Friday, June 4, 2010
It's official: today's video games are way too realistic. The other day I foolishly opted to play some Big Buck Hunter at a local bar, leading to my inevitable cowering at the prospect of repeatedly killing deer that bore ab eerie resemblance to Bambi's mom. What happened to the days of blurrily pixelated hunting? I don't think I could ever shoot a real live deer in the face, yet I'm more than gleeful for a shot (pun intended) at some Duck Hunt mallards or lethargic bison in Oregon Trail. What? I don't want that dog to mock my haul, nor do I want to face the embarrassment of having caught so few pounds of meat that it actually fits in my covered wagon. It's a legitimate justification.
With a sufficient proportion of pixelated non-realism coupled with a totally fake looking red plastic gun, even the most squeamish shooters among us were wont to take out an entire flock in a single round. Old school Nintendo knew a thing or two (in retrospect, I'd say two) about the notion of less is more. The game was incredibly repetitive, requiring us only to shoot at a duck or two per round and to avoid shooting the dog. It may not have held the attention of today's overstimulated child, but many children of the 80s and 90s lost great stretches of time--not to mention the ability to focus our eyes--to this simple electronic endeavor.
In comparison to the shooting games available on today's video game market, Duck Hunt was incredibly tame. Our duck victims never bled profusely from their gaping wounds nor did they ever shake a mangled wing at us while accusing us of poultricide. In fact, we had almost no interaction with them at all. They simply flew overhead to the mesmerizingly hypnotic music, we shot at them, and our loyal canine companion retrieved their abandoned carcasses. No fuss, no muss.
Of course, it wasn't all invisible off-screen blood and guts as we appraised our killing streak. We also had a chance to shoot skeet, which thankfully had no R-rated double meaning to us at the time. The eruptions of clay pigeons in the air was not especially differentiated from the hunting of live ducks, thanks to the primitive mid-80s gaming graphics technology. Whether the bullet contact induced an exploding gray circle or an exploding purple and white circle with wings, it all sort of blended into a generally gore-free exercise.
That dog, though, could have used some serious etiquette training. In fact, many bootleg versions of the game enable the player to shoot and kill the dog, fulfilling the fantasy many of us constructed after enduring his endless merciless taunts at our shoddy aim. You shoot, you miss, the dog mocks you profusely. It was more than enough to grate on our fragile young egos. Plus, he was incredibly annoying. I admit to aiming the gun at him once or twice, but unfortunately in the official game, there's just no getting rid of him.
No matter how easily amused we claim we may have been as children, there's no true justification for having played this game for more than 20 minutes at a time. It is so utterly mindless, prolonged playing may begin melting the softer areas of your brain. There is, indeed, an object to the game: shoot anything that moves; however, that's not quite enough of a motivating premise to keep us engaged for hours a la Super Mario Brothers or Tetris.
Duck Hunt's popularity can be credited to its bundling with the Super Mario Brothers game, both of which came with the classic Nintendo Entertainment System. While Duck Hunt probably couldn't stand alone as a bestselling game, it enjoyed widespread de facto popularity for one reason: because it was there. The plastic gun was still a bit of a novelty for an at-home gaming system, so it didn't matter much to us that the game was a simple exercise in point and shoot. We point, we shot, we outsmarted that damn dog.
It certainly didn't attain the same cult following as its bundle-mate Super Mario Brothers, but Duck Hunt achieved a quiet iconic status by default. Whether or not you were a fan of the game, if you owned an NES, you probably owned Duck Hunt. I still can't see that little red plastic gun without itching to take out some 8-bit fowl. I may not have ever developed the killer instinct, but this family friendly take on a shooting game made the genre palatable to even the wussiest of young gamers. See, sensitive kids can kill things, too! Thanks, Nintendo.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
These days we have hundreds of games on our phones constantly at our immediate disposal, but once upon a time a portable video game was a real novelty. Back in the 90s, we were far more easily impressed with what may now be classified as basic technology. While today we might discount a video game system entirely if it fails to achieve HD picture quality and super realistic audio, at the time of the Game Boy's inception we were more than satiated by a few loosely connected moving pixels and a hearty round of irritatingly repetitive tones masquerading as background music. In case you can't quite hearken back to this simpler gaming time, allow this video to serve as a handy reminder:
Yes, that's right: the outrageous new game tetris! Spoken in a booming, can't-contain-his-raging-excitement voiceover, no less. This used to be the kind of stuff that truly impressed us. The revolutionary new video link wasn't too shabby, either. It may look primitive now, but this head-to-head portable gaming technology unleashed a wave of uncontrollable child excitement. Not only could we sneak this bulky, boxy gray battery-operated wonder into class with us, we could also connect to our friends' Game Boys under the desks.
Today, we might be irritated if we have to wait five seconds for a game to load, so it can be tough to recall a more patient, more easily entertained time. Upon the release of the Game Boy, many of us were pretty psyched just to learn it lasted a then-impressive 10 to 30 hours without a battery change. It might sound shoddy to us now, but contemporary handhelds could blow through batteries in as little as two hours. That endless battery life-sucking cycle is so expensive it makes crack addiction seem like a real bargain. No, Game Boy delivered on its promises to give us a better handheld video game device, and we reaped the benefits for hours. Well, 10 to 30 hours worth of benefits. We still had to keep a lot of batteries on hand.
At about ninety bucks a pop, Nintendo Game Boys were relatively cheap in comparison to their competitors' models. It may not have been in the reasonable reach of every family, but it made video games far more accessible. Our parents may have felt some guilt at allowing us hours of brainpower-zapping Game Boy time, but these things were incredibly effective at shutting us up for extended stretches of time. Ninety dollars is a relatively small price to pay for some peace and quiet. Well, sort of. If they failed to enable the mute button, our families had the pleasure of listening to endless hours of this:
Brings back the memories, doesn't it? I can almost feel the Tetris tetronimoes gradually gaining speed and eventually outwitting even the savviest of my shape-turning strategies. I've already waxed poetic at length here about the virtues of Tetris, but its profound impact on my childhood warrants extended examination. Tetris has all the makings of a true addiction. Have you ever noticed if you play Tetris frequently enough, you begin thinking in shape-fitting combinations? It even haunts your dreams. True story.
Tetris may have initially been the default favorite game because it came bundled with the purchase of an original Game Boy, but other games quickly achieved massive popularity as well. The Super Mario Land series was very well-received by Game Boy users, giving us new worlds and characters for our old buddy Mario. Super Mario Land was actually the first choice for bundling with the original Game Boy release, but Nintendo replaced it with Tetris on the assumption that Tetris held a more gender neutral appeal. As a girl who loved Mario games, I'm not totally buying the gender stereotype-enforcing reasoning, but there's probably some truth to it.
Yeah, that ad totally tells us to "give Mario a happy ending." Like I said, these were simpler times. Or maybe just times in which we were less aware of potentially hilarious double entrendres. Maybe.
Many of us also sought to "catch 'em all" in the persistently popular Pokemon games, the several versions of which sold millions of Game Boy cartridges worldwide. Considering the creator's idea for the Pokemon series was sparked by his experiences with childhood insect collecting, it turned out much cooler than you might expect. Of course, you couldn't actually kill the Pokemon, they'd just pass out for a brief nap. You could, however, link to your friends' Game Boys and trade Pokemons. That part was pretty cool. It didn't quite make up for the no-kill environment, but to be fair, the Pokemon fainting was kind of adorable.
The Legend of Zelda series was also a major seller, proving kids everywhere love solving puzzles and defeat dungeons. The plot's main storyline centered around the task of rescuing the princess Zelda, which seems to have been a major Nintendo archetype of the time. This commercial is for the NES version of the game, not the Game Boy one, but it's so hilarious I just have to share it with you. From the "WHOA! NICE GRAPHICS!" to the rad rap and the disclaimer about your parents helping you set it up, this is pure, unfiltered early-era Nintendo goodness:
Following the release of the original came the more compact Game Boy Pocket and my personal favorite, the Game Boy Camera. I never actually had the privilege of owning one of these beauties, but it remains a long-standing dream of mine even after the technology has gone defunct. I'm still not totally sure what the appeal is, but it may have had something to do with the fact that digital cameras were still a novel concept at the time. We can take photos on just about anything these days, but there was something sort of endearing about taking them with a Game Boy, don't you think?
Nearly ten years after the release of the original Game Boy came the new edition in the form of the Game Boy color. It's a little humorous now how minimally colorized the screen actually looks in the first commercial, but at the time it was a pretty impressive innovation. By this point, we were well on our way to achieving the clear and colorized graphics of today's small gaming devices.
The Game Boy wasn't the first handheld video gaming system on the market, but Nintendo's product was both accessible and successful. For those of us who lost countless hours to Tetris and Pokemon, we may not be any wiser for it, but maybe we exhibit quicker finger flicking reflexes. That's got to come in handy someday, right? I'm sure of it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go listen to that Tetris music on repeat. It's just that good.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
No wonder all of us 90s children have such a puffed-up sense of self-worth and entitlement. What else would you expect after repeatedly encouraging us to play the role of virtual God throughout our childhood and adolescent years? Through the magic of computer games, the Maxis company gave us a unique opportunity to create our own little worlds complete with a population of inhabitants to control according to our benevolent or occasionally sadistic whims. We may not all have been kind and compassionate gods to our burdgeoning creations, but we certainly were powerful.
The first SimCity computer game debuted in 1989, featuring a simulated city-building program. It seemed like an innocent enough concept, and almost extensively educational at that. The object of the game was to build fully functioning cities that could withstand the impact of various disastrous scenarios, ranging from the realistic (1906 San Francisco earthquake) to ridiculous (Tokyo attacked by unlicensed Godzilla knockoff). Upon first glance the game seemed tedious, but it quickly became exceptionally addictive. Dealing with zoning laws and tax codes are a small consolation for the unlimited control of our little city. We commanded our anonymous miniature townspeople to do our bidding, and we saw that it was good.
SimCity was a runaway success, leading to countless reincarnations and reinventions. Clearly, people just could not get enough of ruling their own microcosmic universes. It was a pretty good feeling, after all. For the cost of a computer game, you could elevate yourself to the status of almighty ruler. All in all, not a bad deal.
The follow-ups to SimCity were endless. We had SimEarth, in which we got to design and guide the development of your very own planet. There was SimLife, allowing us the opportunity to mold the "genetic playground" of an ecosystem of plants and animals. We even had SimFarm, a primitive predecessor to that pesky Farmville on Facebook. The next time you have to endure endless newsfeed posts regarding the sad encounter of an ugly duckling or sad brown cow found wandering on the outskirts of a friend's farm, you may want to shake your fist in disgust at the Sim creators who planted the idea in the first place. Yes, I said planted. It's a farm pun. Get over it.
By the year 2000, it seemed nearly inevitable that the computer whizzes over at Maxis would run out of ideas at one point or another. SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000 seemed to have covered all possible ground for the game. It was hard to imagine expanding beyond the already exhaustive details of the SimCity series. By SimCity 3000, the programmers had gone so far as to insert angry citizen protesters when we made an unpopular public works decision. It sounded like they must have used up all of their viable computer game ideas. How much more could they possibly squeeze into a reissue?
And then, suddenly, Maxis issued us an entirely new vantage point from which to get our world-ruling jollies. In 2000, they released The Sims, through which we could live the complete simulated life of a virtual character. We may have thought we had been playing God in all previous incarnations of the game, but that all seemed pretty entry level once we saw what was to come.
In The Sims, we had full control over a virtual person (or people, if you were an adequate multi-tasker). Many of us saw fit to actually model a Sim after ourselves, christen it with our name, and try to control its life decisions. What we may not have known, however, was that our mischievous little Sims were imbued with the pesky power of free will. Yes, that's right. The video game versions of ourselves over which we thought we had full control were actually wont to rebel against our commands and make their own decisions. Even if you tried your best to give your Sim an exclusively happy life devoid of disappointments and unfortunate experiences, he or she was bound to go off on their own and make some poor choices. Go figure.
Not all of us were kind and just rulers of our virtual underlings, either. Many of us derived great pleasure from cruelly experimenting with the emotions and reactions of our Sims. There were countless instances in which to muse, "I wonder what would happen if I..." and then proceed to subject our innocent Sim to all forms of unhealthy deprivation and morally ambiguous scenarios. "I wonder what would happen if I blew up his house?" "I wonder what would happen if I won't let him use the bathroom for six days?" "I wonder what would happen if I force him to have romantic liaisons with every neighbor on his block?" I wonder what would happen, indeed. Even without the aid of my handy Simmish to English dictionary, I could tell my Sim was not especially pleased with the lifestyle choices I'd made for him.
The Sims went on to become one of the bestselling computer games of all time, proving that we all must deep down have some morbid fascination with the notion of playing god to a host of virtual people. In The Sims and all of the Sim worlds that preceded it, we got our first taste of complete power, and it felt good. It wasn't until more recently that they unleashed the ultimate virtual rulership beast: Spore. Seriously, if you have not played it, go pick it up. It's amazing. You grow from a spore into a sea creature and you evolve and you kill things. Just don't blame me when you start dreaming in tribal strategy and have sudden flashes of inspiration for a redesign for your creature's aerodynamicity. Yes, I just made that word up, but didn't you hear? I'm entitled. I'm a creator.
Friday, August 14, 2009
*Let me just offer this as a legitimate and all-excusing disclaimer: I am not, nor do I claim to be knowledgeable about video games in any way. Please don't take my word for it on any technical points by any means. I don't know the names of the versions and all of the release dates. Please accept my humble offering of Mario love. Thank you.
I like that we all just accept it as fact that a stubby little Italian guy with a face-consuming mustache battles obstacles and adversarial Koopas to rescue Princess Peach (nee Toadstool). Even as I'm typing it, a small part of me is still thinking, well, of course, it makes perfect sense. Mushrooms give you power and flowers give you fireballs and if you shimmy down a tube, you enter the mysterious minus world where the coins make that satisfying "ding" with each collection. Duh. Everyone knows that.
Mario and all of his spin-offs have become such a ubiquitous part of our culture that we're all willing to go along with that plot line and say, yeah, why not? That's just the way it is. Have you ever tried describing a video game to someone who had never played a video game? You'll find that this intricate gamer world that you navigate without question is probably the most bizarre thing they have ever heard. It's the delightful escapism of video games: they're not the real world, nor do they pretend to be grounded in it. In this world, anything goes, and you always get to play the hero. Where do I sign up?
I admit I was not much of a Nintendo aficionado growing up. Not for lack of want, but more for lack of brothers. My parents never saw fit to buy my sister and I our own video game system, though we were allowed to play Mario and Tetris on my mom's Gameboy. Before you pooh-pooh my shaky gamer credentials, let it be noted that my mom used to bring me to work and in order to escape the tedium I'd sneak of to play their giant arcade game of Super Mario Bros. Don't ask me why they had this in a nursing home. I don't know. It makes no sense, so the only explanation was that it existed solely for me to delight in the incredibly addictive world of Mario. I appreciate the gesture, but did you have to put it next to that weird aviary thing? The chirping is sort of distracting.
This was the version I played, though admittedly with less skill. I still love that music. It's so satisfying when you get to that flag. Such joyful beeping. Ah, the memories.
I have also spent the last 30 minutes playing Super Mario Bros online here. Under the guise of doing research, I found myself cursing aloud over missed coin opportunities, unintentional mushroom collisions, and failure to catch a falling star. It just isn't the kind of game you can play halfway. It's all or nothing, and in most cases, it was all.
In the 80s and 90s, video games had a far different look and feel than video games of today. The violence was more lighthearted, our aims more simplistic, and our graphics admittedly more pixelated. That's not to say the games weren't complicated. The Mario games alone were a world unto themselves. On the other hand, our hero was a stocky Italian-American plumber sporting flamboyant red overalls. I guess we'll just have to take Nintendo's word for it that he's fully qualified for such a hefty task.
Mario and his younger brother Luigi were residents of the Mushroom Kingdom. As the name implies, their homeland was indeed a monarchy, home of our beloved Princess Peach (or Toadstool, depending on which version you're looking at). I have to admit, I am such a girl. I always loved the Princess best. I always liked Super Mario Bros 2 because you had the option of playing as her, and she was a pretty awesome hoverer. In other versions, I was nowhere near adept enough at Nintendo gameplay to actually ever make a legitimate rescue (or, let's admit, even come close) but I did totally reach the Princess in Mario Teaches Typing. I kicked ass at that game.*
I like the way they claim this version (Super Mario World) is "more realistic". Do explain.
For some reason, when their beloved Princess is in peril the kingdom turns not to some sort of qualified combatant but rather to our little mustachioed plumber in overalls. You literally get to root for the little guy. Mario is tiny. Bite size. Pocket size. Fun size. You get the picture.
Mario was originally known as "jumpman", which is not particularly surprising when you observe his vertical bounce prowess. As a player, jumping became our major means of defending ourself and obtaining valuable powers and weaponry. Our journey is treacherous; weird creatures throwing crap at us, knocking us off of things, and generally standing in the way of our honest and decent quest. When those crazy turtle-bird dealies** started ricocheting back and forth and threatening to knock me off my little brick walkway, I was pretty much toast.
This is probably the coolest thing I've ever seen. I'm aware that this confirms my status as a huge nerd, but that does not in any way stop me from coveting this cake
We braved underwater levels, underground levels, sky levels, warp land, and all sorts of other exotic video game worlds to rescue our fair princess. For those of us caught time after time with a disappointingly premature death (read: me playing the flash version online right now), the game was endlessly frustrating. The sheer joy at beating a level was the ultimate triumph, while the crushing disappointment of being killed yet again by that same stupid fall was the ultimate defeat.
While most kids fought their way through and persevered, showing their hard-working earnestness and goodness of spirit, I was not among them. I was more the type to say, screw it. I'm going to play Duck Hunt. I get a gun in that game.***
*Yes, I recognize that a typing game is notably dorkier than a video game and achievements are thus far less admirable. Thank you for pointing that out.
**I'm aware that there's got to be some real name for these things
***Can you believe it? A gun!
Monday, May 18, 2009
As you came to on your living room couch, your panicked mind frantically tried to recollect the events of the past day. These blackouts were becoming increasingly frequent, and more and more time was passing unaccounted for. You were concerned over these lapses in memory, seemingly jolted back to reality in a cold sweat and wondering what exactly had happened over the last several hours. You held some vague recollections, but on the whole it seemed pretty fuzzy. Ashamed to admit your addiction to your friends and family, you began to try hide your usage and downplay its increasingly prominent role in your everyday life.
No, your problem wasn't drugs or alcohol. It was Tetris.
In a distant time before lifelike 3D video games and their complicated nuances, we could sit intently for hours on end, eyes glazed over at the innumerable self-directed rotations of the confounding tetrominoes that lay before us. Over and over, we orchestrated our little shapelets into interlocking patterns. Left, clockwise, down. Right, right, counterclockwise, down. Right, Right, down. Left, counterclockwise, down. The interlocking pieces fixed together in a satisfying manner, all while playing their trademark siren song:
Even just hearing the song catapults my mind back to its scheming, strategizing, anxious Tetris-engaged state.
Regardless of whether or not you personally lay claim to an original Game Boy, it's likely at some point you were exposed to the addictive contagion of Tetris. When you woke up in the morning, there was Tetris. When you daydreamed aimlessly during lectures about Tuck Everlasting or prime numbers, there was Tetris. When you lay down to sleep at night, there was Tetris. Try as you might to deter Tetris from infecting your brain, your mind began to morph into a singularly Tetris-strategizing way of thinking. Every problem or dilemma you encountered suddenly broke down in your head into "L-shape. Square. Squat "T". Line. Square-edged S. Square-edged Z." These were your tools now, and they overtook your mind like a robotic-music-soundtracked parasite. Though some may have tried to fight it, resistance was inevitably futile. Eventually, we would all come to worship at the great shrine of Tetris.
The original video game was released in 1985, but it really gathered steam with the release of the original Game Boy. First of all, let it be known that Game Boys may now seem fairly pedestrian and unimpressive, but upon their launch these things seemed relatively remarkable. I mean, imagine, parents now had a way to keep their children occupied and could now combat whininess with quiet personal gaming. While other handheld system had been available previously, none reached the cult of video game personality that surrounded Game Boy.
When one purchased the almighty Game Boy, it contained a cartridge of the game Tetris. "Tetris," you may have thought to yourself. "Why, I've never heard of it. Perhaps I should give it a go."
And suddenly, without warning, 12 hours had passed.
The game seemed simple enough, but it truly lured you unsuspecting into a series of mental aerobics. At first glance, Tetris was deceptively benign. Seven different shapes (tetraminoes, for anyone out there who would like to one day drop this word casually in conversation at a cocktail party and alienate friends with their undeniable geekiness) descended slowly down the screen. Your mission, should you have chosen to accept it, was to maneuver these shapes by rotating them in 90 degree increments to fit together and avoid gaps between shapes on the bottom of the screen. When you succeeded in creating a solid line without gaps, the line disappeared and the stacked tetraminoes shifted downward.
If you have never played Tetris, you may be thinking, "So? That doesn't sound so captivating. It actually sounds mind-numbingly boring."
Au contraire, my Tetris virgin friends. The true hook of the game was the progressive expedience of the falling shapes. They began slowly, lulling you into a sense of false security. "I'm mastering this!" You would marvel. You reckoned yourself a sort of Tetris savant, wondering what all the fuss was about. Why, this wasn't tricky at all!
Shapes began falling faster and faster, both efffectively obliterating your game and crushing your can-do spirit. "Well," you thought. "That wasn't much fun at all. Maybe if I just try it one more time..."
And so it went. You could never play "just one more time". For many, Tetris became a way of life, counting down the minutes until you could get your next fix. Games would replay continuously in your head, as you mentally shifted and manipulated the shapes into an interlocking configuration. You could so easily see where you'd been drawn astray; how could you have thought the L-shape should lay downwards and horizontal? That should have been vertical, dammit.
In my household, it was only my mother who owned a Gameboy. She would sit long nights on the den couch, with the glow of the sidetable lamp illuminating her glassed-over eyes and quick-moving fingers. She also liked to play the music (rather than selecting the more polite you're-in-a-shared-space-for-God's-sake mute option), and I believe she had a strong preference for Melody B. My mom was actually a pretty ace Tetris player*, but she was totally stingy about it. Ocassionally on road trips when she tired of it. we were allowed to have a go. Soon both my sister and I were hooked, and the nightly bickering over our one measly Game Boy led to the institution of a scheduled rotation. It was that important to us. Really, it was. I treasured my time with that game, down to the last second. We all boastfully recounted our high scores, and delighted in our autonomy at selecting our own music track. And if we made it into the hall of fame, well, that was just the cherry on top.
I never did get my own Game Boy, but I did get a graphing calculator. In middle school I was briefly able to resume my Tetris dependency during alleged learning time in class until I was outed by a fellow classmate when I failed to pay attention during a class discussion. I had been called on by the teacher, but I was justifiably immersed in my record high score, thank you very much. Thus ended my once-stellar Tetris career. Just think. I could have gone pro, if it weren't for teachers questioning my perfectly legitimate use of a calculator during an English lesson.
There is, however, good news for all of us. Tetris is back and in more forms than ever before. No longer must we wait our turn for the family Game Boy. Not only is it available in numerous forms for free play online, you can now discreetly play on your phone as well. You even have this to make sure a coworker doesn't tattle on you playing at the office.
Happy playing, children of the 90s. Just don't blame me when you find yourself emerging from a Tetris-induced blackout. You've been warned.
*In case you were curious, she now highly recommends Bejeweled and Bomp Bomp Ball
Check it out:
Play Tetris Free Online (note: while checking out this site, I got roped into playing for 27 minutes. Like I said, I warned you.)
Tetris for iPhone
Tetris T-Shirt, Anyone?