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Letters from London
Video Games: A Community Divided
By Shane Clarke
London Correspondent
Video Games: A Community Divided

We always hear people arguing about which is the best console – the X-Box or the Playstation. The problem with them is that they think they invented gaming rivalry. Little do they know of the war that raged in the mid-eighties. It was a quiet, bitter war that divided the gaming community and created two factions. Friends that used to share games now argued about which was best – the Commodore 64 or the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Yes, the next generation of gaming was here, and this time it came in the form of personal computers. There were many available, but the two heavyweights were the 64 and the Spectrum. Atari had been toppled from its throne. The king was dead; long live the king.

These new gaming machines boasted better sound and graphics than the Atari – at least the 64 did. The 64 was the more expensive of the two; it’s games cost more, but you got what you paid for. The 64’s graphics were better than the Spectrum’s, and as for the sound – the Spectrum had none to speak of, it was just a series of clicks that sounded like an insect calling out to its mate.

I was part of the 64 faction, and as such carried myself with a slight air of superiority. We were the better class of gamer, and we felt the need to constantly remind the “Speccies” of this. Yes, they had some good games – Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Bounty Bob – but their sprites were only one colour, there was no sound, and that keyboard with its little spongy keys made you feel like you were playing with a pocket calculator.

Not so with our 64. We had a proper keyboard, we had multi-coloured sprites, multi-channel music, and we could plug in our old, familiar Atari joysticks to play our games. Oh the games – colourful, noisy, and with more depth than ever before. This was the beginning of the end for the arcade. It wasn’t the death knell – home technology still lagged behind arcade technology – but it was the match that lit the slow-burning fuse which would eventually bring down arcade gaming.

We didn’t need to worship in the church of the arcade anymore. We still popped in now and again to dip our fingers in the font, but we spent much more time playing games like Beach Head 1 & 2 (Beach Head 2 actually talked!), Track and Field, and Paradroid. Commodore was our new God, the magazine Zzap 64! was our bible, and we worshipped devoutly every day.

Games were now bigger, better, brighter. They had stories, memorable characters and funky music. Then adventure games came along and we fell in love with gaming all over again. We lost ourselves in strange worlds where we had to “go north”, “look east”, “get cape”, “use sword”. We became enraptured with Twin Kingdom Valley, the adventure game with over 200 locations. Okay, fair enough, a picture of one tree and a picture of two constituted two different locations, but who cared – there were more than 200 of them. So there we sat, hour after hour, watching as the screen responded to our commands and quickly produced basic line drawings in an Etch-a-Sketch style and then coloured them in. The finished screen looked like a picture from a colouring book completed with only a few crayons.

To us, they were works of art, windows into a world where we were brave knights on a quest for glory and riches. We weren’t schoolboys anymore, we were warriors. Homework – we didn’t have time for homework, we had dragons to slay, orcs to kill and princesses to rescue. The future of the world lay in our feverishly-typing hands, and we weren’t about to let the human race down. Our chemistry homework could wait – there was a sword in a stone with our name on it.

These were magical times. Our schooldays were coming to an end. The big wide world of work and adulthood was rushing towards us, but we barely even noticed. That was a bridge we would cross when we came to it. For now, we were captivated by a new game, one that is still widely regarded today as one of the best ever, and certainly one of the most influential.

I am talking about the behemoth that was Elite. The first real sandbox game, it placed you in the role of captain of a trading spaceship, with endless planets to explore. You could fly around the galaxy, trading goods, salvaging wrecked ships, battling with others, modifying your spaceship or buying bigger and better ones. It was a game that had everything, and covered every genre. Its vector graphics weren’t up to much, even for the time, but it didn’t matter when the game was so utterly brilliant.

Well, time marched on, our schooldays came to an end (best days of your life, my mom always said, and she was right), and off we went, into the big wide world, where we either went to work or college. Our video games were left on the shelf as we matured and discovered girls, nightclubs and beer. Replete in our brand-spanking new designer label clothes, we discovered new games, new competitions and new high scores to aim for.

Our addiction was over…for now. You could say we were on the gaming wagon, but like reformed alcoholics and drug-addicts, the temptation to fall again was constantly there. It was on the shelf, calling to us, saying, “Come on; I’m your friend, you know I’d never hurt you. Grab that joystick and let’s play Mr Do. You know you want to.” But we resisted. We had a new drug. Joysticks were replaced by pint glasses, adventures in Twin Kingdom Valley were replaced by adventures in the town centre at three o’clock in the morning, and as for high scores – mine was eight…pints of lager.

But there was a new drug on the way. This one had hundreds of bright colours, stereo sound, and graphics like we’d never seen before. It was even more addictive, and we all fell off the wagon with a bump as we succumbed to its wiles…and all because of a little blue hedgehog.


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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