This article first appeared on The Gamer Social where I am a regular contributor.
I’m betting most of The Gamer Social’s followers started gaming pretty young. For me, we have to go back to Christmas circa 1985. My dad bought my sister and I a ZX Spectrum. Video games were a complete unknown to me at that point and this introduction was magical. This keyboard and tape deck hooked up to the TV and suddenly opened up a whole new world to me. It came with a host of games, all contained on tapes which loaded up with wild screeches and bright, flashing, colourful lines. I think the first game we loaded up was a title called Alien Destroyer, a Space Invaders clone released in 1984. I mainly watched as my dad and older sister controlled the little onion-shaped weapon, avoiding incoming fire and shooting down floating alien space ships. The aim of the game was to get the highest score, something that later briefly became a real competition within our household. It was bright, colourful, noisy and new. What wasn’t to enjoy? I was hooked straight away.
Another family favourite was Derby Day. This early horse racing classic took us to randomly generated plate meetings. Up to five players could place bets on the outcome of each race. The winner was the player who made the most profit after seven races. It seemed harmless fun at the time but looking back it seems a bit wrong that my dad was teaching his four year old how to gamble on horses.
Aside from the aforementioned family fun, the Spectrum had some really tough games that I never really got to grips with in those early years. I remember Treasure Island being one such fiendishly tough game. If I managed to get beyond the third screen on the game I considered it a major achievement. It was, like many games of the time, totally unforgiving. Others, like Oh Mummy, (a 1984 Pacman-style title) were so random that I didn’t really have a clue what the aim of the game was. Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy were pretty good fun platform games but they could be unforgiving too. I remember getting to the last screen on Manic Miner and failing on my last life. There were no saves and no do overs once your lives ran out. I actually cried I was so heartbroken. I’m not sure if I ever played it again after that. Games in the 80s really could be that harsh.
It wasn’t until I got a copy of Skool Daze from my cousin that I really started to see the potential for what games could be. Skool Daze was a game where you played a school kid who had to steal his report card from the staff room safe without amassing more than 10,000 lines from his four teachers. It was a real challenge with the player character capable of getting blamed for things that weren’t his fault as well as the things that were. It was challenging but fun, set in a believable setting with characters you could customise by renaming them before the game began. Although it was set within the confines of a small school, it felt like you could explore and do things your own way. This freedom was incredibly rare in games and it made Skool Daze one of the few truly replayable games in my early library. It took a lot of lateral thinking and strategy as well as luck to complete it and that meant the sense of achievement when I first finished it was intense. This game was a forerunner to games like The Escapists, Bully, GTA, and every other sandbox title you’ve ever played.
Putting the sandboxes aside for a bit, my first taste of a fighting game came with The Way of the Exploding Fist. For anyone who didn’t play this title it came the summer after Karate Kid, when kids were all taking Karate and Judo classes. It made a huge impression on me at the time. A one-on-one fighting game that could be played against a friend or against a series of increasingly tough AI opponents, for me, this was the true precursor to the likes of Street Fighter, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, etc. For such an early game, there was a surprisingly elaborate series of moves that you could pull off to ensure victory. The directly competitive nature meant it was an ever popular after school title to play with friends. I remember my first rudimentary gaming tournament being a “winner stays on” affair with some of the kids from around my neighbourhood. This was massively fun and new experience in gaming. Kids huddled around the TV laughing at each other and being wowed by each other’s skill. This was the first gaming community I ever knew and it stemmed from one game. It would lead to a rather unfortunate amount of early videogame piracy as we used to copy tapes from each other whenever someone got a new game.
1985’s The Bard’s Tale was one such title and my first experience of dungeon crawling adventure. I probably didn’t play it until I was eight or nine and at first I didn’t really get it. I remember it sitting unused for some time before picking it up in a moment of boredom a year or so later. This time everything clicked into place. It was a massively eye-opening experience. Creating up to six characters and managing a party was a new and exciting experience but it was the ability to get lost that was most fun and unusual for me. I ended up drawing maps on paper to keep track of my travels and keeping copious handwritten notes of my adventures. The combat was described by text and was turn-based so it took a lot of imagination to fill in the gaps but the game gave me enough detail to allow my imagination to run wild. I loved it.
I’d earlier got a copy of a game called Dun Darach (I think I got it free with a gaming magazine at the time). It was another game where you could explore and needed to keep track of your movements on paper but despite it looking far better than The Bard’s Tale, I couldn’t get my head around this game at all. I couldn’t, for the life of me, work out what I was supposed to do, where to go or what to look for. I’d get randomly beaten up in the virtual streets and not really understand why. I knew how to move around and could enter houses and shops to buy or steal things but other than that, I couldn’t work out what I was supposed to be doing. I wanted to understand and find amazing things but it never really stuck with me in the same way that The Bard’s Tale did. Even now, I’m not sure I could tell you what this game was about. I know I must’ve tried to play it dozens of times (I have the image of the character wandering the streets seared into my memory) but I just didn’t understand how it worked. This was an issue for a lot of games in this era; there were no tutorials, little to no instruction manuals and rarely any in-game help. It wasn’t even as though you could turn to the internet for help, so when you got stuck with a game, you were stuck until a friend found a way through things or a walkthrough was printed in a magazine.
The balance was restored by games like 1986’s Paperboy. It was something of a love story for me. This simple game, was a favourite of mine for a long while. In Paperboy the aim of the game was to control a bicycle riding delivery boy in an effort to deliver papers to houses along a street, avoiding obstacles and trying to safely deliver papers to the homes of subscribers while vandalizing the homes of non-subscribers. It was a simple concept but provided great fun and decent challenge. In 1986 the graphics for this game were gorgeous. The streets were set at an angle so that there was a 3D effect to the houses and the characters and obstacles were all distinctive. There were also fun animations when you caused damage or failed to avoid obstacles. It wasn’t massively challenging but relied heavily on a sense of timing that meant mistakes were punished accordingly. It wasn’t competitive and really shouldn’t have had much replayability but I found myself repeatedly trying to better my high score. The constant quest to better myself was reason enough to revisit this game over and over.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins (1985) also had a very simple premise. You played a knight that had to rescue a princess, nothing groundbreaking about that. It mixed platforming with rudimentary combat in a new and fun way. Where it felt new and different was in the fact that your character could find better armour and abilities throughout each level through a series of “power ups.” He could also lose his armour and end up in just his boxers when damaged. It was irreverent and fun but at higher difficulties was fiendishly hard. It was followed up by Ghouls ‘n Ghosts in 1988 and was perhaps the first game where I actively sought out its sequel. To me, it was the inspiration behind the likes of Ninja Gaiden, Altered Beast, Gunstar Heroes and perhaps most notably, Megaman.
From simple to obscure, Dizzy (1987) was a platform adventure game that had logic puzzles you needed to solve in order to progress. These were often simple like finding oil to move rusty wagons, keys to open locked doors, etc. Some of the logic puzzles were a bit more obscure and the controls were often infuriating as the egg-like Dizzy, rolled and somersaulted past your intended landing spot. It was the sometimes obscure logic puzzles that I enjoyed, trying to work out what needed to be used where that kept me coming back to it. The puzzles were an extension of the kind of lateral thinking that would be required for the many, many adventure games that were to follow; the Monkey Island series especially.
1987 was quite a year for memorable games for me. It brought Afterburner, Outrun, Operation Wolf and Rampage. All arcade games. They were a sign of things to come. The improvement in graphical quality and the feeling of control, the emphasis of action over story, this to me was the period that epitomised the 80s. Car chases, fighter jets and mass destruction. These games let kids like me play out the movies and adventures we saw on TV. Completing the games was secondary to having fun and revelling in action. California Games also came out that year, a game where stereotypical California dudes surfed, skateboarded, BMXed, Frisbeed and hacky-sacked their way through permanently sunny backdrops. At a time of “Hollywood” games, it capitalised on the vibe and seemed to perfectly compliment the action-packed games of the era.
This theme seemed to continue for the remainder of the 80s with games getting more movie tie-ins and more action-oriented. Robocop, Ghostbusters, Batman and Indiana Jones were all represented in games. Some were better than others of course but I remember playing them all. Batman: The Movie was probably my favourite of the bunch, not because it stuck closest to the films but that the controls and gameplay were largely responsive and fun. The games were coming thick and fast at this point. While the quality wasn’t always great, there were some classic games still to come. Double Dragon, Kick Off, Chase HQ, Operation Gunship and Altered Beast all hit the mark for me.
Double Dragon took the side-scrolling run and gun style theme and brought in hand-to-hand combat. Suddenly players could flying kick, uppercut punch and elbow their way through a variety of street thug enemies on the way to rescue Billy Lee’s girlfriend. The two player co-op fighting made this another firm after school favourite. Bringing arcade co-op into the comfort of the home was a big deal. The story, if you could call it that, was anything but original but it didn’t matter. The real stories came from rescuing your mate with a well-placed headbutt or having them save you with a knife throw. This kind of experience probably wasn’t anticipated when the game was designed but they stumbled on something special.
Kick Off wasn’t the first football game I played, but it was the first one I really enjoyed. It had the top down camera angle of other games but it felt like a proper football game. When your player had the ball he’d knock it slightly ahead of himself rather than have it stick to his feet. There were other little touches like the capacity to use different tactics, for players and AI to get yellow and red cards and even different referees with different levels of discipline. All these touches added up to create a really fun football sim with a level of realism that hadn’t appeared before. For me this is where football sims really started to come into their own and it was followed the next year by the fantastic Sensible Soccer.
Chase HQ was a weird one. From the outside it really shouldn’t have worked. It was essentially a car chase game where you played the cop. You had to chase down the criminals before the timer ran out and then had to run them off the road. It sounded simple enough but the challenge was in avoiding obstacles and crashes that would slow you down and allow the criminals to escape the timer. I remember it being fiendishly difficult but having played an emulated version of it a couple of years ago, I finished the entire game in around 10 minutes and wondered why it had caused me so much trouble as a kid. It was essentially five levels of around 90-180 seconds of action yet I hammered the hell out of it back in the day and don’t think I ever stopped the final car.
Operation Gunship is a game that not many people will remember. It was a game from Codemasters that flew under the radar (so to speak) of the mainstream for most people. I think the designers of the Desert Strike series must’ve played and loved this game as it was an almost direct copy of the premise and design. In Operation Gunship you play a helicopter pilot who has to fly behind enemy lines and rescue a team of lost and captured NPC Special Forces. The camera sat directly above the helicopter which could fly in 360o across the map. The environment below contained destructible structures such as buildings, watchtowers and bridges as well as enemy tanks, gunboats and gun emplacements. Destroying structures would reveal your Special Forces buddies who you would need to hover over to pick up via a rope ladder (or at least the game told you they were climbing a ladder as you hovered). You could have a couple of prisoners on board at once but then would need to go and drop them off at a helipad in a small safe zone in order to pick up more. All these game mechanics would later appear in Desert Strike a few years later to massive critical acclaim.
There were literally hundreds of games I could’ve put on this list but for me, these were the initial games that set me on the way as a gamer. I look back at this period with a great deal of nostalgia and joy. It also makes me realise that many of the games I have enjoyed since and continue to enjoy as an adult owe a lot to these formative years in gaming. Open world gaming, logic puzzles, action, adventure and RPGs are all prevalent in these early days. It’s interesting that Kick Off is the only sporting title to make the list given how much ice hockey, football and the NFL feature later in my gaming history. Well, that’s for next time. If there’s a decent response to this, I’ll do my Master System and Mega Drive list with a few NES and SNES titles thrown in for good measure.
Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below. Would really love to hear about your early influences and which games got you hooked from an early age.