Games

1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die (If You Want)

Conrad B. Hart of Flashback (U.S. Gold, 1992)

What other classic games besides Final Fantasy VII (I know!) have I never played? Let's find out. As it turns out, most of them.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. At the time I was in an MFA program and had to do a lot of reading, but I was allowed to choose the books myself as long as they were of a certain level of quality. I spent a couple days going through the entire 1001 book catalog, skimming and sometimes reading all of the small, three to five paragraph analyses of each book. I came up with a list of about 75 novels that really sounded exciting to me and had generally great results. I read things that I'd never heard of and learned the basics about a whole lot of books that I'll probably never read. Now that I'm blogging about video games all the time, this seemed like the perfect companion piece for me. What other classic games besides Final Fantasy VII (I know!) have I never played? Let's find out.

As it turns out, most of them. Like the 1001 Books book, 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is arranged chronologically by release date, which I think is absolutley the right choice. It lets the book serve as a fascinating history of the industry, showing how games have developed and improved over the last four decades. At 39, I've been playing games for pretty much the entire period covered in the book, and I was surprised how many of those early games that I'd played. In the end, though, I only played 468 out of the 1001 on display here. The kind of scary thing was that (unlike with the books) I'd mostly heard of all these games, even if I'd never played them. Flipping through them is a wondrous trip down memory lane, and as the book proceeds, so too does the vividness of the memories. Part of that is because so many of the 1001 potential reminiscences aren't really that old at all.

Over 500 of the book's weighty 960 are given over to games that have come out since 2000. That makes a certain kind of sense of course -- between two console generations, the rise of indie games on PC, and the ever growing industry as a whole, the last decade was pretty breathtaking. But beyond that basic trend, any list like this gets skewed the closer that you get to the time that it was written. I remember years ago when A&E (back when they did things like this) did a list of the Top 100 Most Influential people of the world. It had a lot of good choices, but also some stunningly myopic ones, like Princess Diana but not Louis XIV. One of them ruled France for over six decades and helped shape the modern world. The other was nice and all, but come on . . . I feel the same way about 1001 Video Games. I would submit, for example, that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone next year telling you that playing Army of Two: The 40th Day is something that you must do before you die, or even at all. The book's own write up says that, "If you're in a video store and find yourself considering renting Tango & Cash again, put down the movie and pick this up." Certainly sounds like a must-play to me.

But that's quibbling, I admit. Most of the choices seem great to me, and I like that the authors include a lot of smaller, experimental games and some flawed but important titles as well. From that point of view, it works well as a companion to its cousin volume on books: a reader can page through it, looking for something to do before they die. That of course does bring up the big problem -- with a few exceptions, I can have almost all 1001 books delivered to my iPad or my doorstep. Playing many of these games requires specific hardware or some sort of emulator. The options for playing games get better every day, but there are still big gaps in my gaming life from say the Dreamcast/Playstation 1 era that I don't see myself filling anytime soon, even if I wanted to.

1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die works best as a way to stimulate dusty neurons and remind us of those heady gaming days of yore. I'd totally forgotten about 1992's Flashback, which I played in 1993 when I was supposed to be working on my Master's degree in Ancient History. I distinctly remember hiding in my dorm, heater turned to max against my first Ohio winter (it got down to -22!) and just getting lost in Flashback's strange gameplay and fascinating story. Until I saw it on page 221, I couldn't even remember its name. I don't know that I'll be creating a lot of new memories based on the write ups in this book, but for me, there's a lot of pleasure to be derived from reliving the old ones.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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