My inner child loves No Man’s Sky – but do I?

God knows I’ve put the hours in, but am I actually enjoying playing No Man’s Sky, or is it all a grip of nostalgia?

Over the course of my time with No Man’s Sky on the PS4, I’ve broken a fair few barriers. Not only am I referring to breaking the speed of light in order to warp between its seemingly infinite number of star systems, but also because I broke my Golden Rule of Outlandish Purchase Decisions: no games above £40.

So when I saw a brand new copy of No Man’s Sky on the shelves for just £25 today, I had pause to consider whether I was still getting any value out of my near-twice-the-price purchase – or even if I ever had.

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In the run-up to its release last August, the No Man’s Sky hype was overwhelming. I’ve never been one to let myself get sucked into that sort of thing – it’s why I’m always so behind on the latest and greatest hits of pop culture – but the game had to really be something special to meet those expectations. And when it turned out in the eyes of so many to be so much less than stellar, the hype turned swiftly into massive backlash aimed squarely at the poor sods at Hello Games.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first fired the game up myself, but suffice it to say I wasn’t underwhelmed…or overwhelmed even…merely…whelmed? With my hitherto unrealised need to have an update of Frontier: Elite II in my life, I was happy enough to play Pioneer here and there.

Sure, No Man’s Sky remains stunning to look at – I’m a sucker for an alien landscape – but outside of the artefact discovery and the annoying grinning creatures greeting me at every space station, there just wasn’t a whole lot to do besides the same old, same old.

So just as Hello Games realised they needed to put a hell of a lot more game into their game, I abandoned No Man’s Sky in favour of a second playthrough of Fallout 4.

November saw the release of NMS’ Foundation Update, with new modes of gameplay and just a little bit more to do during your visits to the stars beyond. I’ve only just made my way onto this update, and I think I’ve made a bit of an unsettling discovery.

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After loading an old save file and debating whether or not to carry on in search of the Atlas Stones which I’d been gifted by some weird dome thing, I decided to start afresh – I needed to get to grips with the controls again, and wondered if there was anything I’d missed the first time.

I decided to start from scratch and try a different path – that of the two rebel explorers, Nada and Polo. This seems to be going well enough – and could have even started to lead somewhere but for the fact that it’s already feeling a bit repetitive.

So as I landed on yet another, albeit beautiful, life-filled planet and set off mining some Iron to boost my Pulse Drive and Deflector Shields, I realised that I don’t think I’m actually enjoying this much. But a small part of me would not admit it – my curious, sci-fi obsessed inner child.

It’s clear to me (and hopefully to even the most frothy-mouthed of its critics) that Hello Games has put together something very special from a design perspective. As the wide-eyed kid who couldn’t control his ship properly in Frontier, and the misty-eyed twentysomething reliving those same memories in Pioneer so many years later, I can honestly say that what I feel for No Man’s Sky now is something approaching a realisation of those childhood space-age fantasies.

Just as I used to ‘book’ my wrestling figures by filling notepads with fight cards, attendance figures and unimaginative, all-too-regular tournament brackets, I wanted my Action Force figures to visit strange new plants, record data on the atmosphere and encounter the planet’s thriving flora and fauna. My lack of knowledge when it came to the ‘science’ part of ‘science fiction’ didn’t stop me from imagining these epic missions into the depths of outer space – from cautious landing to desperate escape.

In a way, this beautiful but flawed game is everything my ten-year-old self would have killed to play. I can recreate that same feeling of discovery and adventure, and get official statistics to boot, thanks to the game’s recording of player progress. But just as you tend to lose 99% of your childhood passion for ice cream when you’re old enough to have it whenever, I’m no longer enthralled by the idea of giving up so much of my valuable free time to something that just doesn’t grab me the way it once did.

While for the moment I’m happy enough to continue my journey across the stars, in search of long-forgotten extra-terrestrial wisdom and the chance to fetch something or other back to my home base (a good, if not entirely absorbing addition from the Foundation Update, only because it’s a lame version of the tried-and-trite ‘fetch quests’ that RPGers have quite rightly had their fill of), I feel the time will soon come to end my latest run with No Man’s Sky. I’m rather fearful that my nostalgia for all things space travel will turn ugly when it dawns on me that there’s not a whole lot to actually keep me here, as my more grown-up sensibility for storytelling starts to take me away from the muddling, aimless wander among the stars.

A Vital Video Game promo VHS

Gamesmaster magazine gave a VHS tape away in 1997 which changed my life. Here’s how.

You’re gonna have to work with me on this one, readers, because this post will be the result of one of those long and weird trains of thought that a man can only get in his life when he’s hungover and suffering from a mild case of the sniffles that’s still serious enough to make the mind swim a bit.

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Thank you, Patrick.

It all started on Friday night when, along with members of the Geekocracy crew, I Boozed My Own Adventure. It was a lot of fun, and not only did I create some fond geeky memories while treasuring those of yesteryear, but I also polished off a rather large quantity of a popular herb-based liquor whose name sounds like the lead singer from the Rolling Stones.

Naturally it follows that on Saturday morning, I felt like I’d been triple-powerbombed through a table by Ambrose, Rollins and Reigns. Ouch. Cautious not to let the raging headache catch on too strongly, I flicked on the TV and enjoyed the antics of this year’s Winter Olympics, where people competed to skate really fast in a circle and do ridiculous downhill snowboard jumps.

My mind wandered to when I’d been reading about the Winter Olympics as part of research at work this week, and remembered that the 1998 event had been held in Nagano, Japan.

What an astonishing feat of recall, you may think, for a bloke whose skull is rebelling against itself like the members of The Shield. I wondered how I came to know this particular fact when the only other thing I knew about the games was that a Jamaican bobsled team competed there once.

And then I remembered a VHS I had as a kid, which came free with a copy of Gamesmaster magazine which – oh god – looked ahead to the release of the first wave of Sony Playstation games, including an official tie-in game for the…oh god…1998 Nagano Games.

So I had a look online, and here it is – and please, I urge you to take half an hour to watch these videos because, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, they are so much fun to watch today. Full of all the fantastic and awe-inspiring things that made me play games in the first place; the most realistic portrayals of escapism I’d ever seen at the age of…oh god, twelve.

Tomb Raider, Wipeout 2097, Goldeneye! They’re all here in this trilogy of videos showcasing the major manufacturers and third parties of that period. I used to watch this video every week as a kid – we didn’t have stupid money to spend on consoles at that time – and I still remember some of the sequences off by heart. The line in Lylat Wars – “my Emperor, I’ve faaaailed you!” – and that music from Goldeneye!

 

At the age of 12, just as I am now even, I was blown away by how trippy that first segment is from Sony; although again that could just be the hangover/cold. There’s a very brief shot in there of a young-looking character wearing armour, just turning their head – I remember that. It looks like it could be from FFVII but I can’t be sure. The music and moving images together do such a good job of inspiring viewers; this was the real deal…

 

…sadly the same can’t be said for Ubisoft here, whose choice of sub-Robert Miles genre music does a great job of aging it by…well, sixteen years. I actually like Robert Miles but this is a poor job. And the games don’t come off too well in the time that’s passed either; if it weren’t for Rayman would there have even been a Ubisoft for all these years?

The N64 section is especially great just because it toes the line between ‘we’re Nintendo, we’re timeless’ and ‘yeah, but we’re cool as well’. The music takes an also slightly dated shift, with some Propellerheads-type rock/dance hybrid, but I’ll let them off because it still manages to look very appealing, and because I have some big love for that console.

 

Konami is up next, and that’s who made the Nagano game! Whenever I see a real-life ski jump event, this is the first image that will enter my head for the rest of my life. Nice choice of music too – ‘Pearl’s Girl’ by Underworld if I’m not mistaken. And they even make the game of curling look fun, which is an achievement in itself.

And finally on these videos, we have the acclaimed…Acclaim. That was a joke because, well, just take a look at the state of these games! Did you see the ice hockey player being flipped ten feet into the air? Or the way the NFL players all started vibrating after the ball got hiked? Speaking of vibrating, what the living fuck is wrong with Batman’s head?

The music is techno-metal, and not the good kind like Pitchshifter do, it’s just rubbish. The only thing which looked like it was worth a play in their entire section was Riven! Because it’s Riven! Clearly Acclaim knew a guy who knew a guy because almost all these games were licensed titles of comics, or films, or comic films, or sports – which didn’t stop a single one of them from looking utterly crap.

But again, that’s the wonderful gift of hindsight. And a brain that’s been battered by booze and sneezing this weekend. I was so happy to have found these videos because I’m still trying to work out how, in my own way, I got here. And this simple VHS, from all those years ago, given away free with a magazine, was a big part of that.

Now I’m off to bed for about seventeen hours. While I’m there, let me know which games from this tape got you thinking.