When We Played With Power

When Kyle and I started writing this blog together one of the main ideas was to balance out the cynicism of my nearly forty year old self with his thirteen year old enthusiasm regarding video games. It’s lead to many conversations between us about what gaming was like back in the 90’s. Whilst I try to avoid being his ‘Auld Da’ and bleating on about how everything was better in my day (it wasn’t, gaming today has so much more going for it) but there were a few things that I remember fondly when I cast my mind back. Join me dear reader as we activate the time tunnel and skip on back before the internet was a twinkle in a Pentium 133’s eye.

Manuals

If you buy a game physically today it’s usually just the disc in a plastic box. There is certainly space for something in the inside cover but often it is devoid of anything. Bits of paper are expensive to print so most publishers don’t bother. They’ve programmed a tutorial level in the game for you so why would you need to read a piece of paper telling you what to do in the game beforehand?

This is all certainly correct and it’s true that games have generally been far better at guiding players through controls and game mechanics in introductory levels but there was truly nothing quite like a printed paper instructional manual. Sometimes there were details of the story in there, character profiles and maps. There was always a diagram of whatever console controller the game was designed for and arrows pointing to each button. Rockstar were certainly the masters of the printed manual. Vice City on the PS2 was a particular highlight as it was made up to resemble a tourist information guide for the in game version of Miami.

Gaming manuals were the first thing you took out of the box in the train/bus home as you knew you were getting closer to sliding the disc or cartridge into your console back home.  They were the final bridge between all the magazine articles leading up to release of the actual game itself.

The Gap Between Triple A and Indie.

Today there seems to be two types of game when you consider budgets. There are the massive, juggernaut, Triple A releases that have money pumped into them by the millions. Each polygon is polished to near perfection by a developer who probably hasn’t seen their family for the last six months.

On the other side of this are indie games made by small teams working around a big kitchen table with bigger ideas in their heads. Neat little games that will have nowhere near the budget of an Electronic Arts or an Activision Blizzard but will still be memorable in their own way.

Today it often feels like there’s nothing in the space between these two. In the 90’s (and a little bit in the early 2000’s) there was a certain range of ‘B games’. They were games that perhaps hadn’t had a lot of funding, they weren’t advertised or promoted that often but they were still fun when you had a go of them. In the Playstation 1 days I had a lot of fun with games such as Nightmare Creatures and Hogs of War. They are both far from anybody’s top ten lists but they were put together well and were brilliant fun.

There’s such a huge amount of money in the games industry today that such titles are lost because the risk is too great of them never making any profit. Whole titles get swamped under the tidal wave of digital releases. I really miss those odd little gems in the middle.

Games TV

Games have had a traditionally troubled relationship with television programming. The general theory from TV production companies was that people who played games were not watching any programmes as they did so and were therefore a lost cause not worth chasing. There would be a huge amount of trouble deciding what department games would actually sit in. ITV commissioned Bad Influence for children’s TV, Gamesmaster’s production budget came from Channel 4’s sports department.  There was a slight sense of  TV channels not really caring about the content of each show, probably because they didn’t really understand what was going on anyway. It allowed for a certain brand of anarchy.

Gamesmaster came first in 1993 presented by Dominik Diamond. Also, rather randomly, esteemed British astrologer Patrick Moore took the role as the all knowing character of the title. There were a couple of challenges in each show with ten year olds trying to get the most rings in Green Hill Zone 1 in Sonic or the like. A few quick reviews followed and then the Consalation Zone in which confused patrons would rock up to ask the Gamesmaster about Toejam and Earl. The early series of the show feel a bit straight laced when you view them now but the trademark ‘cheeky’ humour is there from about series four onwards.

Bad Influence was aimed at a younger audience and was on earlier in the day as a result. Presented by Andy Crane and Violet Berlin the show was far more news based than Gamesmaster. I have fantastic memories of Violet attending the N64 launch in Japan and Andy giving air time to The Scorpion which was essentially a pirate Mega Drive. The ending ‘Data blast’ in which text was quickly scrolled across the screen in the hope you’d record it and read it later at a more manageable pace was something of a VHS revolution at the time.

Anybody can stream now and there’s absolutely no auditions to be had. At any point you can jump on Twitch and find interesting people engaging with their community of viewers. For this reason there probably won’t ever be a specialist games show on TV ever again but, in the days before fast internet speeds, such shows were an essential part of seeing footage of games before they were released.

Cheat Codes

If you want new skins, extra characters or comedy additions to your games today then you’ll usually have to pay a couple of quid and unlock them. These are things the publishers can make an income from after all. New armour? £1.89 please. Something to customise the colour of your gear? Chuck us $3 and it’s yours. You want to play as Bill Clinton on a basketball court? Well in the 90’s all you had to do was remember the correct button input.

NBA Jam was a great example (featuring the aforementioned former US President) as it had so many secret players to get your hands on. Hold a few buttons down on the team select screen and you had Prince Charles on the court. Press something else and the players would turn into their respective team mascots. Such silly, daft fun was prevalent in other games too. International Superstar Soccer Deluxe had a code to turn the referee into a small dog.

Which would probably be a pre order bonus these days.

Local Multiplayer

I think I was part of one of the only groups in school who were into ‘those games’. At the weekend we would meet at one of our houses and our parents would despair as six teenage lads sat around a 14 inch Matsui TV to play Mario Kart. If you lit a match then the fumes of Lynx Africa would probably ignite. There were no network cables, no modems and no lag to speak of. We were sat side by side, usually perched on the end of a bed, in direct competition. There were friendly jibes, titles to win and ‘post match interviews’ when a volunteer would hold a microphone (not plugged in) as the victor cut a WWE style promo on a fallen opponent.

You know what? They were some of the best times. It’s a feeling that, as I get randomly paired with ‘UltraBanzai243567XXX’ online, I really long for.

Demo discs.

Before broadband internet speeds became standard in every home there had to be an alternative way of getting game demos and footage to potential buyers. Enter the magazine cover mounted demo disc which really took hold when the PS1 rolled around. Official Playstation Magazine may have been a whole £5 (considered incredibly expensive back then) but it held upon its glossy cover a gateway to wonder.

Often there would be a playable, one level demo of an upcoming big release but also a few other bits of lesser k own games to try. Whole evenings would be spent rummaging through the contents each month to see what was on there. New discoveries would be made for games you had never previously heard of and demos for known titles would be played to death before release of the full title. Before Resident Evil 2 arrived OPSM put a ten minute demo of the opening if the game on the disc. I must have played it about thirty times, each turn getting faster so I could see more of the burning Racoon City before the full game arrived a few weeks later.

In the Playstation 1 era there was also ‘Net Yaroze’ which was essentially a development console made available to buy so people could programme their own games. They were usually fairly simply affairs with some even completely ripping off popular titles of the day (Looking at you ‘ Straight Up Soccer’). Some of the better ones were put on the cover disc and it was probably the first attempt at ‘user generated content’ that would probably just be on Dreams today.

Many bigger titles don’t get anything like a demo these days. The theory from many big publishers is that they don’t want to give away a section of the game for free as it might actually reduce sales in the long run. Demo discs have since died out to be replaced by such thing as the upcoming Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 and 2 remake in which you only get access to the first level early if you’ve bought the game already.

Were you playing games in the 90’s? Is there anything you miss from way back then? Feel free to put it in the comments below.

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