We don’t often talk about the vidyagames on here, but I’m in the mood. I always liked board games, but I was more committed to video games before I really got into miniature games, board games, and RPGS. So what games shaped my tastes and have really stayed with me over the years.
There are actually a lot of games that really helped to shape my tastes, and so for today I’m focusing on two groupings.
The Nintendo Years
Super Mario World
This was the first video game that really captured my imagination and, subsequently, my heart. I’d played NES and Master System games at other people’s houses and they were fun. I liked Mario Brother 3, for example. None of them stuck with me in the same way as Super Mario World, and no game has really beaten it for me since – certainly not when it comes to platformers. It just felt like this perfect thing.
The game had challenge, especially once you started working on Star World and whatnot. I didn’t even know about the stage after start world until about a decade after I first got the game.
E.V.O.: Search for Eden
This is a slightly obscure, underrated gem that I’ve been playing for years and still return to regularly. It’s great. You start off as a wee fish, nibbling away at other creatures to absorb evolution points, allowing you to upgrade your fish in different ways. You can add a horn, improve dorsal fins, change the jaws, increase body size and so on. As you progress, you go on to evolve through different eras before ending up as a mammal.
I love that there are real choices to make in terms of the path you take. Do you go for tough and stout, lean and aggressive, lithe and quick? By mixing and matching different upgrades you can end up with quite different creatures for each playthrough. The game is fundamentally a platformer with controls that are not as tight as a game like Mario, but the precision of the platforming is not really the point in this case.
Kirby’s Fun Pak
Known as Kirby Super Star elsewhere, Kirby’s Fun Pak was a fantastic anthology of smaller Kirby Games. It is also the best iteration of Kirby that has been released to date. The initial two games, Spring Breeze and Dyna Blade are both lovely games that perfectly capture the spirit of Kirby.
Where this collection gets more interesting to me is in three of the other games. Revenge of Meta Knight is a cool, longer-form game with a central story of Kirby hunting down Meta Knight. The Great Cave Offensive is a fantastic treasure hunt where you are not really playing through different levels as such, but going from room to room in a huge, single cave. it just felt expansive, and the treasure hunt aspect added challenge to a game that would otherwise be quite straightforward. Finally, Milky Way Wishes is just epic. It’s a huge adventure that sees Kirby travelling from planet to planet. What’s really different about this is that Kirby is unable to absorb powers from enemies, but instead works to unlock powers on different planets and can then switch freely between these powers after they have been obtained.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
When I was in my second year of secondary school, I fell quite ill with a virus that completely floored me. Because of a weakness in the legs that this caused, I was not able to walk during this time and was put on an aggressive course of steroids. Coupled with constant nausea and tiredness, this was a pretty awful couple of months and I missed a lot of school. The only upside was that I got to fully play through a couple of really great adventure games. The first of these was Link’s Awakening, the Gameboy’s very own Zelda offering.
I understand that this is not the biggest, nor objectively one of the ‘best’ Zelda titles, but because of my situation at the time it’s the one that I had the best run at, and which helped me as a significant distraction. The game felt like the perfect implementation of the Gameboy, and it managed to fit well within the little screen and still feel like an expansive world.
Zelda is a game series that I struggle to engage with. I don’t know if it’s the pace, the controls or some other factor that just makes it hard for the games to click with me, but this is the one that I dove right into. A lot of fond memories.
The Bullfrog Obsession
Getting our first Windows-based PC was a game changer. Up until that point we’d had the SNES (still the greatest ever console. Fight me!) and my mother’s old AMSTRAD. As an office device, the AMSTRAD was perfectly adequate for the time, though it was starting to show its age.
When we got our first PC that could run WIndows 95 (a Dell, no less), that was exciting. It did not take me long to start picking up some amazing games for it, but nothing held my attention quite like the games that came out of Bullfrog.
The first game we got for our PC, Theme Park was huge. I mean, just look at the amount of space you have to build your park! Look at the cause-and-effect economics of the game, like adding more salt to your fries to drive up drink sales. Look at the graphics! So impressive for the time.
This game kept my attention for years, and it’s one that I kept going back to over and over. It really earned its place in history and it’s just a pity that none of the official sequels ever really recaptured the magic of the original.
This was also my first real strategy/sim game, and it really instilled in me a love for the genre.
Theme Hospital was very different to Theme park in a lot of ways. Thematically, this was evident as you were not running a hospital rather than a theme park, but there were more interesting and important differences. Whereas a young me had always felt that Theme Park gave me quite a lot of space in which to play, Theme Hospital felt much more claustrophobic. That’s not a bad thing. By limiting the available space, and attaching significant costs to expansion, the game forced you to really consider what you were doing with your buildings. The micromanagement of staff was also much more important, and is an aspect of the game that I really love.
Although Theme park was a game that embraced humour, Theme Hospital was genuinely funny. Add to that engaging gameplay and real challenge in later levels, and we have a game that I was happy to come back to again and again. Unlike Theme Park, Theme Hospital does still see some play from me, usually a couple of times a year.
Theme Dungeon in all but name, Dungeon Keeper is another absolute classic by Bullfrog and their last truly stellar game. This is a game that I still play with some regularity as, although it’s now old enough to drink in the US, it holds up. It holds up damn well.
The premise sees you taking on the role of an evil overlord, building your subterranean lair, recruiting, caring for, and training a menagerie of monsters and using them to take down the do-gooding heroes of the land, or indeed a rival Keeper. Sometimes both.
This is the one game from this list that I still probably play every month. The core gameplay is just wonderful and I love so many aspects of the game. I love optimising my dungeon, designing my underground dwellings with a solid plan to really help my minions get around without too much wasted time. One of my absolute favourite parts of the game was captuting heroes, especially Giants, Wizards and Archers, and torturing them until they joined by nefarious side. Now that was satisfying.
This might genuinely beat out Super Mario World to be my favourite ever video game.
In part 2, we’ll move onto the optical media era, back when you had to buy your games on shiny round discs. I understand that you can still do this, but not why you would want to. Catch y’all then!