In the autumn of 1995 I joined the video game magazine Edge as a staff writer. It was my first job in journalism and came at the start of Future Publishing’s glory years, its range of specialist gaming mags – Games Master, SuperPlay and the Official PlayStation Magazine – reaching their absolute pomp. We were based in Bath, in a collection of buildings throughout the picturesque city centre, and Edge was on the first floor of a converted pub, down a backstreet behind Queens Square. The editor was Jason Brookes, a Japanese-gaming obsessive and enthusiastic clubber, whose taste in dance music (Paul Oakenfold, William Orbit, BT) dominated the Edge hi-fi. We played games, we listened to music, we went clubbing, we played more games. This was my life for several glorious years.
This week two of the most important games of that era – Tekken and Wipeout – are both, by some coincidence, making returns. Tekken 7 is the latest instalment in the long-running fighting game series, while Wipeout Omega Collection is a compilation of WipEout HD, WipEout HD Fury and WipEout 2048. These new releases both modernise their respective brands while also harking back to those days, 20 years ago, when they helped revolutionise the identity of gaming. They also remind us how much the role of games has changed in culture in the last two decades.
Back then, Sony was looking for a new way to sell its comparatively expensive PlayStation console, and identified a burgeoning market for games: twenty-somethings. Led by Sony Europe’s London-based marketing team, the company started taking commercial interest in the growing dance music scene, especially the arrival of super clubs like Ministry of Sound. Working with MoS managing director Mark Rodol, PlayStation UK marketing whiz Geoff Glendenning managed to get a PlayStation room set up in the club, giving exhausted dancers the chance to catch their breath playing the key titles of the era. The obvious choice was racing game Wipeout.
Inspired partly by the Nintendo classic F-Zero and partly by overlooked Amiga title Powerdrome, this futuristic hover-ship racer from Liverpool studio Psygnosis was designed to showcase the fast 3D visuals of the platform. But lead designer Nick Burcombe was also a clubber himself, and saw the potential of a gaming/music crossover. “People who go clubbing are always looking for new forms of interactive entertainment,” he told Edge at the time. So Psygnosis and owner Sony tied up a range of important deals, bringing in visual icons from on-trend design agency designers Republic, and licensing music for the soundtrack from Orbital, Leftfield and Chemical Brothers – three of the biggest dance acts of the period. In this way, the game became an extension of the clubbing experience, bringing the beats and the visuals of the club to the living room.
Tekken, meanwhile, took the fighting game experience that a lot of twenty-somethings remembered from playing Street Fighter 2 as teenagers, and brought it wildly up to date. Featuring slick 3D visuals, a range of interesting characters and an intuitive new control system that mapped each of the PlayStation controller buttons to a specific limb, the game made competitive two-player combat look and sound inviting. And by eschewing the supernatural fireball blasts of Capcom’s classic in favour of more realistic grounded combat, the game also felt more mature, more physical. In Tekken, punches, kicks and specials had real impact, tapping into the popularity of flashy violent action movies from Tony Scott, John Woo, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Tekken also exploited and explored the dance music scene, with Japanese label JVC commissioning a range of jungle and DB artists to remix the game’s soundtrack for album and 12-inch releases.
Working at Edge, the connection between these games, music and clubbing felt utterly intrinsic. PlayStation sponsored The Face magazine’s clubbing guide. When legendary Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi visited the UKour editor took him out and didn’t return to the office for several days. Stories about blissed out clubbers in gaming rooms and at festival gaming enclosures were the talk of work. But for many people the clubbing experience was something they lived vicariously: through dance music albums, through movies like Trainspotting, Go and Human Traffic – and through Friday and Saturday nights playing Wipeout on full blast on their new widescreen televisions.
It’s hugely nostalgic to see them back, and interesting to see that they still have plenty to offer. Tekken 7 is a faithful rendition of the series, but adds a few new tricks to its combat mechanic to stay up to date. Wipeout Omega is ostensibly a retro collection, but its updated, fast-paced 60-frames-per-second visuals and remixed soundtrack provide a modern day approximation of that initial experience. As an exercise in mid-1990s reminiscence it’s more Trainspotting: Remastered than Trainspotting 2, but that’s fine to those of us who were there first time.
Wipeout and Tekken helped invent – or at least popularise – the concept of post-pub gaming; the idea that groups of young adults could go back to their shared hovels after a night out and blast away until dawn. It was a lived experience back then; it felt as all-encompassing to me as Britpop did to others. You played games, listened to the Chemical Brothers, went to festivals where video DJs mixed game visuals and soundtracks, and you saw it all reflected in movies and TV.
If you are going to talk about what it was like being young, free and irresponsible in mid-1990s Britain, you can’t really do it without acknowledging these games. The new Tekken and Wipeout titles arrive into a culture where video game aesthetics have somewhat sublimated into other media and artforms. Their simultaneous return – in this very different era – feels telling, almost cruel.
The clubs are being shut down, the festivals are now an elitist battleground for mainstream brands, and Triple A games have, to some extent, quietly taken their place alongside mainstream movies and music. The specific subculture that Wipeout spoke to is a memory now, and I’m so old I’ve forgotten a lot of the Tekken moves I’d try and paste my flatmates with.
Yes, there are better games now, and probably better things to do with your Friday nights. But a part of me will always be connected to that time, when games, music, leisure and culture merged into one, and it seemed we could just keep dancing and playing forever – and it’s good to remember it.