My last article based on hand-held gaming got me thinking of all the home games consoles I’ve owned over the years, and to say there were quite a few would be an understatement; so I thought the best way to share my gaming timeline would be to break them down by decade and some of the most memorable games I played on each system. Without further ado, let’s turn back the hands of time back to the eighties.
Behold my first video game console, the Phillips Videopac G7000, better known in the gaming community under its North American branding the Magnavox Odyssey². I don’t remember specifically when I got mine, but I think it was around 1983. The Videopac was a bulky chunk of plastic, with an alphanumeric membrane keyboard that could be used for the system’s range of educational games, and had two joysticks tethered by leads which were attached to the rear of the unit. Games came in the form of cartridges, which slide into a slot on top of the system.
The Videopac had a decent range of titles over its lifespan, although I only actually owned three: Freedom Fighters, a pre R-Type side scrolling shooter. I use the term “side scroller” loosely, as the screen was mostly all black with the bright colours of the hero ship and enemies breaking things up a little; Air Sea War / Battle was a double pack game: Air Sea Wars was a two-player shooter where one player would control a plane flying from left to right, the other controlling a submarine travelling in the opposite direction, with the aim being to fire missiles at the opposing craft in order to destroy it. Battle was a top-down two-player shooter, with each player taking control of a coloured tank around an obstacle-laden battlefield, as with Air Sea War, the ultimate goal to destroy the other player’s vehicle. The third and final game was my least favourite, an Asteroid-like clone called Satellite Attack. As with Freedom Fighters, the game was set in outer space, with the hero ship (a saucer) and enemies the only colour on an otherwise black screen. I remember that found Satellite Attack to be very difficult, even when I revisited the game in my teens.
I kept hold of the Videopac for well over a decade and would drag it out every so often, even after I’d progressed to more advanced gaming systems. Eventually, I handed it down to my cousins, as my aunt couldn’t afford to buy them a new games system. Whilst the act was the kind-hearted thing to do, I wish I’d been more selfish and kept the console for a little retro gaming session every now and then.
My first console upgrade came in 1986 when my parents bought the Commodore 64, primarily as “family computer”, although before long it found its way into my bedroom and 99.9% of the time was used as a games console. The Commodore 64 had a full QWERTY keyboard, with ports at the rear and side of the machine that accommodated various peripherals.
The unit came with a tape deck, as games were loaded onto cassette tapes. All other add-ons such as joysticks, a 5.5” floppy disk drive and the horrendously noisy dot-matrix printer were all sold separately. All programmes had to be booted from the home screen using the command LOAD “*”,8,1 (or substituting the asterisk for a dollar sign to bring up a list of games). The games would then load at a glacially slow pace, to the point where I would leave a game to load whilst I went downstairs to have my dinner. Sometimes the game would crash before it finished loading, leading to a lot of teeth gnashing in frustration.
The Commodore 64 had a massive catalogue of games, which I remember being relatively cheap and pirated copies could be easily burned to blank cassettes and floppy disks. Over the years I amassed a huge range of games, the vast majority were forgettable, with only a small percentage sticking out in my mind nearly three decades later.
There was an explosion in interest in martial arts in the 1970’s, which seeped through into the 80’s with movies franchises like The Karate Kid, American Ninja and Delta Force. Video games were not immune to the popularity of martial arts, so plenty of games involving ninjas and kung-fu fighters were churned out. Bruce Lee, a game starring the 70’s action movie star was by far one of my favourite games. The game involved Lee being relentlessly pursued by a ninja and sumo wrestler as he made his way through a series of pagodas to an ultimate showdown with an evil wizard. The Way Of The Exploding Fist is another martial arts game I spent a lot of time playing; a 1v1 fighting game with the aim being to score a hit on the opponent as in competitive Kumite karate bouts, rather than depleting their health bar as in modern beat ‘em ups. The game also had a Mortal Kombat-style “Test Your Might” board breaking section in between stages. There was an abundance of other titles that I played, but I think its best that I move on.
Licenced games have been pretty much since the dawn of gaming, and there were a number of games on the Commodore 64 that stick out in my mind. Ghostbusters loosely follows the events of the movie, with the team travelling around New York City, trapping ghost as the gatekeeper and keymaster made their way around the game’s map. Once both had made their way to Dana Barrett’s apartment building there was a climatic showdown with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Transformers capitalised on the popularity of both the TV show and toy line, with the player controlling one of five Autobots – Optimus Prime, Hound, Jazz, Mirage and Bumblebee, as they searched Cybertron for four pieces of an Energon cube whilst being chased by a team of Decepticons. As with the majority of C64 titles, the game was a side-scroller, and was cool as each Autobot could transform into its vehicular guise by pulling down on the joystick which made them travel faster than their robot form. Robocop was another side-scroller, based on Paul Verhoeven’s gory action movie. Gameplay involved the titular character moving through Detroit’s crime-ridden streets, despatching the bad guys left, right and centre.
Lastly, I thought I’d focus on some of the games that influenced my current day gaming preferences. The first that comes to mind is an adventure game called Law of the West, which as the name suggests was set in the Wild West, with the player taking control of the sheriff of a small frontier town. The sheriff meets various townsfolk, having multiple choice conversations, and dependent on the outcome of the conversation may end up in a gunfight. The multiple choice mechanic is something that is now used to great effect by companies such as Telltale Games and Quantic Dreams, which may be why I’m drawn to their games.
Hostages by French developer Inforgrams, which loosely based on the events of the Iranian Embassy Siege, is an early example of both stealth and first person shooters. The aim of the game was to take control of a six-man SWAT-style unit to infiltrate an embassy in Paris in order to rescue a number of hostages. The mission was split into three phases, moving a sniper team into position to take out terrorists stood at windows whilst avoiding their searchlights, then using a second team to rappel from the rooftop through the windows and finally using that same team to clear the building and take out the terrorists.
Epyx’s California Games gave me a long lasting love of quick fix gaming. The game was effectively six mini-games based on sports that were supposedly popular in California: Half Pipe, Roller Skating, Footbag (Hacky Sack), Surfing, Flying Disc (Frisbee) and BMX. Aside from spending an age loading the game, it could be easily picked up and played for short periods. Whilst story-driven games with engrossing stories and epic action set pieces are fun, sometimes you need a go to game when there’s only a short amount of gaming time. For me in the 80s, California Games was that game.
And so we come to the end of my 80s gaming memories, there were literally hundreds of games that I could’ve mentioned, but I felt that games I’ve included above were the ones that clearly stood out in my mind. Next time I’ll be focusing on the 90s, from the NES through to the Sega Dreamcast.