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Shall we play a game?

20 February 2011

It seems like these days video games are a more socially acceptable entertainment choice than ever before, even for adults.  Now of course growing up when and where I did, I played a ton of games in arcades and eventually Nintendo, Sega, PC, etc.  Make no mistake, I was way into it when I was little.  But I can’t remember the last time I had a bunch of free hours to kill playing a Playstation.  I mean, my days and nights are jam packed with other commitments, and I thought that was pretty normal for adults.  Who are all these people with tons of time to play?  How do they ever find the time?

I saw in recent months that Red Dead Redemption has been released.  It’s the highly-anticipated follow up to the last game that I really got hooked on back around 2004: Red Dead Revolver.  In honor of this new sequel that I don’t have the time to buy and play, I thought I’d run down some of the notable games that hooked me over the years.  I will confess though that with this new PC, I did carve out a couple hours to install and play Hitman: Blood Money, which came out in 2006.  With this new hardware, I was able to run the game with all the graphics options maxed out, and it ran without a hitch.  I only had time to play a couple levels, but wow… I really missed out back then.  My old machine would barely run this thing.  With this suped up 2011 PC, the visuals were stunning!  And again, this is a game from five years ago.  It makes me wonder in the last half decade how much more incredible games have gotten… and I’m not sure I want to find out.

I’m about to geek out on video games as I never have and never will again.  If there were a way to block girls from ever reading this post, I would invoke it.  I’ll do my best not to just list every game I ever played, meaning I’ll attempt to focus on just the ones that really impacted me in terms of my creative development and even just the time and financial investment.  Before I proceed, big ups to San Jose’s “Aladdin’s Castle,” Pleasanton’s “Game Station,” and the many pizza parlors, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and 7-11s that I frequented in my youth.  In those days, my friends and I kept close track of what arcade games were where.  These days, I just watch a YouTube video of the walkthrough of an entire game and I’m just as happy.  And finally, check out the KLOV for details on pretty much any game ever made.

Scroll down for the simple top 10 list (top 1010?), but for those of you who care to come along for the whole journey, here’s a brief-ish history.

In The Beginning…

My earliest video game memory is of the Atari 400.  It had a keyboard built in so as to allow some primitive form of word processing, and there was even something music-related with a cassette tape peripheral.  The salesman had told my dad that it was “the last computer [he’d] ever need.”  Not quite, I guess.  But these were the earliest of games.  We were rocking the classics like Pac-Man, Centipede, Joust, Frogger, Space Invaders, Pole Position, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, and Missile Command.  I also recall Jungle Hunt, a billiards game called Rack ’em Up, some mission-to-Mars something or other, and some kind of fifteen puzzle game I can no longer remember.  Oh, and of course Krazy Shoot-Out!  This was the game where my dad famously pranked the family by recording himself playing very well on the new VCR (also a marvel at the time), then had me pretend to be playing while his recording played.  “OMG, everyone look how good Benji is playing!”  OK, I’m pretty sure he didn’t say “OMG,” but the rest happened.

Then came the original Nintendo.  The classics here were Duck Hunt and of course the Super Mario Bros. series, which I was never way into… though I do remember a certain anticipation of part three tied in with that Fred Savage movie “The Wizard.”  Other memorable titles include Pro Wrestling, , Excitebike, SNK Baseball Stars, Super Dodge Ball, Ice Hockey, Legendary Wings (which I was playing when the 1989 earthquake hit), and my friend Olin’s mainstay The Guardian Legend.  In those days, I’d rent a lot of Nintendo games from the local video store.  More than I could possibly remember… though as I sit here typing, the titles are coming back to me.  Must… resist… urge… to… list them all.  Without question though, the best Nintendo game of all time is a dead heat between Contra (U, U, D, D, L, R, L, R, B, A, START anyone?) and Tecmo Bowl (as well as later, Tecmo Super Bowl).

Somewhere in the mid-eighties, we got our first “real” home computer of the Amiga variety.  I don’t guess I know how you’d classify it in modern computing terms, but I suppose Amiga had their own OS.  The peripherals were what you know and love.  A monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a floppy drive.  It had a real word processor, some basic midi, a program that would “speak” whatever you typed, and Deluxe Paint (think ancient Photoshop).  As far as games went, there were some notables.  Marble Madness comes to mind.  Battle Chess of course!  Temple Of Apshai, Barbarian(whoa!), Roadwar 2000, Arctic Fox, Bomb Jack (which I have a vague recollection of winning at school?), some flight simulator, and one of the first text/graphic adventures games — which I was too young to win, but would recognize and admonish you for entering cuss words.  And around this time in school we were playing the famous Oregon Trail and Odell Lake on Apples.

My So-Called Life

In my teen years, I got into the Sega family.  Those systems came and went so fast, they kinda blur together for me.  I know for sure it was the Genesis that had the original Sonic The Hedgehog, as well as a ton of amazing sports games that happen to hit me right in those early nineties years when I was actually into sports (such as R.B.I. ’93, and the many EA series like Madden FootballNHL Hockey, and several basketball games based on Lakers vs. Celtics… gotta love those signature dunks!).  At some point, the Sega CD came out, followed by the Saturn, and eventually the Dreamcast.  I had all of them, and I can’t recall for certain which games were on which systems as it all bleeds together in hazy memories of my dusty bedroom at the family home in the East Bay.  But one of the favorites that strikes me first is the second Eternal Champions, full of time travelling historical figures, fighting and killing each other using elements of the backdrop.  My sister and I found rare common ground with our love of The Horde, featuring Kirk Cameron!  Then the peerless zombie shooter House Of The Dead, which I fondly recall having two controllers for and starting up players 1 and 2 and going John Woo style.  (P.S. Just so you know, 1:06 is how you handle a zombie.  Owned.)  I remember Jared and I used to play this amazing basketball game (NBA 2k1) where you could create your own players.  Of course mine was a 7’6″ white guy with an afro, star-shaped sunglasses, short shorts, and knee-high socks.  He could dunk without hardly jumping.  Jared’s guy was more true to life height, but he’d sink half court threes all the time.  Which brings me to a couple of killers: the Virtua Fighter series and the Soulcalibur series.  Those series both spanned into the PS3 world, and spoiler alert: they’re both in my top 10, so more on them below.

During this time, I should mention I had my stint working at Blockbuster, and so I had many, many late nights after closing playing Twisted Metal at Donnie’s house, and later GoldenEye in the manager’s office with The Horsemen.

So then I finally broke down and got the PlayStation 2 everyone was raving about.  It didn’t disappoint.  In addition to introducing me formally to the Tekken series, it brought another pair of my top 10s into my life: Gladius and Red Dead Revolver.  There was also a cool WWF game that let me build my own wrestler and furnish him, of course, with the camel clutch… which I believe at the time I dubbed “the Ugly Clutch.”

Keeping It PC

After the Amiga days, my family got into Windows 3.1, and then when I started buying my own computers, it was Windows 98, then XP, and now Windows 7.  People bitch about Microsoft (“where quality is job 1.1” ha ha!), but I’ve generally been happy with their products.  I don’t want to get sidetracked with this, but besides my short love affair with HyperCard on the school-owned Macs in middle school, I’ve never cared for Apples, much less owned one.  To me, they’re computers that assume the user is completely non-technical and shouldn’t be allowed to tweak anything.  And if that suits you, then great, but it comes across like Fisher-Price to me.  I digress.  My point was that PC games deserve their own category, though chronologically speaking, it spans from around 1990 to present day.  The first PC game I remember being enamored with was the first (and later second) of the Monkey Island series.  Similar to this (and created by the same company, LucasArts) was the excellent Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis.  All of these LucasArts adventure games were done with such class and quality, you just can’t find a fault with them.  Every little detail is perfect.  (Incidentally, LucasArts was also responsible for PS2’s Gladius, mentioned above and below.)  Sierra made their share of great adventure games of this style too, and while they weren’t quite as polished, they were still a lot of fun.  There was the famously sleazy Leisure Suit Larry series, as well as Police Quest and the masterful King’s Quest VI.

There was SimCity, which later spawned The Sims — being a ridiculous game in which you dress and design virtual people and houses and then tell them when to eat and poop.  Jessica and I shared an obsession with it in 2002, even mimicking their language, and I believe my Sim Benjamin cheated on her Sim Jessica with Sim Morrissey.  For a few years, I got into first-person shooters like Doom and Hexen, then later had my one and only foray into online gaming with Half-Life and Counter-Strike.  Later came the Hitman series, which was way up my alley.  I confess I did play the geeky Vampire Masquerade game for a while, which I maintain was awesome.  There were some crazy driving games like Carmageddon, where you would race, demolition derby, and annihilate pedestrians all at once.  Or Interstate ’76, a hilarious and cinematic take on doing battle… in muscle cars… in the desert… in 1976.  (Someone posted all the cutscenes back-to-back here: parts one, two, and three.)

Insert Witty “Arcade Fire” Pun — Which I Am Too Tired To Think Of

Also deserving of its own category, all video game obsession in the eighties and nineties started with whatever was new at the local arcade.  In fact some of the titles already mentioned first landed on my radar in the arcade.  And some of the ones I’m about to talk about I also had in some form at home.  And hell, these days an enterprising PC user can find “free” emulators like MAME to get hundreds of old arcade games working on your computer.  But I don’t even know where to start here.  I mean, there were so many I played over they years.  Maybe I’ll group them by theme?

Side-scrolling fighting games — also known as “beat ’em ups” — were the real bread and butter of my young arcade-going life.  Double Dragon was probably the earliest as well as the gold standard.  Other great titles like Crime Fighters and Final Fight followed this format, as did several lesser ones like Bad Dudes and Two Crude (though it was fun to throw cars and beat up a soda machine for more energy).  Once you start throwing swords and magical powers into the equation, you get Altered Beast (rise from your grave!) and Strider.  There was that Indiana Jones game too that covered all the coolest parts of the Temple Of Doom movie.  Awesome ninja games like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden (which spawned a Nintendo game I forgot to mention earlier; its intro sequence still haunts me to this day).  TMNT had a well made arcade game similar in style to The Simpsons.  Another fave was the Splatterhouse series which essentially let you take on the role of Jason from Friday The 13th.  Then the barbarian movie trend of the eighties no doubt influenced the creation of games like Gauntlet (wizard needs food badly… wizard is about to die… you are it!), Gauntlet Legends, and the Golden Axe series (of which The Revenge Of Death Adder was the crown jewel).  When it came to side-scrolling shooters, there were dozens more.  Most etched into my memory are Rolling Thunder, NARC, Sunset Riders, and ESWAT.

Arcade driving and racing games weren’t usually my thing, but there were a few notable exceptions.  I think the earliest one I liked was the classic Spy Hunter, famously featuring the Peter Gunn theme.  I remember Super Off Road a little, and have a similarly vague memory of racing my sister on Toobin’.  Later in life I found love for them though, while peeling out in a ’56 Chevy in Cruis’n World and going nuts in Crazy Taxi.  I could even appreciate the amount of environmental controller feedback in the choppy waters of Hydro Thunder.

I was only really into sports for a few years in the early nineties, and frankly it took the form of video games and baseball cards more than it did actually playing the sports.  But in those days, besides the sports games on home consoles I already mentioned, I was all about NBA Jam.  The cartoonish format and ridiculous dunks emphasized everything I liked about the sport.  Prior to that, I enjoyed the medieval football brawl of Pigskin and the skateboarding classic 720° (skate or die!).  The best wrestling games ever (WWF Superstars and WWF WrestleFest) were found in arcades in those days, helping to feed my insane childhood wrestling fandom.  And then of course the blockbuster Punch-Out (which had a long life on Nintendo as well).

My final days in the arcade were centered around one-on-one type fighting games.  There are a couple of “kings” of this genre back in the golden age.  The first was Street Fighter II which really did seem to revolutionize gaming and spawn dozens (if not hundreds) of imitators.  It wasn’t the first game to use that format, but it was the slickest and most sophisticated by leaps and bounds.  The same company (Capcom) produced another of my favorite series (just barely missing my top 10) called “Darkstalkers.”  It was basically the SFII format, but with better art and animation, more in-depth backdrops and characters, and of course… they were all monsters (vampires, werewolves, mummies, etc.).  This was one of several games Jared and I were very competitive with each other on.  Along these same lines were the later Marvel vs. Capcom games, which brought a ton of Marvel Comics characters into the world of 2D fighting, against various characters in the Capcom universe.  Just before SFII hit the scene in 1991, it was actually Pit-Fighter that first caught my eye.  It used digitized pictures, and while it was a little clunky, it gave rise to the second “king” of early fighting games: Mortal Kombat.  The first and second games in that series were hugely influential and controversial, if you recall (FINISH HIM!).  The SNK/Neo-Geo company got in the mix throughout the nineties.  They were mostly known for their several SFII also-rans like the Fatal Fury series, but they hit a high point there with the King Of Fighters series, bringing together characters from many games in the SNK universe.  Their ultimate achievement in my eyes though is far and away the Samurai Showdown series, which is on my top 10 below.  Their attempts to capture that magic again with the Last Blade series were also admirable.  There were many, many other similar fighting games over the years that held my fancy for a few weeks.  Some silly, some pretty good.  But far too many to research or mention.  The whole decade was dominated by these games.

A few final and meaningful standards that don’t fit in anywhere else… Paperboy (where yes, you were actually a paperboy) was hard as hell to control, and it had an infectious theme song.  Another vocational was the ancient table top game Tapper, which serves me often as a metaphor when I’m describing my life.  Rampage put you in the shoes of Godzilla, King Kong, or a giant wolf… and then let you tear apart city after city.  And finally, one of the most recognizable early arcade hits: the controllable cartoon known as Dragon’s Lair.

The Top 10

And after all that, I just know I’m forgetting dozens of great games.  I’ll probably be coming back to update this posting for weeks as I randomly remember more.  It’s so hard to even settle on 10, because at one time, I had a minor obsession with each of the games described above.  Way more than 10 of them.  I thought about them a lot.  I daydreamed about them.  I coveted codes for them, and watched gaming magazines to find out about new discoveries and sequels and strategy guides for them.  A lot of my young time and thought spent, now just reduced to a hyperlink somewhere in the last several paragraphs.  I can still remember the magic of seeing a new game in the local arcade, pushing the envelope of graphical capabilities, and watching the demo reel over and over.  And begging mom and dad for quarters.  *sigh*  So here they are in rough chronological order… the games I miss, my favorites of all time:

  1. Monkey Island
    I think I first saw The Secret Of Monkey Island as a playable demo at a Circuit City or something.  Later I found my friend Jonah had it, and I played it a while at his house.  One day I got a copy for myself, as well as Monkey Island 2 .It’s not like I wasn’t ever captivated by a game before this one, but this is the first one that I can remember felt magical even beyond just the novelty aspect which I think drove me on those early arcade games.  I discussed the magic a little on #10 on my last Christmas list, and I did end up getting them for myself.  But I have yet to actually install and play them because who has the time?
  2. Street Fighter II
    As I mentioned, SFII revolutionized gaming, and I definitely drank the Kool-Aid for that one.  I learned all teh moves for all the characters, learned their backgrounds, competed in the local arcades and convenience stores.  I’d have to say that it’s actually Street Fighter III and its variations that were my favorite, particularly with the much smoother graphics and weirder characters.  (Dudley would easily make my list of favorite game characters of all time.)  Though maybe that’s all revisionist history, as I was never really obsessed with the third one the way I was with the second.
  3. Mortal Kombat
    Kind of simultaneously with SFII, I began my obsession with Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II.  I was so into every character, every move, every secret in the game.  I lived and breathed it for a while.  I played with G.I. Joes as though they were characters from the game.  I played it until I was somewhat competitive.  The later games in the series looked neat enough, and maybe it was just my age, but after part II, my interest waned considerably.
  4. Samurai Showdown
    As I was getting into martial arts in real life in the mid nineties, my interest in the associated weaponry expanded.  It was right about this time that I discovered the first in the Samurai Showdown series.  When the Samurai Showdown II came out, it was phenomenal.  I was all about it, and got to be relatively competitive with it.  The later games in the series were not common in local arcades, but over the years I’ve discovered that they are “available” via emulators.  The graphics improved each time, and I guess now they’re up to part VI.  I need to get on that.
  5. Virtua Fighter 3
    When the first Virtua Fighter arrived, it was ugly.  But it was something new: a completely 3-D game.  I played it a little, but it wasn’t until Virtua Fighter 2 came out that I went nuts with it.  Aside from poring over every move and graphic, I got good at this game.  Really good.  I would posit that playing as “Kage” on Virtua Fighter 2 was the best I’ve ever been at any video game.  VF3 made another leap in graphics and interactive backdrops and was probably my favorite of the series, and though I was great at it too, I never dominated to quite the extent I did on part 2.  There have been several more sequels in this series, but I have failed to follow them.
  6. Half-Life / Counter-Strike
    OK, I’m cheating by putting Half-Life and Counter-Strike together here, but they’re closely related.  I first discovered Half-Life in my interning days around 1999 I think.  Some of the guys I worked with were way into it, and they got me hooked too.  We’d play competitively long nights in the lab there.  I learned to camp.  I learned about snarks.  We downloaded skins like Party Bear, which you had to wear as punishment for various things.  We made custom tags to spray all over the maps.  We spliced Tommy Boy quotes (“Bees!  Bees!  Bees in the car!  Bees everywhere!  God, they’re huge and they’re sting crazy!  They’re ripping my flesh off!  Run away, your firearms are useless against them!”) into the game to play whenever you got hit with the hivehand.  We replaced the remote bomb skin with the health pack skin.  (“Hey, how come I can’t pick up this health pack!?”  BOOM!).  Yeah, it was a fun little cult we had going for a while there.  Later, Counter-Strike came along which I played more from home.  Jared got in on it, too.  We had a lame little clan.  I never was great, but I was decent.  My best score ever was 64 and 11, just before we went to Ireland.  Yes, I wrote it down and have been waiting for an excuse to document it somewhere so I don’t have to keep track of it anymore.  Yes, I was a secret nerd.
  7. Hitman
    The Hitman series… what can I say.  Sneak around, trying to off people in exotic ways and places?  Like consulting, but with a silenced pistol.  Me gusta.  I can’t pick just one.  I love them all.
  8. Soulcalibur
    Soulcalibur was another 3-D fighting game series, like Virtua Fighter but with swords.  The first two or three of them I played with Jared, Dad, and a few other friends, and I think that next to Kage on Virtua Fighter, my Cervantes on Soulcaliburs I, II, and III is my most formidable showing on a game, competitively speaking.  I could whup some monkey ass with those two swords.  This fact made its way into inside jokes like “going Sosa-vantes” when swinging my Wiffle ball bats around, or “going Lipton-vantes” when threatening to teabag someone.  And my Astaroth wasn’t bad either.  The games were not as sophisticated as Virtua Fighter, but they were definitely epic.
  9. Gladius
    Another fine showing by LucasArts, Gladius was an amazing and tragically overlooked gladiator-themed tactical RPG.  It being from LucasArts, every little detail was attended to.  The artwork, the characters, the gameplay… nothing lacked depth.  It almost touched the level of Monkey Island in terms of immersion, and that’s saying something.  At the very least, it remains the best gladiator game ever produced, and I don’t dare plug it in anymore lest I lose another several weeks of my life.  It swallowed up my dad for a while too.
  10. Red Dead Revolver
    Now we come full circle.  The last game that got a hold of me was one I ran across by accident.  It wasn’t hyped too much, and it was long after I paid any attention to gaming magazines or websites.  I don’t remember exactly how I heard about Red Dead Revolver, but it might be on my top 5 ever.  Or even top 3.  It’s made by the same guys that brought you Grand Theft Auto (which I’ve never played), but it is instead a spaghetti western.  And boy did they do it right.  The plot and characters, the backgrounds and weapons, all perfect recreations of spaghetti flicks.  The music was breathtaking, culled from real soundtracks (and I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I tracked down every one of those hard-to-find Italian soundtracks and built my spaghetti music collection on it; I am less ashamed to admit it had a hand in me trying to start a spaghetti wester band a few years ago).  Even the screen flickers and blurs like an old film.  It feels like you’re in a movie!  I regret that I don’t have the time to jump into the new sequel and all of its expansion packs.  If it were 10 years ago, I’d be all over it.

After looking at everything I just wrote… holy shit, I played a lot of video games in my life.  And these are just the ones I played often!  God knows how many more there’d be if I were just trying to name everything I could remember.  What possessed me to even write all this out?  Pointless reminiscing about silly things.  It’s a sickness, what can I tell you?  Perhaps I should have spent this time playing Hitman instead of blogging…

Listening to: Del Shannon – “Greatest Hits

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2 Comments to “Shall we play a game?”

  1. I was way into Atari from fall 1981 until summer 1983. I was living in Columbus Ohio at the time and this was 5th and 6th grade for me. This is when all the classic Atari games were coming out and everyone in general was flipping out about video games. By the summer of 1982 the craze had even reached the billboard charts when that song “PacMan Fever” made the top 40. Then there were those folks who had worked for Atari and started there own thing – Activision – which you could also use on yer Atari console. I had several Activision games but the two I remember the most were the one where the guy in the villian costume is dropping bombs you gotta catch before they hit the ground (Brigade?) and the one where you are roping horses and dodging cows (Stampede).

    So yeah…we got all the cool games when they were coming out…mostly in 1982 – asteroids, pacman, E.T..etc etc.. I was one of those kids that was almost always outside doing stuff but when i was’nt I was playing video games.

    Sometime in early 1983 we got one of those Atari 400 computers. I think my dad won it at work or something. It had that tape recorder then you would use when you wanted to save one of yer progams. for me this meant do this:

    10 Print “Nick is the greatest”
    20 Go to 10

    ..then it would fill the screen with “Nick is the Greatest” or whatever else you wanted.

    So we went crazee on Atari for those two years. Then in the summer of 1983 we moved to Chicago. My parents never hooked up our Atari in our new house. I dont know if this was by accident or on purpose. Our previous house in Columbus had a loft with an extra TV where the Atari was hooked up. We did not have this extra TV or loft in Chicago…so it never got hooked up again…and I dont ever remember missing it…and that was that.

    I’ve never owned a video game system since.

    I still love playing the old arcade games “Tron” “Dig Dub” “Galaga” and The Pac Man/Ms Pacman. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has all of these 😀

    • Ha! That’s great… I forgot about the Tron game. That was a little before my time, so my memories of it are hazy. I don’t think I was old enough to really play it or “get” it. But I definitely remember seeing it at like Golf Land I think. 😉

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