Depending on who you believe, time’s are either hard, or looking-up for the British gaming industry – while not too many of the biggest award winners at our own British Academy Video Games Awards actually came from our own fair Isles, aside from F1 2010, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Kinect Sports and Peter Molyneux. But really none of those awards really meant that much in the upper echelons of the gaming industry – the big shakers last year, and indeed this year are the sprawling FPS releases, fighting among themselves for the biggest sales purse come the end of the year.
And in amongst them, there will be will little British influence at all.
For the third largest games industry in the world to have such a small representation of the biggest selling games developed or published within its shores is a travesty, that is only compounded by the fact that many of those titles that are simply ape the characteristics of those produced by the larger sibling industry across the Atlantic Ocean.
Because we’re fiercely patriotic around these parts, in a fun, harmless sort of way, and not that exclusive, dangerous type that causes friction and anger and that, here’s a list of some of the greatest British games ever released. In some cases the British influence was more than in others, but every one of the ten below has a decidedly British flavour to them.
10. Elite (1984)
A downright revolutionary title if you ask me, Elite was one of the first games to use wire-frame 3D graphics with hidden line removal – not exactly the most lasting of evolutionary steps on the industry’s quick crawl out of the primordial ooze, but a hugely influential one all the same. Without Elite, we wouldn’t be able to debate how we get from the beautiful graphics of today’s games to the photo-realistic, immersive environments of tomorrow’s games, because neither of them would even exist. So really, Britain – and specifically writing and developer pair David Braben and Ian Bell – invented modern realistic gaming with their primitive, but beautiful wire-frame spaceship.
Strictly speaking, Elite was also the first Special Edition package to be released, thanks to the inclusion of Robert Holdstock’s novella The Dark Wheel, which was packaged along with the game in a novelty that predated the modern fascination with additional content and special features by some way. And not only that, it was released with arguably the first real launch event – at Thorpe Park, and an Achievements style competition set to see who could achieve the coveted status of Elite in the quickest time. In many ways, Elite unintentionally predicted exactly how the gaming industry would develop some 20 to 30 years later.
In today’s climate, the space trading narrative, in which the gamer would travel their ship to planet after planet across a frankly huge galaxy trading goods and buying upgrades at the same time as fighting off enemies might seem somewhat dull, but for early players it was a revellation. Which is probably why it managed releases across thirteen different platforms.
Hilariously, and wonderfully, thanks to the generation system required in the game’s formation, there was also a brief period of time, prior to release when there was a planet in the game called Arse. It’s these little things we should be grateful for.
9. Little Big Planet (2008)
At first, when this game was released I thought it was all too much of a hassle – what a cheek, the developers asking you to build your own levels. That’d be like Zoo Tycoon, only much, much worse. But the multi-award winning game soon turned my opinion on its head – it is far more than just the gimmick of its user-generated content (there’s the small point of the 50 already-made levels in there to begin with) and there’s an infectious charm that adds to the huge replayability factor. Design-wise it’s an absolute dream as well, full of beautiful little quirks and with a main character who is the ultimate champion of simple, charismatic design – Sackboy isn’t much of anything, but the fact that he still sells tie-in merch, and has become something of a poster boy for the PS3 says a lot.
8. Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear To The Rescue (1999)
I bang on about this game all the time. And it’s for good reason. Before it was released, and ever since in fact, no other movie tie-in game has ever been as good. So while in some eyes it might not necessarily stand up against the other games included in this list on its merits alone, it is the greatest of its entire market of games, and deserves every accolade ever showered on it.
But I’d argue that even on its own merits, Toy Story 2 is an exceptional gaming experience (on the PS1 at least), because of the way it melded a strong story-line with collectibles and task-based mini-games: a model for game building that continues in far greater strength than it did back in ’99. It was an innovator, entertaining and immersive despite its supposed lack of maturity, which was more than addressed in the maturity with which it was built.
And more than anything, the game is bags full of fun.
7. Manic Miner (1983)
The first game ever on the Spectrum to feature in-game music. So yet another example of Britons leading the way in terms of game development, then. Manic Miner was a fiendishly difficult to complete, psychedelic head-twister of a game, with regular gamers prone to bouts of furious frustration when a miss-timed jump sees their Miner Willy plummet to his death as a progressively more annoying electronic version of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” loops over and over. It was also the moment that modern platform gaming was invented, and hidden in amongst the vicious attacking toilets and general technicoloured wierdness is the blue-print for everything that followed in that genre.
But yeah, if you wanted to complete it, it was a choice of either cheating (shame on you), or committing a good week of solid gaming to it, never letting the Return to Level One inevitability after every last-life death suck you into a spiral and rage and depression.
6. Lego Batman (2008)
The Star Wars editions may have been the first games to launch the hugely successful Lego game universe, but it wasn’t until the Batman tie-in was released in 2008 that the formula really started to click. Commentators will mercilessly snipe that these Lego games are for none but the youngest gamers, but I would say there is a level of sophistication in the gameplay that would in fact rule them out as anything but casual fans. Because one thing the Lego games do better than any other developed franchise or single release is present seemingly achievable Achievement targets that actually require stoic dedication and a commitment to ignore frustration in order to achieve 100& completion.
Lego Batman is also hilarious, blending the iconic fun nature of those famous little multi-coloured blocks with an intertextual self-awareness and willingness to poke fun at itself and other games that is utterly engaging. Few other games – since maybe Abe’s Odyssey and Earthworm Jim – have had that much gleeful charisma to them, and it’s what makes fans continually come back to the Lego games.
5. Tomb Raider (1996)
The game that effectively launched – along with Wipeout (which narrowly missed out on a place in this list itself) – the Playstation 1 console to huge acclaim in the mid-90s, Tomb Raider was so much more than an opportunity to cheat code the clothes off a sexy lady character (let’s face it we all tried that cheat). Though it was originally released on the Sega Saturn, the game became somewhat synonymous with the PS1 console, and is still considered something of a poster-girl for the early games released on that platform.
Tomb Raider marked a major development in physical character generation – creator Toby Gard consciously sought a more realistic rendering sacrificing quick animation in favour of more fluid movements in order that the gamer would empathize with the character more easily. And empathize they did, with fanboys falling in rabid love with the character and the clamour for sequels only subsiding long after a normal franchise would have outstayed its welcome.
And why not? If America can have occupational stereotype defying Indiana Jones, us Brits can claim a busty, tiny-shorted sassy heroine as our own creation in the same vein. And make no bones about it Lara Croft was created as far more than a gun-wielding sprite for the in-game universe, she was a hyper-sexualised brand in her own right, battling Mario and Sonic for the role of queen of the console mascots for a while as well. The model behind the impossibly perfect bum was also just as important as what went on in the game, and for the first time in gaming history gamers were introduced to an aspirational “conquest” of sorts, a decision that along with Wipeout’s psychedelia and the hipness of the console (it was a regular fixture in nightclubs around Britain on launch) shifted the demographic of gamers to include more mature “main-stream” gamers.
4. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
When it comes to the GTA franchise, we’re spoilt for choice, but it is the fourth which makes this list thanks to how well it took the model of the first two, and the engine and beautiful look of the third and melded them into something incredibly engaging. Grand Theft Auto III effectively invented the open world model games use today, it is the yardstick against which any OW sandbox title is judged, but the follow-up has the better story-line (and a clever alternate ending quirk) and ironed out some of the bugs that stopped the predecessing titles achieving perfection. As a result, GTA IV is widely heralded as one of the finest games ever released, certainly by critics who showered the game with awards and accolades, and who have assured that it has achieved one of the highest average review scores ever as well.
3.Championship Manager 4 (2003)
Pretty much the holy grail of football management simulation games – this is where it all got very hardcore. Gone were the days of reckless abandon that characterised the earlier additions to the franchise where things like Training and squad morale meant nothing to the impact your tinkerings had on the success of the team, and far less frequent were the ridiculous scouting anomalies that saw mundane players like Rory Delap unthinkably pick up European and World Defender of the Year awards in the same season (playing in my team I might add, as my man-management skills were so incredible I managed to get someone famed only for a long throw to almost single-handedly win the Champions League).
Yes it’s a game for utter anoraks, but it’s commitment to total immersion is no different to the manifestos of WoW or even The Sims, and there is a far more tangible link between the game and the real world that those properties simply can’t lay claim to.
The franchise, and this game in particular was a home-wrecker, splitting large proportions of its almost universally male player base from their partners thanks to either criminal lack of attention or negligent personal hygiene. Which has got to be the sign of a good game in anyone’s books.
2. Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
The game of the past few years, soon to be followed up by the most hotly anticipated sequel of 2011, Arkham Asylum was a revelation when it came out in 2009, having been developed by excellent British development company Rocksteady Studios. Aside from the blips of the boss fights – particularly the finale versus The Joker – the game is an utter triumph, bringing the Batman universe to life in a manner that fuses the grimness of Nolan’s modern filmic strand as well as Paul Dini’s superlative comic franchise of the same name, built on an exceptional game engine (particularly the combat mechanics). Collectibles and evolutionary opportunities for the main character lend to a high replayability factor, as do the addictive Challenge maps, and the difference in each of the difficulty levels makes for a wholly different gaming experience as you progress through each stage.
It looks astounding, thanks to exceptionally drawn and developed characters and immersive environments lifted straight out of the comics. It is without a shadow of a doubt the greatest comic book adaptation ever to be released to the world of gaming and has justifiably sold a shed-load of copies on the back of that quality.
Just writing about it makes me want to return to the game from the very beginning once more.
1. Goldeneye N64 (1997)
The Wii update might not have done the original the greatest service (the engine was fundamentally flawed and movement mechanisms horribly archaic), but the N64 version remains an iconic title on that or any platform. Okay, so the graphics haven’t exactly stood up to the test of time, but those blocky puppet-looking characters were once the stuff that innovation was made of – Goldeneye 64 was in fact overall one of the single most influential first-person shooter games ever released.
For the first time, the player became the character, immersed in Bond’s spy universe – and it’s chiefly thanks to the extra level of realism that Goldeneye channeled in comparison to the FPS titles that came before it. For almost the first time, we could actually zoom through the sniper rifle’s lens in order to place perfectly planned shots to the head (or other areas of the anatomy if the sadistic desire struck), and play in recognisable (if slightly elaborated) cities. And that engaging realism was supplemented with a delirious range of weaponry – some of which you could duel-wield – and extremely fun gameplay (plus the boyish glee that accompanies the opportunity to play 007 himself) which all combines to make Goldeneye a genuine classic.
So, what else? Any titles that you love that I’ve missed? Any that really shouldn’t be on this list (I know which one will get a lot of heat)? That’s what the comments box is for…