The Ryan Lambie column: nostalgia’s not what it used to be

Ryan's done with reminiscing - now's a great time to be into computer games, and let's not forget it!

Hunchback

Today, I came across a worrying post on a videogame message board that stated ‘games aren’t as good as they used to be – we need to get back to the simple purity of games in the 80s.’

While I’m also guilty of getting all misty-eyed over the games of my youth, I think some people may have taken their nostalgia a little too far – and after the particularly unpleasant retro gaming encounter I suffered this week, I’d have to disagree with the statement posted on that message board.

For reasons I won’t go into here, I had to play ten ZX Spectrum games, all originally released between 1982 and 1984, and write a brief summary of each one. I used to love my trusty Speccy as a kid, so I was left rather disturbed when I saw just how cruel time had been to some of these now-prehistoric games.

Putting aside the decidedly rudimentary graphics and sound (these games were over 20 years old, after all – and the Spectrum wasn’t a cutting edge machine even when released), the most horrifying aspect of these games was the quality of their programming. Modern reviewers may feel rightfully aggrieved when a developer puts out a game as genuinely shoddy as Turning Point: Fall of Liberty (from what I’ve seen, a first person shooter of staggering ineptitude) – but bad games in the eighties were in another league entirely.

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Take decrepit platformer Hunchback, for example – a game made so frustrating by its poorly coded nature that it made me want to tear my own head off. Hunchback’s second level presented a wide chasm that could only be crossed by grabbing a constantly swinging rope – a common enough sight in a platform game, I’m sure you’ll agree.

‘Fine,’ I thought. ‘I’ll just jump at the right time, my little Quasimodo character will grab hold of the rope, then I’ll press jump again at the appropriate moment and he’ll let go and land safely on the other side. Simple.’

But thanks to some particularly hateful programming, it wasn’t as simple as that. Not only did you have to hit the rope at precisely the right place (which, thanks to the collision detection, appeared to consist of one measly pixel), you had to land on the rope when it swung to precisely the right angle too – anything less resulted in instant death. It was so horribly, teeth-grindingly difficult that the rope may as well have been invisible, and to make matters worse, the game jeered at me with a few blisteringly high-pitched bars from The Teddybear’s Picnic every time I lost a life.

The task was a cruel, Kafkaesque one back in 1984 (when you’d have paid £7.95 for the privilege), but in 2008, where games are (theoretically) more thoroughly play-tested, it’s more akin to violent torture.

It’s easy to look back over the games of the past with rose-tinted glasses, but the fact is at least 90 per cent of them were utter rubbish. For every classic Spectrum game such as Renegade or Jetset Willy or whatever, there were at least ten Hunchback equivalents. And that goes for every gaming platform or computer from then until the present day, not just the Spectrum. Just look at dreadful, dreadful games like Shaq-Fu or Rise of the Robots, with their sloppy programming and design, or duff sequel The Getaway: Black Monday with its almost non-existent enemy AI.

Hunchback and others like it are proof that there never was a ‘golden age’ of gaming. There were some genuine classic games released in the eighties, but there were many, many rubbish ones too – and the same is true of every decade since.

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And while Internet forums are full of disgruntled, sometimes contradictory comments like ‘modern games are too complicated,’ or ‘modern games are too dumbed down,’ the fact is that there probably hasn’t been a better time to be into videogames.

We can’t go back to an era when games were cheery monochromatic things programmed in bedrooms any more than we can go back to silent movies, but thanks to the advent of XBLA, Virtual Console or even eBay, we can still indulge our passion for all things retro while gaming technology continues to bring all manner of fresh wonderfulness – the previews for Aliens: Colonial Marines and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, for example, have got me in a decidedly boyish anticipatory lather.

And best of all, we don’t have to put up with games like Hunchback any more.

Ryan will be back with another column next week; read his last one here.