Picture the scene…
you’re an imperial born man, gone rouge, after escaping death because a fire breathing dragon interrupted your public execution for crimes you did not commit. After fleeing with a bloke who shows you the way out, you’re free to explore a huge landscape full of myth and magic, barbarians and thieves, trying to understand the motives of the people and fight for your survival.
You’ve just spent the last 53 minutes dispatching ancient Nord un-dead in a huge burial tomb, armed with a battle axe in one hand and a banded iron shield in the other…your companion, Jenessa…a dark Elf woman with a sexy British accent, who lives out her life as a mercenary for anyone with enough coin. You find her drinking in a pub on her own in a pleasant town, she doesn’t speak much but her huge great sword does the talking, carving the un-dead into pieces as they break free from their restless death to attack you. You emerge from the caves exhausted and over cumbered with riches you stole from the dead, who you just killed, again. As you make your way to the nearest village with thoughts of a belly full of mead and a good night sleep, you spot a lonely chicken on the outskirts of the settlement. With the newly learned spell you found inside the caves, you are too eager to wait for a more opportune moment and test it out on the poultry target.
The chicken bursts into flames as Jenessa watches on with the same blank expression she carries whilst driving forged steel into the foreheads of unlucky foe’s. At this moment you realise your mistake, you’ve just spent an hour in that dark tomb without auto save on and there’s no option to turn back time. The guards of the village of which you’ve destroyed a chicken, come for you but they aren’t here for a bribe this time…instead they attack you with no mercy for the crimes you’ve committed, in the confusion you have no choice but to reply with your axe and new found magic.
Jenessa, ever the quick thinker, attacks with you, with no regard for the lives of many in the village…she uses her god given magic to resurrect the chicken. In the flurry of blades and fire you catch a glimpse of what has become of your actions, as the chicken jumps furiously at the innocent people of this once quiet place, pecking at them like a crazed woodpecker. The orchestral battle music finally fades out and you’re left to look on at the smouldering remains of villagers and guards with only blood on your hands as your mercenary and new feathered recruit look at you for the next orders.
If you’re unsure what this is about, I’m talking about the latest RPG from Bethesda studios, Elder scrolls, Skyrim.
I learnt a valuable lesson that day, auto save is priceless with the kind of memory I have and that in modern games, you have to be mindful of your actions.
So far I’ve spent a solid 90+ hours in Skyrim and if you think the above sounds like a crazy tale, you should watch me attacking a bandit camp, dressed in a blacksmith apron, with only a wood cutters axe, magically enchanted to electrocute people as it strikes.
Often games in the old school category are usually based around the most simple of story lines, to save tricky programming with limited technology.
Take one of my all time favourite games on any platform, Streets of Rage.
Streets of Rage, or ‘Bare knuckle’ as it was known outside of the UK, was a scrolling beat’em up that I probably spent too much time playing. The story involved a gang of hero’s who sought to stop the evil Mr.x controlling the city and letting it spiral into chaos. Conveniently this meant civilians didn’t venture out onto the streets at night, leaving only thugs and lunatics to roam freely, a programmers dream.
The second instalment of this series was my favourite, combining a great original old school dance soundtrack with smooth graphics and slick game play. You choose anyone of the four playable characters and then begin your journey through 8 stages of smacking punks, surviving on apples and whole chickens.
The main dude and ‘leader’ of the gang was Axel, not to be confused with the automotive component or the loud fella from Guns and Roses. He wore a pair of light blue denim jeans, some cool trainers and a vest, topped off with a typically 80’s headband. He was quick, nimble and his wide variety of moves made him a favourite. Axel could be found in all 3 versions of Streets of Rage, he led the gang through the story, offering a backhand to anyone who crossed him.
Skate was a very different character to your usual band of muscle men and women, as he was a child. Obviously brought up tough enough, he fights alongside the other three characters in search for his dad Adam from the first game, who was kidnapped by Mr.x. His name, I’m guessing, comes from the fact he wears roller skates all of the time which in a fighting situation seems like a pretty daft idea but it does allow him to pull off some moves involving a flying kick utilising the underside of the skates and a special move which was a break dancing move flailing his legs at the enemy. Not one of my favourite characters to play with as when faced with a boss who was usually several times the size of the kid, it was near on impossible to avoid being murdered.
Blaze was the female of the bunch, armed with stiletto heels and martial arts, enemies were met with speed and technique reminiscent of Street Fighters, Chun Li. Teamed up with one of the stronger males in the gang you and a friend could plough through enemies like a tractor through a crowd at a Justin Beiber concert.
Perhaps not as well remembered as Haggard from Final Fight, Max acted less like a street fighter and more like a bull in hall of mirrors. If you ever got into a spot of bother as one of the other three characters Max could wade in, pick up the nearest punk and throw his sorry looking Mohawk through the pavement. Whilst it was always satisfying to complete the game with Axel or another less powerful character, it was a great stress reliever to enter the streets as Max and throw criminals around for an hour finally meeting Mr.x and putting that gun up his fucking arse.
A lot of time and effort went into this series, if you compared it to other side scrolling beat’em ups of the time, they usually fell short in terms of level design, music and character content. One example of this was that some characters, due to their size, could not swing or throw certain objects as they were too big, or the clever fight system in which you could use each other to ‘double team’ opponents.
The control system was superb, combining techniques from the popular 2D fighters from the likes of Street Fighter and Fatal Fury, extra grappling moves were included to make the street fighting more realistic and varied.
I think I hold the game in high regard still as it contains many of the aspects of game play and visuals that made this era of gaming what it was.
It was all about simple straight forward action at this time, it didn’t matter that it was wildly inaccurate and always with a slightly biased view of the states. So it was always nice when something completely new and completely original was found in the shops.
At around the same time as the SOR games were released, EA, or Electronic Arts, published a game that would shift gaming into a higher gear and set new levels of innovation once again with the Strike series.
Desert Strike: Return to The Gulf, was essentially chop lifter in 3D. A quote from Wikipedia…
The lead designer, Mike Posehn, had no video game experience prior to developing Desert Strike. Inspired by Choplifter, he aimed to create a nonlinear game with smoothly animated vehicles. Posehn, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, developed a camera system with momentum to mimic realistic helicopter movements. Three-dimensional (3D) modeling was used to generate the vehicle sprites, which were later touched up on the pixel level with color.
This was a near perfect game in my opinion and still, with its innovative game play and physics, it can still be enjoyable today.
Set in the Gulf not so long after America had what it needed, you’re sent into one of the world’s most dangerous environments, in a single helicopter, to irradiate some lunatic with a huge moustache and a beret, much like the late Saddam Hussein. You were fed information and locations through a tactical menu and you went about your day saving prisoners of war, blowing up all of the bad guys whilst picking up fuel and ammunition as you did so.
Critics obviously had a field day with this title, claiming it was a little insensitive so soon after our governments had sent our young men and women out there with shoddy weapons and a slim chance of survival.
Looking back I don’t see how it was so offensive, you got to fly a single helicopter with a control pad around in a virtual desert land for thirty quid, completing tasks and usually surviving the ordeal. I thought they’d have more of an issue with several billions of dollars wasted, lots of dead brown people and a cushy re-armament plan for one mad Arab but then again we wouldn’t have the idea for the game without that.
In fact, every single game ever created on a computer is a just a poor graphical representation of something that has ACTUALLY already happened, whether it was yesterday, last month or several centuries ago. With the only exceptions being the very weird and surreal games like TOKI on the Mega Drive, where you roam around a fantasy land as an ape with a huge head, spitting at enemies and attacking a submarine with a chimps face on it.
Games magazines (Because this was before the internet, kids) gave Desert strike 90% and above in reviews. It was just so playable, innovative and fun. The visuals in the game were inspired by Mike Posehn’s love for matchbox vehicles as a kid, so he wanted to make the game seem like it was just a bunch of war toys going at it, instead of the serious simulator type game you’d find on the PC’s or home computers.
Due to its success the Strike franchise lived and produced not one but four more games, each with its own unique theme. The exceptionally well crafted physics model and camera movements were evolved each time and the non-linear mission elements that made the game so great, were kept.
When Soviet Strike came out on the Playstation in the first generation of CD consoles, we were not only witness to a new and improved polygon engine but slick video cut scenes with real actors and sets, in high quality sound.
The final installment was released for eager Strike fans in 1997 as ‘Nuclear Strike’ and although it wasn’t as popular as the older titles it was still very much a well presented game. Once you had dealt with the last mission, the credits rolled before a short cut scene involving a computer animated Mech robot was seen, as a taste of what was to come. Sadly for whatever reason, this was never the Strike game it could have been and instead was released as Future cop: LAPD, which was about as much fun as throwing stones down a drain.
I leave you with this, for anyone who never experienced Strike games.