computers over the years. The most successful was when I wrote a Tetris game for the Sun workstations at work. This had a high score table and quickly got competition going around the office. One guy complained that he wasn't getting enough of the long pieces, so I altered the game to give none of these if it was him playing. It didn't take him long to spot.

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David Meiklejohn