The gutter press is a truly unique British institution with the power to topple governments and ruin celebrities.
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to see a Daily Mirror headline recently, chances are high that you’ll have been exposed to something like this: “FATAL GRAND THEFT DEATH CHASE OF SKIVING BIRD FLU IMMIGRANTS KILLED OUR PRINCESS”. Other than political wrongheadedness, conspiracy theories about decade-old car crashes and Sodoku, there’s nothing our sensationalist tabloids enjoy doing more than drawing dubious links between gaming hijinx and every single crime committed in the entire country.
Rather than being the result of a complex and unpredictable stew of social, cultural and psychological factors, it turns out that criminality can be accurately determined by how much you enjoy playing the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Thank heavens for that – it saves an awful lot of time-consuming research. Handily, the resultant media exposure also tends to act as something of a sales boost; almost as if tabloid scaremongering and controversial game sales are reciprocally feeding off one another like gigantic, slurping parasites. Or something.
All complete nonsense, of course. If games had ever possessed the level of influence hypothesised by certain contemporary columnists looking for a cheap way to SHOCK the nation, the world around us would have been reduced to smoking wreckage many moons ago. Can’t quite believe that 8-bit machines would teach such malevolence? Then please take a standard-issue white coat and follow the pulsing floor lights towards the scientific research area, as we expose the deeply disturbing lessons taunt by the murky underbelly of Spectrum software …
Target Renegade (Imagine, 1988)
As blatant an advert for vigilantism as you were ever likely to see. Thanks to TR’s seductive scrolling and exciting “beat ’em up” action we all learnt that the correct course of action following an injustice against our family was not to inform the police, but to take immediately to the streets in a frothing whirl of vengeance. Further gameplay usefully informed us that all women are violent prostitutes and that motorcyclists are good for nothing other than fly-kicking from their mounts and punching repeatedly on the kerb.
Dystopi-o-meter: Three brutal pool cue beatings out of five.
Spy Hunter (Midway, 1985)
Scrabble (Mastertronic, 1987)
Not the first choice in a list of games likely to shake the foundations of society, perhaps – but closer examination revealed a dark secret at its heart. Due to a lack of in-built dictionary capabilities (something of an oversight, surely), Spectrum Scrabble relied upon the virtuous honesty of the contestant. “Is this a word?” it would ask, wide-eyed and innocent, as you slapped XYXZQZ down on a triple word score. They may as well have coded a black screen with the phrase “cheating gets results!” repeated ad infinitum.
Armageddon Man (Martech, 1987)
An exaggerated version of our future globe hangs in delicate political balance. World powers must be encouraged and appeased in equal measure whilst food and energy resources are rationed with a firm but fair hand. The clock of conflict is ticking perpetually toward the hour of destruction, but with a wise head in command maybe, just maybe, a full scale war can be avoided. And what was the only entertaining part of this game? Aggravating nations to hasten the total thermonuclear destruction of the planet, of course. Then doing it again and trying to beat your previous time.
Fred (Indescomp, 1983)
One man was on a quest to bring action archaeology to a country that we can only presume was Egypt (due to the largely pyramid-based action and the preponderance of sand); but he was far from Indiana Jones. Whereas Indy restricted himself to shooting nasty beasts such as snakes or Nazis, Fred was happy to spray indiscriminate gunfire around ancient, undiscovered tombs with casual abandon. Countless mummified finds of unimaginable historical importance fell victim to Fred’s firearm, while he gleefully filled his pockets with priceless trinkets. This was a disgraceful example of Cultural Imperialism at its very worst.
Dictator (dk’tronics, 1983)
Corruption distilled to its purest form. Rather than rewarding an open and democratic approach to government, the challenge here was keeping the population of fictional nation Ritimba happy just long enough for you to line your own pockets with cash; followed by a dramatic escape to the air as revolutionaries inevitably surrounded your mansion. Though providing players with a healthily cynical attitude towards the inner-workings of politics, those benefits were surely offset by the tricks and tips unwittingly offered to the generation from whose ranks our latest batch of MPs are now being plucked.
Dystopi-o-meter: 98.7% of the Popular Vote.
Jack the Nipper (Gremlin, 1986)
Dystopi-o-meter: Seventeen years of therapy.
Fantasy World Dizzy (Codemasters, 1988)
Dystopi-o-meter: Nearing boiling point.
Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (Ocean, 1984)
A classic joystick wagglefest; perfect for instilling the noble traditions of sport. Except, tragically, the level of competition demanded was possibly just a little bit too high – Daley had three lives, which progressively diminished as your shameful inability to successfully complete events took its deadly toll. Yes, the punishment for failure was nothing less than DEATH for the athlete. Small wonder that many players found the pressure simply too much to bear and turned to dubious under-the-counter muscle enhancers in order to provide the perfect waggle. A legacy of massively overdeveloped upper arms was the terrible result.
Dystopi-o-meter: £9.99 toward a new joystick.
After that mini-trawl through the gallery of Spectrum horrors, there can be little doubt that by now everyone should be scavenging for food in the dilapidated streets of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’d probably be raining, too. Take a cursory glance outside, though, and it will quickly be apparent that anarchy has not yet descended upon the UK, mutants are not yet roaming the land and no-one needs to learn how to grow potatoes in irradiated soil just at the moment. It might still be raining, though. Obviously you’ll need to adjust that picture slightly if you live closer to Sellafield than might be considered comfortable, but the basic point remains; dubiously themed games evidently did not destroy the fragile minds of the 8-bit generation. It’s all ok. We’re fine.