It was on a dingy Saturday in January, 2002.
I was on a train bound from Didcot Parkway (perpetually dingy) to London Paddington, a brown envelope of assorted twenties and tens clutched in my hands. It totalled £250 – a quantity of cash that, seen in physical form, made me clammy with nerves.
It was my money – literally, all of my money. The result of several months of saving cash mowing neighbours’ lawns and hoarding the sort of unimaginative-yet-welcome birthday and Christmas presents that fit into cards (“boys are hard to buy for”).
As we pulled into the iron cathedral that is Paddington, my dad gave me a yet another concerned look. “You’re sure you want to do this?”
I nodded. I was utterly convinced. This was finally the day I was going to buy an Xbox console, and with it a game the Official Xbox Magazine had described as “the greatest shooter of all time”. At the age of 14, I was too naive to understand the potential bias of such a publication, but I knew, with a faith bordering on religious, that Halo: Combat Evolved was going to be the greatest game I’d ever played.
My dad was accompanying me to meet a guy I’d found on eBay who’d been fortunate enough to get two consoles for Christmas (lucky sod). He was selling one with a choice of either Dead or Alive 3 or Halo, but I’d need to meet him promptly; if I saved him the hassle of postage, it was mine. I had nearly broken the keyboard stabbing out the four letter title stating which game I wanted.
He was genuinely disappointed when I arrived to claim my prize. “It’s good,” he said. “Amazing actually. I should have only offered Dead or Alive. You’ll love it.”
I must have read the Halo instruction manual a dozen times on the trip back. I could identify every enemy, describe every weapon, name each vehicle before I’d so much as popped the disc in the tray. By the time I tore through the console's maze of foam and cable ties, jammed home the SCART cable and powered on, I knew more about the world of Halo and its warring characters than I did about the UK’s own system of government.
A significant part of my devotion to this game about a green armoured super soldier killing aliens is down to good timing. In 2002, I was in the midst of the grand battle that is puberty: my enthusiasm for life was yet to be corrupted by cynicism, but I was desperate to be cool. Halo slotted itself into that precarious, awkward stage of life, sandwiched neatly between an obsession with dinosaurs and the discovery of football and the opposite sex. Halo was cool, I knew it was cool, and I clung to it hoping that by devoting myself to it, I might transcend to its levels of coolness and escape my own teenage angst.
There’s little point wandering misty-eyed through the finer details of my first experience of playing the game. You’re probably reading this because, like me, the game has already claimed a very special seat in your formative years. The chilling song of those monks from the menu screen still gets you gooey. You have fond memories of unleashing your first one-shot pistol kill on a Hunter. You know where to find that life-saving health pack and rocket launcher in The Library.
There have been enough words spilt on the internet about how good Halo is. Close to a dozen games and spin-offs have been made in its name, several of which fine-tuned this original to the point of near perfection. That's not what this is about.
The point is, I will never play another video game that will be important to me as Halo. It just won’t happen. A more technically impressive, better balanced game could come out tomorrow and it wouldn’t leave a dent. Because the opportunity has passed.
At the age of 14, I had to spend all the money I had in the world for a chance to become the Master Chief. I had to commit all of my worldly riches to enter into a piece of entertainment, and – mercifully – the game delivered an experience that matched my levels of expectation.
I still play a lot of video games. I love some of them. But amidst that cynicism that creeps in over the years, grasping a controller with calloused hands when I stop doing “more important” things, video games ceased to hold the same magic, the same anticipation that can only come from hoarding months of pocket money to step into their world. The mature equivalent would be stashing all my pay cheques, flogging my possessions and buying my dream car, or putting a deposit on a house – but it’s just not the same. That stuff's too heavy, too worldly. You don’t need an insurance policy or a mortgage to punch a Grunt in the face.
I will never participate in an act of capitalism that will be as rewarding as that which I undertook at the age of 14 with an envelope of cash in the auditorium of a London train station. And that, more than anything else, is why Halo will always be more special than any other video game, why it's the best video game I will ever play.