One, twice, Super Mario Bros. 3 times a game.

Super Mario Bros. 3 NES boxart
Super Mario Bros. 3 NES boxart

Title: Super Mario Bros. 3
Format: Nintendo Entertainment System
Release date: 1991
Obtained: 1992
Place of purchase: Gift
Price: N/A
Completed?:Yes

To really understand the impact SMB3 had on me, you have to bear in mind that I was never really into music, and that games have been the dominant cultural anchor in my life. To me, playing SMB3 for the first time was akin to the experiences people had when they originally heard the Beatles, or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. I remember vividly playing it originally at a friend’s house in their bedroom; at the time I only owned a C64 and was used to relatively small games that took 30 minutes to load in from a cassette tape. In contrast, here was a game that seemed absolutely massive in scope and loaded in an instant. I wanted it so much…

That was probably in the spring of 1992 – I can’t really remember the exact time. I then saved up my pocket money for the next few months and bought myself an NES. It came complete with a copy of the original Super Mario Bros. which, though it was a great game, when you’ve played SMB3 it can’t help but seem a little… basic. SMB was actually the first Mario game I’d played, but that had been on an arcade machine in Blackpool Tower and it was only for a few minutes. The third game in the series (though, as every true gamer knows, it was really the first proper sequel to the original, since we can discount the-not-really-a-Mario-game SMB2 and the unreleased-in-the-west-and-more-of-an-expansion-pack Lost Levels) was the first one I played to death.

Mario 3 had everything: fantastic graphics; incredible gameplay; a huge, varied world. From taking to the skies for the first time as Raccoon Mario, to discovering how much easier it was swimming in the frog suit, to seeing giant goombas stomping around world four, SMB3 just made you feel like you were in the midst of an imaginative whirlwind, and you were enjoying every second of it. Compared to the other games I’d played at the time, this seemed like something from another world; a giant leap forwards in terms of professionalism and invention.

I recall getting in trouble for borrowing the game from a friend just before we were about to go on holiday, I think to Great Yarmouth or possibly Exmouth. My dad had this big hang-up about people breaking into the house and stealing things, and he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of somebody else’s property being left in our house whilst we went away. After we came back from our holidays, though, my mum and dad bought me a copy of my own (on the same day we got our first microwave as well, I believe – a rather exciting day in the Hall household!). I must’ve played it pretty non-stop for some while afterwards, and eventually completed the whole thing – in one sitting, since there was no save mode – one day in the August holidays when I’d taken my NES to my Grandma’s. I used to stay with my Grandma and Grandad on my mum’s side during the school holidays, and decided this time to take the Nintendo with me. My Grandad had never really gotten used to the fact that televisions no longer had valves in them, so there was a constant concern – shared by my Grandmother – that the TV would overheat if left on for more than a few hours at a time, and she was very worried as I was making it through worlds seven and eight. Thankfully I managed to complete it before the TV combusted.

Perhaps because of the impact it had on me and the memories connected with it, in my mind SMB3 remains the pinnacle of 2D platform gaming. The SNES’s Super Mario World may have had better graphics and a cute green dinosaur, but to me SMB3 was more fun. Nowadays it’s rightfully revered as a classic, though to youthful eyes today it must seem fun yet limited. Back in the very early ’90s, however, it was jaw-dropping, and despite its vision being dulled by the advancement of gaming, its play mechanics are as fluid and enthralling as they ever were.

Nightmare (without the ‘K’)

Title: Nightmare
Format: C64
Release date: 1991 (?)
Obtained: Unsure, probably around 1992-3
Place of purchase: The Guild Adventure Software (public domain)
Price: Approx. £1
Completed?: Yes

A text adventure by a chap called William Quinn, Nightmare was one of the first things I remembered buying (using pocket money via by mum’s chequebook) from mail-order firm The Guild. This was a company run by Anthony Collins that specialised in text adventures; I recall that you used to get their ‘catalogues’ on photocopied sheets of A4, and that the proprietor would hand-sign the compliments slip that came with every purchase. I’m not sure how I actually came across The Guild in the first place, though it probably must have been via Zzap! 64 or Commodore Format, as these were pretty much the only place I got games information back in those pre-Internet days.

On the other hand, I do remember how I came across William Quinn: it was a copy of LA Adventure Part I on Zzap! megatape 31. I’ll talk in detail about that game at some other point, but I enjoyed it and it made me want to play more of Mr. Quinn’s titles. Nightmare was the first other one I bought, and I enjoyed it immensely. The story was pretty simple: you wake up one night only to find that, actually, you haven’t woken up and that you’re having a nightmare. This is the sort of realisation that never actually happens during the nocturnal hours, but that didn’t particularly bother me at the time I played it. Your character was tipped off that ‘it was all a dream’ by the fact that your room was tidy; in typical game fashion, this sparks off a quest, specifically to find the bag of rubbish that once filled your room and return it back to its previous state of disshelvement.

Playing through the game again now, it still seems funny, though perhaps in a way that would have appealed more to me as a ‘young adult’ than it does nowadays when I’m an old-fuddy-duddy. This is hardly surprising, though, as I’d hazard a bit of a guess that the author wasn’t that much older than I was when he wrote the game. It suffers all the typical text adventure problems of irritating parsers and too heavy a reliance on trial-and-error to get through the not-always-entirely-logical-puzzles. The game was made using the Graphic Adventure Creator (or GAC for short) and, as such, comes with the rather annoying habbit of taking a long time to respond to commands you’ve entered, particularly if they’re not recognised. Even playing the game on an emulator at 200% speed there’s still a very noticeable wait in-between pressing the enter key and the game getting back to you. Still, you got used to this kind of thing back in the 8-bit days.

At the time Nightmare made me want to make my own text adventures, and though I never got very far with any that I started on, I think its surrealism and style of humour has had a fair impact on things that I’ve written over the years. I’m not sure that I’d actually want to bother playing it all the way through again now unless I was really at a loose end, but in fairness this is probably more to do with the style of game rather than the game itself: the text adventure is a relic of a bygone age and only the very best examples are playable today.

Hardwar – what is it good for?

Hardwar box art
Hardwar box art

Title: Hardwar
Format: PC
Release date: 1998
Obtained: On release
Place of purchase: GAME
Price: Approx. £30
Completed?:Yes

I’d been a huge fan of Elite and Frontier: Elite II, so the prospect of a game that was a little bit like it but not exactly held a certain amount of appeal. Hardwar is one of those titles that isn’t really remembered all that much nowadays, having had a pretty minimal impact on the world. It was set on the Saturnite moon Titan, which appeared to be rather rocky with lots of pink fog and poor draw distance. Your task as Player Character 1 was to work out a way of getting off the moon and off to somewhere else, possibly to be featured in a sequel that never happened.

You flew around in a ship called a moth (incidentally, I hate moths, with the horrid flappy wings and general persistence on being as bloody irritating as possible), and you had a certain amount of freedom in the way that you made money in the game. You could be a pirate (aaarrr etc.) or a legitimate trader, or something in between, as you travelled between the different craters that made up the gameworld, connected by a series of tunnels. There were some cool touches to the game, including the fact that you needed to recharge your ship every so often by hovering over a recharging point, leaving you potentially vulnerable to enemy factions, pirates or the local law enforcement if you happen to have annoyed them in some way.

Sadly, to me the game seemed to be one that never seemed to get particularly interesting. The world, despite the involvement of funky Wipeout designers The Design Republic, was just a bit dull, and everything moved at a pretty slow pace. The storyline didn’t grab, not helped by the fact that most of the cut-scenes had some awful acting and dodgy costumes. Like the player character, I wanted to explore the universe away from Titan, and it seemed a shame that just as we manage to escape the game ended.

Booty-licious

Booty inlay
Booty inlay (this is the ZX Spectrum version, but I couldn't find the C64 one of this style).

Title: Booty
Format: C64
Release date: 1984
Obtained: Unsure, probably circa 1990.
Place of purchase: Gift.
Price: £1.99
Completed?: No.

Every time Charlotte watches the-surprisingly-not-completely-awful Jake and the Neverland Pirates I’m reminded of Booty. The only real connection is the pirate theme, of course, and it’s not even as if Booty was particularly a favourite game. In fact, I think I only played it a handful of times because I found it so soul-crushingly difficult to even get past the first screen.

The game was a pretty typical 8-bit single-screen platformer, with you cast as the character of Jim the cabin-boy (or somebody the cabin-boy, anyway) wandering around a pirate ship collecting coloured keys and treasure. Thinking about it, the ship must have had an utterly bizarre team of architects, since they came up with what is surely the most impractical layout for the interior of a sea-faring vessel. Doors that can only be unlocked with keys of a particular colour? Okay, then. Ladders placed seemingly at random throughout the ship? Erm, all right.

I do recall it being incredibly difficult, though that may have been a comment on my still-fledging gaming skills. My dad bought it for me one day back in the times when you could buy computer games from the local newsagent, not long after I got my C64 back at Christmas 1989. He used to get quite a lot of games from there for me, actually, which is why I ended up with a large number of random old titles.

Booty
It's Booty, complete with ludicrous ship layout.

Will you still love me when I’m Donkey Kong 64?

Donkey Kong 64 Boxart
Donkey Kong 64 Boxart

Title: Donkey Kong 64
Format: N64
Release date: 6th December 1999.
Obtained: On release.
Place of purchase: GAME (online).
Price: Approx. £60.
Completed?: Yes.

Three main things stick in my mind about Donkey Kong 64: 1) the damnably awful ‘rap’ song that started every time you plug the cartridge in; b) spending an absolutely age playing the in-built version of the original Donkey Kong arcade game just so I could get one of the game’s collectable golden bananas; and iii) the fact that my copy came with a free inflatable banana that I kept in my room for a long time before it deflated into oblivion.

DK64 was developed by Rare and was pretty similar to Banjo-Kazooie. Replace golden jigsaw pieces with golden bananas, and swap musical notes for, erm, differently coloured bananas, and you’ve pretty much got the same game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and indeed I remember DK64 quite fondly. Sure, it was incredibly frustrating in places and the continual collection of lots of different items became a bit tedious after a while, but it was pretty fun.

Swapping around between the characters provided a fair bit of scope for variety, as they were all sufficiently different as to give some interesting challenges each. There were plenty of good ideas around, as well, albeit sometimes you did feel that they were just a bit stretched out and indeed, the game overstayed its welcome a bit.

Graphics-wise DK64 was pretty decent for an N64 title, more impressive given the scale of the levels. Having said that, the title was the first to require the use of the optional RAM expansion pack. Thankfully the initial release of the game came bundled with one, which saved me the bother of having to source one from elsewhere.

That rap, though, that rap was really, really bloody awful. Whoever thought it might be a good idea to have some polygonal apes doing a cheese-infested rap number that would have embarrassed the makers of Saturday morning cartoons deserves a slap around the face.

You ain’t nothing but a Heimdall 2

Title: Heimdall 2.
Format: Amiga 1200.
Release date: 1994.
Obtained: Sometime around 1994/5.
Place of purchase: Britannia Games Club (at least I think it was them).
Price: No idea.
Completed?: No.

Heimdall 2 Boxart
Heimdall 2 Boxart

Watching Thor on TV the other day made me think of Heimdall 2, mainly because Heimdall appears in the film and even my rather sluggish neural pathways can make that connection. In truth, I really don’t remember an awful lot about the game, probably because I’m fairly certain I only ever played it about six times. Whether there was a bug in it or just a puzzle that as a naive (and rather lazy) 13-year-old I couldn’t get past, I can’t remember; but something obviously stopped me from playing it and I never went back.

The game is an isometric adventure rather in the vein of Head Over Heels, with the player controlling Heimdall and a Valkyrie warrior ‘chick’ named Ursha. Together you must solve puzzles and defeat bad guys to stop the evil (or at least slightly misunderstood) Loki from doing something that presumably he shouldn’t be doing. The game has a good understanding of Norse mythology, and as such has a fair amount of atmosphere, but never really struck me as being particularly enthralling.

I had intended that as I was writing these little remembrances of games past that I would have a quick replay of them, but in the case of this one I can neither be bothered to dig out my Amiga or an emulator to play it on. Really a minor footnote in my tragically long gaming history.

Heimdall rescuing a guy in a cupboard.
Heimdall rescuing a guy in a cupboard. Not the most heroic act ever recorded in the annals of history, but I guess somebody needs to do it. These people can't stay in cupboards forever, after all.

(You can’t beat a bit of) Bully.

Bully: Scholarship Edition
X360 boxart

Title: Bully: Scholarship Edition.
Format: XBox 360.
Release date: March 2008 .
Obtained: Sometime in 2009.
Place of purchase: GAME (Walsall).
Price: £25 (I think).
Completed?: Yes (12th May 2012).

Seems fitting to start off this potentially very long series of musings on every game I’ve ever played by talking about the one I’m mainly playing now: Bully by Rockstar Games. Specifically I mean the Scholarship Edition of the game on the 360, not the PS2 original. I actually did once own the PS2 version (renamed Canis Canem Edit here in the UK for reasons best left to the censors and the gods), but it arrived pretty much at the end of the console’s mainstream life when I was just getting a 360, so I never really played it. In fact, it became one of the very few games that I’ve ever traded in.

An even more obscure and utterly, utterly worthless bit of information is that B:SE was the only game I ever bought from GAME in Walsall I remember ‘nipping’ there on the way back to the office after meeting a customer one time. The customer in question I won’t name for the simple reason that I thought he was a bit of a prat.

Bully for the most follows the template of Rockstar’s open-world games laid down in GTA III and not really changed all that much since: you wander around at your own volition, progressing through the game by completing main- and side-storyline missions. Where it really stands out is it’s setting: a school. Admittedly it’s an Americanised boarding school complete with cliques of ‘jocks’ and ‘greasers’ that those of us brought up in the glories of the British educational system will know only from Saved By The Bell, but it’s a stunningly well-realised set-up. There are lessons to attend, buildings to explore and a whole town to play in. Plus you can beat up kids, stick fire crackers in toilets, vandalise school property and a whole litany of things that I never did at school because I was a good boy and, more pertinently, scared of getting caught.

Bully - In-game footage.
Jimmy Hopkins beating up a random kid for no real reason.

Never having really played the PS2 version, I’m not entirely certain what new content the Scholarship Edition adds, other than what the back of the box tells me. The graphics have been spruced up a bit, but their last-gen origins are evident throughout, and it looks a bit of an eye-sore in places once you’ve witnessed the visual majesty of GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption. Lack of checkpoints in the missions harkens back to a time when games were more challenging (or frustrating, depending on your point-of-view). Having said that, the majority of the missions I’ve played through thus far (and I’m around 50% in as I write) haven’t been too troublesome, with only a couple causing me to re-try. Actually, what’s caused me the most problems hasn’t been the difficulty of the game but a combination of the frequently-stupid camera and target-lock-on, which seem both designed to irritate and cause headaches at the most inconvenient of times.

When it first came out I remember people comparing it to the Microprose classic Skool Daze. To be honest, setting aside, there’s not really a great deal of similarity between them, probably a result more of the twenty or so years in between the two titles. Still, the game’s a good one and I’m glad that – after a couple of false starts – I’ve finally gone back to it to try and finish it once and for all. There’s plenty of fun to be had, with an entertaining storyline and lots of mini-games, albeit of admittedly varying quality, to try your hand at.

What has actually impressed me most about the game – and I really hope this is something that Rockstar build into the upcoming GTAV – is the passage of time and the fact that the story takes place at different seasons. You start off at the beginning of the school year and progress through Autumn, Winter (complete with Christmas decorations) and – presumably – Spring and Summer too. There’s one particularly memorable moment where you start off one mission at the end of the second chapter and the snow suddenly starts to fall; it’s a small thing, but one that’s still unusual enough in sandbox games, and has a bit of the same impact that the arrival in Mexico sequence had in RDR.

Christmas in Bullworth
Christmas in Bullworth. Pity the snowman.

UPDATE: After three aborted attempts over three years, I managed to complete this yesterday. I’m pleased to say that the remainder of the game keeps up the quality that I spoke about above. The storyline never really gets going all that much, but it’s entertaining and the high standard of the dialogue keeps it moving along. In ever want to do the bloody annoying stealth section in Finding Johnny Vincent ever again, though.