First: The one where I throw money at a shelf
Media saturation is something we harp on about around here, to the point of abstracted irony. There are a lot of very good, very salient and clever reasons it’s a bad thing; a lack of proper reporting means the industry lacks credibility, the quality of writing goes down overall, and journalists end up doing the work of PR departments. But, perhaps most importantly, it also strips our hobby of much of its innocence. Seldom do any of us get to experience a video game without first being bombarded with every minute factoid on the product.
It’s easier when you’re a kid, of course. You buy games because you saw them on TV, or your friends have them, or you saw it advertised in a shop window. Then you have fun. I can’t think of many games I played as a kid that I didn’t at least partially enjoy – even Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Blowout, which asked you to murder beloved cartoon characters with a hammer because they’re jealous of how awesome you are.
I read a lot of magazines even as a child, having earlier in my life exhausted the contents of the dictionary and the encyclopedia (now act surprised that I was always a gigantic nerd, while I put my polygonal dice into my comic-themed backpack). As a result I was already making somewhat informed decisions on what to buy or avoid. Particularly after my mother introduced the concept of paying for my own things, something I still hold against her. But the first time I splurged on a game while blindfolded has, in retrospect, been more memorable than most of the titles I collated peer-reviewed testimony on.
Technically the first time I bought a game without knowing anything was Jazz Jackrabbit in 1994, and that still stands as one of my favourite platforming experiences. But that glorious 90s-coated story of how rabbits are super cool and turtles are evil nerds fails on two counts: I didn’t risk my own money, for a start; and it came from the sole computer shop in my small home town, which stocked only that game and Warcraft, and was staffed by a man called Stan.
An electronics, appliance and computer chain opened a store in the town next door. In the future, I would use the entirety of my pre-student job income to purchase a slightly dented flat screen Sony television (top of the line at the time), but for the moment I was only interested in the game section. An entire wall of games! Well, a section of the wall anyway. Four whole shelves. I had never seen such a glorious display, and immediately I wanted them all. But I held off, because pocket money doesn’t grow on trees and considered research is what teenagers are known for.
Eventually I had a pile of money that was just the right size for either a PlayStation game or an overdose-level stash of red frogs – the cocaine of the child world. I went to the shop, full of information and purpose, then… I was paralysed by choice. Too many games, too much responsibility.
Bugger it, thinks me, and I scan the shelves for something interesting. Being impulsive is a good character trait for a young person, shopper, boyfriend or unconventional English teacher that inadvertently leads to the suicide of a student. Although it’s probably better than his inevitable slide into patriarchal mediocrity. Regardless, I see this:
A scary looking car with radical fins emerging from all over like a vehicular demon? Incoming rockets and explosions? “Rock & Roll” right there in the title? Shut up and take my money. Caring not a single jot for never having heard of the game (or its forerunner), I bought it and ran home.
It could have gone horribly wrong. If I could go back in time and speak to myself without cracking the timestream in twain, I might tell me that the signal to noise ratio in games is as bad as (if not worse than) anything else; there’s a lot of garbage for just a little gold. It could have been a precursor to Too Human or BMXXX. I could have died.
Thankfully, none of this came to pass. Red Asphalt (as it was known in the US) is Mario Kart by way of Judge Dredd. Aliens have invaded the Earth and enslaved the human population, forcing them – along with other slave races – to engage in violent racing tournaments. Prisoners have to rise through the ranks for the chance to face Dranek, the Space Hitler of the piece, in mortal car combat. Tracks are lined with lava and the screaming alien masses, while downtrodden and desperate people are murdered by missiles, lasers and dirty tricks. A gruff fellow called Motormouth – so named because accidents have replaced his jaw with cybernetics – elaborates on plot details in the manner of a depressed, robotic Wolverine.
Years before Darksiders dug deep into Todd McFarlane-style, hardcore boyish fantasy, Rock & Roll Racing 2 was putting us behind the wheel of sports cars that look like venomous snakes and hovering luxury death machines while an announcer yelled “CASH!” and “SHIELD!” with the throaty fervor of a Christian Bale Batman. One of the sub-bosses is called Bone Daddie, without a hint of self-awareness. Each car you purchase isn’t just a vehicle, it’s a character all on its own. They all get their own promotional video, a bizarre cross between a television advertisement for a Ferrari and a trailer for a summer blockbuster. One example – the Tormentor – is a tank which resembles a scorpion, and the announcer seems to suggest it will allow the driver to get revenge on scorpions. Good; smug arachnid bastards.
If I had followed my own research, I might never have had the chance to be screeched at by an insane clown man as rockets were launched at my rear on the surface of an alien planet. I’d never have learned the exacting patterns of a mad dictator’s weapon fire as we careened around his personal arena, all the while knowing that death was suddenly permanent and irreversible. I could have gone my whole life without driving something called a “Hell Falcon”. So my suggestion is that you go out as soon as possible and pick up a game you’ve never heard of, just because you like the cover. And then have some fun. Because that’s what video games are for.