My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

I’m not going to lower my teenage cool credentials any further than I have already by admitting that I was into planes, but I kind of was. World War II planes mostly. I’d had my share of Airfix models that looked great until the paint came out. I had huge St Michael encyclopaedias about them that came down off my bookshelf regularly and I’d pore through them, making notes on what I read  and badly drawing my favourites  – which reminds me, I have a fantastic aside on these to share later! And I’d dream of being a fighter pilot, at least until I was 16 and had my red / black / green / brown colourblindness well and truly confirmed by the RAF. But that was still three years away in 1985. Top Gun was still a year away too, so what on earth would make a thirteen year-old boy want to be a fighter pilot? The Harrier Jump Jet, of course!

Without getting too bogged down in it, the Harrier was a fighter plane that could take off and land vertically. A bit like a helicopter, though generally it took off from a kind of ski ramp at the end of an aircraft carrier to save fuel. And that’s as technical and nerdy as we get in my yard; for this post at least… And in the mid-eighties, it was the coolest plane in the world – everyone knew what it was from the Falklands War build up –  images of them lined up on aircraft carriers, then 20 confirmed kills, and probably a couple of Blue Peter appearances too; who needed Kelly McGillis with her incredibly hot eighties hair and little pilot sidekick when you had Christmas decorations made out of coat hangers, Sarah Greene and a sunken garden. Which is something I’d love to make an aside about but footballers have far more money than me and I’ve no chance of winning that battle! Sarah Greene though. Mmmmm. 

I’d had a couple of VIC-20 flight sims at this point. The first was 1983’s Flight Zero – One Five…

You had a map in the bottom right showing progress towards your goal – a O at the top of it – and basic controls to manage variables like fuel, height, speed and so on. The idea was to keep them all in the right ballpark for each stage of the whole flight, managing various hazards that occurred like being blown off course. If they went out of the right ballpark, the screen started flashing blue and there was a horrible alarm sound. If you corrected whatever was wrong in time, you were back on track, and if not you were screwed. No one can say this game aged well, even six months after its release, but its significance to me can’t be underestimated. I was actually flying a plane in my bedroom! That was something you only imagined doing at that time, so using that same imagination to fill in the gaps demanded by the presentation of this game was a very short stretch. I probably flew enough hours in this to get a pilot’s license! 

1984 would then bring Bomber Mission, complete with my first proper cockpit view!

Okay, proper cockpit view was a bit of a stretch. More like view of a cockpit, as most of the time there wasn’t a lot going on outside the window. If I remember right, there was the odd appearance of a fighter plane, but what was great was the feeling of helplessness when you met flak over enemy soil (represented by a cockpit view full of flashing asterisks). This was another groundbreaker though, because now you were really flying a plane. And it was a World War 2 bomber! You chose your target, chose your bomb, took off, navigated to the target, dropped your Tallboy then flew home and landed. And it was brilliant! 

Then there was Flight Path 737, which I borrowed from my friend Steven, who lived around the corner. That had a real cockpit view, but for some reason I didn’t borrow the instructions, so never actually got beyond take off before I crashed. Over and over. Which made it rubbish and therefore it doesn’t count…

Now we are in 1985, and with a 16K RAM expansion stuck up its jacksy, VIC is in its prime! I got Jump Jet for my thirteenth birthday and looking at the back of the box couldn’t believe what I was looking at on the back of the box… From the “CBM64 screenshot version.” Oh dear, this didn’t bode well. And I genuinely remember feeling that. As I remember playing this two months later on the morning of Live Aid. But that really is going to be another story! 

I didn’t have too much to fear though. The VIC version held up pretty well to those screenshots. In fact, the first time I loaded it up, my black and white portable TV screen was displaying something beyond my wildest dreams! The realistic cockpit instruments. The aircraft carrier take off section. And once you got high enough, the endless blue ocean where you’d hunt the enemy in virtually lifelike splendour! 

That would come some time later though. Taking off wasn’t that straightforward. You had to sort out your flaps, give it some vertical thrust them up you went. But get anything wrong and you incurred penalties. After nine penalties it was game over. And you could easily incur those while you were still looking down from above onto the aircraft carrier deck. Get off the deck and you got split head-on and sideways views of your plane ascending off the deck, as long as you got your thrust back under control in time or more penalties. Get to the top of the screen and you’re flying properly, for a few seconds at least, because there’s plenty more penalties to be had if your thrust isn’t right before you sort out your flaps. But once you prove to the game that you’re not flying that badly, it’s time to seek and destroy. Or be destroyed, as shooting down the lurking enemy plane isn’t that easy either. Once you’ve nailed it though, it’s time to find your ship and land, refuel and restock on weaponry. And good luck with that! Taking off and taking down enemy planes was nothing compared to landing on the deck of the split-screen aircraft carrier! You would need to fiddle with your instruments no end here, with pinpoint accuracy, to get back on the deck safely. Fortunately, the instruction book included a handy guide to your cockpit instruments…

But for all these control formulas you had to get exactly right in each phase of the game, once you got them you got them. Then it became fun, and they just served to keep you alert and occupied as you trawled the skies, which was probably for the best… The instrument panel was cool, as were the various carrier views, but in reality the flight graphics were a bit plane. I mean plain. The horizon didn’t even tilt when you turned like the crappy 737 game’s did! But it was well after Live Aid that I even noticed that, and I didn’t care. There’s more to a dream coming true than a tilting horizon. 

Together with Pinball Wizard and Submarine Commander, this was a game I couldn’t part with when I eventually sold VIC, though it once came close after I rescued it from a school car boot sale, as the £1 sticker still on it attests to! 

Oh yes, I promised an aside! I dug some of my big plane books out for my ten year-old son recently, who is way too cool to show the slightest interest. But I had an interesting flick through anyway, especially when this dropped out….

Bonus Post – RIP Game Boy (1990 – 2017)

Bonus Post – RIP Game Boy (1990 – 2017)

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my Game Boy, bought at launch in September 1990 and serving me faithfully until the 11th May 2017. This photo was taken moments before it went to its final resting place. In the bin. 

Actually, it was pretty much ditched when the Game Boy Advance appeared in 2001, which in turn survived two years (together with the ridiculous light attachment that made it vaguely playable) until I picked up the Game Boy Advance SP. The latter is still regularly dragged out of the box it shares with a fortune’s worth of the old huge cartridges and the later more sensible form factor ones – not convinced the screen brightness is what it used to be though, even with the backlight on. 

I remember buying the original at a computer game exhibition as soon as it launched, though I’m not sure my memories 100% tie up. I had in my head that it was in London’s Wembley Arena, though a bit of detective work seems to suggest it was more likely ECES (European Computer Entertainment Show) at Earl’s Court, which took place in September 1990. Who knows. Who cares! Though if anyone can shed some light on it I’d be mildly interested. 

I do, however, vividly remember playing Super Mario Land on the train home. And, of course, the bundled classic Tetris. 

For a console I’ve always held in such high regard, I actually have a very modest collection of games for the original Game Boy. Which was a lot to do with its heyday coinciding with my poorest time at university. But the few games I had got well and truly played to death, despite some of them not exactly being of Tetris calibre! Here’s the list, in what I remember to be the order I got them in…

Tetris 

I posted this a while ago on the wonderful Cane and Rinse forum for what, at the time of writing, is their next but one podcast: “If I had to name the perfect game, I’d probably pick this. A timeless masterpiece that my words can’t do justice to. Three word review: Invaded my dreams!” 

And invade my dreams it did! Or more specifically, those moments before you fall asleep… Blocks falling, lines forming in your mind! This was probably one of the last games I’d consider myself truly great at – Match Day, IK+, Kick Off, WWF Smackdown and this were games I can say I mastered. 

By the way, if you’ve never listened to their podcast, do yourself a favour! Very intelligent, well-researched, in-depth, non-pretentious chat on a single game per episode. Fantastic group of guys and girls, and the first podcast I ever felt a compulsion to do a monthly Patreon donation for! 

Super Mario Land

Here’s a gaming confession… I’ve never truly loved a Mario game. Except maybe Crazy Kong on the VIC 20, which was a  knock-off and therefore didn’t even feature Mario (aka Jumpman). I’ve been playing Mario Run on the phone for six months solid, but that’s more addiction than love! It’s not to say this wasn’t a great game though – side-scrolling platformers have just never been my thing, and it’s perhaps testament to what a great example of this genre Mario Land is that I played it so much. 

Tennis

I’ve already written a lot of words on Tennis (and my early days with my Game Boy). As mentioned in that post, this is a game I put more hours into over a longer period of time than almost any other game I’ve owned. No fuss, simple presentation, perfect gameplay. The best tennis game on any platform ever!

WWF Superstars 

It’s incredible that autocorrect on my phone changed WWF to WWE! 

In retrospect, this was pretty basic. Five wrestlers (Macho Man, The Hulkster, DiBiase, Warrior and Mr Perfect), all with pretty much the same moves, and you simply had to beat the other four in a row to become champion. But it was so much fun, especially when you picked Savage or Warrior! As with many earlier games, this was one where you filled in the gaps and added your own complexity, creating storylines and feuds in your mind… where Savage always came out on top in the end!

Best of the Best: Championship Karate

I think I got this for my birthday in 1991. It arrived in the post while I was at lectures, needed a signature, and resulted in one of the few times I skipped lectures the following day to plod into Hatfield’s miserable town centre to pick it up.

Despite the title, I’m fairly sure this was a kick-boxing game! You trained at the gym then selected from a list of increasingly difficult fighters until you reached a championship fight. It was realistic, the AI was good enough that spamming buttons didn’t work, and once you’d reached the higher levels it was very fast and very tough! It took a while, but I got to the final tournament and that was probably the last time I played it. 

WWF Superstars 2

This time around you had six sports-entertainers (Hogan, Savage, The Mountie, Sid Justice, Undertaker, and Jake The Snake), but almost as importantly as finally being able to be The Undertaker on the go, there was a steel cage match! There were also (a few) more moves and more modes, including tag and one-on-one matches, so those imaginary feuds could really come to life! Winning the championship after beating down your opponent enough to get up and over the cage remains a classic gaming satisfaction!

Super Kick Off

As alluded to elsewhere on these pages, I once put together a list of my top 50 games. Kick Off came in at No. 2… I also mentioned my mastery of Kick Off just a minute ago… But you can be sure that neither of these facts have anything to do with the Game Boy version of this football gaming masterpiece! 

Believe me, I wanted to love this game so much; I’d being excited about (not for – I’m English) this arriving on the Game Boy more than any game since I’d heard Kung Fu Master was coming out on the Spectrum! Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as that shocker, but it definitely wasn’t the monochrome version of my greatest love on the Atari ST either! 

There was no excitement, little skill required, and everything was too big and up close. I remember playing it lying in bed at university for hours and hours in the hope that it would eventually click, but despite my best efforts to not admit money I didn’t have not being well spent, it never really did. 

Kung-Fu Master

I’ve also written about Kung-Fu Master extensively on these pages, but the Game Boy version was a very different game, written ground-up for the system. The principle is similar, as are the simple punch-kick controls (though you did have a backflip too), but rather than ascending a dojo like in the arcade game, your traversing varied levels, including dodgy cities and a great moving train, taking out goons and bosses with chainsaws and other heavy weaponry. 

Unlike the aforementioned Spectrum disaster of the same name, the controls are responsive and it all ends up being a really fun handheld brawler. 

Gauntlet 2

Gauntlet was one of my great loves on the Spectrum, but this was the first time I’d ever played a sequel. You’ve only got two characters, but otherwise everything has been squeezed into the Game Boy, including speech from the arcade version, which is a remarkable achievement. 

Masses of monsters, the maze-like dungeons, the chests, the keys… it’s all present and correct, and was far more detailed than the Spectrum ever managed with the original! This is one, like Tetris, Elevator Action (see below) and Tennis that I still love to play to this day. 

Elevator Action

I actually bought this one in 2010, having never realised that one of my all time favourite arcade games even existed on the Game Boy! Everything is intact, the graphics are detailed and full of character, and the duck and shoot gameplay feels just like it did when I first saw my next-door neighbour drop a 10p into it at a local sports centre many years earlier! Classic game and fantastic conversion – who’d have dreamt you’d be carrying this in your pocket when you were gulping Dr Pepper after the roller disco in 1983!

And that concludes my original Game Boy cartridge collection, which will now be consigned too protruding ridiculously from my SP as and when the mood takes me. Until next time…

My Life With… WWF Attitude – PlayStation 

My Life With… WWF Attitude – PlayStation 

When I get to a post about Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, remind me to mention the year this game came out, 1999. But you might be able to work out the link already! And it turned out not to be a lifetime away…

My future wife and I were living in a brand new, two bedroom flat in East London – I dread to think what it’s worth now, but never regret something that made you smile! Since moving out of my parent’s house, the PlayStation now had its own room, which was shared with the insane horror video collection I’d amassed by then; DVD was still over a year away for me, as was the crazy expensive desktop PC that would introduce me to the format (in partnership with The Blair Witch Project). In the meantime, there it sat, connected to the red portable TV that once hosted my VIC-20, amongst nearly a thousand neatly stacked VHS titles such as Death Curse of Tartu and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell. As an aside, that collection is now more than three thousand, with storage very much benefiting from the advancement and miniaturisation of viewing technology, and a much bigger house!

VHS was still playing a big part in my appreciation of wrestling too. The Sky box was still many years from being something that recorded stuff as well, and setting something to record every week on the 9-year old video recorder that I’d got for my 18th birthday was still a major pain in the arse – no series link on there! But it was worth the effort. This was the heyday of Stone Cold and The Rock, Triple H, Mankind and, of course, my all time favourite The Undertaker. You also had the emergence of innovative tag teams like The Hardy Boys, The Brood and The Dudleys. And it was WWF at its sleaziest, with The Kat going no holds barred, getting her knockers out after winning one of the best evening gown swimming pool matches ever.  But 1999 is probably always going to be remembered for Owen Hart falling 70 feet onto the turnbuckle and dying in the ring at Over the Edge. Tragedy. 

I probably played the previous year’s WWF War Zone more than Attitude – Becky was far more tolerant of both the PlayStation and wrestling before we moved in together – but Attitude took what was probably the most atmospheric and complete wrestling game at that point to another level. 

All the characters were there, including the recently deceased Owen Hart and some subtle tributes, with multiple outfits and realistic entrances, complete with wrestler voicing, that in reality you probably only ever watched once at most! Spend enough time with your favourite (The Undertaker, obviously) and the vast array of grapples, moves and reversals became second nature as you worked your way through the various modes; career mode was great in Attitude as you worked climbed the ranks and the WWE show calendar. Despite there only being four wrestlers in the ring at once, you even had the full 30-man Royal Rumble, where the risk-reward thrill of going for a throw over the top ropes was the highlight of the game for me. 

There was so much content in this game! You could create a pay per view, where you could go into incredible detail right down to choosing the lighting, logos on the ring apron  and even the turnbuckle colours. Create a wrestler used an RPG style attribute system where you could assign a certain number of points to speed, power, mat skills, etc. You could choose from names that would translate into the game commentary and crowd chants; the crowd noises were a huge enhancement over War Zone and more than made up for the lack of atmosphere generated by the rather mundane commentary. You even could put dirty words on the character’s clothes. And this all resulted in some great looking freaks that could pull off the most bizarre entrances and exotic finishers!

As you can tell, I could go on about this all day, and whilst in gameplay terms it may have been quickly superseded by Smackdown and Smackdown 2: Know Your Role, this one took a groundbreaking template, blew it out of the water, and could keep you going for months and months. And for me it did! 
 

My Life With… Shockway Rider – ZX Spectrum 

My Life With… Shockway Rider – ZX Spectrum 

1987 was the golden age of graphics on the Spectrum. And the 6-PAK Volume 2 compilation included some prime examples, featuring nazi-Gauntlet variant Into the Eagle’s Nest, a great shooter called Light Force, an average flight sim called ACE, the classic International Karate, better-than-Arkanoid Batty, and the stunning Shockway Rider. 

I got 6-PAK Volume 2 for Christmas that year. Also memorable for seeing my beloved Ghostbusters for the first time when it premiered on ITV on Boxing Day! And my Grandma buying me Abigail by King Diamond. I’ve no idea how she knew I wanted it, and much less what the shop assistant must have thought when a 62-year old Irish lady turned up at the counter to buy it… or more likely ask for it! But it was something that I immediately fell in love with, and I reckon I’ve listened to at least once per month for the last thirty years, the last time being on my flight to California just a couple of weeks ago.

I’d discovered King Diamond in a friend’s copy of Kerrang – a pull out poster of him in full make-up holding a burning upside down cross; that got unfolded in religious education right in the face of the most Catholic of our Catholic school teachers! He got kicked out of the class, the poster got confiscated, and my world moved forward… I can distinctly remember my first listen of Abigail, as soon as we got home from my Grandma’s house on Christmas Day evening. Standing at the record player in a pair of big seventies can headphones (because the lead wouldn’t reach a chair), marvelling at the spine-chilling tale unfolding through every track. It’s a masterpiece, and there’s no finer (or gloriously terrifying) opener to any album ever! I know most of you will never have heard of this, which I pity you for, but just give the opening 40 seconds a go! 

But back to Shockway Rider… The name came from a 70’s sci-fi novel, but to me the premise was more than a bit Judge Dredd – the inlay even talked about cruising the triple-speed walkways that circled the “Megacitys of the 21st Century.” (I quote to avoid any responsibility for bad punctuation). Anyway, you’re part of the Shockway Riders, an athletic, aggressive and arrogant street gang, on the cruise to do a full circle of the moving walkway that did indeed move at three speeds, and contained ramps, speed traps, cops, vigilantes and other gangs trying to thwart your “ultimate ambition” to go all the way around… Yes, the story wasn’t its strong point! 

What was its strong point was how bold and vibrant it looked, with big, detailed, varied sprites on a bright yellow background. Once you’d jumped off the pavement onto the walkway, the challenge soon mounted as you swapped lanes to collect stuff to chuck at your oncoming enemies, avoiding the obstacles and other pedestrians, who had a habit of morphing into enemies without warning! Actually, swapping lanes was probably the biggest challenge – jump timing wasn’t exactly forgiving. That was slightly compensated by the death animation though – once you’d inexplicably exploded, all that was left was your head on the conveyor belt you died on. 

There wasn’t a massive amount of progression – I think the backgrounds changed and the obstacles changed as you went from block to block – but it stayed true to its simple concept and that continues to be its strength. 

To finish on what I didn’t realise would be a related topic before I started writing this, as well as a list of top several hundred games, I have a list of top ten albums, where King Diamond’s Abigail will forever reside…

1. The Damned – Phantasmagoria

2. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen

3. The Doors – In Concert

4. King Diamond – Abigail

5. Sugar – Copper Blue

6. Satyricon – Age of Nero

7. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

8. Slayer – Reign in Blood

9. The Mission – Children

10. Klimt 1918 – Just in Case We’ll Never Meet Again

My Life With… Horace Goes Skiing – ZX Spectrum 

My Life With… Horace Goes Skiing – ZX Spectrum 

In April 1983, Home Computing Weekly awarded this 100% for graphics. The first time I laid eyes on it, I probably concurred – another of those moments when you realise that your machine is no longer at the cutting edge; actually, I seem to remember quite a few of those moments with my VIC-20!

Horace Goes Skiing was the first game I ever played on a Spectrum. It came out in 1982 but April 1983 was probably about the time I played it, just after my best friend (and future best man) Paul’s eleventh birthday. And just as my favourite band of the day, Spanish Ballet, hit number one and the big time with True. 

There were some really striking things about the Spectrum. It was tiny compared to VIC. You could attach any cassette player to it. And it made the strangest digitised screeching sounds you’d ever heard when you loaded a game! Little did I know that I’d soon know every nuance of those loading sounds as intimately as I’d know the sax solo in True!

After a particularly garish loading screen, perfectly complementing the garish sounds coming out of the speaker, you’ve got to get Horace across the road to the ski shop. This is a particularly brutal, but great looking take on Frogger. You start at the top of the screen with some money in your purse for ski hire. The shop is at the bottom, and in between are some fantastically detailed lorries, cars and motorbikes, moving unpredictably in both directions at a serious pace. Get hit and an ambulance takes you back to the start, for a price. If you’re left without cash for ski hire, you charge around the road to be rewarded for your recklessness! Get across with enough money and it’s time to hit the slopes. 

I’ve played a ton of skiing games in my time, and this controls as well as any I’ve played. Despite reverting to slightly less impressive graphics for this stage – in fact, VIC could have managed these – you really felt like you were on snow. Hitting every gate was tough, especially when they were placed right behind a tree, but most of the fun was to be found on the jumps. These weren’t especially useful, but again felt so right. Apart from the bizarre jumping sound, but that sort of out of place noise was something else I’d eventually learn to love on the Spectrum! Get to the bottom and you were rewarded with doing it all again. Which was just fine! 

I’m not so sure about the 100% graphics score any more. It was up there for a while with games like Alcatraz Harry and that awful Artic football game, but then came Daley Thompson… which is a tale for another time! Horace Goes Skiing was simple, and by no means the best Spectrum game ever, but it was a classic and remains so to this day. 

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

In this post I think we’re going all the way back to the June 1991. It’s my brother Phil’s 17th birthday and he’s just unwrapped an Atari Lynx. I’m back from my first year of university, having spent what seemed like weeks in a sweltering sports hall doing exams in mechanics and other awful engineering things. In a few months I’d be off to France for my second year – a decision that confounds me to this day – but in the meantime a huge summer break beckoned, reunited with my school friends, exploring Southern Comfort, being either on or off (I’ve lost track which at that point in time) with the flame-haired Irish girl my former best friend and I had both fallen for on the same night the previous year, and collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s… Which funded, alongside the aforementioned exotic things, seeing Guns ‘n Roses at Wembley, complete with an expletive-tastic Skid Row and the UK premier of Nine Inch Nails. 

That summer had its moments, one way or another (mostly another, the closer I got to leaving for France), and this was very much reflected in my experience with Phil’s Lynx. On one hand, he’s only got the Gameboy killer! I’d not even had it a year, and here’s this all singing and dancing powerhouse with its huge screen running arcade quality graphics. On the other, it came with California Games!

Several years earlier, I’d spent dozens of hours playing Winter Games on my friend Steven’s Commodore 128 and on our Spectrum +2. Not only was this a successor, but it came with all the glamour of The Beach Boys, CHiPs and the hottie in a bikini on roller skates on the cover!

Speaking of which, despite the Lynx being a powerhouse, there was a bit of compromise. Only four of the six events appeared here, sacrificing frisbee and said skater hottie rolling provocatively down a path next to a road. I don’t think we were missing out on too much, and if I remember right she appeared on the scoreboard screen so you could still get your kicks there!

But what you did get was BMX, half-pipe, footbag and the big one, surfing! Actually, they could have compromised on all the events as long as surfing was there. The waves felt like waves, and the controls responded perfectly to them. It looked the part as well – the blue sky, the realistic spray as the wave closed in, and the blond surfer dude just out there having fun in the warm California sun. 

BMX felt very similar, with flipping off the top of waves replaced by flipping and jumping and spinning your way around a great-looking BMX track. Half-pipe, situated right in front of the Hollywood sign, wasn’t quite as responsive, but you eventually got the hang of it and then it could really feel good – big air and big turns could rack up serious points once you puzzled out how to get a bit of speed up. Footbag was a less extreme affair, but you could still get a lot of satisfaction out of putting together a long and varied combo with some carefully timed nudges to the joypad. 

Very recently I played the Atari 2600 version of this, on the portable I got last Christmas (2016). That is a remarkable achievement, with easily the best graphics on the system, and its own version of Louie Louie! It’s very playable, can handle up to eight players, and the footbag feels great. Definitely worth seeking out to see Atari’s original powerhouse in all its glory!

California Games stayed close to my heart for far longer than the Lynx could ever hope to; in fact, Blue Lightning is the only other game I remember playing on it! But even California Games, as much as I love playing it on various systems to this day, can’t hold a flame to my Gameboy. Also known as Lynx killer!

See you next time, but let’s finish with a reminder of America’s greatest cultural export…

My Life With… Dungeon Master – Atari ST

My Life With… Dungeon Master – Atari ST

In 1987, aged fifteen, I was skirting perilously close to being 100% nerd. All the elements were there – the shy boy that was still considerably shorter and younger looking than a lot of his classmates; a love of thrash and death metal, the unexplained, horror, The Hobbit, Fighting Fantasy books and 2000AD. I’d discovered White Dwarf magazine and was beguiled by the painted figures, something called Warhammer and big tabletop war games, and of course Dungeons & Dragons. 

As an aside, that was probably around the same time I came across my first porno mag in a clump of bushes we used as a 45-and-in (a more pro-active version of hide & seek) hiding place in Bedford’s Jubilee Park. It was a copy of Escort, until then a distant and exotic vision on the top shelf of WHSmith next to stuff like Club International, Mayfair, Playboy, Men Only and the classic Razzle. No real relevance here, but the mystery of how porno mags became a regular sight in bushes, hedgerows and ditches continues to fascinate me!

Back to Dungeons & Dragons, and that was equally mysterious to me. Why were there no pictures of it anywhere? Just rule books, paper with a grid on and dice with loads of sides! My best friend, Thomas, talked about it all the time. His older brother, William, who I’d known for years from my previous incarnation as a scout, became instantly more cool when I found out he was a Dungeon Master! He had a hundred-sided dice too. Wild man! And they had such adventures with goblins and poison and battle axes and stuff. It would be another year, during the long post-GCSE summer holidays that the mystery was solved. Such an anti-climax…

Sometime that winter, Thomas introduced me to something close though. To my extreme jealousy, he’d got an Atari ST and that’s when I first laid eyes my future love, and on Dungeon Master. Suddenly my Spectrum looked like a relic (though not as much as when I first laid eyes on Defender of the Crown soon after)!

This was a whole new world – a disk, a huge manual (including what was virtually a novel on how you had to find the Firestaff to rid the dungeon of Chaos or some such nonsense), and how on earth were you supposed to play with the sliding block that moved an arrow around the screen? What do you mean no joystick??? And those lifelike 3D stone walls…

Once you’d picked your four heroes, it was out with your torch and into the labyrinth ye go. Fighting the scariest, most beautifully animated monsters you’d seen in a game to date with the icons that surrounded the main window was actually straightforward. As was using them to create spells with weird symbols, sort out your gear, solve puzzles, avoid traps and carry the bones of fallen allies to reincarnation altars. Providing your torch didn’t go out first! One of the truly “next-gen” features of this game was the ever diminishing light from your torch, and unless you had a spare or a spell that did the job, this was the cause of far more tension than big groups of mummies shambling about!

Some things weren’t so different to my old last-gen relic though; the corridors might have looked great, but they all looked the same, so making your own map was essential. And the dungeon was so big that it made mapping something like Firelord on the Spectrum seem a breeze!

I was in nerd heaven for every second I spent playing this at Thomas’ house. It was the embodiment of what he’d told me about the mysteries of D&D; it was Deathtrap Dungeon brought to life; it made up for all the missing fantasy credentials that made me feel a bit inadequate when I read White Dwarf – oh, the irony!

My very own ST came about a year later, and my own copy (literally) of Dungeon Master, but there’s a tale for another day. 

See you soon, when I’ll make up for the delay in posting this because I was in California with something very Californian!