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Singing from old songsheets
Edge #154, October 2005
Some little boys want to be astronauts, or train drivers, when they grown up. Others - heaven forbid - yearn to be videogame reviewers. I wanted to be Donny Osmond. This wasn't an ambition borne from a respect of the buck-toothed dreamboat's considerable talents or swoonsome good looks. It was simply because I'd seen a photograph in my sister's Donny annual depicting him wearing a hat similar to one I myself owned.
If I listen to The Osmonds' rocktacular Crazy Horses these days it triggers a very specific, happy and vivid memory of wearing said hat, while miming along to the song, using a cardboard box as a makeshift piano.
I recently had a conversation with my sisters about the relative merits of Osmond, and the two Davids - Essex and Cassidy. They were taken aback that I was prepared to attend an all-star concert featuring the aforementioned '70s heartthrobs, despite being neither a middle- aged woman nor gay. While I'd be the first to admit these acts lack a certain degree of artistic credibility, I grew up listening to their soppy ponce-music, thanks to my sisters' refusal to purchase any record that didn't sport a cover depicting a pouting young man in a denim jerkin, rubbing his bare chest with a puppy.
Indeed, when I pause to reflect, my entire life has been soundtracked by awful music. I had the grave misfortune to lose my virginity to Berlin's Take My Breath Away. T.U.R.T.L.E. Power triggers a memory of the birth of my first daughter. And the first single I ever bought - and I still remember clearly going into Woolworths to buy it - was by Noel Edmonds, Maggie Philbin and Keith Chegwin, going under the name Brown Sauce.
Consequently, I have built a collection of CDs numbering in the thousands, and it recently dawned on me that my addiction to buying music was - in part - fuelled by a desire to recapture that ephemeral thrill of the new. I've finally realised that it's not something I'm ever going to achieve - not with new music, anyway. And not with games.
Indeed, it isn't only music which has provided such texture to my life. I recently stumbled across an OutRun cabinet in a high street video rental store, and could scarcely resist a game. As I listened to Passing Breeze for the first time in more than 15 years, it unexpectedly unlocked a well-buried image from a school trip to Amsterdam. The unfortunately named Kok Hotel, where we were staying, had said Sega classic in the lobby. Playing OutRun defrosted a terrible memory of a laughing Grant McCauley suddenly showing me his own 'kok' while we watched Bertil Boyles trump his high score. Though shaken by this powerful, if tawdry, image, I pondered about what else I had stuffed away in the musty crevices of my mind, waiting to be unlocked by a quick go on Rolo To The Rescue or Jelly Boy.
Trawling through my library of games, I discovered that Mucky Foot's unloved GTAIII precursor Urban Chaos regurgitated a feeling of elation about a new carpet, RoboCod reminded me of a particularly happy Christmas, and Herzog Zwei made my blood boil, because it brought to the surface a specific incident of being ignored at a friend's house while he played on said game, rather than entertain me. More recently, I doubt I'll ever forget that I was playing Resident Evil: Survivor when I heard about the World Trade Center attacks.
Consequently, all this current talk of making games 'emotional' is redundant. Games are already emotional, albeit in a mnemonic sense. Instead of trying to force the issue, perhaps developers - and Sony executives should just shut up and concentrate on making new and hopefully thrilling gaming experiences.
As a thirtysomething gamer it's always worth remembering that every game could be somebody's first. For a time my kids were obsessed with Tak And The Power Of Juju. While I dare say most of us are have either never heard of said GameCube platformer, or are united in decrying it as a bit poo, it's likely Tak will stay with them forever. Hopefully when they grow up they'll associate it with happy memories of the day when daddy wasn't drunk, didn't lock them in the airing cupboard.
I may have loved Half-Life 2, and Battlefield 2, and think the DS is great, but it's unlikely they have connected with me in the way games like Horace And The Spiders and Seiddab Attack and my Spectrum did. Unless Sony's hardware boffins can develop a 'Nostalgia Engine' it's unlikely any game ever will again.
It's easy as you get older to dismiss the modern as not-as-good-as-it-used-to-be. But the truth is that nostalgia idealises the past. Will Rogers may have been a rubbish, pretend cowboy, but he was spot on when he said, "Things ain't what they used to be, and probably never were."
For my money I suspect I'll continue to chase nostalgia. But when the greatest games I'll ever play remain forever in the past, it's a bit like trying to punch a shadow in the face.
Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.