For over a decade I had a very well-loved folder on my computer. The folder had been created in the dark years before Steam, and it was a little container of magic. It had been passed back and forth between friends, each taking a file or two for their own collection or adding something new. It was simply labeled ‘HL’, and it contained some of the best memories of my early gaming days.
Despite its clunkiness and slow pacing in comparison to more-polished contemporary titles, even the simplest moments of Half-Life (Valve Corporation, 1998) were compelling to my 11-year-old self. I remember opening the multiplayer level ‘Bounce’ and spending hours exploring, trying to jump across gaps, and messing with the many weapons the game had to offer. This is to say nothing of the single player, which was the most engaging (and spooky!) first-person experience that I had been exposed to at that age. I didn’t have the courage to get very far, stopping at ‘Office Complex’, but the chills I got when the text “Unforeseen Consequences” flashed onto my screen told me this game was something special.
The lasting success of Half-Life lies with its support for third-party modding, with the map editor Worldcraft (later Hammer) being bundled with the initial release. This wasn’t some toned-down, prefab-only, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2-styled ‘level maker’, but a fully-fledged production tool that could be used to create content equalling the quality and complexity seen in the official game. Accessible code meant that game logic could be easily altered, and simple Explorer-based asset management made simple mod-making available to anybody who could copy and paste. They were ideal additions to our adolescent game collections on account of the fact that they were free, they showed incredible variety, and they were almost guaranteed to run on any computer that could handle the base game. Below are three of my all-time favorites.
Imagine an adrenaline-filled death-match in an arena with alien-membrane launch pads, perilous drops, and unpredictable adversaries. Now imagine that almost none of your weapons use regular ammunition, but instead shoot out Yodas. Yodas who walk, talk, groan, spout philosophy, and try to bite you and/or explode. Even the default melee weapon is replaced. Instead of a crowbar, you hold a Yoda by the legs and use his face to beat your enemies to death.
Still a better pastime than sitting in a swamp down on Dagobah.
The novelty of all this took a surprisingly long time to wear off. There’s something eerily fascinating about running from a friend’s Yoda-looking rocket that’s yelling at you with a Yoda-sounding voice. There’s an addictive terror in being chased by a tiny little Yoda that tries to befriend you before exploding in your face.
This mod gave me my first experience in basic modding - simple file replacement. I’d open the mod folder in Explorer, search until I found the model that I wanted to swap out - the basic Yoda rocket, for instance - then copy the replacement model into that folder. Delete the Yoda rocket model, rename my new model to the same name as the Yoda rocket, and voila! The next time the mod launched, the rocket launcher would no longer shoot Yoda, but a Pikachu, or a big banana, or whatever. It was super basic, but it was a great first step in understanding how file systems worked, how assets were organised, and what the potential was for modifying existing content with a goal in mind.
This is one of those mods designed for 12-year-olds. Apparently taking inspiration from Counterstrike, Monkeystrike is a team game where players run around jungle maps and shoot one another - as monkeys. This isn't a poop-flinging contest, though. You've got shotguns that fire grapefruit, machine guns that shoot bits of strawberry, and a launcher that shoots out explosive coconuts.
As goofy as this sounds, it's very well designed. It's clear a lot of thought has gone into the theming, particularly with the weapons, and there's even some humorous logic behind the function of these. Look at the melonpip gatling gun - crank the handle to extract pips from the whole-melon magazine and shoot them at baddies.
This appreciation of design is all hindsight, though. The appeal when we were young wasn't solid branding or whether the designs showed form following function. It was the inappropriate stuff, like the TNT Cat. With similarities to the Sheep from Worms as well as Half-Life's snark weapon (and likely borrowing code from the latter), the TNT cat was literally a cat. You aimed it in the direction you wanted to send it, clicked the mouse button to put a stick of TNT up its butt hole, and off it ran. A few seconds later, boom!
The Big Banana, a melee weapon, was a favorite, too. I don't think I need to explain why.
Earth’s Special Forces
Dragonball Z was one of those shows that begged for a decent video game adaptation. My first experience of a DBZ game (Legacy of Goku (2002) on the GBA) was extremely lacking. A 2D environment couldn't offer the dynamic, flight-heavy, melee-and-ranged gameplay that the source material demanded. Budokai (2002) for the PS2 came close, but was held back by its reliance on being a pure fighter. Earth’s Special Forces, however, gave us the gameplay we wanted - and more.
You could pick from a variety of DBZ characters, both goodies and baddies. Most shared common attacks, and all had their own specific special moves, from destructo discs to kamehameha to Buu’s turn-people-into-candy move.
The magic of this mod came through the free roaming gameplay in a 3D space. Although restricted in scale by the max size of GoldSRC maps, the levels gave us the opportunity to run and fly around the environment, to hide behind hills and outcrops, to launch attacks from any angle, unexpectedly. The abandonment of the typical shared-screen fighter-style DBZ format (as seen in Budokai) resulted in much more dynamic combat that allowed us to experience a larger variety of experiences similar to those seen in the show, and not just the most intense moments of combat.
The mod is still being updated, and it's still using Half-Life's GoldSRC engine as a base - while managing to look absolutely stunning. It still has the same ruthless learning curve for beginners, so prepare to get destroyed.
Half-Life and the GoldSRC engine have had an undeniable impact on gaming, launching generations of players and modders into their respective hobbies and careers. My old Half-Life folder is long gone, probably lost in a format. The great thing about it being 2017 though is that this collection of mods - Scientist Hunt, The Specialists, Science and Industry, Buzzy Bots, International Online Soccer, Natural Selection - are all available online, for free.