So 1996 was pretty important for me, as my first daughter was born in March of this year. It's hard to believe that as I sit here writing now, she is 21 years old , has just obtained a first class honours degree in History and Literature and has just started a Masters degree in Shakespeare studies. She obviously doesn't get that intelligence from me! There have been lots of highs and lows in our relationship over the last two decades, especially after her mum and I got divorced and we both married other people, but I think we have come out of it okay. I'm immensely proud of all she has accomplished. So this post is dedicated to Hannah, with love.
- A 21-year old man walked into radio station Star FM in Wanganui, New Zealand and proceeded to take the station manager hostage with what was believed to be an explosive device. His one and only demand was that the station play "Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie" on repeat for the next twelve hours. Before the song could be played for the first time, local police retook the station and arrested the poor guy.
- When the movie "The Rock" (of which more later) had it's glitzy star-studded premiere, it was held at the former prison on the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. In true James Bond style, windsurfer Jeff Bunch sailed to the island wearing a wing-collar tuxedo and bow tie under his wetsuit. He landed on the north east side of the island, climbed over the edge and snuck into the celebrity party. He later claimed to have already had a cocktail with star Sean Connery before being captured by park rangers and escorted off the premises.
- An experienced model enthusiast was flying his self built remote controlled plane at the registered site in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland. After a few successful short flights, he suddenly lost all control and the plane flew off into the distance in a north east direction, supposedly to crash. However after five miles, the model aircraft ran out of fuel and glided to a safe stop - on the taxi-way of runway 28 at Dublin International Airport.
So it's no secret that I've always liked video games. I have vague memories of playing a version of the classic text game "Collosal Cave" on a massive office machine sometimes in the late 1970s (how or why I got to see this is lost to my fading brain cells), so I guess my love for the form grew from there. Whether it's the simplicity of "Pong", the 48k wonder of "Knight Lore" on the ZX Spectrum, the rip-off platform fun of "Great Giana Sisters" on the Commodore 64 or the fast paced spinball of "Sonic The Hedgehog" on the Sega Megadrive - I've played hundreds of action, puzzle, driving, shooting, platform and adventure games in my life - although I've managed to fully complete only a mere few of those (I said I enjoyed the games, not that I was any good at them!).
But all of those games were on simple "home computers" (which you could program as well), or early games consoles. When I first started work after leaving school, business machines were huge things that look up a whole room or "PC's" were standalone boxes that ran MS-DOS. I actually wrote the menu screen for our first office PC in BASIC. We didn't get Windows until I'd been there several years.
It was 1995 before prices dropped enough that I could afford to get a home PC - running the brand new Windows 95 operating system with it's (for then) flashy interface. I started buying "PC Zone" magazine for the reviews of new games and the cover-mounted CD-ROM full of demos and previews. Some of the first games I bought for the new machine that sat proudly in the spare bedroom were "Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time" and "Star Trek: A Final Unity" - more cerebral, thinking games than fast-paced action. I was aware of the burgeoning genre of first-person shooters pioneered by Wolfenstein 3D" and "Doom" (although I didn't get to play those two until much later). But then came "Duke Nukem 3D" and the demo I installed made me go out and buy the full game almost straight away - and I completed it too, after much effort (and maybe a little use of the "god" mode to figure out difficult areas first...).
So by the time iD Software's highly anticipated "Quake" arrived, I thought I was pretty up to speed with how these shooting games worked. What I didn't anticipate was just how damn addictive they could be...
The core conceit of "Quake" main storyline seems fairly basic by today's' standards, but back then the combination of Lovecraftian and satanic imagery plus futuristic technology in a gothic / medieval setting was a heady one - building on the successes of "Doom" but with a far stronger sense of dread and lurking horror. The single-player campaign consists of 30 separate levels (several of which are secret) across four 'episodes' - which are accessed through a teleporter known as a "Slipgate". Exploring the labyrinthine passages and hidden rooms requires accessing particular switches or keys and various other portals are also discoverable over the course of the game. The aim is to fight through each of the levels, killing or avoiding the various enemies, and collect four magic runes. These give the player access to the final level and the chance to defeat the demonic presence known as Shib-Niggurath.
The antagonists in "Quake" range from the merely deadly to the truly horrific. Grunts, Zombies, Knights, Enforcers and Ogres are recognisably almost-human, but a Fiend is a mass of teeth and razor-sharp claws, while a Vore is a spider-esque hybrid monstrosity. Then there is the Shambler with it's blood-stained fur, ripping fangs and the ability to fling bolts of electricity. Any one of these creatures appearing suddenly around a dark corner (especially if, like me you played with the lights off or really low) was guaranteed to make a little bit of wee come out...
But I have to make an admission here. Most of my time spent on "Quake" was not in when it first came out. Oh sure, I played the demo and liked what I saw an awful lot - and I picked up a full copy when the price dropped somewhat, but in 1996 I was far too busy with firstly moving house and then coming to terms with the arrival of my first daughter eleven weeks earlier than expected, along with the special care that she needed. After that there were a series of personal circumstances which put a huge strain on the increasingly difficult relationship with my wife. I won't bore you with those problems here, but suffice it to say that despite the joy of my second daughter being born in late 1998, my wife and I ended up sadly separating for good in February of 1999.
So then I found myself living on the outskirts of London with my daughters 180 miles away and mostly only able to see them at weekends (my job was still in London you see and I couldn't afford to move where they now lived). I had almost no free cash and I was on my own much of the time during the week, so I turned to films and television and video games for entertainment. I pulled out that CD of "Quake" and booted up the PC. Sadly I couldn't enjoy any of the innovative multiplayer aspects of the game - my prehistoric dial-up internet connection was not capable of anything like that - so I just satisfied myself with trying to defeat the game on every difficult setting (yes even "Nightmare", which was frankly, impossible). And then I discovered "mods"...
The gameplay of "Quake" could be changed by altering the graphics and audio, using the "QuakeC" programming language. At the start this meant just small fixes and patches and the odd new enemy, but soon fans were creating whole new versions of the game that were very different from the original. The first major mods I read about in the PC magazines was "Team Fortress", but being as it was multiplayer, it was off limits to me. Of far more interest were the multitude of single player levels that sprung up. The small size of these files meant that I could log on, download it (relatively) quickly and then log off. I seem to recall that some mods were also given away on cover mounted CDs. For me this took the game to a whole other level, as I was no longer restricted to the 30 maps that came with the installation disc (yes I know there were a couple of "expansion packs" added later, but for some reason lost to the mists of time I never got round to them).
As internet speeds became cheaper, faster and more reliable, my "Quake" mod interest kept growing. I must have played or tried out dozens upon dozens of new levels. Someone invented "AirQuake" where you were now flying around the skies of QuakeWorld engaged in bombing runs or driving a tank to take down your enemies in the air. Then there was "QuakeRally" which turned things into a medieval version of a car race. "AlienQuake" had me stalking the corridors of the Nostromo facing off against Facehuggers and Xenomorphs. "FantasyQuake" replaced guns and bullets with swords and bows and arrows."Horrorshow" added Jason Voorhees and the ability to inhabit the body of Leatherface. The sky was truly the limit.
Between games of "Quake" and sessions on my beloved Nintendo 64, I whiled away the somewhat lonely evenings after work (including through that first cold winter when the central heating broke down and I couldn't afford to repair it). I persevered with getting my life back in order and clearing my debts. I made new friends and built new relationships, but I kept returning to that first version of "Quake" to see each new modification. Like the expansion packs I mentioned earlier, I never did progress to "Quake II" or "Quake III Arena", but that was okay. Eventually things improved and in 2001 I met the wonderful woman that would become my second (and hopefully final!) wife and my nights of gaming gradually slowed to a crawl.
As part of writing this piece over the last few weeks, I dug out my dusty copy of the game from storage in the loft and after a bit of fiddling around getting the antique DOS installer to work, pressed "Single Player" on my first game of "Quake " in probably fifteen years. As I moved around that first level, the sound of collecting the backpacks and bullets dropped by the enemies and the grunt of the main character brought all the memories flooding back. Compared to today's standards, it's slow and clunky and incredibly linear but there's still a huge amount of playability and before I knew it an hour had gone past. It's a great game and while I'd quite like to forget certain other aspects of my life in the mid to late 90s, this is one that I'm quite happy to recall. Even if I am now going to dream about running through dank corridors being snarled at by a rabid Shambler...
- Kingdom Come - I mentioned this landmark comic mini series in my post for 1995, but it's first publication here is worth a more detailed look. Mark Waid and co-writer / artist Alex Ross envisioned the future of the DC universe where the heroes of the present day have abandoned their roles after the rise and popularity of second and third generation meta-humans who fight more for the fun of it than to protect the innocent and who care nothing for the effects of their destructive behavior. Worst of these is Magog who murders the Joker and manages to turn the American Midwest into a radioactive wasteland, killing millions while in pursuit of the villain The Parasite. Coaxed back into action by Wonder Woman, Superman reforms the Justice League, but finds himself and his allies caught in the midst of a war with Batman and his team of "Outsiders", Lex Luthor and his Mankind Liberation Front and the threat of nuclear destruction. Not to mention a brainwashed Captain Marvel. But trust me it's far more complex and fascinating than that short summary makes it sound.
- The artwork from Alex Ross is simply stunning, painted in such a lush hyper-realistic style that it's almost like looking at excerpts from a film, but still with the comic book sensibilities that make it flow naturally from panel to panel. It's well known that he uses real life models, but this is no tracing of photos, just a way of helping him get the right angle or pose or expression - and hell does it pay off. Every frame is packed with detail and some of the seemingly throwaway character designs have been used in subsequent years as templates for the current DC universe. In fact "Kingdom Come" itself has been referenced or used significantly in other stories in the last twenty-one years - it's that important an event in DC's history.
- The Cable Guy - Made when Jim Carrey was at the height of his first wave of popularity this psychological comedy thriller showed that the actor could also do dark and twisted characters. Matthew Broderick plays straight man as Steven, recently split with his girl friend and on his own in a new apartment. When he slips the cable installer an extra $50 for free premium channels, what he doesn't expect is to be followed around by a guy who at first appears to just be a social misfit but then turns out to be genuinely crazy. I love "Ace Ventura", but if you asked me to choose one Carrey comedy, this would be at the top of the list. Highlights are the karaoke performance of "Somebody to Love" and of course the fight at the 'Medieval Times' theme restaurant that turns into a full on recreation of the classic Kirk / Spock battle from Star Trek's "Amok Time", complete with episode specific weapons and music. This really is an overlooked film.
- Duke Nukem 3D - I mentioned this above. "Quake" might have been the first-person shooter I played the most, but "Duke Nukem 3D" was the one I played first. There's some storyline about Earth being invaded in the 21st Century, but that didn't really matter. What was important was running through a variety of environments collecting objects and weaponry while blasting as many of the hideous alien scum as possible - all while Duke himself gave a string of cheesy one liners in that deep gruff voice that were worthy of Arnie himself. The degree of interactivity with the areas you stalked through along with the clever level design and the satire of pop culture made it enormous fun to play. I'm getting flashbacks to the movie theatre level right now. It's fair to say that this was one of the most important video games of all time and all the FPS games since owe a debt to The Duke. Hail to the King, baby !
- Hamlet - I like a good "Hamlet". I must have seen a dozen or more different versions in my life, either on stage or screen. Some were amateur productions with minimal sets. Some had big name stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant or Mel Gibson. Sometimes the main story is only a sideline, such as in "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead". I've even seen the half-hour long animation. But there is only one film version which contains every single word of Shakespeare's original text - and that's the one written, directed and starring the marvelous Kenneth Branagh. I'd been a fan of Ken ever since his 1989 version of "Henry V" and really rated him as someone who wanted to bring Shakespeare back to a mass audience. Here he updates the setting of the play to the 19th Century, adds flashbacks that visual information and imbues the whole production with an epic style by filming it in 70mm (the last to do so until 2012) and using lots of long single takes for numerous scenes. He is helped by a wealth of famous actors in small and large roles - Derek Jacobi (whose own BBC version is almost as long), Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, Judi Dench - the list goes on and on. It's sumptuous, layered and incredibly powerful. I adore it.
- Fun Song Factory - No don't click away from the page. There is a good reason for this 90s children's program being here - and you have probably already guessed that it's to do with daughter number one. I can't remember where it came from but somehow we ended up with a double cassette pack of the first two "Fun Song Factory" shows - the second of which was recorded in 1996, hence how I have managed to squeeze it into this post, even though the VHS releases weren't until 1998. Performed in front of a live audience of kids, mums and dads by Iain Lauchlan, Sarah Davison, Michelle Durler and kids favourite, the unbelievable cheerful Dave Benson Philips, the shows were full of pre-school favourite songs and nursery rhymes such as "The Wheels on the Bus" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" - plus inexplicably, The Beatles "Yellow Submarine". To say that Hannah loved these shows as a toddler was an understatement, and they became a permanent accompaniment to our lives in those first few years. Even now I just have to hear "I am the Music Man" and I can picture her sitting in the living room totally captivated by the screen. Now before you think badly of us, we didn't use the show as a surrogate babysitter (well, maybe only a couple of times when we needed to urgently get things done) - this was a shared experience and it's one of my fondest memories of those years with my daughter, even if around her other things in my life were...extremely challenging.
- The Frighteners - It may have been somewhat forgotten now in the wake of the massive success of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" movie trilogies, but this horror comedy from Peter Jackson and starring Michael J Fox in his last leading film role is still a favourite in my house. Fox is Frank Bannister, an architect who is able to see and hear the ghosts around him. Initially he uses this ability to make some supernatural friends and set up a flourishing exorcism scam, but when the spirit of a mass murderer starts attacking both the living and the dead, Frank gets pulled into the investigation. Of course it's a film chock full of visual effects (more so than pretty much any other film of the time) and proved that Jackson could handle the demands of that kind of shoot, but it's the real performances that stand out. Fox is enjoyable in pretty much everything he's done, but here he manages to imbue his character with a bit of a world-weary attitude. There is a nice turn from R. Lee Ermey who basically reprises his role as the screaming sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket". But is Jeffrey Combs who steals ever scene he is in as the disturbed (and disturbing) FBI agent.
- DC versus Marvel - Fans had been looking for a meeting of the heroes and villains of the rival comic publishers for decades, and after a lot of wrangling we got this four issue mini series by Peter David, Ron Marz, Dan Jurgens and Claudio Castellini. There's some nonsense about cosmic embodiments of the two universes setting up a contest, but it was really an excuse for a series of smack-downs between various characters, with a fan vote deciding the outcome of each bout (I still can't believe Storm defeated Wonder Woman though). It's fun stuff, particularly when the intervention of new character Access resulted in the two universes being merged - and we got the 12 issue "Amalgam" imprint with odd fusions such as Dark Claw (Batman & Wolverine), the Green Skull (Lex Luthor & Red Skull), Moonwing (Nightwing & Moon Knight) and Doctor Strangefate (you get the idea...). There was even the Two-Faced Goblin and an amalgamation of Green Arrow and Hawkeye called...er....Hawkeye. In terms of sheer comics geekery it was pretty hard to beat - until 2003 anyway...
- Mars Attacks! - I wasn't even born when the original "Mars Attacks" trading cards were released, but I was soon aware of them once I started to seriously become interested in all things science fiction (plus, don't forget Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds from 1978...). Who couldn't fail to enjoy the lurid, sometimes blood-soaked paintings by Wally Wood and Norman Saunders depicting the Martians with their skull-like faces and pulsating brains? The cards soon became huge collector's items and think I didn't get to see a full set of images until the rise of the internet. As for Tim Burton's live action satire / comedy / thriller adaptation - it's as mad as a box of frogs. Where else would you get to see Jack Nicholson hamming it up to 11 in two roles. Or Pierce Brosnan as a disembodied head smoking a pipe. Or Tom Jones playing himself as an action hero! Or the Martians heads exploding when they listen to Slim Whitman? It's all over the place and I love it more because of that. Plus the aliens themselves are a triumph of 90s CGI. "Ack Ack Ack Ack !"
- The Rock - Before Michael Bay became the king of over the top mindless action, he made this smart thriller starring the legendary Sean Connery and personal favourite Nicholas Cage. A bunch of rogue US Marines take over Alcatraz Prison, hold all the tourists hostage and threaten to release nerve gas over San Francisco unless they get $100 million for the families of Recon Marines who died on covert operations. Cage plays the FBI's top chemical weapons expert, the wonderfully name Stanley Goodspeed, who is paired up with former British SAS Captain John Mason (Connery) - a man who has been mysteriously locked up without charge for thirty years and is the only person to ever escape Alcatraz. What follows is a wonderful action film, made all the better by the chemistry between the two leads. Connery is clearly enjoying himself as the secretive Mason (was he a disguised James Bond?...) and Cage is on a career roll. It's also worth mentioning Ed Harris as the Brigadier General in charge of the bad guys, who makes his character quite sympathetic at times. It's one of those movies which, when it comes on TV, I stop changing channels and end up watching all the way through - no matter how many times I've seen it before. There's nothing guilty about this pleasure.