The average cost of making a game these days is around £15 million. It makes sense really. You can’t afford to dick around when you’re gambling that kind of cash on something. You have to play it safe - create a polished, easily digestible, market friendly product.
But before sensible decisions and economic reality took an evil stranglehold, we were free to act like crazy fools. We could create daft games that not many people wanted to buy.
Here are five glorious examples.
5. 1985: Surf Champ (Spectrum / C64)
There was a time, before the internet, when computer surfing involved the actual use of a surfboard. This was the innovative/shite control method used for a game called Surf Champ. It was a haddock sized plastic surfboard which you slapped on top of your keyboard and used your finger to control, as if they were the stubby legs of a surfer.
Like most novelty controllers – it didn’t work. You were much better off using the keyboard and donating the gadget to your sister’s Barbie collection; it made for a good ironing board. What added to the general strangeness of Surf Champ was the belief by the developers, an Irish company called New Concepts, that this was much more than a game – it was a bona-fide sport which needed to be taken seriously.
They believed the game was so realistic that it would be used by professional surfers for indoor competitions during the off-season. With this in mind they set-up an annual World Computer Surfing Championship – the first and last of which was held in 1985. The bleach haired surfer types didn’t see the appeal of tabletop surfing and the game proved impenetrably difficult for everyone else. Sales were poor and the company went bust not long after.
- An aristocrat called Viscount Ted Deerhurst became Britain’s first professional surfer in 1978.
- The first and only holder of the World Computer Surfing Championship was a fella called Jed Stone,
And then into your office walks a bloke who looks a bit like Kramer from Seinfeld. He says that for the past 10 years he’s been taking psychedelic drugs and keeping a journal of his fucked-up experiences. He’d like to make it into a video game.
4. LSD: The Dream Emulator, 1998 (PlayStation)
Imagine you’re a high-powered executive at a Japanese games company. You’re job is to decide which ideas your company will throw its money at. The future of your organisation, the livelihood of hundreds of employees, depends on you making the right call.
And then into your office walks a bloke who looks a bit like Kramer from Seinfeld. He says that for the past 10 years he’s been taking psychedelic drugs and keeping a journal of his fucked-up experiences. He’d like to make it into a video game. This is what happened in 1998 at a company called Asmik Ace Entertainment and, for some bizarre reason, the men in suits said yes.
LSD: The Dream Emulator was an attempt to recreate the zonked out hallucinogenic dreams of a bloke called Hiroko Nishikawa. It came with a booklet containing extracts from his drugs diary which included entries such as:
“Thursday, March 5, 1992. I’m making lots of objects – dolls or something, maybe machines. They are alive.”
This wasn’t really a game, more of an experience. The nearest thing to a scoring system was a graph which charted whether you were on an upper or a downer. There was no objective; you just clomped around a freaky acid house world full of smiley faces, floating babies, giant eyes and general weirdness. Every time you bumped into something it warped you to a different place.
It was occasionally beautiful, sometimes disturbing but ultimately really fucking dull – an accurate reflection of most drugs. The ambient soundtrack was good though.
- LSD was discovered by a Swiss chemist called Albert Hoffman in 1938. He realised something odd was happening when his furniture started threatening him.
- Manchester band Northside’s LSD anthem, Shall We Take A Trip was used as the intro music for Granada Soccer Night.
3. Jack Charlton's Match Fishing, 1985 (C64 / Spectrum / Amstrad)
Multiplayer gaming is massive these days. Millions of whiney voiced nerds congregate on the virtual servers of games like Call of Duty to run around and shoot each other in the face.
But where did it all start?
If we follow the multiplayer trail back through time we find ourselves in a room in 1985. There’s a bewildered looking old man in a cloth cap who is hunched awkwardly over a ZX Spectrum. That’s Jack Charlton, the grandfather of multiplayer gaming. The former Leeds United player’s game, Jack Charlton’s Match Fishing, can lay a serious claim to being the first proper multiplayer experience – it was designed for eight players.
It was like an arthritic version of Twister. Each player was given a fishing position on the screen which corresponded to a number on the keyboard. So you all sat around the computer with your hands over the keyboard and gazed at a static image of a lake; waiting for something to happen. Just waiting. The physical logistics of this were quite a challenge. Imagine eight people crammed together around something the size of a bingo card for an extended period of time – games could last up to 90 minutes. This was quality family time when you really felt you’d got to know strange Uncle Rupert.
Eventually something would happen - a number would flash on the screen. Quite exciting. If they still had use of their arm, the corresponding player would press their button and a little animation would show if they had caught a fish or not. And then it was back to the lake and more waiting. Rumours of a follow-up to this called Don Revie’s Match Fixing proved to be unfounded.
Jack Charlton fact
- Jack Charlton’s real name is John.
There was a time, before the internet, when computer surfing involved the actual use of a surfboard.
2. Takeshi’s Challenge, 1986 (NES)
The intro screen warned: “This game was made by a man who hates video games.” And it was. This was a fantastic two-fingered salute to those who were daft enough to buy it.
The designer was a Japanese comedian and filmmaker called Takeshi Kitano. He’s the same bloke who created the whacky assault course show: Takeshi’s Castle. The idea for this came to him during a drunken rant about how much he hated video games. His intentions were admirable; he wanted to piss off as many gamers as possible. He did this via a series of mini-games. The first challenge involved having to sing a karaoke song over and over again for an hour. It used a microphone in the controller to make sure you kept up a constant noise.
Then there was a game in which you had to hold down a single button for four hours. Yep, that was it. Let go and you failed. Then there was the one where you controlled a spaceship which could only move down. So you always crashed and died. You had lots of this kind of insanity until the final challenge where you met an end of level boss - a digital version of Takeshi who required a total of 20,000 individual hits to defeat. This would take more than four hours of continuous button hammering. And the reward? A line of text informing the player that they were an idiot. Fair play, you have to respect that.
Takeshi Kitano facts
- Takeshi Kitano is the genius behind the binocular football of You Tube fame.
- He appeared opposite David Bowie in dull 80’s film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
1. Deus ex Machina (Spectrum / C64)
This was the nearest thing games has come to a prog rock album. It was created by a Portsmouth architect turned designer called Mel Croucher who was inspired by Frank Zappa and Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. It came on two cassettes, one of them for the game and the other a 42-minute soundtrack which synched up with what was happening on-screen.
The whole experience was fucking bats. There was weird throbbing synth music and narration provided by Worzel Gummidge actor Jon Pertwee. Ian Drury played the part of a fertilizer agent, Frankie Howerd raps and there were speeches by British historian EP Thompson. All of this was vaguely linked to a series of oddball mini-games which you interacted with. These looked like something from a Pink Floyd video and took you through the various stages of life from birth to middle-age and death. The story was hard to fathom but it was all kind of Orwellian mind control type stuff.
Croucher wanted Deus Ex Machina to change the face of gaming. He wanted to show the kind of creativity that could be achieved with the technology, and that you didn’t have to make games about shooting and violence. It received rave reviews but no fucker bought it – about 1,000 copies were sold at the time. Croucher became disillusioned and left the industry. Normal service was resumed.
Mel Croucher facts
- He claimed to have never played any games other than his own.
- Most of his other games involved a character called PiMan with a penis shaped nose.