My first memory of the 8-bit Era, so to speak, was at a very young age where my local crèche had setup a Nintendo NES console in the corner. The only game running on it was Super Mario Bros. but luckily that was a perfectly suitable title for children. Upon entering the building I would instinctively make a beeline towards the NES.
I was too young to understand how to operate a console properly yet- I wasn’t able to do much with it except turn it on and a staff member would need to help me change the television channel or plug in the cables but playing Pac-Man had taught me what a video game was and how fun that had the potential to be.
I swear I must be one out of a thousand (maybe even a million) children ever born that didn’t like Super Mario. The game was simple, entertaining and I played it many times but it just didn’t grab me in the way perhaps it should have. Years later I remember the crèche would upgrade to a Super Nintendo console and the newest Super Mario game would be there waiting for me to try, but it still fell flat. The idea of playing as a plumber was just never that appealing I guess.
Another game that hovers around this area of my gaming timeline is Alex Kidd in Miracle World, a platforming game very similar to Mario for Sega’s early 8-bit console; the Sega Master System. I was introduced to the Master System by a girl called Jen. Jen was the same age as me and she lived opposite to the house I did and I guess our parents had orchestrated one of those ‘arranged friendship’ deals that used to happen when you were a kid. Whatever the circumstances were though, all I really need to remember was that Jen was my best friend growing up.
Jen and I would be inseparable for years, joined by our mutual passion for video games. Jen owned a Sega Master System; a Mk. II unit that came with a built-in copy of Alex Kidd in Miracle World. I thought Alex Kidd was a much more exciting game than Super Mario. Although the basic premise of platforming and punching enemies wasn’t much different, Alex Kidd had many little flourishes that made the game feel like more of an adventure.
The game’s protagonist Alex Kidd (or “Alex the Kid” as Jen and I erroneously called him) could also swim, ride a motorbike and use special items that he would purchase from one of the game’s shops. There were helicopter levels, boat levels and all sorts of interesting secrets and colourful enemies. Alex Kidd is an immensely enjoyable game that remains so to this day.
The brutally difficult RPG mega-hit Dark Souls has a tendency to, for absolutely no good reason, remind me of Alex Kidd. From ghosts that could one-hit-kill you on contact, deadly underwater octopi and level floors covered entirely in spikes, Alex Kidd was a perilous journey for any seven-year-old. Other games in Jen’s collection would include Shadow of the Beast and Xenon II; another couple of very tough games for young kids to be playing.
Playing games with Jen was a great experience and kick-started my appreciation for 2 player games in general. Every weekend morning I would call at her house at around 6-7am in the morning and we’d watch cartoons and play video games for hours. Two of Jen’s favourite games were Lemmings and Mega Bomberman. We’d play these two titles often alongside Streets of Rage, Road Rash II and whatever other games we could get our hands on.
It’s worth going on a quick tangent here to say if there’s one persistent criticism I have of modern games it would be that they’ve completely jettisoned this mentality of visiting a friend’s house to play together. So many games have to be played over the Internet now and the experience for me at least has never quite been the same. And it’s interesting to think just how quickly that became the case; Doom started the revolution in 1993 and it hasn’t slowed down much since then at all.
If a player kicks a bomb in my face on Bomberman then I need the ability to immediately give that person a dead arm; it just doesn’t work if they’re a thousand miles away. I mean, what was the last truly good Bomberman game that you played? I know I’d struggle to think of one that came out after 1996. But I digress.
Jen’s Master System was a great introduction to what came after the Atari (although she owned one of them too) and it would be a real education later to see some of these same games remade for the 16-bit consoles that were still to follow.
Nowadays the 8-bit Era and indeed “8-bit” as a concept has become more popular. 8-bit is now a popular neo-retro style that has found its way into countless independently produced games featuring old fashioned pixel based graphics and sound. And like many popular trends in video games it’s something that’s increasingly overdone and likely wearing thin for many players. I’m sure that I don’t need to say anything about cel-shaded graphics to support my point here? Another time perhaps…
But you can’t deny that there is something about the 8-bit Era that resonates with people. More than just nostalgia, there was something that felt very exciting and realized about these games, even when they were crap (and a lot of them were!). But it was still an indication of where things were going. People’s expectations had evolved since the Atari; a half-arsed title like E.T . the Extra Terrestrial wouldn’t fly anymore and the initial job of the 8-bit games would be to try and win back a public that had given up on them for good.
For me though, I’m glad to have shared this with someone the first time around and although I haven’t seen Jen in a long time I’m fairly sure she’d say the same thing.
The story would continue of course as Sega would not be content to live in Nintendo’s shadow forever. And the Mega Drive would surely change everything.