I’ve said it before and for the benefit of our newer readers, I’ll say it again: vintage gaming is held up by two main pillars – imagination and memory.
Imagination comes into play because in the days before photo-realistic graphics and intelligent NPCs, games required a certain amount of imagination to fill in the gaps that the technology simply couldn’t. Playing ‘Adventure’ on the Atari 2600 puts you in control of a square. That’s right, a single brown square. With a little imagination however that square becomes a stalwart knight adorned in the finest mithril armour, his face bearing the scars of epic battles in forgotten dungeons. The most successful games developer of the 80s and 90s created the most convincing world they could given the tools available but planted a strong enough seed in your imagination to let your mind do the rest.
And memory? Well, memory is a fact of life for the retro gamer. Everything we’re playing now, we’re likely playing because we revel in evoking some part of a memory from long ago. The appeal of old games could be argued to be many things, but memory is always at the forefront. The games of our youth, the titles we grew up on, it’s all about the memories. For most of us these vintage gaming platforms – C64, Arcades, Amiga, NES, Megadrive – represent our first experience of the medium, so the memories are strongest. Our first fighting game, our first RPG, our first win or first maddening loss. Our first night spent hastily scrawling out maps onto A4 sheets of paper before in-game maps were ‘a thing’.
So in a purely self-indulgent move, I’m going to share some of my favorite slices of my vintage gaming past with you. They’re just tiny slivers, small moments in time, but they serve time and again to illustrate the importance and power of imagination and memory in the vintage gaming experience. I could say that this is purely to demonstrate that point, but you and I both know that at the end of the day writing something like this, is all about the feels.
The retro feels.
1. Civilization, Amiga 2000.
It’s a freezing winter night, and fortunately for my younger self, I’m comfortably nestled behind the glow of an Amiga 2000HD and in front of an oil heater. The rest of the house had been asleep for quite some time, but not me. One cannot be expected to rest when one is guiding an empire! The first iteration of Civilization was a top down, blocky, 32 color affair on the Amiga, but the depth of the game in the hands of an imaginative child meant that to play it truly felt as though the fate of the world rested in your hands. Every move was calculated, every turn wove another thread into the tapestry of your empire’s history. In my mind, I was overseeing a vast landscape of living, breathing nations to be bargained with or conquered. So many long winter nights were spent nestled between the Amiga and that oil heater, deftly controlling the fate of millions with a few clicks of the Amiga mouse.
2. Dynablasters, Amiga 2000.
Friendship conjures up different images for different people, but for me one of the first things that pops into my head is the heartwarming picture of my friend Adam and I huddled in front of my Amiga – each with a joystick in our hands – battling it out in round after round of Dynablaster. Known to console and arcade fiends as Bomberman, Dynablaster was a brilliant puzzle game where you wandered around mazes dropping timed bombs to clear a path to victory being careful not to blow yourself up in the process. Back in the early 90s, this was what you’d consider multiplayer. Two kids, side by side, thrashing it out on ergonomically unsound joysticks. The vocal hilarity, physical jostling and pure joy of sharing a game with such a simple premise but so much to offer has stayed with me to this very day, and formed no small chunk of what I’d consider my friendship with Adam.
3. Street Fighter 2, Arcade.
When you grow up in a smaller country town, somewhere like the local Cinema is considered more than just a place to go see a movie. Because most cinemas back in the day had an ‘arcade’ area with games to sink coins into while you waited for your movie to start (and some still do) the cinema in a small town became a focal point, a hub of entertainment in what was otherwise a wasteland. That’s where I first came across Street Fighter 2. It’d be fair to say the machine blew my teeth into my underpants. I was a typical, fiercely loyal Amiga kid. I thought that Commodore’s flagship machine was the pinnacle of gaming.
Within 20 seconds of watching Street Fighter 2 on attract mode, I was proven so very wrong. Massive colorful sprites, layers of parallax scrolling, beefy sound and all of it coming together into a vibrant, exciting fighting game. I was hooked. I sunk pretty much all the money I had on me into that machine, and would continue to do so for many months to come (getting no better at the game, mind you). Street Fighter 2 was my first – explosive – introduction to the fighting game genre, but it served purposes far beyond that. For me personally, it showed that the Amiga was indeed fallible (after I tried out the Amiga conversion of SF2 and was gutted at how poor it was) and that sometimes consoles can do a better job of a game than my precious Amiga (the SNES conversion of SF2 as an example). Street Fighter 2 became entrenched in my young psyche as a benchmark of sorts – a way to compare systems – thanks to there being a version crafted for nearly every gaming format imaginable.
4. Vampire (Codemasters), Commodore 64
Vampire for me, was synonymous with wonder. It wasn’t a popular game on the C64 by any stretch of the imagination, and the graphics gave the impression that the title was ported to the 64 from the Spectrum and with little in the way of improvements. None of that mattered to a 10 year old me however, all that mattered was that the game instilled in me a sense of ‘what’s coming next?’. A simple room-by-room platform game, Vampire has you hunting down various items in Dracula’s castle before finally having a showdown with him in the final screen. Each room had different bad guys, traps, power-ups and incidental props and each time I played I was driven by this desire to see what was in the next room. Travelling up, down, left and right, every new room was a satisfying reward for persevering with what are some extremely finicky timed jumps to stay out of trouble or reach difficult areas. I can remember many hours spent not just playing the game, but drawing each room on an A4 sheet of paper and sticky-taping them together, until my parents would come into the loungeroom only to find a monstrous 15 x 15 A4 page map surrounding a small boy in the throes of exploring Dracula’s castle. The immersion was one I’d created for myself, not just through the game, but through the manual labour of drawing out the levels, and constructing my own map to find my way back to important areas again (Vampire had no method to save progress. When you died, that was it).
Now you’ve experienced my feels, what about yours?…..