The coolest gang of british pubs, the folks behind Rock Paper Shotgun, have written over the last days a series of articles about formative gaming, all the games that contributed to them becoming gamers. Distinguishing our favorite games from those which influenced us the most is a good exercise and as such, I’ve decided to explore my past and will try to talk about the games that made me the kind of gamer I am today.
If all goes well, this article will be the first in a series.
The end of the game is well in sight. A series of careful jumps, inventory juggling and exploration landed me a trip out of the cursed island. Now the rickety boat that’s leaving towards the right side of the screen is the only thing that stands between me and freedom. I think about the implications. What if it disappears and doesn’t come back? Is this really the end? Did I forget something back there? But time is quickly running out and my uncertainty isn’t doing me any favors. I hit the Space key.
I barely have time to wipe the smile off my face when I realize I missed the boat and plummeted into the water – I let my confidence undermine all my hard work. This would be a good time to smash the keyboard, howl in frustration or mourn over the dozens deaths I have been through. Instead, I sit silently and watch as my corpse begins floating upwards. There is some warped sense of justice.
It was clearly the egg’s fault. He was rotten.
Treasure Island Dizzy (or Dizzy 2), by the Oliver Twins, was not the first ZX Spectrum game I played and, in retrospect, was probably nowhere near my favorite one. The quirky egg dressed in boots and boxing gloves didn’t provide the arcade fun of Pacmania or the tension of Ant Attack. It was also miles away from Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy when it came to hazards and enemies spread across the maps. Yet, the unlikely character and his adventure in a desolate island was the first game ever to show me the power that videogames could have.
It turned my parents into hardcore gamers.
Back in the day, I couldn’t afford monthly videogame magazines. My parents would occasionally buy me Micro Hobby (a spanish game rag which introduced me, among others, to Freddy Hardest and The Last Ninja), but none of the issues I received came with printed maps or pokes for the game. This, coupled with none of my friends sharing an interest in videogames, turned TID into a mysterious thing unlike any the young and impressionable Diogo had ever seen. It sent conflicting messages to my brain. On one hand, Dizzy’s permanent smile and cheerful soundtrack gave a sense of innocent, fun adventuring. On the other, the paucity of characters, the oppressive black backgrounds and secrets littered across the island created dread. Years before System Shock 2, here was a gameworld that sparked my imagination. Where are the inhabitants? Who placed these notes around here? Why are those items there? What secrets lie on the other side of the island? Why are you smiling, you damned egg – can’t you see how grave the situations is?!
The Dizzy series of games were labeled as “puzzle platformers” to explain how they combined elements of platforming games (movement like walking and jumping) with adventure games (collect items then use them in specific ways or places), though I always felt this to be misleading. Compare with Super Mario Bros., where the game communicates indirectly everything you should be doing. An enemy moves toward you – jump. The screen scrolls from left to right – move. Any item you collected – immediate effect.
Dizzy’s pace and dynamics were completely different. Mario’s levels were continuous and obstacles were gradually introduced to players. Dizzy was not segmented into levels but screens – each one of them with a challenge or a curiosity waiting to be found. Jumping was rarely used to dodge enemies – in fact, his tendency to roll across the ground a few seconds after landing had you making careful use of the jump. Touching an enemy or certain environmental hazards would result in instant death – there were no power-ups to lessen the fact. Coins were not for bragging rights – they were required to finish the game and were hidden behind bushes, misty glass windows, rock formations. And unlike the plumber’s journey, you weren’t saving anyone but yourself.
Dizzy made it clear from the start you were on your own.
Years later, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid came across as entirely different beasts of the same species. Still indebted to the adventure game format, no doubt, but whereas Nintendo’s titles offer a permanent repertoire of items that empowered both the character and the player, Dizzy would treat these as nothing more than expendable tools. If Link had run out of bombs he could always find more. Slain enemies would leave in their place missiles for Samus to pick up and replenish her stock. But the detonator and explosives that blasted a hole in the mine were gone once Dizzy used them. The inventory itself was a puzzle on its own: you could only carry three items but cycling between them would also drop the next item on the list. So if you wanted to use the snorkel to explore the water that divided both sides of the island, you had to be careful not to pick up items that would force you to drop it. Many a laugh was heard when our greed or curiosity got the better of us and we either drowned or had to backtrack to pick up an important item.
Yes, “our”. This was when my parents came into play.
At first their curiosity was somewhere between morbid (“what happens if the egg jumps into that torch? Oh, fu–!“) and the practical (“so *that* is how you use the spade!”), but as time passed the game gathered the entire family in the living room. It clicked something on their minds like it did with me and it didn’t take long before we decided to take turns. While one of us controlled Dizzy, the others would take notes or give suggestions and cheer us up. When the one playing lost, we switched roles. This was the first time I ever saw someone take on games seriously – their devotion in mapping out the island, calculating jumps, exploiting collision detection and experimenting with the game was both eerie and inspiring. “Do that, now do this, don’t go that way…” Back then, the ZX Spectrum did for us what the Wii has been doing for this generation of gamers. And TID was a glimpse of the sandbox design in vogue these days, letting our imaginations become as instrumental to the gameplay as the game’s mechanics.
Treasure Island Dizzy was the first game my parents ever played with me. And it was also the last one.
Eventually the island lost its charm and we never made it to the end together. We began buying and playing more games, or finding other things to do with our time, but never again in the same way. Their influence on my gaming habits made me the only one of us to pay more attention to games, to their rules and structures, to play until late hours, to essentially become a gamer. But my parents gave up and moved on. Nowadays, my mother flutters between Flash web games and stuff like Solitaire. By contrast, my father would go on to play Contra with me and then nothing but racing games (Virtua Racing for the Sega 32X was a passion we shared) until he gave up entirely, even becoming aggressive and derisive towards the medium itself. I climbed a relatively brief hierarchy of gaming platforms and it would take me several years before I returned to TID thanks to emulation. I can’t claim to have fully mastered the game since the nature of certain objects still remains elusive today – the Sinclair Abuser Mag was an obvious jest on behalf of the programmers, sure, but that Tube of Toothpaste still taunts me – but I conquered my freedom out of the island.
My parents began the journey but the victory was mine alone.
I owe Treasure Island Dizzy and my parents a great debt, and I can’t help but feel a certain responsibility for not being able to make them see that time and dedication spent on videogames was worth it. Did they turn their backs because they had nothing else to teach me? Because games were becoming more complex? I’m not sure. But it’s curious that every once in a while they casually mention Dizzy in our conversations. “Times were simpler back then”, they say.
Maybe they are right. But even considering what I lost, I’m not sure I regret moving on.