Columns / Retro Revisits

#1: In The Beginning…

LogoHello and welcome to my little corner of nostalgia. Now, every individual has their own idea of what constitutes “retro” when it comes to video games. It depends on your age I guess, or more specifically, your age when you first became aware of how much fun it is to play video games. Well this is going to be the point where I show my age because my first experience with gaming happened in the early 80s. At that time, my parents thought that a great way to keep my brother and me quiet would be to stick us in front of the TV with an Atari 2600 and a Commodore VIC-20 PC for company. If they’d only known then what a monster they would create… I’m talking about my brother of course. I’m not a monster at all 😉 By the way, of course it didn’t keep us quiet. We’re siblings, so we have an instinctual need to compete with each other. Competing led to arguing, and that was definitely not going to be quiet. On the flip-side of the coin, as long as it was just me playing the games, there was no problem at all.

So short on buttons, the 'F' keys had to share.

So short on buttons, the ‘F’ keys had to share.

Now before we go any further with this, I need to be clear on a couple of things. The first is that where possible, I’ll be researching the games that I played, so that the info about them is accurate. The second thing is that I’m trying to recall these experiences from almost thirty years ago, and my memory is absolutely terrible at the best of times, so if you read this and discover any inaccuracies for any games I’ve described, please let me know in the comments. Call this paragraph my disclaimer if you will. Or cop out if you prefer.

Anyway, back to the show. My parents had the right idea as I was captivated by the coloured blocks on the screen. Ones that I could make move with the press of a button or a shift of the joystick. Of course, I didn’t fully understand that the blocks on screen were actually roughly defined objects. On the Atari, I was playing Spider-man and The Empire Strikes Back and the blocks were the webslinger himself creeping up the building and Snow Speeders attacking AT-ATs. But I don’t think I really needed to understand at that point. After all, I was about five years old at the time and hadn’t even heard the word “graphics” let alone know what it meant.
So essentially what I’ll be talking about in this regular feature is the games and platforms from when I first knew of them, right through to the late 90’s and the PS1 era. I’m pretty certain that with the fourth iteration of Sony’s Playstation being upon us, that the first one might now be considered “retro”.

Anyway, going back to the Commodore, the first games I remember playing were Race, Hoppit and Blitz. Race is (not surprisingly) a racing game which can be best described as a top-down racer in which you control your car with two keys to move it left and right. You’re doing this to keep your car clear of the opposition cars which move down towards you. It was a clever screen scrolling method at the time to trick your mind into thinking that your character/vehicle is travelling up the screen. Looking back on Race, it kind of reminds me of moving through a maze with the opposition cars and the screen sides representing walls that you’re not allowed to come into contact with. It was good, simple and challenging fun and I would load that game up at every opportunity. Of course, this was at a time when you would load games on cassette tapes!

Hoppit, at first glance, bears a fair resemblance to the classic arcade game Frogger, but the appearance is where the

Why did the frog cross the road? Not a clue. Madness.

Why did the frog cross the road? Not a clue. Madness.

similarity ends. There are no rivers to cross or vehicles to avoid. Instead, you would be faced by trams moving from left to right, that you’d need to hop on to (pun intended), then jump on to the next stationary platform so that you could get to the next moving tram and eventually make it to the other side of the road. Also, I have no idea why the frog crossed the road any more than I know why the chicken did the same thing.

The next game I recall is simply called Blitz. At the time, this game was just good, simple fun. You have a pilot in a bi-plane who is looking for somewhere to land. Rather straight forward you might think. And so did I when I was a small child. The controls were as simple as you could get. Space bar drops a bomb on the buildings below. Pretty simple at this point, but then with each pass, the plane gets lower and lower. Now you have to start taking down these buildings a bit sharpish. Only after every scrap of every building has been destroyed can you land your plane. Now that I’m all grown up (apparently), I have a slightly different point of view on games and films and cartoons etc. Now I look at Blitz and I have some concerns. If the pilot absolutely had to land the plane, then why not on a runway at an airport, or some open field? And isn’t it slightly monstrous that you have to destroy every single building to the point where there is nothing left, just to create room to land your plane? But I’m guessing the game was supposed to be the equivalent of a war game where you destroy everything on the screen to win the level. Just a thought. It’s kind of like taking an alternative look at a cartoon like Tom & Jerry. The cat chases the mouse and sets up all kinds of elaborate traps to catch him and eat him. Pretty clear cut I’d say. Cats go after mice. It’s the natural order of things. But we’re letting children watch it. Anyway, I was almost climbing on to my soap box there. Back to the gaming.

Meteors? Looks legit...

Meteors? Looks legit…

The next VIC-20 game on my list is Neutron Zapper. This one was like an early form of top-down, scrolling shooter kind of like 1942. If you’ve not heard of 1942, then there’s no hope for you 🙂 Neutron Zapper was a very “advanced” game back in the early 80’s. It had a ship you could move from left to right and shoot lasers. It also had quite a variety of objects to shoot. Alien spaceships that would shudder and shake towards you like the pilot was mildly drunk, and asteroids of varying sizes that, if you shot them, would break into smaller pieces and shoot off in opposite directions. And while all this was going on, everything would be moving steadily faster. Eventually everything would be zooming towards you so fast that it would seem like luck rather than judgement would be the order of the day.

So that pretty much covers my days of the Commodore VIC-20. An amazing machine for its time. Now we have games that are several gigabytes in size. Back then, an entire game would be put together with a memory allocation of only a few Kilobytes. Technology has come quite a long way in a relatively short time.

I mentioned earlier in this article, that I had an Atari 2600 console at the same time as the VIC-20 and I’ll be talking about that and its games in the next installment. Well, that is, if you want a next installment. All depends on whether you guys and girls out there want to pop a comment below. I’ve got almost three decades worth of game playing knowledge and I’ll put the whole lot on here if you want it.

Blitz: A game in which you bomb a city, just to land your plane. I'm not completely comfortable with that.

Blitz: A game in which you bomb a city, just to land your plane. That’s not doing my morality meter much good.

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