Tuesday, 17 April 2018

GSOH: Joy sticks

One of my favourite past-times is to play computer games. Not so much the modern stuff, but things from the 1980s and 1990s. It's nice that the X Box and PlayStation can throw us into near-photo-realistic 3D worlds, but when much of that is concentrated on endless rehashes of the same old FIFA and Call Of Duty, I prefer to regress back to a time when electronic gaming was genuinely inventive and packed full of interesting quirks.

Making a 200-mile round trip to a comedy night isn't unusual for me, I've performed up in Edinburgh, Liverpool and Portsmouth over the past twelve months. What is unusual is going a long distance just to watch a stand-up show as a punter. Why would I pop over to Gloucestershire to do that? Well, the absence of a decent segue from the previous paragraph should give you a clue.

The arcade at Smokey Joe's in Cheltenham

Lemon Rocket Comedy takes place on a Friday each month at an American-diner-themed restaurant in Cheltenham. Along with the neon signs, chequered floor and vintage Coca Cola ephemera to make you feel like you're in an episode of Happy Days, there's an aspect which appeals to me. Nearly a dozen arcade game machines, mostly from the 1980s, are sitting around the place.

Like the proverbial moth to a flame, arcades were a magnet for my attention back in the days before I owned a computer. A rainy fortnight in the Welsh village of Clarach Bay had me venturing frequently to the holiday camp arcade to hurl 20p coins into Pac Land and Kung Fu Master. I have more memories about the third round of Wonder Boy than I do of anything releated to Aberystwyth.

These days, seasides still have arcades but they're woefully geared towards to extracting as much money from tourists as possible. Hence 90% of their space is given over to dismal and joy-free mechanism aimed at the gullible, such as fruit machines, prize grabbers and automated bingo. If you're lucky, you may find a few games such as the fantastic Mario GP. It's sadly more likely you'll come across tedium-inducing light-gun shooters like the Time Crisis franchise or reworked efforts of Flappy Bird.

The decline of arcade gaming is probably down to home computers and consoles catching up in technology terms around the 1990s. Around mid-to-late Eighties, the arcade was arguably at its peak, with screens hurling multicoloured pixels into your eyeballs at an astonishing rate, with games such as Out Run, Space Harrier and R Type showing off a technical prowess that your Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 could only make a 'will this do?' attempt at trying to deliver the same experience.

Laura Monmoth deals with a bunch of pricks
The advent of the PlayStation not only matched and excelled the quality you'd expect in the arcades, it also threw itself towards an adult audience. The prolific Disneyified offerings from Nintendo had given the impression that gaming was a kids' interest, but we entered a new era, of Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto. The arcade games couldn't compete with that and had entered that downward spiral of repetition, spewing out ten billion versions of Street Fighter 2 in lieu of taking a punt on anything creative. Suddenly, your home console was the lead machine, with a few titles making their way to the arcade a long while later, rather than the other way round.

I was sitting in Smokey Joe's this January purely to watch a themed night of retrogaming comedy. Cheltenham-based booker Sal Drummond had made a Facebook appeal for comics who did material on vintage games. Naturally, many of us in the midlands put forward Laura Monmoth's name, on the basis of her LGBTQZX+ show which deals with growing up in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. I had compered a showing in Birmingham, which was simply astonishing.

Flatteringly, my name was put forward too, but I had to decline, having only two minutes worth of retrogaming material that I've only ever used in MC mode. Still, being alerted to the existence of this night had me among the first to buy a ticket. Comedy routines about vintage gaming? I'm there.

Tony Chiotti kicks off the show

It was a good idea to have turned up early. I got to play on a lot of the games for absolutely nowt, and there are more choices than the rather limited offerings at Southend's Happidrome. Laura and I had a bash at Gauntlet. I'm sad to say I'm still crap at it.

The night was completely sold out, and kicked off with American host Tony Chiotti doing an in-depth take on old games, followed by Berkshire comedian Sam Michael doing a brilliant opener, which centred on a physical reenactment of when you play Grand Theft Auto for the first time.

All of which probably wouldn't have landed as well at a generic comedy night, but this was certainly not full of inaccessible subjects. The comedy works as well to the layman as well as the hardcore geek clutching onto his rare Japanese Sega Saturn discs.

Oh, and in a way, I was part of the night. A few days before, I was asked to provide interval music, which I compiled from various home computer, console and arcade games. My bias is towards the ZX Spectrum and Amiga, the gaming platforms I grew up with, but I have enough knowledge to throw in a few familiar sounds from the SNES, Commodore 64 and Sega Mega Drive.

While I wouldn't be on that stage (until two months later, which is another story in itself) it was nice to overhear folk in the audience trying to guess the games. Exclamations of "that's Golden Axe!" and "sure this is Double Dragon" made me really chuffed. The compere touched upon it too, and this opened up a conversation on British games, a subject not too familiar as the host grew up in the USA.

I'm pretty fond of one woman in the audience educating the crowd on the finer points of 'Dizzy Egg' (the Dizzy range of Codemasters games that were a huge hit on the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64 platforms). To hear this being explained to someone who had no idea about the adventure-loving ovoid character, just provided more laughs.

Game for a laugh
The night concluded with yet another reason for going along. The full performance of LGBTQZX+. At this point I had only witnessed it at general comedy nights, now we'd be seeing the full 12" version. Laura was nervous about whether this would work, but quickly realised how the audience were very retrogaming-savvy, so we got all the bells and whistles this time.

Any pre-show nerves were absolutely evaporated as Laura captured the awe of the audience. She had toured this thing through the Edinburgh Fringe yet tonight had more people to play to than the attendance of her entire combined festival run. She deservedly stormed it.

This also put a lot of confidence in me as I'd be back to this venue in March, performing as my Wetherspoons-employed alter-ego Trisha Timpson. That's sod all to do with old computer games, but it was a theme-less night. I can't imagine Trisha wanting to go near an arcade machine, unless it was a certain 1983 effort from Bally Midway.

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