The mid-nineties was an era when PC gaming began in earnest, kick-started by the mighty Doom's release in 1993. First-person shooters burgeoned as a result, and their combination with the real-time strategy genre conspired to make the humble home personal computer a powerful commercial gaming platform. And when it came to RTSs, the one name on most people's lips was Command & Conquer. Except for those in the know. They namechecked Cavedog's futuristic adventure, Total Annihilation as a far superior game thanks to its huge battles, terrain-based tactics and imaginative units.
Inside the making of Baldur's Gate, and the forging of a legend.
To a young lad growing up on Star Wars and the sci-fi writings of Harry Harrison and Douglas Adams, 2000AD was a natural home when it came to my weekly comic fix. Each issue came action-packed with a range of serialisations that represented the very finest of British art and writing. I didn't have a favourite character; I loved them all. The neo-fascism of Judge Dredd's grimy, flawed universe; the distant revenge-fuelled tale of biologically-engineered soldier, Rogue Trooper; the relatively light-hearted and whimsical Ballad Of Halo Jones; and the unsubtle paean to religious genocide in the fabulous Nemesis The Warlock. These were stories that mixed sci-fi, fantasy and horror themes, eloquently told and brilliantly drawn, and it all started over 40 years ago.
It's some time in the spring of 1988. Steve Brown, creator of the smash hit games Cauldron, Cauldron 2 and Barbarian, is holding a pair of pliers while in the midst of a dramatic photo shoot for Barbarian 2. "Maria would breathe in heavily and the pressure from her bosom would snap the thin chain joining the metal breast plates together," smiles the former Palace Software artist and designer. "I spent a fair amount of that day with those pliers, bending all the links back together." They were different times.
In its early promotional material for the ZX Spectrum, Sinclair often went to almost painful lengths to avoid using the word 'games'. Released 35 years ago this month, the microcomputer was designed by Sir Clive Sinclair with serious applications in mind, and an optimistic role as a central hub for the nation's households. Constantly reiterating its expandability, these initial adverts were all about tech, emphasising the Spectrum's 'massive' RAM of 16 or - crikey! - 48k, as well as its high resolution and accessories, including a printer and the doomed ZX Microdrive. As it turned out, the manufacturer was swimming against the tide. Programming? Hmm, might try and type in a few POKEs I suppose. Educational? Game of chess or Scrabble aside, not likely. No, what the majority of kids wanted from the Spectrum was games. And games, much to the chagrin of Clive Sinclair, were what they got - in their hundreds.
If, like me, you were a ZX Spectrum fan growing up in the 80s, one of its trio of passionately assembled and dedicated magazines was an indispensable read. Like the famous platform rivalry of the time, each magazine had its fervent fans: Sinclair User was the longest serving, and had a drier tone; Your Sinclair (formerly Your Spectrum) gleefully brandished its off-the-wall humour in each issue, and is especially revered today. But for me, and many others, our magazine of choice was the appropriately-titled Crash, published by Ludlow-based Newsfield.
There's a part of me that inwardly grins whenever I see the latest big video game release condemned as a 'broken, unplayable mess' by the internet masses. The last notable title to garner such derision was Sega's Aliens: Colonial Marines, which I purchased a few months ago for £1.99 from a popular high street retailer. Far from a 'broken, unplayable mess', I found Colonial Marines to be an enjoyable, if flawed, effort. Not perfect by any means, but good for a modicum of xenomorphic blasting fun.
When it comes to licensing and promotion, George Lucas has never been shy. After completing Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977, the writer/director spent considerable time and effort fine-tuning the subsequent marketing assault. Toys, books, lunchboxes and an R2-D2 spatula all appeared, some of them taking a side-step away from the main characters of the movies, creating their own stories, heroes and villains; some of them taking those familiar characters and putting them in unfamiliar settings.
If there's a genre of videogames today that diversifies players like no other, it's the walking simulator. Many examples have found favour, especially at Eurogamer, with Firewatch and, latterly, Virginia, both well-received. Yet for every praiseworthy voice, there are critics, keen to expose this style of game for being over-hyped, underwhelming and, frankly, boring.
There's a distinct feeling of déjà vu as I sit opposite ZX Spectrum coding legend Jon Ritman. The location may be different - we have graduated from his local curry house to a popular pub nearby - but the conversation is still firmly entrenched in the 1980s. "My memory's not what it used to be," admits Ritman, a caveat I've heard many times before while interviewing games industry veterans. "And it wasn't much good back then..."
The recent release of Lumo has proved there is still much love not just for retro-themed games, but also the isometric viewpoint that became popular on 8-bit computers in the mid-80s. While Lumo's creator, Gareth Noyce, freely admits to the classic Head Over Heels as a major influence, there are many other fine examples of how the genre inspired new gameplay and technological advances back in the 80s.
The mixed reception for the Spectrum Vega and Elite's maligned Bluetooth keyboard may have dulled the resurgence of 8-bit gaming lately, but the announcement of the Spectrum Next computer proves that there's still life - and love - in the old machines. And it's with good reason; the Eighties 8-bit home computer software scene in the UK was a hotbed of invention and discovery. From the primitive games of the ZX81 to the system-stretching marvels on the three most popular machines in the UK, the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64, new concepts, gameplay elements and marketing ploys were devised constantly throughout the decade. Many of them echo today, and indeed contemporary gaming owes plenty of debt - or at least knowing nods - to these trailblazing pioneers. Here are ten examples of how home computer video games of this era made helped make gaming what it is today - for better or for worse.
In retrospect, it's a wonder no-one had thought of it before. In 1984 the incumbent Conservative government passed the Video Recordings Act; video nasties, a pet topic of those renowned moral guardians, the tabloid newspapers, were to become an endangered species. As the appointed adjudicators of who got to watch what, the British Board Of Film Classification suddenly became very busy people. It was now a legal requirement for all films and videos to carry a BBFC classification, unless they fell under the exempt category of either sport, music, religion or educational. Oh, and computer games didn't count either. Well, not really.
"I don't like the FIFA games. I don't see the point in being able to see the players' nostril hairs," mutters Jon Ritman, a mischievous glint in his eyes. The creator of the legendary Match Day games on the ZX Spectrum is sitting opposite me in his local curry house - and is obviously not a fan of Electronic Arts' enduring franchise.
The Thing was, and remains, a potentially enthralling, if hazardous, video game license. The movie harnessing a fascinating collection of themes (fear of the unknown, fear of disease and an exploration of man's basic distrust of man) and merging them with a grizzled, yet realistic collection of characters and some suitably nauseating special effects. And it may well have been a box-office flop, but there's no doubting that John Carpenter's film has one of the best cinematic endings ever: exhausted and emotionally drained, the remaining characters, MacCready and Childs, sit within the burning ruins of their Antarctic research station, almost too shot to care whether the other turns into the eponymous creature or not. "Why don't we just... wait here for a little while... see what happens?" mutters MacCready slowly, resigned to whatever fate is in store for him.
The Red Faction series hasn't had it easy of late. First the franchise was deemed too niche before being unofficially side-lined in 2012 by THQ; subsequently the publisher itself (and owner of developer Volition) entered financial difficulties at the end of last year, eventually yielding to bankruptcy. Despite its enduring popularity, the future of Red Faction was in serious doubt.
Next month will see the US theatrical release of the remake of RoboCop. The original film had an estimated budget of $13 million dollars that went on to gross some $53 million in the US alone. If one movie from the 80s defined the term 'sleeper hit', it was Paul Verhoeven's strange and violent film.