Following our interview with Alex Lieng, we managed (with the help of Alex) to make contact with the previous year’s Twix Junior Gamesplayer of the Year in the Sega Saturn category, Robert Doubtfire. Robert became the 1996 tournament champion for his stunning performance playing Nights (in which he chained-together more links than anyone else), and he went on to feature in issue 15 of Sega Saturn Magazine. The former Sega champion took some time out to share his experiences before, during and after the tournament.
SegaMags: What was your first video game console?
My first console was one of the original Atari 2600’s with the wood panelling. I was about 4 when my family got it down from the loft as they had owned it for some time, but I guess, with a toddler in the house, they put it away for a while. From the first time it powered up I was hooked. I played an Activision game called Freeway (a Frogger clone) and the lifelong love affair with computer games started.
SegaMags: Aside from the Saturn, did you own any other Sega consoles? What’s your favourite console?
My older brother had a Master System which I would get some time on, and personally I have owned a Mega Drive and a couple of Dreamcasts. The thought of waiting almost a year for the Dreamcast to be released in Europe horrified me, so I imported a Japanese Dreamcast for the earlier release date (I think it cost me £600 with 3 games). Sadly, there were supply problems for them at the time, so it ran a little late — but it was delivered on New Year’s Eve, 1998. If any reader fancies a challenge, try completing the Japanese Sonic Adventure to 100%. To pick a favourite console is not an easy task… however, I would single-out the Dreamcast. The other Sega consoles may have had slightly better games, but the Dreamcast represented so much hope to all Sega fans at the time after the mishandling of the Saturn. A 3D Sonic game, Microsoft developing the OS, and projects like Shenmue in the pipeline made it a very hopeful moment. I think memories of playing Phantasy Star Online with friends gave the Dreamcast a win for me, as it sums up the things Sega were doing that you just couldn’t do on any other console at the time.
SegaMags: Do you still play any of the old video game consoles?
I still have my Saturn stored away, but other than a spontaneous Sonic R tournament that broke out at work a few years back, it has not been turned on much. I do, however, like to emulate Mega Drive and Commodore 64 titles quite often.
SegaMags: Do you play any current-generation video games?
I am very much into the Xbox One and PC gaming, with Rocket League, Binding of Isaac, This War of Mine, Kerbal Space Program and Hero’s of the Storm being my current playlist. Sometimes my console interest wains, but my PC gaming remains my passion.
SegaMags: What inspired you to enter the 1996 Twix Junior Gamesplayer of the Year tournament?
I was very confident in my gaming abilities at the time and felt it was a way I could prove that.
SegaMags: What are your fondest memories of the experience as a whole? Are there any funny stories you’d like to share with us from the event?
A lot of it was quite a blur. As a quiet teenager, used to spending Saturday afternoons locked in my room playing computer games or at a friend’s house, still playing computer games, I was suddenly the focus of attention in a busy Oxford Street store. I remember the organisers using the standard Saturn controller (even though Nights was designed and launched with the Saturn’s analogue pad, which was quite a novelty for gaming at the time). The other Sega contestants spent the time complaining an awful lot about this, but I just accepted it and concentrated on the anticipated changes, which I think gave me an edge in the competition. It’s an attitude I feel I have taken into my adult life, and it certainly helped me on the day.
SegaMags: During the competition, did you get to meet any famous faces from the world of gaming?
Dave Perry from GamesMaster was there. It felt quite a big deal to meet him. I don’t remember meeting anyone else I had heard of.
SegaMags: How much practice did you put in for the event?
Oh how I practised. From the evening I got the phone call it was all I would focus on. I had already become good at Nights, but must have put in a good 3-4 hours every evening after school, and no doubt countless more at weekends. Once I was confident in my ability on Nights I would work on other Saturn games, which I felt would help train my reflexes. I remember putting many hours into X-Men: Children of the Atom (on the highest speed setting) as a reflex-training exercise.
SegaMags: Judging from the tournament summary in Sega Saturn Magazine, there were two rounds (with the top four players in the first round progressing to the grand final). Did both rounds take place on the same level of the game? Were there any differences between the two rounds?
I believe there were two different levels used.I think the first round took place on the second level of Nights. The organisers hadn’t set this up in advance, however, and I remember they had to play through the first stage in a panic while the PlayStation and N64 competitions were in progress. For the final round, they fixed this issue by changing to the first level.
Other than the change of levels, the object was to obtain the highest number of links. To those who haven’t played Nights, you obtain links by collecting items in quick succession without a break, which leaves little-to-no room for a mistake. One small break and you need to start the chain again. The levels are all on a loop, so you continue making links until you either run out of time or accidentally trigger the change of level — at the end of each lap of the circuit, you have to be very careful not to trigger the end of stage while passing-through to the next lap.
SegaMags: In the final, did you get to go first, second, third or fourth? Do you think the running-order gave any of the competitors an advantage (since the person going last knew what they had to beat)?
I am certain I went on second-to-last, putting pressure on the final player (Edward Lee, I believe). I firmly remember watching him make a mistake that reset his score to zero and, knowing the game as I did, I knew there was no mathematical way for him to top my score in the remaining time. I’m afraid to say it was a good feeling, which I remember 20 years on. Having to go on last with what was a sizeable target could not have been fun, and no doubt the pressure helped me along the way a little.
SegaMags: Was your winning effort (an incredible 98 links) a personal best? Have you beaten it since?
I feel an important thing to mention is that we had to use the standard controller instead of the analogue one that Nights was really designed to use (I don’t think you could even buy Nights without the analogue controller for a few months after launch). The scores we all got are pretty poor in comparison with what can be achieved using the analogue pad. We all scored around 325-ish links to get into the last eight, so to see a 50-link average is quite funny when looking back — but it does show how Sega’s marketing maybe missed out a little. With the analogue controller you would have seen at least a good 200 link score. Not wishing to sound arrogant, but I would have still fancied my chances if the analogue controller had been used. I haven’t matched it since, but I still play the Steam version from time to time to keep my hand in — and although I’m a little rusty, I can still link together a good number.
SegaMags: Did you keep in touch with any of the other competitors?
Alex Lieng, the 1997 Champion, looked me up on Facebook recently and we had a catch-up, which was a nice surprise. It’s great to speak to someone like-minded. I did go to school (and was good friends) with Matthew Griffiths, who was another finalist of the Nights competition, but he didn’t fare as well on the day. I tried to look him up recently, and I learned that he sadly passed on after a battle with a form of bone cancer a few years back.
SegaMags: Did you get through your year’s supply of Twix chocolate bars, or did you end up getting sick of them?
I certainly gave it my best shot! I did go overboard with the chocolate to begin with. Along with Twix bars, Wispa Golds had just come out and the local Tesco was happy to take the vouchers for anything, so I stocked the chocolate high. After the initial sugar rush, I used some of the vouchers for videos and shared a few out.
SegaMags: Do you still have the medal that you were awarded for winning the competition?
I certainly do. After Alex contacted me he invited me to a wonderful Facebook group for retro gamers, so I dug out my medal and showed it to the group when I introduced myself.
SegaMags: Sega Saturn Magazine reported that your prize included every European Sega Saturn release for a year. Roughly how many games did you end up receiving in the end? Did they arrive in bundles, or did they come one game at a time (as and when they were released)? Did you keep all of the games?
I still have the games and count 24 in total. It’s possible I misplaced a few, but after writing them down I can’t think of anything missing. The prize was technically anything published by Sega for that year. However, by that time there weren’t many third-party publishers outside of Capcom, so not much is missing form 1997. I had to call them in early on in the year because I hadn’t received anything. They apologised and sent me my first delivery (along with a Sonic & Knuckles denim jacket, which I don’t own anymore) and I think they threw in a couple of extra games that had come out the previous year. They were very good about it.
After the contest, the Sega rep gave me the choice of receiving retail releases or pre-release editions 2-8 weeks before general availability (with the trade-off being they would be discs alone). I chose the pre-release option. The discs arrived during the first week of every month and were on plain, silver CDs. It was a wonderful prize, as I got to experience so many wonderful games I would never have got around to playing otherwise. I have fond memories of games like Torico, Mr Bones, Amok and even Sonic R (yes, I loved the music too!), even if the majority of players at the time missed them.1
SegaMags: Sega Saturn Magazine also reported that you gave a radio interview after the competition. Can you tell us anything about that?
I remember it happening. It was a standard “how are you feeling” and “what are you going to do with your Twix bars?” sort of interview. However, being a teenage nerd, I can’t imagine I gave stunningly good responses to be honest. It was meant for Virgin Radio, but I couldn’t get it my area and I always wondered if it was maybe just an in-store promotion.
SegaMags: How did your classmates at school react to having a video game champion in their ranks?
A lot of them weren’t really into games, and those that were played mostly PlayStation or Nintendo systems, so I didn’t receive a royal welcome… other than Matthew (the fellow finalist I mentioned earlier), who complained that I had won.
SegaMags: You came back for the 1997 Twix Junior Gamesplayer of the Year tournament (where the competition-game was Manx TT: Super Bike), but you weren’t able to defend your title. As the reigning champion, were you given automatic entry into the 1997 tournament? Had you played a lot of Manx TT prior to the 1997 event?
I did receive automatic entry into the 1997 final, and I certainly gave it my best shot with a lot of practise before hand (Manx TT was included in my prize). There can be no excuse, I got it wrong on the day and was beaten by a better player. I chose a slightly different bike to the others, and focused on acceleration over top-speed in the belief that it would suit my playing style. I think my main downfall was that I hadn’t counted on the human element. Setting good timed laps on my own and learning the tracks was all good, but when playing against a human you can get hit unexpectedly and the situation changes quicker than I was used to. None of my friends had Manx TT so I didn’t get the chance to play against anyone other than people who didn’t know the game well.
SegaMags: Did you ever enter any other video game competitions? If so, how did you get on?
I was asked to try out for a Sky TV programme, but by the time it came around the Saturn was very much a niche product and the trials were all on the PlayStation or the N64. I travelled to London for the audition and managed to hold my own in a football game, but in all honestly I doubt I was very charismatic at the time so maybe they felt I wasn’t TV material — and they would have been right at the time (I hope I’ve fixed that now!).
SegaMags: Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about entering a video game competition?
If you’re serious about it, I’d suggest playing online at every opportunity, because beating the computer AI comes down to working out a pattern — whereas humans change tactics, are sneaky, and often surprise you. If you lose your game, study the loss and try to figure out what tipped the balance against you. Most often in gaming you have to put it down to how it happened on the day, but once in a while you learn the “Zerg rush” of your game and come back stronger.
I would also add that there is no better time to play games in competition than now. Back in the nineties, other than the odd TV program (or this new thing that crazy PC gamers of the time were talking about, called Doom), there was practically nothing out there that gamers could aim for. It was seen very much as a geeky teenage boy pastime until the PlayStation took a firm hold, but now you can honestly have a good shot at it. Even if you feel that you aren’t competition-worthy, YouTube and Twitch are easy to come by and every new game could become the next Minecraft. If you’re in at the start of something, you stand a great chance of making it.
SegaMags: Here come the obligatory “Sega website” questions: what’s your favourite Saturn game of all time and why? Do you have a least-favourite Saturn game?
Such a tough question, but think Sega Rally comes out on top for me. Only 3 cars and barley a handful of levels, but the sheer quality of the tracks and refinement of control was unmatched for a long time. A worst game for me would be Sega Touring Car Championship. After being hyped as the spiritual successor to Sega Rally, it disappointed me a lot. Maybe I was expecting something it was never meant to be, but I remember the music being atrocious (coming from someone who remembers all the words to Super Sonic Racing!).
SegaMags: Did you read any other Sega magazines (apart from Sega Saturn Magazine)?
From time to time I would get Saturn Power, but without a consistent demo disc and without the first party exclusives, it didn’t offer much to tempt me. I would sometimes pick up the odd copy of CVG if there was a large article about a Sega game in there.
SegaMags: Have you played the PlayStation 2 remake of Nights? What about the HD remasters that were released on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade? If so, how do you think they compare with the Saturn original?
I own the Steam release, which includes the “Saturn version”, and I feel that (along with the included HD version) it captures the game perfectly. So often things from people’s past do not hold up, but I enjoy the odd level of Nights from time to time. I would love to see it ported to iOS, but I’m not holding my breath. 🙂
SegaMags: Have you played Nights: Journey of Dreams on the Nintendo Wii? If so, what did you think of it?
I have played it and I even had it on preorder at one point, but early reviews warned me off. I picked it up new for about £10 and gave it a quick (but full) play through. It looked like Nights, but there was no heart in the version. It isn’t a bad game by any means, but the original worked because every element was polished to perfection. When a game’s sound track is as good as any other part of the game, you know there’s care involved in its creation. The Wii version was, in my opinion, an OK game made by OK people for an OK console.
SegaMags: And finally, would you be up for taking part in another Nights link-attack tournament sometime in the future (with or without the analogue Saturn joypad)?
I would certainly participate in another Nights tournament — I have a reputation to uphold, after all! 🙂
So I guess that wraps things up. It just goes to show that there really is no substitute for hard work; all the hours of training paid off as Robert became the UK’s first Sega Saturn champion — and like a true champion, he’s only too happy to put it all on the line again should another Nights challenge present itself!
We would like to thank Robert for taking the time to talk with us, and Alex Lieng for putting us in touch with Robert. This feature wouldn’t have been possible without their help.
- Here’s a complete list of the games that Robert received from Sega as part of his prize: Scorcher, Enermy Zero, Toshinden, Sega Touring Car Championship, Bug 2, Sky Target, Die Hard Trilogy, Mr Bones, Dragon Force, Discworld 2, Wipeout 2097, Fighters Megamix, Die Hard Arcade, Pandemonium, Duke Nukem, Amok, Manx TT, Saturn Bomberman, Sonic Jam, Sonic R, Sonic: Flicky’s Island, Sega Ages, Dark Saviour, Torico.