It's no lie that I wasn't the best gamer when I was a teenager. There were many factors involved - in particular I was something of a victim of the bad press games got in the 80's and 90's.
A gamer today might well laugh that those cartoony, blocky 8 and 16-bit games were considered a bad influence by many adults ranging from teachers to parents to church leaders and even politicians back then but, it was all too true. As a result of this, I sometimes was lucky to have more than a 10-minute go any game on my passed-down ZX Spectrum + 48k. I was also banned from upgrading to a newer computer system for what ended up being around 4 years.
My entire gaming session could be consumed just trying to get the tape to load, and when my 48k machine did comply, taking around three and a half minutes to load, with my lack of practice and the cruel 'copied from an arcade cabinet designed to eat all your coins' toughness of 8-bit games - I would usually be swamped by enemies, hear a sound like electronic flatulence through the Spectrum's speaker, and then find myself confronted by those cruel, cruel words - 'GAME OVER'. Frustration, factor 11 out of 10, Captain.
Something of a way around this came about by way of visits to a good friend's house, where he would let me play two player games with him on whichever up-to-date console he happened to have at the time (he was always saving for the latest, greatest console and trading in his 'old' machine, even owning an Atari Jaguar briefly). Even so, when I played Tails and he played Sonic the Hedgehog, I was always lagging behind and getting returned to the screen automatically.
My friend laughed at my Street Fighter 2 technique, and used to say "Are you just pressing any button and seeing what happens?". The answer was "Yes" - I was! It wasn't all my lack of practise though, every now and then the player 2 controller seemed to mysteriously work it's way out of the socket while I wasn't paying attention. Hmm. Interesting.
Meanwhile, I was up to my own tricks at home - using a walkthrough printed in the magazine 'Your Sinclair' to reach the end of a Dizzy adventure game, and then inviting a different schoolmate in from the next house (I don't live anywhere near there today) to show off to him. I don't think he really believed me but, it was a brief bit of fun. He was worse off than me in the playground computer 'arms race', only owning a ZX81 - Sinclair's predecessor to the Spectrum.
Like many young gamers, I used cheats known as 'pokes' to get infinite lives and other power ups in games, and a favourite purchase of mine was a Romantic Robot Multiface, which plugged into the back of the ZX Spectrum. One press of it's lone red, button froze the game (which, knowing more than I did back then, I believe is done with a Non-Maskable Interrupt, or NMI), and you could enter in cheats printed in magazines. Similar systems exsisted on the big name consoles - action replay being one of the best known ones.
Years later, at the turn of the millennium I was a young adult and working as much overtime as I could, at any time of day and night I could. In the New Year of 2001, I realised that I had just enough money spare for a cheap console and decided to treat myself to one of the new slim PS One consoles in the New Year Sales. I went for the 'Music Maker 2000' pack, and the shop assistant said I could choose one more disc as part of the deal - I chose Air Combat (known as Ace Combat in Japan and it's subsequent worldwide sequels).
The decision was largely based on two movies I remembered, one being Top Gun starring Tom Cruise, and Wolfgang Peterson's more recent Air Force One, from 1997, which some reviewers had scoffed at for being a very unlikely scenario but, was still quite entertaining. On a side note, I think HD telly hasn't been kind to Air Force One's special effects - it could probably use a remaster.
Another shop, not far away sold cheap 'Platinum' label games, and I soon added Tomb Raider, Medal of Honor, and Colin McRae Rally to my new games library.
At first I wasn't brilliant, and with no overnight success, Music Maker 2000 got the most of my time, lacking as it did any way to lose but ,slowly - I managed to make progress in the games, which - notably - were all 3D. I still lost over and over again but what success I had grew in each session. People would ask me what I was doing tonight, and I would joke "I've got a date with Lara Croft."
A real change occurred when I was given a very old but, large, CRT type colour television - suddenly the game worlds were presented to me in much clearer detail and I now knew where the various items were and could see alternate routes previously invisible in the blur of my aging portable telly.
The PS One controller was excellent as well - joysticks had only made sense for flight sims after my first console, a woodgrain Atari VCS. I have strong memories of finding a joypad, which I'm 99% sure was a Hewson Consultants product, in a shop and preferring to use that on the 48k 'Speccy'. Something of an indicator I was very much an 80's kid, and a 90's teenager, rather than the slightly older 70's/80's generation.
The analogue controls on the PS One controller seemed fiddly at first but became more familiar later, and I found the built-in rumble pack funny, rebuking, and atmospheric - all at the same time.
I can never remember which came first - it was either Tomb Raider or Medal of Honor but, I finally made it to the last level and beyond. In the case of Tomb Raider, I found that I really understood the puzzles. Like many 80's kids I had been a fan of Indiana Jones ( I landed on my back once trying to scale a fence with my whip - actually the co-axial cable off my telly - which subsequently snapped under my skinny weight!) and now I could enter a very similar world and solve the same sort of puzzles as Indy, only I was controlling a sexy posh woman with Madonna-style pointy mammaries.
Medal of Honor also (in a way) tapped-into the Indy style of adventure, and complemented my GCSE History studies - in fact the game was made as an educational tool in the first place, with input from Steven Spielberg, and the excellent musical score by Michael Giacchino who recently scored the movies Jurassic World and Star Trek (2009 reboot) also deserves a mention.
No cheats - that felt so amazing, thanks Eidos, thanks Dreamworks - I had just completed my first two games with no cheats. Air Combat followed not long after. I was on a (barrel) roll!
More legitimate completions followed - Medal of Honor:Underground, Driver, Colin McRae Rally. I felt unstoppable!
Who'd have thought - the bespectacled kid with the out of date computer was actually better at colourful 3D games than he had been at those old colour clashing, monochrome 2D games on the ZX Spectrum! The PS One and I had gelled, and we made an awesome team.
It wouldn't be until I started making - and therefore repeatedly testing - my own Spectrum games in 2014 that I finally got better at the 2D classics. As for my PS One - it's long gone, and I use an old PS2 picked up a few years ago for £30 GBP for my backward-compatible retro fun. In fact, just over the May bank holiday weekend, I completed Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere (legitimately and without cheats), which I didn't own back then, as a bit of a treat and rest from making my own homebrew platform game Cap'n Rescue for PC.
Who knows - if I played a game against my old school friend today, I might even have a better tactic than 'pressing any key until it works'!
Thanks for reading!