I was enchanted by the magic of video games from an incredibly early age. It’s hard to tell what the first game I saw was, but it was likely Space Invaders or a variation on it; there were always machines in local pubs and social clubs. A social club close to my home had a Phoenix cocktail table, though by the time that was there, I recognised it as an evolution of the Space Invaders formula – therefore I must have been aware of Space Invaders by then. At the age of 5, I recall requesting (and getting!) a Smartie-dispensing Pac-Man watch for Christmas – and I’ve always had a soft spot for the little yellow guy. Perhaps it was Pac-Man who really captured my attention, as one of the first truly recognisable video game protagonists. I guess it didn’t hurt that he – and the Ghosts – were instantly marketable across a range of different products and media properties.
Pac-Man or not, though, being the age I am – I was born the year Star Wars came out and seem to have ridden the various waves of Star Wars fandom ever since – it was perhaps inevitable that I’d be entranced by these high-tech toys that seemed to pop up everywhere. Going to the seaside, for me, was more about discovering vast, though dingy and smoky, halls of machines – rows upon rows of them, often games I’d never seen before (and some I’ve probably never seen since). Star Wars itself – the sit-down version – was a machine I happened upon for the first time at Butlin’s in Clacton-on-Sea (in the immortal words of This is Spinal Tap’s Marty DiBergi: “Don’t look for it – it’s not there any more.”). I don’t think I ever got a 10p from my tiny pocket to the machine’s coin slot any faster than I did when I first saw that beautiful machine. I destroyed the Death Star on my first attempt; not bad for a chubby little nipper from the middle of nowhere (perhaps The Force was with me).
As I grew, these wonderful games grew with me. They started to come with fantastic soundtracks (once heard, the main themes in Bubble Bobble and Pac-Land are never forgotten), increasingly more realistic graphics and advances in machine tech (who could ever forget their first try in the full cockpit, seatbelt-equipped version of After Burner?).
Parallel to this explosion of gaming goodness in the arcades, of course, we had – despite the video game crash of the early ‘80s – home games consoles invading our personal spaces. Though I came from a somewhat underprivileged family, we did occasionally have consoles as I grew up – though they were usually bought on the cheap when they were many years old. We had various Pong and lightgun enabled consoles and an Atari 2600 (and even a computer – the Commodore Plus 4, again when it was way past its sell by date!) before I requested a Sega Master System for my 11th birthday. I’d been obsessing over it ever since I’d discovered Wonder Boy in Monster Land at the arcades; finding out that I could play this incredibly deep (for the time!) platformer with RPG elements AT HOME was all I needed to push me away from the possibility of the NES and into Sega’s welcoming arms.
As games were so expensive – around 25 quid, even in the late 80s – I was only able to get one or two new games every six months (ie on my birthday in June and then at Christmas), but thankfully the Master System was pretty popular in the area I lived in – perhaps my feverish babbling about the Wonder Boy games was part of that, as my friends all seemed to get their Master Systems at a suspiciously similar time to me – and it meant that swapping games to borrow from your mates was very common at school.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land also holds the distinction of being the first game I ever completed, though it took quite some time and a lot of dedication on my part. The final boss took countless attempts; I spent over a month of trying to defeat him before actually besting the big git. Not to mention, this was a time when, despite the increasing complexity and length of some games, they didn’t have any form of battery back up or passwords in many cases – so I was playing the game from beginning to end on EVERY SINGLE TRY.
I started recognising Sega’s name in arcade games and then finding out that these games I was only able to get fleeting experiences of at the seaside were available to be played at home; Bank Panic was a quirky title released on the more affordable card – rather than cartridge – format for the Master System I owned, and was another early favourite. Global Defense, Hang On, Space Harrier and the aforementioned After Burner were others I managed to either have bought for me or borrow from friends – all games that I’d already tried and been blown away by at the arcade. It definitely felt, at that time, that arcade experiences were being caught up by home-based hardware – though, in hindsight, the weaknesses of the consoles is all-too-apparent in comparison with the dedicated coin-op versions.
My obsession with these arcade games and the colourful conversions saw me completely bypass Nintendo’s NES; the games offered on the Nintendo Entertainment System already felt dated in many ways by the time I came across them in the UK – the Master System blew them away, in my young eyes.
It wasn’t until I happened across a Nintendo Arcade 10 machine in a pub games room much later (perhaps it was the early 90s by then?) that Nintendo got their hooks in me. These machines were different to the usual arcade machines; though they looked incredibly inferior to other machines at the time, graphically (this one was in the same location as a Data East Robocop coin-op and the difference was staggering), due to the games being from the NES itself, with no bells or whistles added, they had 10 games built in and offered a generous, set time to play as many of the games as you wanted. The only snag was that as soon as this time ran out, it was over for whatever you were playing – and this was quite often mid-jump or mid-attack in the game you were currently enjoying. The time could be extended by entering more coins, of course.
It was on one of these machines that I first discovered Mario. Want to know what’s even weirder? My first experience of Mario on the NES was Super Mario Bros 2; you know, the one that is incredibly unlike any other Mario NES game in setting, mechanics and bad guys – because it was a reskin of a decidedly non-Mario Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic (this all came about because the Super Mario Bros 2 released in Japan was just a collection of levels removed from the original Super Mario Bros because they were so frustratingly difficult – this version was seen as too difficult for Western audiences and the unholy Doki Doki/Mario alliance was born, so that us wimpy Westerners could play more Mario without tearing our hair out). Despite this, it was a brilliantly playable game with a lot of great qualities and buckets of character. Despite the other nine games on offer, I always returned to Super Mario Bros 2.
From there, I set my heart on a Game Boy. I still wasn’t convinced by the NES, but the newly released Game Boy, being a console that you could take anywhere you wanted, really did appeal to me. As the Atari Lynx, with its beautifully bright, full colour screen, was released at the same time, I endured an awful lot of mocking from other kids at school – but given how long the Game Boy lasted even with the blurry monochrome screen and how quickly the Lynx sank (battery life, it turns out, was a factor much overlooked here, in the race to bring fancy tech to portable consoles!), I think I’m safe in saying that I had the last laugh there.
And besides, the Lynx just didn’t have the incredible software support that the Game Boy seemed to have from day one. The little green-screened console’s library just seemed to explode, right from the start – and it has to be said that, despite the limitations of the screen and the overall memory capacity the hardware offered, both Nintendo and third-party developers wrought some real magic on those little grey cartridges, over and over again. Of particular note is a game that is still, to this day, one of my all-time favourites: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The only explanation I can come up with for how this game was so big, so full of character and with such a beautiful story – on a lowly Game Boy, remember – is that Nintendo really are magical. Pure sorcery! What an amazing experience it was to play that game – anytime, anywhere.
It’s safe to say that Nintendo definitely had my attention as soon as I played Tetris and Super Mario Land. I completed Super Mario Land within a day or so of getting my hands on it, but I still couldn’t stop playing it – there’s more evidence of Nintendo magic, right there!
I never owned a Mega Drive – they were way too pricey at launch and I was 100% hooked on my Game Boy anyway. I never turned down the opportunity to play on Sega’s 16-bit console, but I never felt the need to own it.
And then came the SNES – and love at first sight for me.
Other kids at school – with a lot more money than my family ever had – were importing them and swapping games with their classmates. I looked on with a mixture of envy and awe at these kids with their US SNES consoles and cartridges – it felt like forever until the SNES officially came out.
Even when it did, it was way out of my price range. NES consoles seemed to be making their way to the block of flats I lived in and I occasionally got the chance to borrow the console from another family. I was introduced to some of the amazing titles that came late in the NES’ lifespan – Super Mario Bros 3 was an absolutely incredible achievement for an 8-bit console and, along with some other Nintendo greats, made me completely doubt – and pretty much renounce – the rabid Sega fandom I’d been in the midst of just a few years beforehand.
I only managed to snag a SNES when a friend’s step-brother grew bored of his and sold it – with Super Mario World and The Addams Family – to me at a knockdown price. I had it for years; the number of games I bought, traded for and/or borrowed was staggering – and I still don’t think that I’ve had game experiences more satisfying than many I had on the SNES.
My first all-night gaming session came courtesy of SNES Shadowrun, which was quite a difficult cartridge to track down. I found it in the TCR Computer Exchange, which had just moved to Rathbone Place from Tottenham Court Road – and hadn’t yet morphed into anything resembling the international franchise behemoth of CEX that it’d become several years later. I was an hour’s commute from there; once in my possession, I pored over the manual on the tube and train before getting home, getting started and playing from late afternoon, until the sun set and continuing until the sun came up again. Prior to this, Zelda III: A Link to the Past had been an obsession; but hadn’t quite seen me pull an all-nighter in the way Shadowrun did – at the time, being a teenager who’d just discovered William Gibson and sinking my teeth into this fascinating new genre known as Cyberpunk, no other game came as close to just reaching into my brain and making a cartridge from the contents as Shadowrun did.
(Perhaps I should mention that I bought an Atari Jaguar when Rumbelows went out of business – thirty quid, brand new with Cybermorph. There were a few gems on the Jaguar, despite its reputation: Tempest 2000 was mindblowing, especially when it came to its soundtrack – and Aliens vs Predator was another of those games that seemed to be made just for me, tapping into a few particularly long running obsessions of mine that have endured to this day).
Even when moving out of home at 17 and moving in with my friends, one of whom had just purchased a brand new Panasonic 3DO console, we still spent most of our time on Super Mario Kart and – once we’d invested in a Multitap and extra pads – many, many hours playing Super Bomberman.
After a move to live with my grandparents, which gave me some much needed disposable income, I was converted to the PlayStation by – of all things – Battle Arena TohShinDen and Jumping Flash on demo at Computer Exchange. It was a little while before the PlayStation made it to the UK, but when they did it only took me a few months to save up for one.
It didn’t last long – I probably had it for less than two years (though in that time I did manage to have some amazing experiences – the most lasting impression for me was probably made by the original Resident Evil and THE DOGS COMING THROUGH THE WINDOW) as I sold it to fund the purchase of a Nintendo 64 and barely looked back. Sure, I was envious of Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII at the time, but – having games such as Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye – I never felt like I was missing out on anything completely essential. The cost of cartridges was insane at this time, however, so good old Computer Exchange kept me able to afford new ones by trading in my old games (and have continued to assist me in that way – thanks CEX!).
I had the N64 for a surprisingly long time; even when I bought a Dreamcast console – a few weeks after it launched in the UK – I still kept hold of the N64 and thoroughly enjoyed games such as Perfect Dark when the machine was definitely reaching the end of its life cycle.
I was starting to drift away from Nintendo’s console though. In some ways, the Dreamcast saw me coming full circle; here was a console that played host to some absolutely amazing arcade conversions – games that I was already familiar with due to me spending an insane amount of time as a teenager at Funland in London’s Trocadero – in much the same way that the Sega Master System did in its day. The Dreamcast was a beautiful, incredibly underrated console that was definitely ahead of its time.
Keeping the Nintendo love alive, I also invested in a Game Boy Advance. It was here that I was first introduced to Advance Wars – and rekindled my love for Pokemon, which I hadn’t got back into since first playing the original Pokemon Blue on my Game Boy Color a few years beforehand. Pokemon Sapphire was a pretty big deal for me at the time, especially on my long commute to work.
I’m getting ahead of myself, however, as there were two more consoles that grabbed my attention back then despite the wonders of the Dreamcast: both the PlayStation 2 and the Gamecube. Though I tended to spend a lot more time with Nintendo’s new console, it was hard to deny the strength of games such as GTA III and Metal Gear Solid 2 on the PlayStation 2.
I hadn’t even considered the fledgling XBox at this time; I’d tried Halo and, though it was impressive, it wasn’t a system seller for me. It certainly wasn’t a Mario, that’s for sure.
Unfortunately, it turned out that even Mario wasn’t up to his usual standards on the Gamecube. I was incredibly excited to get my hands on Super Mario Sunshine, but something about it just felt really off to me. Consequently, it became the first home console Mario game (after Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World and Super Mario 64) that I didn’t get to the end of. I don’t think I got very far at all, in fact, before getting bored and not returning. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the magic was definitely missing from this one.
Though this was the case – and saw me drifting away from my Gamecube somewhat, spending ever more time with my Game Boy Advance, particularly with the revamped SP model – I was still keen to get my hands on a Nintendo DS when that came out. And I had one the very same day they launched in the US, with only the demo of Metroid Prime: Hunters to play on it, at least that night. It was a revelation though, at that time – the touchscreen minigames included with Super Mario 64 DS were an absolute joy and kept me going even after I’d hunted down and collected every last Star in the main game – an achievement which had eluded me on the original N64 version.
Being focused exclusively on Nintendo consoles wasn’t to last, however. Who didn’t fall in love with the breathtakingly beautiful Sony PlayStation Portable when it was first glimpsed? It was impossible to see how Nintendo could succeed against such a technologically advanced – and not to mention, flat out desirable – competitor.
Yet – spoiler – they did it again, despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of technical specifications in comparison; again, this meant more battery life and less issues with things like the disc read errors that PSPs were prone to develop, using – as they did – the incredibly fragile, proprietary UMD disc format. That’s not to say that I didn’t have fun with my PSP; Lumines, WipeOut and the incredible GTA: Vice City Stories were absolutely amazing experiences to have on the go.
Nintendo’s magic was undimmed with the DS, however, along with an incredible ability to hone in on what even the mainstream, ie non-gamers, would find appealing. Brain Training was the first sign of this that I can recall; later, Nintendogs and the Professor Layton games also made huge inroads with people who wouldn’t normally play video games.
I acquired an XBox from a colleague with a stack of games at a very cheap price; this allowed me to finally play through Halo, as well as get to grips with games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (another one of those games that could have just been plucked from my brain, given how many of my boxes it ticked!). This was just a few months before the launch of the XBox 360; I’d resisted the urge to get excited about that but playing Halo and Halo 2 definitely whetted my appetite to go one louder.
The PS3 and Wii were around the corner, but for various reasons neither appealed at first. The PS3 was way too expensive, and the Wii just seemed very underpowered in comparison to the XBox 360 that I did eventually succumb to, having used – in this instance – Gamestation to fund the purchase with the original XBox and the games I’d not long acquired. A 360 with Kameo and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion cost me the princely sum of less than fifteen quid once I’d traded everything else in; this would come to be the pattern for me funding the purchase of new consoles from then on.
And what a revelation the 360 was! It was the Dreamcast’s promise of online gaming fulfilled; even just downloading my first Xbox Live Arcade games was a wonderful experience. Playing Pool (via Bankshot Billiards 2) online, despite the inflated price tag (1200 bloody points – or roughly a tenner in actual monetary terms), was amazing. With voice chat enabled and friends who seemed to always be online at the same time as me, just the social aspect while playing a pretty relaxing game was brilliant.
That’s before we get to Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter’s multiplayer mode. Having amassed a small group of friends to play with, all four of us would gather pretty much every evening after work and try to take down enemy bases together. We got pretty good at killing the AI soldiers – and we still have fond memories of specific encounters had in game, brothers-in-arms that we became through repeated, regular playthroughs.
Shortly after this, however, I had a go at Wii Sports and was an instant convert. It seems I wasn’t alone; at this stage, Wii consoles were in such short supply that all shops that had them in stock were selling them only bundled with games in an effort to maximise the profits on each unit sold. Not being able to hold back from buying one any longer, it was Gamestation who once again provided the best deal on a pile of traded in software and hardware to fund my purchase – and it was Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door that I chose to have as my bundled game when I bought the console. Unusually, I still have that very same Wii console as of 2019, despite many, many other consoles coming and going over the years since I bought it.
As with the original XBox, I wouldn’t get hold of a PS3 until way past its glory days – we were already a few years into the lifespan of the PS4 before I traded my way to a PS3 and software.
The XBox One, despite my adoration of the XBox 360, held absolutely no appeal for me. Launched with forced Kinect and a weird focus on THE LIVING ROOM rather than games completely turned me off. Had these people not heard of streaming services or On Demand TV that can be used without having to buy a fugly big black box? Admittedly, when it launched, Netflix and Amazon Prime weren’t the behemoths they are now – but even so, I’d been using On Demand TV services from companies such as BT for years by that point. And YouTube already existed without the need for an XBox One too.
It was a disaster, frankly – but I know that Microsoft have won back an awful lot of players since then, and not without very good reason. They’ve made some great moves in the last few years, with things such as backwards compatibility and GamePass, to mention just two examples.
However, having now acquired a PS4 to experience VR and – let’s face it, this was the big reason I got one – Spider-Man, I see absolutely nothing on the One which appeals to me that I can’t get elsewhere.
This is where things get a bit weird. So my PS3 was probably one of the most short-lived consoles I’ve owned; I used it to partly fund the transition to PS4. All well and good (aside from the lack of backwards compatibility – which I totally didn’t see coming and which absolutely sucks, Sony); but when dusting off the aforementioned Wii and setting it up to play, I started to regain my appreciation for that Nintendo magic. Revisiting old favourites and in some cases getting to play gems that I’d missed when they first came out – during my years in the wilderness, sans Nintendo – gave me a renewed thirst to experience much more of the Nintendo difference.
I managed to trade my way to a basically free Wii U, which had totally passed me by during its all too brief lifespan. What I discovered absolutely blew me away. Here were experiences that I didn’t even realise I’d missed for so many years in Microsoft and Sony Land; bold and bright and beautiful, with a focus on local multiplayer that had been MIA for a decade or more with the shift to online that had happened in the previous generation. I got back into Mario via Super Mario 3D World and New Super Mario Bros U, rediscovered the absolute joy of Mario Kart with the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8, found actual fun (where I’d previously only found frustration) in competitive online shooting (of sorts) with the fantastically playful Splatoon – and also became acquainted with the breathtaking open world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Seeing videos of the then-upcoming New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe (seriously Nintendo – what’s that unwieldy title about?) was almost enough to tempt me into looking into getting hold of a Switch; it was Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee which piqued my interest and obsession almost singlehandedly, however. Being a remake of the Game Boy’s Pokemon Yellow – itself a slight tweaking of the original Pokemon Red/Blue, which was the first Pokemon game and one I’d been obsessed with 20 years prior – really caught my attention. Splatoon 2 played a part too, given how much I’d been enjoying the prior instalment on the Wii U.
And so it was that we arrive in the here and now, with what I consider to be one of the most brilliant pieces of console technology there’s ever been: the Nintendo Switch. It’s not the fanciest tech from a raw horsepower point of view, but what it does, it does incredibly well. It looks great, it feels fantastic to use – and the Nintendo magic is absolutely on display, with their first-party titles putting nary a foot wrong; not only that, but they’re frequently some of the absolute best gaming experiences currently available in my humble opinion. The (ahem) switch from docked to handheld mode is an absolute masterstroke – and one that I anticipate will be copied by the likes of Sony et al going forward. It’s been such a huge success – likely in large part due to the fact that you can enjoy these full fat gaming experiences on the go – that I can’t see how any home console will be able to release without a handheld component, to continue playing the games you’ve been enjoying on your home console, going forward. It truly feels like a game-changer, if you pardon the awkward pun.
Weirdly, it’s also tempted me into going backwards a bit and getting hold of a 3DS (well, ok – a 2DS, given the incredibly cheap price it’s now available for), which again, post-DS and Wii, just wasn’t something I was interested in getting. Nintendo fully have their claws in me again and I couldn’t be more pleased.
I never got into the CoDs or FIFAs of the world. Drab military shooters with an active but immature playerbase composed of what seems to be many millions of trolls just weren’t ever something that appealed to me. And sports? Even in the real world I couldn’t ever muster the excitement about them, so I was hardly going to be leaping into FIFA, Madden or Tiger Woods (sorry EA). I just thought I’d been losing interest in games as I got older; it turns out that Nintendo were still pumping out exemplary game experiences while my back was turned – and all I needed was a nudge in the right direction to renew my interest. Now I’m back in the fold, undoubtedly for good this time.
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