Classics and cash-ins: the unsung brilliance of video game compilations | Games
Games News

Classics and cash-ins: the unsung brilliance of video game compilations | Games

It’s been a busy month for nostalgic video game compilations. Sonic Origins collects the first four Sonic the Hedgehog titles, the Capcom Fighting Collection brings together various titles from the Darkstalkers and Street Fighter ranges as well as a couple of rarities, and Pac-Man Museum + gathers an astonishing 14 Pac-Man games from the past 40 years. Cynics may suggest we live in an age of endless nostalgia and brand regurgitation, but compilations have always been a staple of the video game industry. I know, because I’ve bought most of them.

Back in the home computer era of the 1980s, game compilations were a common way of scraping just a little more revenue from titles that had slipped from the software charts. Four or five releases would be crammed on to two tapes and distributed in large, twin-cassette boxes with exciting names such as Solid Gold, Heatwave and Mega-Hot. The legendary Manchester-based publisher Ocean was an absolute master at these, creating themed compilations, with lively and exciting packaging resembling the action movie video covers of the era. I had Live Ammo, which contained the excellent second world war strategy adventure Great Escape as well as scrolling shooters Green Beret and Rambo. Meanwhile, Magnificent Seven boasted the classics Wizball and Head Over Heels as well as the not-so-classic tie-in with Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 Cobra movie. But that was the thing with these collections: you accepted there would be a couple of stinkers in there, and it was fun to discover terrible B-games amid the gold.

Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors in the Capcom Fighting Collection.
Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors in the Capcom Fighting Collection. Photograph: Capcom

In an era before the internet, it was also harder to know whether a new game was any good, and not everyone could afford a magazine subscription – so game compilations took on a vital curatorial role. Compilations such as They Sold a Million and the Zzap! 64 Sizzler Collection provided a way to ensure you got quality games to play, even if you’d never seen them before. For me, a school kid with 50p a week pocket money and a high quality-control bar, they were a revelation.

But this was also the era of exploitation and chicanery in the games business, which was still in its infancy. If you were a young gamer in the early 1980s, who read magazines or comics, you would have seen the infamous advert for the mail order only compilation Cascade Cassette 50, a collection of games mostly written in BASIC and never commercially available elsewhere. Originally programmed by Cascade’s founder Guy Wilhelmy, they were the sorts of games you’d usually type into the computer yourself from magazine listings or early programming books. But Wilhelmy’s excellent print adverts promised a spectacular collection of gaming treasures, and offered a free Timex digital watch to purchasers. The compilation sold hundreds of thousands of copies across multiple computers, and when Wilhelmy found he didn’t have time to program them all, he put ads in local papers offering a tenner for new games.

There was also the similarly notorious Don’t Buy This compilation from Firebird, a budget collection of the five worst games submitted to the publisher. It was launched almost as a joke on 1 April 1985, and went on to commercial success. The publisher doubled down on the fun, releasing the copyright so anyone could copy it and sending out stickers to anyone who wrote in to complain.

In the 1990s, with the arrival of the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn, things got a bit more serious. The increased storage space offered by CD-Roms and advances in emulation coding led to a new era of serious compilations functioning almost like academic archives of treasured artworks. The Namco Museum series for the PlayStation matched beautiful packaging and presentation with genuine arcade classics such as Pac-Man, Galaga and Pole Position, as well as a wealth of extra features including digitised copies of the original advertising flyers and cabinet art photos.

Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade on Xbox 360.
Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade on Xbox 360. Photograph: Namco

Lots of veteran Japanese developers devised their own versions – the Sega Ages Memorial Selection, Konami Antiques, Capcom Generation – all lovingly transferred and laden with extras. Analogous to lavish special edition music CDs or director’s cut DVDs, these compilations were a recognition that the gaming audience was maturing and becoming discerning about their collections. Fans were seeing games not just as momentary time-wasters, but as cultural artefacts.

This was also the era in which we started to see compilations of Japanese titles that never made it to the west in their original formats. My favourite example was Bishi Bashi Special, a PlayStation collection of Konami’s hilarious Bishi Bashi arcade titles, which featured a huge range of bizarre mini-games.

In the 2000s, Nintendo indulged the new mainstream audiences attracted to its Game Boy and DS handheld consoles with a range of compilations, based on comforting, recognisable experiences. The Nintendo DS Classic Games collection included everything from chess, backgammon and draughts to poker, while the Wii’s most successful titles were often mini-game compilations – Wii Sports, Mario Party, Carnival Games – designed to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible.

Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 and PS3 provided a lot more computing power, and therefore a wider range of emulated and updated titles. The market moved on from compilations of old arcade games to classic 8- and 16bit console titles. The brilliant Mega Drive Mega collections and SNK’s Neo Geo Battle assortments were rich with nostalgic delights from the recent past, providing instant libraries of retro games. We also started to see high definition remasters of near contemporary hits: the luscious Devil May Cry HD and Metal Gear Solid HD collections, the absolutely essential Ico and Shadow of the Colossus release, the ridiculously good value Orange Box games had become like favourite albums and movies, updated and released for each new generation.

Metal Gear Solid HD Collection trailer

My best days as a young gamer were when I went to WH Smith or Debenhams in Stockport town centre and found a Commodore 64 compilation on sale, and I’d get a few acclaimed games (and a couple of interesting stinkers) for two or three pounds. I’d be excited all the way home on the bus. Whether the games were good or bad or weird, it didn’t matter: my weekend was sorted.

I still love compilations, even in this era of MAME mini-consoles. I like to see games packaged and presented together, I like to think about the curation process; I like to skip between each game, spotting similarities and diversions, and seeing how ideas evolved. In this era of mass instant availability, aggregation is really valuable. A video game compilation is like a good display in a bookstore: titles you barely know, together with ones you’ve perhaps always loved and want to experience again, put together in a pleasing way.