Retro-me-do! Digitiser's Mr Biffo on his top PC games of all time
If the phrases "moc-moc-a-moc!" and "stay away from my bins!" mean anything to you, there's a good chance you was among the millions of videogame addicts that tuned into Teletext's satirical games magazine Digitiser back in the 90s.
Penned primarily by Paul Rose (aka Mr Biffo), Digitiser featured a daily blend of factual games coverage and surreal humour thanks to its blocky illustrated characters (many of which appeared under articles accompanied with nonsensical captions after pressing the TV remote's reveal button). Swayze!
When Digitiser closed its doors after a decade in 2003, Biffo went on to write a gaming column for TechRadar's sister magazine and website, Edge, for five years. Digitiser returned in late 2014 as a website, Digitiser2000.
PC gaming was a huge part of Digitiser, with many of the platform's major titles gracing its neon-coloured review pages — from Theme Park to Command & Conquer. Talking to TechRadar, Biffo shines a light on his favourite PC oldies from years gone by.
- Check out our PC Gaming Week coverage
Half-Life 2 (2004)
I just love first-person shooters! It's my sort of genre, and as I get older I realise that's what I enjoy. Half-Life 2 consolidated so much of what FPS games were doing at the time, and did it in a way that made it so much better than anything that had gone before. Even now it does stories and character so brilliantly by integrating them into the action of the game and not taking control out of the player's hand. It builds a game without hitting you over the head with cutscenes or making you find audio logs or notes. The world is clearly fully-formed and very well-realised.
Sure it's dated a bit visually, but in terms of pacing and atmosphere there's very little to touch it. In recent years you see its influence in games like The Last Of Us, which feels very similar — especially those opening sequences. It has the same way of building character through action. I love it. Half-Life 2 is one of the few games I've played through half a dozen times, maybe more.
I don't want Valve to rush Half-Life 3, and they clearly aren't, so hats off to them for that — but I have to wonder what's going on behind the scenes. They have to come out with something better than what went before, and I'm really interested to see if they're holding their cards back for when their VR headset comes out. It will have to introduce new gameplay mechanics in the way that Half-Life 2 so brilliantly used physics and the Gravity Gun. But I don't blame them for being utterly terrified that it might not live up to what went before.
Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995)
From the opening bit where you hear the music, Dark Forces had the environments and that sort of hugeness that you expect from Star Wars. Looking back, even though it clearly looks dated and basically like a Doom mod, it had the best sound effects and there was something about its pacing and structure that made it feel Star Wars-ey. They just can't seem to get that feeling in Star Wars games now.
In a lot of Star Wars games I just want to wander around the Millennium Falcon, or the Death Star; I need a really spot-on recreation of the Star Wars universe. I want to be in that world. Dark Forces was the first PC game I owned at home. Although I had a PC at work that I played the games on, I bought one for using at home to play on Dark Forces, and I wasn't disappointed.
The Stanley Parable (2011)
Warning: Bioshock spoiler ahead!
I love the bit in Bioshock when the big twist is revealed and it turns out you're blindly following the bad guy's orders — it's brilliant. It was such a genius moment that was essentially all about video games. That moment crystallised the fact that in games we really have no choice — you're at the whim of the game designers, funnelled down a certain path without ever stopping to question it. You can try but you can't break the game, which is what the Stanley Parable is all about. You're stuck in a game that, one way or another, will control you. It's barely a game, and it doesn't last very long, but it's genius design that's so clever. I love it when you break that fourth wall in a game.
Outlaws is by LucasArts which made Star Wars: Dark Forces. It was again one of the games that stayed with me for creating a really unique atmosphere. If you look at the clips of it on YouTube now, it's a terrible-looking game, but at the time it was real to me. It felt like I was in the Wild West, and it was also one of the first games to feature a sniper rifle, which people forget and don't give it enough credit for.
The uniqueness of the game was brilliant. There was one level where I had to get into a fort through a tunnel leading up to it, and I had a sliver of health after making a quick save. I was essentially stuck there as I couldn't get out or the bad guys would shoot me. Outlaws also had digitised speech that made enemies say things like, "come out marshal, we know you're there!", which was quite scary hearing them call me out. In the Wild West you could die at any time, and I loved the atmosphere that created. It felt unique.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
I'm terrible at most strategy games! I have no patience which is why I like first-person shooters — they let me pop around the corner to look at (and shoot) something new. But there was something about those Command & Conquer games that made them so easy to play. With Red Alert you had the easy alternate history stuff that started with a cutscene showing Albert Einstein assassinating Hitler, which happened in an alternate universe. It had a sense of humour about it too. Not only was it simple to play, it made me feel like I was quite good at strategy games, because it was the only one I could do — probably more-so than the other Command & Conquer games. I really miss that franchise — it's due for a resurgence because it was great.
System Shock 2 (1999)
I didn't realise until I was making this list how much of System Shock 2 ended up in Bioshock, two games that were by Ken Levine. I love the way it blended role-playing games with first-person stuff, and it was just so atmospheric. OK, so it built its world using audio logs and reading material, which sometimes annoys me as it can get in the way of the experience, but in System Shock 2's case that really enriched the game.
You can see Bioshock's influence in Alien: Isolation, which is basically System Shock 2, only a lot better-looking. You can also see the influence in Dead Space and Doom 3. At the time System Shock 2 was a bit of a flop, which I don't get, as it was a beautifully-designed game with environments that felt like real places. You really had that sense of being alone and terrified in a dangerous environment.
School Daze (1984)
School Daze on the ZX Spectrum 48, which was sort of a school simulation, was a sheer wish fulfilment or fantasy in the way that GTA V kind of is. It could be described as the first sandbox game, where you could avoid the teachers and cause havoc — a bit like avoiding the police in GTA. Funnily enough Rockstar tried to do the School Daze-esque game with Bully a few years ago, but it was done from an American perspective rather than a British one, which is what I loved about School Daze. That game really felt like my school — it had a gym, climbing frame and ropes. It was the first game I really fell in love with.
Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis (2001)
One of the main things I remember about Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis is that it was incredibly hard. Once again I had a saved game and a tiny sliver of health on a level where the Soviets landed their forces on the beach. I was hiding in a hut while soldiers walked outside and tanks were rolling past. If I popped my head out to try get off the beach they'd kill me. I don't know why I didn't have any earlier save games, but it made it full of atmosphere and was one of the most real experiences I ever had in a game. There were loads of moments like that, where it felt like you could die at any minute, which is primarily what war was like. There was lots of crawling on your belly trying not to draw attention to yourself.