Gaming Memories – Trials


Format: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Release date: 2000 – present day

The Trials franchise is surely the most successful game to ever start out life as a Flash browser game. I remember playing the original game on Miniclip back in the day, and I have played every single iteration since. The game’s core concept is simple – you control a trials bike, and must navigate it across a series of increasingly difficult obstacle courses on a 2D pane. It’s the perfect pick-up-and-play game, because it’s easy to get the basics, but insanely difficult to master.

The series peaked when the game exploded onto the Xbox Live Arcade, first with Trials HD, then Trials Evolution, my personal favourite of them all. Evolution introduced 4-player competitive modes, an excellent level editor and an online marketplace to download and share custom maps. It all worked seamlessly. Itbecame a favourite at the flat in Baldock, where my friends and I wiled away hours, taking turns to complete levels and strive to hoover up as many gold medals as we could. It usually fell to me to get the best scores, as for whatever reason I had spent the longest time playing it and seemed to have a knack for it that my friends didn’t. But I’m no match for some of the online masters. I couldn’t really finish any of the Extreme levels. My favourites are always in the ‘medium’ section. Big swooping ramps and giant leaps that flow smoothly into each other.

My friends created me a level, using the built in editor, to test my skill. I remember it fondly because they had spent an entire weekend building it. It started out with an infuriating bit Robbie nicknamed “Ride the Bomb”, because you spawned directly on top of a falling bomb and had to quickly accelerate and lean in the right way to flick the bomb away from you. Had we ever uploaded that map to the marketplace, people would have downvoted it instantly, because you would die at least 10 times before you figured out the method. But I loved that map, because my mates made it for me.

Also, Trials is one of the few games that I’ve enjoyed playing with my brother, Sam. He doesn’t play games but he is very much into extreme sports and whatnot, so he appreciated Trials, mostly coz of the accurate, if still ‘gamey’ physics. He was a natural at the game, thanks to his real-life understanding of bike physics, and it was fun for me to see him pick it up very quickly.

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Gaming Memories – Demon’s Souls


Format: PS3
Release date: 2009

I don’t get on with the Souls games at all, but I really wish that I did. For me, the combat was just a little too clunky and, oh, you know, fucking difficult. (Come on, the PC version of Dark Souls is called the “Prepare to Die” edition.) I love that these games exist, it’s just they require a level of patience that I simply do not possess. Fortunately, my good friend and ex-housemate Robbie does. I watched him play through most of Dark Souls 2, all of its DLC, and then Dark Souls 3, quite content to sit back on the sofa and enjoy the gruelling, oppressive show. My favourite memory of these games started with the original on PS3, Demon’s Souls.

Robbie chose to play as a lightly armoured thief type adventurer, armed with swift daggers, or a short sword & shield combo. His tactics were to always have enough stamina and agility to dodge attacks and roll out of the way. (He sometimes liked to hide in a spot and fire 600 arrows at a boss that didn’t know where he was; Robbie’s not a man above exploiting enemy AI when you’re balls-deep in a terrifying Souls dungeon). About 5 hours into Demon’s Souls, he found himself exploring a vast, ruinous castle, a typically grim location, full of undead skeleton soldiers, a gigantic blob monster riddled with spears, and a couple of fire-breathing dragons.

We were both busy gawping at one of the dragons from what we thought a safe distance, as it lay on a mound, sleeping at the end of a long stone rampart. Between it and us was a small army of skeletons, but by this point Robbie had gotten the hang of dealing with them. So, he crept onto the rampart and began meticulously dispatching the skeletons one at a time, heading towards the sleeping dragon. Suddenly, its wings opened up and it took to the sky… ah, not asleep, then. Within seconds, it had swooped towards the rampart and rained hellish dragonfire down across the walkway burning every skeleton and us in the process. “YOU DIED” appeared in big red capital letters in the middle of the screen, not for the first or last time. “I guess you can’t go that way,” I said to Robbie when he respawned at the nearest bonfire. “Of course I can!” he declared. “I need my souls!”

He died on the second, third, fourth and fifth attempts to cross the rampart, before giving up and going to another area of the castle. But eventually, many days later, he came back and defeated that pesky dragon. How? He hid on the rampart and fired 600 arrows at it until it died.

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Gaming Memories – Portal


Format: PC
Release date: 2007

Portal is one of those games that sprang out of nowhere, taking everyone by surprise and causing a storm all across the internet. With almost no hype, and zero expectations, it came bundled as a throwaway extra in The Orange Box, arguably the best game bundle ever made.

My fondest memory of Portal was watching my friend Adam play through it for the first time. He stayed around my house one night, which in itself was quite a rare thing, and I insisted he play through Portal because it’s short, sweet and hilarious. The reason I remember this night so well is because Adam had been recommending games and movies to me for as long as I’ve known him, and it’s rare for me to have a chance to show something new to him. He’s also quite hard to impress, and I wanted desperately for him to like something that I introduced him to. And he loved it. We started at midnight and he didn’t beat GlaDOS until about 3am, but the entire time between was us cracking up and basking in the sardonic cruelty and piss-taking of one of gaming’s greatest antagonists. When the brilliantly silly end-credits song ‘Still Alive’ came on, we were both grinning ear to ear.

This happened within the first few weeks of the game’s release, and I was so glad to enjoy that game with Adam before all of the lying cake memes wore out their welcome. I regularly go back and play through Portal, just to be entertained by GlaDOS. It’s very close to being the perfect game.

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Gaming Memories – Fighter Ace


Format: PC
Release date: 1997

Fighter Ace was a free-to-play Second World War dogfighting game. You just logged in, spawned in a big sky with about 20 or 30 other people and shot the shit out of each other. It taught me that the Japanese Zero was one of the greatest fighter planes of WW2. Sure, it was lightly armoured and went down easily with just a few direct hits, but it was so manoeuvrable, so fast and agile that it could take on pretty much any other plane and come out on top.

I bought a flight stick and everything to play this game, but it didn’t really grab me as much as my uncle Dave, who built his own custom PC to play games on and had friends in America (all the way across the ocean!) that he played with regularly. It wasn’t much time after this that I built my own computer and I started making friends in America and other countries, many of whom I’m still in contact with now, and who share my passion for games. That’s another story entirely, but I think I can safely say that my introduction to how the online world can meet real life started with my uncle’s PC and Fighter Ace.

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Gaming Memories – Return to Castle Wolfenstein


Format: PC
Release date: 2001

Return to Castle Wolfenstein introduced me to the world of PC gaming. I have my uncle Dave to thank for this. He used to play two games, Wolfenstein and Fighter Ace, and I loved going round his house because he had a gaming PC, curiously built by a company called Gateway… The PC was something so alien and awesome to me that it made my N64 seem like the toy it always was (I still love you, my 64). Wolfenstein became Enemy Territory, a free standalone multiplayer component, but it was the ‘original’ Return to Castle Wolfenstein that dragged me into PC gaming, and I’ve never looked back since.

The singleplayer was all about shooting Nazis, but as soon as the game introduced zombies on about the fourth level, I couldn’t play it any more. I had yet to grow a spine. Multiplayer didn’t have any zombies, though. It was a pure WW2 shooter, Axis vs Allies, no frills first-person combat. It was the first game that I ever played which let you choose a role – you could be a medic, a soldier, engineer, lieutenant, and each class supported each other. Teamwork became an essential tactic; a team full of regular soldiers wouldn’t be able to complete all the objectives in a level.

Let’s take the classic Beach level as an example. First you’d need an engineer to blow up a hole in the wall using TNT and pliers. Lieutenants could dish out ammunition and call in artillery strikes on the bunkers overlooking the beach. Medics, useful in any situation, would run around handing out medpacks and jabbing injured soldiers back to life with adrenaline shots. And finally, flamethrower wielding soldiers were deadly in the tight confines of the trenches and pillboxes, cooking enemies alive with a stream of molten fire. Oh, god there are few games that have a more satisfying flamethrower.

This game started my love affair with FPS games on the PC, and while the accuracy and nimbleness of using a mouse and keyboard helped, I think the classes were a massive part of that. It paved the way for games like Planetside and Battlefield, other excellent examples of class-based multiplayer shooters. Team Fortress Classic deserves some recognition here I’m sure, but I only played the long-awaited sequel many years later. For me, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is where my PC gaming passion took hold. I was 13 when I built my first computer, again thanks to my uncle Dave who showed me how to do it, just so I could play Wolfenstein with him. I have gone through 6 or 7 iterations since then, constantly upgrading it every now and then. Owning a PC is a wonderful hobby, and more than that, gave birth to my entire career as a web designer, animator, writer, and geek… and Return to Castle Wolfenstein was my gateway.

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Gaming Memories – Haunting Ground


Format: PS2
Release date: 2005
AKA: Demento (Japan)

One of my all-time favourite gaming memories is playing Haunting Ground with my mates at the flat in Baldock for 16 hours straight. It was me holding the controller for almost all of those 16 hours. It’s a bit obscure, so if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a survival horror game by Capcom, in which you play as a pretty little fragile girl called Fiona, who must escape from a huge labyrinthine castle. Oh, and you can’t fight. Your only option is to run away and hide from the nasty people that are out to get you. You do have a companion throughout though, the best dog in gaming, a white German Shepherd called Hewie. My friends know that I love dogs, and Robbie played a rather mean trick on me near the beginning… He said “press square, it lets you stroke the dog.” I stood beside Hewie, pressed square, and watched in horror as my Fiona kicked the dog. I didn’t listen to Robbie again for the rest of the game.

The aforementioned nasty people are few and far between in Haunting Ground, which is what makes it so unique. There’s only 5 enemies, I think, and you deal with them one at a time. After evading the deformed, simple-minded gardener who wants to either be your friend, eat you, or rape you (or possibly all 3), you then are stalked by a Terminator-style cyborg woman armed with a shard of mirror. All you can do is hide, which suits me, I’m quite good at hiding and running away from enemies in horror games. Each time you come face to face with one of the enemies, Fiona’s sanity decreases dramatically, and if you can’t find a suitable place to hide fast enough, she might panic and begin running around completely out of control. We nicknamed this ‘disco mode’ because the screen starts flashing, music plays and you have no choice but to hope she runs somewhere safe or that Hewie is close enough to find you and calm you down. It’s brilliant.

I reached this difficult bit which involved navigating a room with lava falling from the ceiling. After playing all night without sleeping, long after the sun had risen, it proved too difficult for my sleep-deprived brain so I handed the controller to Ben, who did it for me. It was the only bit of the game that I didn’t play. It must have been close to midday on the day after we started playing by this point, and I had to power through to reach the end. The finale involved fighting a final boss of some kind, which I barely remember, but in order to defeat him and get the ‘good’ ending, you had to have built up enough trust and friendship with Hewie throughout the game. Fortunately, that one accidental kick didn’t damage my bond with Hewie, and he ended up heroically leaping out from a tunnel to attack my pursuer, saving my life. I will never forget his bravery… 16 hours of hard work bonding with a digital dog, it paid off and I got the good ending. He really is the best dog in any game and has yet to be surpassed. Haunting Ground is a fantastic game…actually, it’s not, but I love it anyway.

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Gaming Memories – Pokémon Red


Format: Gameboy
Release date: 1996

You might have heard of Pokémon. I can’t quite believe that date. 1996!? Holy crap. 21 years ago, apparently, I got well into this strange Japanese game about collecting made-up animals, stuffing them into balls and training them to fight each other. Yeah, the entire notion of Pokémon sounds horrific in this world of PETA and tofu, but as a game concept, it’s utter genius. Enjoyed by my entire generation as kids, we then grew up and got obsessed all over again in Pokémon Go!

But Pokémon Go gets tedious quickly because there isn’t really much meat to the game. The original Red and Blue versions (and consequently every other Pokémon game since then because they all follow the same blueprint), featured a coming of age story about a boy or girl setting out into the world to become the very best, like no one ever was… Red will always be my favourite because Charizard.

I still remember walking into Professor Oak’s lab, and him offering me the 3 starter Pokémon to choose from – Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander. There wasn’t really any choice for me though because Charizard. After choosing my starter, Professor Oak asked if I wanted to give him a nickname. I thought why not, and amusingly called my beloved Charmander FIREMAN, in capital letters and everything. I didn’t realise that this name would actually be used every single time my prized Pokémon was referenced. So whenever I sent him out to battle, it shouted at me, “FIREMAN! I choose you!” And the worst part was it even kept the bloody name after it had evolved into Charmeleon and Charizard. Also, I taught him Cut without fully understanding that he could never unlearn it. So my single greatest Pokémon, the one I have put more effort into training than any other, even to this day, is my awesome but fucking stupidly named Charizard, who knows Cut instead of Fireblast, and is called FIREMAN.

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Gaming Memories – Conker’s Bad Fur Day


Format: N64
Release date: 2001

Now and then one can’t help climbing aboard the hype train. You work yourself up into a frothing frenzy in anticipation of some new game whose trailers and screenshots make it seem like the best…thing…EVER. That’s how I felt about Conker’s Bad Fur Day when I first read about it in N64 Magazine (before the internet butchered the magazine industry). They did several preview write-ups about it in the years before it was released, and it changed from being a cutesy 3D adventure, to merely looking like a cutesy 3D adventure plastered with a layer of adult filth. I couldn’t have been more excited to play it. Did it live up to my expectations? Hell yes.

The game was made by Rare, so any right-minded Nintendo gamer should have been excited – they were responsible for some of the best games the console had to offer. But several delays seemed to kill the momentum of the game, and it was finally released in March 2001, right at the end of the N64’s lifecycle. Perhaps because of that, the game didn’t seem to sell as well as Rare may have hoped. Perhaps the fact it was one of the only ‘Mature’ rated games Nintendo had ever published at the time.

The funny thing is, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is far from mature. It’s fucking hilarious, though. As a kid, I felt so naughty playing a game with swear words in. I can still recite lines of dialogue in my head, I played it so many times. The cow-shitting level never ceases to have me in stitches… “Oh I do hope Mavis and Olive don’t see this!” And the rude cog in the tower near the dogfish, utters the frankly genius line, “Twatting shite, don’t ever do that again!” The game was beautiful too, the colourful cartoon graphics pushing the N64 to its limit. Great games always tend to come out towards the end of a console’s life, when the devs know exactly what they can do with the technology, and CBFD is a prime example.

Rare released an inferior remake of the game on the Xbox, with nice fancy new graphics, but it isn’t nearly as good as the original because they added a load of unnecessary combat and even changed some of the dialogue!

The reason I mentioned how badly the game must have sold is because the game seems to be a bit of a collector’s item these days, though there are plenty of them going on eBay. It’s bloody expensive though! £80 for a mint boxed copy. I only wish I still had mine. I lent it to some kid called Stephen who I barely knew, eager to introduce a child to a game that starts off with a hungover squirrel staggering around a cornfield. But the little git never gave it back to me. I hope he looked after it…

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Gaming Memories – Mario Kart


Format: Nintendo Wii
Release date: 2008

I’ve played many versions of Mario Kart, first on the Snes at a friend’s house, followed by my own copy of the N64 version. The Nintendo DS edition got a lot of play during the various anime conventions that I attended between 2006 and 2011, where you could LAN it up via Bluetooth with anyone else in the vicinity. But the version I truly have the fondest memories of has to be Mario Kart Wii.

It all started on the day I brought my Nintendo Wii into the office. This was back when I had a real job, working 9-5 in a marketing agency as a multimedia designer. My boss, John, and co-workers Luke and Chris, would often stay a little later after closing to enjoy a Grand Prix. The 8 races usually took less than an hour to play through, so it was a nice way to wind down after a hard day at the office. Relaxing. Civil. A bit of gentlemanly competition.

Or not.

I can’t believe I wasn’t sacked. On the very first day we played, I chose Yoshi, because he was always my character. I kicked the shit out of my co-workers, winning every race and almost putting them off playing ever again. So, next time, I decided to pick one of the slowest characters, Donkey Kong. Give ‘em a chance, y’know? At first I hated it; he is fat and lumbering, and corners like a dumper truck. But I soon realised that being a giant gorilla in a go-kart is ridiculously entertaining, because I no longer needed to drive around my opponents… I could go through them.

Smashing my opponents from behind and sending them into a bottomless pit became my tactic of choice when playing against my increasingly pissed off colleagues. John threw my Wii-mote at the wall multiple times, Chris would give me a look that could curdle milk, and Luke swore in pure rage, going red in the face, and even took up practicing at home on his nephew’s Wii, just so he could try and better me. There were occasions when Luke or Chris might sneak a win, (I don’t remember John ever finishing higher than 3rd), Rich was okay at the game, but preferred playing Fifa, and obviously when Paul played I had a real competitor for once, but he rarely wanted to. So, I left the office as the Mario Kart champion almost every single night. You might think that repeatedly pummelling a bunch of non-gamers at a child’s racing game would grow tedious or dull, but somehow it never did. It was hilarious.

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Gaming Memories – Perfect Dark


Format: N64
Release date: 1999

The successor to Goldeneye, Perfect Dark improved every possible aspect of the classic shooter and created an original masterpiece. 4-player multiplayer game modes, with the option of adding 8 extra bots made matches frantic chaos and endless fun. The singleplayer was fantastic at the time, featuring such state-of-the-art features as realtime lighting, blood spatter effects, and fully voice acted cinematic cutscenes. It even let you play the story in local co-op with a mate – player 2 got to be Joanna Dark’s weird-looking blonde sister – the first game I ever encountered with a co-op singleplayer mode.

The globe-trotting story bounced all over the place, including off-world to the Skedar’s planet (at which point, I gave up because the Skedar were just too scary). My particular favourite levels were the Carrington Villa, a sunny holiday home where you start off sniping soldiers on a pier far away, in order to save a negotiator. And Chicago, looking like something out of Blade Runner with floating cars and a dirty urban sprawl. That level had an excellent stealth section where you had to crawl into some sewers undetected to plant a bomb on the underside of a limousine. Really cool stuff.

Multiplayer was where I spent most of my time, though. Whenever I got 3 mates together, we’d play for hours and hours. We banned the Farsight gun, because it could see through walls for goodness sake. But grenades and rocket launchers were fine, even though their explosions would cause the N64 to chug and sputter if you happened to be playing with 8 simulants (first game I played with bots, too!). The game even had a persistent ranking system, which awarded you with a score and promotion based on how many kills you had. This was years before the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield’s unlock systems, and I admit to being a little smug whenever my ranking appeared on the screen, as it was always slightly higher than any of my friends… it was my game, after all.

They rereleased Perfect Dark on the 360 Live Arcade, and I never realised how terrible some of the voice acting is. Back in the N64 days, simply having a fully voice-acted story with cutscenes was a fairly new thing, and hugely impressive, so I think the quality of said acting didn’t really matter much to me. Still, I don’t need a pair of rose-tinted goggles to remember how much I love Perfect Dark. I was absolutely blown away by that game.

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Gaming Memories – VVVVVV


Format: PC
Release date: 2010

VVVVVV is one of the only 2D platform games that I have completed from start to finish, which makes it special to me. I became obsessed with Veni Vidi Vici, an entirely optional sequence of deadly traps that teases you with a collectible orb right in the very first room, which is blocked off by a tiny box. You can’t jump in the traditional way as most other platformer’s, so the only way to overcome the box is by leaping up through the ridiculously cruel chambers above, navigating your way to the top…and then back down again.

Here’s a video of someone completing Veni Vidi Vici. Watch them fail a few times at first, but finally succeed about 1 minute in. You have no idea how good it feels to complete this bastard:

I think it took me over a week to beat it. And because the game worked on Mac, I sneakily played it at my old workplace, when I thought no-one was looking. After hours of repeating the same rooms over and over and over again until my fingers had memorised the precise movements down to a tee, I FINALLY beat that horrendous level and got my orb. I did one of those restrained cheers for joy, desperately trying to hold back an outburst so nobody in the office heard me and realised I wasn’t actually working. Pretty sure Paul knew exactly what had happened though. He was sitting next to me at the time, probably playing Minecraft.

I listen to the soundtrack to VVVVVV quite regularly because it is a fantastic example of chiptune music, mimicking that retro sound but with a contemporary flair. Every tune is just so bloody catchy, and it’s one of only a select few game OST’s that has made it into my mp3 collection of ‘normal’ music. It goes well with the Bastion soundtrack, and both albums helped me to train for my first (and so far, only) half marathon. ‘Pushing Onwards,’ the song from the video above, is a real motivator for going just a little bit further… I have since completed a few other 2D platformers, but I haven’t enjoyed any quite so much as Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV.

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The Best Games of my Life


A friend on Facebook posted a list of their favourite movies, listed in the year they came out, which I immediately followed up with my own list. There’s only one rule: you must pick your favourite for all of the years that you’ve been alive, and you can only pick one per year. I decided to give it a go for videogames. It’s a lot trickier than you might think! Some years have featured an abundance of incredible titles, whereas other years it’s easy to pick out a clear winner in your mind. So, without further ado, here’s my list of favourite games, one per year since I was born. This was insanely difficult…

1986: Metroid
1987: Bubble Ghost
1988: Super Mario Bros. 3
1989: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Continue reading

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