Video gaming has become a pervasive pastime, something akin to reading or watching movies.
For some it is an activity to stave off boredom, for another a means to escape or a place of refuge, and others who want to feel emotion while engaging with a storyteller’s creation — “experience art”, if you don’t mind me getting pretentious for a second.
In the late 1980s to 90s, before video gaming became as widespread as it is today, it was exactly the same.
The games may have changed, and we may have a larger, more diverse community of gamers, but I would argue that what gamers want from games has remained largely the same.
There are also those for whom video gaming became more than a pastime. It becomes part of who you are, ingrained in your identity.
I am one such person. I am a gamer, and this is why.
Kareteka and Prince of Persia
My journey began in the late 80s on an IBM PC XT Compatible that my dad brought home one day.
California Games (1987) and Test Drive (1987) entertained me a few hours a day, but in hindsight it was the discovery of Karateka (1982) and its spiritual successor Prince of Persia (1989) that stood out in these early days.
Despite the relatively primitive graphics technologies that were available to us at the time, Jordan Mechner, the creator of both Karateka and the original Prince of Persia, had managed a feat of brilliance with the games.
Sierra’s * Quest games
Although Prince of Persia was an excellent game for its time, its story and characters were fairly thin.
Make no mistake, the game was perfect that way. My young mind happily projected back stories and larger narratives onto the simple structure Mechner provided.
However, when I had a better grasp of the written English word and the first floppy with a Sierra quest game landed in my home (probably a Police or Space Quest), the ability of games to tell a compelling story became apparent to me.
Nintendo Family Computer: Tetris, Contra
Somewhere in the middle of this PC gaming awakening, we managed to convince our parents to buy us a “TV game machine”.
“TV games” was a phrase with a shifting meaning, but at the time it referred to the Nintendo Family Computer, or Famicom for short. More accurately, it referred to the many Famicom knock-offs we had in South Africa at the time.
One of the great joys of the Nintendo Famicom was what we nowadays refer to as “local co-op or competitive multiplayer”.
Tetris and Contra stand out as some of the best examples of this. While we bought a decent number of games and 100-in–1 cartridges during our Famicom years, we always went back to those two.
The granddaddy of the real-time strategy genre.
Released for MS-DOS in 1992, not only did it popularise a whole new genre of games, it also introduced me to Frank Herbert’s Dune universe — the first book I devoured upon reaching high school.
Strike Commander, Wing Commander: Prophecy
If Sierra’s text-driven adventure games filled my mind with all manner of funny and fantastic stories, the Commander games from Origin Systems showed me that you can tell a great story in all kinds of games.
Combat flight simulators were a fun, but usually narratively-bland affair.
Then in steps the Wing Commander series, and games like Strike Commander (1993) to change your perspective on how stories can be told, whether in a present-day or futuristic science-fiction setting.
Later games in the Wing Commander series featured live action cut scenes featuring actors such as Mark Hamill (i.e. Luke Skywalker from Star Wars), Thomas F. Wilson (of Back to the Future fame), Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, Tim Curry, Heather Stephens, and porn star Ginger Lynn.
Most of the games in the Wing Commander series, as well as Strike Commander, were designed by Chris Roberts.
He is the reason I backed Star Citizen’s crowdfunding campaign. More recently, Roberts backed the Descent reboot, Descent: Underground.
Diablo & Diablo 2
Blizzard’s seminal hack-n-slash piñata action game (I hesitate to call it a role-playing game to this day) was noteworthy for many reasons, but I will always remember Diablo (1997) as one of the first games I ever played online.
Making use of Telkom’s Callmore deal that capped the cost of a phone call over a weekend at R7, we used direct-dial modem hook-ups to play co-operatively.
Not just formative technically, but socially as well. Some of those same friends I played Diablo with still game with me today.
If this list were ranked by sheer number of playing hours, Half-Life would easily top it.
Half-Life featured prominently at our LANs along with games such as Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Quake, and StarCraft.
So why choose Half-Life and not one of the others?
Mods. Enthusiasts from all over the world built a myriad modifications for Half-Life, some of which shaped the modern first-person shooter as we know it today.
Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, and Ricochet were some our favourites, but Team Fortress was also a noteworthy mod that helped define many a childhood.
It is fitting this list be crowned with a jewel like Planescape: Torment.
Critically acclaimed, but hardly a smash hit commercially, Torment is often held up as the pinnacle of what can be achieved in a role-playing game with a tactical combat engine that supports text-heavy dialogue.
In addition to featuring some of the most engaging writing in video games, it also had cut scenes for some of the more powerful spells in the game, giving players a real sense that they were unlocking the power of the cosmos when they hit higher levels.
Planescape: Torment is the reason I backed the Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter, and it is one of the reasons no one will ever be able to convince me that games aren’t art.
There are a few games that helped define my childhood that for one reason or another weren’t included in the main list above.
They do deserve a quick honourable mention, though:
- Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat: While we largely missed the wave of arcade gaming, these two titles ate up more of my pocket money than they deserved to.
- Zeliard, Iron Helix, Myst, Command & Conquer Red Alert: All important games in different ways. Zeliard was the first game I played I’d call an “action RPG”, Iron Helix was a kind of survival horror I could actually play as a child, Myst was both beautiful and had me scratching my head, and Red Alert… well, Hellmarch.
- StarCraft: What Westwood began in 1992 with Dune 2, Blizzard perfected in 1998 with the launch of StarCraft. A game we played to death at LANs and online, and, along with a few other titles, one of the pieces of modern video game culture shared by almost all gamers.