The incredible power of sites like Twitter, Facebook, Twitch and YouTube has enabled a select few retro gamers to become social media superstars in their own right, and one of the UK's most prominent figures has to be Mark "Lord Arse" Howlett.
With more than 110,000 Twitter followers to his name, Howlett has become one of the most shared retro gaming personalities on the platform and regularly shines a light on classic games and hardware, bringing them to an entirely new generation of fans.
Keen to know more about the man behind the "Arse", we sat down with Howlett for a quick chat about his gaming history, his social media fame and much more besides.
Time Extension: What's your earliest video gaming memory?
Mark Howlett: The first video game I remember playing was the classic of all classics, Space Invaders! I forget where it was (probably a chippy on holiday somewhere in Wales or Cornwall), but I do remember quite vividly the beautiful aesthetics of the machine, the sounds and I guess smells! Imagine being 7 or 8 years old and experiencing that for the first time!
What was the first gaming system you owned?
My first gaming system was the Grandstand 4600, the one with good old Kevin Keegan beaming at you on the box. In fact, I still have the system, and it still works! For those who don't know, it's quite a basic machine with built-in games including squash and football (basically a slightly more advanced Pong-style machine), but it did also come with a gun which you could use to shoot a dot on the screen! As somebody whose only previous interaction with a TV was Teletext, this felt space-age at the time.
I then moved on to the legendary Atari 2600, which I guess was my first proper gaming system. Another huge leap forward because you could plug in cartridges and effectively have a never-ending variety of games to play on it. Combat, the game that was included in the box, is still a fantastic two-player game, even today. It also meant that I was able to play Space Invaders again... but at home! I no longer have my original 2600 – I sold that to buy a ZX Spectrum – but I have since bought a 2600 again and I'm a collector of the games that Atari made for the machine. Partly because it's my first real system, and partly because the games look incredible on the shelf!
It still blows my mind to this day that it fits into 48K of RAM. It's also a great and incredibly atmospheric game to boot. Just brilliant
What's your favourite video game of all time, if you can pick one?
That's an incredibly difficult question to answer. There are so many great games over the years that hold a place in my heart. From Combat on the Atari 2600, 3D Monster Maze on the ZX81, Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum, Dungeon Master on the Atari ST, DOOM on the 486 and then in more recent times, Unreal Tournament and the Fallout series of games, but at the top of the pile, mostly because it was a genius level of achievement, is The Lords of Midnight on the humble Speccy. An epic fantasy RPG/war game with thousands of locations, it still blows my mind to this day that it fits into 48K of RAM. It's also a great and incredibly atmospheric game to boot. Just brilliant.
What's the gaming system you'd pick over all others, and why?
You might have noticed from my previous answer that I didn't really own many consoles growing up. Apart from the Atari 2600, it was my brother who owned a Mega Drive and then N64 growing up, whilst I used computers such as the ZX81, Spectrum and Atari ST. In fact, the first actual console that I owned since the Atari was another Atari, the Jaguar! I've only really got to experience the SEGA and Nintendo consoles later in life.
So going back to the question, I have to say that my favourite gaming system over the years is the ZX Spectrum. This is the first system that I experienced platform games, text adventures, the first isometric games such as Knight Lore and Alien 8 and RPGs like the aforementioned The Lords of Midnight. Whilst I did dabble with the ZX81, it was also the first system that allowed me to make my own games as well!
You've built up an impressive following on social media; was this a conscious effort, or has it evolved over time?
I'd be happy for somebody to change my mind here and point out a truly great JRPG with an incredible storyline and likeable characters but until then, no thanks!
I've always dreamt big, so when I started the Lord Arse Twitter account back in 2015, I admit to doing it with an eye on it becoming fairly prominent, though perhaps not expecting it to become quite so prominent and opening the doors it has over the years! I've been very lucky.
Where did the name "Lord Arse" come from?
It's a long story, but the answer to it is actually quite boring: I'm not really sure! I used to use "Lord of Ra" as an RPG name and then on a music forum (Xfm) I used "Lord Arse" for I think the first time, back in 1999. My AOL screen name back in the late nineties was 'AARRSSEE' so I think somehow, these all mutated together. Put it this way, the name came way before the retro gaming. But hey, it certainly stands out way more than "Retro This" or "Retro That"!
What's the most controversial retro gaming opinion you hold?
Hmm, I guess it depends on how much I want to get into trouble! Okay, how about this... most JRPGs are just awful! It's like they've been written by angst-ridden teenagers for angst-ridden teenagers. I'd be happy for somebody to change my mind here and point out a truly great JRPG with an incredible storyline and likeable characters but until then, no thanks!
Is it easy to balance out your day job and family life with your gaming interests?
It can be difficult, yes. I'm a company director in 'real life' so my day job can be incredibly stressful and draining. Quite often, I get home from work, and I stare at my consoles and games, shrug, and just pick up my phone and play something on there. It's a real pleasure to get some time to myself and be able to have a real good session. Services like Antstream and the excellent Evercade console do make things a bit easier as you can just play something retro on your PC or chill out in the living room with a handheld.
How involved do you get with retro gaming events around the UK? Is it nice to meet like-minded gamers and fans?
It's fair to say that the retro gaming community isn't perfect, but generally, it's a really nice community to be involved in
I've been to many Play Expo events around the country, as a guest on a panel or just to see friends. It's great to be able to call so many well-known figures in the industry friends and there's nothing better than meeting people who follow my account and just chatting about games and other stuff. It's fair to say that the retro gaming community isn't perfect, but generally, it's a really nice community to be involved in.
What's next for Lord Arse? Do you have plans to expand into other areas?
I dabble in Twitch streaming, and I've recently started a project called ARSE TV, which is effectively a TV channel which shows classic gaming shows from over the years. I'm fully set up to stream from most of my consoles as well, so I do occasionally do gaming streams as well – though I do prefer to be behind the camera these days!
Retro gaming has been a thing for some time now and shows no signs of fading any time soon. Where do you think the community will be in 10 years from now?
I think that people will still be enjoying retro gaming in ten years’ time, but the focus will move on. Let's be honest, most of us who experienced the early gens will be in our 50s, 60s or older, so a lot of that will start to fade away. The focus will be more on the sixth and seventh generation of consoles, and more people will be experiencing the older gens via hardware simulation FPGA such as the MiSTer rather than the original consoles. Will the retro gaming price bubble ever burst? I really hope so, but I can't see it happening any point soon.