There’s a lot of chatter at the moment about learning to “live with Covid” and I don’t really know how to process this concept.
See, a year ago I had a sore throat, which eventually developed into a mild annoying cough and then went away. I took a Covid test when the cough developed, but that came back negative. After a few weeks the symptoms went away and I thought nothing more of it.
Then, in August, I started feeling unwell. Again, nothing specific, just a bit tired, a few chest pains, slight difficulty with breathing – that sort of thing. I dutifully took another Covid test (negative again) and went to the GP, assuming it was the asthma playing up again. The normal gamut of tests then followed with no particular outcome – this is a good thing, no outcome with “I have chest pains” is pretty much the best possible answer. After a few days though, it cleared up and I went back to my normal life.
Then the same thing in September, after the kids went back to school. Feeling grotty, test, negative, rest for a few days and then magically getting better. By now the pattern was set, I’d have a few bad days, take it easy on myself for a bit, wait for the negative test and then I’d have a few weeks of relative normality.
Of course, now that we know so much more about Covid, I can only assume that this was a case of that Mild Covid that we all hear so much about. I was lucky to get away so lightly really.
And here we are a year on from that initial round, and the chest pains are essentially permanent, my baseline blood oxygen level is 95%, and those “few bad days every month” have turned into a few good days if I’m lucky. I have to plan every physical activity in advance. Housework gets done in five minute bursts, with a good nap in between. Putting an Ikea wardrobe together nearly killed me. There are days when I wake up, take the kids to school and then go back to bed again.
My mild case of Covid, with no hospital stay, minimal symptoms, and no confirmation in the official stats has become long, and the longer it gets the worse it is becoming.
So when you hear people talking about living with Covid, know what that means, and know that many of us are already living with it, and it is not a welcome houseguest.
It’s Father’s Day today and none of my children have sent me a card or brought me breakfast in bed or anything.
I couldn’t be happier.
It’s not just that it’s a bullshit excuse for a day – a prototype “but when is it international MEN’s day eh?”, although that’s part of it I suppose. For me it’s more personal than that.
I never really knew my father. It’s not his fault I suppose, there was ten thousand nautical miles between us, it was never going to be practical for him to rock up on Saturday morning and take me to football practice. And that’s okay, it really is, whatever psychological trauma it caused me has long been consigned to history. I’ve built a life of my own since then and that life is working out pretty well on the whole.
Anyway, back to the point, I never really understood the concept of Father’s Day – hell, I’m not ever really sure it was a thing in the 70’s and 80’s? It was just another day.
Fast forward a few decades and I have three children of my own, and I’ve spent the last twenty-five years playing down the importance of Father’s Day (and, for that matter, my birthday). Do I really need a hastily scribbled “card”, probably produced under duress, to remind me that my children love me?
I see it when they’ve had a bad day at school and need to tell me, in excruiciating detail, exactly what he said and she said and then this thing happened and…
I see it when they’re moping around the house having apparently finished the internet, searching for something to do and looking to me for inspiration.
I see it in all the victories and sorrows of childhood, knowing that I’m there for them and they for me. They keep me grounded and happy in a hundred little ways, even when they don’t realise what day it is.
So, it’s Sunday, dinner’s in the oven, I’ve got bread proving in the airing cupboard and the kids are wandering the house in their pyjamas moaning that the wifi is slow or something.
It is unlikely that any of us will ever forget 2020/21 – two years which have seen the worst nightmares of science fiction plague stories largely come true. Some have weathered the storm better than others, some will not have weathered the storm at all, but all of us have been changed by it. As I write this there is light at the end of the tunnel – only history will be able to say whether we are at the beginning of the end, or merely the end of the beginning, but there is hope on the horizon.
On a personal level, the start of the pandemic found me desperately searching for a place to call home before the world shut up shop. We moved in two days before the UK entered full lockdown for the first time.
Now, there were stresses over the coming months, for me as well as the rest of the world, but there were benefits too. A chance to appreciate the slowing down of time, to fall back to the centre of ourselves and to concentrate on the most important things in life.
So, as well as building Lego arcade machines (See The Blockcade for more) I was also building a home, an Ikea delivery here, a Facebook marketplace freebie there, print-out-and-frame posters everywhere else… And, in a move to appease my inner librarian, a chance to sort through what remained of my record, game, book and arcade collections, decide what was worth saving, move on what was no longer needed and, literally, get my house in order.
Which, eventually, led me to my poor old Space Invaders cocktail. I’ve owned this for over 20 years and, frankly, it was never really that great to begin with – added to a few years spent in storage units and friends garages and well… Let’s just say that it wasn’t looking too healthy
Well, what else was I doing with my time?
I had one of those 60-in-1 game boards, so at least I wasn’t starting completely from scratch. The monitor, an old and repurposed Microvitec Cub had always been slightly problematic, so that seemed to be the best place to start. I pulled it out, cleaned up the boards as much as possible and adjusted what could be adjusted. The results were… Not great, but sort of servicable.
But, we were up and running – it worked, it was playable, even if the display had some “issues” (don’t we all) and I had 60 games (if 15 variations of Pac Man is your idea of fun) to choose from. More importantly, I hadn’t actually had to spend any money on it, so that was a win:win
And that limped along on that basis for a few months, until the inevitable happened and the monitor started crapping out (even more so). It was long overdue, it had literally been held in place with cardboard when I bought it twenty odd years ago, so I can’t really complain.
So, that was the cue to finally get my act together, find a few quid and once and for all get this – my first machine, and the lone survivor of Arcade Nirvana – up and running as well as she deserves.
I’ve always been a bit scared of monitors, they carry a hefty shock if you’re not careful – which might explain why I’ve always been a bit wary of replacing this one, but a quick shout out at the forums over at ukvac.com popped up a couple of fellow collectors who were willing to help – one with a free monitor (that, unfortunately, turned out to incomplete) and another who had a surplus stock of NOS (New Old Stock – unused, but original) monitors that he was willing sell on at cost. I gladly took him up on his offer, and with a bit of a tidy up and a tiny bit of swearing I managed to get the new one mounted in my poor beleaguered Spacies. I turned it on (not without some trepidation), stood well back and…
Of course, at this point I start noticing all the other little problems with the machine – the joystick and buttons (none original) were stiff and unresponsive, and that 60-in-1 board, while convenient was… Well, a bit rubbish really.
I replaced the joystick and player one controls with a Sanwa clone stick I had lying around from a PC USB kit, and a bit of asking around threw up a product called Pi2Jamma – which does exactly what it says on the tin, allows you to plug a Raspberry Pi mini computer straight into a JAMMA (arcade) harness. I had a Raspberry Pi hanging around doing not very much, so it seemed rude not to jump in. I won’t dwell on the setup process – it really is as simple as downloading a couple of images from the above website and plugging it in.
So, as we crawl out of the pandemic, or this part of it at least, I can look outwards for the first time in a long while and concentrate on building a life outside the house, knowing that my little corner of late 1970’s Britain is waiting for me when I get home.
I only really have one story, I suspect that most of us do really. Everything that I have every done, every decision made, every friendship made (and lost) and everything that has lead me to where I am now can be seen as merely an echo of, or a reaction against, that story. It’s why Space Invaders is such an important game to me and, more than that, it’s why videogames have been my constant companions through the hard times and the good. This isn’t just Why I Love Space Invaders, this is Why I Love Videogames.
It starts, as the best stories do, far far away and a long time ago. My mother went off to Australia to seek her fortune (or just to escape her past, same difference) back in the mid-sixties where, over the course of three years or so, she met my father, had me, got married and then divorced. That’s not my story, I’m neither the first or last bastard child to be born into my family – indeed, we’ve made something of a habit of it, but it’s all the background you need to understand the next bit.
So, there was my mother, sitting in Melbourne with a toddler but otherwise alone, when she receives word that her father is ill. What’s a girl to do? This was before air travel was cheap and easy, and the only trips to the antipodes that were possible back then were, of necessity, one-way. She made the tough choice, sold up what little she owned, filled a single suitcase with clothes and other essentials and ran home with her tail between her legs. Her father recovered and subsequently lived a long and healthy life, but we were now stuck back in the UK with no roof over our heads, no job and not much choice other than to move back in with my maternal grandparents. I was just shy of three years old and this is where my story begins…
I was three years old, in Watford, with an Australian accent and not much else to my name. My grandparents or, more specifically, my Grandmother resented my presence in a home just recently vacated by all her children, I didn’t understand why everything was so cold, everyone talked funny and all my toys had mysteriously disappeared. It’s fair to say that I was somewhat confused by the situation – family myth tells several tales of me packing my cases and leaving to go ‘home’, although I don’t remember ever getting very far.
In the absence of any friends or siblings to play with, nor of very much in the way of adult supervision since my mum went out to work during the day, I learnt to read. Family myth again; My mum left for work one morning and when she came home I was reading. I doubt if it was that quick (I suspect that she just didn’t notice what I was up to) but certainly, by the age of four I was working my way through whatever books we had in the house. My mum joined the library when I started reading Arthur Hailey and started asking inappropriate questions.
Years passed. I grew taller but still shunned, or was shunned by, the neighbourhood kids. I was the boy with the funny accent who always had his nose in a book and they were the rough lot who played games I didn’t understand and shouted a lot. I retreated further and further into my own little private world – too scared of further abandonment and loss to talk to, let alone trust, anyone. I craved play, I wanted to play games, but with no-one to play with I was reduced to inventing games to play on my own – sad little solo versions of Monopoly, Chess and 101 variations of Patience.
And then, towards the tail-end of the decade, Space Invaders arrived with a thud right in the middle of my self-imposed solitude. Space Invaders was a promise to the lonely lost child that I was, that perhaps I still am, that I would never be completely alone again. That the act of playing, denied to me by my seclusion, was available again. Here was a way for me to play – without playmates – all I needed was 10p.
London may not be to everyone’s taste, but I for one love living in a city where all-night bagel bars snuggle up to bring-your-own-alcohol curry places and bring-your-own-food beer places all against the backdrop of the City. I love the history of London, I love the streets of London and I love the sheer bloody-minded diversity of the place. There’s no room, here, for the “Polish quarter” mentality of the New World – immigrants live shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, nose to nose with previous generations of imports (every soul living in London today is an import from sunnier climes if you go back a few generations). Jews alongside Arabs, Celts alongside Romans, Muslims alongside Christians – our lives in this city are intertwined in ways too numerous to mention. They say that you are never more than 20 feet away from a rat in London. I don’t know how true that statistic is, but if it is true, then you are also never more than 20 feet away from the divine. Rats and angels in equal measure.
This month people have been trying to hurt my city. And suddenly, London appears to have noticed the danger that it has always been in. People have—almost overnight—realised that London is a target. Really, it’s no more of a target today than it was two months ago, it’s just that the ordinary people, me and you, have finally realised this and are reacting accordingly.
We are constantly eyeing each other up. Not in the normal surreptitious “would I like to have sex with you” way, but in a rather more sinister “how likely is it that you’re going to explode” kind of way. I’ve found myself doing it every morning on the tube, every coffee break in Starbucks, every evening in the pub. I hate doing it, after all, isn’t the point of a suicide bomb attack that you can’t tell who it’s going to be but I just can’t help myself. I position myself at strategically chosen points furthest away from would-be assassins, I mark where the exits are, and sit next to the pretty girls – not because they’re pretty, but because they’re less likely to try and kill me. On my way out of the tube station this morning I passed a small gaggle of policemen fussing over a semi-automatic weapon and had to stop myself from sitting down for a quiet gibber.
And into this atmosphere of fear and mutual distrust, and in one of the most unfortunate release dates in videogaming history, Hudson have unleashed a new generation of Bomberman. This time in Nintendo DS form.
I’m a militant gamer in many ways. I’ll play videogames in pubs, on the tube, at work, anywhere where there is an opportunity to play and I have a spare five minutes. I care not for the look that quite clearly says “playing videogames, at his age? Tsk”. Shop assistants assuming that the copy of Pac Pix I’ve just picked up is for my daughter is all par for the course. I do what I do, I play what I want to play, when I want to play and if anyone has a problem with that, then – well, that’s their problem.
But I don’t want people to see me playing Bomberman on the tube.
It just doesn’t feel right. All of those tactics which used to make me laugh like a drain – trapping an opponent between two bombs, setting up a chain reaction and hoping to get out of the way in time, dropping a bomb and sheltering behind a nearby brick wall, picking up a bomb and hurling it over a wall into the path of an enemy… Well, they just have too many associations with my real world now, with my fractured home. Even the (unskippable) opening animation, a fairly typical Bomberman short culminating in a comedy “BOOM”, makes me uncomfortable.
So why play it? Why do I keep plugging away at the game even though it makes me squirm every time I go near it?
When I bought the game (from under the counter, it seems I’m not the only one unsettled by this game’s release) I thought it was because I didn’t want to alter my behaviour as a result of an act of terrorism. On Wednesday 6th July, I was looking forward to the game’s release so I bloody well wasn’t going to change my mind about it on Friday the 8th of July just because a handful of nutters let off some real bombs. In my mind, it was my little two-fingered salute to the terrorists – my way of saying that I was not going to change my behaviour because of them.
But I still don’t want to be seen playing it in public.
It’s quite simple really. We like to pretend sometimes that games are just games. We will debate whether Project Gotham Racing promotes dangerous driving or if GTA encourages copycat behaviours until the cows come home. But, as much as we may like to comfort ourselves with our proper grown-up attitude to videogames, we have to accept that we don’t play them in a vacuum. Videogames are informed by the world around us. They exist alongside television and film and music and, yes, alongside the terrible things that we do to each other.
My friend Paul lives in Detroit and explained recently why he doesn’t enjoy another comedy killing game, GTA:San Andreas: “Drive by shootings are less funny when you have them happening one street over from your gaming chair.” He has a point. Bomberman just isn’t funny to me at the moment and, at least in the short term, is destined to remain a guilty pleasure. Maybe I’ll wake up one day and it will be “just a game” again but, until then, I won’t be playing Bomberman in company.
Originally published on WayOfTheRodent.com, in response to the 7/7 terror attacks
Let’s get straight to the point here – Gunpey is the best game you have never played, on the best system you’ve never heard of. No arguments, no returns.
The system first – it should be crap. Produced on the cheap by Bandai exclusively for the Japanese market and focused on delivering the definitive Digimon experience, it really should be ranked alongside the Barcode Battler and Tiger’s atrocious Game.com as among the worst gaming devices of all time. What saves it from this fate are two things – it’s design and some inspired, almost unbelievable even, marketing nous (how Bandai managed to persuade Square to support the Wonderswan in favour of the world-conquering GBA is beyond my understanding). Oh, and the Wonderborg.
But it’s the design of the machine which elevates it to the gaming gods. It is, in all ways apart from one, the perfect handheld gaming machine – large clear screen, low-weight, 20 hours play off a single AA battery, a full complement of face buttons and, vitally, playable in both portrait and landscape orientation. The only negatives I can throw at the machine are in its name (clearly from the same camp that gave us ‘Dreamcast’) and its size – too small for adult hands to play comfortably for any great period of time. But then again, I have mitts which are approximately the size of Luxembourg so maybe I’m not typical…
At its peak, this unassuming little device managed to capture close to 20% of the Japanese handheld market from the Colossus of Nintendo.
Perhaps it’s not surprising after all. The machine was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, designer of the original Game & Watch, the Gameboy and the Virtual Boy. Unfairly criticized for the latter, and defecting to start up his own company as a result, he was instrumental in the Wonderswan design. Sadly, it was to be the last project he worked on – and, in fact, he would never have seen a production model.
But enough history – it’s the game that we’re talking about here.
Gunpey, named after Gunpei either as a mark of respect after his death or as a rare bit of self-promotion before it, is quite simply one of the very small number of almost perfect videogames.
What a dashing fellow Mr. Yokoi was.
Gameplay is a none-more-simple case of drawing a line from one side of the screen to the other. That’s all there is. Take the tiles you’re presented with and slide them up and down until you have a line. The line goes away, you get points, a little voice yells ‘Gunpeeeeei’ in an irritating Japanese way and, all the while, more tiles get pushed on to the bottom of the playfield.
There are combo bonuses for completing multiple lines at once. There are bonuses for manipulating your tiles into ever more convoluted shapes, bonuses for clearing the screen and, in the largely superfluous Ex version, there are bonuses for completing lines in a single colour. But at the heart of it, it’s still about getting a line from left to right.
Take your multi-polygonal rendered real life art shite and stuff it.
Crucially – and this is something that so many puzzle games get wrong – it rarely descends into the blind panic of most block puzzlers, as typified by the mad wait for the 4×1 block in Tetris. There is always a line to make, or a combo to build. You can (almost) always recover from even the most unfair layouts. If you fail, it’s your fault and yours alone. Your fault for trying to build that ten line mega-combo, your fault for waiting for that last piece, your fault for trying to shuffle that one last piece to the top of the screen, your fault for being just too damn slow.
You don’t pay attention to politics when you’re a kid do you. It’s all skateboards and videogames and nicking sweets from Woolworths and Billy’s Boots and going down the park isn’t it?
Not for this kid, not in these times.
It’s 1979, and I’m asking my mother why she isn’t voting for Maggie Thatcher? They’re both women, it makes sense to me. I don’t understand the answer. Thatcher sweeps to power and the 80’s are born.
It’s 1984, and the relationship between politics and ordinary life is all too plain. The tories have absolute power and everyone knows it. Police and miners are clashing on the telly and my parents are on strike in a much less publicised, but equally acrimonious, battle about factory lay-offs at Leavesden aerodrome.
It’s 1987, and my parents are still hanging on to their jobs, albeit barely. Friends, other peoples fathers, are not so lucky. I’m about to vote for the first time and this time, surely to god, the masses would vote for what is right, to do something to stop the rot. They don’t.
It’s 1992, and Thatcher has gone, although it will be another four years before we get a change of government. So have the jobs – my step-father is stacking shelves in a supermarket to make ends meet, and my mother has been looking for a job for three years without success. It’s the start of nearly 20 years of financial struggle.
It’s 2013. Thatcher has died and the Munchkin’s are at number 1. It’s a hollow victory.
And you want me talk about videogames?
It’s 1979, and while the Tories are romping to victory I hear, before I see, Space Invaders for the first time at my mother’s work social club. The world will never be the same again.
It’s 1984, and while real life miners are struggling, I’m playing Monty Mole on the Sinclair Spectrum that I know my parents couldn’t really afford.
It’s 1987, and I’m back at the social club with my mates, full of optimism for the future, drinking beer and failing to complete R-Type.
It’s 1992, and I’m playing at being a grown up. Videogames are a luxury that I don’t allow myself, because I know that life is a struggle and it’s not fair and there is no such thing as a job for life. I finally understand what my mother was going on about in 1979.
It’s 2013, she’s in the news again, and I realise that Margaret Thatcher made me.