My Favourite Game

The co­me­dian, ac­tor and for­mer as­pir­ing priest on his at­tempts at cod­ing, sneak­ing time at the ar­cade, and hoard­ing Poké­mon

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Comic Johnny Ve­gas on cod­ing, clas­sic coin-ops and Poké­mon

Co­me­dian Michael Pen­ning­ton ex­ists in the shadow of his al­ter ego. He is bet­ter known as stout-swill­ing sur­re­al­ist Johnny Ve­gas, an ec­cen­tric who it’s hard to imag­ine do­ing any­thing as nor­mal as play­ing. But games are a long­time ob­ses­sion for Pen­ning­ton, a pas­sion re­cently rekin­dled by his young son. You grew up in a strict re­li­gious en­vi­ron­ment in the ’70s and early ’80s, even join­ing a sem­i­nary. Did you miss out on that golden era of games? When I was younger, it was all about ar­cades for me – things like Galax­ian, Pac-Man and Phoenix. I re­mem­ber a school field trip to York, and we stayed in some stu­dent halls. They had an ar­cade cab in the re­cep­tion there, so that was all I did for the trip. Even back then, games would just re­ally draw me in like that. At about the same time, friends were get­ting Ataris, so it was all about get­ting round to their houses to play that. I had an Astro Wars hand­held, and I even­tu­ally got a Spec­trum and one of those print­ers that pumped out those lit­tle till re­ceipts. That re­ally felt so ad­vanced. I thought life couldn’t get any bet­ter. Then I went to a sem­i­nary to fol­low priest­hood. Any­thing like Astro Wars was out­lawed there. You hosted the Poké­mon X &Y Bat­tle Tour­na­ment UK fi­nals. Do you have a real af­fec­tion for the se­ries? Oh, yes, I’ve liked Poké­mon for a re­ally long time. Re­cently, it’s through my son, but I was a big col­lec­tor the first time around. I col­lected all sorts back then, and when my son got into it, I had this whole bun­dle of Poké­mon stuff boxed up. I thought back at the time it was go­ing to be my col­lec­tor’s re­tire­ment thing, but I brought it down for him, and the shock on his face was amaz­ing. He couldn’t com­pre­hend that I’d been younger once, or that I’d know any­thing about some­thing as cool to him as Poké­mon. Then, when the of­fer to host the tour­na­ment came through, he told me: “You’re tak­ing this gig, Dad”. So as well as step­ping in as your agent there, your son has rekin­dled your enthusiasm for games? He has, but I gamed for years. It had got to the point of be­ing a big­ger pri­or­ity for me than work­ing… I was play­ing all day when I should have been writ­ing. My agent would ring and ask how a script was com­ing along, and I’d been play­ing TOCA all day, driv­ing back­wards to wind up the Suzuki team. I was a mas­sive Res­i­dent Evil player, do­ing it into the small hours. This was all dur­ing that time in your life that’s per­fect for gam­ing: I lived alone and had no day job to speak of. Do you think games can be a plat­form for com­edy? We’ve seen the likes of Stephen Mer­chant get­ting in­volved with game projects. Are you tempted? I’d love to. Years ago, I was ap­proached about a game in de­vel­op­ment. There was talk of me lend­ing my own voice and do­ing some mo­tion-cap­ture work. It was for a scene in a com­edy club. It was one of those things I’d ac­cept in a heart­beat. To be fea­tured in a videogame – that’s on my ul­ti­mate bucket list. But it never hap­pened – they prob­a­bly saw me in 18 Stone Of Id­iot and thought, ‘We can’t trust him in a [mo­tion-cap­ture] stu­dio’.

It’s some­thing my son wants to do. He’s quite se­ri­ous about want­ing to be a game de­signer. In fact, they’re teach­ing pro­gram­ming games as a vol­un­tary les­son at a sec­ondary school I was look­ing at for him. It’s great they do that, and if you’re cre­ative then learn­ing that tech­ni­cal stuff is amaz­ing. There is a ca­reer there, too. It’s that clas­sic thing of find­ing a job you love mean­ing you never have to work a day in your life. I’d sup­port him do­ing that. If some­thing in­spires your kid, sup­port them.

“I spent three days mak­ing my own ver­sion of Don­key Kong, and it was woe­ful. Hon­est to God, it was dire”

Have you ever tried mak­ing a game? I did, yes. I spent three days mak­ing my own ver­sion of Don­key Kong, and it was woe­ful. It was like a let­ter X jump­ing over ze­roes, and there were about two plat­forms. Af­ter all the ef­fort, that was it. Hon­est to God, it was dire. What’s your favourite game, and why? Well, look­ing back to the ar­cades, it used to be Phoenix, with­out a shadow of a doubt. But re­ally, with ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened with me and my son, it might have to be Poké­mon. There’s that lovely turn­around where the stu­dent be­comes the mas­ter. That’s been great. Oh, but there’s also Rogue Squadron on the Game Cube. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, and it just felt like Star Wars.

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