My gaming life

I’ve had a creeping longing for a return to some kind of normality recently. And by ‘normality’, I don’t mean tombstoning at Durdle Door, where the few seconds of free-fall you experience as you plummet towards the shimmering waves below is, quite ironically, the safest way to socially distance yourself from thousands of lobster-skinned beachgoers shitting into burger cartons and iceboxes.

Weirdly, the normality I’m craving is my morning drive to work. Forty-five minutes of solitude, alone with my thoughts, shuffling through a kick-ass playlist, occasionally yelling “C*NT!” at inconsiderate drivers – I’ve missed that. I suppose I see that little journey as my escape, the peaceful netherworld between the office and home.

But with my commute currently on hold, my six-year-old son’s growing interest in computer games has reminded me of alternative escapes, like some of the gaming worlds I’ve lost myself in over the years. It’s not something I’ve really had time for since becoming a parent.

My son’s first taste of gaming was a couple of years ago when we found a Wii console and a copy of Mario Kart while staying at a holiday property in Norfolk. He used to finish last every race – except for one day when he finally achieved first place through sheer determination and blind luck. I took a photo of his happy, flushed little face, grinning from ear to ear, as he stood proudly in front of the leaderboard displayed on the television.

We subsequently bought a secondhand Wii when we got home but squirrelled it away until it felt like the right time to unveil it. That moment came 18 months later, midway through lockdown, when we decided to introduce it to keep our spirits high. And watching my son play Disney Infinity’s Pirates of the Caribbean has just been joyous!

The very first time he played the game as Jack Sparrow, successfully defeating five waves of enemy ships during a sea battle, we shouted and cheered and jumped into each other’s arms like two sweaty men deliriously celebrating an England quarter-final victory in a major championship (before the inevitable semi-final knock-out).

Lately, we’ve been playing Minecraft together on the PS4, where we’ve been building and exploring in ‘Daddyopolis’. Our little world has already taken shape with an array of buildings, such as: ‘The Hideaway’, ‘The Lookout’, ‘The Castle’, ‘The Farmhouse’, and most eerily of all, ‘The Tunnel’. I snapped at my son the other day because he inexplicably managed to flood my castle while trying to give our tamed wolves a drink of water. Then he mindlessly killed a bat. The Minecraft gods then punished me for my snappiness when, during a gaming session in the early hours of the morning, I got hopelessly lost and wandered aimlessly around a towering mountain range holding some lilacs, like a blocky and bewildered Morrissey. But it’s been the most fun I’ve had playing a video game in years.

Screenshot from Minecraft, which shows a house on the edge of the sea, as viewed from a boat out on the water. And Enderman stands close to the house, with his pinkish-purple eyes glowing in the distance.
An Enderman loiters by our coastal property in Minecraft.

Anyway, I thought I would write about some of the games I’ve loved over the years.

Popeye

In November 1983, my parents took my sister and me for a two-week holiday to Benidorm. We stayed in the Hotel Don Juan, a hotel complex roughly three times the size of the Green Zone in Baghdad, with a seven-storey balconied exterior that loomed over an outdoor pool. There were lots of other young children staying at the hotel with their families at the time, and we all ended up hanging around together in a little gang. We were as thick as thieves the entire holiday – but a lot of our bonding was over a Popeye arcade game situated on the periphery of the bar/lounge area.

We played that game a lot. And when we weren’t playing the game, we were usually badgering our parents for 10 pesetas to allow us just one more go. We must have fed that arcade machine with the combined cost of our parents’ package holidays. It was certainly the first game to which I got slightly addicted.

I loved hurtling up and down the platforms trying to catch the hearts that Olive Oyl sent floating down the screen (love hearts, not actual pumping organs brutally ripped from men’s chests like Kano in Mortal Kombat) while also dodging Bluto’s fists and volleys of bottles and skulls being hurled by the Sea Hag.

The small audience of friends huddled around the glow of the arcade machine’s screen worked in two ways: they offered excitable and encouraging support when the game was going well but made great scapegoats when lives were lost at crucial moments, resulting in simmering resentment and, on occasion, a temporary cessation of holiday friendship.

Playing that game is my abiding memory of that holiday. Well, that and being pushed into the shallow end of the hotel pool in my clothes, where I had to do a sodden and tearful walk of shame through the main reception area. Not to mention almost drowning in the deep end of the pool after being startled by a wasp, where I flailed around and gasped in panic at the prospect of sinking to dark, high-pressure depths that could crush a SEAT 133. (Probably.)

Booty

My gaming life officially began in December 1984, when my mum and dad unveiled a ZX Spectrum 48k on Christmas Day. We immediately hooked it up to the family cassette recorder, which, only five years earlier, my mum had mainly used for taping preschool audio memories of me and my sister singing nursery rhymes. But it quickly became an integral part of our hi-tech computer set-up, responsible for loading games like Horace Goes Skiing, Chequered Flag and Survival.

My sister and I sitting in front of the television on Christmas Day 1984, with a ZX Spectrum 48k in front of us. The edge of a Christmas tree, covered in baubles and decorations, in the foreground.
Christmas Day, 1984. The future had arrived.

We swiftly amassed a briefcase full of games, which my mum and dad picked up at dirt cheap prices from the supermarket. One of those games was Booty, a non-arse related platform game where you play Jim the Cabin Boy, who has to search a vast pirate ship for keys and treasure. Like all the best primary coloured pirate sloops, Jim’s vessel included moving and disappearing floors, multiple platform lifts, bearded pirates marching around with cutlasses, and troublesome parrots flapping across the screen at head height. And it was great!

The beauty of the game was that it genuinely felt like it could just go on forever (although I’ve since learned that there were 20 holds, each of which was split across eight screens of treasure). But there was something inherently exciting about unlocking doors to gain access to new rooms, with no idea of their configurations or the perils and obstacles that awaited.

Pheenix

I was given this game by a girl called Angela in 1985, who got me a pirated tape-to-tape copy (because she fancied me a bit). As was standard at the time, it included amateur artwork on the cassette inlay sleeve – and it was, for a time, the jewel in my gaming crown.

I’m reasonably confident that I already knew about Pheenix because I had previously played the arcade game in a local pub called The Buccaneer, where my mum and dad used to take us for lunch on Saturday afternoons. We would eat a delectable plate of homemade lasagne and chips (the type of lasagne with rust-coloured pools of oil on the melted cheese crust), and afterwards, we would play Pheenix. At least, that’s how I remember it! And the great thing about the Spectrum version, as highlighted by Crash magazine at the time, is that it was “99% accurate as a copy of the arcade original”.

The game was awesome because it wasn’t as predictable as traditional Space Invaders, with rows of enemy alien ships moving uniformly left and right, then dropping down a row. In Pheenix, you had to “destroy formations of multi-coloured robot birds, only to reach swarms of evil blue and pink flapping birds hatching from cosmic eggs” – all of which flew about the screen unpredictably. The ornithological premise sets you up as sort of an intergalactic Bill Oddie, but it was highly addictive.

When you eventually reached the alien mothership, you could inflict damage on its protective shield, chipping away at it bit by bit with your ‘single-pulse laser cannon’ while it carpet-bombed the hell out of you. The reward for destroying the ship was a plinky-plonky little melody, timidly farted out through the Spectrum’s notoriously poor CPU-controlled speaker (known as the “beeper”). Still, it was superb.

Footballer of the Year

By the time Footballer of the Year hit the shops, we had upgraded our home computer to a ZX Spectrum 128K, which featured a built-in cassette player. I had unashamedly become part of the elite.

With my burgeoning love of football, fuelled in part by the Mexico ’86 World Cup, the release of FOTY was very timely indeed. It was a career-building football game, where you started in the old English Fourth Division and tried to play your way up through the ranks, winning championships and cup competitions, and perhaps one day achieving the ultimate accolade: Footballer of the Year. I played it endlessly, almost to the point where the tape cassette was just a hot, misshapen lump of melted plastic cocooned in twisted ribbons of magnetic tape.

The main memory I attach to this game is going round to my friend Alex’s house on Bonfire Night to play it together on his Amstrad. Later that evening, as we watched a firework display in his garden, a Catherine Wheel detached from the fence and spun towards his dad’s face in a blinding shower of white sparks, which caused Alex to shout hysterically, “DADDY!!!”. I laughed so hard I nearly cracked a rib. Sadly, I don’t think we ever played FOTY together again after that.

Operation Wolf

Before Operation Wolf was released on the Spectrum, I’d played it numerous times in the arcades – and loved it. The arcade machine had an Uzi-style submachine gun mounted on it, which unleashed a tsunami of testosterone thundering through my veins every time I grasped the hand-grip and squeezed the trigger. It was 1987, mind, so even though I felt as tough as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, I also had the garish dress sense of Su Pollard.

The arcade machine’s artwork heightened your expectation before a single magazine had been spent. It was an all-action image of a commando clutching onto a rescued hostage, slung over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift, with a muzzle flash emanating from his Uzi. (Weapon aside, the image is not dissimilar to that of Patrick Hutchinson rescuing a far-right protester during the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London.)

News that the world’s number one arcade game was to be released on the Spectrum was unbelievably exciting, even though it would never be a patch on the original arcade game experience. But it was pretty great, even though the main difficulty with the Spectrum version was squinting to identify enemies in what amounted to a monochromatic, horizontally-scrolling Magic Eye image. Also, the audio sounded like a Phonautograph recording of a bee trapped in a beer bottle. But it was a huge deal at the time to be able to spend my hard-earned paper round money on a game like this.

Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf

Released a little over a year after the first Gulf War (‘Operation Desert Storm’) had come to an end, I played the hell out of this game on my newly acquired Sega Megadrive. It feels strange to have derived so much pleasure from flying around a fictional Gulf state in an AH-64 Apache helicopter, leaving smouldering bomb craters where missile silos and power stations once stood, especially when the death and destruction of the Iraq conflict was still fresh in everyone’s minds.

As a 28-year-old, I marched against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and opposed it with every fibre of my being. But as a 16-year-old, I was guilty of consuming the first Gulf War like a video game or a movie. Precision-guided munitions equipped with cameras, which could fly through a residential Baghdad neighbourhood right through someone’s letterbox, were so different to anything I’d seen before that it detached me from the reality of what those missile strikes meant for people on the ground.

CENTCOM military briefings just added to the unreality of the situation, where I would turn on my television to watch General ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf switching on his television to present footage of various Iraqi buildings and installations being obliterated by missiles.

In a strange case of life imitating art, the US-led cruise missile strikes against Iraq in August 1996 (three years after the release of this game title) were also codenamed ‘Operation Desert Strike’. But in stark contrast to my gaming experience, that was a tightly coordinated military operation – rather than just one Apache helicopter aimlessly wobbling about the desert with the ‘low fuel’ alert routinely sending the pilot into a blind panic.

Metal Gear Solid

My best friend bought a PlayStation in my second year at university, which quickly became the focal point of our shabby student digs. Aside from FIFA 99, which typically consumed much of our free time (in between watching Neighbours, Diagnosis: Murder and repeats of Bergerac and To the Manor Born), Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill were our games of choice.

Metal Gear Solid was like nothing I had ever seen before, where stealth was imperative. You didn’t derive satisfaction from blowing away enemy soldiers with a massive machine gun; it was when you successfully made your way through a room undetected, shuffling along the floor disguised as a box, in plain sight of a guard.

Everything about it was superb. The Genome Soldiers – kitted out in full Arctic warfare battledress – were a genetically enhanced special forces unit with a heightened sense of awareness. So if you walked Solid Snake clumsily through a puddle, the noise would trigger a reaction from a nearby enemy soldier, who would say to himself: “Huh? What’s that noise?”. You would then have to evade detection until the guard was satisfied that nothing untoward was going on.

Patrolling enemy soldiers were also alerted to footprints that Snake left in the snow. “Huh? Whose footprints are these?” a suspicious soldier would say, as his cone of vision on the Soliton Radar switched from normal mode (blue) to alert mode (red). But if nearby soldiers didn’t immediately spot your footprints, the falling snow would gradually erase your tracks. Snake could also catch a cold during the game, which annoyingly caused him to sneeze at inappropriate moments, alerting yet more soldiers to your presence.

That was the beauty of Metal Gear Solid; the environment wasn’t just a static scenic backdrop – you could affect it and interact with it. You could even knock on walls to draw curious sentries from their positions.

If an enemy soldier caught sight of you, though, it triggered a heart-pumping few seconds of evasion while being actively pursued. To this day, the Metal Gear Solid alert sound makes my arse clench. I’ve heard it in my head at work a million times over the years. Whenever I’ve been ambushed during a meeting while inattentively doodling, that sound has punctuated my escalating panic.

Silent Hill

We used to play Silent Hill in the dark to enhance the overall creepiness of the gameplay. And following an attempted break-in at our student house, which saw our landlord fit iron bars over all the windows, it also felt like we were playing the game in the recreational area of an asylum.

The eeriness of Silent Hill was all down to Akira Yamaoka’s disconcerting sound effects and a pea soup fog that shrouded every decrepit building and bloody sacrifice in the town. When wandering about the place, you could never see further than a few feet ahead of you – so everything that suddenly emerged from the fog could scare you.

Arrggghhh! Oh, a lamp post. What the fuck??!! Oh, a bin. Not knowing what lay beyond the fog, as you ran headlong into it, was uniquely terrifying. All the while, an air raid siren wailed continuously in the distance, a sound that immediately instils fear and confusion in all of us.

I didn’t know at the time that the fog – which was a brilliant device to heighten the tension – was deliberately inserted into the game to mask the hardware limitations of the era. With Harry Mason (the game’s lead character) constantly enveloped in fog or darkness, it meant that only the immediate area surrounding him needed to be rendered. But whether you were running around in a pea-souper or exploring the tenebrous corridors of Midwich Elementary School with nothing but the flickering orange glow of a match or beam of a torch, it was those dark or obscure areas just beyond your vision that were utterly terrifying.

It wasn’t perfect. I mean, looking back now, the cut scene in which Harry regains consciousness in the local diner and meets Cybil, the Brahms Police Officer from the next town over, sounds like it was written, produced and directed by Tommy Wiseau. But apart from that – and perhaps never fully understanding what the hell was going on – it was superb.

Championship Manager 3

After completing my University dissertation in 1999, I retreated from the world for a few weeks and played CM3 constantly. I managed an all-conquering Fiorentina side, which featured the world’s greatest Icelandic striker: Andri Sigþórsson. Even though a serious knee injury sadly ended his real life career at the age of 27 (he was last known to be running his father’s successful chain of bakeries) in my Fiorentina game, he remained a stellar player – ridiculously lethal in front of goal – well into his thirties. His name will forever fill me with warm, happy memories of success and achievement that would take me absolutely nowhere in the real world.

The Fiorentina board eventually approved funds to re-name the stadium in my honour to commemorate my managerial reign and unrivalled haul of silverware and Serie A titles. I continued to play the CM series even when it became Football Manager – right up until FM20 when Sports Interactive made the game so unbelievably detailed that it actually felt like work to play it. Still, happy times.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

This title was released about a year into the relationship with my (now) wife. We lost entire weekends playing this game together. I’ve written about this before, but the following summed up our approach to the game perfectly.

When my wife used to take control of the CJ character – back in the old GTA: San Andreas days – she used to run everywhere because she flatly refused to carjack anyone. She would then spend two hours strapped into a jet pack, hovering high above the bustling streets of Las Venturas, quietly looking for horseshoes. A fun, non-violent way of making some money, and every bit as important as my ruthless gang-banging and thirst for fast cars.

Excerpt from ‘GTA V: A fleeting distraction in our terrifying reality‘ (andytoots blog)

If I’m honest, I got a little bit lost in the open world of San Andreas. The Iraq War had raged for about 18 months at the time of its release, and it was an oddly comforting place to hide from the chaos of the real world. Sure, it was a gaming world full of violence and carjackings – but you could also eschew a life of crime and take some pleasant scenic drives out to Red County, listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird on K-DST.

Conflict Vietnam

My wife and I bought this co-op tactical shooter game for the PS2 without knowing anything about it, and we absolutely loved it. We each took control of two players in a squad of four: I took Ragman and Hoss (carrying an M3 submachine gun and M60 LMG, respectively), and my wife took Junior and Cherry/Doc (M14 sniper rifle and standard-issue M16).

Our first attempt at the game lasted a matter of minutes when my wife became a human torch after she inadvertently walked through a campfire. But once we got over that initial tiff, it was just great.

We were embroiled in intense firefights that took place against the soundtrack of the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black, followed by moments of heightened tension underscored by a deafening and near-constant chorus of chirruping crickets. There were also brilliant ragdoll physics, where you could toss a grenade into an enemy position and then marvel at the resulting explosion as it propelled several Viet Cong troops into the air before tumbling lifelessly down a nearby hillside.

But the co-operation in this game wasn’t just about shooting guns; it was also about bravely saving each other. If any of our characters fell in battle, the pressure was immediately on the remaining healthy player to provide restorative first aid before the wounded character expired. My wife frequently chastised me for my recklessness in battle and tendency to just run off. I mean, she was right. I was a bit of a dick.

We really enjoyed Conflict: Global Storm, too. But our first foray into the Conflict series will always be the one of which I’m most fond.

Hitman: Blood Money

Hitman was another game to which I dedicated hours and hours of my life. Once I’d established that the aim of the game was about patience and restraint – rather than needlessly garrotting people or casually shooting them in the head with a silenced ‘Hardballer’ – each completed Hitman contract had to stand out for the distinct lack of violence involved. The challenge to become invisible, murder the target(s), then escape without being detected was utterly addictive.

I remember my boss at the time requesting short bios from everyone at the company for a ‘Who’s who?’ section on the office corkboard so that new starters could acquaint themselves with the team in a lighthearted way. I recall writing something ‘edgy’ about Hitman and how spending my evenings as a contract killer – throttling people with piano wire and maiming them with a variety of ingenious, deadly booby traps – was the perfect way to let off steam after a tough day in the office.

I must have sounded like a TOTAL FUCKING PSYCHOPATH!

Anyway, I should probably end this here, seeing as I’ve inadvertently written a quarter of a dissertation about my favourite computer games. If you have made it to the end – well done!

Honourable mentions

Donkey Kong (cocktail table arcade game at my dad’s work social club)
Into the Eagle Nest (ZX Spectrum 128k)
Renegade (ZX Spectrum 128k)
How to be a Complete Bastard (Spectrum 128k)
Marathon Infinity (Macintosh Performa)
Worms 2 (PC)
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PS3)

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