Gaming Made Me, #2 – Alec’s Meeriad Influences

Oh dear, is it my turn to froth away about the most formative games of my past? All aboard for a magical mystery tour down my winding memory lane, then. I’ll tell you this much: I’m definitely no Jim Rossignol.

UFO: Enemy Unknown

(Or X-COM: UFO Defense if you’re a colonial).

A couple of years ago, I woke up in a cold sweat, with a man’s name on my lips. I didn’t know what I’d been dreaming about (though I was pretty sure it wasn’t sexy), but the name troubled me: “Anatoly Kolotov.”

Hmm. Russian-sounding? I didn’t know any Russian guys. I recognised it, and was quite sure it had been dragged up from the very pit of my memory, but I just couldn’t place it. For weeks, I muttered it to myself, and asked everyone I knew if it meant anything to them. No dice. Google was no help either.

It was some random, otherwise unassociated mention of X-COM that caused the stereotypical punch to the gut/ head rush joy-pain of nostalgia. Of course – now I remembered Anatoly Kolotov. It was a name I hadn’t heard in almost two decades, but one which, it seemed, would never leave me. Anatoly Kolotov was my highest-ranking, most effective soldier in the original X-COM – the lynchpin of Earth’s defence against alien invaders. If I researched or found new armour or some new incredi-gun, Anatoly was always first to try it out. His kill-count was phenomenal. He wasn’t unstoppable – that was never the X-COM way – but he was always the most fearsome guy on the battlefield. He’d been with me since the very start of the game, and was still with me even as we were gearing up for the climactic assault on Cydonia.

One day, Anatoly Kolotov died. I don’t remember how, but I remember the shock. I remember feeling absolutely hopeless – how could I possibly save the world without Anatoly’s help? Something in my brain still has unconscious total recall, I suspect – that’s why I woke up shouting ‘Anatoly Kolotov’ in distress.

I do know I reloaded a savegame. It was not yet Anatoly Kolotov’s time to die, I reasoned. Nonetheless, the trauma of losing a character that felt so thoroughly mine, one I’d nurtured and developed rather than simply witnessed trot through a game’s scripts, was formative. This wasn’t Manic Miner losing a life or having to restart the level in Wolfenstein. This was someone I’d personally invested in, ripped brutally away from me.

Of course, ‘Anatoly Kolotov’ was just a randomly-generated name, and assigned randomly-generated stats that happened to make him a better survivor than his colleagues. There was nothing in any way Me about him. Yet he was an affecting enough presence to make X-COM a startling wake-up call to me – a realisation that game characters could be much more than colourful sprites and catchy soundbites. Mario? Sonic? Lara? Freeman? Nobodies. Anatoly Kolotov is my hero.

Scorched Earth

This turn-based artillery game – think proto-Worms – was my entrĂ©e into the world of multiplayer gaming. Not the namby-pamby two-man, splitscreen multiplayer of the Nintendo and Sega set, but a whole pile of people each out for themselves, rabidly determined to wipe out everyone else with a powerful cocktail of guile, brutality and wind-compensation. Temporary alliances were formed to take out particularly dangerous players, then broken the second they were dispatched. This was my Quake III, my Unreal Tournament, my Counter-Strike.

In truth, it was hotseat-based rather than LAN, but my particular experience of it was much more analogous to the remote multiplay we enjoy today. It was the game of choice in my earliest years of secondary school – age 12 or 13, at a guess – smuggled-in copies on floppy discs, played in the school computer room over lunchbreaks and, stealithy, during tedious computing and maths lessons. 30-odd boys would form into 8 or 9 man groups, then bomb the hell out of each other’s uni-coloured tanks. We’d often play multiple games simultaneously, so while your opponents took their turn on one PC, you’d run over to another game to take your turn in that one. As we returned to class, we’d chatter excitedly about what exactly what we’d done, how close the fight had been, and what we’d try next time.

I wasn’t a popular kid at school, which I’m sure surprises precisely no-one. That didn’t matter when I was playing Scorched Earth. The cool kids, the bullies, the nerds and the dunces were all united a few times a week by the common desire to destroy each other. The lion lay down with the lamb, and the thuggish rugby player with the nebbish bookwork. As long as you played the game competently, you were welcome, whether or not you got your ears boxed yesterday. Games are, it’s true, often about violence and hedonism and distraction and all manner of similarly frowned-upon factors, but increasingly, they’re also about community. That’s not a new thing. Scorched Earth gave me a temporary sense of belonging in an environment that otherwise spurned me. Yeah, it probably made me into even more of a geek than I already was, but hell – here I am.

The weapons were the main draw, of course. They seemed amazingly destructive – daisy cutter bombs and MIRVs ripping apart the landscape with fatal sunsets. A cursory glance at screenshots of Scorched Earth now reveals just how much work my imagination was doing back then, extrapolating primary colours and crude circles into breathtaking future-war.

Scorched Earth taught me strategy, it taught me tension, it taught me vengeance, it taught me cooperation and it taught me smacktalk. Hell, it probably even taught me a little bit of maths.

Legends of Valour

I haven’t thought about Legends of Valour for nearly 20 years. When I was coming up with my shortlist for this piece, I knew something was missing. I knew it was an RPG, I knew it featured buildings, and… well, that was it. Its name, its story, its setting, its developers – everything important was lost to me. I only had a couple of blurred, static images that flickered across my conciousness whenever I thought of it. I needed, somehow, to take a screenshot of my own memory and show it to someone.

I found its name only yesterday, whilst doggedly typing every variation of “90s PC RPG” I could think of into Google. I found a few frighteningly comprehensive lists, but scrolled right past Legends of Valour. The name alone failed to ring any bells. It wasn’t until I found one that included box shots that it hit.

I adored that box. Lavish, embossed, varnished, massive – it seemed as thought it should contain so much more than a mere game. The box was the reason I bought it – second-hand, I believe. I knew nothing about it otherwise, hadn’t even heard of it. I just craved that damn box.

Looks crass as anything now, but I still feel pangs of desire for it. Fortunately, the game itself came up trumps, at least to my ingenue’s mind. I’ve since discovered that it suffered a bit of a critical kicking from some quarters – especially its PC version – but for me it was a profound eye-opener. I’ve a feeling I had played a few RPGs previously, but I don’t believe any left much of a mark – tellingly, the entire Ultima/Ultima Underworld series passed me by. This was certainly the first one I really lost myself to, being set as it was within one (seemingly) huge city, to be explored at my leisure. Legends of Valour is, essentially, the reason I’ve spent the last fortnight replaying Morrowind for dozens of hours – my first encounter with the incredible freedom of open-world roleplaying. What, you mean I don’t have to go there? I can go over here instead? Or here, or here, or here? I’d had some experience of similar with text adventures, but for a 3D world to do it seemed inconceivable.

Imagine the contempt an RPG would suffer today if it was entirely based in just one city. But Legends of Valour made a virtue out of it, squeezing as much visual diversity it could from the town of Mitteldorf’s many districts. Guards here, bandits there, bloody werewolves here… Beneath it all, one giant, bewildering sewer/dungeon. Only a navigational genius wouldn’t get frighteningly, exhiliratingly lost. Yeah, the town planner should have been fired, but it meant endless adventures, endless exploration, endless confusion – and the sheer delight of somehow finding your way home again afterwards. As I wandered, I could converse with anyone, collecting random quests – indeed, fighting was something of rarity here. This was a town to live in, not one in which you’d paint the streets red with blood. Just as well, as the combat was a terrible mess of frantic clicking.

Then there’s the map. Oh man, the map. The Box contained a vast, fold-out poster, but this was not mere decoration. In fact, it’s perhaps the least decorative poster ever made. A simple, top-down map of the city’s layout, its only immediate purpose was to demonstrate where the city’s various districts were in relation to each other. On the left, a list of specific building names – but it didn’t reveal where any of those buildings were. That was my job.

Whenever I stumbled across a hitherto unvisited building, I reach for my pencil, found the structure’s name from the list, then diligently marked its reference number on the map itself. That map was mine – my own evolving cartographical creation, and a personal record of my adventures to date. You’d think shops and taverns would want to be found, but no matter – this was sublime roleplaying. I was my character, keeping and referring to my own notes. I can’t believe I don’t own that map anymore. My delight at finding a PDF copy is tragically immense.

Most of all though, I remember being arrested for vagrancy. Legends of Valour doesn’t have the Elder Scrolls games’ mollycoddled take on survival – food, drink and sleep were absolute necessities. Of course, sleeping in an inn was expensive, so an amateur adventurer such as I would find a darkened corner, curl up cautiously and hope for the best. The guards usually caught me. Bastard, hobo-bullying guards.

The more I read about it now, the more tragically clear it is that Legends of Valour was a massively flawed game. Such critical judgements are scarcely important when discussing formative games. It doesn’t matter now whether it did it with aplomb or not – Legends of Valour taught me the value of making my own decisions, unhooking myself from story and living in the game rather than simply playing it – traits now common to a great many of the games I most enjoy. Stalker, Morrowind, King’s Bounty, even World of Warcraft back when that ‘World’ still meant something: Legends of Valour was my first step to all of ’em.

Dune II: Battle For Arrakis

History class, circa 1993. Mr [?] clocks that I’m not paying attention. Again. Of course, the rugby kids are making all kinds of noise at the back, but Mr [?] is ferociously proud of the school rugby team, so they get away with it. Scruffy, spotty, speccy little Alec Meer, though – he must not be allowed to while away the lesson by doodling in his exercise book.

Mr [?] walks over to me without my noticing. Grabs my book from my hands, leaving a biro trail down its length as it’s ripped rudely from underneath my pen. Holds it up in front of the entire class. “What’s this, Meer?” “N-n-n-nothing, sir.” “It looks like an aeroplane. Or a bird. Tell me what it is.” “Mmmnithommr.” “What?” “It’s an ornithopter, sir.” “A WHAT?”

Nervously, pathetically explaining what Dune 2 was to 30 sneering teenagers and a short, stern man with a hideous combover didn’t do me many social favours. It also didn’t stop me from compulsively playing Dune 2, the sterling grandfather of real-time strategy. I adored army-building, the steady climb up the tech tree, the vanquishing of rival Houses with my vast army, and the semi-cheat that made a Harvester’s spice load increase by 1% if you clicked on it. More than that, I adored the visual design. Looking at it now, I can barely tell half the units apart, but back then it was a realisation that there was far more to games than high-technology. Its crude sprites told a tale and painted a scene impeccably. When I wasn’t drawing Dune 2 units, I was playing Dune 2. When I wasn’t playing Dune 2, I was talking about Dune 2 – telling tall, exaggerated tales about improbable victories.

A small group of us built all manner of myths around the game, denied an internet to fact-check any of them. Cheats that didn’t exist, secret units that were the stuff of pure fantasy… There was even, one of us claimed, a rare version with a fourth playable House. They were yellow, and their vehicles could cut soldiers’ legs off, leaving them screaming and bleeding on the battlefield, at least until a Harvester ran over them. Oh, how we wanted that version. We knew it didn’t exist, but by God we believed in it anyway.

Dune 2, I suspect, was what made me a PC gamer specifically. It also left a subjective tumour in my brain which means I will never, ever enjoy any RTS as much as I did Dune 2 in 1993. I try, I really do, but it’s no good. This was the first game I ever fell really, truly head over heels for. You never quite get over your first love.

My second-ever published game review (and the first of any decent size) was Emperor: Battle For Dune, in 2001. Funny old world.

Gobliins 2

My father wasn’t terribly happy about how long I spent playing games (even though it was entirely his fault, his having provided the household with a ZX Spectrum and a BBC Micro a few years previous to the arrival of the 486 SX on which I played the five games listed here). Hearing his 13-year-old son shout “FUCK OFF” at the monitor whilst playing Syndicate probably didn’t help.

Gobliins 2, though, was the game that we could both enjoy, and both appreciate the other for enjoying. The puzzles were smart enough to convince him there was worth to them, and absurd enough to make me laugh. This was co-operative gaming: me at the physical controls, him at the mental ones. He seemed to grasp this French point’n’click adventure’s skewed logic better than I did, but would hint at his supposed solutions rather than outright say them – nudging me towards working them out for myself.

What did Gobliins 2 teach me? I guess that, like most of the others here, it developed my preference for a well-crafted world over precise mechanics. I’m fearful to revisit its pratfall-based gags now, but I suspect its tale of idiots somehow blundering through danger had some effect on my generally irreverent approach to my own gaming adventures. In hindsight, it also taught me that games can be a force for much more than mere hedonism. Like playing Scorched Earth with those Bigger Boys, it brought me closer to someone I (at the time) had a fairly fractured relationship with.

More than that, it was spinning a tale to the two of us, one we both participated in and directed. Television, movies, books – these kept people apart, alone, even when enjoyed in company. Games can bring people together – the shared wonder of pressing buttons to make a tiny world change in front of our eyes.


  1. Voidman says:

    Indeed every one of those little pixelated X-com soldiers had a soul and I mourned their tiny if oft gruesome deaths in the line of duty.

    Good times…

  2. Gundrea says:

    Ah video games, a truer substitute for real war there isn’t.

    I dream of a future where two countries will go to war and duke it out over a game of Civilisation

    “He’s got an ironclad! Flee to the ocean!”

  3. Tom Davies says:

    Dune 2 – I spent maths classes compulsively planning bases, (the book had squares in it! what was I supposed to do?).

    I needed help and never got it, curse you Dune 2.

  4. a says:

    That last bit was cute as hell, and reminded me of playing Tomb Raider with my dad as a kid. Good read. =3

  5. psilocybe says:

    Shame about the 255-bug for the UFO-soldiers. I, also, reloaded a save after my elite troopers died (who got ther surname replaced with their accuracy number), and played on earth a lot longer than I had to. Resulted in a few useless soldiers. Sniff. :(

    But, yeah, good times. Mass producing laser cannons to get stinking rich in no time, demolishing ships with blaster bombs and flying soldiers in through the holes.

    I really should give it a go, it’s been a couple of years since last time.

  6. MacBeth says:

    Dune2, yes. I’ve been playing it for the last few days via the glories of DOSBox in my lunch ‘hour’ (frequently extending beyond just one hour…)

    Completely agree – it was my first and best RTS love – I hardly play them now. In fact I might go and play it right now, it’s a quiet afternoon in the office :D

  7. jalf says:

    Ouch, apart from the RPG I’ve never heard of, that looks suspiciously like my list. I might add The Lost Vikings or Lemmings 2 to mine, but really, I got hopelessly hooked on all the other games on your list.

  8. MrBejeebus says:

    I can’t join in with this stuff, you people are too old!

  9. Bhazor says:

    That screenshot for Legends of Valour is just hilarious.

  10. Optimaximal says:

    That last bit was cute as hell, and reminded me of playing Tomb Raider with my dad as a kid.

    You do understand he probably wasn’t playing it for the game, right?

    “Dad, why do you keep looking at the manual/box cover?”

  11. PaulMorel says:

    Scorched Earth!!! Yes! I loved that game! Good call.

  12. Antsy says:

    Dune 2 is a wonderful game and really needs a reboot. Just a shame Westwood isn’t here to do it.

    I had Legends of Valour on the Amiga. I seem to remember it taking hours to install but that might just have been impatience. Also, it kind of sounds like a sequal to Loom…Legends of Velour!

    I’ll get me coat.

  13. Major Disaster says:

    Dune 2 superb memories, though I think Total Annihilation would be my first RTS love.

    The special units in Dune II were cool if I remember, the sonic tank, poison tank and huge tank (which could self destruct).

    Remember rigging up a network though the roof cavity with my flat mates in uni halls, think TA and TOCA were order of the day.

  14. Clovis says:

    Reading this was really great. If I was a better writer I’d explain some of my formative games. I do remember playing baseball on the Atari 2600 with my Dad though. Unfortunately he could never handle more than a stick and one button, so co-op play ended witht he NES and PC.

    I did want to say that there are plenty of websites and TV shows that make me feel like I’m not a weirdo for playing video games all the time. But I still feel like I’m the weird guy who feels that they are an extremely important part of my developement and culture. I don’t just play games to just unwind, I am a gamer. So, it is great to read you all describe your own relationships to gaming. Thanks.

  15. Dr.Danger says:

    Nice writeup, all good games. Still play XCom to this day from time to time, nobody produced anything better. I preferred Terror from the Deep though.

    Spent countless hours on Dune 2 and always with mates as well as my dad who always hovered around in the background to give some “tactical” advice.

    Good times !

  16. Citizen Parker says:


    Oh my, Mr. Meer, you have brought back a flood of memories.

    My inner nerd is crossing his fingers that someone writes up Syndicate, Star Control 2, or Another World but the rest of me is rather enjoying hearing about games that I missed in their heydey.

    I think what Legends of Valour was to you, Darklands was to me – that intense, tragically flawed RPG love affair.

  17. Morph says:

    Grrrrrrr r r r

    Great read Alec, this series is turning out excellently. Except ‘Meeriad Influences’, oh dear.

  18. Bahumat says:

    Scorched Earth is forever in my “Top 10 Games Of My Life”.

    It was the game that finally converted my mother from a rabid “Videogames will rot your brain!” into a “Well… okay. One more round.” mom. :D

  19. Lilliput King says:

    What a beautiful article. Whenever people ask me what I mean when I say games are more than toys, I can point to the last section of this post and say exactly that.

    Thank you Alec.

  20. Ian says:

    Is the original and/or definitive X-Com game one of the ones that’s in the big 2K pack that just got released on Steam?

  21. jalf says:

    @Iam: Yes

  22. phil says:

    Dune 2 was a profound influence on me – it taught me some situations (the last mission for Artedies, running on a bog standard A500 at three frame a second) are fundamentally unwinable, hence abandoning the effort and cursing everyone involved as idiots (hello internet forums) is the only viable course of action.

  23. zak canard says:

    @MrBejeebus Course you can join in, tell us!

  24. Clovis says:

    @Citizen Parker: There’s already a great RPS “retro” on Syndicate. I loved that article and I’ve never even played the game.

  25. RuySan says:

    good taste Alec. It’s funny how all of this games also mean a lot to me (except for Gobliins 2, since i only played the 1st and the 3rd). Just like with Jim’s entry, i now can understand how this is my favorite gaming website.

    Just one more thing, you forgot to mention the insult editing in Scroched Tanks. Being 13 and having the opportunity of calling the other fat or big header were guaranteed laughs…and fighting.

  26. Zyrxil says:

    Ah, Scorched Earth. By the time I had found out about Scorched Earth, my artillery game experience had been formed by Howitzer:
    link to

  27. RuySan says:

    @Phil. I also played Dune on the Amiga, and i remember being a pleasant experience, with just lots of disk swapping and acessing at the beginning of each level

  28. solipsistnation says:

    Grrrrrrr r r r

    Yeah. That map is awesome.

  29. Antsy says:

    I’m pretty sure I played Dune 2 on the Amiga with a HD install. Of course it may have been after i’d upgraded to a 1200.

  30. Dave says:

    Yoko Okamoto. May he rest in peace and be revered for all time for saving us from the evil machinations of the Etherials and their evil minions!

  31. Dave says:

    Argh may i burn in the hell reserved for double posters but i just got to Dune 2. ZOMG! i burnt hours of my youth away for that gem. Soon to be followed by Dark Reign…

  32. cullnean says:

    bomberman 8 players 2 amigas and two tv’s and barry mugigans boxing on the c64

    And a love of mulitplayer games was born, i rarley play singleplayer games.

    i realise im missing out on some great games but i love dukeing it out with other players or just chillin with friends.

  33. DiRH says:

    Man what u reminded me about X-COM.I dont believe it that i have forgotten.I had a soldier with the name John Parton.Parton in Greek where i come from means “Take him” and it awesomly happened to be my best soldier in using mind control !!!!.I was screaming all the time like Parton “Meaning Take him” John Parton “Take him”. So funny times he found his death when 1 of my other soldiers was mind controlled in ship and grenaded him :< I mourned that day.

  34. phil says:


    It was pleasant, stunning in many ways, it’s just the last mission had too much going on once you opened up the map, so the Amiga didn’t just slow down, it started showing seemingly random frames of animation, some times seconds apart, with units (dozens of units) taking anything up to five seconds to respond though strangely the torrent of death’s hand missles was seemingly unaffected – I tired playing it that way for a painfully long time just to see the ending, but no, it was a beyond the capacities of man to complete, or at least a man, or rather a gangly adolescent.

  35. Jeremy says:

    Man, seeing that old map really makes me miss some of those old RPGs. No cutscenes, no androgynous she-male, angst ridden and unwilling to be the hero. Those were the good ol’ days :)

  36. cyrenic says:

    And for all these years I thought Pink Floyd was just exaggerating.

  37. cullnean says:

    eye of the beholder!

  38. c-Row says:

    So, when all four articles have been posted, will there be a poll afterwards? “Which RPS are you?”

  39. Rich_P says:

    Alec looks rather pissed in that picture, as if he’s just been dominated by a spy in TF2 who repeatedly killed him using only the fencing taunt.

    Jim, on the other hand, must’ve just seen goatse for the first time.

  40. jackflash says:

    Ah, X-COM — still my favorite game of all time. And I completely know what you’re talking about when it comes to not quite being able to let your veteran soldiers die in that game. I named all my best troops after my best friends, and losing one in battle was just too much!

  41. ascagnel says:

    Gargh. I hate you, RPS. Between XCOM/UFO and Morrowind, I won’t get any work done for my job & 3 classes.

  42. JonFitt says:

    I played Terror from the Deep first, and the UI was improved in significant ways, but I always liked UFO for its land based setting. Creeping through a supermarket, or across the roof of a petrol station was obviously more recognisable.

    Just having enough time units to make the shot that killed an alien, who was just about to murder a civilian in their home, felt great. I awarded mental medals.
    Shuji Ishii was a hero, he’d sprint into the fray and stun the enemy leaders so they could be interrogated. Took a grenade on Cydonia, I hope someone went back for the body.

    The XCOM games were the game that introduced me to squad tactics, bounding overwatch was a necessity, heavy weapon agents would stand back and cover open areas searching for the dreaded larger aliens.
    Making your own entrance was also cool. The doors to alien ships were deathtraps, so when you got heavier weapons it was great to be able to blow a hole in an upper floor and fly in on jetpacks, zapping aliens confused in the smoke.

    Good times.

  43. Bret says:

    Ah, X-COM.

    Worst thing is having your hero, the man who Earth depends on, having a really low psi score. Basically, it means that commander heroguy, at best, will be left to deal with Mutons while the worthless rookie is suddenly Earth’s one hope.

  44. JonFitt says:

    The best bit was when you got to reverse the Psi trick on the aliens.
    I’d take over one of their guys in a group, take pot shots at his buddies, and reserve enough TUs to pull the pin on every grenade he was carrying :)
    Sweet revenge.

  45. Ginger Yellow says:

    Funnily enough, Dune II was one of my most formative gaming experiences too, but I played it on a Megadrive. Amazing to think now that the single most influential strategy game ever worked pretty damn well on a console. Yet console developers seemed to have learned almost nothing about RTS design in the last 20 years.

    Anyway, I think the PC RTS that was most formative for me was Total Annihilation. I was blown away by the terrain and the “real” ballistics, not to mention the awesome units. It was years before I found another RTS that captured that same feeling of wonder (Dawn of War, I think it was).

  46. Taillefer says:

    It always amazes me how I was able to successfully play such difficult, complicated games at such a young age. I find it hard to imagine my niece or nephew playing through UFO.

  47. RuySan says:

    @Taillefer. Exactly. I did play Civ being 10 years old (keeping in mind that english is not even my native language), and i don’t even imagine my 16 and 17 year old nephews being able to do it. I don’t think i’m that smart, it’s just kids these days have such short attention spans. It really depresses me

  48. Joshua says:

    Imagine the contempt an RPG would suffer today if it was entirely based in just one city.

    Man, I want that so bad. In fact, I tried to do it in Neverwinter Nights, but I just didn’t have the skill or desire to plow on (plus, I didn’t have an internet connection which made it tricky, even with the Aurora strategy guide).

    I think I was intrigued by the possibility after Final Fantasy VII, which spent a significant chunk of its time in the main city. I honestly was a bit bummed when that part ended and the game turned into another globe hopping JRPG. Especially since the city was cooler and more interesting than any other place in the game by a wide margin.

  49. MrBejeebus says:

    I like the sound of X-COM but I’m sure if I played it now it wouldn’t seem nearly as good as you all depict it as..

  50. BigJonno says:

    Legends of Valour! So that was what it was called. I remember staring wistfully at a guide for that game in one of the Amiga magazines I owned (I can’t remember if it was The One, bought for the demos, or Amiga Power, bought because even before I left primary school I knew a bloody good magazine when I saw one) imagining how awesome it was.
    I eventually bought the game, but can’t remember much other than A) how much I loved it and B) how awesome being turned into a werewolf and losing control of your character during the full moon and watching helplessly as you slaughtered dozens of guards.