32X – Mushroom Clouded Memories

I was never much of a gamer. I had a Mega Drive and a few games, and I loved reading Digitiser on Teletext, and picking up Mean Machines every month, but I was never CRAZILY into gaming. I never progressed into getting a Saturn, or a PlayStation, or an N64. I was given an N64 as a birthday gift around 2010, so my finger has never been on the pulse.

It was this lack of pulse-awareness that led me into owning a Sega Mega Drive 32X.

Image from Games Asylum

The 32X was a black mushroom-shaped add-on that plugged into a standard Mega Drive (or a Mega Drive 2, with the supplied adaptor, which was utterly useless to me), and upped the Mega Drive’s power from 16 bits to 32 bits. I doubt this was really the case, but it did give the aging war-horse much better polygon graphics handling and a much bigger colour palate.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I should’ve bought a SNES. I digress.

Anywho, upon receiving my 32X on Christmas of 1994, I got to experience the blistering power of NEXT GENERATION games on my NOW GENERATION console! I also got to experience the FINGER-SLICING power of placing FIDDLY METAL PLATES inside of my Mega Drive’s cartridge slot to let the 32X sit in there! I got to see first-hand the potch of USING TWO POWER SUPPLIES at once! I got to marvel at the  SHODDY CARDBOARD BOXES the game came in! Yes, it was flawed. But to my teenage, naïve mind, it was brilliant.

As I’d had the machine at launch, I had two of the launch titles – Virtua Racing Deluxe and Star Wars Arcade. I played Virtua Racing Deluxe to death, it was a cracking version of the arcade game, with more tracks and vehicles, but admittedly inferior 3D. Star Wars Arcade held my interest for a far shorter period, being a fairly substandard on-rails space shooter.

Over the months I picked up Doom (the only version I’ve ever played, so I was happy with it), and then a much more open-world space shoot-em-up called Stellar Assault. Stellar Assault was an unexpected gem on the 32X, and to my mind, what I wanted from Star Wars Arcade.

The final game I picked up for the magic mushroom was Virtua Fighter. Again, as playable as it’s arcade big brother, but graphically lacking, it was a solid yet sanguine swansong for the console.

SEGA had realized that it had run out of decent expansion ports on the Mega Drive to further upgrade it, but crucially failed to spot that the 32X and the Mega CD before it were fragmenting their market. The lack of any sort of backward compatibility with the forthcoming Sega Saturn was the final nail in a very sad looking coffin.

Image from Last Level Tech on YouTube. An example of the pinnacle of SEGA’s plug-in lunacy.

I was just starting college by the time SEGA had pulled the plug on the minimal life support they were giving the add-on, and my console was abandoned in my folk’s spare room for years soon after.

After a stint living abroad and one failed marriage later, I found myself moving stuff from my parent’s into my new home about a decade later. I dusted off the console, and fired it up. The 2D bitmapped backgrounds and sounds worked fine, but the system stubbornly refused to display any 3D polygon graphics anymore.  Eventually eBay’d for parts, I eventually settled for using emulators to play the occasional game of 32X Virtua Racing, or Stellar Assault.

But for that brief year of 1995, I raced angular cars, shot at angular spaceships, punched angular bad guys in the face, and shot Martian demons in their pink heads, all from my humble 32X. I have a huge amount of fond memories of my time spent gaming on the Mega Drive, and the 32X served as my epilogue to the machine, giving me one final balls-to-the-wall action-fest before I ‘grew up’.

In the mocking words of Virtua Racing…. “GAME… OVER!”

 

 

 

Red Dwarf

BBC Two’s (and later, UKTV’s) sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, is one of my favourite things in the whole world. It was thrust upon me in November of 1989, when I was 11 years old, and 25 years later it has a hold on my heart that will never let go.

The first episode I ever saw in full was Series III’s “Backwards”. There was something about this surreal, insane, gimmicky show that just immediately appealed to me, even though I knew nothing about it. Why was that man called a cat? Why did that man have a blocky head? Why did that man have a H on his forehead? It didn’t matter. It just made laugh and laugh. I recorded all of Series III to VHS, and watched it religiously, memorising each line, every aspect of delivery. I watched those six glorious episodes to death, and to this day Series III is just… wonderful. It’s warm, nostalgic, I still laugh at it, and it feels fresh to me even a quarter of a century on.

After Series III my friend Aaron revealed that a book of the show existed – I devoured that novel, and soon, it’s sequel. Red Dwarf IV and V appeared, and by now I was in the mad grip of pure obsession. VHS releases had started, and I remember eagerly watching Red Dwarf II at my friend Leonard’s house – 6 new episodes! Well, new to me. They looked so much more primitive than the later shows, but I didn’t care. The characters, the writing, the humour, it was all there.

I was 14 now, and I’d subscribed to the Red Dwarf Smegazine, and eagerly awaited it’s arrival each month. I loved the comics, and especially the art by Nigel Kitching, and the emergence and familiarity of other die-hard Red Dwarf fans. I pored over the set reports of the sixth series filming, and loved every second of Series VI upon broadcast. I remember sitting, numb with shock, as Series VI ended on a cliffhanger with all the crew seemingly killed by their future selves. For a fourteen year old, the three and a half year gap between Series VI and VII was torturous.

I killed that time by joining the Red Dwarf fan club. Contributing regularly to the Better Than Life magazine, I encountered other fans like me, and got swept up in this wonderful community. People like Andrew Ellard, Phillipa Drakeford, MJ Fouldes, Ian Symes, Simon Bromley, Seb Patrick, and countless others all influenced and amused me, and I treasure those fanzines. I still have a folder stuffed to the brim with my crudely drawn and hand-lettered Red Dwarf comic strips. It sits next to my equally-crammed folder of Red Dwarf news-clippings from Starburst, SFX and TV Zone magazines.

At this point in time there was a definite air of shakiness to the return of Red Dwarf – Craig Charles had been held on remand for a (thankfully baseless) rape charge, and Chris Barrie had been vocal about his dissatisfaction with Series VI production issues. The writing team of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had also parted ways, and it all seemed a bit… final.

I was also into a full blown obsession with the show at this point, even occasionally calling the production company to ask for updates on production, and could I get audience tickets please. I may have been the most irritating person in the world at this point.

As it happened, Red Dwarf VII came to pass, albeit with changes. Doug Naylor now ran the show, original director Ed Bye had returned, Chris Barrie would only appear in four episodes, and Kochanski would return as a regular cast member, now played by Chloe Annett. The whole show would be pre-filmed, then shown to an audience, and as luck would have it, I had secured three tickets to go and see the first showing! I was ecstatic – I was going to be on the laughter track for Red Dwarf! A fan’s dream come true.

Me, my dad, and my friend Johnny drove to Teddington Studios, and watched the first showing. I was chuffed – after waiting for years, I’d find out how they resolved the cliffhanger ending for Series VI! Er, no. They showed us episodes 2, 3 and 5. So I would still have to wait for the actual TV broadcast… pah. But either way – I was IN the audience. I was chuffed, “Stoke Me A Clipper” was the first ep I was in the audience for, so it’ll always hold a special slot in my heart.

A year or so later, and  I was ending my sixth form year, and my final project focused on, naturally, Red Dwarf – a chunky little thesis comparing and contrasting the set designs from Series I & II, and Series III – VI. I was extremely fortunate enough to have an in-depth interview with Mel Bibby, the production designer for Series III – VIII, and he was just the nicest guy, god rest his soul. He even provided me with copies of set designs and blueprints. What a guy. Around this time Series VIII was filming, and I’d again been lucky in grabbing tickets to go and see it at Shepperton Studios. This time, I got tickets to the first recording, and got to see what would eventually be  “Back In The Red part 1” and “Back In The Red part 2”. I really enjoyed the experience, but it’s fair to say the episodes themselves start off well and decline in quality pretty quickly, sadly. Mel Bibby also managed to nab me a ticket to go and see the final recording – confusingly, ALSO “Back In The Red”, this time re-doing scenes and recording additional material to make the episode into a three-parter.

I was so disappointed with Series VIII upon broadcast. I think I lucked out seeing the episodes I saw being recorded. Series VIII just didn’t work for me, and time isn’t helping it. I never even owned the VHS tapes of that series… just my off-air copies. It ended on a damp fart of a cliffhanger, and that seemed to be it for Red Dwarf on the telly.

Red Dwarf’s fan community still thrived though, and I was still an active part of it. I managed to attend the Dimension Jump conventions, meeting yet more friends, and dressing up as the Blue Midget spacecraft… Good times! I made penpals across the globe, and Red Dwarf was directly responsible for me meeting my first wife, and therefore moving to the United States for a few years until the marriage eventually didn’t work out.

Upon returning to the UK I began collecting DVDs of Red Dwarf as they were being released, and was blown away by the level of excellence of the extra content – as fans we were well and truly spoilt, and those DVD’s and their documentaries are still the bar to be attained by other DVD’s and Blu-Rays.

I’d re-joined the Red Dwarf fan club when the Dave channel announced the return of Red Dwarf in the guise of the ‘Back To Earth’ special, and I had started drawing (much better looking) comics based on it, and also drew a comic that my fellow fan Ben Paddon wrote. They even got name-checked on the official Red Dwarf site eventually too, which I was crazily over-pleased about.

With the success of ‘Back To Earth’, Series X followed, mere years later. I’d managed to nab tickets to two recordings ‘Entangled’ and ‘Dear Dave’, and eagerly lapped up more studio audience shenanigans, even though the episodes were both unfinished at those recordings. Everyone at these recordings now knows to cherish them more than most things, as they’re always potentially the last…. and it was gratifying to see a solid return to form for the boys from the Dwarf.

Following another few years of waiting for the official announcements, the back-to-back recordings for Series XI and XII have now started. I’ve only been able to attend one recording this time (now at Pinewood Studios), for the fourth episode of Series XI, but I enjoyed it immensely, and I can’t wait to see the rest of the two new series. It really feels like a Red Dwarf renaissance.

One of my goals is to contribute something to the show in an official capacity at some point, ideally on a comic of the show, or (pipe dream) to the show itself – which I kinda have, albeit as a laugh lost in the cacophony of the studio audience. But I’ve been a complete nut for this show for 26 years and counting, and even if I never achieve my goal, I know I’ll be a fan forever. Through good and bad, through long waits and bursts of frantic happenings, Red Dwarf has helped shape my sense of humour, and how I create my own stories and comic books. It’s helped define me as a person, and brought such happiness to me over the years it’s unreal.

Thanks Red Dwarf. You’re amazing.

 

 

Telling myself off.

I need to sort myself out, and this post is me, actually getting this stuff out of my head and into reality to try and make me act on this stuff.

I’m too easily distracted. I’ve been chipping away at various freelance work in the evenings and weekends. Jobs that I know I can get done in a reasonable time, and yet, they’re taking me ages, because my attention span lately has been dreadful. I’m forever checking Facebook. Twitter. Looking at Transformer’s message boards. Star Wars message boards. Reading nonsense Wikipedia entries about aliens and conspiracies or other useless crap. Or I’m finding ways to distract myself by firing up OpenEmu and playing Virtua Racing, or Road Rash, or whatever other little distractions I can muster. And doing my work in this highly piecemeal fashion is hurting the quality of the work, and meaning I stay up later than I need to, and then I’m more tired the next day, and get more distracted… you get the idea.

So I’m going to try and get some focus back, knuckle down and concentrate on the work, and GET IT DONE.  I need to get my shit together, and stop getting distracted. This is getting silly now.