When you’re stuck in a small apartment with your significant other in the middle of a possibly world-ending pandemic, it’s important to stay busy. To get us through this prolonged period of isolation, my partner and I skipped baking bread in favour of the world’s oldest pastime – board games. We decided to broaden our horizons with a strategy game, diving in at the deep end with a tactical alternate-history game called Scythe.
Aesthetically, Scythe is like a post-apocalyptic Metal Gear Solid rendered by a Soviet painter – which is to say there are some incredible character designs and the overall art style is downright gorgeous. It was this visual flair that drew me to the game but if it’s not quite your speed, don’t worry, there’s no shortage of stunning strategy games filling shelves right now. Fantasy Flight’s A Game of Thrones is a must-play for fantasy lovers and Photosynthesis puts a fascinating environmental twist on the strategy genre.
I’m a relative newbie to strategy gaming, so the setup process was a little daunting. Scythe is a huge game. There’s a cohort of playable characters, multiple currencies, and even varied rulesets depending on how many players you have (the game can be played with up to five people and includes a surprisingly robust single-player mode).
While it’s ostensibly a war game, it’s as much about resource-management as it is about combat. Taking place across a large map based loosely on 1920s Europe, this steampunk epic from Stonemaier Games is about achieving key goals before your opponents, pertaining to popularity, wealth, and military power. Although large portions of the game don’t involve direct player-to-player interaction, there’s a distinct tension that begins to build between the warring factions, especially when played with only one other combatant.
Once the pieces were on the board, the real fun began. We each picked out our characters. My other half picked Anna, an expert marksman accessorised with a grizzly bear named Wojtek. I took on the role of Gunter Von Duisburg, a gruff commander flanked by direwolves. At this point you are presented with two distinct options: play the game straight or turn it into a sort of revisionist-history D&D-lite. We, of course, chose the latter.
Even though both characters had in-depth and wonderfully written bios, we decided to improvise our backstories based on the character imagery. The more we played, the more we got into character (and the weirder our backstories became). It may have been a symptom of being stuck indoors, or maybe it was the slightly overwhelming complexity of the game, but soon we became immersed in these fictional lives we had devised.
To chronicle this descent into madness, we decided to keep in-character diaries detailing our exploits in the game. Read on to witness a young couple lose their grip on reality as they discovered there’s a little bit of warlord inside all of us.
War Journal #1 – Gunter von Duisburg
My father is the reason I must conquer Europa. He was a brilliant man – a scholar, a strategist, and a leader. One Autumn day, when I was but a boy and Nacht and Tag were but pups, my father took me to one side to teach me the ways of leadership.
“Gunter!” he would yell, “stop playing with those pups and let me tell you a thing or two.”
Unfortunately, direwolves have a keen sense for when they are being disrespected (they are quite sensitive beasts), so they ate him whole. Direwolf pups have sharp teeth.
It was on that day that I learned there was no place for weakness in this world. Once my wolves were finished devouring Gunter Senior, I set to work devising my plan to rule the known world.
Diary Entry #1 – Anna
Word has reached me of a despot to the East. They say he rides a direwolf into battle, slaughtering his enemies with an evil glint in his eye. They say he cannot be killed. I say he has not met me.
I must rally my people for war, but before that, I must fortify my kingdom. We are a prosperous people but our military power wanes. It is time to consolidate our forces and reinforce our infrastructure. While the mad dog tears through Europa, I will bide my time and steel myself for the long haul. What I must practice now, is patience.
The war effort will require more resources – wood, food, metal, and oil. An enemy of this savagery demands a careful approach. We must be smart, we must develop our technology and create a weapon which cannot be destroyed by brute force. When the wolf comes to my door, I will answer him with steel and fire.
War Journal #2 – Gunter
Ah, the spoils of war! My advisors say we need to gather resources from the new lands we’ve conquered – wood, food, metal, oil. Cowards! Perhaps those pencil-pushers will be my direwolves’ next meal.
Tonight the ale flows and we celebrate another victory in our glorious conquest of Europa! Morale amongst the ranks is wearing thin, but it’s nothing a little alcohol can’t fix.
Tomorrow we continue west to Saxony to spill blood and claim another land. Onward!
Diary Entry #2 – Anna
Thanks to the unbreakable morale of our workers, we have successfully increased our manufacturing efforts tenfold, producing new types of weapons, vehicles, and defensive measures. We have also commenced the development of a new paradigm in warfare – we call it the Walker.
This technological breakthrough is a variant of what our top scientists call ‘mechs’, walking tank-like machines, capable of transporting workers and tearing down our enemies in combat. Producing Walkers isn’t cheap but luckily we have sufficient coin from trading with our neighbours to the north.
Now, on to fouler business. Word has reached us that Gunter and his direwolves will soon be upon our territory. Our time to prepare for battle grows short. While he has gorged himself on rich food and drowned himself in wine, we have expanded our territory, built new factories, and trained more troops.
The rivers surrounding our city are treacherous, so we expect our enemies to approach from the lake to the east. To prepare for their attack, we stationed troops in all five territories surrounding the lake, shoring up our defences before they strike.
War Journal #3 – Gunter
Another glorious day in Europa dawns and once more my brothers and I ride for glory. My men have eaten, drank, and raised hell throughout Europa. Now it’s time to take the final trophy and establish my reign as the supreme ruler of this land.
My opponent is crafty. I am ready for whatever her feeble army will throw at us. We will destroy them with brute force. I have my direwolves, I have my men, and I’m nursing a wicked hangover. Onward to death or glory!
Diary Entry #3 – Anna
Today, we smashed Gunter von Duisburg’s army.
It was a glorious day. They marched through the valley before first light and we met them with a volley of arrows. Our attack thinned out their ranks and forced them to the west. Here, our Walkers were waiting, armed and ready. Our mechs tore them apart with gunfire, crushing any stragglers with their huge, metallic feet. You could smell the fools pissing themselves from a mile away. But Gunter was nowhere to be found. I had to surmise that he was readying for a second strike – this time he would make eastward for the lake.
Hastily, we regrouped our forces and retreated to the lake. Wojtek and I hid, submerged under the water, waiting for any sign of Gunter. We had one goal: end his tyranny once and for all.
The fool never saw it coming. Before he knew it, I was sinking my blade into his thick skull and he was sinking into his watery grave while his force was fleeing.
Now that the war is won, it’s time to count our losses. Once that’s done, maybe it’s time I do some conquering of my own. As for Gunter, he survived with some significant cranial damage. I now have him working in my keep’s kitchens… washing dishes.
They had retro consoles, arcade cabinets and elaborate drinks on the menu. I had been sitting there for a few years when inspiration struck. “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”, as many ideas start, “… someone made a game about all this?”. I gesticulated vaguely in the direction of everything while looking like a question mark followed by an exclamation mark.
The road nearby had, over the previous few years, had several different pop-up cafés and concept stores of all kinds.
There was the adult soft play area (that’s the right term, it’s not as sexy as it sounds) with cocktails and a ball pit down the road called Ballie Ballerson. Later came Hammerschlagen, a bar with a game about hammering a nail into a log.
Some were more successful than others, but if you had asked me, I would not have been able to predict which ones.
I thought that since I thought it would be funny for someone to make a game about all this, and since I make games, that ergo it would be funny if I made a game about all this. Logic really, can’t fault it. I vaguely convinced a few friends to help by charm and mostly bribery, and we set out to try to make what they call a “vertical slice”, a playable version that sort of had the whole idea in there. We drank ourselves into the creative zone by way of beers, assassins’ meads and whatever else was on the menu that evening, and opened up Notepad, the true professional’s note-making tool. The result was about 700 lines of gradually less coherent ideas, some just a single word with no context, that have since become the Magna Carta of the game.
Style over substance
We discussed how hipsters follow a wide variety of trends, and so long as they do it before it’s cool, they don’t mind who they are mimicking in their style of dress.
A classic example is the lumberjack hipster, where the fashion was to dress as if you were working in the woods, even though they were really on a mac in a café waiting for likes on their latest insta post. We spitballed a few possible subcultures they might mimic in the future and added a little over 30 different possible hipster fashion trends.
I made some 3d models to serve as examples for my artists and found an icon pack that I totally stole all the colours from. I liked the idea to keep the upper body of everything long, and the lower part short.
I wanted the game to feel a bit like an architectural diorama shot with a long lens so you get a tilt-shift effect. Basically it looks blurry both in the foreground and background of the image, even though you don’t feel the perspective as strong. For the main menu, I wanted to slightly mimic the “dock” on a mac, so prospective hipster players would feel right at home.
Right at the start of the game design process, I started by making a mockup of the User Interface, with an icon for each screen that I wanted to have in there. Then I took a screenshot of either some stand-in 3d models, another game or any other interface I can find that serves as the inspiration for what is going to be on that screen. I think this makes it easier to get a feel for what the idea is, and it makes it clearer to follow what the overall idea was. When you work on a game for a long time (and all games take a long time), it can be easy to lose your way into the details, and then these things are good to refer to as they contain a distilled version of the overall vision. I quite enjoy looking at these now, and seeing how they compare to that original idea. A big source of inspiration was the game Pizza Tycoon by Cybernetic Corporation / Software 2000 from 1994. Another big one was the reddit thread wewantplates, which serves up some fantastic images from hipster cafés and restaurants from all around the world.
Our friend Jimmy from Loading Bar said he wanted to have a booth at EGX Rezzed 2018, and said if we could get our vertical slice done by then, he would feature it on said booth. This provided us both a natural deadline for the vertical slice and an excellent opportunity to see if we were on to something by having people come and test it for themselves. We hurriedly cobbled things together and although we felt that the duck-tape was still visible from the build we had completed on the show floor during the setup time, the playtesting actually went pretty well. We had 4 computers set up on the table, and lots of lovely paraphernalia that Jimmy had organized. From the playtesting at Rezzed we learned that lots of people liked making virtual food, but that some of the other game design ideas needed more work or to be replaced completely.
The idea stage is the fun part, and after that comes a long period of work that is the actual making the game part. It requires an incredible amount of dedication and time to get done, especially if you are only able to work on it part-time as I am. My day job is as a Technical Director at Nexus Studios. In the time it has taken to get to anywhere near completion of Hipster Café, I’ve started and finished a stage show for U2, a digital ‘living sculpture’ installation for Brighton University, an AR volumetric video installation for Dallas Cowboys and am near completion of a similar project for a palace/museum in South Korea. Each of those projects have taken on average about half a year.
I usually get about 1 day a week plus evenings and weekends to work on the game, and although it is coming along, the road has been long. We’ve composed a little over 2.5 hours of music, made 32 different types of hipster, 46 entertainment items, 78 wall decorations, 81 food items and much more. I’ve stopped guessing at exactly when it will be done, but it should hopefully be soon (and I mean it this time). In the “production triangle”, they say, Cheap, Fast, Good, pick two. Since Cheap was already picked for us (it’s an indie game after all), the only one that could really be thrown out was Fast. I really hope it comes out Good.
Here is a link to the steam page so you can wishlist it if you like. The initial trailer says it’s coming to steam in 2018 and that is provably untrue at this stage, but it will get there eventually.
If one were so inclined, one could spend a whole afternoon sitting on a wooden stool, attacking imaginary musclemen who pose a threat to your virility, spending coin after coin, waiting to see if another human challenges you. And you wouldn’t even have to move stools. Because all 1000 games have been crammed into a single lonely arcade cabinet, a sad reminder that there are now more retro videogames than rats, and even the rats aren’t interested in playing. But I am. And there must be somebody else in this city who is. Here’s the deal:
I have 10 euros in my pocket. I will play Street Fighter until I make a friend, or until my money runs out. Let’s go.
The burger joint is really a bar in Bilbao that sells fancy burgers as a side hustle. It’s a trendy place in the middle of Casco Viejo (that’s “Old Town” to non-Basque scum like you and me). It has a Ken doll crucified on the bathroom door to denote “males” and paper bags on the lights, I do not know why. It is that sort of bar. I enjoy it.
On the arcade cabinet housed within, you get a big menu of 1000 games. From the moment you insert a coin you have 99 seconds to find and select the game you want. A suspenseful challenge. But speedy navigation of the megalist results in plenty of choice. I have 10 euros. 10 big silver-and-gold boys, two credits for each one. That is enough money to sample approximately one whole percent of the Street Fighter variants in existence. Let’s see what’s here. Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter II Champion Edition, Street Fighter II… M7? Well, let’s begin with the most vanilla games, and work my way through the list.
It’s not long before I am summarily destroyed by Ken in Street Fighter II, and sliced to bits by a dismissively speedy Vega in Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting. I look around between defeats at the machine’s hands. So far, there’s only one other customer, watching videos on his phone. His earphones shoved firmly in, probably to drown out the repetitive screams of pain from my fighters. The refrain of YOU LOSE echoes into the bar with such force, I instinctively try to find a volume button.
There is no such button.
I make short work of Birdie in Street Fighter Alpha, which gives me room to breathe. I slink back to the garish green ubermenu of the cabinet and select the suspicious-looking Street Fighter II M7, ignoring Street Fighters M2 through M6 for fear that my 5 remaining euros will be eaten alive by doppelganger versions of the same game.
My fears are well-placed. The mysterious M7 is a hacked version of the game where the normal rules of urban pugilism do not apply. Opponents will warp behind you, they will change character mid-fight, swapping from Guile to E Honda in a blink. I only manage to survive a fight by spamming Blanka’s electric attack and sliding across the floor in a manner that is impossible in non-hacked versions. Here, mainstay biffer Ryu burps out two fireballs with every hadoken. It is horrible.
The bar is still quiet. I continue to pump my dwindling “make a friend” fund into the big box of bright flashes. I turn to look whenever the door opens, seeking eye contact with any would-be challenger that might arrive. A woman trolleying boxes of food rolls in, paying me no attention. Fresh bar staff arrive and change over. Now and again, a customer comes in, orders a drink, and leaves to sit outside. Everybody ignores the documentary about Britain playing mutely on the TV. It is hard to make friends.
You know where this wouldn’t happen?
That’s right. The trestle of fancy words you have been dutifully descending for the past 9 paragraphs is, in reality, an elaborate hanging garden of sponsored content. You are a fool to have thought otherwise.
Allow me to flash back to six years ago, to the evening I was tasked with drinking numerous cocktails at a bar in London, wherein I was plied with free alcoholic beverages with names such as “Skyrum” and “Assassin’s Mead”. All offered by a strange man with intimate knowledge of arcane substances. That man was Jimmy. His bar? Loading Bar. It is an alliance that has lasted until the present day, when Jimmy contacted me with the salacious offer of hard cash for pretty words. I have never pretended to be an honest writer. Nor a wealthy one. I too, must find enough financial reserves in this hideous new decade to pump euro coins into the machines of foreign lands, while sipping alcohol-free bottles of false beer, because, yes, for reasons beyond the scope of this elaborate advertisement, I no longer drink. Why should I? I don’t need alcohol.
Yet there are some things I do still need. Videogames. Friendship. Exactly the type of thing you can find at:
Or here in the burger joint, perhaps. End of sponsored message.
For the final fight, I load up Street Fighter Alpha 3. A game whose colourful splendour hasn’t dated as others in the fighting game repertoire have. When this came out in the late 1990s, it was punching alongside the likes of 3D brutalise ‘em ups such as Tekken 3. An era when cartoonish 2D graphics were being made obsolete by uppity triangles called “polygons”. But today, which looks better? The flickering puppets of early Tekken, or the lush animations of Street Fighter Alpha 3? This is a rhetorical question. Please, do not comment.
The intro cinematic is roaring at me with colour. Shouting words in a millisecond flash, phrases like: “Born to fight!” and “Triumph or die!” and “Go for broke!” A fitting command. I am down to my last euro. I pause to look around, stall for time by checking my phone. The bar is still empty.
The fight does not last long. My stretchy-armed Dhalsim is pitted against computer Gen, a white-eyed Chinese assassin. It doesn’t go well.
“We will all die,” he says astride my beaten body. “The question is when, why, and how painfully.”
The familiar chorus of failure yells my deficiency across the entire bar. The countdown of arcade shame.
8! 7! 6! 5! 4! 3! 2! 1!
I pay for my fake beers, and make to leave. I put my hand on the door, and that is when Josu walks in. A fellow thirty-something, with gelled hair and one of those piercings that stretches your earlobe beyond recognition. I don’t know him yet. We have yet to fight.
“You’re done playing?” he asks.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I say. “I’m finished.”
He looks disappointed. This is it, I think, this is the friend I’ve been waiting for.
“Why?” I ask. “You want to play?”
At this he gives me a “yes”. But it is not an English “yes”. It is a Basque “yes”, head down, eyes wide, lifting up in tone as the “sssssiiiii” comes out with a smile, the cry of an excited snake who has finally found a rat.
We settle in on the wooden stools and introduce ourselves. I pump in another euro. Josu has played Street Fighter before, he says, but only as a child. Now, he is looking around for someone on the character select screen. Who? I ask. Chun-li, he says. She’s there. But I have pointed it out too late, the counter has already hit zero. Josu looks sad. That is until his autopicked character arrives on the fighting stage, surrounded by bunting, bells and meditating monks.
“Dhalsim!” he yells.
His eyes light up. He remembers this. He remembers this! Josu goes to town, his stretchy-armed Indian quickly whacking seven shades of shoryuken out of my Ryu. The hadoken is useless in my hands next to this furious and unpredictable human competitor. They come out like big wet spitballs.
Josu is throwing all his weight into our fights. He throttles the arcade stick with vivid panic, slapping multiple buttons at once, animated in a way I have long forgotten. The cabinet is being yanked away from the wall, and between rounds we have to shove it back into place. Unlike me, who suckled on the teat of videogames long after it was considered psychologically healthy to do so, Josu let gaming take a back seat in life. He doesn’t play at home, it’s just something he doesn’t do anymore. This must be a rush, I think. This must be what taking ecstasy at 40 feels like. Whereas I am calm in front of an arcade, happy but calm, Josu’s entire childhood is coming flooding back to him in the form of a full-blown fighting game seizure. It is wonderful to witness, and a little frightening.
He beats me two games to one. My tactic of spamming Blanka’s electric power does not work, it transpires, against educated humans. Counter to the laws of the arcade, he concedes the cabinet and its subsequent CPU fights to me, because he has a table of pals waiting outside, and they are probably wondering where the hell he’s gone. He leaves me with an encouraging pat on the back, all adrenaline and joy. When I emerge from the bar later (after my customary drubbing at the hands of the all powerful machine) he spots me and smiles a final goodbye.
“Brendaaan!” he yells.
Ultimately, I failed in my challenge. It took 11 euros to make a friend.
Maybe this is the point I want to impress upon you, reader. Friends are not bought with hadokens and side-eye, they are not invited into your sphere of lung gas at random during a severe health crisis. Sometimes, they will come when you have given up. At your lowest ebb, when your final coin is spent, when you are ready to throw in the towel, when your hand is on the door. With friends, as in Street Fighter, go for broke.
For me, it’s Farming Simulator nested between two AAA games, House Flipper surrounded by fast-paced MMOs or Heroes of Might and Magic III. It’s one of the oldest games in top 100 categories on Twitch, and it’s consistently watched by more people than Red Dead Redemption 2 or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Let me say this again: more people watch Heroes of Might and Magic III than Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that sold over 24 million copies in the nine months since its release, or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which at one point in October hit 62,000 concurrent players. Heroes of Might and Magic III, a turn-based strategy game released in 1999. To put this in perspective, that’s when I Want It That Way by Backstreet Boys came out, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to hop back onto the charts in 2020.
So, what’s the deal with Heroes of Might and Magic III?
The story behind it involves perfecting a franchise, the rise of game piracy, localisation, Eastern European markets and a powerful word-of-mouth marketing campaign that no marketing exec ever had a say in.
It all started with a brilliant RPG series called Might and Magic, created by Jon Van Caneghem of New World Computing. The first Might and Magic game came out in 1986 to critical acclaim, partly thanks to first-person 3D graphics and a Dungeons & Dragons inspired party system. Sequels followed, and by 1999 Might and Magic series sold over 4 million copies.
Its success inspired New World Computing to create various spin-offs of Might and Magic: Crusaders of Might and Magic, Legends of Might and Magic, Warriors of Might and Magic and, most notably of Might and Magic, Heroes of Might and Magic. Of Might and Magic, obviously.
With the “throw ’em up against the wall and see what sticks” philosophy, New World Computing got something that stuck: Heroes of Might and Magic. The first instalment came out in 1995 to a very warm reception from the gaming press and sold enough units to warrant a part two. No time was wasted — Heroes of Might and Magic II followed a year later, quickly selling out in all stores which pressured retailers to reorder the product.
New World Computing was dedicated to giving their fans what they wanted, and it shows. The HoMM formula truly reached its sweet spot with Heroes of Might and Magic III. It was an improvement on all fronts: sound design, custom map building, multiplayer, campaigns, factions and gameplay.
Enter…The perfect Might and Magic game
Now, imagine it’s 1999, and you just turned on your 128mb RAM, 400MHz PC with an astonishing 10 GB of hard drive space and two (!) optical drives. After a bit of a wait, you find the HoMM3 icon on your desktop.
You’re greeted by this very colourful and heroic-looking menu:
Start a new game. Pick your scenario (or play on a random map), select your difficulty, and after a couple of seconds, find yourself on a map filled with resources, creatures and enemies.
Your hero is standing in front of a small settlement that belongs to you. In a couple of hours, if you play your metaphorical cards right (no actual cards involved), this settlement will become a full-blown town with various buildings producing various resources and fighter units. Your lone hero will now be a general of an army of knights, peasants and mythological creatures. There will be more heroes among your forces, too: exploring the map, taking over enemy castles, searching for artefacts, claiming mines, collecting resources and encountering random stuff.
There’s a lot of layers to the game, both literally and figuratively, as the action takes place underground and above ground on most maps. The primary layer is turn-based exploration. Your hero can only move a certain distance within one turn (one day in-game time). Every seven days, resources and fighter units renew. More monsters show up on the map, your enemies grow stronger.
You need to find balance in allocating your fighter units to defend your castle or to travel with your hero, as you can be attacked by a rival at any time. Combat is tactical and yet fast-paced. You need to use all your might and your magic to advance your fighter units on a grid map and attack enemy units. Each unit in the game is different: grasping the basics of combat is quick, but mastering it takes long. It’s satisfying, though. You will do better with each game you play, and learning never feels like a chore.
Another layer is managing and growing your town. It’s where your fighter units come from, where you train your heroes in magic, and where most of your income comes from as well. Towns from different factions differ in buildings and units. The more towns you have, the more money you get each day, and the more units you can buy each week. If you lose your last town and can’t get it back or find another one in seven days, it’s game over.
There’s still more: training your heroes, sabotaging other players, finding the Holy Grail, fighting rare creatures, solving mysteries, sailing the sea…
Sounds like it’d be a perfect game to play with your friends? Well, you’d never guess — you can! LAN multiplayer is good fun, but playing together turn-by-turn on one PC is where the game really shines. It’s called the hot-seat mode, named after how disgustingly warm the only chair in front of the computer felt after you and up to seven other people sat on it for hours. Rules are simple — you swap every turn, until someone wins (or you give up).
Replay value is almost endless: with campaign and multiplayer modes, different factions to choose from and randomly generated maps, the game kept giving (and its players were entertained). This was key in the nineties. In 1998 only 26.2% of US households had access to the internet, but 42.1% owned a PC. There were a lot of people with stationary computers, firmly offline, who’d appreciate a game keeping them occupied for longer.
I asked Polish retro gaming Youtuber Archon if he remembers his first moments with the game:
I had been a huge fan of the series ever since HoMM2 in the 90s, so when the third game was about to hit stores, I had my friend find a demo of it. I didn’t have a PC of my own back then, so we spent entire afternoons replaying the demo at his place, in anticipation of getting our hands on the full product. Of course as soon as we procured an *cough* unlicensed *cough* copy of the game, we geeked out over it for weeks and weeks on end. And then the expansions. We lived and breathed the game at home, in our spare time and at school. Making new maps, finding new tactics and finding scenarios on cover CDs from gaming magazines. Those were the days where we could just sit in front of the computer all day playing hot seat.
Suffice to say, Heroes of Might and Magic III is an excellent game, and reviewers agreed: with 9.1 out of 10 on GameSpot and 9 out of 10 on IGN, HoMM III quickly became the second best selling game of 1999 in the US.
The thing is… It wasn’t the only good game of the 1990s. It wasn’t even the only good game released in 1999. Yet, there are four thousand people watching HoMM III live on Twitch right now, while only three hundred people are watching Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that got 9 out of 10 on GameSpot and 10 out of 10 on IGN barely 8 months ago. Why?
Well, for one, it’s something between 5 PM to 3 AM in different parts of Russia right now. That makes for a whole lot of people relaxing after a long day in front of their screens, currently tuned in to streamers playing Heroes of Might and Magic III. In 2020, that’s where the game thrives.
Successful as it was in the US, the game is all but forgotten there. How come it gets more attention than brand new action-adventure blockbusters on the other side of the globe?
To fully answer this question, I enlisted help from different Eastern Europeans: from friends’ parents to various Russian gamers I interviewed on Twitch chat of a HoMM3 streamer.
Disclaimer: This article focuses on Polish and Russian fans as they have formed the two most significant HoMM communities. Many things I discuss which are true of Poland were also true of Russia at the time, and vice versa. The game was also popular in other Eastern European countries
Play in your language
There’s a reason why Spotify led to a decline of illegal music downloads, or why Steam took pirating games from pretty mainstream to who does that anymore. It’s because often, it’s not about money, but availability. Steam and GOG did what the yOu WoULdN’t DoWnLoaD a CaR campaign couldn’t do, and they did it by providing a solution, not threatening with punishment.
While piracy was at its highest in Eastern Europe, localisation strived to do just that. Localisation is a fancy word for translating software, and it was a big deal. Back then, most Eastern Europeans couldn’t speak English, at least not on a level that would allow them to comfortably play games without translation.
The origin story of everyone’s beloved Polish game dev CD Projekt is a good snapshot of how the gaming industry functioned in Poland in mid to late 1990s. When still students, both founders sold cracked games on Polish markets (which, incidentally, is how a lot of people came across the HoMM series for the first time). When CD Projekt was established, one of their biggest challenges was overcoming piracy, so the company focused their efforts on localisation for most of the 1990s.
Localisation took time and resources, though. Translated software was expensive, and only a chosen few games would get localised, which limited the gaming market. That allowed games released in Polish or Russian to stand out more.
Bluntly put, HoMM3 had a lot less competition in the Eastern European markets than it did in the English speaking world.
But even with less competition, HoMM was far from being the only localised game you could buy in Eastern Europe. So, what happened?
Fantasy & hardware
A marketing executive of a gaming company told me recently their RPGs sell unusually well in Eastern Europe. It came as no surprise to me: I didn’t have data to back this, but I already recognised Eastern Europeans love their RPGs and strategy games, particularly with a fantasy or medieval setting.
For starters, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was translated to Polish relatively early. It was still 8 years after the worldwide release, but given that there was the whole overthrowing the regime thing going on in 1989 which had most people pretty occupied, 1994 seemed like a pretty good moment to introduce the nation to Warhammer. That meant that all of this fantasy stuff was a well-known concept amongst Polish gamers when HoMM came out.
Side note (which is also a fun fact): the Polish version of Dungeons & Dragons came out in 2000 but never saw the same level of success as Warhammer did, probably due to being at least six years late. Although, that’s not to say that games based on the D&D system weren’t wildly successful in Poland (*coughs* Baldur’s Gate), especially the ones with brilliant localisation (*coughs* CD Projekt).
There was also one other big thing that RPG and strategy games of the 1990s had going on for them. They looked like this:
Meanwhile, action-adventure and FPS games looked like this:
Your PC needed to be way more powerful to handle Tomb Raider, as opposed to something like Age of Empires.
“Why not get a console?” you may ask. Well, PS1 came out in Poland in 1996 (two years after the global premiere) and cost an eye-watering PLN 1599 when median monthly income was PLN 873. So, probably not a very affordable solution.
And that brings us to…
Most Eastern European countries were utterly unprepared to enter the free market in the early 1990s. Unprepared on a fundamental level: there were no regulations protecting consumers, nor were there any intellectual property laws. It was the wildest dog-eat-dog version of free-market capitalism, and it took a lot of effort and years of legislation to get it to a manageable level. Still, the mindset prevailed: in 2017, 46% of all software in Poland was still unlicensed.
The retail cost of games in the 1990s didn’t help: median income went from PLN 702.62 in 1995 to PLN 1923.81 in 2000, while computer software was consistently priced between PLN 50 to PLN 200. When Heroes of Might and Magic III came out in 1999, it cost PLN 145, one-eleventh of an average monthly salary. It may have been localised, but still wasn’t very accessible (unless you were filthy rich, of course). Buying a bootleg copy for PLN 30 or even less was very straightforward, though. This was how numerous Eastern Europeans got their hands on the HoMM series.
Archan believes it was piracy that helped HoMM3 achieve that cult status in the long run:
I think it the success of HoMM 3 was a combination of piracy and great distribution tactics in Poland back in the day. Piracy was rampant and that’s how most of us got our fix when legal copies were pretty much nonexistent and prices too high for the average consumer.
But there’s also the other side of the coin. Polish PC Gamers were a bit behind the times technologically so we tended to play older games which would run on our modest hardware. Local publishers took note and started re-releasing many popular titles as part of budget ranges which sold really well! A couple years after launch most game licenses were cheap which allowed for lower pricing. This perpetuated the notion of “cult games” — titles which everybody loved and played (and probably pirated) but could now afford to buy to relive the experience.
Multiplayer and community
In 1999, only 2.1% of the Russian population had access to the internet. In Poland, it was 7.3%. That’s to say that multiplayer games meant something entirely different back then. It wasn’t you and your mate chatting on Discord while getting obliterated by a bunch of eleven-year-olds in Fortnite. It was you and three of your classmates taking turns playing Heroes of Might and Magic III on one PC, with everyone screaming at you to not look at the screen while they’re playing.
I asked Russian HoMM3 fans on Twitch what made the game this good. They all mentioned the hot seat multiplayer. Back then, it was rare to own a PC. I was seven in 2002, and even then barely four or five kids in my class had a computer. With Heroes of Might and Magic III, you could make the best use of your limited resources and play a game with up to 8 players on one PC. Looking back, it’s no wonder it was so popular.
It even got its own devoted modding community. Good mods can get a game from fun to fun-tastic (sorry). Skyrim, the most obvious example, immediately springs to mind: nobody would play Skyrim in 2020, and sure as hell nobody would pay £39.99 for Skyrim in 2020 (what are you even thinking, Todd Howard) if it wasn’t for the mods. The Elder Scrolls community does God’s work adding new content to a game that would otherwise be a bit old now.
HoMM3 modders took tinkering with a game to a whole new level back then with the release of Heroes of Might and Magic 3½: In the Wake of Gods. WoG (as it’s known in the HoMM3 circles, which, I’ll have you know, I’m a part of now) is a fan-made expansion pack that drastically alters gameplay, adding new options, increasing replayability and customisation. It’s one of the most ambitious fan projects in the history of gaming, and it’s still being updated: the latest blog post on WoG’s official website was added the very day I was typing these words.
Of course, New World Computing wasn’t exactly slacking off either and released two official expansion packs: Armageddon’s Blade & The Shadow of Death. Both pretty good, but let’s face it — can’t really hold a candle to WoG. Sorry not sorry.
Is it really that good?
OK, but is it nostalgia for the olden days, or is HoMM3 really this good?
I’ll answer this one: it’s this good. You can image search HoMM3 (which admittedly is not the prettiest video game ever made) and say that it’s just nostalgia, but it’s not. I swear. Trust me. I enjoyed this game in 2002, I’m enjoying it in 2020, and I’ll probably enjoy it in 2043 if the Earth doesn’t burn down by then.
HoMM3 can be tense, which makes it addictive. You should expect to be attacked at any point in the game. That’s what makes it so fun to watch on Twitch, too. It’s incessantly exciting. This is why, after I’d asked all my questions, I kept watching the stream. I don’t even speak Russian.
I decided to conduct a very scientific test by making my friend Tim play Heroes of Might and Magic III. He loves first-person shooters and action-adventure games. That’s, of course, precisely what Heroes of Might and Magic III is not. Here’s what Tim said, sounding quite surprised:
“I am really enjoying this”.
Case closed. It’s the best game of all times.
In all seriousness, this may just be the final ingredient. A powerful word-of-mouth campaign where converts (like me) would persuade unsuspecting comrades (like Tim) and infect them with a HoMM3 obsession. It’s incurable.
I found out about this game from my dad, who found out about it from his numerous brothers, all of which got their families to try it, too. I told my friends at school, invited them over to play and made them copies of my CD (go on, lock me up). It’ll run on any PC, I was able to say with confidence. Your parents will love this game as much as you do. It’s fun, it’s well translated, it’s cheap. Or even free *police sirens blaring in the distance*.
Why wouldn’t you want to play it in 2020?
If you want to try Heroes of Might and Magic III, get it from GOG, where it comes with expansion packs. The HD remake by Ubisoft on Steam doesn’t have them because of lost source code.
The series lost its spark after Heroes of Might and Magic III. New World Computing & 3DO were bought by Ubisoft after HoMM4 came out, and didn’t develop any of the later instalments. Looks like you can only achieve perfection once.
Was it the classic “EHHH-EHH-EHH-EHH-EHH!” vocalisation? Did you blow a muted raspberry using just your lips? Some of you will have been that show-off kid who had to sound more realistic than everyone else; rolling your “R”s behind clenched teeth to create a “TRRRRR, TRRRRR!” sound. Either way, we can all agree that these are all very cool things to do. I’m thirty-seven years old.
Call of Duty has always been a ludicrous, obscene, garish action series that purports to represent elements of real war whilst simultaneously being the fever dream of that 8 year old playing toy soldiers on his carpet, except that 8 year old has been given a multi-million dollar budget. “War is gritty and awful,” they tell us, before whispering “but we also secretly think it’s really cool.” It’s amazing how many of us have squared away the dichotomy of a series that drops you into the D-Day landings to relive its horrors through the eyes of the people who were there, whilst elsewhere rewarding you with sick guitar riffs for achieving a headshot quota. To quote a much older videogame series centred around military conflict
“War has never been so much fun”
Canon Fodder, 1993
Blackout was Activision’s first entry into the Battle Royale genre, and the idea of a BR game with CoD’s shooting proved to be an irresistible combination. Then, Respawn and EA released the free-to-play Apex Legends, and I put down Blackout for good – it felt superior to play in every way. So when Infinity Ward eventually responded with their own free-to-play BR – Warzone – it needed to be something special to divert my attention.
It’s Warzone’s multiple ways of getting you back into the fight that makes the game unique in the battle royale genre. Players can get a second chance by winning their Gulag fight, or they can be bought back in from a buy station if you have collected enough cash. Alternatively, a Most Wanted mission marks the player on the map for all to see but, should they survive for the time limit, all teammates will respawn. It makes for a thrilling, last-ditch attempt at staying in the game, and three minutes feels like forever when you’re watching through your remaining teammate’s eyes as they fight to survive. Some people hate that, but nothing feels better than going from watching one teammate hang on by the skin of their teeth to seeing your squad rise from the ashes and secure a victory.
Warzone feels so different to Blackout, which put many off at first, but Warzone excels in what interests me the most in a battle royale – the story. It’s not a 50 hour, AAA open world game with a fully voice-acted script, it’s a game where you make your own stories. Apex Legends is wonderful and can have its twists and turns, but the abilities and rulesets give it a very prescriptive “esports” flavour. The lore even sets the game in an arena of sorts, so you always feel like you’re playing a weird futuresport. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’ve sunk a lot of time into Apex, but it has never quite produced the magic Warzone provides when the ingredients are just right.
Call of Duty’s veil of realism has always been comically thin, but it doesn’t stop you becoming immersed in the action. A casual session with friends starts with jokes and silliness, but a few rounds later (especially if we haven’t won yet), it’s serious voices and curt, efficient exchanges; that’s all down to the sense of atmosphere Infinity Ward has created. We’re a band of brothers, working together to stay alive. An encroaching cloud of gas compels us to press onward, dodging lethal pingers from an enemy sniper as we weave in and out of abandoned houses. We spot a rival squad, probably having the same panicked conversations as we are. An airstrike is called in and we make a split-second decision to leap off a nearby clifftop to parachute to safety, a cacophony of explosions ringing in our ears. But none of this is scripted, this is just the product of different rulesets coming together harmoniously, organically, an improv play created by a hundred different people all looking for the thrill of the big win. When events play out just right, you feel like you’re in the middle of an exciting, improvised epic action scene from a blockbuster war movie, like if someone made an incredibly tasteless Dunkirk: The Ride at Universal Studios.
Our squad aren’t the greatest Call of Duty players that ever lived, I’ll admit it, but we have our moments. When everyone comes together and gets the job done, the rush is amazing. If you were a pro player, I imagine you’d get a lot less out of this game; it’s the slightly bad decisions, the hilarious cock-ups, and the skin-of-the-teeth moments that make the game so good. Nothing feels worse than second place, but Warzone has, hands down, the best victory screen in a battle royale by a mile. The hard cut to black makes it feel like the end of a movie, and that’s exactly what a round of Warzone is: a movie. Sometimes that movie is a knockabout farce as someone flies a helicopter into some power lines, sometimes it’s a tense, slow-paced thriller. Sometimes it’s a war epic with key characters unceremoniously dying, before coming back from the dead to miraculously save the day. Sometimes it’s all three.
Being in strict self-isolation during this coronavirus outbreak, shielding a particularly vulnerable loved one, I’ve been unable to leave the house and see anyone in person, be it socially distanced or not, for fourteen weeks. A regular meet up on Warzone with the same squad of buddies has meant we’ve been able to go on some incredible adventures and have sorely-needed laughs late into the night.
Is it the same as meeting up in person? No of course it isn’t – it’s a videogame, mate. But it’ll fucking do for now.
There’s a lot of fear about and everyone is trying to make sense of what may happen next. I take what I need to the till and make small talk with the cashier, who says this is the busiest few days he’s ever had, and I’m lucky I managed to get what I need. I give him a nod, tell him to stay safe and walk out the store, before I take a photo of what I’ve just bought and send it to a family member. It was a copy of FIFA 20. “So we can play every weekend and keep in touch when we’re all stuck inside”, I write.
Fast forward a few weeks and we’re all trying to explore different routines as we get used to the new normal. Once a week I make a loaf of banana bread. I download, delete and redownload a number of apps to keep busy. Nothing really sticks, apart from two things: a three o’clock family Whatsapp call I have every Sunday, and then a few hours later, I log onto Xbox Live to play something with my old Overwatch team.
We spend most of the week flicking through Gamepass trying to find something fun to play together, in between sharing stories of our solo gaming sessions. By May, we’ve fallen into a groove of playing Sea of Thieves. It’s a game where you and your friends can be pirates and do pirate things together. You *can* do pirate things, but my friends mostly spend time doing the things we used to do before lockdown. We talk about work, about the albums we’ve been listening to, the films we’ve seen, and our hopes for the future.
During one adventure, I die while fighting skeletons on an island and respawn back on the ship. Wanting to kill some time, I start drinking an ingame grog while my friends make it back carrying our stolen booty. By the time my friends make it back, I’m loosed legged and vomiting all over the pirate ship. They find it hilarious and the game’s importance fades into view. When we eventually all agree to stop playing Sea of Thieves on 10 May, our pirate crew opts to drink as many pints of grog as we can, getting drunker and drunker and vomiting all over our ship and each other, before we crash everything into some otherworldly element. It’s juvenile but freeing.
It is 30 May and I am playing NBA 2k20, enjoying the MyCareer mode. I’ve built a 6ft 5 Shooting Guard and move the analogue sticks on my PS4 in a six count to make my character do bench presses in a virtual gym. After the minigame is complete I leave the gym to go to the barber shop and get a fade. Sure it’s fun to pretend I’m 6ft 5 and earning a quarter of a million a year to dunk on people, but it’s more fun right now to get a haircut, and go outside, and meet my friends on the court and have a shootaround.
Gaming in the age of covid-19 has given me a deeper appreciation for the “open” in “open world games”. As real life worlds get smaller and at times more dependent, I find myself logging in and tuning out by enjoying the small tiny things I might have previously dismissed as busy work in video games. There have been times during lockdown, where I have struggled to feed and wash myself, but I have never quite lost track of giving my Arthur Morgan a cut, shave, shower and hearty dinner during my sessions of Red Dead Redemption 2. It is fun to be “The Unforeseen Variable”, hoping from planet to planet, living by my wits and getting involved in daring do in “The Outer Worlds”, but it is just as fun to walk around my living quarters and watch two of my ingame crew sit close to each other and play cards.
The thrill of gaming is in its escapism. I can be the chosen one, the greatest athlete of all modern times, or the soldier to gets the job done. We all play games that allow us, it part, to do something that we can’t do in real life. Sometimes it’s as amazing as traveling faster than the speed of light, but right now, it can be as calming as going to an ingame shop, spotting a friend and having a laugh.
It was the summer of 2013, and I realised that through a combination of work and home issues, I wouldn’t be able to go to the E3 video game conference in Los Angeles that year. Any other year, this would have been something of a relief, because E3 is a giant clusterfuck of noise and hype. But 2013 was the year Microsoft and Sony were showing off their new consoles: the PS4 and Xbox One. It was not the year to miss.
So I did what any functioning adult in this early part of the 21st century usually does – I went on Twitter and whinged about my bad luck.
It should have ended there, except one person who read my whiny tweet was Georg Backer. Georg is a veteran games developer and a lovely man, filled with optimism and enthusiasm. He replied to me, saying, ‘why don’t we put on our own E3 here in London, and run it at the same time?’, and I replied: “ha ha yes, but E3 is only a fortnight away, we couldn’t possibly arrange it, I mean where would we put on such an event?”
That’s when Jimmy, owner of the Loading Bar in Soho, piped up and suggested… the Loading Bar in Soho. Then I said ‘ha ha, but who would help us fund such a thing?’ And then Andy Payne, at the time MD of Mastertronic, offered us his business guidance. And somehow, out of a casual twitter conversation one dull afternoon, we’d decided to put on an indie-themed E3 alternative in London – in 14 days. I still thought it was a joke, that it wouldn’t happen – but I hadn’t reckoned on Backer.
Backer has energy and contacts. Lots of contacts. And LOTS of energy. Before I knew it, he’d confirmed the venue with Jimmy, and he’d got together with his friend Tracy King to start putting everything together. They contacted Jon Weinbren at the National Film and Television School and managed to hire a talented student film crew to work with us. Yes, a film crew. Georg’s idea was to run a standard games event during the day, then clear everything out and host a livestream every evening for several hours. This would happen over four days. It was crazy. Or at least it seemed crazy. And then it started happening.
We had two weeks. TWO WEEKS. In that time we started contacting indie devs and big publishers asking for their support and attendance. To our surprise, people started getting back to us. Our Twitter conversation was picking up interest. People were referring to the event as Keith3, which I secretly loved because I’m a huge egotist, but we knew we needed a better name – I think it was Georg or Tracy who came up with EToo. This was a clever reference to the LA event, rather than the then-Chelsea player Samuel Eto’o, but whatever, it seemed to stick.
Camera crews were wrangled and merchandise was ordered. Georg’s girlfriend Sonja designed us a beautiful logo, and Tracy’s partner DcTurner made us an amazing computer animation of the logo to use as an ident in our live streams. Developers like Dan Pearce, Tom Francis and Jim Rossignol agreed to turn up and show their stuff. We also convinced Sega, Ubisoft and Capcom to bring some games – a remarkable commitment from them considering they all had that little E3 thing to think about as well. I’ll never forget the efforts of their respective PR departments to get this done. I also approached Sony for funding, expecting the consumer electronics giant to laugh at us and wave us away. It didn’t. Sony helped fund the whole thing. Not only that but they also let us exhibit their cool PS4 title Puppeteer before it has even been revealed at E3. So we technically had a world exclusive. Crazy.
So that was how, over four days one June, Georg and Jimmy and I ran a games conference from the Loading Bar on Rupert Street. Every day the small interior was jammed with developers, often just bringing laptops and balancing them on their knees. We weren’t sure if anyone would come, but they did, in their hundreds. The bar was packed every day. We had tiny studios from all over Europe, putting themselves in considerable financial risk to take a punt on this weird little event.
It was beautiful. It was friendly, fun, interesting and bewildering. I live in Somerset, so I ended up sleeping in the downstairs bar at Loading every night. In the evenings we interviewed developers in front of a small in-house audience and a larger online presence. We had guest presenters like Rufus Hound and the crew from the One Life Left radio show. The atmosphere was joyful and boisterous. We all drank a lot.
Somehow, it worked – this crazy idea that came out of a sulky tweet. We pulled it together, we showed great games. Sometime afterwards I found out that Sony was sending over executives almost every day – a handy by-product of basing the event only a few minutes’ walk from the company’s HQ. I know that at least two games shown at EToo were later picked up and published by Sony. The event changed people’s lives.
Afterwards, we were all exhausted, the bar was in disarray and the developers had left. I thought, wow that was an incredible one-off – but Georg was already thinking about next year. What a thing to do. What a time. And what an industry.
Thanks to accidents of birth, geography, and not owning a boat, getting video games at all – let alone playing the bastards – was hard when I was a kid in a military family. While there were many advantages to not living in Britain in the 90s – mainly that you weren’t living in Britain, and as such missed Britpop, ill-founded faith in politics, and a slew of other terrible things– there were, if you loved video games, a whole host of disadvantages. Those disadvantages multiplied if you lived in a country like Germany, which famously doesn’t get along with the games about the blood and the killing. Back then, even more so than now, that category appeared to include every single game ever made. Which wasn’t great if you were 11, and all the games you wanted featured The Blood and The Killing.
Granted, it was difficult for all kids to get ahold of games at that particular time, what with the absence of money coupled with massive cartridge prices . But living abroad brought its own set of specific challenges: languages; availability; compatibility; replayability. There was no trading games back in at the local Hypermarkt. Renting was not an option, either: Nintendo was still at war with that particular business, and besides, nowhere near me had cottoned onto the fact that there was massive money to be made from rabid kids and tired parents.
Children being the industrious and devious little bastards they are, however, I soon found myself in an ad-hoc club of sorts, where access was key and whoever had the goods was the most powerful person in the town of Hameln, the Pied Piper having long since been usurped by my friend Daley and his copy of Earthworm Jim.
Ours was an odd world, even if it seemed perfectly natural at the time. The constant influx of new arrivals as people’s parents were posted in and out of the local military presence meant that the market, as it were, always saw fresh (and, sometimes, rare) ‘stock’ flow in. Trading games between friends isn’t new or novel, but when just getting the games at all seems like a logistical nightmare, there was a special premium associated with them when they arrived.
Having grandparents willing to set up a ‘supply route’ and send you games from Britain made you a mini-Escobar.
Take Paul, for example, and his elder brother Richard. Now, older siblings were almost as useful as the aforementioned grandparents: they were less likely to send you something bad, and were perfect foil for nefarious plans. “Yes, mum, I’ll make sure they don’t play Mortal Kombat. No mum, they’ll be in bed and not watching Alien on Sky Movies Gold.”
But while Richard had his uses, it was his dad who had something truly rare: a proper, honest-to-goodness gaming PC. Maybe even a 486. Word soon spread that the boys not only had Wolfenstein 3D, but also Doom (which made you the most important person in the world at that point, save maybe Eric Cantona), and some weird thing called Rise of the Triad. Paul and Richard always claimed that we couldn’t come over to play it because their dad never wanted anyone in the house, which now strikes me as perhaps a massaging of the truth, but then such are the levers of power. The closest I got to seeing Doom moving at its thunderous, impossible speed was when I glimpsed it as Paul left to come out and play football. Having only seen it in stills in magazines, it was a revelation. And then the front door closed and it was gone, like an alternate Godfather ending 30 times more tragic than the one we actually got.
Other items caused huge commotions in the playground. News of a Mega Drive version of Super Street Fighter II arriving in town demanded an immediate investigation, which ended when a beleaguered schoolfriend was press-ganged into providing the cart as proof. (He had previously shown us the manual, evidence that was considered circumstantial at best.) Another new arrival was forced into a school assembly show and tell, where the teachers cooed over the fact he’d been posted from ‘exotic’ Asia. Of more interest to almost everyone else was his Mega Drive variant, and the fact he had games with more than one title on a cart, familiar to most as the ‘Lanzarote Special’.
Everyone had a story like this, and in retrospect it was obvious why. The life of a military brat is a transient one, especially if you’re based somewhere other than Britain. Every single person you met was on borrowed time: who knew when they’d be leaving for another town, another school, another round of trying to integrate themselves into a social hierarchy. Once you left, that was it: for all intents and purposes your old buddies were gone forever, defined in hindsight by what games you played with them.
Street Fighter II was one of the early “Did you know you could do…?” games on the fighting game circuit. While gamers were sucked in by the bright colours and sounds of the arcade machine’s attract screen, they stayed for deceptively deep gameplay. The best fighting games are the ones that take the concept of “rock-paper-scissors” and build layer upon layer on its foundations. Street Fighter’s appeal was you were never outgunned when you lost. You were just outwitted. Learning Street Fighter is just like learning another language — first you pick up basic terms, then you learn to string some sentences together, like a “Down, Down-Forward, Forward + Punch” for a Hadoken. Before long, you can find yourself “speaking Street Fighter” without a moment’s second thought.
Of course, like learning any language, the quickest way to pick it up is to take yourself out of the classroom and put yourself into the native climate. Which is where the arcades come in….
Street Fighter II dominated the 90s arcade scene. DOMINATED. Dominated in such a way that it is hard to articulate to the modern, post-internet, post-mobile phone, 64 player multiplayer online gamer.
It was in the arcade where Street Fighter II went from “very good game” to “culture-defining piece of entertainment”. The arcade served as an incubator to the videogame scene — it was Reddit thread, gaming room and communal hangout all rolled into one. The only bar of entry was a couple of quid to lay down for a game.
Only, you didn’t just lay down for a game in the early arcade scene. Depending on your arcade, approaching someone for a match of SF II was akin to challenging someone to a duel. You’d go up, stick your pound coin down on the side of the machine. *Blam*. A “I got next” message to everyone in the local vicinity. For if the London arcade was a stomping ground for all manner of beasts in the 90s, there were all manner of beast slayers traversing the land trying to put them to the sword.
As for Grendel’s lair? Well apparently, that was housed somewhere in a cab rank in Kings Cross….
Street Fighter always leant itself well for rumours and urban legends. “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance” was a rumour that ran for years before it got revealed as a hoax in an old gaming magazine. For me, there was always one Street Fighter rumour that stuck. The rumour of the cab rank arcade machine…
So the story goes, there was a black cab rank in Kings Cross that housed a Street Fighter II machine throughout the 90s. For ~some reason~, the machine became the meeting point of some of the best SFII players in the city. You’d turn up to the cab rank, play your game and (supposedly) loser paid for their opponents cab ride home.
It’s one of the most interesting Street Fighter II legends I ever heard. Entirely plausible and (you would think), easily provable. So with a smartphone, an old copy of Yellow Pages and a bit of gusto I went about proving it.
My first port of call? Taxi drivers. Such is the wonder of London, your average black cab driver probably has work experience of the city in the 90s; might one of them have any memories of a Street Fighter machine in Kings Cross?
Apparently not. Talking to the black cabbie driver dad of a friend (when you live in East London, finding a cabbie isn’t too hard), their doesn’t appear to be any SFII machines in Kings Cross.
The cabbie that props up the bar in my rugby team? “I’ll ask around. I’ve never heard of it.” No memories either. Searching for a 20 year old videogame machine from people who never played a game outside of Angry Birds was proving slightly tricky.
Next, Reddit and the forums. The Internet Fighting Game community may be one of the most knowledgeable and intimidating subsets of all of gaming, but if you approach you right and pay the correct tithes, you can get what you’re after.
“Sorry I can’t help more but you might want to check with a man called Mark Starkey. I hear he bought up a lot of the game cabs from King’s X.” said one intrepid wanderer on a Reddit thread.
And so, it was onto my final lead — Mark Starkey, longtime London arcade gamer, who’s been on the scene since 1989. Would he be able to solve the taxi cab rumour? Was it real? Or simply schoolboy rumour?
“Unfortunately, your schoolboy rumour was just that”, Mark says.
Defeated. But was there a Grendel’s lair where top Street Fighter II players met?
“Oh absolutely, if you were one of the best of the best, you would head to Casino (that was confusingly the name of the arcade), by London Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus. There was a man, John Sturges who was an official distributor for Capcom arcade board. Everything that came into the arcade came in through him. If anything, he was the grandfather of Street Fighter scene in the UK.”
Also great was the nearby Namco Wonderpark (which closed in 1998 and oddly featured in Channel 4 sci-fi series Ultraviolet, starring Idris Elba). Both arcades would see a lot of tournaments over the period, where top tier players like (Current SFV Guinness World Record holder) Ryan Hart would pop up and hone their skills.
London Trocadero also had some good players as well, and as Mark tells me, gamers would do player similar to a pub crawl, starting in one arcade, and slowly traversing through Central London, late into the night, exchanging battle and beers and smiles with other gamers.
But why track down these arcades? Was it the people who turned up? Did it have a good vibe? Was it just nice to be in the heart of London?
Actually, it’s a combination of all those things, as well as a few tips from old 90s machines.
“Most of these machines were made in the UK and Europe because it was cheaper to make machines in the homeland out of chipboard rather than import steel and plastic over from Japan”, explains Mark. So not only could your version of Street Fighter II vary, so too could the quality of your experience.
“Games were played in 4:3 rather than 16:9 ratio. Back in the analogue era you didn’t have software to process the imagery, so the pictures shone on the screen like lights. People would gravitate to the places that had the best machines for imagery, like SEGA’s big 50 inch cabinet called the Super MegaLo or on a rig called the Electrocoin Duet”. Like the top tier SFV player looking for the best fight sticks, so 90s arcade gamers would track down machines that gave them a better experience, and it was Casino and Wonderpark that held the best machines.
So what about my quest for the taxi rank? Did it ever exist? Well… Maybe.
“I’m not saying the cab rank didn’t exist and that good players never went there. For the most part, you got your arcade kicks wherever you could find them. The first time I completed Street Fighter was in Burger King”, says Mark. “The big arcades around the seaside also got some pretty good players. But for the real real, hardcore, biggest scene? It’s got to be central London arcades. There’s nothing bigger than that.”
So, it appears that the mythical SFII machine in a cab rank is just that. Mythical. At least… unless you, dear reader have any further information for us?