Interview with Alex Lieng, UK Sega Saturn champion (1997)

There's Alex with one of the many Twix boxes he won for his victorious run playing Manx TT Super Bike.

Alex Lieng: The 1997 Twix Junior Gamesplayer of the Year in the Sega Saturn category.

As we said in our Video Game Market 3 round-up a few days ago, we had the good fortune of meeting Alex Lieng at the event. In 1997, Alex won the Twix Junior Gamesplayer of the Year competition for his dazzling Manx TT skills, and he was subsequently featured in a couple of issues of Sega Saturn Magazine. We caught up with Alex after the Video Game Market last weekend to chat about his experiences as a Sega video game champion.

SegaMags: When did you first get into video games? What was your first game console?

I got into computer games when i was about 7 or 8 years old. We had moved to a new estate, and one of the neighbours had an Atari 2600 with Keystone Capers. I remember going round there a lot to play the games they had. One day, i woke up to see that same Atari 2600 in our house — one of my sisters had bought it from them. 🙂

SegaMags: Did you have any other Sega consoles, besides the Saturn? Is the Saturn your favourite console?

I do have a few Sega consoles in my collection. I have the Mega Drive, Saturn and Dreamcast. The Saturn is my favourite console of all time. For me, it’s the ultimate games console. Its games are from a time when Sega were on top of their game in the arcades, and Capcom and SNK were at their peak with 2d beat’em-ups. It was a very special time to be a gamer. Back in the mid-90s, to play the best games you just had to have a Saturn. Although the Saturn wasn’t that successful in the UK, the import scene would reward you fantastically if you took the time to find out about it.

The games that made the biggest impression on me as a kid were Virtua Fighter 2 and Daytona USA. To walk into an arcade in the mid-90s and see those two games running was mind-blowing! Those games literally blew everything away when they came out, and to play them at home you had to have the Saturn!

SegaMags: Do you still play current-generation video games, or are you strictly into retro gaming?

I did play quite a bit of Forza Motorsport and Call of Duty in recent times, but i don’t really have that much interest in modern gaming. I find myself playing more retro stuff these days. Most recently, I’ve been playing Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo and Sega Rally (original version) on the PS2 — shaving those all-important tenths-of-seconds off my lap-times (yes, I’m still pounding around the four tracks on that game!). There’s just something about those old games… you turn them on, sit back, and relax. It’s easy on the mind and rewarding. I still don’t think I’ve done that perfect run on Sega Rally, despite playing it for the past 20 years!

SegaMags: What inspired you to enter the tournament in the first place?

I entered the Twix Gamesplayer of the Year because I was reasonably good at Manx TT. It got to a point where i could do the lap required to qualify without actually lifting my finger off the accelerator and without touching the walls. I figured I must be good enough to qualify, so I sent in my lap-time and I was thrilled to have made the cut!

This is where it all started for Alex

The competition entry form that Alex responded to (from Sega Saturn Magazine, issue 23).

SegaMags: Participating in (let alone winning!) a tournament like that must have been a fantastic experience! What are your fondest memories of the experience as a whole? Are there any funny stories you can share with us from the event?

The whole day was pretty amazing. I spent a lot of my teenage years watching GamesMaster and reading a lot of magazines, and suddenly the people who appeared on the show and wrote the reviews in the mags were in front of me presenting the tournament. To me, those guys were like celebrities! It was really scary to be up there in front of all those people. My heart was racing before we even started playing! I especially remember the final race, where me and my opponent were constantly trading places; every time I overtook him, i could hear the crowd cheer and i could hear my sister screaming for me (she was the only person who came to support me on the day)! Luckily, the guy I was racing had a nightmare of a final lap and I managed to bring it to the finishing line. On the final run up to the chequered flag, my legs just turned to jelly and I went all numb. I’m actually feeling more emotional talking about it now than I was on the day!

SegaMags: How much practice did you put in for the event?

I didn’t really put that much practice in, to be honest. Manx TT is one of those games that you can play without ever touching the brake button. As long as you keep to the racing line and choose the right bike, you’re pretty much guaranteed a decent time. The game itself is easy to play.

SegaMags: Did you know which track you were going to be competing on, or was that only revealed on the day? Or was the track changed at each stage of the competition?

We didn’t know which track we were going to race on, it was chosen on the day. I kind of freaked out before the final race, because the organisers chose a track that I hadn’t practised! Luckily, my opponent was in the same boat (I think!).

SegaMags: Did each stage of the competition take the form of a one-off race, or was it a best-of-three?

It was a knockout tournament. If you won your race, you went through to the next round.

The 1996 champ, Robert Doubtfire, was knocked-out in the first round.

The draw for the competition (from Sega Saturn Magazine, issue 27).

SegaMags: You won all three head-to-head matches to become the Twix Junior Gamesplayer of the Year (1997). Can you remember if you found any of those matches particularly tough? Or were they all fairly easy for you?

Looking back, I didn’t find the matches all that difficult. The game has an auto catch-up for the guy in second place, which gives them extra speed (allowing them to catch up). I was wary that it was totally possible for the other guy to slingshot past me on the run up to the finishing line, so it was a case of being in second place at the right time. But my opponents seemed to make mistakes at the wrong times, enabling me to get ahead and stay ahead. I just stuck to the racing line and tried to stay out of trouble, and it seemed to work.

SegaMags: Did you keep in touch with any of the other competitors?

I didn’t stay in contact with anyone at the time. I managed to track down Stuart Morrison (one of my opponents from Games World) on a gaming forum a few years ago, but there was a breakdown in communication and we lost contact. But thanks to Facebook, I’ve been able to restore contact with Stuart — and I also got in touch with Robert Doubtfire (the 1996 Twix Champion in the Saturn category). I met Stuart when we were doing Games World, and it was nice to see him again the following year at the Twix tournament; Stuart was in the PlayStation category, and it was great to see him win it playing Gran Turismo — well done, Stu! 🙂

SegaMags: A year’s supply of Twix chocolate bars is probably a dream come true for many 14 year-olds! Did you get through all of them, or did it put you off them for life?

Oh, those Twix bars — they got rather sickly after about the fifth packet! I ended up giving a lot of them away to friends at school. My mother took the rest and sold them in our shop!! 🙁 It still hurts to this day. (*laughs*)

Just how many bars would constitute a year's supply, anyway?

Could you handle a year’s supply of Twix chocolate bars?

SegaMags: Sega Saturn Magazine reported that you also won £1,000 worth of video games. Did you get to choose which games you received, or were you simply given a pre-defined selection of games?

I didn’t get a choice of the things i wanted. They simply gave me a lot of accessories (a steering wheel, infrared pads, a multi-tap, …etc) and about 30 of the latest games. But still, it was pretty amazing to be given that haul. The organisers still owe me that MPEG video card, because it was missing from the box that was delivered!

SegaMags: Do you still have the MechWarrior II jacket?

Sadly, I don’t have that MechWarrior jacket. It didn’t fit me, so my dad wore it instead and I don’t exactly remember what happened to it. (*laughs*) I still have t-shirts, caps and medals from the day, so they will suffice!

Apparently, Dave Perry was very impressed with his performance!

Alex won this statue during his appearance on Games World!

SegaMags: During the competition, did you get to meet any famous faces from the world of gaming (or even away from the world of gaming)?

During the Twix competition I had the pleasure of meeting Rik Henderson, who was presenting the show. But, most fondly, I met Dave Perry (the guy with the bandana) during my appearance on Games World. Dave was commentating on my Street Fighter Zero 2 battle with Metro (one of their Videators). It was a titanic battle. It went three rounds, and every round was close as hell — whoever got the final hit won the round with no energy to spare. I managed to edge it in the final round using Akuma’s teleport move to evade an attack as the timer ran down. I remember an out-of-breath Dave Perry saying that it was the best bout of Street Fighter he’d ever seen! That memory has stayed with me (it’s as if it only happened yesterday). Sadly, those episodes were never aired. I received a letter saying that the footage was corrupted. I wasn’t invited back, but the funny thing is that Stuart (who i met on those episodes) *was* invited back!

What a pity -- I'd have loved to see that Street Fighter Zero 2 bout!

The letter Alex received from Games World, notifying him that his episode wouldn’t be broadcast.

SegaMags: How did your status as Junior Gamesplayer of the Year go down at school? Did you return to a hero’s welcome?

Hah! I didn’t really get a hero’s welcome when I won it. It wasn’t until I brought the magazine into school a good few months later that they realised “wow he actually won it!”. It isn’t every day you see one of your classmates in a magazine like that. I could tell they were gobsmacked!

SegaMags: In the final issue of Sega Saturn Magazine, you said that you expected to be defeated in the 1998 competition (since the competition-game was going to be World League Soccer ’98, and you were, in your own words, “hopeless at footie games”). Did your prediction come true, or did you end up doing better than you had expected?

I failed miserably defending my title, on a game I hadn’t played until the tournament itself! To this day I’m still pretty hopeless at football games, although I do play Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 (it’s the best one). But when I play my friends at football games I always end up getting battered! I think I’d have stood a better chance if I actually owned the game before the tournament, but my mother wouldn’t buy it for me so that was that! I did manage to get five minutes of practice on the game before the tournament kicked off, but I hadn’t played the game before that.

Alex was knocked out in the first round of the 1998 competition.

Alex didn’t fancy his chances in the 1998 tournament. It turned out that his concerns were justified! (article from Sega Saturn Magazine, issue 37; scan courtesy of Out-of-Print Archive.)

SegaMags: Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about entering a gaming competition?

My advice for tournaments is definitely to get your friends involved. Play against your friends more often, because playing against the computer can only get you so far. Every game has a pattern or a sweet-spot that you can learn and eventually exploit, but playing against a person is far more unpredictable. You learn from each other and push yourselves to higher level. Bruce Lee always said that “rehearsed routines lack the flexibility to adapt”; playing against the computer is a rehearsed routine — you have to adapt when playing against a real opponent. So keep all bases covered, don’t leave anything to chance, and most importantly have fun!

SegaMags: With this being a Sega-related site (and with you being a former Saturn Gamesplayer of the year), we have to ask: what is your favourite Saturn game of all time and why? For a bit of fun: do you have a least-favourite Saturn game?

Sega Rally, no question about it. I’ve only recently been able to fully appreciate just how close the Saturn version is to the arcade version. I knew it was a good port back in the day, but I recently got hold of the PlayStation 2 version and the Saturn version looks almost as good (bar the car graphics). The  tracks and scenery look just as good as the arcade version. I actually prefer how the car handles on the Saturn version, but either way Sega Rally is still the daddy of rally games. It’s so satisfying to chip away at your own lap times (like I’ve been doing for the past 20 years!).

The worst game on the Saturn… you know, I’ve never actually given that any thought! But if I had to chose one, I’d say FIFA 97 because I have a strong dislike for EA Sports (and as for the game… I mean, just look at the state of it!).

SegaMags: Did you read any other Sega magazines (besides Sega Saturn Magazine)?

I read Saturn Power and Saturn+ (there were only a couple of issues released before it disappeared; it wasn’t great, to be honest). I still treasure my copies of Sega Saturn Magazine. That magazine will always be my favourite, and the only other magazine that ever came close was Ultimate Future Games.

SegaMags: And finally, when was the last time you played Manx TT? Would you still be up for taking on any would-be challengers? 😉

The last time I played that game was a few months ago, and I only played it for about five minutes. It was a decent port of the arcade game, but it was never one of those games I couldn’t wait to get home to play. It only had two tracks, and it was never challenging (not on the same level as Sega Rally, which is probably the reason why I feel that way towards Manx TT). Having said that, I would love to see Manx TT appear on Xbox Live so that I can play an arcade-perfect port of it (alongside the arcade-perfect ports of Daytona, Virtua Fighter 2 and Fighting Vipers).

As for anyone wanting a few races on Manx TT: bring it on — I may just start practising again! (*laughs*)

Well, you heard it here first! If anyone thinks they can beat Alex at Manx TT, then the door is open. Though from the sounds of it, I think a Sega Rally challenge may be in order at a future retro gaming event. 😉

We’d like to thank Alex for taking the time to talk with us and making this feature possible.

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