I'm a big fan of video games. I also enjoy watching television. One thing I don't enjoy is being on television. Being a guest on a television program is designed to put you on the wrong foot from the start. Television sets are bristling with TV-lovies, straight out of the Central School for Speech and Drama, oozing confidence, charisma, teeth that are so white they're almost blue, and leaving small trails of face powder in their wake; sometimes actually leaving people who're in the act of trying to apply face powder in their wake.
And there's me. A nervous 14 year old boy with a flat top haircut, being greeted by a hyperactive Scottish man in a ridiculous jacket, pushing absurd curtained hair out of his eyes. This was how my Gamesmaster experience with my grandfather, Blockbusters' Bob Holness, began.
I'm the oldest of four boys. Three of us work in IT; the fourth will most likely eventually also answer the same calling. All four of us played our fair share of video games over the years, but me most of all. I can trace back my interest in computers to when, on a Saturday morning, 28 years ago, my dad told us we weren't going swimming this time as he'd bought a computer instead. It was a black Sinclair Spectrum +. Once we'd hooked up a shoddy external tape deck, typed in the obligatory command: Load """", then waited while the soothing sounds of a fax machine being taken roughly from behind filled the air, a game loaded up. I was hooked.
Fast forward seven years to 1992 and the game show Blockbusters is hugely popular with the masses, with my grandfather being a cult hero amongst university students. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to invite him along to Gamesmaster to show the world how shit he is at computer games. And who did they decide should go up against him in the hot-seat to make it fair? Why, me of course.
I quite fancied my chances, as it went. I was an experienced gamer, though I'd never heard of a game called Volfied before. It turned out to be Qix with spaceships, so that was alright. Basically, you're a sprite zooming around the perimeter of a square. In the middle of the square are a bunch of twats bouncing about trying to kill you. To win the game you leave the safety of the perimeter and drag a line behind you (like Snake). Once you effectively take a chunk out of the square and return back to the edge of the screen, that square becomes yours. If you get hit by the twats then you die and start again. The trick is to work your way through the middle of the screen as if you cut the screen in half, you own a huge percentage. The idea is to get as much space as you can in five minutes -- this seemed fairly simple to me, however to Bob, games were an alien concept.
To rectify this, a man turned up at the door (the day before the filming, good work Patrick Moore. I thought you were supposed to be able to see into the future!) with a Commodore Amiga 600, a copy of Volfied and the biggest Kempston joystick you'd ever seen. A huge blue, phallic monstrosity. This thing had so much travel, I can only compare it to punting a gondola, only slower and less accurate. This was a huge disappointment to me as all my friends had Master Systems or Nintendo Entertainment Systems and the world was getting used to joy'PADs'. Personal computers with big wang-joysticks were so last Saturday. Also we were mere weeks away from the impending release of the SNES and Streetfighter 2 (which was a huge arcade hit in our little town in Devon) so you can image the face of a 14 year old boy being given an old Amiga, a big blue penis with a bright red trigger on the end and told to go play.
I was delighted to find out the film set was an oil rig on the North Sea, only accessible by helicopter, but then hugely disappointed 30 minutes later when it turned out to be an old pump house in Sunbury and the rig, helicopter and all, were just CGI. Interestingly though, the same set was used for the prison planet scene in Red Dwarf a few years later. By then Dominik Diamond must have buggered off to have his Irn Bru and work on his goatee.
I'm led to a games room to practice. Being the middle of July, it was the Christmas special so tinsel was everywhere. What do I spot in the corner? A Super Famicom; the Japanese import of the SNES and it's running Street Fighter 2! Straightaway I made a Sonic Boom over to the Super Famicom and blasted Hadukens and Ryukens across the screen until the cows came home... and told me it was time to go on set to be filmed. Whoops! So no practice then.
To add to the 'challenge,' as I approached the set the producer told me he'd forgotten to mention before but we wouldn't have the normal five minutes on the game, in fact we'd have just 30 seconds. I used to spend at least a minute trying to get my little sprite to overcome his agoraphobia and venture out into the square so this was going to cause some problems. So I said my pleasantries to shiny-faced Dominick, sat down in front of the box, hoofed the rudder-from-the-titanic-joystick onto my lap and made a start.
Nothing, let me say that again, NOTHING prepares you for a room full of people shouting your name (in this case, my middle name Oliver, which I was using at the time) all in one go. I know it was supposed to be encouraging but it just made me feel like I was letting even more people down. And let them down I did. Round 1 I was just about to make my move and the lights went up. Time over! A surprised director said over the mic "I think we'd better try that again". Round 2, the same thing. As I sat down for my third try Bob actually whispered "Don't worry, I'll let you win". How did I end up being bested by my grandfather, doing what I love best, on national television, for all my friends to see? Round 3 started as badly as before but then out of nowhere, a 'time freeze' appeared and like a madman I wrenched the joystick upwards through its full range of motion and cut the screen in half. Bonus. 48.8 per cent. Beat that, P-Please-Bob!
He almost did. You can still find the clip on YouTube and he looks very close to completely pwning me right from the off. Luckily (for me) he got snarled up in a difficult corner and couldn't quite get the points.
After that, lots of cheering from my adoring fans, a sweaty handshake from Diamond and inexplicably a diver delivering my prize: A Golden Gamesmaster (Kempston) Joystick. Sigh.
Sam Gibson is a 35 year old IT Project Manager who works for a large law firm in the City of London. He lives with his wife in Battersea and they are expecting their first child in February. In his spare time he is an 17 year old adolescent who listens to rock music, plays video games and eats pizza.
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