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