When I was a kid my parents disapproved of a lot of stuff.
I come from Northern Ireland, where everyone is pretty religious. It's just one of those things you deal with. This isn't a story about religion but it's important to understand that there were certain restrictions placed on my childhood, not huge ones, just... restraints. I wasn't one of these children who was allowed to go running about the streets with the other kids. My parents would much rather I stayed in the back garden. And it's not about me hating my parents and how bad a job they did raising me and my siblings. As far as I'm concerned, even if I was a little sheltered in comparison to my friends, it formed me into a force for good. But this is about my childhood and computer games, and religion and my parents played a large part in it all. With hefty quantities of religion, change is feared.
For my family, computer games were change.
I'll start at my first encounter. When I was very young indeed, a friend got a Pong console. I'd love to say I remember the name and manufacturer but I was a kid. I didn't care. It had two dial controllers, displayed in black and white on the TV and had a selection of games from the original Pong through to Squash (Pong with both bats on one side of the screen and a wall on the other). It was fun but, really, it's not exactly imagination capturing stuff, is it?
We were one of the first families in our town to get a proper computer; a BBC Micro B+ (note the +, it placed us above the normal BBC Micro B user.).
It had plenty of games and I even learnt to program in Basic to make myself a 2-player snake-clone. Elite was like playing a book; you used your imagination to fill in the blanks. I played Chuckie Egg for so long that after one go, I stopped playing because I knew that I couldn't do any better. I loved that machine.
My not-my-uncle-but-we-called-him-uncle-anyway, Les, let us borrow his C64 with Time Pilot and Twin Kingdom Valley. Everything was more arcade than the BBC, more action, brighter, more demanding. I can still vividly remember the noise and the anticipation of me and all my brothers and sisters when a Zeppelin was about to appear on screen.
Then a friend of mine got a NES.
And another friend got a Master-System. Then a Mega-Drive!
What were these "consoles" that played such flashy and fun little cartridges?! Sonic and Mario demanded my attention! As you can see, I wasn't the first on the scene for any of this. We didn't have arcades in my home town. I'd only seen a Space Invaders machine on holiday! Other children of the same age, those kids who were out in fields throwing rocks and burning things, they were the ones who got these magic boxes. I was fortunate if my older brother was forced to let me tag along when he went round to see his best friend, where I was like Tommy in front of a pinball machine, playing Columns by instinct alone because I'd never seen it before to practice. Friends would ask me round to complete levels for them.
My parents, despite all begging and pleading, would never, ever get me a video game console.
The BBC was brought into the house for education and word processing. Work came first, play was incidental, though it got a lot more attention from me gaming on it than it ever got the daisy-wheel spinning and bashing out pages of text. What we were allowed to watch on TV was carefully monitored. Programs my parents disapproved of, like Grange Hill and Motormouth, were blacklisted and switched in favour or Blue Peter or even mid-afternoon soaps. Sons and Daughters will have its own special hell if I get to rule down there.
Consoles were something to be feared. They served no purpose, glued kids to the TV for hours at an end and were the stories were totally incomprehensible to them. Well, most of the time they were totally incomprehensible to me as well. I still have no idea why Mario is so happy and concluded long ago that Luigi is either his love-buddy or his crack dealer. But, yeah, as older generations feared what rock music would do to their sons and daughters, so my parents refused to see the good in gaming, regardless of my passion for it. I had to get my gaming fixes another way.
Our camping trips consisted of me saving what little pocket money I had to sit in the arcade in the campsite, playing Arkenoid, Hunchback, Space Harrier, Gauntlet, Golden Axe, Double Dragon, Pac-man and Bomb Jack. One of my favourite breaks was when I discovered the original Street Fighter in the kids room of the bar.
Back home, I would steal into the local leisure centre after school because they had a Street Fighter 2 machine. I would sneak into pubs to play the single arcade machines and eventually into a local seedy arcade that was filled with slot machines and a few token games (1942, Shinobi with the jump broken and King of Fighters). One night, I wasn't home at 7pm and my parents went out looking for me. My father dragged me from the smokey pool room and flashing lights after someone at school ratted on me. He just couldn't comprehend why I wanted to be there, as I wasn't there with friends or trying to fit in with all the cool smoking kids who hung out there. Hell, I didn't drink then and I don't smoke.
When I hit 15, I'd still never had a console.
Something had to give.
My parents were not bad people; I love them dearly. They just had a very low opinion of consoles. They were the kind of people who thought that people could sit around with the TV off and have conversations, like in the old days. All that ended up happening was we'd sit there in silence, wondering what we were meant to be talking about. One thing they always promoted was the concept of money being your own. Once they gave you a little pocket money, you could go and spend it on sweets and toys to your heart's content and they wouldn't complain (though they might comment on the quality of the rubbishy toys you were intending to buy for 50 pence, and were right to do so most of the time!). So when my older brother got a job at a local bar/restaurant as a waiter, I saw my chance.
I asked my parents if I could get a job there too.
They weren't happy about this. After all, I was only 15; working in a place filled with alcohol and drunks couldn't be a good thing. I said I'd try getting a job stocking the shelves and cleaning up so that I wouldn't be waiting or serving behind the bar. They knew the people who ran the place and my home town, hell, my country! is small enough that they knew I'd be ok there. They drove me down to the building and I went inside, cap in hand, to ask if they had any need for someone to do that sort of thing. Turns out someone they had doing that job was leaving so when could I start?
It was the lowest paid job you could possibly get.
There was no minimum wage back then. Employers could pay you whatever the hell they wanted. I think I started on £1.50 an hour and worked my way up to £2.20 after about a year. It was tough work too! Early starts, heavy lifting, picking through broken glass with your bare hands....
I AM NOT KIDDING!
This was one of the main parts of my job! Sorting out bottles into their various different recycling bins from all the waste bottles from the bar. I was treated like crap for the most part and hid myself in the basement to avoid the more ridiculous tasks such as slopping out kitchen waste into one of the skips or raking the pebbles in the car park. I could only work weekends as well, thanks to school. I made it my own, though, and knew the job better than anyone else.
It took me most of a summer to save up enough for what I wanted but, that summer, near my birthday, I announced to my parents that I was going to get the best and most expensive console I could find and there was nothing they could do about it. They had watched me working in the bar, driven me home while I was biting back tears over some of the bullying I'd had. They'd watched me devote every weekend, saving every penny I could scrimp together and they knew how much I wanted it. They drove me to the electronics store and helped me carry the package to the counter, so that I didn't drop it. When I got to the till, there was a problem.
I was £10 short.
I felt the tears well up. I'd worked so hard! It would take another full weekend of work before I could get that sort of money together and then I'd have to get my parents to take me to the store again, which was quite a trek from home. It could easily be almost a month before I could get this chance again.
My dad smiled down at me and handed me a crisp new ten pound note. "Don't tell your mum, ok?" he whispered to me. I almost jumped about the store!
My dad was my hero then, is my hero now, always will be.
I took it home and unpacked. I played and let the others play, sometimes. I learnt about "the zone" and playing computer games without sound to guide you. I became master of every game I played, with even my older brother defeated constantly due to the sheer volume of practice I put into it. My local video-store started renting games out and by the end of the year I'd played them all and knew the owner well. I read all the magazines, knew all the secrets, waited impatiently for new releases and even started designing my own games, filled with giant robots and colourful cartoons. This first console, this wonder of my childhood fuelled much of what I am today.
I earned my right to game; it can't be taken away from me.
What was it? Does that matter? I've heard similar stories from many people over the years, whether it's been saving up for a bike and eventually buying a shiny new machine through to people who've put pennies into jars for a year to get it all together. One thing rings true through it all: if you earned it, it was worth so much more than what you paid for it.
This is what set me up to eventually do what I do now. All that "wasted" time in front of consoles and in dodgy arcades actually paid off. I never thought it would. I just loved gaming.
P.s. It was a SNES. The Starwing
bundle. I was the first kid in my town to have a cartridge with a Super FX chip.