What year did you start gaming? If I had to pick a year, it would be 1991. Now I have a 28-year gaming history behind me and a long memory for the best games I ever played. I play the big new games as they come out and I love the realistic environments and thrilling action but nobody who was a serious gamer in the early years can fail to look back with nostalgia. If that’s you, I have good news for you. Some of those early titles have been reinvented for modern hardware and some are playable in their original form. Here are 6 of the best games that you had the unique privilege of playing when they were new, and some ways to recapture the experiences that shaped your life in gaming.
Dizzy the Egg (Oliver Twins / Codemasters, 1987)
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Dizzy the Egg was the hero of a series of platform games that were first created for the ZX Spectrum and the Amstrad. A huge hit series of the 80s and early 90s, the classic Dizzy games were adventures, often based on fairytales, with puzzle-solving elements. Dizzy rolled and bounced around the environment, saving princesses, bargaining with wizards and defending his villagers, the Yolk Folk.
Dizzy had such a cult following that a core of developers and fans have never stopped trying to keep it alive. We have seen Dizzy ported to mobile platforms, the Oliver Twins have discovered and released Dizzy games that were written in the 90s and thought to be lost and other games have taken Dizzy as inspiration, including fangames.
How to play: The fastest way to get into a game of Dizzy right now is to get Dizzy: Prince of the Yolkfolk for the iPad, released 2011. It is based on Magicland Dizzy (1990) and veteran gamers may remember the opening puzzle which has Dizzy setting fire to a pile of leaves to escape from an underground dungeon. Website www.yolkfolk.com is a trip down memory lane and an elaborate archive of a game that celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017.
The Chaos Engine (Bitmap Brothers / Renegade Software, 1993)
This top-down shoot-em-up was first released for the Commodore Amiga and later ported to SNES and Sega Mega Drive. It’s an early example of steampunk. There’s a sci-fi story of out-of-control, sentient machinery. The visual environment is full of cogs, exposed pipes and crumbling pillars. The music is a dirty, techno soundscape that fills every level with urgency There’s a cast of vaguely Victorian playable characters with names like ‘Gentleman’, ‘Preacher’ and ‘Thug’.
The Chaos Engine was remastered in 2013 by Abstraction Games for play on Windows and Mac systems. It is available on Steam but you may need to tweak your settings in Windows to get it to work. The good news for lovers of The Chaos Engine is that there’s a gloriously complete long-play video on YouTube, where you can immerse yourself in over 70 minutes of Engine, played on an Amiga with the original sound and graphics.
You might also like: Frostpunk shares Chaos Engine’s steampunk aesthetics and moody atmosphere. Bioshock Infinite is a modern triumph of steampunk, a feast for the eyes and imagination.
Dune and Dune II (Cryo & Westwood Studios / Virgin Games, 1992)
Paul Atreides. House of Harkonnen. Spice wars. Dune was an epic and strangely romantic work of sci-fi, originally a 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, then a 1984 film directed by David Lynch, then finally a game. The game had the player take on the role of Atreides, a young hero who needs to harvest spice from the limited natural resources of the planet Dune, refine it at his growing military base and attempt to extinguish the heavily-armed Harkonnen forces. Dune II, in particular, is credited with having set the conventions for real-time strategy games that would last for generations.
The theme and mechanics of Dune lived on in the later products of Westwood Studios, particularly its Command & Conquer series, in which factions compete to take control of a substance called tiberium, clearly derived from spice. In 2018, EA Games, the current publisher of the C&C series, announced that it will remaster Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn, Command & Conquer: Red Alert and all the expansion packs. This will happen in conjunction with Petroglyph Games, many of whom are the original developers from Westwood Studios. This is fantastically exciting news for veteran gamers who will be able to once again immerse themselves in the work of Joe Bostic, Steve Tall, Mike Legg and audio director Frank Klepacki. The remastered set is expected to release in 2020, to coincide with C&C’s 25th anniversary.
Populous (Bullfrog Productions / Electronic Arts, 1989)
Populous was probably the defining work of the early career of Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog Productions. It was possibly the first god game and had players take on the role of a deity who could raise and lower landscapes and command an army. Each level of Populous had the player compete with a computer-generated opposing deity and you would fight to occupy land and crush each other’s followers. Visually simple and strategically complex, it had immense replay value. I used to go to bed at night with the red and blue dots of the opposing armies burned into my retinas.
If you are set on reliving those experiences, Populous, Populous II (1991) and Populous: The Beginning (1998) are all available from EA via the Origin platform. If you have difficulty launching these antique titles from the Origin library, go straight to the directory where you installed the games and launch them from there – I managed to get Populous running using this technique.
Molyneux left Bullfrog soon after it was acquired by EA and founded Lionhead Studios and later 22 Cans. The most recent Molyneux game which has the land-raising and lowering feature you remember from Populous is Godus (2014), a gentle and pretty god game that is like the lovable infant offspring of Populous, despite being surrounded by controversy over financing and customer service issues during its lifetime.
The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986)
Zelda is one of the longest-running video game franchises, launching with The Legend of Zelda in 1986 and the most recent versions being Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) and Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition (2018), the latter using Zelda’s setting and characters. It’s an action-adventure series created by Japanese developers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. In a typical game of the Zelda series, the player becomes the elf character Link, a figure similar to Peter Pan, who is given a task such as rescuing a princess from an evil wizard, solving puzzles along the way. The series is critically acclaimed and has achieved levels of awareness, even among non-gamers, that surpass most other games, despite being exclusively available for Nintendo hardware.
Today, fans of this franchise that’s now over 30 years old love to discuss the reasons for its enduring appeal. It centres on a sense of wonder and discovery. With each new iteration the game worlds have grown larger and the player is dropped into that world to explore, uncover secrets and solve puzzles – activities which the game rewards and depends on for its story to unfold. Combat is there, of course, but it is not the sole purpose for the game’s existence. It offers a rich emotional experience and offers opportunities to create treasured memories.
Breath of the Wild is available from the Nintendo store, where 500 customers rated it 9.6/10.
Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981)
The famous, barrel-throwing gorilla first appeared as an arcade game in 1981. If your first encounter with Donkey Kong goes back that far, know that he is still alive. The original gorilla is now an elder called Cranky Kong and he and his children and grandchildren are still playable in regular iterations of the game, which has evolved from a single-screen arcade game into a side-scrolling platform adventure. The most recent version is Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Retro Studios for the Wii U and Nintendo Switch, 2018).
Donkey Kong 64 (a mere 20 years old) gained media attention in January this year when British streamer Harry Brewis (hbomberguy) played for 57 hours to raise money for a controversial children’s charity, resulting in reports that he netted £250,000. It was an interesting choice of game: Brewis said he selected it because he’d tried and failed to complete it in childhood. It is notoriously full of collectible items and requires considerable persistence to complete. It was the first in the Donkey Kong series to feature 3D gameplay. The original arcade version of the game appears in Donkey Kong 64 so if you held on to your Nintendo 64, you can relive your earliest gaming experiences, going back to before Brewis was born.
Which were your favourite games? Street Fighter? Mortal Kombat? How about Monkey Island or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis? What do you miss from the golden age of gaming that you would like to see re-introduced into games today?