20 GOTO 10
Before the NES, the SNES, the N64, the…well you can see the pattern – there was, in the old family homestead, the Amstrad CPC 464 (affectionately known as the Arnold). Though I'd previously played the Atari 2600, various home versions of Pong, the ColecoVision etc., the idea of having a games playing machine in one's own house remained an almost impossibly thrilling one.
The genius of the 464, the Commodore 64 (etc) was, of course, that they cunningly advertised (or disguised) themselves as educational/professional tools. It was, therefore, a relatively easy job to convince sceptical parents that the object would both a) help us young 'uns with our homework (in a completely non-specified way), and, b) help them with their accounts (or whatever shit it was that we imagined adults did).
Of course, from the time the Arnold came out of its box, to the moment it got deposited (old and unloved) in the family attic, it never provided even a nano-second of educational support – which is precisely the way we wanted it. My parents had, in fairness, made a brief stab at unleashing its all-knowing power when we booted it up for the very first time. On came the familiar (eyeball-destroying) green screen which comfortingly promised that Arnold was "Ready":
After pausing for a moment or two to decide how to proceed, my father (I think it was he) suggested I "ask it a question". This, I cheerfully admit, didn't strike me as too absurd an idea. It was the mid 80s (in Ireland) remember – a time when home computers carried potent whiffs of the techno-exotic and the quasi-magical. In other words, we genuinely thought they knew stuff.
"What is the capital of Ethiopia?", typed I.
"Syntax Error", replied Arnold.
Several hundred syntax errors later and a disillusioned pall began to fall over the family. TV Science Fiction had, it seemed, lied to us. Computers were not the vast, cool storehouses of knowledge we'd imagined them to be. On the plus side – it didn't look like they'd be enslaving us any time soon.
With that, my parents (no doubt feeling like they'd been had) turned their backs on the 464, never to return. The minute they did so we were popping Harrier Attack (one of the 10 bog-standard Amsoft titles given away free with the machine) into the cassette player and sitting excitedly through a 10-15 minute loading sequence.
Errrrrr Ehhhhh Errrrr Ehhhh.
Modest as it undoubtedly was, Harrier Attack did, at least, have one curious and memorable feature – it took a dim view of wanton perversity. Game players have always delighted in testing the limits of game worlds by attempting to do the unexpected – shooting passers-by in the face, stabbing a helpful elf to death (etc) – but until recently games were rarely willing (or able) to accommodate us. Obstacles to any kind of deviation from the prescribed path were routinely (and joylessly) placed in our way. Boo!
Harrier Attack, however, catered to the whims of the self-destructive. As you took off from the tiny aircraft carrier at the start of each level you could (if you were quick enough) immediately dump a load of bombs on deck. The ship would disappear. Your crew-mates would curse you as they drowned and burned to death at the same time. You'd fly off to face the enemy chuckling and high-fiving your co-pilot – the imp of the perverse.
Upon finishing the level you'd arrive at the designated landing point only to find no aircraft carrier there to greet you. Limited as the Amstrad's processing power was, it remembered what you'd done and punished you accordingly. The only option left was to fly hopelessly on before running out of fuel, sobbing and crashing into the sea. No sense of humour these navy types.
Anyhoo, the reason such memories are bouncing around my forebrain is that I've recently discovered the quite wonderful CPC Zone – a beautifully designed and lovingly maintained Amstrad fan-site. Browsing through their game archive has reminded me of just how astonishingly prolific makers of 8-bit games actually were. Slaving away in the attics of their parents' houses they churned out titles by the bucket-load – titles spanning every possible genre and every conceivable subject area. The variety was dizzying (and the quality wildly variable). Dempsey and Makepeace – The Game, anyone?
How about the isometric horrors of Nosferatu the Vampire?
One of my personal favourites was (and still is) Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing. Not not only could one design one's own rookie pugilist (a mind-boggling innovation in 1985) – before launching him on the long, hard road to glory – but rarely has mindless aggression been so ruthlessly punished in a fighting game. Bursting out of one's corner at the bell and recklessly throwing volleys of punches saw one's "Endurance" (a critical value) plummet rapidly. One's opponent (if he was canny) would simply absorb this fury with some judicious blocking before aiming a gentle jab at one's jaw. Down you'd go like a sack of spuds – mouth agape, energy spent, hopes and dreams punctured.
I'm currently (courtesy of the CPCE emulator) working my way up the rankings with my alter-ego "Slappy O'Smacker" – a flame-haired bobber 'n' weaver who throws (on average) about 3 punches per fight.
He bores the crowd senseless but (dammit!) gets the job done – like Sugar Ray Leonard and Cliff Thorburn rolled into one unstoppable (and unwatchable) package.
10 PRINT "The End"
20 GOTO 10
July 27, 2008