When I heard on the grape vine Microsoft were going to compete for top spot against the mighty PlayStation 2, I just shrugged. I had spent time with a PC and although I enjoyed the experiences, there was nothing like switching on your console with your foot, picking up a pad, throwing one at your friend and having a split screen session. Despite all the efforts of PC purists steering me towards a console free existence in the past, they failed because unlike consoles PC’s have to deal with a great deal of shit, anything from the internet, retarded users, to foreign berks with a passion for leaving the equivalent of shit stains in your computer. A PC is forever in conflict with you, itself and other bellends thousands of miles from where you’re sitting.
Invariably they fall down, computers usually, through no fault of their own, decide that it no longer likes playing your favourite game and instead hands you various screens of errors and colours which are as much fun as a kick in the groin.
Thinking of Microsoft stepping up to the plate against Sony was like finding out your granddad was going to enter sports day. No doubt he’d give it a good go, his egg and spoon technique may still be something special but his enthusiasm to keep up with the kids would be short lived as he falls to his knees during the sack race coughing and spitting, whilst the kids ride on his back like a wheezy old donkey.
The Xbox surprisingly turned out to be a great gaming companion. A friend of mine came over to my place shortly after launch, with the his new Xbox to show me a couple of games. Unfortunately for him I lived in a third story apartment and from his description over the phone, we would have to construct some sort of winch from the ground floor as the machine sounded gargantuan.
I told him to stop being such a wimp and when he arrived I buzzed him into the building. The heavy breathing and stomping of feet should have been my signal to go meet him half way and help him out but I think my curious nature got the better of me and would rather watch on, as he rounded the corner of the stairs to my front door, all red in the face.
What a cruel joke Microsoft had played, it was almost as though they purposefully designed the Xbox to be this large, so that once installed, it became a permanent fixture in the home. If you thought the 16bit machines like the Megadrive were pretty robust, the Xbox could have been used to keep bailiffs out of your home by simply placing it behind your front door, tying a rope to it and abseiling from a window.
It happened to be bit of a ‘frankenbox’ constructed by some bored engineers at Microsoft from some old Dell machines *shudder*. Nevertheless, these tech’s knew what they were doing and shortly after the release of the Playstation 2, Microsoft hit Europe hard. The Japanese didn’t take to Bill Gates gaming box as well as us, but it certainly did enough for everyone to take notice.
I’ve never really been loyal to any brand that had launched consoles, but over the years Sega had served me well in the past. Games selection is generally what draws me to a console and the Playstation had held my interest since launch, games were slightly more focused and less gimmicky and the sound was also impressive when wired through my Hi-Fi.
On paper the Xbox was packing heat, clocked at 733MHz from its proven Intel chip and with more RAM than the PS2, word on the street was that the FPS was overall better. The name was derived from the developers use of the Direct X graphics system being ran on an impressive Nvidia card. It was going to come down to the games selection in the end and if I could afford it or not.
What really did grab my interest was seeing Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2 running on the Xbox, I knew the game very well being that it was one of my favourite titles on the PS2. The game just ran better. Before the enthusiastic team at EA ruined the series by installing every high performance vehicle with nitrous, NFS was a very original, realistic-enuff racer with great tracks and innovation. I wasn’t all that fussed by the Underground series starting the boost craze because that is exactly what that scene is about, but I find that NOS element has hung around the more recent instalments like a fart under a blanket.
The original Xbox controller felt like you were holding a massive black Cornish pasty and probably made about as much sense to a Japanese person as a Cornish pasty, because of its size in proportion to their hands.
The staggered analogue sticks didn’t make much sense at first either. The slimmer more hand held shaped PlayStation controller did feel easier to use but one feature for me stood above the rest of all controllers thus far, the triggers. The Microsoft triggers just felt right, whether you were using them to accelerate into a crowd, or empty a magazine into a boss, the triggers gave you more precision and any gamer worth their salt would know that this counts for a lot.
Not so long after buying the box, Microsoft revised the UFO shaped peripheral for a smaller, more human proportioned version with a slight alteration in button layout. These weren’t cheap and so more often than not you’d visit a friend and be handed the big pasty because buying two new slimmer controllers was difficult. The black and white buttons were useful but I don’t think I ever quite got used to the layout of them, nevertheless this was another step in the right direction of the future of gaming precision.
Halo Combat Evolved really lead the way for Microsoft and it’s Xbox, it was certainly built for the machine and no doubt the controller design was in mind when in development. My first hands on experience of Halo was when I had eventually saved enough to allow me to buy an Xbox outright and therefore keep the PS2, as the on-going battle for ‘exclusive’ games did have a hold on me.
You play the game as a kind of cybernetically enhanced ‘Space Rambo’ who has to fight members of the Covenant, a bunch of alien creatures allied by belief in a common religion. When the humans try to run from a mad bombardment of aliens, they run into what looks like a huge doughnut in space, being American they couldn’t pass the opportunity to see if it was indeed the largest doughnut ever discovered and so they landed on the thing, also using it to try and escape their pursuers. It doesn’t work and so you have to almost single handily kill them all and escape the doughnut.
If one things for sure, pistol whipping, executing and blowing up an alien race has become a very popular genre of game, Halo sold over five million copies worldwide and has had almost as many sequels as American Pie. Over time my enthusiasm has waned for the Halo series, I really enjoyed the original, the multitude of weaponry both human and alien, the varied vehicles and the enemy AI traits made for a very satisfying shooter. The smoothness of the controls, aided by the presence of a more forgiving gravity to our own, meant that some real precision could be achieved when in combat. The look and feel of the game inspired most FPS from there on. Personally though I can’t stand shooting aliens that bleed green goo. Laser weapons and plasma pistols are just not my cup of tea, I prefer hardened shooters, I come from the era of DOOM, Duke Nukem, Quake and Soldier of Fortune, so I like my shooters with some metal.
Like a combination of Rambo, Matrix and Die Hard, Black was one of the most critically acclaimed shooters on the PS2 and Xbox. As a tactical espionage operative, you are fed information via the company network and sent to carry out top secret missions to ensure global security. This usually meant going to any given location, setting your weapon to fully auto and then decimating everything and everyone that stands in your way. The game play and world physics were phenomenal, gamers have since begged for a second installment but without much joy.
Back in the 90’s my best friend and I used to go behind the scenes of the Duke Nukem 3D files and replace the audio files of the weapons with our own recorded sounds. You don’t realise how important sound is in a game until you hear a 9mm pistol go “Blam” in your own dull monotone voice, or a machine gun go ‘DAH DA DAHDADAHDA!’. As hilarious as that was, it was such a relief to be able to revert back to the originals and makes you appreciate how much work is involved in getting it right.
Black sounded brilliant through a decent set of speakers, Criterions team wanted the game to sound reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the score of music and the weapons were all tailored to blend with each other when the shit went down. Sound engineers based weapon sounds from action movies like Die Hard and True lies to give each weapon its own ‘voice’ the effect was best experienced when in a gun battle between multiple enemies, the weapons literally harmonised with each other, creating a satisfying composition. Black received the ‘Best sound’ award at the 2006 BAFTA’s video games awards and so there was always a call for a sequel. Due to differences between Criterion and EA, it never happened. If you’re interested, the spiritual successor of Black was called Body Count and can be found on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it was never quite what the publishers/designers had hoped and sadly it meant that the Guildford branch of Codemasters shut down.
That’s it for this part, this was introduction of the original Xbox and I’ll go over some of the highlights for me in the next part. Also I’ll talk about how I became a criminal mastermind whilst stoned and how my friend unlocked a haven for nostalgia with a Splinter Cell save game file.
CLICK HERE FOR PART 16!
It has to be said that the late 90s was pretty epic all round for a guy at my age. I was soon to be leaving school, I was also soon to become a legal adult…which meant nothing really apart from the fact that everything I had been doing illegally was soon to be legal and therefore ok in the eyes of the law. We hadn’t had much more controversy over video games since the 16bit era, people had come to realise that video games were now emulating real and fantasy world violence but it was to be Grand Theft Auto that stood apart from the rest of the crowd with a big blood stained knife in one hand and a sign in the other that said “Look at me!!”. Looking back at the first installment of GTA makes you really question what all the fuss was about (No offense guys!). It really goes to show how little the media scum and civilian do-gooders have going on in their lives, when a small, pixelated world of top down criminal activity can become a focal point of a society.
Ultimately what you take from a game like GTA is the most important part. Was it that you took someone’s life during a robbery and then were abruptly run over by over zealous local authority? Or do you now think that yes, selling cocaine on the streets, although lucrative, is in fact living your life on a knife edge between becoming Scarface or a shit stabber behind bars.
The minority who complained about the game were often the ones who have never played it and it was the fine upstanding role model, Max Clifford who got the controversy ball rolling. Your background and circumstances obviously play a big part in your early development, not some crooked graphical representation of a city from the view of a pigeon. Before shoddy looking violent video games, the previous generation had been subjected to beautifully composed and well animated cartoons. Young people witnessed a man with a passion for spinach, solve all of his day to day tribulations with simple brutality. Punching and kicking anything that stood in his way, often all for the love of a gawky looking woman. I don’t remember the public outcry to ban Popeye, core values and morals in life are something you may or may not follow depending on your wiring and upbringing. If you are influenced enough by video games to commit heinous acts, the games aren’t the problem. Boredom is a scary thing, never let humans, adults or children, become bored, it leads to awful things…I believe computer games combat this.
I remember entering Curry’s in 1998, which for those of you who do not reside in the UK, it is in fact an electrical store, not a food outlet. GTA had just hit the shelves and I went in to shoplift…I mean purchase the game. I had read the reviews, scanned the screenshots and so, I was looking forward to playing the game as it sounded like a riot. For whatever reason though this game received an 18 rating and because of this, the young man behind the counter couldn’t serve me. Saddened by my inability to crack on and sell virtual crack, I politely asked my Dad if he would go in and buy it for me. My Dad had spent many an hour sat with me, hand drawing the maps of DOOM for me as we ran around level after level mercilessly gunning down anything sprite that moved…he knows it’s just a game and he doesn’t give a flying fuck what you do in a game as long as you’re not stupid enough to carry out ‘missions’ in real life. You join to army to kill legally, and carry out missions all in the name of drugs and or resources. I’m far too lazy for that kind of thing and that’s why I play video games.
If Wipeout and Gran Turismo raised the bar for technical and content excellence in a racing game. GTA took RPG/Action/shooter/driver, to a whole new level. Real stereo audio tracks boomed over sounds of a bustling city, as you joy ride to victory doing favours for local drug dealers and pimps. Originally penciled to be a simple cops vs robbers chase game, the small team of programmers and enthusiasts pooled ideas from their favourite films and TV shows to come up with a totally original idea. The big cheeses funding the operation didn’t want it, at times the programmers couldn’t meet the concepts, It was almost canned at every corner but for some reason, it was destined to be brought to life and beamed into our brains to turn us into violent drug pushing thugs.
The PS1 was now on fire (not literally due to becoming violent) with so much great content, Sony were an unstoppable force at this point. GTA along with other great titles secured PS1’s place as top dog.
After well over fifty hours playtime I can’t say I was any closer to stealing my neighbours car and going on a knife rampage, I had a teenage temperament already, which meant I was naturally either hot, cold or horny or all of the above. Drugs had come long before GTA ever did to. I remember it like yesterday (going against any so called ‘reports’ of cannabis leading to memory loss) my friend and I stood under his porch in the back garden, listening to the heavy rain on the plastic corrugated roof, hunched over trying to ignore the cold. He produced from his coat pocket what I saw him roll earlier and said “Try it, it’s like cigarettes only different’.
Different indeed, I don’t think we stopped laughing for three hours, laughed at the rain, laughed at each other and laughed some more. We went back upstairs and stuck on the Playstation and a beautiful friendship came to being. I didn’t realise at the time that this was illegal, I guess people can only have fun as long as there is a limit to it, enforced by government.
I was no stranger to physical violence either with over seven years of traditional Karate behind me, long before GTA being released. Karate is an age old Japanese method of practicing how to effectively use ones foot to make an opponent’s eyes pop out of their ears. You enter a room full of strangers and quite often you’ll find yourself punching and kicking each other, occasionally being whipped by a teachers belt if and when you made mistakes. Had I used these techniques in anger? Not really, but I had been able to defend myself once or twice, usually resulting with me trying to put someone’s foot up their own ass.
I’ve seen monks from Asia smash pots on their heads and take kicks to the groin from a man twice their size…those bald fella’s haven’t even got a TV so whatever influences them to practice the arts of inflicting pain is anyone’s guess. I’d say boredom.
Smoking plants and playing video games was now what happened between school and eating. It could not have come at a better time as titles that have earned their place in the video game hall of fame, were released within two years of each other. Who can forget the four player split screen romp that was 007 Golden Eye on the N64, running around as Nick Nac while your friend fruitlessly attempts to karate chop you to death with Jaws had me in tears of laughter, not to mention the hilarious animation. Resident Evil 2 stoned was another level of frightening too, with curtains drawn, walking around as a cop who can only move like a cheap educational robot, HI-FI turned up to 11 and the lights off, it certainly tested your nerves.
For me this was a highlight in my gaming history so far. The days when I’d sit with a mate in my school uniform for hours until it was time for me to go, I could take the game home if they let me borrow it and the disc contained the full game.
I still had my Megadrive, I don’t recall when I sold the old girl but I do remember on the odd occasion, slamming in a cartridge for one final blast on California Games, Streets of Rage or James Pond. The sounds, the gameplay and the pad brought on feelings on nostalgia even at such a young age. When I play these games now on emulators, it’s never the same, similar to the thoughts of child hood, it reminds me of how easy going things were back then when compared to the ever maddening, shameless, money grabbing, product placing, non supportive, underhanded, identity stealing, slutty industry it is today.
There are just too many games to mention here, the step into the 3D polygon world of Sony’s powerhouse was only the beginning, but for a lot of us, we were playing reinvented titles of the originals. The Strike games continued with Soviet and Nuclear Strike. We had Micromachines V3 which surprised many as it was just as additive and frustrating as the original. Mortal Kombat was given more content and fighters with the Trilogy, with strong competition in the genre from 3D titles like Tekken and Soul Blade, there were no complaints. The PlayStation, was the first video game console to ship 100 million units, 9 years and 6 months after its initial launch. Gaming was becoming seen as a worthwhile past time and not just the hobby of spotty kids with high scores and corduroy trousers.
In the year 2000, we were going to see what would become the bestselling home console of all time, the aptly named, Playstation 2. It was also the year I left home, had my first house mate and so, the battles continued.