The Rear-View Mirror: Lemmings (1991)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I’ve been playing computer games for… well, it’s been a while. My parents got a C-64 when I was about nine years old, back in the Cold War-and-neon days of 1983. Many of my fondest gaming memories go back to the time when pixels were the size of your fist and anything more than 16 colours on the same screen was not just luxurious but simply not possible. Later, when I was a teenager, I upgraded to the next Commodore model, the Amiga, but it never felt as iconic as the good old ‘breadbox’ did. When I think of the games that I grew up with, I think of the likes of International Soccer, ParadroidWizball and World Games, all of them on the C-64. Sure, I had some fun times playing Amiga games, but they didn’t have that ineffable thing that the technically more primitive games on the older, slower, less capable machine did.

There are a handful of exceptions, though. And the one that comes to mind in an instant is best described by the sound of a squeaky voice going “Oh no!”

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Retro pixelly goodness

What is it about pixels that makes Original Gamers like me all gooey and nostalgic? Show us mid-90s polygons and we’ll go, “Ugly! Get it outta my sight!” Show us one of the original Space Invaders, or Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Clyde, and we get teary-eyed as if we’d just seen the first glimpse of our PC after having been held hostage by computer-hating luddites for six months. Mix it with those bleepy sounds of yesteryear (or, more accurately, yestercentury), and we’re back in the past, back at school where we consider ourselves much cooler than the Chess Club set but are just as incapable of getting a date… but at least we’ve got a firm grip on our joysticks, haven’t we?

There’s an entire branch of computer-based painting called Pixel Art (and if anyone goes Ebert on the term, I’ll make sure that they wake up gnawed at by an army of rabid hamsters) that is all about using the limitations of pixels to nostalgic effect. Pixel art isn’t necessarily as rough and basic as the original Donkey Kong – higher resolutions mean more pixels – but it tends to have a similar style as those Where’s Waldo? books. Check out this Pixel Art London (click on the pic for the full effect):

What is it about pixels that has that effect, at least on those of us who’ve been playing games since the heady days of the C-64, NES or Spectrum ZX? Is it the Lego-combined-with-OCD look? Is it a hankering for simpler, better times when we didn’t need to upgrade our computers every year to make games run well, when we didn’t need to download half-a-gig patches just to make the games work that we’ve just bought? What makes a good instance of pixel art much more charming than 90% of current-gen polygons (other than the fact that all too many current games cater to frat-boy, jock-straps-and-boobies tastes that never did much for me)?

I don’t know, but I want to leave you with this video – one month later than the rest of the internet, mind you:

Shredding geeks

Many gamers are looking for one semi-mythic, intangible quality in games: immersion. It’s basically the ineffable property of making you forget that you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or TV, grasping a gamepad or a mouse, and feel that you’re really there. But, let’s face it, even with the most immersive games you never feel like you’re a mute MIT graduate saving the world with a gun in one hand and a crowbar in the other, or a cyber-ninja special operative infiltrating terrorist strongholds or a Persian prince able to run along steep walls and turn back time. There are worlds between playing FIFA 08 and actually kicking a football – there’s little to no comparison between pressing X or O and propelling a leather ball towards the enemy goal with your foot. Possibly the only game that offers near-absolute immersion is computerised chess, because as if you’re, like, really playing chess!

Okay, enough sarcasm – what I’m getting at is this: there are few games that make you believe you’re really doing what your on-screen avatar is doing. Fair enough, really; there are limits to how much I’d want to believe I’m being shot at by alien armies while killer zombies are trying to chew my frontal lobe. And I definitely don’t want to believe I’m actually playing football at Wembley Stadium.

There is a game (or several games, by now) that gives you a fairly convincing illusion that you’re actually doing the thing you’re playing, and that game is called Guitar Hero. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve only recently started to play it again. And it’s great fun. Looked at objectively, it should be a humiliating experience: you stand there holding a plastic toy shaped like a Gibson guitar, pressing colour buttons and strumming a white bar in sync with popular rock songs. You’re as close to rock stardom as Third French Lord in an amateur production of Henry V is from saying, “And I would like to thank the Academy…”

But, hell, if it isn’t fun… And it does a great job of making you feel like you’re playing complex solos, totally rocking the place, dude! The game mainly works because the rock songs used make for surprisingly good videogame levels. So far, I’ve only made it to the second of four difficulty levels with any success – I’m only using four of the five fret buttons, which means that my hands are in for some pretty bad strain. But the choice of songs is almost perfect: Guitar Hero has everything from ’70s glam rock to ’80s cheese rock (is that a term? it should be!) to 21st century alternative rock. And since I don’t really listen to the radio, it’s this game that has introduced me to the following eminently cool song:

However, there’s a further turn of the screw to my geek joy. I’m very much an old-school gamer – I played games on machines that are practically Etch-a-Sketches compared to a five-year old mobile phone. My first slice of nerd heaven was a Commodore 64, a name that still brings on a hush of awe in the right crowd. The C-64 has been defunct for decades, yet there are insane people still working with them… and this is where I don’t care just how nerdy and geeky I sound, but the following is just distilled nostalgic coolness: