Monthly Archives: October 2014

Racing to 31: 31 racing game greats – #29 RVF Honda (1990)

It’s that time of year again and I find myself racing toward another birthday and to the ripe-old age of 31. In celebration I thought why the hell not have a racing themed countdown – so here we are, counting down 31 racing games that have defined my enjoyment of the genre over the last 31 years.  Enjoy!

I love the soundRVFHonda of racing motorcycles.  The high pitched squeal of a 400 cc engine at high revs is a sound your eardrums most likely won’t let you forget, at least so long as they’re still ringing from the experience.  But despite this love of the machines and my love of Motorsport in general, I’ve never really been a fan of bike racing.

Bike racing games on the other hand, now they’re something I can get into.

I love bike racing games, right the way up to Milestone’s most recent SBK and MotoGP licensed games.  The differences in how bikes handle on the race track as compared to their 4-wheeled counterparts, makes for absolutely fascinating and captivating racing, in many ways nothing like what you’d find in a car racer.  And the biggest difference between the two classes of racing is how weight shifting impacts your path around the track, which makes for, in the case of two-wheels, an incredibly unique and nuanced racing experience.  While weight absolutely factors into how cars handle on the road – particularly at speed – it’s all dependent on the car itself and the way you drive it.  On a bike this isn’t the case, and turning a corner isn’t just a matter of braking and taking the best possible line through the corner, it just as much about shifting your body weight to keep your bike and its tyres in the best position possible through the corner to maintain momentum and friction.  It may seem minor, but that added layer of complexity means that bike racing is an almost entirely different beast from anything with four-wheels.

While perhaps the complexity wasn’t quite there back in the day, it was games like MicroStyle’s RVF Honda, that caught my attention and had me intrigued with the notion of taking a bike around a race track.  Sure i’d played Hang-On, but there was something more nuanced and dare I say it realistic, that really stuck with me.  It may not look like much now, but compared to its contemporaries like SEGA’s Hang-On, it was a relatively grounded take on motorcycle racing and had a level of depth that most motorcycle racing games just didn’t have at the time.  You could even overheat your engine – something that didn’t really hit mainstream racer design en masse well into the future.  It even gave you the ability to create a rider and take him through a career, saving your stats and performances, not that unlike a feature you’d see in a modern sim.  So while technically the game was relatively constrained by the limitations of the hardware available at the time, the ambition to create a thoroughly realistic racing game was there.

The game also looked and sounded great in motion, using many of the same sorts of 3D trickery that games that came before and after it used, giving it the sense of speed you’d expect from machines capable of travelling upwards of 200 km/h.  While the detail around tracks is relatively sparse and simple, it is the animations of the rider that made it such a technical showpiece.  The way the rider would angle his bike and get his knee down to guide the bike around the corner never got old, or watching him run-start his bike after a crash, really give it the attention to detail you might not find in many games of its ilk.   Oh yeah and it sounded good as you’d roar around the track, too.

And boy did they roar.

Love RVF Honda or any other two-wheeled racers?  Let me know in the comments and come back tomorrow for #28 in the countdown!  And be sure to catch up with past games in the countdown below.

#31: Stunt Car Racer   #30: Badlands   #29: RVF Honda  #28: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge  #27: Nitro  #26: Super Grand Prix  #25 Super Cars II  #24 Super RC Pro-Am #23 Sega Rally  #22 Wipeout 2097  #21 Micro Machines V3  #20 Gran Turismo #19 Need For Speed: High Stakes  #18 Colin McRae Rally 2.0  #17 Wave Race: Blue Storm #16 Grand Prix Challenge  #15 Project Gotham Racing 2  #14 F-Zero GX  #13 Mashed #12 Burnout 3: Takedown  #11 Ridge Racer  #10 Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast #9 Forza Motorsport 2  #8 Motorstorm: Pacific Rift  #7 Midnight Club: Los Angeles  #6 Dirt 2  #5 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit  #4 Shift 2: Unleashed  #3 Sonic All-Star Racing: Transformed  #2 Forza Horizon  #1 F1 2013: Classic Edition

RVF Honda A500

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Racing to 31: 31 racing game greats – #30 Badlands (1989)

It’s that time of year again and I find myself racing toward another birthday and to the ripe-old age of 31. In celebration I thought why the hell not have a racing themed countdown – so here we are, counting down 31 racing games that have defined my enjoyment of the genre over the last 31 years.  Enjoy!

BadlandsBadlands in a lot of ways is sort of the bastard child of Atari’s own Super Sprint and Magnetic Fields’ Super Cars II.  To put that into perspective if you’re not familiar with the Super Cars series, it’s basically Super Sprint with weapons.  Much like Super Sprint, Badlands takes place on a single-screen track, meaning you can see the entire racing field at all times.  Not that you’ve got a Formula One cohort to keep track of – there are only three opponents in any given race – but it is noteworthy in that this type of game well and truly died in the early 90’s and to my knowledge hasn’t been picked up since.

Originating in the arcade, like most Atari games at the time, Badlands made its way to my home on the Amiga 500.  As its origins being as such, it really paled in comparison to the bigger and richer games being offered on the system at the time, offering very little in the way of depth or longevity.  But with its post-apocalyptic, almost Mad Max like aesthetic, it had a nice look and feel to it that made it a little more exciting than your standard late 80’s racer.

The tracks are, in a lot of ways, the star attraction.  Badlands was a cracking looking game at the time, in stark contrast to the barren-ness of Sprint, with the tracks brimming with detail.  Smoke billows from smoke stacks and lava flows through rocky alcoves, and on some tracks destructible oils tankers and drums can leak oil if hit. Its stark departure from  the usually bright and oversaturated colours in racing games of the time, making way for a very reserved  palette and incredibly gritty art style,  brought the decrepit and in many ways industrial setting to life.

Like any racing game though, it is the game’s core handling that makes it such a joy to play, even if it doesn’t quite have the frenetic feel of its kin.  Like the Sprint games before it, it is designed around the very loose steering wheel, and so the cars float around corners in an almost Ridge Racer like way.  Sure, playing with the old Competition Pro wasn’t the perfect substitute for an infinitely spinning wheel, but it felt good enough to still give the controls that insane drift feel.

And of course weapons. It’s always fun to blow things up, and while many games followed suit over the following decade, Badlands was one of only a few games that shifted its focus away from simply being about hitting the apex to cross the line first.  Track design changed from the Sprint games to accommodate this, with the sweeping wide corners replaced with narrow claustrophobic roads and on-track hazards.  It may have seemed slower than Sprint, even when your vehicle is fully upgraded, but the ability to blow the living crap out of each other more than makes up it.

It is a shame that this type of racing game has all but fallen off of the radar for most people.  The single-screen racer isn’t necessarily the deepest of racing experiences, and in the case of Badlands it was certainly best played with others, Badlands may not have been filled to the brim with content, but put it in context of its arcade origins, and it’s pretty easy to be sucked into what it has to offer in the game play stakes.

Like Badlands?  Let me know in the comments and come back tomorrow for #29 in the countdown! Be sure to catch up with past games in the countdown below.

#31: Stunt Car Racer   #30: Badlands   #29: RVF Honda  #28: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge  #27: Nitro  #26: Super Grand Prix  #25 Super Cars II  #24 Super RC Pro-Am #23 Sega Rally  #22 Wipeout 2097  #21 Micro Machines V3  #20 Gran Turismo #19 Need For Speed: High Stakes  #18 Colin McRae Rally 2.0  #17 Wave Race: Blue Storm #16 Grand Prix Challenge  #15 Project Gotham Racing 2  #14 F-Zero GX  #13 Mashed #12 Burnout 3: Takedown  #11 Ridge Racer  #10 Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast #9 Forza Motorsport 2  #8 Motorstorm: Pacific Rift  #7 Midnight Club: Los Angeles  #6 Dirt 2  #5 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit  #4 Shift 2: Unleashed  #3 Sonic All-Star Racing: Transformed  #2 Forza Horizon  #1 F1 2013: Classic Edition

BadLands Amiga 500

 

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Racing to 31: 31 racing game greats – #31 Stunt Car Racer (1989)

It’s that time of year again and I find myself racing toward another birthday and to the ripe-old age of 31. In celebration I thought why the hell not have a racing themed countdown – so here we are, counting down 31 racing games that have defined my enjoyment of the genre over the last 31 years.  Enjoy!

SCR-RosterIt makes sense to start where it all began for me as a race fan – with what is to this day still one of the most purely entertaining racing games I think i’ve ever played.  I cannot understate how important Stunt Car Racer is both as an influence on my taste in video games, and as a game in its own right.

Pitching you against some clearly late 80’s European designed opponents, Stunt Car Racer has you donning on a helmet, stepping int your open-bodied hot-rod stunt car, and driving at speed around raised and very barrierless tracks.  It is the very definition of extreme driving, where any wrong turn, over acceleration, or failed overtake, can send you careening off the track in need of a crane lift.  From the constantly changing and often severe cant of the track, to the drawbridges and jumps, Stunt Car Racer’s tracks aren’t just there for you to race opponents on, in many ways they are the opponent.  There have been so many extreme racing games since, but for mine, none have managed to come close to the exhilaration of the ‘real’ risks that Stunt Car Racer throws your way at every moment of every race.

And part of that is because of its relatively reserved and strategic approach to racing.  Sure it’s fast, but Stunt Car Racer offers so much more than your average racer did at the time, in some ways being more akin to a modern racer than a product of its time.   I’ve always looked at racing games as, in some ways, puzzle games with a bit of extra testosterone thrown in for good measure.  Every corner is in many ways a puzzle in and of itself and the way you navigate your way through the pack, throttling on the accelerator and feathering on the brake, is a very delicate and finely balanced solution.  Stunt Car Racer embodies this sentiment in so many ways, from the intricately and near-perfectly designed twists and turns of the track, to the fine-tuned controls, winning a race (and even staying on track) always felt like being on a knife-edge.

And it was absolutely perfect.  Throwing your car around at speed always has an inherent danger, and every time you reach for the boost button, its always with a sense of trepidation – pull it off and you’ll romp it home, but push too hard and you’ll be a pile of smoking twisted metal.  And the game isn’t exactly shy about warning you about just how fine of a line you walk, with every rough landing shown visually by a crack or (worse) hole in your car’s chassis bordering the screen.  But it is this continual tension that makes the game what it is, an exhilarating flame-spewing tight-rope walk.

In many ways, as someone who didn’t own a Nintendo Entertainment System, Stunt Car Racer is my Excitebike –  less about pure speed than most racers, opting instead for a unique focus on navigating the tracks and maneuvering your vehicle around uneven and angled track designs. Developer Microstyle did the unimaginable at the time when it was released a technical 3D tour de force that ran smoothly and looked great, even on the less powerful home computers of the time, but who could’ve imagined just how enduring its originality would be so as to still be a one-of-a-kind racing game 31 years later.

Play Stunt Car Racer?  Let me know in the comments and come back tomorrow for #30 in the countdown!

#31: Stunt Car Racer   #30: Badlands   #29: RVF Honda  #28: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge  #27: Nitro  #26: Super Grand Prix  #25 Super Cars II  #24 Super RC Pro-Am #23 Sega Rally  #22 Wipeout 2097  #21 Micro Machines V3  #20 Gran Turismo #19 Need For Speed: High Stakes  #18 Colin McRae Rally 2.0  #17 Wave Race: Blue Storm #16 Grand Prix Challenge  #15 Project Gotham Racing 2  #14 F-Zero GX  #13 Mashed #12 Burnout 3: Takedown  #11 Ridge Racer  #10 Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast #9 Forza Motorsport 2  #8 Motorstorm: Pacific Rift  #7 Midnight Club: Los Angeles  #6 Dirt 2  #5 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit  #4 Shift 2: Unleashed  #3 Sonic All-Star Racing: Transformed  #2 Forza Horizon  #1 F1 2013: Classic Edition

StuntCarRacer01

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DriveClub Review: Off A Cliff

DriveclubboxartI’m going to come right off the bat and say I don’t like DriveClub. I’d refrain from calling it a bad game, but it is a confused one that gets very little right.  Everything from the handling to the tracks to driver AI feels slightly off kilter to the point where nothing in the game feels as though it was developed by the same team.  In the end what we’ve got is a game that seems like a confused mish-mash of a racing game that does nothing particularly wrong, but will probably have most people asking themselves why it exists.

And its been a bit like that in the whole lead up to the game.  What is DriveClub?  Is it an arcade racer?  Is it a simulation racer?  How will the career be structured?  The confusion prior to release was palpable.  Sadly none of these questions are answered now we have the game in our hands, and from the moment you hit the track to the moment you put the game on the shelf to gather dust, you’ll be trying to make sense of how exactly you should be driving.  Taking the racing line won’t get you the speed necessary to beat some of the times required to meet race objectives, but the cars’ handling doesn’t invite the more fast and furious style either, so you’ll constantly be wondering how the game wants you to drive.  And if you manage to make your peace with the handling of the cars, the often narrow and overly complex track design, and dumb-as-dogs-balls opponents will more than likely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

DriveClub probably also isn’t going to win any awards for innovative single-player career design, but in that regard I can’t say that it make me screw my nose up in disgust at its conservatism.  Within a couple of button presses you’ll find yourself staring at a matrix of events, starting off with the slower cars, and finishing up with high-powered aerodynamic powerhouses, and aside from objectives for each event which often deviate from winning the race, you’d be hard pressed to differentiate it from what the menu for racing games looked like 15 years ago.  And its this staunch adherence to career structures of yore does work to the game’s advantage, hiding the paradoxically erratic and lethargic handling of the bulk of the game’s cars, behind the less-powerful and less-maneuverable cars found in the lower classes. After all who expects a ‘hot hatch’ to be nimbly and ably making its way around corners and through chicanes?  So to the game’s credit it did take me a while to realise that the game isn’t really my cup of tea, but once I did, by jove that was a long and hard realisation.

Whichever way I look at it, DriveClub is a game that seems to take any opportunity to be unlikeable.  The whole thing feels like it’s been pulled in three different directions, and as a result, is stuck spinning its wheels in the middle, not going far enough in either direction to make a good go of any of them. I think we’ll see a lot of debate as to whether the online portions of the game, which have been the major selling point for the game, ostensibly being offline has resulted in the sour taste it has left in people’s mouths. Perhaps it would have.  But the ability to join clubs and what amounts to ‘levelling up together’ don’t seem to me like they’ll save what is a fundamentally flawed racing game.  Online or off, no amount of leader boards was ever going to stop DriveClub from being stuck somewhere in racing game limbo.

I’m sure the intentions were there, and somewhere in someone’s mind at Evolution Studios, sits a bloody excellent racing game. But the developer’s seeming reluctance to make a decision about what they were setting out to achieve with this game has resulted in a confused and directionless racing game that is very hard to enjoy.  Because of this, despite the very occasional flashes of potential, DriveClub is perhaps first major letdown of the generation.

Driveclub

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LittleBigEconomy: the possibilities for user-generated content in economics-based videogame

economistsI have spent almost all of my career in public policy, and while I’m almost always surprised by some of the solutions governments put forward to policy issues, I’m never surprised by how much the work resembles playing a video game. As an economist who builds all sorts of models, and bases work on all kinds of microeconomic and macroeconomic theories, the parallels are even greater than they may otherwise be.  Needless to say regulation of the telecommunications market feels more than a little bit like an abstracted round of Super Smash Bros.

And there’s good reason for this.  Games, however fictional take inspiration from life.  In games that slant toward economics or world-building, in a lot of ways, often try and model their mechanics after real world economic forces, and use them as key parts of their games. While the term ‘in-game economy’ has been hijacked and misappropriated by the enthusiast press, the approximated and in many ways crude representation of market forces and government edicts or policies is a great introduction to sorts of variables governments grapple with in making some of the tougher decisions that face an economy.  But they’re there and usually a pretty good abstraction of how things work in the real world.

Even my earliest introduction to economics was in video games.  I was fascinated by and often fixated on Sid Meier’s Civilization, which even from an early age, had me calling for just one turn.  I can vividly remember scorching hot days in school holidays sitting in front of the monitor of my Commodore Amiga 500, plodding my way across landmasses big and small, learning about trade and taxation, the costs of warfare, and managing scarce resources.  Within months I writing primary school projects on the World Bank, Communism and Industrialisation.  And it’s a similar story with Maxis’ classic city-building simulation, Sim City 2000, which introduced me to the wonders of managing a government’s budgets (and just how roads and transport departments hate to lose money), and how precarious of a balancing act managing taxation with spending really is.  These were great, and in some ways crude, approximations of an fiscal management, serving the sole purpose of regulating the player against the game’s rule set, namely through constraining their budget.  They are games after all.

But imagine if there was a game that closely and accurately resembled how a nation’s economy works, an interactive and highly modifiable (and slightly more accessible) Computable General Equilibrium model, with a game built around it.  Imagine building a nation, either one to resemble a real-life economy or an economic utopia or banana republic, and taking the reigns of a public policy maker with a job to steer your country to prosperity.  Too often we see games built with its economy shoe-horned in, often meaning the soundness and logic of the market is compromised for the sake of gameplay.  In order for an economics-heavy game to work it has to be at front and centre of the development process, something I hold out hope that what game designer Soren Johnson describes as an “Economic RTS”,  Offworld Trading Company, will achieve.  I’ve talked previously about how economics can be used to inform game design, and sung Port Royale 3’s  praises for its modelling of the closed economy, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been utterly blown away by a game’s representation of economics.  As it currently stands I think Kalypso’s Tropico series is the closest I’ve seen to an accurate representation of how real-life economies work, and even that has significant limitations.

offworld_trading_company

Perhaps that’s because are dynamic and living things and Government policy makers are always devising new ways, new models, and new approaches to playing in the sandpit that is the global economy – something the traditional video game business model, with their sequel and DLC plans, aren’t equipped to necessarily deal with.  But what if, like LittleBigPlanet, a game gave players the toolset to generate their own content, their own policies, and their own market interventions, and share them with other users through policy ‘modules’ that could be dropped into the games of others?  The LittleBigPlanet model would give players an ‘economic playground’ to experiment with , and with the core economies modelled, would allow them to experiment in the market.  Imagine wanting to build up your fictional nation’s automotive industry and having the tools at your disposal to see what it would take to make it viable, and the number of tariffs and subsidies it would take to keep the industry afloat, or putting limits on water extracted from water systems for irrigation to meet environmental objectives.  If you want to pursue  free trade with your regional trading partners, the world is your oyster.  If you want to tax beer, cigarettes, and other economic ‘bads’, be my guest. The possibilities are endless, and the ability for users to replicate real-world policies shortly after they’re announced by governments, and implement them on their own economies would be a massive step toward understanding the challenge faced by policymakers across the world every day.

Criticisms aside, developers have taken enormous strides in how they incorporate economics and politics into their games, and that isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.  But giving players the freedom to manage their ‘nations’ would open up creativity in a way that no other game has before, and would offer up endless possibilities for playing around in a global market, and watching as the realistic market forces take hold.  After all, in a world where graphics and physics are getting closer and closer to resembling real life, shouldn’t this be the next great development challenge?

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The Greenhouse Effect: how Game and Watch helped me heal

GameAndWatchWhile I have infinite memories about growing up with Nintendo handhelds, I don’t have that many video game memories that involve its iconic Game and Watch series of products.  Probably somewhat due to my age, I really missed the Game and Watch boat that most faithful Nintendo fans latch onto as their first real memory of their love affair with the house that Mario built.  Of course Nintendo’s insistence on pushing their legacy onto Game Boy owners throughout the early nineties meant that these ‘classic’ games – from Mario’s Cement Factory to Cement Factory – weren’t entirely foreign.  But as for owning them, despite considering myself a bit of a connoseuir of video games of the portable persuasion, I’ve never really felt the need to track the original physical clamshells down, probably knowing that in all likelihood they’d sit on a shelf gathering dust.  And that’s if they’re lucky, the more likely scenario is that they’d sit in a box somewhere, sight unseen.  They are a part of videogame history that i’m happy to know and acknowledge, but don’t care so much if I never set hands on one again.

But I absolutely respect the Game and Watch line of products.  The closest I came to owning one was a Legend of Zelda GameWatch, which to mind is the only watch that does more than tell the time that I need.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s the thought that any version of the games I was playing on my Game Boy – however compromised – could fit on anything the size of a watch was a fascinating prospect.  While we’re spoilt for what we can play on seemingly any device these days, novelty was a major driving force for video game hype in the 80’s and 90’s, and portable handheld games were a huge part of this.

Despite my relative lack of ‘in situ’ Game & Watch experience, I have an unmatched fondness for  Greenhouse, one of the early G&Ws released in the early 1980’s.  But this appreciation isn’t really founded in an appreciation for the game itself, but rather the role it played in my life at a point in my childhood.  Nostalgia is a funny thing that i’ve written on before, but for me fond gaming memories aren’t necessary rational recollections of the tangible act of playing a game, but rather very vivid conduits for remembering times, people and places.  Greenhouse is no different in this respect, but rather than transporting me back to a time as a child where video games helped me through a long stint in hospital.

Greenhousescreen

When I was six years old I had a severe eye injury that put me in hospital for what seemed like a lifetime.  As a child spending time in hospital is hard at the best of times.  Being away from family, from the familiar surroundings of your bedroom filled to the brim with toys and books, and perhaps worse still the uncertainty and inherently scary surroundings that a ward brings with it.  For me that isolation and terror was exacerbated by the fact I had to lay in a dark room for days on end with only very limited time allowed in the playroom, which as a six year old is perhaps the hardest thing in the world to do.  So for days I laid there, with my favourite toy dog for company, and my loving parents sleeping on what I can only imagine were tremendously uncomfortable foldout beds most nights.  I can remember being scared, I can remember crying uncontrollably, and I vividly remember my desperate parents trying to console me in any way they possibly could.  I wasn’t terminally ill, and while I was extremely lucky to retain the sight in my eye, there were other children I met in my time there that were far less fortunate.  But the irrational mind of a six year old isn’t one easily consoled.

But between the fear that darkness brought and the resultant sore eyes in the morning, for that brief period I could spend in the playroom, there was Greenhouse.  A battered and old piece of technology that had probably been held in the hands of  hundreds upon hundreds of children in the decade preceding was a shining beacon of happiness that sat unassumingly amongst Lego blocks and toy cars.  Every day I would rush to the playroom to pick up that simple game, and my smile would grow wider with every bug exterminated and every plant saved.  For 30 minutes a day that simple game made me forget that I was in hospital as I strived to beat my previous day’s high-score.  Greenhouse may have been simple, and ancient even by the late 80’s, but to me it was a window to another world that I would look forward to peering through for that brief period every day.  For that stay in hospital, it wasn’t just a game to me, it was a companion that helped me restore some sense of normality and routine to what was otherwise an incredibly scary childhood experience.

For years after Greenhouse remained a distant yet very memory in my video game history.  More recently I have played Greenhouse, in the form of the Club Nintendo Game & Watch Collection, and while the game gave me those unmatched warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia and familiarity, I didn’t feel the need to spend a lot of time with it – and in some ways this is how I feel about a large majority of games I enjoyed in the past.  But as a transporter to another time and place, Greenhouse is a reminder to me for how video games can act as a crutch and as escapism at our low points – but perhaps even more importantly – how important normality and high spirits are to the healing process.  So thank you Nintendo, for helping me through my time in hospital – I’m sure there are kids all around the world that have similar stories to share.

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Downloading Games From The Radio

A Sinclair ZX81 with cassette recorder.

A Sinclair ZX81 with cassette recorder.

At last, the first of my articles for Kotaku UK has gone live:

http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2014/10/13/people-used-download-games-radio

Quite a while ago, a Dutch work colleague of mine mentioned a radio show called Hobbyscoop that was broadcast in the Netherlands in the 1980s. The DJs would play the sound of data tapes (like simple games or programs), and people at home could tape the sounds and then load the programs into their Commodores or Sinclairs. In effect, it was wireless downloading long before the existence of wi-fi.

Suitably intrigued, I attempted to find out more about the radio show, and while doing so I found out that quite a few DJs across Europe had attempted the same thing, many of them coming up with the idea completely independently of each other. I tracked down and interviewed a few of them, and here‘s the resultant article. It was a fun piece to research: I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

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