When I was growing up, I was pretty lucky that I didn’t suffer too many gaming disasters. Money was tight and games were expensive, so using Zzap!64 as my bible, I carefully researched my gaming purchases to make sure I didn’t buy a dud. Occasionally, though, one slipped through the net: Outrun was one (bought based on my love of the arcade game, before I saw the Zzap! review), NATO Commander was another.
NATO Commander was an early computerised wargame. Playing as either the Warsaw Pact/Eastern Bloc countries or the Western European NATO allies, you had to marshal your forces, deploying them to ensure victory for your side. Each side had different types and numbers of forces, whilst other factors (such as terrain or the strength of the opposing army) influenced their effectiveness.
From the moment I opened up the box and loaded the cassette, I hated it. The gameplay and pace were (relatively speaking) slow and each move had to be carefully considered, weighing up the likely implications for your forces, rather than just charging in there, all guns blazing. After just a couple of games (in which whatever side I was controlling lost badly), it was consigned to the shelf, never to be retrieved until the day I sold my C64.
In fairness, NATO Commander wasn’t a bad game in its own right (it typically scored 3/5 or 7/10 in the reviews of the time). It’s just that it was the wrong game for me. I’m not the most patient person and text/graphic adventures aside, I prefer faster paced games, with shoot ‘em ups and driving games my favourite genres. NATO Commander was totally different to anything else I owned or played and the more considered style of gameplay was not for me.
To make matters worse, there were a couple of other things that really rubbed my nose in it. First of all (for no obvious reason), NATO Commander was more expensive than other games of the time (from memory, the standard price for a game at that point was £8.95, NATO Commander retailed at £10.95). Secondly, my C64 gaming setup involved a really crappy, ancient black and white TV (it was a rare treat when I was allowed to bring it into the lounge and put it on the big colour TV!). This had very dodgy brightness and contrast controls which made distinguishing between the different units (or even the different sides) almost impossible, rendering an already frustrating game (in my eyes) even more inaccessible.
The worst thing of all, though, is that I only have my own stupidity to blame. Let me explain: I was never one of the cool kids at school and always struggled to make friends. I had a reasonable number of acquaintances (mostly fellow C64 owners with whom I used to swap games), but few people I would call real friends. One day, some of the cool kids were talking about NATO Commander and how they wanted to play it. Desperate to ingratiate myself (and because I already had a reputation of being able to acquire games), I blurted out “Oh, I’ve got that”, effectively committing myself to letting them have it.
I asked around all my contacts, but no-one had it, leaving me with two choices. I could either ‘fess up and admit I didn’t have the game (thus losing face and risking being ostracized even further) or I could go out and buy a copy. And, like an idiot, guess which one I did. To make matters worse, in return for lending them the game, I got a copy of the rubbish Danger Mouse, so I couldn’t even console myself with the fact that I’d got a good game from the transaction.
To this day NATO Commander remains the biggest single mistake in my long gaming career, and sat on my shelf for years as a shameful reminder of my stupidity. Even now as a forty-something adult, I still feel a sense of shame that I was manipulated so easily and wasted so much of my hard-earned pocket money on something I never wanted.
I learned my lesson. From that point on, I never bought another game unless a) I wanted it and b) Zzap!64 (and to a lesser extent Commodore User) said it was worth buying. I also learned that I was never going to be in with the cool kids and, if that’s how they treated people, realised that I didn’t actually want to be part of their group anyway. Valuable life lessons indeed!