I’ve been playing video games for 35 years…
I started on the Atari Star Wars Cabinet on Brighton Seafront in 1984. Five years later I spent Christmas morning setting up my brand-new Commodore 64. Since then I’ve ridden the curve through every subsequent generation: Amiga, N64, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, Switch.
I have poured money into whatever progressively extraordinary hardware and software Sony, Microsoft or the Big N thrust at me. I’ve gone from listening to the iconic 8-bit Ocean loader to marvelling at the brilliance of game actors like Troy Baker and Dave Fennoy. Then a few weeks ago something changed…
Before you ask, the answer is no, I haven’t fallen out of love with games. I still try to cram 4 or 5 hours of game time a week around my increasingly hectic career as a voice actor and the needs of my two awesome kids. What I suppose I have fallen out of love with is a passion for the “new”.
It all started when I was surfing YouTube one lunchtime, trying to chill out after an intense audiobook recording session concerning how a repatriation doctor had to reapply a chest drain in a rapidly dying patient whilst travelling in a plane at 35’000 feet (love my job!) I noticed that some brilliant musician had re-recorded the complete score to GoldenEye 007 on the N64 in super high quality. The new recording is fantastic, and it got me thinking.
I started playing FPS on a PC when I discovered Doom. It’s a seminal game and I still get a kick out of taking on an Arch-vile when I replay it every 3 or 4 years. But the FPS that really did it for me was GoldenEye 007. Why? One word. MULTIPLAYER!
The N64 had the weirdest controller of any mainstream console release ever. The three-pronged approach was awkward, and it never really caught on. But the thumb stick in the centre was an absolute game-changer and it’s now impossible to imagine a game controller without one (or two). Add to that the trigger that made you feel like you were holding a gun and you had a recipe for some serious FPS fun.
Now let’s be clear, GoldenEye 007 looks rubbish. Most of those polygonal Gen 5 games have aged really badly and to be honest I’m not even sure it looked good in 1997! But the blocky textures and lack of circles didn’t detract or distract one iota from the still wonderful gameplay. Nights spent in a student house in South Ealing with my best mates playing death match after death match are some of the best memories of my gaming life (our favourite stipulation was Golden Gun).
Listening to the re-recording of Robin Beanland’s pulsating score grabbed some niggling dissatisfactions about modern gaming that have been bugging me for a while and brought them into sharp focus. Just because a game is “new” doesn’t make it better than one that’s “old”. Online multiplayer just doesn’t feel as rewarding as beating your friends in person while you sit in front of the same screen. Also, just because a game looks good doesn’t mean it is good and vice versa.
Generation 8 has been for me a schizophrenic experience. On the one hand, enhanced online functionality has brought us amazing indie titles. BroForce, Towerfall Ascension, Stick It To The Man. These games have been an absolute delight to play. Titles like these seem to revive the innovative spirit that drove the 80s gaming industry to crazy places and grabbed my attention as a kid. Places like Fantasy Island Dizzy or Cannon Fodder. I missed that kind of mad, lo-fi creativity in the 2000s, it’s been lovely to see the internet help it to return.
As for the AAA mega-titles on the other hand? The ones that drive massive online communities and demand loyalty in hours played and cash for loot crates payed? To be honest I feel “meh” about these titles.
It seems to me that relatively little new IP is actually being innovated at the highest level now. AAA’s on Gen 8 seem to fall into two broad categories. You have the Battle Royale arenas that grew out of the Call of Duty crowd. Overwatch, Fortnite, PubG. These games bore me to tears. Okay, the micro-transaction business model is really the 21st century equivalent of dropping 50p pieces in an arcade machine every Saturday. That’s smart business but that’s all it is. Business. For me, it’s not fun. Battlefront II on the PS2 will always be better than Battlefront II on the PS4 (albeit less lucrative for EA I’m sure!)
The other category is the “bigger and better” version of something we played already on Gen 7 or 6 or earlier. Arkham Knight, God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2. These games are all marvellous technical achievements and I love that so many of my fellow voice actors are doing great work because of it. But holy s**t these games are BIG. The campaign on Red Dead Redemption 2 is said to last 70 Hours. 70. Hours. Now, granted, as a man who cut his home gaming teeth playing Batman The Movie on the Amiga 500, a game that will take you 25 minutes to finish in one life, I realise I’m not best placed to judge how long a modern game should be!
“Like all men facing a potential mid-life crisis I turned to my loft for inspiration.”
That was when it hit me. Gen 8 hasn’t been designed for me. I’m nearly 40. I’ve been gaming for more than 3-times the life span of the average Fortnite player. Online Battle Royales aren’t meant to appeal to a middle-aged father of 2. Neither are super-long action/adventure games that 20-something college students eat up (as I did when I used my downtime at Drama School to play GTA III).
I’m not going to lie to you, this thought was quite depressing for a day or two. I looked at my expensive Xbox One X console and realised that I had spent over £400 on a piece of hardware I’ll probably never have the time or the wherewithal to fully appreciate. But I still love gaming. So, what do I do?
Like all men facing a potential mid-life crisis I turned to my loft for inspiration. Among the clutter I examined the relics of my gaming past. A Commodore Amiga 500 Batman Pack. A PlayStation 1 with a light gun accessory that doesn’t work with LCD TV screens. A stack of games for Sega Dreamcast that have outlived the console itself by some margin. The N64 complete with a battered box containing my Copy of GoldenEye 007. All great systems and happy memories but hardly suitable for continuing my gaming adventure in 2019.
Then I saw it… The PlayStation 3. And not just any garden-variety PS3. This 60GB “Fatty” is the mother of all consoles. The only system (to my knowledge) that is backwards compatible with not one but TWO previous systems. And there with it, four Dual Shock 3s and a stack of games for the PS1, PS2 and PS3. Now I could play all the titles I loved again (Arkham City is the best Batman game) and do so with a wireless controller in front of an HD TV.
Perhaps this shouldn’t have made me happy, but it did. Very happy. I was off the curve. I no longer had to fork out £50 for games that weren’t being made for a man like me. I no longer had to tactfully avoid online gaming with friends because I don’t like it. I can fire up GoldenEye 007 Reloaded and actually invite my friends to my house to play. If I do hanker for something “new”, I can head to Computer Exchange in Kingston and pick up a great game for less than a tenner.
The Xbox One X was packed up in its box and taken to my local Game store for sale. The friendly assistant with ear hoops and dyed blue hair opened the box and looked up at me:
“Has this ever been used?”
“A bit.” was my reply.
So, my modern gaming friends, you go off and get lost in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or blast away on Fortnite and don’t worry about me. I’ve got Tekken 2, Crazy Taxi and Journey. I’ll be okay. I’m Happy.
And if I do end up regretting my decision? Well, I didn’t sell my son’s Switch…