It should be noted that I didn’t start writing this with an outline or any real idea in mind, so prepare for it to be long winded, meandering and potentially pointless. Let’s get on with it then!
The inspiration came from a very strong nostalgic feeling that I felt recently when I saw a wristwatch on the internet. The watch in question is the Bell & Ross BR 03-92 HUD, whose glowing green face brought me – as if by flying DeLorean – directly back to a few specific moments of my youth, and led me to attempt to quantify the perpetrators of this nostalgia and perhaps justify the purchase of said watch, as well as re-live some memories along the way. As an small aside, “HUD” stands for “Heads-Up Display”, and refers to a (usually glowing, green) transparent display commonly found in fighter jets that presents pertinent data to the pilot during their flight. The reason I’m telling you this will make sense a little later.
To my childhood, then, during the early 1990s. During this time almost every spare minute I had was spent hunched over a glowing computer monitor in a dark corner of my parents’ lounge room, a room which eventually became my bedroom when my big brother decided he was too old to share one with me. I remember my mother being inconsolably upset after he pushed my bed out into the hallway, to the point where she eventually convinced my father to buy a bigger home for our family. No one asked me what I thought, though, and the situation suited me just fine.
I won’t go into what started my obsession with computers – that’s probably a story for elsewhere and elsewhen – but if I could further paint a picture of myself at this time: Computers and computer games were all I could think or talk about, to anyone. There wasn’t a single day when I wasn’t begging my mother to buy me the latest magazine, or take me to the local computer shop to annoy the (endlessly patient) employees to tell me about what ‘this thing’ was, or how ‘that’ worked. In fact, I annoyed them so much that my first ‘job’ at the tender age of 10 was given to me by the owner of said computer shop – Blue Ribbon Computers in Upper Heidelberg Road, Ivanhoe, Victoria, Australia. He was a kind gentleman by the name of George, at the time probably in his mid 40s. George graciously allowed me to spend afternoons and weekends at the shop in exchange for tidying up or answering a phone here and there, duties which I gleefully performed since I couldn’t think of a better place to be anyway. After some time there, I learned enough to progress into repairing computers for customers, as well as building them new ones from scratch, a feat which any ‘grown ups’ in attendance found remarkable given my age, and which was duly rewarded by George with rare and extremely special gifts of computer hardware and games from his stock in the shop.
Over time, these hallowed gifts eventually gave life to the first computer I owned capable of playing Brand New Games. What was an ailing, wheezing 386DX 40 purchased by my parents from Maple Leaf Personal Computers in Burgundy Street, Ivanhoe, Victoria, Australia to help my older siblings with their ‘school work’, had due to my diligence become a hulking beast of a 486DX/2 66 – a tower of incredible power and blistering speed, capable of feats of computing strength previously thought impossible.
The feeling of nostalgia I mentioned earlier arises from three very special games from this time in video game history. A time when games whose appearance, gameplay, and spirit were defined not only by their subject matter but also by the strong influence of a generation of ‘rock star’ game designers and developers. It seemed like each studio had their own – ID Software had John Carmack and John Romero, Microprose had Andy Hollis and Geoff Crammond, Origin Systems had Chris Roberts, NovaLogic had Kyle Freeman – the list of notable names and games is almost endless. These were superhuman geniuses who, not content with the reality they inhabited, sought each to bend nature to their will, deftly wielding the (somewhat limited) power of home computer systems with incredible skill, speed and precision and crafting experiences of unbelievable realism and fidelity.
With each new major release, expectations were shattered and borders were redefined. You could literally see the reverberations these technological advancements created as influences and echoes in all of the following games. There were months and indeed years where the cover of each issue of a PC magazine (we’ll get to that later) would give me heart palpitations and sweaty palms. Computer graphics had never been more realistic, and their stories had never been more detailed or emotional. With each new game, I’d swear to myself that I’d seen the pinnacle of what computer games could be. For me, at the time, there was nothing more awe inspiring than Gouraud shading, nothing more cutting edge than texture mapping. I relished every minute of being in the digital worlds that they would create.
All of this talk about developers and designers is, of course, not to forget to speak of the incredibly talented artists working on these games – it’s just as much their handiwork, their palette smashing styles and their pixel pushing marvelousness that saturated our eyeballs with colour and movement and brought to life the visuals within their constrained canvases – constrained at once both by the number of colours available, and the size of the viewport their art is displayed on which at the time was embarrassingly small compared to current standards. We often find ourselves in discussions like these focusing on the monstrous progress driven by the coders, and often the artists don’t get their deserved credit in the conversation.
It’s these artists, then, I suppose, who I can hold at least somewhat accountable for creating this indelible nostalgia whose tentacles burrow deep into my brain as I cast my mind back to those dusky evenings glued to my computer, ignoring the repeated and escalating pleas of my mother to switch that bloody thing off and go to bed. Its these artists who mastered nuance and symbolism, perfected the art of communicating a great deal with a handful of pixels and colours, and managed to however fleetingly convince my heart and mind that I was that space marine, fighter pilot or racing car driver.
Looking back on these games then I am reminded of a period in which incredible people did incredible things. People who created experiences that I am thankful to have been able to partake in first hand. To flex my imagination and squint my eyes, to blur that line between computer simulation and reality and really invest every cell of my being to cast myself into a world created by someone else is something I find almost absent in modern gaming’s world of photorealistic ease. I’m not saying that it was better back then (am I?), but what I want to know, is what is it it specifically about games from that era that affected me so profoundly?
Even though – just like everyone else – I had been whole heartedly consumed by the violent megahit Doom, there is another genre of games which although less visceral and perhaps slightly less technically impressive (really, who could stand up to Carmack and Romero in the early 90s?), were responsible for a large chunk of my gaming childhood, and for my nostalgia for that period now.
These were ‘simulation’ games – some more or less ‘realistic’ in their attempts to recreate the experience which they attempted to simulate, but all with a common goal: To make you ‘feel’ like you were the one flying that aircraft or driving that car. Of particular interest to me were flight simulators, though from time to time I dabbled in driving simulators as my brother had begun a life long love affair with Formula 1 and was – to my increasing protest – spending a lot of time on my computer playing Geoff Crammond’s series opener, Microprose’s Formula One Grand Prix.
The first time I saw a flight simulator was in the TimeZone video arcade on Russell Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, on a Saturday morning, in 1990 or 1991. In order to visit the arcade I would ask my father if I could accompany him to his shop which happened to be nearby, in the CBD of Melbourne. This was not, as it happens, the Holy Chapel in which I had first discovered Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Killer Instinct, but in spite of this, this TimeZone’s memory is still profound and clear in my mind.
As was customary during trips to the city with my father, before he sent me on my way to the arcade with a handful of dollar coins, he first brought me to Pelligrini’s, an Italian café and Melbourne Institution at which he was a regular whose name (and mine) and standing order was prepared and delivered on sight. I would drink a cappuccino and dunk sugar biscuits in the milk foam, trying to finish the way-too-hot coffee as quickly as I could because it was the only barrier between me and a blissful day bathed in the glorious cacophony of the early 90s video arcade.
It was one of these mornings at TimeZone, caffeine fueled with a pocket full of coins, when I encountered a Top Landing arcade machine – at the time it would have been a couple of years old but in spite of its age it was still impressive; a fibreglass and perspex canopied cabin emulating a passenger jet cockpit. You climb inside and are enveloped by a large screen and flight controls. Made by Taito Japan, the sole objective of the game was simple: You, a commercial pilot, begin your flight somewhere in the world on approach to a runway, and try to land your (presumably full of terrified passengers) aircraft safely in increasingly more frightening conditions. Even though it was all in Japanese and ran at around 15 frames per second I was hooked and ended up spending my entire day’s allowance on it, even opting to skip lunch in order to have more time and money to play. My love of flight simulators was born.
High fidelity, fully 3D gaming at home (at least, with acceptable performance) was still very much a dark art at this point. It was confined to specialised accelerated arcade boards willed into existence by otherworldly conjurers like SEGA’S AM2 – whose own ‘Virtua Racing’ and ‘Virtua Fighter’ games only made it to Australia some time in 1993. Home PCs wouldn’t be powerful enough to deliver that kind of crushing performance until years later, so simulation games at the time had to either rely on those rockstar coders for a variety of tricks and techniques to push those pixels quickly in a pseudo-3D fashion, or risk putting out games with such incredibly lofty system requirements that kids like me would never even have a chance of playing them.
Could you imagine then, my surprise and delight, when not too long after I discovered Top Landing, I also discovered that I was able to play games on my very own computer that provided at least a similar experience of simulated flight?
F117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter 2.0
I have an cousin named Daniel. He is only slightly younger than my older brother (who is seven years older than me) and due to that fact I think he and my brother have always had a closer bond than he and I. Nonetheless, Dan and I have shared a few defining moments together over the years and even though I don’t see him often I know he would read this post fondly as he likely shares a lot of the same nostalgia as I do for these games. One of the things Dan is and always has been passionate about is aviation. When I think about it, it was his house where I first saw Top Gun, and first attempted to assemble a model aircraft. Back in the 90s, we saw each other quite often, almost every weekend, and one of these weekends Dan turned up clutching some floppy disks upon which was a copy of Microprose’s F117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter 2.0. I stood back, in quiet anticipation, as he installed the game onto my computer.
The moment it booted up, I was impressed. The finely crafted pixel art of the title and pre-mission screens were amongst the best I had yet seen, of particular note was the screen just before a mission began: a front on picture of your stealth fighter as the canopy snaps shut and fuel lines are disconnected. This was going to be good.
I observed with quiet reverence as Dan embarked upon a mission and started explaining to me how to play – a lot to take in given that this was meant to be a ‘realistic’ simulator. He deftly maneuvered the plane around the dusk sky and launched a missile to destroy a target. I was transfixed on the game’s incredibly sleek visual presentation, I remember stammering some words of awe and what happened next was truly transformative: “If you think that’s cool, look at this” He tapped a key and the view snapped around to show a backwards facing camera looking directly at the pilot of the plane. I don’t think I had ever seen something as cool as that.
I spent a great deal of time playing F117A. Not only was the game slick, fast and immersive, but it also had a globetrotting series of campaigns in theatres all over the world. Its visual style wasn’t quite cutting edge for the time, it instead opted for the tried and tested flat shaded low-poly look that gave it wide compatibility with older PCs. Despite this approach, it just oozed attitude.
Most of the missions took place in the dusk or the evening (presumably Nighthawk operates better in low light, or maybe it just looks cooler). You also had the ability to switch to an exterior view of your stealthy black angel of vengeance slicing across the terrain at terrifying speed, afterburners ablaze. Every light in the cockpit lit up, had a purpose. The physics model was accurate for the time, and quite unforgiving: You disrespect the aircraft and you end up a smoking hole in the ground. The HUD simulation was technical and accurate. I was entranced into this world for weeks, maybe months. A secret operative, controlling this untouchable weapon from my lounge room.
Comanche: Maximum Overkill
Another day around this time whilst accompanying my mother to the local shopping mall, I made my customary beeline for my favourite shop, Pacific Computers in Northland Shopping Centre, Preston, Victoria, Australia, where I would blissfully spend whatever time I could perusing the rotating tower of shareware disks and shelves of big-box PC games. If I was lucky I could beg and plead my way into a $5 shareware game. The big boxes, sometimes priced at more than $80, were much rarer, and generally reserved only for Christmas and Birthdays.
It was one particular visit that I saw something new (I had visited the store so many times I more or less knew what was on the shelf). I took the peculiarly shaped dark grey box down and as I slowly rotated it in my hands I caught my first glimpse of the graphics and read the description on the back. The game I was holding was NovaLogic’s Comanche: Maximum Overkill and it was such an incredible moment that I can remember the world fading away around me as if a gigantic spotlight was shining on my shoulders. I knew I had to have this game, and the second my mother entered the store to collect me on her way out I bombarded her with pleas and promises. It was towards the end of the year, and my birthday falls at the beginning of the year, so my theory was that if I combined both of those events and didn’t ask for anything else this would be a sure thing. She said she’d think about it.
Comanche’s approach to creating its simulated game world was different to its contemporaries and indeed stands out because of its distinct visual style and technical execution (and impressive framerate). NovaLogic patented the technology, which was a rare occurrence in the burgeoning industry at the time, so apart from a few other games released by NovaLogic, the technology faded into obscurity, replaced by polygonal 3D engines. This technology was referred to as ‘VoxelSpace’, created by Kyle Freeman, and was a novel approach to pseudo-3D graphics in that it represented the world as a series of textured blocks called ‘voxels’. A simple way to visualise it would be to imagine a landscape made of tiny coloured LEGO bricks, and you’ve more or less got the picture. It wasn’t until years later that I became knowledgeable enough to understand the rendering techniques and mathematics that generated this gorgeous representation of reality, and I still remain as impressed today as I was back then.
In the game, you pilot a RAH-66 Comanche attack helicopter through a series of different missions in various locations, at various times of day. When I sat down to play for the first time having unboxed it on Christmas morning (thanks, Mum), I could scarcely believe my eyes. On my screen was a never before seen (at least by me) representation of a lush, forested terrain, replete with ‘textures’ (gasp), ‘shadows’ (gasp!!!) and a smooth framerate (!!!!!!!). Not only that, there were trees, rivers, buildings and an entire game of missions to explore – utter bliss.
What’s important to this story though, is that there was and is a very particular look and feel to this game that has stuck with me forever. In motion it was absolutely poetic, somehow gooey and smooth. This look made it ever so easy to just slip into its reality and let those silky smooth voxels lift me up into the sky. If you squinted, you could almost see the trees gently waving in the forest below, and ripples in the water caused by your helicopter’s blades. Before I knew it I was rudely snapped back to real life. About 8 hours had elapsed, and it was already time for Christmas dinner, which I ate as quickly as possible so I could get back into the pilot seat of my Comanche.
I can’t tell you in total how many hours I spent with this game, but what I can tell you without a hint of exaggeration is that I played each mission between 50 and 100 times. Each time it was just as pleasurable and it’s a feeling that I can still remember today. But what is it about Comanche? I think, now, reflecting back on it (and having played a little during the writing of this post), it’s a few things – the graphics (so smooth and realistic), the hypnotic and mesmerising music, and the wonderful symmetry and communication of the cockpit and HUD simulation. These things combined into an intoxicating cocktail that left its mark forever in my memory.
In these heady days of PC gaming, there were few game companies who could boast as strong a reputation as Origin Systems. The game that first brought them to my attention was the beloved space flight/battle simulator Wing Commander (a series which I am sure I will write about at long length at a later time).
Wing Commander was released by Origin Systems in 1990 and deserves a special place in this story because the first time I saw it, what stuck out to me is that I couldn’t believe how cool it was that you could actually see your pilot’s hand moving the joystick as you flew around in space, battling the endless waves of Kilrathi. That’s not to mention the advanced graphics which were a mixture of hand drawn art and sprites created from 3D rendered assets, an extremely novel approach at the time and one that went on to be emulated by the likes of Rare and Nintendo. It also had a character driven story reminiscent of Sci-fi movies from the era, and of course excellent music. All of this sprung forth from the creative juices of one Chris Roberts, the ‘rockstar’ developer of Origin Systems and a well known name in the video game industry even today with his 6 million dollar behemoth Kickstarter space trading and combat simulation game Star Citizen. In fact you kind of imagine that Star Citizen was Roberts’ vision all along, it comes through that strongly in the Wing Commander series (especially when you consider Privateer).
Wing Commander went on to have multiple sequels, two of which were ‘ground breaking’ CD-ROM games with full motion video story sequences starring the likes of Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies and Malcolm McDowell. It also spawned a feature film starring Freddie Prinze Jr and Matthew Lillard, and even though it was directed by Chris Roberts, the less said about it the better. But I digress.
From as early as I can remember, I was an avid reader. One of the qualities my parents instilled in me for which I am eternally grateful is a love of books and storytelling. Having two older siblings meant that I was never short of hand-me-down books and novels, and I taught myself to read to the point where my teacher once angrily reported me to my mother for lying when had I proudly proclaimed that I had recently finished reading Roald Dahl’s “The BFG”, a book supposedly appropriate for children that were years my senior. One fateful day, however, my reading habits would change forever. That was the day that I successfully lobbied my mother to purchase for me that month’s PC Format UK magazine – October 1992’s issue 13.
This was truly the Point of No Return for me. I read this magazine cover to cover, many times over. At the time, the UK was at the forefront of the home PC revolution, and the community there and in Europe was many orders of magnitude larger than humble 90s Australia. This meant that so much of the software and hardware discussed and reviewed within these pages would either never arrive in Australia, or turn up months and years later, already obsolete. Thus began The Cycle – I would visit my mother at her shop after school and identify the new issue of PC format in the news agency across the road. I would then campaign until closing time for her to give me the money to buy the magazine, under pressure of which she would eventually acquiesce. Each time, the anticipation to discover what was inside was palpable, and that isn’t even to mention the excitement delivered by those two 3.5″ floppy ‘coverdisks’ affixed to the front of the book. I read them all, over and over again.
All of this neatly brings us to the point of this story. Without the existence of the internet, these magazines were basically the only way to get information about new releases and upcoming hardware and so on. It was also a great source for technical information, and it became my lifeline to the outside world. The first time I saw Strike Commander, was in PC Format. Specifically, issue 21, released in June 1993:
The mere sight of the game almost completely froze time around me. As I pored over the article and immersed myself in the screenshots the allure of it got stronger and stronger. A battle with some serious virus that kept me couch-bound and home from school generated the exact amount of pity from my mother I needed to get my hands on a brand new copy of Strike Commander. I remember leaping from the couch and dancing with joy as her car left our driveway on her mission to purchase the game for me. Even though I was feeling better, I still made sure to appear sick enough to stay home from school for the rest of the week, but not so sick that I couldn’t play on my computer.
Strike Commander was a game that had everything – cutting edge technology, amazing graphics, and a compelling story. In the distant future of 2011, multiple wars and failed governments have resulted in countries taking national security into their own hands. You are a member of an elite mercenary security company specialising in air combat.
Strike Commander’s story has you forming relationships with various characters, completing missions, and earning money with which to outfit your plane. Although perfunctory by today’s standards, this story was deep enough to immerse you in the world, and the gameplay loop was frantic and satisfying.
Strike Commander focused on graphical detail, speed and gameplay over the ‘accuracy’ of its simulation, and it was designed to get you into the air as quickly as possible, engaging with bad guys, and feel good doing it. What appealed to me about it, looking back, was the character interaction, tone and atmosphere of the game. It really did seem to be real at the time, which made it all the more intense when you were up in the air, down to your last missile, with zero fuel, white-knuckling it against a few enemy aircraft.
Chris Roberts had written an entirely new game engine from scratch for Strike Commander, and described his vision as wanting to compete with features that were generally only available in commercial or military simulators at the time. The game’s development time of 2 1/2 years was unheard of at the time, and there were reports of developers sleeping under desks to get the game done.
What Origin was able to achieve, however, was nothing short of incredible. A fully 3D world, 3D vehicles, all with texture mapping and state of the art shading. Coupling that with detailed and beautiful pixel art (a mixture of hand drawn and 3D rendered elements) for the game’s story characters and interstitial screens, and Origin had produced something that no one had seen before.
A flying game’s appeal is how it feels in the cockpit, however, and Strike Commander was no slouch here. The fully 3D “virtual” cockpit allowed your character to look around the cockpit in real time, another first.
Looking at my legs – Origin Systems’ Strike Commander, 1993
After getting to grips with the game, playing its story through multiple times, and even being lucky enough to get my hands on the “digitised speech” add-on to hear the characters voices, Strike Commander firmly cemented itself into my memories as one of my fondest experiences.
All of this is to say that Strike Commander’s particular brand of digital escapism spoke to me very specifically. It had elements that the previous two games I have mentioned also had, but it also had so much more. Each time through, it felt like you were connecting with the other characters, playing a small part in a larger story, and by the end it was almost sad to have to say goodbye to the crew after so much adventure together.
If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations. Reading back over what I’ve written I’m not sure I have managed to completely accomplish the goal I set out to do, which was to understand the specific reasons behind the nostalgia I felt when looking at that watch. Visually, if you look at the ‘cockpit’ screenshots from these games, and compare them to the watch, I think you’ll see how my brain is making that connection. But there’s so much more that is impossible to quantify and relates to who I was at the time, the things that were happening around me, and also how I was experiencing the world at the time.
What I did manage to do, was reconstruct and relive a few very specific and formative experiences of my youth. They are all stories that I think are intertwined with other stories, and that thread can be hard to pick out and focus on.
It was that sense of wonder, of anticipation, and of wide eyed optimism that I think was a source of constant momentum for me. There was always something new on the horizon to discover, and the feeling of finally cresting that hill and being able to give myself over to the experience is something that I realise is missing from my life as an adult.
I still play video games – don’t get me wrong. But these days I play video games more as a form of escapism – an attempt to hide myself away from the rigors and stresses of the ‘real world’, where I have responsibilities and people expecting things of me.
Video games are a way to switch all that noise off for a while, but sooner or later reality creeps back in. The strange thing is that I don’t really feel all that different inside to the kid that I was back then.