Megatron's Memoirs Part 1
See that kid on the left hand side, well that's me peeps, yup before I got my growth spurt and my hair surrendered and I turned into what now resembles a football hooligan I was once the happy go lucky gamer you see here.
Over the 25 years that followed I like to think that I have gained a decent insight into the games industry, I made games myself, know people that still do, worked in the games retail market and even owned my own indie games shop, been a collector, been a gamer, now I'm a retro nutcase and co-founder of a website, life certainly hasn't been dull.
This is the first in a regular feature where I will be looking into things from those days gone by, sometimes funny, sometimes serious but I just wanted to write it all down before my mind goes and I start dribbling down my own face. I hope it's as fun to read as it is to write and without further delay here's Part 1.
Part 1: The Budget Years
Right let’s get this out of the way right now cause we all know it so let’s just say it….. I’m old! It’s important to know this because everything mentioned on this feature is essentially stuff that most of you I know who come here didn’t experience at the same time if indeed at all, it’s also the thing least represented on this site as of now and to be fair, that’s my bad because as the granddad of the group (sigh) I really should have spent more time doing reviews for games for these systems but you know what, im busy…So tough! X
There was a time way back when black & white tv’s were still in most gamers bedrooms that the home computers ruled supreme, the UK especially was at this time leading the world in some cases due to systems like the Amstrad CPC464/6128, The commodore 16/64/128 and the Sinclair Spectrum range of computers from the ZX80/81 to the 16k, the 48k and the 128k/+2/+3. Now at this point it’s important to note that these were not anywhere near the full range on offer as BBC Micro’s, Acorn Elctron’s, MSX’s etc etc were also present however in the country I’m from England (UK) the Amstrad, Commodore and Spectrum were the ones you and your friends had, these were the systems that caused arguments in playgrounds before the Megadrive V Snes war even started.
So now your thinking. Ok old man I get it, I know all this crap why am I still reading this, to you I say Shhh lol and I’m getting to it, if you know anything about me at all you know I’m in the business of leading up to things. Today I am going to talk about the Mid-Late 80’s home computer era, case in point the Spectrum 48/128 and how hard it was to be a gamer if you were like me a kid/teenager.
I'm Sorry, How much?
Whilst the spectrum was the cheaper option for your choice of computer it wasn’t as if it was given away free from packets of cereals and even the rubber key (yes you heard me) 48k version was well over £100.00 and that’s in the early 80’s so trust me, that’s expensive. The games themselves during the start of these home computers however were much nicer on the wallet or purse and most cost around the £4.99 bracket, this essentially put the gaming side into the pocket money category and was a great way of making the machine of choice perfect for the whole family as mum and dad could use it for things like home finances whilst the kids could use it for shooting alien scum in the face with death rays……YEAH!
In what seemed like an overnight explosion high street shops that would traditionally sell things like after shave or cosmetics started to embrace gaming, to clarify this anyone living in the United Kingdom who is aged in the 30’s should remember their local BOOTS selling video games, today they sell tampons and headache tablets, my how things have changed.
For places like Woolworths and WH Smith and the then giant of the high street John Menzies the story was the same, a young Megatron was often asked to leave his local Boots and Woolworths for spending far too much time playing with the demo machines but I was poor at that age as most of us were, the 80’s made the recent credit crunch look like you had lost a fiver down the back of a chair.
It’s crazy to think that with games at £4.99 there would even be a problem with piracy but there was, everyone who had fingers bought blank tapes and copied their friends games onto them, high speed dubbing is something Anime producers wished they had invented! Personally I was a one man piracy machine although my original collection was for the time quite frankly insane hence why the name GEEK appears on this website, I spent my school life being two things, the class clown and the gamer, both of which I have no regrets about at all.
Costs start to rise, water fills my eyes...
With the introduction of the NES and the Master System into the marketplace everything changed and suddenly you would walk into shops and see games for 19.99 (Master System card games) but mostly for prices of 29.99 - 39.99, sure these were on instant loading cartridge in full colour with arcade quality graphics and sound (tv really can lie sometimes right?) but the price jump was massive, let me break this down to you so you get why I’m typing all of this. In 1985-89 my only source of income was my paper round, now this earned me 7 pounds a week which you guessed it was a pound a day, this meant that if I spent nothing on anything else all month I was still never getting a full price Master System game once a month which is why I was very late getting to the 8-bit console party and why my love of the humble spectrum lasted right through until the early 90’s
Almost the second the new consoles arrived like the NES the £4.99 games suddenly all jumped to £7.99 across the board, then to make it all happy joy joy times Ocean along with companies like US GOLD, Gremlin etc all thought that what would be completely fair would be introducing all the premium game titles to £9.99, I was gutted. My 7 pound per week meant there was no way I could get a game every week anymore especially as I also loved getting the games magazines at the time and quite often I wouldn’t even get my paper round money because I’d already spent it on Crash, Your Sinclair, Sinclair User and C&VG magazines at around £1.50 - £1.99 a time.
All was not lost though and even though the games companies were quite frankly taking the piss with all the top name games of their day some newer companies were starting to spring up in the pages of the above mentioned magazines, some of them I would later find out would be actually the cheaper brand of the established then super companies, for instance THE HIT SQUAD games were actually Ocean software’s budget label and this is what this feature is about, budget games for the home computers.
A new price point...YES!
Now that machines like the Commodore and Spectrum were getting older they had very and I do mean VERY large back catalogues of titles sitting around doing nothing, games companies of those days loved putting out game compilations for the £9.99 price that would sometimes include as many as 10 really famous games, again US GOLD, Gremlin, Imagine and Ocean were doing this almost 5 times a year each. But now they were no longer selling and so instead a new price point was introduced, a price point that meant gamers of all ages could now get their gaming kicks without selling crack on the street, this was the time of the £1.99 budget label.
Don’t get me wrong there were some existing companies that were already selling games at this price point and had been for a while however it was the larger established brands that created this new way of thinking in what felt like a kind of organised in secret fashion in order to price fix the market (like supermarkets always do for milk, bread and eggs etc) However it happened and whoever pulled the trigger first it was a breath of fresh air as it rejuvenated sales in shops and encouraged people to look at cheaper games as a serious alternative, the only modern comparison I can offer is how indie games shops had been selling pre-owned games for years but only when chains like GAME and in America EB games & Gamestop etc started doing it did it get accepted as a normal part of video gaming, hell I remember working for an indie games store during the 90’s and trying to convince a housewife that a pre-owned copy of hellfire was no different to the new one and 15 quid cheaper and to her I was effectively drowning a small cat such was the stigma of cheaper games.
The budget label bonanza as I’m calling it was massive, it actually helped bring companies into the mix that made all of their money from selling at these price points, the most famous of all these would most probably be Codemasters who thanks to Richard and David Darling’s grasp of the market trends managed to secure the services of many then bedroom coders (as they once were) to produce games coded in weeks that went on to sell insane amounts of copies, games like Dizzy, BMX Simulator and Super Robin Hood would get great reviews and be in the reach of kids up and down the country, along with the Olver Twins they made some serious money.
A proper gamer is born...
Suddenly my 7 pound a week could get me 3 games plus sweets or 2 games plus a mag, I suddenly had options again and I didn’t care my games took 12 minutes to load and were in colour clash hell most of the time (spectrum’s eh?) because the actual games I got were most of the time amazing, at this point in my gaming career (?) I suddenly became familiar with a company known as PLAYERS who’s Joe Blade character was very well known at the time and again cost me the cheap cheap sum of £1.99, bargain or what! My original games collection doubled in a year, probably trebled if im honest and all because I could suddenly try totally new things or previously out of reach games at prices that my budget could allow.
When it came time for C&VG magazine to hit the news stands I would of course see the review for Metroid or Zelda 2 on the NES and look at it like a starving person suddenly finds dog food a tempting thought and the same for the Master System games however by this point very few of my friends were tempted into the console race so we each made sure we bought different games each week then shared them around to make sure a £1.99 spend would effectively get you 5 games through the naughty form of double tape decks, I’m not proud of this at all however at the same time I kinda am and I get to sleep at night safe in the knowledge that the amount of games I did in actual fact buy was about 10 times the size of the average gamer of the era, I broke the rules sure but I also suported the companies who’s games I loved, Codemasters and Players games that sit in my collection today both of which are nearly full sets.
Budget gaming for me was heaven, being able to buy at least one game a week as well as the magazines of the time meant that I never missed a trick when it came to a school playground conversation, I could hold my own with the richer kids because I bought the magazines that showed their Amiga games or NES/Master System stuff and at the weekend I was always in Boots etc trying them out for hands on experience, to them I was just as cool even if my format of choice was a speccy.
New computers, everything is still ok...
Unfortunately by the end of the 80’s the budget range mania was hurt by the introduction of the new £2.99 premier price point and Codemasters had also tried to up the average price to £4.99 with a handful of software titles such as Jet Bike Simulator and an ultra expensive for the time Rock Star Ate My Hamster which if memory serves me came in a large card box and was £9.99, totally worth it though as it was awesome! When the early 90’s hit the spectrum was already looking old and tired and less and less games were being made for it, ironically the only games released at this point were budget priced games because all the UK developers had fallen in love with the Amiga by this point, a platform that produced better than Megadrive graphics with a sound chip only the Atari ST could fight off, games for this system were more along the lines of 19.99 however this time round a budget range of game from £7.99 onwards appeared much quicker with truly great titles being re-released less than a year after the full price version had come out, again Codemasters and Ocean were the main friends of gamers once more.
Between 1991 and 1994 the sheer number of budget 16-Bit Amiga and Atari ST games meant that school kids could benefit like I had from cheaper alternatives or re-released bargains, by this point I was working not only my paper round but also a Saturday job at a place where I could get games from using my 20% discount so the step up to the Megadrive and Amiga could happen for me although again after many of my then friends because my parent didn’t have 400 quid kicking around for that Batman the Movie bundle (that’s for you Olly023 you lucky git)
Budget gaming is something that still of course continues to this day, the Megadrive mirrored the amiga with re-released cheaper games and then the PS1 did the same as did the N64 with specific re-release budget labels through the late 90’s. In the 00’s the PS2, XBOX and Gamecube all had re-releases and it has even followed through to the current Xbox360/PS3/Wii generation.
Thanks for the memories!
It makes me happy that right now tons of future retro game lovers (weird saying that) are rushing home with their £9.99 priced version of a game that they got with their pocket money or paper round as it means the tradition of cut priced awesome gaming experiences is continuing.
This generation of gamers don’t know they are born in many other ways such as the pitiful magazines on offer for them to learn about new games and the quite terrible level of overall tabloid journalism that exists on the mainstream websites but at least they have a healthy pre-owned market and budget gaming to allow them to maybe go and try things for themselves. Because you and I know that now more than ever you have to go looking for the gems because all those in power now want you to play is those 3 games a year.
For me budget gaming meant having fun to a price limit and not a lesser experience, Deviants, Treasure Island Dizzy, Skateboard Construction Kit and a £1.99 version of Target Renegade taught me this.
Going out in the cold and wet of winter at 6 in the morning to deliver a newspaper to people who lived 5 minutes from the newsagents may have been horrible, especially when part of my round meant going into care homes with their low light and I swear ghost filled corridors that made the 11 year old me brick himself daily. But on a Saturday when I would take a trip to town to get Joe Blade 2 or Denzien on spectrum with my wages all those crappy moments would vanish.
This was my hard earned money and this was my passion, im not saying for one minute they were better times at all but they also were not bad times either, reading Sinclair User in class that I picked up that morning then rushing home to try out the cover tape that contained games and demos are some of my happiest childhood memories.
Swapping games with people to try even more stuff out led to long lasting friendships, it’s astounding how something so small can have so many positive outcomes. So many of my childhood and teenage years friends were directly connected to such things.
Better days, happy faces!
So this is for the Budget days and the memories they keep giving, Trying to complete Fantasy World Dizzy before Christopher Arnott, making my own games using an editor that Peter O'Flynn would essentially copy for his GCSE design project...And get an 'A'. Swapping Players games for Codemasters games with Daniel who's surname I forget and playing FEUD around Gareth Dodd's house for hours on end hoping his mum would make me a sunday roast cause they were amazing!
Then during the Amiga days picking up Batman the Movie after playing it round David Cochraine's house for months on end with another old friend Craig Gardner meant that from the age of about 11 until I was 19 or so my free time was never anything else other than utterly amazing.
Sadly I don't keep in contact with any of the people mentioned here, over time we all just drifted apart, people moved, friendship's ended, some had kids which automatically meant nothing else mattered and rightly or wrongly I stayed the exact same person, unable or un-willing to fall in line with the way of thinking that being a parent and getting a name badge upgrade to a cheap suit is what life is all about.
I guess that's why I have the memories I do, the games collection that I have and part of the reason this website even exist's, Retro games or indeed gaming in general is not a side project hobby of mine, something I do when I get 5 minutes, it is my life because it is my ultimate passion and whilst everything else around me changes this won't. Maybe some of you feel the same way, maybe some reading this just dabble and that's cool with me either way, whatever brought you to the party is groovy with this guy.
Hopefully reading things that I and the other contributers write here will inspire you to go check out the attic for your old stuff, go on ebay and pick up something you grew up with that when you sit down and play suddenly brings back all of YOUR childhood memories, all the happy times when things were just so much simpler before real life came along and ruined everything, if it does then I will be over the moon because it means that the happy chappy in the picture at the top of the article managed to do at least one useful thing in his life eh?
RGG's Final Thoughts...
There's a saying that goes that money cannot buy you happiness well try telling that to an 11 year old me cause I’m telling you right now he won’t listen. Truth be told young Megatron will think you are mad!
He will be too busy shoving papers through letter boxes to earn the cash to get Combat School on Saturday and maybe even some Green Beret or Fantasy World Dizzy if it‘s out at last, who knows? but the one thing he will tell you is that there is a price to pay for such happiness.
Joy it seems costs £1.99 and comes on tape.