Gaming Made Me, #1: Jim Rossigames

By Jim Rossignol on July 6th, 2009 at 4:45 pm.


Last week we got to talking about the idea of our gaming education and influences: the games that made us the kind of people that we are today. Which was the game that made us stand on a table and say “O Captain, My Captain”? Which game bullied us after school and made us frightened of walking alone at night? Which game would a psychiatrist want to talk to after our first session on the couch? We’ve picked out a bunch of titles that stood out as defining in our lifetimes of button-mashing, whether good or ill. What will they be?

I’m stood at the deep end, and I get to go first.


Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe

Which gave me my disdain for unimaginative subtitles. Why bother if you can’t match Brutal Deluxe? But there’s more to it than that.

Having only had access to a BBC and then a crappy Amstrad home computer in the early years of gaming, my knowledge of what was even possible remained ruinously stunted until 1991. My first encounter with the Amiga 500, some three years after its first appearance, was a moment of intense revelation. I watched my cousin Rob – who suddenly seemed less like a surly teenager and more like some kind of glowing prophet of my inexorable tech future – playing Lemmings or The Killing Game Show, and my tiny, immature brain lit up with excitement. By the time we got to play Speedball 2 the consummation was complete. Jim Rossignol was born. The Amiga would become the altar of my teenage years, and this game was going to be my hand-blistering focus for countless weeks to come.

In fact I’ve no idea how long I played Speedball 2 for. It might have been as much as four years, on and off. But it was mostly on. I had a huge old Yamaha amplifier that I’d inherited from elders hooked up to the Amiga, and the enormous bass boost noise of the Speedball 2 ball launcher, piped via huge separate speakers into my room, often signalled my return home from school. Kid Next Door would soon be there, and I’d occasionally let him win, to keep him interested. To be fair, he always won at Streetfighter 2, and I’m pretty sure he let me win occasionally too, silently returning the favour.

Both games rewarded extreme bouts of practice. Becoming intimately familiar with the exact interaction of pixels, internalising the timing of animations, the crucial pure feedback loop of hand-eye co-ordination, understanding precisely the patterns of movement that came with a game which did not use “real” physics. I would never come close to mastering Streetfighter, but the simpler, purer actions of Speedball 2 would be wholly mine. With this in mind, it seems clear that my relationship with Speedball 2 begun my personal obsession with being good at gaming. I’ve sunk disgusting amounts of time into a few subsequent games, almost purely because I wanted the skill, and then I wanted to improve, to win. My addiction to Quake III, and Quake variants, seems little more than an expression of my Speedball 2 love. Speedball 2 gave me the taste for being a competitor, and I doubt it will ever truly disappear. It also made me believe that it doesn’t matter that games are violent, it matters howthey are violent. When the simulated brutality is tied into a game, something that we can get better and better at, that we can feel good about mastering, then it’s a good thing.

I also think it gave me an appreciation of a certain kind of minimalism in skill-based, competitive gaming. Every time I see a game with more features, more weapons, more ideas heaped into the arena of their combat, I find myself quietly tutting, and thinking about how it come be stripped back, reduced to the bare essentials. The most skeletal of games, brilliantly presented, is all I’ve ever needed. And that’s one reason why Speedball 2 has never been bested.


Hired Guns

The four-screen Dungeon Master with guns. This had a DOS version and an Amiga version, and it was the Amiga version that I spent the most time with. The best part of a week one glorious summer were spent inside a gloomy room, playing this through end to end with my friend Tim.

There were three things going on here that have stayed with me ever since:

- Co-operative gaming. There were a bunch of co-operative games that I played a lot of around this time – Alien Breed and Chaos Engine stand out particularly – but Hired Guns’ RPG nature made the experience more complex. We shared resources, and were able to come up with plans that were better developed than “kill all the baddies”. And yet it had arcade elements bound into it: the fact that it was also a kind of proto-FPS (with real time firing and reloading) meant that there was some genuine tension to keeping both people’s characters alive (we took two each). Further, we were able to do things like setting up crossfire traps for monsters we knew were going to over-power us. I often think about how that game inspired incredibly sophisticated play, despite its crude nature. Few games seem able to do that now.

- Twisted atmosphere sold by evocative audio. The world design for Hired Guns was pretty peculiar: robots and bounty-hunters on the surface of a gloomy planet called Graveyard, fighting genetically enhanced monsters that ranged from sea-monsters through monks and squirrels. Being a Dungeon Master style block-by-block first person RPG, it had to be pretty careful about what it presented on screen – something that was reduced further by the four tiny windows. It seems impossibly crude now, but the sound effects remain superb: the distorted roar of the automatic weapons, the distant metallic dog noises, the heavy pulse noise of the more industrial environments. Few games really sell their experience proper through audio, and this is a fundamental example of what an awesome asset noises are for game designers with limited tools.

- Exploration for its own sake. The demo of the game obsessed me because it had a teleporter tool that you could use to portal into secret locations across the map. Many of them were meaningless underwater tunnels, or random ledges, but I nevertheless obsessively tracked them all, hungry for secrets. Once I had the full game there was a beautiful – if rather meaningless – map screen, which laid out the levels in a grid. What was interesting to me about that was that a bunch of the levels were dead ends. There was no reason to go there if you were progressing through the game. They were also appalling difficult to play through, which somehow made their mystery all the more alluring. Few games seem to make entire levels optional, or skippable. And fewer still seem to deliberately obscure weird secrets within their depths. There was a time when the idea that their would be a wealth of secrets with in the obscure corners of a game level was a given.


Eve Online

I really don’t need to go on about this too much. Eve Online changed how I viewed the relationship between gamers and games. The looping feedback-based nature of the development of the game, the brutal aspect of the PvP, the lack of level structure, the single galaxy shard. Eve is a brilliant realisation of what a persistent world could be, wilfully ignored and misunderstood by gamers, designers, and journalists. I wanted to understand it, because the disappointment I felt with MMOs as a whole was lessened by its existence.


Half-Life

When I was a kid I used to rewatch a bunch of sci-fi films over and over. Star Wars, Bladerunner, Aliens, Predator, Terminator, even Dune. I can’t really remember why, other than I loved the worlds they showed me. I wanted to soak them up. It was as if I wanted to capture something about them, to store up the exact timbre of the escapism. I’m not sure why I lost the ability to enjoy things over and over like that, but after I was about sixteen I stopped. I never rewatch anything now, if I can help it. I suspect it’s something to do with the way videogames have rewired my attention towards active consumption of media. I now need to be involved, to be leaning forward, not back. In fact there’s only been one subsequent piece of culture that I subjected to the same repetition as those films, and it arrived when I was a young adult. It was Half-Life.

Sure, I’ve played through Stalker three times now, and I’ve gone back to a couple of other classics over the years, but Half-Life I sat and played through again three or four times as soon as I’d finished it. Then I watched a couple my mates play it. I found myself bottled up with excitement at the best bits, fascinated to see how they’d handle the marines for the first time, or the thing in the blast chamber. Occasionally I’d blurt out something about what they needed to do, and get a kick in the shins. Spoilers, etc.

I played it again last year, and it was wonderful.

Half-Life was a game that contained a huge amount within multiple layers of detail. It was the little things made it concrete enough to be totally totally involved with: guns were placed on tables or in racks, they were not a spinning icon. The environment was real and dynamic. Although it was entirely scripted, it suddenly felt far more alive that the “stage set” backdrops of previous games. Walls exploded outwards, things fell, and broke, and buckled. The moment when the marines fired up through an airduct was, and remains, breathtakingly effective.

It brought environment to the forefront of design, and not in a way that made it a spectacular deathmatch arena for your activities, but in a way that made it plausible context for your adventure. Rather than supporting the big picture (this is a shooter!), it was a series of scaffolds for your disbelief, and engine that kept up your forward momentum into a story. And it didn’t have to tell us it was a story: there was no break, no cutscene. It was, rather than “show, don’t tell”, a game of “do, don’t show”. Even now, game after game comes out and proves that the designers didn’t grasp how or why that worked.

Half-Life made me because without it my expectations of the quality of games, their world design, consistency, and the pace, would be skewed. Without it I’d be incorrectly calibrated, and of no use to anyone.

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122 Comments »

  1. Lobotomist says:

    All great games!

    And … Amiga … enough said

  2. FatMat says:

    Oh yes ! You too with Speedball ! The bitmap brothers …

  3. David Amador says:

    Yeah i remember not having a machine not good enough to play half-life at 800×600 lol.
    One of the best games ever. The best of the series in terms of emersion.

  4. FatMat says:

    (No edit function, too bad). One of my all-times favorite game as a teenager was l’arche du capitaine blood. You mentioned it recently. I’ve never managed to finish it ! Maybe, now ?

    Our gaming lifes…

  5. AbyssUK says:

    I need to put Speedball 2 on my arcade machine….. why did I never think of this!

  6. Rob Lang says:

    Early on it was Frontier Elite on the A500. Then Civ. Lots of Civ.

    Did you ever listen to non-game music while playing and thus have an inextricable connection with the music and the game?

    I can’t listen to Sultans of Ping, Carter USM or Neds Atomic Dustbin without seeing the slowly spinning dock of a Frontier space station and I can’t listen to RHCP One Hot Minute without the Carmageddon Bloodbath coming to mind.

  7. DSX says:

    X vs Tie is likely the earliest OMG game I can recall, the sheer joy of being inside the revered SW universe and flying around, taking and receiving orders from other pilots, but most of all having the random thrill of lining up a shot on a stray enemy be followed closely by the horror that he had baited you out of the furball so 3-4 of his mates could get a bead on your six. The mixed joy/horror of watching one evaporate while you desperately reconfigured shields and power settings as your ship came under fire still tingles today.

    To that end, Homeworld was also a close space thriller, on the fleet level with far superior story telling.

    It’s odd, but I can’t think of any first person shooter, despite all the countless legitimate “super sweet!” moments, that spark my tingle bone the same way for the entire duration of the game.

  8. FunkyB says:

    Ah hired guns…plug two mice into the back of your A1200, grab a friend and see the time disappear.

    I agree totally about the sound, I to this day remember with fondness and trepidation the creaks and distant rumbles of the opening levels that heralded the start of a new adventure. And fighting over who got to play as CIM, of course.

  9. TauQuebb says:

    Call me boring but for me it was the original Sid Meiers CIV.

  10. FunkyB says:

    I mean just listen to it!!

  11. Gnarl says:

    Hired Guns would definitely be on my similar list. I think it was first game that actually made me consider games might allow real emotive travel to another world. It was crude as hell, but it felt like it tried to cover as many possibilities as possible. The atmosphere wasn’t just in the audio, but in the palette, the items, the fiction with it. First game that left me scared and elated.

    I would never play it again as I’m sure it would spoil the memory.

  12. The Hammer says:

    Great idea for a series of articles. I’ll be reading these closely!

  13. Clovis says:

    I had an interesting introduction to strategy games. Before playing Nobunaga’s Ambition on the NES, “video game” just meant “arcade game”. The idea of running a country was really new to me.

    I’ll never forget one campaign. I started off in the lower corner of the map, and an AI had gotten way ahead of me and everyone else. He started moving towards me; I would soon be crushed. The game had a weird rule though. If you managed to kill the ruler of a family, you inherited everything they had. He brought his ruler with him to crush me. So, I laid a trap. I moved all my men out of the central fief I owned, let him take it, and made a quick pincer movement to cut him off. I used all my remaining men to win a desperate battle and won! He was dead and in one turn I went from last place to first place. I’ve been a strategy gamer ever since.

    One funny note on Nobunaga’s Ambition. After untold hours of playing I finally realized that the AI didn’t actually “play” the game. The stats of the AI fiefs didn’t change at all! There was almost no actual AI strategy. My great strategic triumph wasn’t so great after all…

  14. Ian says:

    Love the idea but haven’t read it yet. I tried to kick-start a similar idea about music on another forum once upon a time, but maybe inspired by this I’ll rejig it for the Talk-O-Tron. :)

    @ Rob Lang: This wasn’t my choice, as such, but whenever I heard “Bad Actress” by Terrorvision I remember hours playing NHL ’96 for the Mega Drive, because the day I got that my sister had bought that song and was playing it a lot.

  15. zombiehunter says:

    weee EvE ftw! ^^

  16. phil says:

    I think the Amiga pretty much defined my rather catholic taste as a gamer, essentially as a kid if it made me lose myself for 30 mins, be it F18 Interceptor, New Zealand Story, The Secret of Monkey Island, Walker, Populous 2, Skid Marks 2 or It Came from then Desert, I’d play it to death.

    It also made me define gaming as a pretty solitary activity, it wasn’t until Playstation 1′s Tekken that I actually enjoyed playing video games with anyone else. That game, and SWOS which I belated realised was better when not played against the moronic AI.

  17. FunkyB says:

    phil:

    Regarding your point on the Amiga defining gaming for you as solitary activity, weirdly it did the exact opposite for me :)

    Gravity Force 2 (or Gravity Power), Hired Guns, Base Jumpers…I can remember countless hours spent with my friends avoiding the sun :)

  18. nabeel says:

    Nice feature, I’m looking forward to seeing the others’ gaming education. Half-Life is definitely on my own list too, a game that affected me in a number of ways.

  19. Dexton says:

    Great article Jim, I look forward to seeing the other RPS members describing their classics.

    Also down with Amiga, Atari ST 4life!

  20. Dr.Danger says:

    Hired Guns!!!

    At least somebody remembers that game. I still feel the pain in my eyes from spending endless hours playing it with my mate. Ah the days of yore!

  21. Gothnak says:

    Captive & Bloodwych were better than Hired Guns :)

    My sister and I were the first people ever to finish the C64 version of Bloodwych as we found a bug that made the game crash and they sent us a new copy and a free other game. Those were the days!

  22. phuzz says:

    The A500 (Class of the 90′s pack ftw!) was my first computer, and via a A600 and A1200 (eventually with a harddrive and CDROM dangling precariously out the side) I got my education in computing.
    Now I’m a sysadmin, something that would never have happened if I hadn’t started off ‘just’ playing games. So without my beloved Amiga I really have no idea where I’d be in life. nuff said

  23. Sunjammer says:

    I could never, ever get into Brutal Deluxe. I think it’s just the fact that it’s a sports game, period. Same reason i couldn’t get into sensi soccer or anything else like it. I’ve played it again and again over the years and its appeal still eludes me.

    Kudos on Hired guns though. Killer game.

  24. phuzz says:

    (oh, and regarding HalfLife, has anyone heard an update about Black Mesa Source? Last update was in november last year)

  25. GamerV says:

    I’m pretty sure Deus Ex made me paranoid.

  26. wcaypahwat says:

    I got started when my grandfather introduced me to wolfenstein 3d, and later on, doom.

    My family was far from wealthy. But when they purchased our first pc (I was around 6 at the time) it came with something like 40 demo’s pre loaded onto it. That kept me hooked for a few years.

    Halflife was my intoduction to modern games. Between that, there was a godawful amount of command and conquer, heroes of might and magic, and master of orion 2.

    Now I have an entire wardrobe full of games

  27. Serondal says:

    I have to agree about music being linked to games. There was a bunch of music I put on my x-box that I listen to while I played some snow boarding game (can’t remember the name of it) but every time I hear one of those songs come on I think about snow boarding :P

    As far as games that made me who I am. X-com made me a cautious person. Masters of Magic made me power hungry and Ultima IV taught me how to be a good person. To be quiet honest Ultima IV had more to do with my moral compass than going to church did when I was young. Church told me to be good but Ultima IV taught me what being a good person took and what exactly you had to do :P Give money to homeless people, don’t steal from the blind, don’t run away from your problems, always be humble ect ect. Was a very valuable game, I think my father had no idea what kind of game he was getting me when he came home with that one ;P Much better moral teacher than Bad Dudes or similar beat’em ups like Bayou Billy (I F@#@# hate that game)

  28. Bobic says:

    Probably for me it was homeworld. The part where you first meet the swarmers… “This…is the garden.. of kadesh… for thirteen…. generations, we have… protected it…from the unclean

  29. Greg Wild says:

    For me, it’s all about Rome: Total War. The love of the period it and its many realism mods encouraged me to take a degree in Ancient History, and it certainly put me ahead of other students on my course. 3 years on since then I’ve just graduated with a 1st. Now if that isn’t games affecting life, I don’t know what is!

  30. TheApologist says:

    Yep – great feature and enjoyed reading.

    Mario 3 was, and remains amazing. It was how it managed to combine a familiar format with secrets and variety and surprise. It was my introduction to the notion that great design is often creativity within tight boundaries.

    Then Shining Force 2. My first turn based strategy on the Mega Drive in a crazy little world had me absolutely hooked and turned me from a gamer who played in short bursts and never finished games to a gamer that could sit for 3 or 4 hours and not get frustrated or annoyed but just plough on.

    Then, I think, Baldur’s Gate. The fun of developing the character I wanted with tonnes of options and building my party in a fantasy world. I still love the character creators in RPGs more than the rest of the game…

  31. diziet sma says:

    Oh wow. Two games I would have picked as well. Speedball 2 remains the only game to have given me blisters so painful after a days play that I had problems writing at school. A beautiful two player game.
    Also the stories I could tell about Hired Guns. I played the campaign in single player, two player and three player. I think I even managed to get enough people for an abortive stab at a 4p run through. Brilliant game play, plot , characterisation and something unheard of these days. Manuals. This stands out as having the best manuals in any game alongside those that came with Frontier for me. The background details, character bios everything.
    I generally played Cheule Siygess , with our other favourite characters being MC 128-7 CIM, Desverger and Kiurcher. I could wax lyrical about that game for a long time and my bitter disappointed at hearing that the sequel was cancelled especially having seen it in action at ECTS one year. :(

  32. Serondal says:

    @wcay I had a huge amount of PC games when I met my wife. The games streched from Fallout 1 straight through to Oblivion and Call of Duty when she threw them away : P I had other games on floppy disks but NONe of them work any more. I’m not sure what happened I had a huge bunch of them in a case that is built to protect them and none of them worked last time I went through them except 1 that had really really old pron on it O.o

  33. Metal_Circus says:

    I also replayed Half-Life recently. I’d bought Episode 2 and loved it and thought, well, I haven’t played the original in a long time. I’m really glad I went back to it. I played that game in my teens with the same excitement. That immersion is something that has definitely influenced what games I really love I think. I used to spend hours trying to find a way to kill G-man, and even more hours making the most utterly aweful single player maps for myself to play on. They were rubbish, but I made them, so I loved to play through them. The sheer joy of knowing i’d made something to play on a video game was mind boggling for me. Great article btw!

  34. Metal_Circus says:

    Oh, also, I would have included Deus Ex in that as well. The idea of being able to fail an objective and continue the game was impossible for me to get my head around at the time. What I love about that now is that the later stages were influenced by your successes and failures early on.

    And then there was Fallout. I could go on forever about this stuff so I better quit while i’m ahead!

  35. no says:

    I don’t think I can really say any game made me the person or gamer I am today. I’m 32 and I didn’t start playing videogames regularly until I was about 20 and didn’t own my first console until I was about 29. I just didn’t grow up in an environment like a lot of you guys where I had six consoles by the age of six and bought and played every game that ever came out.

  36. diziet sma says:

    @Gnarl

    Same here. I played it many times over the course of two summers after it came out. I dread to think how many times I have completed HG. I would never go back. The sound in it is awesome and do you remember meeting the Rahl (from the polish site linked at the bottom of the wikipedia article) for the first time? Panicked laying of turrets and mines. Those bastards were fast.

  37. Ed says:

    I would also like to contribute a “Hired Guns!!!”

    I notice you mention the demo – apart from the 4-way muliplayer in the full game, the demo is my strongest memory of it. There was something weirdly terrifying about finally going down the stairs into the big cavern/room with the lizardmen things in it. Also, excellent music.

  38. DMJ says:

    THIS is why I read RPS.

  39. Xercies says:

    My gaming turning point has to be Final Fantasy 7 on the ps1. It just made me see games as not just fun pastimes but could also give you world, atmosphere, and characters you love and hate. If I hadn’t seen that game one time i went around my friends house I think I would be a totally different gamer

  40. Meat Circus says:

    AMIGA: Lemmings. Monkey Island 2.
    ZX Spectrum: Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy
    PC: Day of the Tentacle, Civ II

  41. Owen says:

    Fucking awesome idea chaps :D

  42. JonFitt says:

    Here’s a few of note from my life.

    Spectrum
    —————-
    Gauntlet 2
    All the Dizzy games
    Chaos
    Rick Dangerous

    Atari ST
    —————
    Chaos Engine
    Cannon Fodder
    Monkey Island
    Ishar

    PC
    ———-
    X-Wing
    Ultima 7
    X-COM UFO
    Half-life

  43. cliffski says:

    Definitely Elite for me. Then also Sim City, Age Of Empires, And mustn’t forget X-wing.
    Plus Call of Duty 2. The last time I could seriously pwn all comers in any game, plus first game to really get me into history.

  44. lumpi says:

    “Sure, I’ve played through Stalker three times now…”

    thrown in like it was the most usual thing in the world. :D

  45. techpops says:

    Great article, I find myself hitting RPS daily now so felt it time to comment.

    @Xercies, I had exactly the same experience with FF7 on the PS1, while games had teased with the idea of an open world before, this was the first (in my experience) to keep on delivering way beyond the point where you thought “They can’t have added anything else after this!”

    But the game that defines me, well you have to go way back to drop zone on the Commodore Vic20, a perfect replicant of Defender. I went from imitating the space invaders sound while I played it, joking with friends, to sitting in darkened rooms and focusing intensely on the game. I guess that was the first time I was absorbed by any game and since then I’ve been searching for that next fix. Very few games absorb me like that did today, despite the huge advances in whats possible.

    The Amiga gave me most of the best fixes until the PC came along and grew muscles (and I agree with most of what everyones said in the thread about great Amiga games) but the real game changer for me was Another World on the Amiga. This game taught me that amazing things could happen in a game, long after you thought you knew the platforms limitations. The moment that huge lion dude drops in front of you on the first level, I literally shat myself and reveled in watching others experience those same moments.

    And just to retroactively boast, my Amiga ended up growing into an A1200 with 040 cpu, 6mb ram (oh yes, you read that right, 6! lol) and it was all worth it to experience the flight simulators at playable frame rates.

  46. Catmacey says:

    Ah… Dynoblaster. 5 friends, a four joystick adapter made by a friends dad and a lovely, lovely Amiga. Now that the way to spend your teenage years. Almost makes up for all the solitary populous, millenium 2.2 (I think it was called that) and Eye of the beholder that kept me locked away in the dark for so long my parents were worried I was on drugs.

  47. dog says:

    for multiplayer gaming i think turboraketti on the Amiga took the biscuit…

    coming home from the pub/club with a bunch of mates and drinking and smoking til the very wee hours while piloting your little triangular thrust-type ship around caverns battling against gravity and another friend…

    these sessions are extremely hazy in my memory… especially if bucket bongs were involved…

  48. JonFitt says:

    Ooh, forgot Civ on the Atari ST, and lemmings on the Spectrum and later Atari ST.

    Let’s go!

  49. jonfitt says:

    How could I forget Elite! Although it was Frontier: Elite on the Atari ST which introduced me to the series. We’d trade ship configurations at school.

  50. Telemikus says:

    Great Article Jim. I particularly liked your thoughts on the rewiring of our brains away from film, and the leaning forward as opposed to the leaning back explanation of how this manifests. I’ve had similar thoughts but that articulates it perfectly.

    The games you mentioned, and many of them suggested in the comments thread are defining of my epiphinal gaming moments as well, but I’m long enough in the tooth to add Elite and Pac-man as my earliest.