Monday, January 27, 2014

If These Thumbs Could Talk

A Mario game lets you pretend to be a middle-aged chubster hopping onto a turtle shell. - Jeff Ryan

My nerd podcast (The Incomparable) recently did a video game episode where they talked about the most meaningful video games of their life. What a great idea.

As a younger kid, I grew up a gamer - as hardcore of a gamer as my parents would let me be. They bought my brother and me the Atari 2600 and it was fantastic. We probably had a total of thirty games (30 x $50 = $1,500 <shudder>) There were two games on the Atari that really stand out for me. The first should surprise you, Tooth Protectors. It was a rip off of Space Invaders and you had to defend your teeth with toothpaste. The unique thing was that you had both the top teeth and the bottom teeth to defend, so you had to keep moving between the top and bottom. I got really really good at this game, and part of the reason I loved it was that I was so much better than anyone else I knew. I schooled my brother, and he didn't get mad, he encouraged me. I remember icing the my thumb between levels because it would hurt so bad and he would be cheering me on past my old high score (which we kept written on a piece of paper next to the Atari).

The other Atari game I learned to love was called Star Raiders. This was a very late edition game, required the second generation 2600, and did some very interesting things with using a quick-reset to get back to the star map to choose a new place to go. It pushed the 2600 to limit of what it could do, and it pushed my 7-year-old self to limit of what I could do. The game frustrated me because it was so complex; I loved the game because it was so complex. Even after we got the Nintendo, I would go back and try and do well at this game.

My parents bought me the Nintendo the first Christmas it was out complete with Lightgun and Robbie the Robot. Over the time we had the Nintendo we probably bought fifty games for it (50 x $50 = $2,500 <shudder>).

Super Mario that came with the console. I remember the day Super Mario 2 was released, driving from Sears to Best with my dad looking for it until we final found it! But my favorite game for the NES was Super Mario 3. It was 2-player semi-cooperative (a good thing for brothers) and was the first sort of "open level" design I had seen. You could take different paths through a map to skip places - or let one person do a level he was particular good at (Hammer Brothers). Fantastic.

I group all of the RPGs I played together: Final Fantasy, Ultima, Dragon Warrior. I never beat any of these games - but I played them to death. This was in the days before the internet and the walk-through strategy guides. You beat these games by figuring them out and talking with your friends at school, "where do you get the rat's tail?!? Where is the airship located?" It was an epic group adventure. I still have my Final Fantasy Strategy Guide (from Nintendo Power) - it is a strategy guide, not a walk thru.

We had a neighbor with an Intellivision - the game I wanted to play was Utopia. The first turn-based strategy game saw. This was the precursor to CommandHQ, Civilization, and many more games to come. I loved it, but he didn't, so it was hard to get him to play.

Special mention time! The same year my friends were getting Gameboys, I got an Atari Lynx. I read the gamer magazines and knew this: OH MY GOSH, Atari Lynx was a 16-bit color handheld gaming console. It shamed the Gameboy. It shamed the Nintendo. It came out the year BEFORE the SNES. This was my first experience in life being an advocate for something that was superior to the dominant product. It started me on the road of loving OS/2, OSX, Hybrids, Plasma TVs, Nest, and who knows what else. The only problem is, I don't remember much about the games on it.

By highschool I took a pause on console gaming. I played computer games, chatted on BBSes, started dating, and generally found other things that took up my leisure time. So the Super Nintendo, N64, Dreamcast, GameCube, Playstation all passed me by. My college roommate had an N64 and we played a lot of Killer Instinct and that was fantastic. In our freshman roommate contract it said: "Q: How will settle roommate disputes?" "A: Killer Instinct."

After college I got a real job, disposable income, and travelled for work 70% of the time. I pre-order the PlayStation 2. I 50% wanted it for the DVD Player and 50% for the game console. I had so much fun with my PS2. So much fun. I travelled with me from hotel to hotel.

Before I love my PS2, let me make a call back to a Playstation Game, Bushido Blade. I haven't seen anything like it before or after. Six characters with different traits who can pick between six weapons with different traits and there is only one important thing to know: getting sliced with a sword kills you. No life bars. No power meters. When you opponent gets a killing hit you are killed. The game is much like how I imagine real fencing looks, slow pokes and prods looking for weakness, and eventually three seconds of action and someone is dead. "Best of 30" was a common challenge.

Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 were amazing. These were the first console RPGs I beat - and I mean I BEAT those games. In Final Fantasy X I won the Chocobo races and dodged lightening two-hundred times in a row. There is nothing quite as magical as double-casting Ultima for one magic point with both Yuna and Lula. Enemies fall before you. In X-2 I beat the Infinito Dungeon. It goes 99 levels deep, the strategy guides takes you down to level 20 and then says, "this is basically impossible. You don't need to beat it to win." Really? Just because the strategy guide authors couldn't beat it, doesn't mean I wasn't going to. Because I did. I photographed the screen when it happened I was so excited.

Ico was amazing. There was no cheating by the game designers on the map - you were in a fully formed castle that you walked through. No warp tunnels, no airships, just a castle. The two main characters didn't speak, and yet slowly you understood what was going on in the backstory. You probably cried.

My last PS2 callout was Grand Theft Auto 3. The game that defined open map design but wasn't an RPG. Wander the entire city. Sure you had missions, but why not play crazy taxi? Why not do motor cycle races? The game was crazy and it almost felt like you could do anything.

And then I stopped playing games again... I tried to play Epic Mickey. I tried to play Gone Home. I don't have the time. Mrs.Chaos will say, "you could play Epic Mickey for 30 minutes." Unless I can sit down and *PLAY* for a few hours, I don't have the desire. And I can't sit down and play for a few hours.

Someday the kids will be teenagers and maybe then, we can play as a family. We'll see.

Note: Look up the video titled "If These Thumbs Could Talk." You're welcome.