Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Plastic Apprentice

Sometimes you have only yourself to blame. It was 1990 and I had decided to treat myself to a games console to take away to university. The choices were simple: Did I spend a little extra and go for a Sega Megadrive or even perhaps wait for a Nintendo Snes, or, should I buy Amstrad’s latest wonder, the GX4000 games console? After all, I’d had many happy gaming years with Amstrad’s home computer the CPC464. Added to which, software big boys of the time such as US Gold and Ocean had pledged to produce games for the GX4000. So, I purchased the Amstrad console, secure in the knowledge that I had bought myself the next big thing in gaming. Oh dear…

There was, in hindsight, a lot about the GX4000 that was very odd. Firstly, there was the name. What did the GX or 4000 stand for? I suspected the seemingly meaningless name was selected to sound ‘futuristic’ by the barrow boys in Amstrad’s marketing department who’d been told to come up with a sci-fi sounding name like R2D2. Then there was the console’s looks. The GX4000 looked like a NES that had been left on for too long and had melted into a curvy puddle. It wasn’t so much ugly as simply trying too hard to look cool - as if it was aware it wore the Amstrad name – consumer electronics equivalent of Poundsaver or Kmart. Worst still were the control pads, which were so cramped that they should have come with a health warning from the British Arthritis Campaign stating that prolonged play would leave you with the hands of an eighty year old.

Looking back there were other warning signs of the GX4000’s impending ignominy. The box came with an unsettling sticker slapped on the side warning you not to turn off the console by removing the power cable - the big red writing hinting that bad things awaited those that ignored it. Not confidence building. I began to suspect my Amstrad console might be a bit delicate on the inside. What it actually was on the inside was revamped version of the 8bit CPC464 computer. Sure there were sprites and an impressive new colour palette, but essentially it was an old machine. Amstrad – never shy about flogging a dead horse – were actually selling the British public the same machine for a third time (the 464, 464 plus and now the GX4000). And just like a Mini Metro with spoilers and a Rover badge on it, the public was not fooled into thinking this was a ‘new’ product. (Except obviously the small percentage of the British public that was comprised of me).

Not that I was wholly to blame. The gaming press of the time were initially quite positive about the new machine. Mean Machines and Amstrad Action – two of the best magazines of the era – both pledged to support the console. There was just the matter of the games… The avalanche of promised titles never materialised. A few expensive cartridges did emerge, but mostly they were old CPC464 games that had been tarted up a bit (some didn’t even bother to do that much). Paying £40 for a game on cartridge that could be bought for £5 on tape didn’t win the GX4000 many friends. Added to which the cartridges came in possibly the ugliest boxes in the known universe. Young children would cry if they caught a glimpse of the ugly grey slabs of plastic with their faded artwork, which for some reason were HUGE (each box was almost the size of an entire Wii console).

Within a few months it was clear the end was already in sight. The GX4000 started to gain a stigma. Going into a shop to buy a game for it was as embarrassing as going to the chemist to buy Durex.

And then came Pang.

Finally here was a GX4000 game to be proud of. You could stroll into your local Dixons and say with pride ‘A copy of Pang please, and whilst you’re at it a packet of ribbed featherlites too ’.

Essentially a conversion of the arcade machine of the same name, Pang was a simple enough concept: you’re under attack from giant red balloons which need to be blasted. The twist in tale is that when you blasted one of the balloons it split in two – so you needed to keep blasting until the balloons split again and reached their smallest unit and could finally be dispatched. If Nena and Patrick McGoohan had children, this game would be their nightmare.

Smooth gameplay, great use of sound and lovely graphical backdrops of far flung locales only helped to seal the deal. It was no wonder Amstrad Action gave it 93%.

And yet it raised an uncomfortable question: why were all the other GX 4000 games so shonky?

Pang wasn’t however a killer app. It’s easy to over-hype old games through the intoxicating effects of nostalgia, but in the cold light of day, Pang was merely a good game on a system that didn’t have many good games. And it certainly wasn’t going to sell consoles the way Mario and Sonic did.

In the videogames business, timing is everything - and the GX4000 was a machine out of time. Had it been released two or three years earlier, Amstrad might have had a chance to crack the console market. Released as it was in 1990 at the fag-end of the 8-Bit era, it just never stood a chance. Within months Alan Sugar pointed a fat finger in the direction of his little games console and said ‘You’re fired’. Soon the software houses dropped all pretence of supporting the machine. Eventually the only ‘new’ software available came from bootlegs produced by the Polish Mafia. And even the Slavic mob soon lost patience with Amstrad’s fading console. The GX4000 slipped quietly into videogame history, with only the fond memory of Pang to ease the pain.


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