It’s taken me years to realise the first videogame I ever played was a rip-off; a lacklustre, store-brand facsimile of someone else’s idea. The game was called Barrels, and it was a janky clone of 1981’s Donkey Kong, made by a company called Spa (apocryphally Software Production Associates) for the RM Nimbus. The Nimbus was the digital workhorse for UK schools in the late 80s, and my mum worked at a school with three of the buggers. When I was ill or she was in work early, I’d get to hang out in her classroom, and I would immediately log on to the Nimbus to smash out a game of Barrels.
I’d never heard of Donkey Kong. And I thought Spa was the same as food retailer SPAR, which just happened to make games as well as ham. In fact, I’d never played an electronic game of any sort before (except for perhaps one of those LCD things where you moved cars between three lanes to avoid obstacles), and so Barrels was completely novel to me.
Searching my memory (and that’s all I have, since there seems to be next to no evidence of Barrels across the whole modern internet), the game was glitchy to the point of being mangled: some ladders just never worked, and there were all sorts of places where you would freeze in place or fall into the floor.
But at the time, I didn’t see these things as frustrating, or even evidence of design failure. They were just challenges to be overcome, as much a part of the experience as the eponymous blue casks that would roll down from the heavens, thirsty for the blood of man. When you don’t have any conception of the standards by which a medium is judged, it’s extremely easy to be amazed.
Given that I only ever had use of the Nimbus before school started, sessions were always short – maybe half an hour max. I distinctly remember mornings in winter before the radiators were properly working, where I would play through the fog of my own breath. And of course there was no way to save progress, so each new day saw me start fresh at the foot of Mt. Barrels, daring to hope that this might be the session I finally breached screen fifteen.
I’m not sure when I stopped playing Barrels, or what I moved onto next, but it retains an unbeatable (and entirely unearned) place in my mind as one of the greatest games – hell, one of the greatest experiences of all time. It wasn’t just more fun than a barrel of monkeys – it was more fun than the monkey of barrels, Donkey Kong himself.
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