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Essays by a Player, part 1: Mega Drive

When I turned 18, my mother made me a photo album of my life. It was divided into sections for babyhood, family events, school, holidays, birthdays and hobbies. By far the richest section of the book (which she had ring-bound and laminated at a local copy shop, because she is both awesome and a nerd) was comprised of photos of me with books. Books in my cot, my buggy, my school backpack. Books piled up on the dressing table of a hotel, books next to my sleeping bag, at the breakfast table, in the background of family portraits . . . I read an awful lot and she was proud of that, as any parent would be.

But I was playing games that whole time, too. Nobody taught me how (in fact, I actively resisted any help). I had a Mega Drive and a Game Gear, a PS1, a PS2 and a Gamecube (and currently a Wii, DS and Xbox 360). Consoles, cables and cartridges piled up around my tiny TV.  So why are there no pictures of me playing games?

Until recently, I’d never thought of playing games as a serious hobby. Weeks could go by without me picking up a controller; I’d often be frustrated or disheartened, actually developing something like a phobia of some levels which caused me to give up on a game completely rather than drown Sonic again.

I wish I could cope with this.

But now I have some very rewarding experiences through games both socially and on my own . . . why did it take me so long?

I’m trying to discover something about games by thinking about the way I’ve bought, played, traded and sold them. I’m just thinking out loud, as it were, so this might not be very interesting reading, but if you can make it all the way through I’d love to hear your stories/responses of any kind in the comments.

This is entirely personal and subjective, so don’t go ape at me if you disagree with something, let’s keep it friendly. I’m hoping to keep gender out of this for the time being, as I just got back from Eurogamer Expo and am feeling very tired out by the stereotypes I yearn to refute but which continually prove themselves true. Also: my memory’s terrible but I’m going to try and rely on it.

In High Fidelity, the main character finds great comfort in organising his record collection autobiographically. There’s far greater reason to catalogue your gaming life that way. Memories line up console by console, graphics refine and improve just as newer memories are clearer. So I’m going to do it that way.

Mega Drive

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

I first wanted a console because my cousins had a NES. I remember playing Mario on it at their house. I completely sucked. Watching me play (terribly) must have been very frustrating, but I was fascinated by it. I had to experience it to want it, though. I was about 6, an only child (no siblings to inherit one from), didn’t know anyone else who had a console – I mean, we were 6, we had My Little Ponies and Babysitters’ Club books or whatever. I had almost no idea what a console could do, or what one even was, until I came across that NES.

Side note: I have no memory of any advertising for a computer game until around the time of the N64, and now you can’t move for those rubbish Nintendo ads with Ant and Dec and some poor frightened Grandmother at the centre of a baying crowd of her family, squinting at the screen with a mixture of terror and revulsion and waving the Wiimote like she’s trying to stave off an angry wasp.

Save them. Help them.

I know what they’re trying to do, I just don’t like it.

I asked for a NES for Christmas and got a Mega Drive. This is because my Dad Did His Research. He loves technology and keeping up with the latest thing (strangely he’s not an Apple nerd; if he’s looking for excuses to spend money that’s just about the main one there is). He found that the Mega Drive was newer, more exciting – and graphically superior, which is the sole reason I didn’t make a Crushing Disappointment Face when I discovered Santa hadn’t brought me the thing I wanted. My memory tells me that the NES was black and white and the Mega Drive was colour, but I’ve a feeling that’s the product of a my cousins’ TV being black and white and a bit of egging on from Dad.

We had to tune it in to the telly (or the telly into it?). I remember flitting around beside Dad while he untangled the wires, moved the TV around (so strange when the TV isn’t in its normal place! Anything could happen!) and then brought up these weird yellow and blue bars on the screen (never seen them before either! EXCITEMENT — TOO — MUCH) and manually searched for the picture like tuning in a radio.

I spent the first year of ownership of my Mega Drive learning not to wave the control pad up, down, left and right to try and enhance the movement of the character on-screen. I played Mario Kart with some kids last weekend and it made me smile to see them doing it. We were playing Double Dash on the Gamecube, so the extra control pad movement (which included putting the whole thing behind their heads) didn’t add any bonus action to their moves. With the advent of the Wiimote, I’m having to learn to flap the controller around again to produce exactly the effect I trained myself out of expecting. This is where one starts to sound like an old timer, so I’ll move on.

I had a grand total of six games for the Mega Drive by the time I sold it off to get my PS1. I can barely remember them all, but they definitely included Bubsy the Bobcat.

I don’t know what’s happening here. No-one does.

This, I think, is where I differ from most gamers. I’ve never really bought games for myself. Who the heck could afford to, as a child or a teenager? Saving up the necessary £40 or £50 quid for a new game was beyond me entirely, and I didn’t really know about second hand games or trade-ins. They remained fixed in my head at the price I paid for them, so getting so little in return for them was too heartbreaking to contemplate. Eventually I passed the whole shebang onto my cousin, which was still pretty painful for little child-me.

I had Sonic 2, and I LOVED that game (I’ve got it now on the Wii). Neither Sonic 1 nor Sonic 3 feel like real Sonic games to me in comparison. They actually look and feel like Hotel Mario feels to a Mario fan. This is how deep my love for Sonic 2 runs, I don’t care what you say about Tails. SHUT UP.

You know what they say. All toasters toast toast.

One of my proudest moments of all time was on the Sega Bus at Gamesmaster Live. This was just before the release of Sonic 2, and they had a playable version of Emerald Hill which was set up across a dozen machines. The idea was that visitors would come in groups and be pitched against each other to finish the level fastest and with the most rings, the winner getting a prize. I was a wide-eyed child, an infant in comparison with the late-teenage boys who trooped into the bus with me, but I wiped the floor with them. (I won a Sega t-shirt and I wish I’d kept it. A huge personal regret there. It was amazing and it disappeared somewhere around my 12th birthday. Lame.) In hindsight, it was the closest to a classroom environment I’d ever got with a game, so I did what came naturally to my budding boffin self. I wanted to please the teacher, so I tried to win. Everyone else just wanted to explore the level of a brand-new game.

My best friend over the road got a Mega Drive too. She had Sonic 1 (this may be the reason I kicked the crap out of the more experienced gamers in the Sega Bus; I played her copy of  Sonic 1 more than was strictly polite in someone else’s house) and some football and racing games, and Altered Beast. Her elder sister would babysit for us, and all we’d want to do would be to sit beside her on my bed and watch her play Ecco the Dolphin, which we were hopeless at. (Underwater levels: hate them, hate them. Sonic 2, Mario Galaxy, Ecco – anything where you have to swim around – way harder than running and jumping – and complete a task while running out of air still makes my blood run cold.)

A dolphin, about to brain itself on a rock and then drown.

If there’s a program for the rehabilitation of habitual 16-bit sprite drowners, sign me up.

I also liked to watch Dad play Donald Duck: Quackshot (a pun I didn’t understand until I thought about it in passing maybe 6 months ago). He was very good at it. In fact, I’d say that it’s the only game he’s ever completely mastered.

This brings joyful memories to me. Duckberg!

He loves the graphics and music in newer games, but I think it was Gran Turismo that broke him as a player. He just wants to go round very fast in a swish car. He doesn’t want to slide off the course because he forgot to put the wet weather tyres on. Nor do I, actually. I really dislike most racing games.

Anyhow, he bought the game for me and couldn’t bear to sit and watch me fail at levels. Whenever he ended up watching me play, he’d become unbearably frustrated with my lack of hand/eye co-ordination. He’d shout ‘JUMP!! JUUUMP!!’ at just the right time to surprise me out of jumping at all. Eventually, he would take the control pad and do it for me. In hindsight, I would have benefitted greatly from being able to play it out, and gave up entirely on some games rather than get past the most basic of skill upgrades.

So there we have it. No conclusions as yet. Next time: PC, Arcade, PS1 and so on.

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