If you’re a dedicated sort who has been following CelJaded since the beginning, then you might remember one of the earliest articles I ever posted here called “The First Five”.
In it I listed the first five video games I had ever played before quickly unearthing evidence that outed just how inaccurate a list it was!
We’re all guilty of the odd memory error from time to time (especially when recalling events that happened over two decades ago), but this one really bothered me for some reason.
Today I’m deciding to re-publish this specific blog post, all expanded and reassessed in the name of posterity.
I’m also renaming the post to The First Video Game You Ever Played just to make things a bit more inclusive and easier to digest.
That alone probably wouldn’t make for an interesting article though, so I’ll be listing another nine video games I played at a very young age too and discussing how I see them all today.
So grab your dusty cartridges and your password systems and let’s do this!
Pac-Man (Atari 2600 version. Yes, that Atari 2600 version)
One of the most instantly identifiable video games for the past several generations, Pac-Man is the very definition of a classic and the one I can tell you with certainty is the first video game I ever played. Roll credits!
Charged with the simple task of manoeuvring your hungry yellow avatar through a static ghost-infested maze, the titular heroic blob Pac-Man must gobble up dots and bonus fruits in order to earn points.
Despite the simplicity inherent in the concept, Pac-Man was one of the golden age games to bring the video gaming hobby to a wider audience.
Part of that is actually down to the game’s simplicity – there are no button commands; just the simple directional movement of your arcade stick that helps Pac-Man eat all the dots on-screen before a ghost manages to make contact and rob him of a life.
Eat one of the maze’s four power pills however and Pac-Man is transformed into a figurative ghost-chomping machine and becomes immune to defeat for a short time.
The Atari 2600 version of the game however is a bit of a different story in terms of quality. This particular version is often criticized as being rushed to the market in order to capitalize on the immense success the arcade game itself was experiencing at the time.
Throughout history, this particular scenario is a lesson that many video game companies have learned and does it ever ring true here!
Flickering graphics, overly basic sounds and almost non-existent animation, this edition of Pac-Man is barely recognizable to its arcade counterpart.
Even the edible dots are rendered as unsightly lines or “wafers” and gone too are the bonus fruit items, which are instead replaced by a generic large wafer that as a kid I thought was supposed to represent an oversized slice of lightly-buttered toast.
In a somewhat amusing twist, this awful translation of a classic was the beginning of video games as I would know them. And yet, I still liked this game as a kid which is further proof that shouldn’t listen to anything children say…
Much of this is down to the fact that I had no knowledge of the original arcade game and no preconceptions of what a Pac-Man game should play or even look like.
In a very basic sense, Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 still keeps the core concept intact. The simplistic objectives and nippy gameplay even in this botched version still manage to shine through on occasion. It’s a testament to the original design that I’m able to say that at all really.
As I grew older and my awareness of video games improved, I began to see this game in a different light and recognized the ugly truth that was there all along.
Playing the original arcade version of Pac-Man on modern machines was a real blessing as I was finally able to play it the way it was always meant to be played.
Space Invaders (Atari 2600 version)
Space Invaders has been synonymous with classic video games since its original release way back in 1978. This is a game that just gets everything right and in stark contrast to the previous game on this list, so does the Atari 2600 version!
A very faithful translation, this release of Space Invaders deserves special mention for retaining the frantic shoot ’em up action of its arcade counterpart without compromising on visual fidelity.
As the first game to popularize the use of high scores it would be sad if they were absent, but thankfully this cartridge keeps them in.
It would take me longer as a child to fully grasp the finesse required to play Space Invaders effectively as the pace of the game increases exponentially upon blasting more and more of the ever-descending alien horde.
When you get down to the final enemy, the game plays at maximum speed and timing that one final bullet that will complete the level is thrilling stuff, to this day.
The Atari 2600 version is brimming with options that modify the default game too. It wouldn’t be until I gained familiarity with the console’s onboard selection switches that I began finding ways to change the setup of a level.
You can alter the speed or the destructible “rocket” barriers that help guard your ship or even the number of simultaneous players if you have a second joystick plugged in.
Apparently the Atari version Space Invaders was the first licensed console rendition of an arcade video game, but what an effort has been made regardless.
Even with the Atari’s limited power, this cartridge still does an excellent job of recreating a game that my uncles would always be quick to call the “best ever”.
My uncle Nick and uncle Carl would often join me to play Space Invaders when I was younger. I remember being truly amazed at their ability (no doubt they had gotten plenty of practice in), not to mention their stock phrase of “he’s history” after successfully vanquishing an alien.
It’s no real wonder that this home version of Space Invaders catapulted the Atari 2600 sales through the roof as it’s still a great game after nearly 40 years.
As the original indie developer and publisher, Activision’s history in the sphere of video gaming is the stuff of legends.
The company got their start designing cartridges for the Atari 2600 with this aptly-titled example being one of their most notable.
You wouldn’t think a sports title to be worthy of such a mention, but Tennis is a very playable game nonetheless.
The graphics are extremely basic; consisting of nothing more than a flat green square for the court, blue & pink stick men for players, and a dot for the tennis ball itself.
But the physics in swinging your racket and controlling the ball are remarkably impressive for the time and it’s possible to experience some rather frantic sets with your opponent as you both struggle to score a point.
Relative to the hardware they were coded for, it would take some time before another tennis game could outstrip Activision’s solid effort here.
Dig Dug (Atari 2600 version)
Another classic Eighties arcade game, Dig Dug takes a straightforward concept and quite literally runs it into the ground.
Playing the role of a subterranean adventurer armed with an inflatable air pump, your mission is dig your way through each level and “pop” every baddie whilst collecting bonus items for points.
First impressions of the Atari 2600 version are pretty bad, as the flat horizontal lines and square bricks that make up the terrain obviously don’t look half as good as the arcade original.
Give it chance though and you’ll soon start to appreciate how fun the premise of collecting fruit and dropping rocks on top of enemy heads can be.
That’s because the core design elements behind Dig Dug are still alive and well in this rendition.
The skilful manoeuvring, tight controls and even the sounds are all quite faithful to the arcade release and overall it’s a much better conversion than the one Pac-Man received.
It should be pretty obvious by now that Atari games acted as my entry point into the video gaming hobby. Some of these were carts were good and some were not so good, but then there were a few that managed to be truly memorable.
Keystone Kapers is one of those memorable games.
Introduced to me by my childhood friend Jen, this fantastic Activision release plonks you straight into a cops and robbers cartoon.
The shopping mall setting may be tough to make out with graphics so old, but the surprisingly well animated characters and broad colour palette really set Keystone Kapers apart from games of a similar ilk.
This is a simple arcade-style affair where your plucky cooper must catch a thief before time runs out.
In your way are a host of obstacles from simple time-sapping bouncing balls and whizzing trolleys, to the more deadly remote controlled aeroplanes that instantly cost you a life should you make contact with them.
The novelty of working escalators and lifts is great to see and besides jumping, your character also has the ability to duck down which is quite the rarity for a game this old.
After briefly revisiting it for this post, I can say that Keystone Kapers is one of Activision’s best games for the Atari 2600 by quite a margin.
Super Mario Bros.
I first encountered this legendary game at a children’s crèche many years ago, so much so that the image of Mario standing idle before the opening level is one that feels permanently burned into my mind’s eye.
Indeed, some would say that no other platforming game has yet surpassed this fondly-loved Nintendo classic, but the honest truth is that it never really resonated with me.
There’s no shortage of imagination in the game’s many colourful levels and expressive baddies and it isn’t hard to appreciate how such simple yet elegant controls can add so much to a game of this style.
There isn’t much of a story to latch onto either though and there are more than just a few cheap deaths to be had over the course of later levels.
I guess you could call it harmless childhood bias, but for some reason I never really enjoyed Super Mario Bros. all that much. It might sound like devil worship, but I never found the idea of a playing a moustached plumber to be all that exciting.
And another thing: that theme song is too catchy, dammit!
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
The Sega Master System may have found some modicum of success in the emerging markets of Europe, Australia and especially Brazil (where the system was still selling as late as 1998), but on the whole it couldn’t do anything to put a dent in Nintendo’s monopoly on the market.
Nintendo had every major video game publisher tied to exclusive contracts back then and as to be expected, few quality games would be released for the competing Master System during its commercial lifespan.
There are very few games for this console that I remember all that fondly, but the biggest exception to that statement is the one that came built-in to the mark II version of the Master System hardware itself; Alex Kidd in Miracle World.
As the character most commonly known as Sega’s former mascot, Alex Kidd stars in his first 2D platforming adventure here and it’s one that’s a lot more fun than its routinely boring Master System cover art would first suggest.
The graphics are simple but crisp and look extremely good for an 8-bit title and even if the audio is not particularly advanced, it does feature some fun SFX and catchy tunes to accompany each level.
Anyone who has played Super Mario Bros. will know what the order of the day is here; levels are traditional 2D platforming fare except they’re mixed in with a little more variety than usual.
There are many areas where Alex can pilot a vehicle, whether it’s the motorbike section, speed boat chase or gyro copter ride, each one adds a little twist to the game’s infectious charm.
Alex can jump pretty high, has a nifty punch attack to deal with baddies and often needs the help of various power-ups in order to proceed without falling victim to the many hazards.
You’ll need to collect bags of cash so you can shop for items including vehicles, fireball-shooting magic rings and valuable extra lives.
Boss battles take the form of rock-paper-scissors games and there’s a map screen and story text that adds extra detail to the journey that Alex takes over the course of his deceptively challenging adventure.
Without a doubt, this is the definitive game for the Master System, and one with plenty of nice twists for those fond of 8-bit action games in general.
Shadow of the Beast (Sega Master System Version)
Originally an Amiga title – and this game is so Amiga – Shadow of the Beast is a niche affair that struck quite a chord in gaming circles due its incredible graphics, gritty setting and hard-as-nails gameplay.
I was first introduced to it via the Sega Master System version by my childhood friend Jen, but this is perhaps the most child-unfriendly game you could have found back then.
The parallax scrolling seen through the game’s many level backdrops raised the bar in terms of quality and judging by the opening level (which goes on for a very long time), the developers weren’t shy about showing off the achievement!
There’s a real oppressive vibe felt throughout Shadow of the Beast and it’s thanks mainly to the atmospheric music and grim art style.
And then there’s the difficulty factor.
Even British video game magazines – whose standards of difficulty could only politely be described as ludicrous – firmly acknowledged how insanely hard this game is.
The Master System version’s paltry 12 health points and complete lack of continues largely account for this, but it’s also because hitting baddies is really hard to do.
Enemies are blazingly quick to get in your face once they spawn on-screen and you have to time your beast’s punches to connect the exact moment one of them comes into range of your fists.
Much like I said about Turok 2 recently, there’s no doubting that Shadow of the Beast is a technical marvel, but it’s not that fun and isn’t the sort of game you’d really want to go back to.
Xenon 2 Megablast (Sega Master System Version)
It’s at this point that I think to myself: why did Jen own such hard games!?
Xenon 2 holds the distinction of being the first scrolling shoot ’em up that I ever played, but that doesn’t mean I would consider it a good ambassador for the genre at large.
Another PC game that was converted to many different consoles, Xenon 2 is one of those technically impressive “shmups” that has not aged well at all.
The vertical layout of each stage was quite the novelty in 1989 and the way that you can scroll forwards and backwards during certain segments is also quite impressive.
Once again however, we have a game that’s far too difficult.
Enemies are quick to lob multiple missiles your way upon spawning and whilst your ship does have a health bar to make things slightly easier, you’ll expend a lot of it accidentally ramming into floating obstacles and the ocean floor-like terrain.
Enemies love to appear behind you too, so unless you have that one power-up that shoots lasers from the back of your ship then it’s not looking good!
Coming from the portfolio of a real British band of the time, the music has a cool techno quality to it, but it’s repeated throughout the entire game and gets repetitive really quickly.
At least the subtitle is awesome!
I’ve talked enough about the other two games that introduced me to the 16-bit era (Sonic the Hedgehog and Lemmings for those keeping score), so I’ll use the wrap-up segment here to talk about the third instead.
With the aid of the best in-house designers and programmers, Sega’s Disney licensed games of the Nineties simply oozed quality and treated the source material with the utmost respect.
With early Disney games you were usually assured something that not only played well and looked great, but also maintained the personality of the characters they were portraying.
The Mickey Mouse video game called Castle Of Illusion was the earliest example, but it’s Quackshot starring Donald Duck that always stood out to me, even when compared to future successes such as Aladdin and The Lion King.
Many Donald Duck games from this era are much better than you may first think and Quackshot is quite the rarity to behold. For a game as old as this to feel so full of personality and storytelling is just marvellous.
Although the Indiana Jones inspiration is glaringly obvious to anyone, Donald is rendered and animated so well in the persona that it almost seems to be a natural fit.
Levels follow an interesting structure where each stage is not always a linear path. Donald can journey to areas that were previously inaccessible and use newly acquired gadgets to make further progress.
Adventure games have been using this formula for years of course, but for an early 2D platformer to utilize the setup is still impressive.
This game is especially relevant for demonstrating just how competent Sega used to be at producing games of high quality. The graphics are crisp, the music is catchy, and the story is told with a remarkable respect for Disney’s colourful property.
In short, Quackshot is a real gem!