I feel extremely fortunate to have been born in 1978. Star Wars was released the year before and would become the defining film of my generation whilst we witnessed a technological revolution that is still rumbling on today.
I was too young to experience the great Atari Crash but from as far back as I can remember, gaming has been a part of my life in one form or another.
So join me on a stroll down memory lane as I wind my way through my gaming history.
It all starts with this legendary console. The neighbours had one first, one of those old style wood veneer boxes that looked like it had been carved out of a 1970’s sofa. We had the rather more futuristic but delicate looking version and it started a love affair that I have remained loyal to.
Early highlights include Kangaroo, success measured not by completion but by reaching the third screen, inevitable death accompanied by the familiar refrain of jaunty music. Moon Patrol, like a vehicular obstacle course with shooty aliens, was an amazing game, becoming progressively tougher as the speed ramped up and craters would be placed fiendishly right in front of or behind rocks, careening into either of which spelled instant destruction. Other games come instantly to mind; Phoenix, Pole Position, Centipede, Dragonfire, Breakout, Combat, Bezerk, Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
And then there were the games I played or saw but never owned. Pitfall, that cool looking Star Wars game with a lightsaber fight, ET..er okay, maybe not.
And it wasn’t just the games, it had awesome controllers too. The one with the stick and the single orange button; that weird one with a spinning dial on top and a button on the side for playing Pong or Breakout; and my personal favourite, the remote control sized oblong version with orange buttons on each side, a stick on top and a silver strip with ‘Atari’ written on it with a flash of colour.
Incredibly I still own the console, games and at least some of the controllers. It just about works too, although the arial port is a bit iffy. The games can be played by emulation of course but for this granddaddy of them all, somehow that feels like cheating.
It’s difficult to remember the exact chronology but handheld gaming certainly had an impact on me from an early age. From the brown clam shell version of Donkey Kong, to the Pac Man shaped portable, er, ‘Munchman’, via the awesome BMX Flyer that I seem to remember my brother owning whilst I looked on forlornly, awaiting my go.
Undoubtedly though my favourites were a set of miniature arcade cabinet style shooters, Astro Wars, Star Force and Firefox F-7. Astro Wars was the simplest of the trio with its funny, thin metal control stick and big clunky fire button. Firefox was far more colourful, playing like a cross between Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. The standout feature of all though was undoubtedly the sound and the music. I played these beauties for hours, the game looping round on completion like all true arcade classics.
Handhelds these days are models of sophistication but these early pioneers set the benchmark of what was to come.
I’m sure I still have these somewhere, probably in my mum’s house like all good childhood toys. Firefox is a bit dodgy but Astro Wars is still in pristine working order. Say, haven’t visited the old girl for a while…
When people talk about the Spectrum it seems trendy to bang on about the rubber keys but I never played that version, we owned the 128k+2. I’m pretty sure it came from a family member, all I remember for sure was that it came with a set of about 10 dubious quality games, the highlight of which was something called ‘Millionaire’ where the aim was to start a business and to become, well, a millionaire. It was more fun than it sounds, even to a 7 year old kid, although I never did make my million.
What a machine! There are literally hundreds of games for the Spectrum so naming a selection of favourites is nigh on pointless. That said, it would be remiss of me not to name check Hyper Sports, Yie Ar Kung-Fu, Target Renegade, Batman, Robocop, Alien Syndrome, Ghostbusters, Matchday 2, Last Ninja 2, Emlyn Hughes, Kickstart 2.
The main genre of game that dominated my time with the Spectrum though was football games, specifically football management. It is a theme I will come back to later but it was here that the first seeds were sown. It started in fact with a friends BBC, playing Footballer of the Year, then countless hours were spent on Football Manager, FA Cup, On the bench, World Soccer League, Football Director, Striker, Soccer Q, Tracksuit Manager and countless others. Some of them were great, some of them were dross but they fed a growing interest, culminating in Football Director 2.
There came a point though when owning a Spectrum became a bit old hat. An Amiga owning friend would come to visit and I would be embarrassed that all I had for us to play on was this crusty old machine. He seemed so sophisticated with his full colour, disk based machine of wonder.
As ever, it was about more than just playing the games though. Going to Smiths and buying games for £1.99; looking at the graphics for the multi format games and dreamily thinking, ‘if only’ when you saw the Amiga and Atari ST screenshots; when the play button broke on our tape deck and we wedged a two pence piece in to make the games load; the first time you type in some basic and create your own hangman game.
And of course the magazines. My brother preferred Sinclair User but I was always a Your Sinclair man and it would start a passion for reading about the medium that still runs high today.
That’s it for part one. Join me for part two as I explore Arcade games, the mighty Amiga and a little series called Championship Manager.