Those games that you can always come back to…
I’ve been mucking about with computers for the best part of 25 years now, and in that time I’ve spent a fair amount of hours playing computer and video games. In fact, as my earlier post about Steam will show, I’ve got quite a lot of games kicking around on my home PC – most of which I’ve never played, mind.
But, in that 25 years, I’ve come across a few games that have made such an impression on me that I can always go back and play them some more. For two of those games, I’d long moaned about how no-one had ever bothered to make a worthy sequel to them, but in recent years those two worthy sequels have materialised and I now have both the old and the new to play with, which spells bad news for my spare time.
Here’s a bit of a write up about some of them, starting with…
Frontier: Elite 2 (and Elite: Dangerous)
I kind of missed the boat with the original Elite. It was released in 1984 when I was just a toddler, and until I took ownership of an Amiga A1200 I didn’t really have any of the machines that it was available for, and by the time I’d got an A1200, it’s sequel was released.
Right from the intro movie, I was hooked:
I loved the sense of freedom that the game provided, and even though strictly speaking there wasn’t any "point" to the game (apart from gaining ELITE status, which could only be done by destroying a ridiculous number of AI ships, so I never bothered trying) I never got bored of just flying around soaking up the universe.
I still think that it was an incredible achievement – David Braben squeezed an entire universe into under 500 kilobytes of disk space. True, much of it was procedurally generated, but the core systems were all hand-built and there was of course graphics and audio to be included in that size as well. I imagine this web page probably doesn’t fit into 500 kilobytes of disk space!
I always chose the "recommended start position" at Sirocco Station, on the surface of Merlin in the Ross 154 system. My first action would be to buy some hydrogen fuel and some animal meat, and then jet off into the big black (or rather, the big blue in Frontier’s case) and hyperjump to Barnard’s Star, where I would dock at Boston Base (an Orbis starport that orbited Birminghamworld, if I remember rightly) and sell the animal meat. I can never remember what I took back to Ross 154 – I want to say Robots or Computers, but I think they may have been too expensive to buy at this stage, so it might have been Farm Machinery.
Either way, I went back and forth between the two stations until I’d raised enough to move over to Sol (where Earth is, non-spacey people!) and do more trading around there before getting in with the Federal Military.
Eventually I’d get cash rich enough to upgrade my Eagle Long Range Fighter to a Viper Defence Craft and then I’d go and kick some space pirate arse. Although usually what happened was that I would get my non-pirate arse handed to me on a plate and I’d have to start over.
Over the years I’ve most likely spent thousands of hours playing this game, and it’s one of the ones I always wanted a worthy sequel to. Frontier: First Encounters came out in 1996 but I never had it as I wasn’t a PC owner at the time, and it was a buggy mess anyway.
Over time, rumours started that David Braben and his company Frontier Developments were working on a new sequel, the much vaunted Elite 4. Nothing ever came to fruition though, until a few years ago when Elite: Dangerous appeared on Kickstarter and made an absolute fortune. I put quite a bit of money into it myself, and the game came out last year to a mixed reception. I enjoy playing it, and still do occasionally, but at the moment it lacks some of the features that made Frontier so special – namely planetary landings and passenger transport missions, but the former is coming to the game very soon.
And it looks so, so pretty…
UFO: Enemy Unknown
The spiritual successor to Laser Squad by the Gollop Brothers, UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-COM: UFO Defense as it was known in the States) was a turn-based strategy game centred around the story of an alien invasion of Earth.
I’d played turn based strategy games before (including Laser Squad, and the good-but-not-quite-as-good-as-UFO Sabre Team) but none of them really "gripped" me in the way that UFO did.
I think it was the combination of base and resource management and the actual turn based battles themselves, it made it feel like a deeper game (and it was only really in the mid 2000s, when I got involved with the UFOpaedia, that I became aware of just how deep the game actually was)
Here’s the intro:
The best part about UFO was that it was completely and utterly unrelenting. In most games back then, and even more so today, you were punished for failure – but the difficulty level in UFO (even on the easiest setting) was such that you could expect to lose your soldiers constantly, and for the most part it didn’t matter – in fact, in many cases you found yourself recruiting soldiers specifically to be used as cannon fodder.
In most games, the difficulty curve starts off very easy and, as you learn the ropes, the difficulty increases until you get to the Big Bad Boss. This was basically reversed in UFO – at the start of the game, you were outnumbered, outarmoured, outgunned and outclassed in pretty much every way. You are facing off against an unknown enemy force and you know literally nothing about them or their capabilities. As the game progresses, your research scientists discover more about the aliens and their weapons and you develop effective methods for fighting them.
At this point, the game normally throws harder aliens at you with new capabilities, but as time goes on and your scientists produce more and more kit, your job gets easier as you can fight back with alien weaponry. By the time you reach the "endgame", you should have almost no trouble at all taking on the aliens.
This is another game that I’ve logged a stupid number of hours on. Sure, it has a dated user interface and graphics (although I love the "manga" style, personally) but in terms of gameplay, atmosphere and sheer outright difficulty, nothing has ever come close for me.
And, as with Frontier, this game has been crying out for a decent sequel for a long time. Many, many game developers have tried and most have failed. It was only in 2012 when Firaxis Games announced that they were working on a new game – XCOM: Enemy Unknown – that I sat up and took notice.
The 2012 game (which has recently had a sequel announced, creatively titled XCOM 2) changed some elements of the original, which I remember being quite aggrieved about at the time, but those negative thoughts faded away as soon as I played the demo. It was near perfect, and a bang-on reimagining of the original game. I seem to remember writing a review of XCOM back when it was released, too.
This was a bit of a controversial game at the time. The original box-art featured a red poppy, which led to a hate campaign in various British newspapers, who vilified it as an insult to war veterans and people that had died in service of the country, claiming that it glorified war.
Of course, what every single one of those newspaper editors had failed to realise, and what would have become patently obvious if they’d bothered to play the damn thing, was that Cannon Fodder was very much anti-war. Through satire, the use of visual metaphors (like the "Boot Hill", which would slowly become filled with the headstones of soldiers that had died under your command) and other small touches (like all of your soldiers having names) the game went to pretty big lengths to point out that actually, war’s a bit on the crap side and that we should do all we can to avoid it, it being a senseless waste of life.
Besides all of this controversy, the game was great to play and over the course of the game you became really quite attached to your little green helmeted guys.
I don’t really get much chance to play this (and its sequel from a couple of years later) any more these days as I can only really play it on an Amiga emulator and I often can’t be bothered to boot it up, but it’s still as good today as it was then, and I would give my left nut for a phone/tablet conversion.
A Russian company was licensed to make a sequel in 2011. It was crap. It tried desperately to retain the charm of the previous two games, but the move to 3D really didn’t work, and nor did the poor attempts at keeping the same atmosphere.
It also didn’t help that there was clearly a dodgy translation somewhere as lots of parts of the game (right down to its Start Menu shortcut) referred to it as Connon Fodder 3.
Still, at least the first two games are still playable. There is a game in development from someone completely unrelated to the originals that looks promising (Jarheads, by the excellently named Gareth Williams) and, should the worst come to the worst, the first game gave the world possibly the greatest video game music video to have ever existed: