Video games have been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and the first games I ever played were in the arcades. I thought it'd be an interesting experiment to pick ten significant arcade games, and see what memories they trigger.
You might like to do the same.
Or you could just borrow my memories, and pass them off as your own. C'mon, daddy - let's go!
Arguably, Atari's iconic Star Wars arcade game had just as much impact on me as the movies.
I'd played Star Wars games before; the Atari VCS had The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi Arena. The former was decent enough, but the latter was risible. And neither really felt like Star Wars to me, no matter how much I squinted or wished or squeezed.
Atari's Star Wars arcade game was different. Released the same year as Jedi, it was the experience I'd wanted since 1977; to pilot Luke's X-Wing into battle. There were two versions of it, but the sit-down cabinet was where the action was really at. Then you could properly suspend the disbelief enough to overlook the fact that the TIE Fighters shot "fireballs".
I don't remember where or when I originally played this, but it was the game I always played first in any seaside arcade. I'd go searching for it, for years after its release, overlooking newer, flashier games. Oddly, one of the most vivid memories for me is playing it in a stand-up cabinet covered in cigarette burns. Remember when people used to smoke indoors? Some arcade cabinets even had ashtrays built into them back then.
Oddly, though, it's the ZX Spectrum version which I'm most fond of. It was as close to arcade perfect as anything ever got on the Spectrum. Even though it did play at about a quarter the speed of the original.
I've strong memories of playing this on a school trip to Thorpe Park. I've not been to Thorpe Park in at least ten years, but I seemed to always be there as a kid, either with school or my parents. On one visit I walked into the arcade to find Rampage. I can recall being more interested in sinking my coins into the machine than I was riding any of the park's attractions. I had to play as each of the characters; I never had a favourite. I had to see more of the levels. It was a perfect blend of aesthetics and gameplay.
Also... I just remembered something else. My mum was a classroom assistant in a school for children with behaviour difficulties - they were called "maladjusted" back then. At the entrance to Thorpe Park is a large dome, inside of which are restaurants and shops. She once told me me of a disastrous trip with her class, where two of the kids decided to climb the dome and had to be retrieved by security.
Apropos nothing, I also remember her telling me about a lesson which was disrupted by one of the pupils having a fit of giggles. When asked what he found so amusing, he replied: "I always laugh at cartoons..."
I visited the school one time, and did a talk about Turner the Worm, of all things.
The arcades would beckon inevitably - the penny falls machines always played with my nan and grandad... until Defender came along.
I'd enjoyed Space Invaders from time to time, but Defender really felt like something new. I kind of associate it with growing up, growing away from my grandparents. With a certain feeling of distancing myself and losing innocence. It wasn't a game you could play with someone else; it was just you alone with those sparse visuals.
I mean, I was rubbish at it, and I'd waste all my smartbombs pretty much straight away, but playing Defender felt like a first step towards establishing independence.
With hindsight, that's a bit depressing really.
The soundtrack remains one of the most iconic in gaming, but it was the visuals which really spoke to me. Specifically, being able to drive through surf, or in wide-open landscapes with big skies, while listening to those sublime choons.
Though I didn't learn to drive until I was 30, once I did I knew I wanted to one day do a road trip in the States, with the radio on. Basically, I wanted to do Outrun for real. I managed it in 2009, with my dad, even renting a convertible. Alas, the convertible was far too small for our luggage, and we had the top down for all of five minutes, because it was too hot and he was worried about burning his bald.
Other than that... it was incredible. Love those deserts. Even though I somehow got scarlet fever and had to get an injection in my buttocks, at a tiny Navajo medical centre.
What the kids didn't know is that I'd once pooed myself in the back of one of those trucks. But that's another story.
One year there was an arcade tent, and in that arcade tent was Dragon's Lair. It blew my mind. It cost four times as much as the other games, but the tombola would have to wait for another year. Even though there was a nice old man manning the stall, who made me feel sorry for him and sad, because he was trying to be all down with the kids... and I couldn't stop thinking "He'll be dead soon."
When I wasn't playing Dragon's Lair, I just stood and watched. And when I played it, I played it until my money ran out.
It never mattered back then that Dragon's Lair was scarcely interactive. Nobody had seen anything remotely like it. It also helped that Don Bluth's animation was so bloody gorgeous.
Hey: remember when they tried releasing Dragon's Lair games for home computers and consoles? Remember the Super NES version, which they turned into a platformer? That was rubbish. The ZX Spectrum version at least tried to evoke the original gameplay, but was even worse.
I was surprised at how easy this was; just inside the coin slot was a thin, sprung, metal arm, which registered every time a coin flicked it. Adding credits was as simple as opening up the machine, and repeatedly flicking the arm.
I remember switching the machine on at the plug, watching it go through its booting-up sequence - a grid flashing up on screen as the indication that it was coming to life. Normally, as gamers, we don't get to see this stuff.
And, man, we spent hours playing that game.
You see, I mostly played it in the foyer of my local leisure centre after PE lessons. In the last couple of years at high school, we could choose which activities to take. I was hopeless at most sports, but I picked badminton - because it was basically slow-motion tennis - and judo.
The latter I was surprisingly good at, for two reasons.
Firstly, I was bigger than most of the others, and could use that to my advantage by simply laying on people, or holding onto them while I fell over. Secondly, our instructor taught a few of us a couple of illegal - but undetectable moves - one of which was to make a fist, and place it under your opponent's kidneys when you'd pinned them to the mat. This would be painful and uncomfortable, and make it very hard for them to break out of your hold.
Unfortunately, while I was pretty alright at judo - I won a silver medal in a schools competition, the only sporting achievement of my life - I remained awful at mostly every other sport, being very short-sighted and having zero hand/eye co-ordination...
I liked video games, however, but was distraught upon learning that I was as bad at Track & Field as I was at real track & field. After PE lessons, the boys would gather round the machine and have play-offs, and I'd always be knocked-out in the first round.
Somehow, even among the gaming nerds I was an underachiever.
I'll never forget the impact of seeing that machine. It was a proper Aladdin's Cave moment - almost cinematic, working my way through the forest of arcade cabinets, to see this shining, neon, jewel at the back.
What a shame the actual game wasn't very good.
We never had that issue with The Alma. They didn't care. Well, until the day it got shut down for serving alcohol to kids...
Best of all, The Alma had an R-Type cabinet. The year after I left school, I walked up there one weekday evening to see who was in there, and the place was heaving with people I'd been to school with.
Patrick Frieze was someone I'd briefly been best friends with one summer - I seemed to have a lot of one-summer best friendships - but we'd drifted apart. That night he was playing R-Type, and we bonded after he told me that you couldn't get anywhere in the game unless you had "Full power-ups". I spent most of the evening watching him play, marvelling at his - and I quote from the man himself - "silky skills".
Another thing I remember about Patrick Frieze is that he had an older brother who had a habit of making a ring with his thumb and forefinger, wrapping it around his nose, and saying "Ba-hootay".
They'd give us £20 a week from petty cash to do this, even long after we stopped doing the arcade reviews. On occasion, that £20 would feed my family. Sorry about that.
It was genuinely a golden time in my life; we never took Digitiser for granted. We knew exactly how lucky we were to be playing video games for a living, and there were countless times in the first year or two of Digitiser's existence where we would look at one another, slack-jawed and stunned. Furthermore, games seemed to be barrelling forwards, and we knew we were at the centre of something exciting.
Every time we visited the Trocadero, there'd be some new innovation in gaming, be it Namco's Ridge Racer - which used a full-size car - or Virtual Reality, or... Galaxian's 3. I mean, it was a pretty average, on-rails, shooter, but there was something special about sitting down with five other people to play it.
Man, I still get sad thinking about the old bloke on the tombola stand.