What’s your favourite console ever? Mine’s grey, regular in shape, weighs about three pounds. Graphically, it’s a bit underpowered by modern standards – great colours, lousy detail – but it’s got a killer game library. The one I’ve got is showing its age a bit, but it’s still my most precious possession in the whole world.
It isn’t, as you’ve already guessed, the Dreamcast. It’s my brain. My spongey, stupid, sloppy, saturated brain. The thing that makes it the best console ever made is that it’s 100% compatible. It’s like the ultimate emulator. Using it, I can replay ever game I’ve ever played. I can even, thanks to its remarkable ‘Imagination’ engine (watch Sony nick that for PS4), play games that haven’t even been made yet. It’s portable, never needs batteries, never needs upgrading, boots instantaneously. There are no carts to lose, no discs to scratch, no controller wires to unsnarl.
The last thing I played on it was Wipeout, which I dug out last night when I couldn’t sleep thanks to a head full of rather shampoo-y white wine and a three hour argument about the future of game distribution. Proper Wipeout, mind. Original, clunky, exacting Wipeout. Nearly 15 years on, it plays as well in my mind as it used to on my trusty 14″ Trinitron. I can still nail the boost start every time, still feel the flow and flex of every camber and turn as I loop endlessly under the specked ink of Altima’s sky. Some insomniacs count sheep; I count zip pads.
It’s long been a defence of books that they leave so much to the imagination, and a criticism of games – especially modern games – that they don’t. It’s never been an argument I’ve had much of a feel for. I’m not someone who pictures the people and places I read about, but I am someone whose mind fills in the gaps left by games.
I can tell you what the early evening air smells like on Ragol. I can tell you how it feels to let the surf wash over your dusty, bloodied boots as you pause in your pursuit of the Silent Cartographer.
Games have always been a jumping off point for imaginative projects – for fan fiction and illustrations, for mods and clones and day-dreams. They’re the perfect raw material for the liminal state between exhaustion and sleeplessness. Vivid, familiar terrain, full of patterns and loops and repeats. It only took me a few laps of Altima before I dropped off, soothed and satisfied. Imagination is the great liberator of games – a way to get the camera to go where the game won’t let it. To float free and own the game world as fully as you’ve always wanted.
Of course, that freedom is also a danger. I went back to Altima for real this afternoon, courtesy of a quick PS3 download. Stretched across a giant plasma, it loses remarkably little, despite being only a button-press or two away from the gleaming majesty of Wipeout HD. The sounds that issue forth from the TV are the perfect match for the ones that echoed in my memory last night. Every loop of the track is still fresh and clear in my mind.
But, as my hands close on the controller, thumbs tightening though pure muscle memory, I fluff the boost start. And again. Again and again and again. Before I make it to the first corner, I’m already slaloming like drugged elephant from one crash barrier to the next. I can’t count the zip pads because I can’t hit the damn things, not a single one. Reality doesn’t so much bite as devour me whole and drown me in acid.
And it’s this, if nothing else, that means my brain is remains my favourite console. It means I end each day a conquering hero who lands every jump, nails every start, and pulls off every combo, regardless what would have happened if I were playing for real. It enriches my imagination with the imaginations of thousands of game creators, and enriches a thousand of their creations with my own imaginings. Perfect, somnolent synergy.
For the record, though, my favourite real console ever actually is the Dreamcast. Which, for its grey blockiness, its wonderful colours and its killer game library, I love just as much as I love the PS2, SNES, 360, DS, GBA, Neo Geo, PC Engine, PlayStation, Game Boy and N64 for all the things that made them the best consoles ever, too. Because, plainly and truly, they are the stuff that dreams are made of.
[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can’t stop going back to.]
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