In this new series, our Gaminghounds writers take a trip down memory lane to talk through five video games that formed their childhood.
First to offer a nostalgic insight is Josh Langrish, who reminisces about fighting goons alongside siblings, watching iconic TV spots and solving absurd puzzles.
Streets of Rage – Sega Mega Drive – 1991
I recall playing this 16-bit side-scrolling beat ’em up as young as three or four and playing this game every day with my brother, sister, and cousins on holiday in Spain and back home.
The “storyline” is that some criminal syndicate has taken over the city with legions of punks, cronies, and other boundering ne’er-do-wells. Three young police officers named Adam, Axel, and Blaze – who, luckily for the city, are inexplicably experts in boxing, martial arts, and judo – have taken it upon themselves to clean up the streets.
Gameplay-wise, one or two players punch, kick, and suplex their way through the streets, eliminating the groups of enemies that emerge from off-screen and garage doors before being able to progress. In ‘2-Player Mode’ you can walk into your teammate, grab them, and vault over their body, hurling yourself like a bowling ball into a cluster of biker-gang hooligans. This mechanic sounds slick but let me tell you, many a-tiff occurred back in the day with my siblings when I’d find myself grabbed “accidentally” by Player 2 with no ability to move away, suddenly turning me into a helpless, pixelated, fleshy punchbag for whatever gutter goon loomed nearby. Luckily, the faultless chiptune hip house jammers by Yuzo Koshiro’s acclaimed soundtrack was the perfect salve to quell any hurt caused by such petty familial slights.
One specific memory I have of the game is in the final stage where you confront mob boss Mr X. He offers you to join his ranks, at which point you can reply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Being 3 or 4 at the time, I couldn’t read Mr X’s proposal. I knew that one of the options resulted in being sent back several stages whilst the other resulted in an epic boss fight with Mr X. I could never remember which option was correct and always used to coin toss it. At any rate, the fact that I can play this bad boy whenever I want on my magic phone pleases my inner child to no end. Though, depressingly, I’m somehow not as good at the game as my 4-year-old self. The current brand of copium I’m inhaling is that the difficulty must have bugged after being ported to the iPhone. Please, for my ego, let this be the reason.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – Nintendo Gamecube – 2004
This classic action-adventure puzzle-platformer was the first game I purchased with my own earned money. The TV spot/advert promoting the game etched into my brain jelly involved parkour and time manipulation. If there’s a more effective combination of game mechanics to pique the interest of an 11-year-old me, I have not seen it.
As an arrogant 9th-century Prince who is forced to galavant around a dystopian palace to reverse some eldritch sand curse, you are confronted with all manner of automated traps, puzzles, and sand zombies, making it impossible for your average mouth-breather to traverse the place. The Prince, however, can run along walls, wall jump, swing from pole to pole, climb columns and ledges – the whole shebang. He’s also armed with The Dagger of Time; a weapon with a time-reversal mechanic, allowing you to reset the last ten seconds that have elapsed, undoing whatever fatal combat or parkour-related mishap has befallen you. You can also slow time, allowing you to hack away at enemies quicker than your enemies can say Nebuchadnezzar of Mesopotamia. I remember how, after dying, the game waits for a handful of seconds, giving you a window to rewind time back to pre-demise safety. This detail never failed to tickle me as a teen as the “window” after your death would create a very awkward scene of still silence with no typical ‘Game Over’ splash screen to save the cringe.
You very much get the sense with the parkour, combat, and historical setting that the series laid the groundwork for what was to become Ubisoft’s other, more successful franchise, Assassin’s Creed. The fluid, dynamic multi-enemy lock-on system where the Prince seamlessly slashes one zombie, cartwheels, and slices another with one flick of the joystick reminds me, in hindsight, of the innovative combat system in the Batman: Arkham series; the combos, the use of the surrounding environment,, the blocking and countering, the crowd control, etc – the Batman blueprints are all there.
Whilst I prefer the sequel, Warrior Within, which expands the acrobatic combat system to its limits, it’s this first entry that I associate most with being a kid.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – Nintendo Gamecube – 2006
Regarded at the time as the Gamecube’s swansong, this instalment of the Zelda franchise is one that I hold dear to that old chunk of coal inside my chest. Now, whilst it is true that I adore Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask and also associate these games with a happy childhood, I never played these two classics on the Nintendo 64. Instead, I played them via the Zelda Collector’s Edition that came free with the Gamecube console bundle accompanying Mario Kart: Double Dash!!.
Windwaker never appealed to me as a youngster; there was something about the cell-shaded graphics and focus on sailing that made it not feel like a Zelda game. Twilight Princess, however, returned to the classic format with a more down-to-earth art style that immediately hooked me. The game felt, to me, at the time, like a modern remake of Ocarina of Time; the polygons were now smooth, the quaintly compact Hyrule now expanded to grand landscapes, and the iconic ditties now remastered with epic orchestral suites.
The tonal interplay of the cosy charm of Ordon village, the majestic grandeur of Hyrule field, and the unnervingly dark imagery (specifically this infamous Lynchian nightmare fuel) was so endlessly compelling. One second you’re having an epic battle with an evil god to the sound of booming war drums, and the next second you’re running around a ruin trying to help a yeti make a fishy pumpkin cheese soup for his poorly wife. I can even remember telling my Dad about the game as a teenager, hyping it up as some epic dungeon-crawler where you fight fire demons and sea dragons, only for him to ask, “What are you doing now?” and me, without flinching, saying, “Oh, I’m making some soup for a yeti”.
The surprising reveal of Zant and his true nature of being a delusional, childish sycophant for Ganondorf and not an enigmatic, fey, and omnipotent deity of Twilight had a profound impact on me as a teen in terms of character twists in fiction. So much so that, to this day, the word ‘Zant’ is used among my friends to refer to situations when an intimidating person or serious scenario is discovered to be juvenile, laughably petty, or undemanding. “Did you see Ben Kingsley in Iron Man 3? He goes full Zant my guy”.
The Curse of Monkey Island – PC – 1997
The Curse of Monkey Island was the first Monkey Island game I played from beginning to end when I was roughly 10 or 11. You play as ambitious but naive wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood during the mythicized Caribbean piracy period of the 1700s, rife with all the curses, ghost ships, treasure hunting, and general swashbucklery you’d expect in buccaneering fantasy. But if you know the surrealist absurdity of this game series, you shouldn’t be too astoundaghast to hear that the so-called “solutions” to the puzzles are hardly simple let alone intuitive.
We’re talking Dark Souls difficulty point-and-click puzzle solving on acid. The number of times I, as a wee lad, spammed every corner of every scene, trying to use every item on every interactable object for hours, only to be like, “OH! OF COURSE! I need the bottomless mug to pour red dye on the sunbather’s stomach to reveal a map tattooed on his back so I can use oil from the beach club cabin to fry his skin and peel the map off of him! It’s OBVIOUS!”. This A to B to C to 9 to ¿ to & to ₱ back to A to D logic that the game taught me as a child must have done either irreparable brain damage or blessed me with superhuman mental gymnastics. The jury is still out on that one.
The game was a building block (or to blame) for my entire sense of humour. The world of the series is a satirical, po-mo, Groening-esque depiction of piracy; of the ilk found in The Simpsons Halloween specials (think the infamous cursed frogurt scene). The ominous scenery of the accursed undead, voodoo priestesses, and cut-throat blige rats is juxtaposed comedically by anachronistic references to modern life, subtle sardonic dunks on corporate bureaucracy and consumerism, and an ironic detachment from the high-stakes seriousness of the plot. It’s this fusion of comedy and puzzle-solving that led the way for future beloved comedic games such as Portal and The Stanley Parable, to name a few, and in terms of shaping my sense of humour, it has a lot of blood on its hands. My friends and I have certainly milked the game series dry when it comes to making in-jokes, quotes, and references. How appropriate, you fight like a cow! (I had to do it).
Thief II – PC – 2000
Whenever I received the odd fiver or tenner from birthday cards as a sprog, I would go to the local branch of GAME and go straight to the PC game aisle where there was a “3 Sold Out Software Games for £10” deal. You’d find games like Tomb Raider II, Red Alert, Black & White, Colin McRae Rally, The Nomad Soul, etc. When I was roughly 9, I took home Thief: The Dark Project, Thief II, and one other PC game. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the first game, it was the sequel that I ended up replaying. A lot.
The world of Thief takes place in a medieval city that is dappled with Victorian technology; some uchronic cocktail of gothic, gaslight fantasy, and steampunk whereby stone forts, city walls, and flying buttresses sit amongst electrical gizmos, mechanical bots, and steam engines in a simmering pool of dark fantasy. I’m ashamed to say that my obsession with the game as a 9-year-old led me to unironically use the ‘Thief’ logo (with a bleeding dagger for the ‘T’ and all) as a signature for my friends’ birthday cards for about half a year. If this memory doesn’t make you wince enough, I even recall using this signature in my class’ birthday card to our teacher for that year. Cringe.
Thief II is first and foremost a stealth game, and the series essentially invented the genre. The game has you memorising patrol routes of guards, lockpicking forbidden doors, hiding in shadows, avoiding loud surfaces, using gadgets to aid your snooping expeditions, knocking out and hiding enemies, and scrounging all the valuables you can lay your filthy larcenous mitts on.
Speaking of mitts, you can see the Thief series’ fingerprints all over the modern gaming landscape. You see it in the visibility mechanics of the Splinter Cell series, the setting of the Dishonored series, and the fantastical horror of maniacal political sects in the Bioshock series (the similarity with the latter isn’t that shocking considering game developer Ken Levine worked on both Thief and Bioshock). Not only was Thief such a happy staple of my gaming childhood, but it’s directly because of the originality of the game that led me to play and love that pantheon of games so greatly influenced by it. A classic. Simple as.