Flying Train

I’m fairly sure most people have more sensible comfort games than this but then, they’re not me. Flying Train is very much my go to thing when I need a bit of cheering up.

Originally featured on the B-Side of Chris Sievey’s Camouflage (possibly making it one of the first round of budget games?), Flying Train is sort of Frog Fractions long, long before anyone bothered to invent Frog Fractions.

As you’d expect from the man who sometimes wasn’t Chris Sievey at all and instead inhabited an oversized papier-mache head when being Frank Sidebottom, it’s both daft as a brush, filled with a childish charm and rather joyous. From referring to the player as a Railwaynaut (and who hasn’t always wanted to be one of those?) to asking the player to “Press Any Trousers”, it’s full of little smiles and heart.

Beginning on a railway track where the top half of the train is missing from 9 trains, you’re charged with landing the tops of the trains on the bottoms whilst avoiding the birds. The snag being that the bottom of the train is likely to end up overlapping with a previously landed train so, as the instructions suggest, count the wheels. It’s tougher than it sounds given the speccy’s flickery movement and given we’re talking 1983, easy to assume that this is all the game is. But nope. That would be too easy, too obvious.

Once you’ve finally succeeded in making your flying trains, the game sets off on its own little merry way through time and space and takes you on a journey only fit for true railwaynauts with many a twist and turn. Being a railwaynaut isn’t as easy as you’d expect, y’know? Proper job, that.

I dunno, it’s the sheer joy behind it and how clearly it wants you to share in it that makes me adore it so. Even today, the amount of games that want to take you on a sort of gleeful, silly ride are in fairly short supply. More so I guess when everyone’s trying to be all satirical and all about the internet meme or whatever it is the kids are down with these days. Flying Train has no truck with being cool, it just wants you to smile a bit. Which I guess is very, very Frank.

Chris went on to write the mildly successful music biz simulator The Biz not long after but his computer game work is mainly forgotten, overshadowed as it is by his music career and Frank. It’s a shame because Flying Train is such a sweet thing that’s happy just being a happy thing. Mind you, it’s also a reminder that Frank and Chris are no longer with us and the world is all the sadder for their loss.

I miss Frank, really.

I really do.

The Secret Of St Brides

stbrides

St Brides surely has to rank as one of the more curious development houses in our history of videogames.

A school for young girls age 13-18 where anyone could be a girl (and more usually, realistically aged 20 upwards) with a foot firmly cemented in an almost victorian view of the world. Not the first place you’d expect to find game development done but there we go. Throughout the eighties they produced games that ranged from quirky “in school” adventures to spoofs of known and popular adventure games (a surprisingly well filled niche at the time) to a game based on Jack The Ripper. Obviously.

The prospectus (courtesy of Mocagh) gives little away about any game development done there (and why would it?) and an old Crash interview does wonders in skirting what St Brides as an institution is although you get the strange feeling that no-one quite expected what they found there.

It was a more innocent time, I’m sure.

There’s a fantastic article from one of last year’s GamesTM mags that details some of the chequered history of St Brides both as a development house and as an institution and, well, a cursory online search provides many stories about what came after St Brides with the founding of Aristasia amongst other things. There’s also a Channel 4 documentary on life with Miss Martindale from the mid nineties, the first part is embedded below.

And if you’re looking for a starting point? The Secret Of St Brides is as good as any but well, it’s very of its time and the situations you find yourself in far from conventional.

Deus Ex Machina

I generally consider Mel Croucher’s Deus Ex Machina as a BitOfAnImportantWorkTM. One of the first games to deliberately try and cross the boundaries away from shoot-in-face to some sort of art, it’s a prog-rock-made-videogame thing with an oh so very British cast. You have Jon Pertwee, Ian Dury and Frankie Howerd all lending their voice talents (although it should be noted there isn’t a single OOH HELLO as far as I can remember. Up Pompeii, this isn’t). It’s a game and a soundtrack, then across two cassettes. You loaded the game on one, took the tape out and replaced it with the soundtrack cassette and off you went with the game and soundtrack syncing up fairly closely. At least, that was the theory anyway and it mainly worked.

And of course, the thing about BitOfAnImportantWorksTM is that you don’t necessarily realise it at the time. Yeah, yeah, I *was* fairly young when Deus Ex Machina came out and I have very vivid memories of my dad and me unpacking the box, loading the game then trying to work out whether we could sync up the tape whilst hoping that the shitty tape deck we were using wouldn’t actually chew up the soundtrack tape. An extra air of mystery provided by the black and white TV we were playing it on because black and white TVs were still very much a thing then y’know?

We fumbled our way through it. Got to the end 50 or so minutes later, agreed that it was an OK thing and off I went to bed. The next day it’d be back to jumping around platforms, racing things, shooting in the face. Thing is, the reason it felt slightly unremarkable (and this is, in retrospect, a weird thing to say) is that because we were still very much trying out what videogames could be, we hadn’t yet shifted to teams and a distinctive vision of the videogame as home arcade with a side order of some other things, it was just one of many possible futures. It’s only looking back and being able to see that it wasn’t the future that it seems like such an outlier. I mean we are talking about a time when the glorious pop band Frankie Goes To Hollywood got their own videogame and it was fucking OUT THERE. A terraced house that’s the gateway to all manner of fantastical things, doused in east vs west pop politics and with a sloppy dose of pop iconography to boot whilst charging the player with investigating a murder AND trying to assume a complete identity and yes, I did just type that out and yes, that is pretty much the game. As I say. Out there.

The idea that next month we’d all be syncing up soundtracks alongside our videogames didn’t seem especially weird in the slightest.

There’s an alternate universe out there where instead of drifting further down the road of film licenses, Deus Ex Machina entirely changed the games industry and Mel Croucher is seen, quite rightly, as a pioneer in all things videogame. I guess equally, there’s also one where Give My Regards To Broad Street never existed and we all lived happily ever after too and then that other one where everyone realised that Paul Woakes was doing so much more than Bell and Braben and no-one gives him the respect he truly deserves so we make amends for that. But I digress. If I carry on down this road, we’ll also be investigating the alternate reality where we crowned Crem of Design Design as a videogame king and that other one where Atari don’t… OK I’ll stop right there.

So yeah, playing Deus Ex Machina at the time was so mundane, so ordinary. I suspect that’s probably the way Mel wanted it to be too, for this to be seen as a normal kind of thing. And it could have been and maybe would have been if more people shared Croucher’s vision of no-violence subversive videogames. Well. We’re here in 2015 and we all know how this story ended and it’s only now we’re really sitting down and thinking that maybe this should really, really be a thing for realsies and putting in great work towards widening what videogames are and can be even further.

This morning I had a play through the entirety of the new 30th Anniversary Edition and recorded the playthrough and put it on YouTube. I’m not really interested in talking over videogames, especially one where the music is such an important part of things. I don’t think there’s much to be gained from hearing me muttering about stroking some DNA strands with my green cursor or whatever so it is just a playthrough and all that entails.

The new version is a few quid up on itch.io and well worth a look. Ideally, I recommend playing it through in its original 8 bit form now you have an easy way of doing that and with a nice remastered soundtrack to go along with it (last time I played it through on emulation I had to sync up a slightly crappy low quality mp3 rip which is no way to experience the game). I’m not convinced that the new visual stuff adds anything other than to confuse things even further BUT YMMV.

Anyway, here’s the play through in full and it’s with the new graphics and stuff switched on rather than its original guffage to encourage you to go and check it out proper for yourself.