Recently, I went to James' Playstation 2 party. I got there only a few minutes late, thus beating everybody except James and Dave, who pretty much had to show up early on the grounds that he lived there. I had arrived so early, in fact, that I had beaten the Playstation 2 there.

This was to be my sole victory for the night.

James and Dave had anticipated the possible late arrival of the PS2, and had therefore already set up a Playstation 1. By comparison with the PS2, the PS1 is primitive and low tech, and its primitive low tech graphics are of a level that a mere twenty years ago would have caused Ray Harryhausen to turn green and explode with envy (an effect which he would doubtless have achieved in a somewhat stilted and jerky manner).

The PS1 in question is playing a game called Driver. In Driver, you drive around a city, trying to achieve all your mission objectives while not letting any cop cars actually see you breaking the law. Quite what those mission objectives might be, I never discover; because the game has been set up, by unanimous vote of people who have some inkling of an idea as to what is going on, in "survival mode". In survival mode, you start with your car in the middle of a park, which means that you're breaking the law right away, with half a dozen cop cars right behind you.

The cops' basic law-enforcement strategy involves ramming your car until it ceases to function. They then presumably leap out of their cars, point heavy weaponry at you and shout things like "Freeze, perp!", but the game does not go into such details.

I watch James and Dave zooming around San Fransisco for a few minutes, trying to reach China Town. They explain that park benches and trees are indestructible and immovable, so ramming them was generally a bad idea. Trash cans, pedestrians and miscellaneous signage, on the other hand, are fair game. Due to a shortcoming in the cop AI, they tend to fail to ram you when you are driving on the sidewalk, so that's where James and Dave tend to drive.

And then it is my turn. James hands me a controller, and points out some buttons. There is a go faster button, which he suggests that I simply keep pressed down from slightly before the start of the game until slightly after the end; a go left button; and a go right button. There are also numerous other buttons and sticks, used for things like brakes, rear vision, reverse gear, and probably de-mister, hazard lights, windscreen wipers, etc.; but these are far beyond my level of competence.

I die in 7.36 seconds, which is a new record quickest death ever.

Guy shows up. James explains my feat, and Guy expresses pique that I have beaten his quickest death time, and he'd been trying to die quickly. We hand the controller around a few more times; James, Dave and Guy zooming all over San Fransisco, and me extending my best time out to about 15 seconds.

Then Steve arrives. Steve is something of a key feature of the PS2 party, because it is he that is bringing the PS2. The PS2 is black, with black ribbing on its front, which serves to conceal the black CD tray, the black reset/power button and the black CD open/close button. I think it somewhat odd that the manufacturer would give such an expensive piece of equipment an appearance which would make it stand out not at all from your TV, VCR, stereo, DVD player, etc.; until I realise that the manufacturer in question was Sony. They make all those other blackgoods too, so what do they care?

Steve fires up Tekken Tag. The graphics quality is pretty much indistinguishable from the purpose-built several thousand dollar arcade box of the same name; except that the intro sequence on the PS2 version is better. At some points, I'm not even sure if I am looking at images generated by a computer, or simply at video recorded from a real camera.

The "twist" that makes Tekken Tag different from every other fighting game on the market is that you have two characters instead of just one, and when the first one has been beaten almost into unconciousness, you can "tag" him out and have your other character leap in in his place.


There are thirtysome characters, all of which have names, special attacks, etc. The names are things like Paul, Reuk, Mike, BillyJoeBob, Demon, etc.; but the people who actually have some understanding of the game (i.e. everybody in the room except me) call them things like Kick Boy, Son Of Kick Boy, Useless, etc. A gaming procedure is used in which everybody in the room sits in a semicircle around the TV, and two controllers are passed around. If you lose your match, you pass your controller on to the next person; if you win, you keep it.

Eventually, inevitably, a controller eventually reaches me.

Several people coach me through character selection, during which I press all the wrong buttons, but eventually manage to successfully select Kick Boy and Dance Boy.

The reason that I have been instructed to select these characters is that they are ideal for button-mashing. The PS2 controller has about a dozen buttons. Four of these are used to move up/down/left/right, and four more are used to attack. There are two punch buttons and two kick buttons. If you have a clue, you can make intelligent decisions, press these buttons in a meaningful fashion, and actually control your character into doing the things you want. If you're me, however, you just mash the four movement buttons and two kick buttons at random, and your character does a bunch of stuff, some of which damages the other guy's character.

Tekken Tag has a sort of "skill valley" for intermediate skill players, which I'm pretty sure is deliberately designed in by the game's creators. Clueless players like me can button-mash; clueful players can actually control their character; but players in between, who are trying to learn how to control the character, are at a disadvantage. Their character is not performing the wild gyrations of a button masher, nor the intelligent moves of the clueful player; and so they get beaten by both. This means that even though I am definitely the least clueful player in the room, possibly by an order of magnitude, I am still able to win the occasional round against a player who is trying to climb out of this "skill valley".

As various players exercise various different characters, I notice a certain lack of realism. For example, one of the characters has a sword; quite a nasty one, too. In my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience, when one party to a fight has a sword, and the other party has fists and feet, the fist-and-footed party tends to lose in fairly short order. This is, after all, the reason that swords have been popular in combat for most of the past several thousand years. However, in Tekken, the character seems to keep said sword parked next to his head almost all the time; the primary thing he accomplishes by carrying it is that he has one less hand to punch with.

The same goes for the demon. When one participant in a hand-to-hand flight can fly, cast purple squiggly beam weapons from his eyes, and pass straight through his opponent, you'd think it would be a bit one-sided. But if the opponent actually has some skill, it more isn't.

Some of the special moves are a bit suss, too. I'm not talking about the ones that play fast and free with boring things like gravity; these sort of fit the style of the game. I'm talking about the ones where one character quite clearly breaks another's arm/leg/neck, and the second character loses about 20% health, and then springs right back up and keeps fighting.

And you'd think that out of 34 characters, with swords, eye beams, fiery breath, robot hands, etc., at least one of them would have thought to bring, say, a semi-automatic pistol.

After a while, we switch to Micro Machines, the attraction of which is that it supports up eight players. All of the Playstation cognoscenti have brought their controllers from home, and soon the floor is littered with controllers, adaptor boxes, and cables.

Micro Machines is a racing car game. The twist here is that the cars are tiny, and the race courses are built to normal size. So we race around desks, dodging pens, pencils, holepunches, driving under books and over bridges made of rulers; we race around beach scenes dodging seaweed and shells, and over and under sandcastles; we race around pool tables; we race across goldfish ponds (for which our tiny cars are replaced by tiny boats).

Again, for this game, there is a go left, go right, and a go fast button. Also again, there are a bunch of other buttons whose existence I ignore.

Game play goes thusly: we start in a group of eight cars. (My car is the red and white one. This makes it rather difficult to pick from the white and red one, which means that fairly often I wind up trying to drive the wrong car, which doesn't work very well.) We all start, and drive off following the race course. Any car which gets too far back from the lead or too far away from the course gets vanished. When there's only one car left, that car scores some points, and since nobody can remember all eight cars' colours, everyone says, "Who was that? Who just won?". Once a player has scored several times, he wins the race, and we go on to the next race.

In practice, about four seconds into the race, half the cars have already vanished, having failed to accelerate properly at the start, or failed to take the first turn. Usually I'm one of those first four. The only thing that prevents me from always being listed dead last is that the game doesn't distinguish between fourth through eighth place.

After a while, people from outside the circle of eight players start to trade in; and I successfully give up my controller to some poor schmuck. A few races later, he's begging for someone to take his spot, but I'm well away.

The party wraps, as all parties eventually do, and I leave, only marginally more skilled at playing console games than I was when I arrived; but perhaps a little wiser.