One of the programmes I’m enjoying on TV at the moment is Dara Ó Briain’s Go 8 Bit, a comedy game show where celebrities compete against each other on a variety of video games, both old and new. It’s great fun, and it’s got me thinking about some of the games I used to enjoy playing when I was younger. So I thought I’d spend a few posts writing about them, to happily wallow in nostalgia for a bit. Feel free to comment if you enjoyed any of the same games as me, or want to talk about any of the titles you loved, in case it reminds me of others that I’ve forgotten.
These days I spend enough time on computers as it is – as part of my job all day, and then doing other things in my spare time like going on social media, blogging, watching Youtube videos and TV, etc – so I’m not big into gaming as well. I still play them occasionally with friends, so I do still enjoy them, but I haven’t played any recent titles. Neither has my best friend, he’s not a big gamer either these days – but he still has a couple of old consoles tucked away, so occasionally when I go over to his place, we have been known to play one or two of the games that we still love from our youth. Which I will get to, but not in this particular post. That said, though, I would like to try Virtual Reality at some point out of curiosity, to see what that’s like. I get the impression it’s quite fun, if the game’s designed well.
And when I say designed well, it’s not about whether the game has amazing visuals or audio – they can enhance it, for sure, but it’s the gameplay that matters first and foremost, then you build on it from there. After all, a game could have 4K HD special-effects-laden superbly animated photo-realistic 3D CGI visuals, coupled with 7.1 surround lossless audio that creates a perfectly immersive and enveloping soundscape, and a deeply emotive soundtrack of amazing music recorded with a full orchestra – but it could still be an awful game if the story’s badly written, or there’s nothing interesting to do, or the controls are a nightmare, or it’s impossible to complete parts of it, or whatever.
So I believe the gameplay matters above all else – that is, after all, why you go to a game in the first place – and I believe some of my examples prove that, especially in this post.
Because here I’m going to mention a few of the very earliest games I can remember enjoying as a kid. I don’t remember them in vivid detail, but then again, looking up articles, photos and Youtube clips in the course of writing this has made me smile with some very fond memories of those days.
I’m assuming that most young gamers now won’t be aware of the existence of these games, unless they happen to be playing any related sequels, and may well snort in derision at the blocky low-res graphics and strange-sounding MIDI music. But these were cutting edge and amazing to us at the time, and even now they would still be fun for many people to play. There’s a reason myself and many others remember their existence at least 25 years after playing them. And many games from the old days have been a big influence on titles that have come out in modern times – not just through sequels or spin-offs, but just inspiring developers in general across the gaming scene.
So here are five games that I fondly remember growing up with.
The Magic Telephone (aka The Magic Telephone Box)
This is the earliest computer game I have any vague memory of playing, which we had on a BBC Micro in school. I’ve no idea why this adventure game, with its simplistic but oddly charming blocky graphics, has stuck in my mind nearly 30 years later. But it was fun at the time. At it’s clear I’m not the only one who remembers it, and you can even play it online if you’re feeling really nostalgic! Just playing the first few screens there for fun, as well as reading people’s comments about it, brings back good memories.
These were both great shoot-em-up games played in DOS. I’ve chosen the third in the Duke Nukem series, the first 3D version of the game, as it’s the one I seem to remember, but I guess I may have played the two that preceded it, and/or one or two sequels that came after. I only remember playing the first Doom game, but again it wouldn’t surprise me if one or two my friends got the sequels. In any case, me and my mates loved playing these games, as did millions of other people. It was great escapist gameplay, and the graphics were really impressive at the time.
This has stuck in my head as simply being called “Larry The Lounge Lizard”, I’d forgotten what it’s full title was until now. If you think that first person shooter games aren’t appropriate for young kids, then this isn’t going to impress you either. This game, full of adult humour, about a virgin trying very hard to lose that label, was a huge hit among teenagers, and quite possibly some children younger than that. Sure, we weren’t supposed to be playing it, but it wasn’t exactly difficult to get hold of. And you soon got to learn the answers to the trivia questions at the start that were supposed to be only answerable by adults.
Again this was played in DOS, but these graphics were very low-resolution – which was probably just as well given the subject matter. You basically had to walk Larry around the environment, telling him what to do by typing commands, with the ultimate aim of finding a lady to ‘get it on with’, so to speak. It wasn’t an easy game by any means, but it was fun, especially with the humour involved. It was crude and silly, and that was the whole charm of it. It was a very well written game to be fair.
It appears there was a whole series of Leisure Suit Larry games, but I don’t know if I played any beyond the first one, my memories are too hazy. There was also a Reloaded version released a few years ago apparently, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. And there’s loads more info about the series and other games, on the creator’s own website – Al Lowe’s Humor Site. So Larry’s legacy still lives on, which is wonderful.
If you thought Larry’s graphics were blocky though, that’s nothing compared to the Lego-like designs used on my final choice, one of my all-time favourite games – Bamboozle. I defy anyone who remembers playing this not to smile just at the mere mention of it.
This wasn’t a computer game as such – rather, this was a quiz played through your TV on Channel 4’s Teletext service. Nowadays you can get it as an app for iOS and Android, but nothing’s going to quite match the charm of the original. It was a very novel use of the Fastext side of the Teletext system, where you used the coloured buttons to jump to other sections of the service via shortcuts, and we used to play it as a family quite a lot.
Basically, you answered multiple-choice questions (posed by cartoon quizmaster Bamber Boozler) using the red, green, yellow and blue keys on your remote. A correct answer would take you to the next question, while a wrong answer would take you to a page where Bamber’s wife Bambette Boozler would say that you were wrong. You would then have to go back a bit, usually to an earlier question (though in the very early days you’d be thrown all the way back to the start – thankfully they changed that!). Sometimes Bambette would give you a bit of trivia, or she would ask you a bonus question that you could redeem yourself with (and there you could just press the Reveal button to see the answer). And at the end of the quiz you would get a rating, based on how many questions you got right first time.
There were many variations as well. Sometimes their children (Buster & Bonnie) would get involved to do a quiz for the kids, or there would be a sports quiz with Brian Boozler. And if you were really lucky, particularly over Christmas, they’d replace the quiz with a graphical choose-your-own-adventure game based on classic children’s game show Knightmare. I loved it when that happened. A crossover between a great quiz and one of my absolute favourite TV shows – heaven!
You couldn’t type in page numbers to skip questions either, you had to use the coloured shortcuts provided. And that’s because the clever people at Teletext were using hexadecimal digits. That is to say, you could only type numbers from 0-9 on your remote control, but page numbers could also contain the letters A-F (e.g. 1AA, 1AB, etc). And so they used this for the Bamboozle quiz. The only way through was using the Fastext buttons. Clever.
However, you could still cheat another way, because the questions and the Bad Luck pages were always on the same page numbers. And often it would take a few seconds for Teletext to cycle around to the next page it was trying to load. So you could select an answer, and immediately know it was wrong from the page number it was trying to load. So before it loaded, you could quickly try the other answers until the page number changed, thus avoiding the Bad Luck page altogether.
Also, if you knew where to look, you could access one or two hidden engineering test pages as well. Sometimes you could just type the page number in using the digits 0-9, but other times you might have to go to a particular page and hit one of the coloured keys, which would then take you to a page with letters in the number. And on one TV I had, I could go up and down through the page numbers – including those with letters – using the up and down channel buttons. So I could make 1AB go back to 1AA, for instance. I’m not sure I found anything particularly interesting via that method, and you couldn’t get to every hexadecimal page that way – there was a limit beyond which it would take you back to regular numbers – but it was an interesting little glitch.
On a related note, BBC’s Red Button digital text service used to have a secret page where you could bring up the Test Card. Again, it was for engineers really, but for those of us who came to learn about it, it was a delightful Easter egg. Basically, you needed to go to the BBC’s Red Button channel (used to be 105, then it was changed to 200). Here, you had to press the Yellow button when the Welcome screen appeared, and then switch to any other channel. Next, go back to the BBC Red Button channel and hit the Green button this time, when you see the Welcome screen. After a brief delay, a screen of data would come up, then you could press Green again to reveal the Test Card. I don’t know if that still works on Freeview today, but those are the instructions I’ve found and remember doing.
So Bamboozle was a great game, and it’s well worth mentioning that Teletext was a great service in general, as was its predecessor Oracle on ITV and Channel 4. And, most importantly of all, let’s not forget the service that started it all – BBC’s Ceefax, the first and always best teletext system in the world. It really was a technological marvel when it launched. We basically had smart TVs because of this service, it was the internet of our time. All we had to do was press the Text button on the remote control, and we’d have instant access to all the news, weather, sport, finance, TV & radio guides, comments pages (I once had a letter published in the TV section!), and much more!
And before the BBC showed the News Channel through the night, they used to broadcast pages from Ceefax during the dark hours with music accompanying them, and people got their nightly news fix that way. Much simpler and easier than the 24 hour news channels we get now, where the poor presenters have to keep repeating themselves to pad out the time. Perhaps the BBC should just broadcast screengrabs from the BBC News website overnight, it would be just as effective and a lot cheaper. Put the old library music over it again and people would watch it to hear the nostalgia alone!
There were all sorts of special services too. On ITV and Channel 4 there were holidays and dating sections for instance, which became big things in their own right – in particular, Teletext Holidays became its own business, which is still going today. And, of course, 888 was the page number for subtitles, because it was easy to remember and type in. Initially there were different numbers across the channels, but 888 became the standard.
And I remember ITV for a while used 777 as a weird ‘Televox’ service. To a random viewer visiting that page, you’d get pages of gibberish cycling by rapidly. But if you rang a special number (which I assume was premium rate), you’d be given a special timecode that allowed you to freeze the 777 screen on a specific sub-page, which you would then have control over by typing in further codes to display the content of your choice. I never used it, I had no reason to, but it always intrigued me nonetheless. There’s some discussion from a few people about it here.
The Advent Calendars at Christmas, where you pressed Reveal for a Lego-style representation of something festive, were also fun, as were the children’s stories like Turner The Worm. For things like this, the Teletext designers showed just how good they were at the graphics considering the limitations of the system in terms of resolution and colours available.
This was also evident in the more surreal aspects of the service that kids like me enjoyed, like Mega-Zine, with WLW (White Line Warrior) and – to finish by getting us back on the original topic – the video game section Digitiser. The latter in particular was sometimes extremely weird and rather controversial. You can browse some archived pages from it to see what it was like, and even watch a video of the very first edition. Its creator, Mr Biffo (aka Paul Rose) has kept the name with a website called Digitiser 2000, and a related Youtube channel.
The demise of Teletext was inevitable in the end, with the advances in digital TV and the internet. However, nothing’s ever matched the beautiful simplicity of those old teletext services, we live in a very different time now. So it was a very sad day when Ceefax was finally retired, as that really did mark the end of an era. Many people have fond memories of it just like me, and you can still relive some of the experience online e.g. here (press the small play button at the bottom) or here (where you can actually type page numbers in), and there’s even a Teletext Museum site with loads of stuff on it. It was a massive part of my youth, and I’ll always be glad for that.
So I’ll leave it there for now. In my next post, I’ll look at more games that I grew up with – I know I kind of got off topic here, but talking about Bamboozle without reminiscing about teletext services in general is impossible, especially as many young people now won’t have a clue what Teletext was, which is a real shame. So to finish, I’ll leave you with the final moments of Ceefax and analogue TV, which was broadcast in Northern Ireland in 2012. RIP Ceefax & Teletext, we still miss you and will always love you! 🙂