If you've ever seen any of the excellent video content created by the team at Outside Xbox, then you'll have seen the face of Mike Channell.
Alongside fellow hosts Andy Farrant and Jane Douglas, Channell founded Outside Xbox in 2012, and it has since grown to the point where it has a whopping 2.67 million subscribers – and, in 2016, it spawned a sister channel, Outside Xtra, to cover non-Xbox stuff – that's hosted by Ellen Rose and one-time Nintendo Life contributor Luke Westaway and is approaching one million subs.
While Outside Xbox's remit is primarily modern games, Channell is also known for his love of retro gaming. We managed to track him down for a quick chat on that very topic. Enjoy!
Time Extension: What's your earliest video gaming memory?
Mike Channell: It's difficult to work out what my earliest gaming memory is, because I feel like I've been immersed in video games in some way or other basically forever.
It's probably the evening I remember my dad bringing back an Atari STE sometime around 1990 and setting it up for the first time in the dining room so we could play the bundled games. There was a motorbike racing game called Super Cycle, a Defender clone called Anarchy, a totally incomprehensible strategy game called Dragon's Breath and the brutally difficult Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which forced five-year-old me to watch one of my silver-screen heroes get repeatedly shot in the face.
What was the first gaming system you owned?
For the longest time, it was the Atari ST, but I had a friend who had a SNES, and that was my exposure to console gaming until I got my own SNES in 1994, bundled with Donkey Kong Country.
Fortunately, that friend's older brother had temporary access to an outrageous device called a Super Magicom that allowed you to rip SNES games to floppy disks, so I got to play a ton of SNES games from the early years that I wouldn't otherwise have necessarily played. I remember being blown away by the horror aesthetics of Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts and arguing with my mate that the '80s musclemen in Contra III were cooler than the anonymous-looking robots in the European version, Super Probotector. Pretty sure I ended up on the right side of history there.
Throughout the '90s and early 2000s though, I also read video game magazines voraciously, mainly the multi-platform GamesMaster mag. That meant I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of loads of games even if I hadn't played them, which really helps when I'm writing knob jokes about them nearly 30 years later for Outside Xbox.
I was obviously particularly knowledgeable about the ones I wasn't allowed by my parents to play. I had the benefit of parents who took at least a passing interest in video games, but unfortunately, that also meant I wasn't going to be allowed to buy Mortal Kombat 3 for my SNES. I actually hand-wrote a page long dissertation on why I should be allowed to buy Super Street Fighter 2 and was sort of amazed when I was successful.
I think it's not really surprising that eventually, I washed up at Future Publishing writing for PC Format and Official Xbox Magazine, given that I'd internalised the writing style so deeply after reading Future mags from as far back as ST Format.
What's your favourite video game of all time, if you can pick one?
That's really tough because I have played an awful lot of them, and there are an awful lot of brilliant ones. Because of that, I have to choose one that I have a real emotional connection to and that's Daytona USA. It's a perfect storm for me; obviously, it's a racing game and that has become something of a speciality for me, and I even, in 2018, managed to go motor racing for real. It was also from an era of gaming that I think will never be topped for excitement, the point when arcade machines were dramatically more visually impressive than anything in your home. You'd go to the bowling alley and be face blasted with 60 frames of texture-mapped polygons, then return home to play some Mode 7 pseudo-3D racing game like Street Racer.
But it also reminds me of my dad, who we lost to cancer when I was in my late teens. I'd play Daytona on trips to the local bowling alley with him, and later we'd play the fairly ropey PC port and challenge each other's lap times. It's those trips that have given me an enduring nostalgia for arcades, to the point where I can still visualise exactly where each machine was positioned in the bowling alley.
I'm glad we eventually got the absolutely stellar, better-than-arcade-perfect 360 and PS3 versions of the game because it allowed me to rekindle my love of the game and dig more deeply into the novel manual gear drifting mechanic. It's a real shame Sega hasn't released standalone versions of more of its Model 2 and Model 3 games, but I'll be forever thankful for that Daytona USA remaster.
What's the gaming system you'd pick over all others, and why?
It's probably the original PlayStation, because of the diversity of experiences it afforded compared to what came before. It had everything from a highly technical 3D racing game like Gran Turismo to a sweeping 70-hour RPG like Final Fantasy VII, to a brilliant 2D fighting game like Street Fighter Alpha 3. As I mentioned earlier, I think there will never be a more exciting time in gaming than that transition from 2D to 3D gaming and the PlayStation was obviously spearheading that.
I spent money from my first-ever summer job on Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, so it was super weird when Andy and I from Outside Xbox actually met Tony Hawk himself in late 2019, and he recognised us from our voices because one of his sons watches a lot of our videos. He literally pulled out his phone to take a selfie with us. I'll be dining out on that one basically forever.
You've built up an impressive following on social media; was this a conscious effort, or has it evolved over time?
It depends on whether you count our YouTube following as social media. If so, then yeah, it definitely was a conscious effort to try and grow a really strong audience, but honestly, when we started the channel, we had no idea if it would resonate with people.
What I personally knew for sure was that my beloved video game magazines were already in a bit of a death spiral, and if I wanted to continue doing fun stuff around video games, I'd have to make the switch to online. It then quickly became apparent to Andy, Jane and me that YouTube was the best place to achieve what we wanted to achieve with Outside Xbox.
What's the most controversial retro gaming opinion you hold?
It's that the sustainable legal future of retro gaming might well be via streaming, even though after the Stadia collapse, 'game streaming' is somewhat looked down upon.
I've really enjoyed fooling around with Jam.gg, which is a retro game-specific and multiplayer-focused streaming service. Yes, there's latency, but for casual play with a few friends, it's perfectly manageable. I do spend money on occasional retro collection on Switch, such as the TMNT Cowabunga Collection or Capcom Fighting Collection recently, because they include built-in online multiplayer, but I'd happily pay a monthly subscription for a retro game service that had a vast, Netflix-esque licensed catalogue, decent multiplayer for every single game and a client that runs on a variety of devices.
Is it easy to balance out your day job and family life with your gaming interests?
Not really, and in particular, I have a terrible habit of buying gaming stuff, particularly arcade-related stuff recently, that I simply don't have the time to enjoy. The rekindled interest in arcades was definitely a symptom of lockdown, the discovery of Arcade1up's brilliant ¾ scale replicas via YouTubers Retro Ralph and Console Kits coincided with a huge hunger for nostalgia, which I think was a retreat into my 'safe space' while the world seemed to be collapsing around us all.
I've come up with something of a solution, though; having adored my Astro City Mini, I just bought a full-sized Sega Astro City candy cabinet that has taken residence in Loading Bar in Stoke Newington until I have the time and space to properly enjoy it. In the meantime, hopefully, it'll bring some joy to the punters at my favourite gaming bar. Just promise to look after it if you swing by to check it out!
How involved do you get with retro gaming events around the UK? Is it nice to meet like-minded gamers and fans?
I'll be honest, I'm yet to make it to a dedicated retro gaming event, but I love sampling the retro stuff at places like EGX and even permanent locations like the Arcade Club in Leeds, which is very close to where I grew up. As for meeting like-minded gamers and fans, it's always a treat and flattering if people have watched and enjoyed our videos at all. We're extremely fortunate to have a great, positive and creative community surrounding Outside Xbox and Xtra, and it's been brilliant to finally start meeting those people at events again.
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 certainly don't think retro gaming is going anywhere. The stuff that really excites me about retro at the moment is the work around FPGA with the MiSTer. Emulators have done a great job of preserving games that otherwise would have been lost in the mists of time, and FPGA feels like an opportunity to preserve games even more faithfully in the future. I'm yet to get my hands on a MiSTer, but I'm super excited to do so.
I think what would be interesting would be if some brave soul could work out the economics of producing new CRT screens in various sizes. I think, like most retro fans, I have a fear that the remaining CRTs (not least my own) will eventually go pop, and there'll be nothing left to replace them. Some of the CRT filters on games and emulators are impressive, but there's nothing quite like blasting your eyeballs with a good old-fashioned monitor or TV.
As for the community, having discovered a small group of creators surrounding Arcade1up and other home arcade systems, whose podcasts I still listen to on long drives and when I'm scrubbing the bathroom, I think there's always going to spaces like Time Extension and YouTubers that are keeping the retro scene alive. And while nostalgia for home consoles is always going to be present (and evolving as younger fans become interested in their own era of retro), I'm really glad more and more retro arcades and barcades are springing up to keep that particular corner of gaming history feeling vibrant and alive.