Ah yes, the video game. For people of our generation, the evolution of this form of entertainment marks milestones in our childhood. I remember being wowed by Pac Man and Asteroids, gripped by my Game Boy, fascinated by FIFA and, naturally, addicted to Championship Manager.
For many though, myself included, the peak of video gaming came with the Nintendo 64. The games, such as Goldeneye and Mario Kart, were so easy to pick up. The controllers felt so intuitive. There was something so inclusive about it, you could beat a pro in one fell swoop before coming acropper against your little sister in the next. The skill level was minimal, the chance of upset enhanced and with it the level of fun. They were meant to be played with a group of mates.
A lot has changed since those rose-tinted days. I own a Playstation 3, but must confess that its DVD function sees more action than the gaming element these days. The trouble I have found is this: the world of video games is becoming a lonelier place. The games all require a certain level of competence before they become vaguely enjoyable, while the vast majority are seemingly designed to be played on your own. In the dark. With your weird internet “friends”. The alternative to this is to get a Wii, but even the nauseating faux-happiness of the vile Redknapp family in their adverts can’t convince me that they aren’t shit.
Back in the world of Playstation, I tried to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 online the other day. The only thing I discovered from this episode was that strange, socially dysfunctional 14 year olds were willing to take precious time out of their daily masturbation routines to blast me to kingdom-come before I had even fired a shot. It’s a hopeless quest, you are simply never going to beat these people unless you go round their house with a knuckle-duster. And most of them live in Korea.
Football games were relatively inclusive at school and uni (although I accept that this may have been because everyone had the requisite spare time to get half-decent at them), but modern incarnations of the FIFA series have left me screaming with frustration. For all their shiny realism, they’re so clever and fancy and… well… totally over-complicated.
The decline of simplistic arcade-style games, with all their flaws and absurdities, has built a barrier to entry and made gaming a more insular and geeky world. As the reality has improved, so gamers’ grasp on it has subsided. My ineptitude at online Call of Duty was the cause of genuine disappointment and anger amongst “team-mates”, I know this because of the profanities they squealed into their nerdy headsets upon realising that I was the sole reason why their team had lost.
Surely this is not how video games are meant to be? They are, by definition, games that you play on a computer. It’s not like you would go online and play Cluedo with a bunch of total strangers, is it? Or maybe you would, nothing surprises me about the world anymore (note online poker is different as it is, essentially, an extension of gambling). Games are designed to be simple, inclusive and played with friends. Something the world of technology appeared to have forgotten… Until a fortnight ago, when a bout of ennui resulted in the spontaneous purchase of F1 Race Stars.
This game is absolutely nuts. It has seemingly been put together in about three hours by a couple of bored game designers who somehow managed to get the official backing of the FIA. Cartoon versions of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, et al battle it out over a dozen or so nutty national racetracks complete with loop-the-loops, themed obstacles and ridiculous weaponry. This is every bit to F1 what Crazy Golf is to the Masters. This is Bernie Ecclestone’s Mario Kart. This is chaos.
In the four-player split-screen mode, itself a throwback to the bygone era of sociable video games, you all bash into each other constantly, you sabotage your friends. One minute you’re coasting to victory, the next you’ve slipped in an oil patch, got stuck behind the safety car or covered in confetti and you’re 10th. I’ve had as many “heroic” victories over my flatmates as I have had “unlucky” defeats. I’ve lost to newcomers in their first race. I’ve even lost to my girlfriend, which as I ungraciously mumbled “only goes to show how random it is”… Indeed it was in the latter of those examples that she uttered the immortal line to the collective as we all sat there grinning stupidly and pawing at buttons:
“I can’t believe it, we’re 28 and we’re all sat here playing computer games…”
And yet at no stage was there the faintest suggestion that we should be doing anything else. Frankly, given the paucity of television at the moment, there’s no better way to spend a weeknight than laughing with three friends as you smash into each other for the umpteenth time. And all for just £20. Well done to the creators of F1 Race Stars, you have reclaimed gaming from the geeks.