I am 31. I am an old school gamer. Atari. Intellivision. Nintendo. Sega. Sony. Microsoft. Apple. I’ve been here since Day 1 and I’m still gaming.
It’s pretty amazing and quite fortunate if you think about it. I got to witness the birth of all that we now love and take for granted. I’m not special in this: anyone my age who was playing games around 1985 or so is in the same boat as myself. But they aren’t writing this, so screw them.
I’m not on the cutting edge anymore. I’m a late adopter. I don’t understand some of the things headed our way. But I had an NES. I had Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda and I played them right when they first came out. Allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane of the some of the console games that I was there to see born.
Think about this for a moment: the astonishment when Mario walked to the left and the screen kept scrolling with him, showing new areas and not just a pasted version of the previous screen with only a few subtle changes. Think about the joy and sense of discovery that came with finding the warp zones and bragging to your friends about it. Or the awe when someone showed you the infinite lives glitch. This was a special time. And I was there for it.
For my birthday one year, I rented Metroid (we were poor at the time). Samus Aran’s ability to roll into a ball, find new weapons and traverse deeper and deeper into the planet was a revelation. Even Mario didn’t let you go from left to right! And hearing from Nintendo Power and friends that Samus was really a girl??? Mind blowing. Nearly as much as the twist in Bioshock to my young, unjaded mind., possibly the first in console gaming. And I was there.
When I first got The Legend of Zelda, I didn’t know that Link was the hero. I thought his name was Zelda. Bear in mind, I was about 6 years old here. So I input my name as “ZELDA”, which unlocked the secret second quest, scrambling the locations of the dungeons. Something I didn’t realize until my older brother told me the truth. It felt like getting 2 games in 1! Couple that with the great music and the fun of just wandering around until you stumble upon something worthwhile and I was hooked. And I was there, right from the start.
My brother bought a game one day: Final Fantasy. I watched him play, entranced by the music, the graphics, the idea of defeating enemies to get stronger and then buy better weapons, armor and spells. Most intriguing to me was the ability to pick different classes to form your party. The appeal of 4 Thieves was great and I tried out every combination I could think of, finally settling on the balanced approach of a Fighter, Thief, Black Mage and White Mage. The core RPG party. And I was there to see the first game in my all-time favorite series.
Renting games was huge for me back then. It’s how I played Castlevania for the first time. Fighting Dracula with a whip, just like Indiana Jones uses? Sign me up! The haunting music and Gothic atmosphere set the tone for many games that followed. So did the crushing difficulty. I think Castlevania was the first time I actually became angry with a game. It was one of the first games I played that could be described as scary, even if it wasn’t a horror game. It set the tone though. And I was there.
My friend had Metal Gear, before it was Solid. I didn’t grasp the stealth concepts at the time, but I remember finding the cigarettes in Snake’s inventory and feeling like this was something forbidden. It was probably the first time that a game’s content, however minor, felt mature to me, as opposed to being colorful diversions for kids. Metal Gear was breaking new ground long before Psycho Mantis read your memory card. And I was there.
We all know about the Konami Code. I remember renting Contra and being unable to beat it until I read about the code. 30 lives later and suddenly all of Contra was there to be explored. The treacherous levels, massive bosses and kick-ass music set the bar at such a high level that even some of today’s action games fail to measure up. Playing with a friend brought up inevitable conflicts, such as who was going to get the Spread Gun (Spoiler Alert: Me) and who was going to get the Flame Gun (Anyone but me), but the gameplay was vastly improved with another person, which wasn’t always a given back in those days. And I was there to experience it.
Licensed games were all the rage back then, but the difference is that sometimes they were really good. Like Batman for the NES. It vaguely followed the plot of the 1989 Tim Burton movie, but it didn’t matter because it was awesome. Batman could platform his way through tons of enemies and traps, using his weapons at times, but mainly his fists. It introduced me to the wall jump, a video game staple today, not to mention some of the best boss battles I have ever played. And I was there to see Batman’s first truly great game.
Other games that may have been forgotten are Disney titles, like Ducktales and Chip N Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Both were part of the Disney Afternoon cartoon block on weekday afternoons. Aside from being great cartoons, both were fantastic games. Ducktales had you playing as Scrooge McDuck as he traversed multiple levels in an attempt to recover his stolen treasure. It was non-linear, like Mega Man and is still one of the best platformers of all time. Chip N Dale brought co-op play to new levels of awesome, allowing you to pick up your partner and throw him at enemies. This even let you play with a less skilled player, who could ride on your shoulders through some of the more treacherous areas of the game. Long before Epic Mickey or Kingdom Hearts, Disney games were a delight to play. And I was there.
Not all licensed games were worthwhile, however. Star Wars for the NES is an abomination. It’s an uncontrollable mess with terrible level design and enemies that make no sense in the Star Wars canon, even if you use the Expanded Universe as a reference. This was before Super Star Wars on the SNES, when poor level design was replaced with awesome sound and unflinching difficulty. Decades before The Force Unleashed II was causing disturbances in the Force, I was going through my own version of Star Wars hell. Sad to say, I was there.
I could go on and on, but my point is this: Games are really just starting out. Ten years from now, things will be so vastly different that we will likely look back at this time period and marvel at how much better/worse things were. But it’s a pretty neat thing that my generation was there from the get-go and have been able to witness the evolution of games, from the arcades to the iPhone. If you had told me back in 1992 where games were going to be in 20 years, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I don’t need to believe anything now: I’ve lived it. So here’s to 20 more years of evolution. Enjoy the ride.