Games from my childhood

I’ve been on the beach (literally) in Hawaii this past week for some much needed time with family and away from work. Unfortunately, it’s been hard to take my mind off work, and I’ve been tempted to do some soul-searching on the industry and career I’ve chosen. This post is a personal reflection on how video-games were a big part of my childhood.

UK years

As a boy I lived 3 few years in UK before relocating to Beijing, where I spent my teen years. Thus my early gaming history has a rather British flavor. My parents, like most education-minded Chinese parents, refused to buy me a console1. My father was very into PCs though, and splurged on a desktop 386.

In these years in the UK, despite my nonstop nagging, my parents only bought me 3 game disks: SimCity 2000Terminator 2, and a compilation disk Award Winners that included Sensible SoccerJimmy White Whirlwind SnookerElite, and Zool.

For a 12-year old, SimCity 2000 was immensely educational. I still remember the manual itself being over 100 pages (if not 200), and written like a long essay. It was surprisingly engaging given its open-ended nature – perhaps I spent a lot of time playing it, simply because I was allowed to by my parents2.

The Terminator 2 game was supremely forgettable – a bland, weird mix of a few different arcade mini-games thrown together loosely based on scenes from the movie. If anything, it did teach me the lesson that IP-licensed games do not by themselves warrant my time and attention, and on the contrary is likely bad. There was a silver lining: in the game packaging there was a booklet that had reviews / intros to dozens of other games, and some of these games were legit classics such as various Sim-games,  PopulousMega Lo Mania (this was a series of discount titles from a budget publisher – it’s telling that to an undiscerning consumer I chose the movie tie-in game instead of any of the actually great games). I must have read that booklet a dozen times.

From the compilation disk, I played Jimmy White Whirlwind Snooker the most while I was still in the UK. I was watching a lot of snooker back then – BBC would prominently cover it (and other British sports favorites such as cricket and rugby). I also remember a TV show on video-games inviting Jimmy White to play against the AI version of himself. Elite I played the least, which is a shame given its stature in video-games history – but I really was too young to comprehend it (and enjoy the fun combination of exploration and trading), and I struggled to do basic things such as successfully docking my spacecraft. My only memory of Zool is the vast amount of Chupa Chups lollipops in the game – I guess product placement does work!

Ah, and then there was Sensible Soccer. Years later I would shamelessly ditch it for EA’s FIFA series (from 98 onwards), but this was easily the football game I played the most growing up. It was not love at first sight – I repeatedly tried to get into this game, and failed, due to the controls and the lack of any meaningful tutorial. Indeed, it was not until I was a year or more in Beijing that I accidentally stumbled upon a basic comprehension of the controls – a light tap of spacebar was a directed short pass, while a press was a long pass / shoot; after shooting you can continue to hold direction keys to apply spin. The game had a mesmerizing pace when you chain short passes together, and the simple yet elegant ball physics3 allowed for what seemed like endless varieties of emergent gameplay – you can have spectacular long range banana shots from outside the box, or you can do a diagonal pass from the wings and attempt a dramatic forward-leaping header. After finally getting a hang of it, I quickly turned this game into the ultimate football fantasy fulfillment engine. I would vigorously create fictional leagues of my imagination, and my team (“Beijing United”) would be comprised of not only my friends and I, but also some characters I made up that I got surprisingly attached to – for example, I still recall a Mr. Tony Klinsky, of unknown (Eastern?) European origin, that was a key central midfielder to my 4-4-2. (I was number 11 and the star forward, of course.)

(To be continued.)

  1. The only sustained console exposure I had was going to my neighbor’s place to play the Sega Game Gear. I remember playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Batman Returns.
  2. Years later, I would buy the collector’s edition of SimCity (2013) out of nostalgia, only to never play it past the first 15 minutes.
  3. Unlike FIFA, where the ball “sticks” to the player in possession, in Sensible Soccer it seems the ball is always free-moving and thus dribbles are hard.

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