Game Zero

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The pie level was what got me hooked on gaming. I probably only saw it twice, but the first time on a quiet Saturday morning actually made me jump out of my seat and run to wake up my parents up in excitement to tell them about it.

At three years old, I was introduced to Donkey Kong on the Dragon 32, or at least a home computer port of Donkey Kong called “The King” that was apparently so similar to the original arcade version that it invoked a lawsuit from the fledgling Nintendo of the day to strip it from its original copycat name of Donkey Kong.

Game Zero

For the longest possible time, I distrusted any game that did not come on a cassette.

Donkey Kong introduced me to games. It introduced instructing a sprite on the screen to walk and jump, pattern recognition, trial and error and more than anything else patience. However, once I was happy that I knew and understood games, this proto-Mario threw a surprise at me.

The structure of Donkey Kong is thus: Level 1 – the iconic ramps and ladders with barrels rolling down towards you followed by level 2: trying to collapse the structure that the gorilla is standing on top of. Then it loops around again and makes you play level 1 again, then moves on to a level with moving platforms and springs before getting you to do the structure collapsing bit again. Collapse your second structure, and you’re back to level one, back to the lifts and springs, and then…Then comes the pie level.

Game Zero

It looks nowhere near as ugly as this picture would lead you to believe.

I’m aware of what you might be thinking because I’m thinking it as I’m writing this: that’s only effectively the eighth level you play. why is something new at that point such a surprise? It does after all follow a consistent pattern.

Well, first of all I was three-years-old which excuses a lot of what I would like to excuse now that I’m a lot older than three-years-old. Secondly, controlling this game was not strictly speaking easy. Our Dragon 32 had a very rudimentary set of controllers that had been constructed by my dad out of three assorted switches he had lying around the garage, housed in a chunky grey plastic electronics project box. One switch controlled movement to the left and right, one up and down and a push button mounted on the top of the device was mapped to jump. This was far from an ergonomically pleasing Playstation controller and in hindsight definitely added an extra layer of difficulty over anything it controlled. With this excuse firmly in place, even getting to the level with the springs and the lifts was not exactly guaranteed.

Game Zero

They don’t make them like they used to.

The pie level wasn’t anything particularly special. It had conveyor belts which was pretty cool and two of the hammers that had featured in the first level, but its real strength was merely that it was new and unexpected. It was the first time I became acutely aware of a game holding something back from me until I’d played it for a bit longer. These late game revelations and surprises are still what truly sell a game to me today and it was this element of discovery that got me hooked in the first place.

It’s the surprises and the unexpected that keep me coming back to video games. A lot of people bemoan the lack of innovation in triple A titles and state that a lot of things follow a repetitive formula, but really, even outside the indie scene there’s always something in a title that you haven’t seen before, even if it is hidden behind yet another sewer level and turret sequence. It’s the small pieces of emergent gameplay, the inadvertent stories I end up making for myself or sometimes just something really creative and unanticipated that the developers have thrown in that get me to remember an experience.

Can you think of any surprises in games that have provoked an ear-to-ear smile from you long after you thought you’d clocked a title?