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Letters from London
Video Games: They’ve Come a Long Way
By Shane Clarke
London Correspondent
Video Games: They’ve Come a Long Way

My daughter has all of the modern video game consoles, as well as a top-end PC to play games on. As her dad, I – of course – spend more time playing on them than she does.

I’ve always loved video games, and have spent hour upon hour trying to beat a high score or complete a game. It’s something I’ve been doing for more than thirty years, so I guess there’s no hope for me now; I’m going to die with a joypad in my hand. But I’m not the only one. There are many like me, which is why the gaming industry is now worth as much as the movie industry.

Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 make millions for their makers, and take us on journeys few of us would ever go on – or even want to go on – in real life. They immerse you in a world of photo-realistic landscapes and Dolby surround sound. Some of them have epic storylines that keep you enthralled for hours, and spectacular set-pieces that can be breathtaking at times.

It’s a far-cry from the first video game I ever owned. It wasn’t even called a video game then, it was the Grandstand TV Game. It was battery operated and had TWO colours – black and white. The games were simple stick-and-ball types. Each player had a stick, and they hit a square ball at each other, trying to make the other miss. It was archaic, simple, but it had us enthralled for hours on end and launched a million family tournaments and leagues, the occasional tantrum, and one or two fist-fights. And it even came with a light gun which enabled you to shoot a large square bouncing around the screen. However, it was when I pretended to shoot the family dog one day that I discovered you could score a hit just by aiming in the general direction of the screen. I was so disappointed; I thought I was a crack-shot up until that point.

Fast-forward a couple of years and you reach the phenomenon that had most of the world in its grip. I don’t think there has ever been such a frenzy over a video game since. I’m talking, of course, about Space Invaders. Wow! We are talking state-of-the-art here. Gone are the sticks and square balls, no more will we slowly be driven insane by the constant bleep of the old TV games. Now we had rows of aliens slowly descending as they fire missiles at us, we have a tank – sort of – we have barriers that are slowly destroyed by the alien missiles (or the local show-off who wants to prove how good he is). We also have colour – albeit produced by strips of coloured plastic on the screen. Best of all, we have sound effects – lasers, the mother ship that occasionally floats across the top of the screen, and explosions. Oh, this was the future! Forget Subbuteo and Scalextric – now we could shoot aliens – for ten pence a go.

One of our local pubs had a Space Invaders machine in the hall outside its family room. Every night, it was surrounded by kids with ten pence pieces burning holes in their pockets as they waited for their turn to fight it out with the aliens in the desperate hope of achieving that holy grail, that badge of honour that stood head and shoulders above all others – the high score. Oh, the joy of seeing your initials on that high score list; the pride at being one of those ten elite warriors who sent those aliens packing with our skills on the joystick. We were hooked. It was our drug, and we couldn’t get enough of it. Little did we know that it would change the world, and that our lives would never be the same again.

Games like Pac-Man, Frogger, Galaxian and Scramble followed. Each had real colours, more sound effects and even music. They offered us even more excitement, more variety, and gobbled up every penny we had. Never before had parents’ cars been so clean as they were being washed regularly by kids desperate to earn some money to spend on helping a frog across a busy road and a crocodile-infested river. Arcades started popping up with selections of games, all vying for those precious coins in your pocket, all calling out to you with their music and colourful graphics. The revolution had begun, the age of gaming was here, and we were embarking on the ride of our lives.

The first company to really score a hit with the home market was Atari, with their 2600 console. It was achieved on the back of none other than the Space Invaders game. I guess you could say this was the first truly successful arcade port. The graphics were fairly crappy, and the sound wasn’t up to much, but it was still Space Invaders, and you could play it at home, any time you liked, for free. Better still, you could buy more cartridges, and play more games, games that you played in the arcade, now you could play them at home. Who cared that they were vastly inferior reproductions, and that the sound was sometimes worse than a dentist’s drill. To us, they were a gift from heaven, and we thanked the Lord every night for sending us the likes of Saints Activision and Parker. We discussed new and upcoming games at school, swapped tactics and hints. We held tournaments, we formed clubs in which we lent each other cartridges. It brought us together like nothing before. We were the first gaming communities. We were pioneers, exploring the frontiers of video gaming, fuelling the fire that had begun as we hungered for more and better games. Games like Pitfall, River Raid, Chopper Command, they all had us drooling over the pictures of them in the magazines and the advertisements on TV. They were top of our Christmas lists, and we all coordinated with each other in our clubs to ensure that between us we all had the top releases that year. Atari was king. There were pretenders to the throne of course, like Intellivision and Vectrex, but Atari reigned supreme.

We were living in a kind of dream-world; a multi-coloured, noisy land of make-believe, where we were fighter pilots involved in a deadly dog-fight, or explorers jumping over snakes and swinging on vines over bottomless pits in search of gold. For a while, we were our own heroes. The days of the Beckhams and the size-zero models were a distant future that we never even contemplated. We didn’t need David Beckham and Cheryl Cole; we had Donkey Kong and Ms Pac-Man. We also had innocence. We were the last, because the American consumer invasion was just a few years away, bringing its greed is good mentality and its designer labels. We all got caught up in that craze, but that was a few years away. For now, we had our video games, and that was enough for us. We had a simplicity and innocence that – tragically – future generations would never enjoy. We were on the cusp, the leading edge of a movement that would eventually see people on opposite sides of the world competing against each other in death matches through the wonder of the internet. The future lay ahead of us and we awaited it with hungry eyes and itchy hands. We dreamed of games to come, but never, even in the wildest of them, could we have imagined the marvels that awaited us further on down the road.

To be continued…



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Shane Clarke serves as London Correspondent for The Seoul Times. He has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous years. He’s also a freelance management consultant. Having completed an honors degree in Law at Wolverhampton University, he then moved on to an MBA at Warwick Business School. He’s heavily involved in the fight against international parental child abduction to Japan.

 

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