Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out

Edge Magazine #122 April 2003

Mr Biffo most definitely does not love 1982

Edge #122, April 2003

Napoleon said that, "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." And he should know; the short-arse conqueror practically lived in the past. Lamentably, so do most gamers over the age of 25.

If you assemble at gunpoint a random panel of 100 gamers, and ask them to give you a potted history of videogames, they'll agree on one thing; games just aren't as good as they used to be. Innovation has faded away to be replaced by corporate, identikit mush... every other game is a licence... franchises are milked until their teats turn transparent... yadda yadda something.

But of course games aren't as good as they used to be. Nothing contemporary is as good as it was in the past. The summers were warmer, the winters whiter, the telly better, Gareth Gates hadn't even been born, and this entire magazine was fields as far as the eye could see.

Back then we all viewed the world through more innocent eyes. Everything was new and brilliant and gleaming and cooed at through Ribena-stained lips, and deep down we'd like to hold onto that part of our life because it's the foundation of who we are. That said, a three-foot deep trench makes a great foundation for a house, but it's no place to live.

Sigmund Freud believed that, compared to other species, humans are a bit rubbish. Unlike monkeys, who instinctively know how to eat bananas, or ants, who have a biological drive to ruin picnics, we come into the world incomplete. Aside from that immediate urge to suckle the nearest lady's breast (which never really goes away), we must learn our survival techniques through direct experience. Our personalities and opinions are imprinted on us in much the same way. Therefore, whatever our initial emotions are when we first encounter games, we have those emotions flash-frozen into our psyche.

It must have been Christmas '82, when I had the word 'gamer' branded on my skull. My dad had set up a ZX Spectrum to display the words 'Merry Christmas' (a feat that took him over a month) as we all came downstairs. With it I received copies of Horace and the Spiders, Ah, Diddums! and Haunted Hedges. Prior to this I'd only ever played with worms, or my father's empty gin bottles, and to that innocent boy it was an amazing world, and Horace and Haunted Hedges were the greatest things ever.

Just before Christmas last year Doctor Maudlin was pinning me to the sofa and, with the festive period looming, 30-something cynicism had taken hold. I came to bemoan the fact that growing up is the worst thing ever and I was desperate to feel that familiar warm glow inside (no, not the one induced by Mr Jim Beam). I wanted to feel like a kid again, like I always did in the run-up to Christmas, when I'd creep into my parents' bedroom to 'borrow' my presents and copy them all onto a C-60. Yes it was a bad thing to do, but my cloak-and-dagger routine became a tradition, and Christmas has never been the same since I had to start buying my own presents. Alcohol-induced amnesia while Christmas shopping somehow doesn't work.

So I turned to that first port of call for any gaming nostalgic; the emulator. I downloaded all three of aforementioned games, along with other highlights, such as Jet Set Willy and Underwurlde, and - a particular milestone in my personal gamesplaying experience - 3D Seiddab Attack. For the first few minutes all was well. My nostalgia gland was pumping nicely, filling my heart and head with rose-tinted endorphins. I was briefly transported back to '82, as sights, sounds and smells gurgled up from the deepest trench of my psyche. You could keep your polygons and your multi-artiste soundtracks and your AI; here was a man in a top hat collecting glasses, in a primary-coloured world, and it was 100 times better than any game developed since.

But then it all went wrong. My gaze drifted towards my GameCube, Xbox, and PS2. I felt like an adulterer, embarking on a torrid fling with my first girlfriend, suddenly realising that she hadn't aged well. Hopes of recapturing that youthful glee burst like bubbles, and reality took a stranglehold around my throat. These games weren't good. The graphics stuttered, the controls were glitchy and there were more bugs than you'd find beneath the average schizophrenic's skin. Could I really have dedicated days of my life to playing such abominations?

Becoming desperate, I hit the Internet once more, skipping a generation and downloading a bunch of SNES titles. Games I remembered as classics - Robocop Vs Terminator, Super Punch-Out!, Pilotwings - managed to disappoint without exception. Even Super Mario World was a letdown; leaden controls and indistinct visuals. Only Yoshi's Island provided anything approaching solace, but even that was repetitive. It was akin to a Catholic priest unearthing incontrovertible proof that Christ was actually a time-travelling Ronald McDonald.

I did the only thing I could do: I deleted every game, and every emulator, and erased the bookmarks that had led me to them. I swore there and then never to look back, to keep my eyes focused on the here, the now, and the soon-to-be. Given that the future is all we have to look forward to, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Certainly in the UK, there's a culture of cynicism among gamers. A brief sojourn onto any forum and it's clear that we're a society of whingers who are never satisfied with our lot. Games are never long enough, or pretty enough, or they're too expensive, or their stories aren't strong enough, or the voice acting is crap...

Christ - we've only had proper voices in games in the last eight years. When films first became talkies the actors spoke like Mogadonised robots. Games are still in their infancy but - as I discovered on my recent nostalgia trip - the important thing is that they're getting better all the time. Yes, there are plenty of games that deserve to be cussed, and yes there are too many of the same sorts of games, and yes the stories are almost always dreadful, but broadly speaking you've never had it so good. If you'd shown Metroid Prime to a group of gamers from 1982 you'd probably have been burned at the stake as a witch. Frankly, even today's worst game has got to be better than my own previous benchmark of excellence, 3D Seiddab Attack.

I'll be going back to emulation, but I shall not linger, and my expectations will be more realistic. Knowing, as I do now, that I won't find the secret of Greek fire at the base of the banyan tree.

Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's

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