Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On Memories

One of my earliest memories is waking up and walking out of my room while Mom and Dad were hosting some kind of party. I weaved through a sea of unfamiliar faces, and when I found my mother, I said, "I thought everyone would laugh at me in my diaper." It irks me that shame is one of the two things my young mind chose to record forever. The other is urinating in a plastic pencil box and waiting for my brother to find it. (If you’re reading this Ian, hope you never used the yellow plastic one with the red map of the United States on it.)

I have few childhood memories that don't somehow involve Nintendo, Sega, or PlayStation. Example: There was this really cool summer rainstorm once, and I opened my bedroom window to listen to the thunder rumble through the streets. I was in the middle of Ice Cap Zone in Sonic 3 at the time. Though unrelated, the two events have fused into a single entity in my mind, as if it was raining because I was playing Sonic. Like that’s the way it was supposed it be from the start.

In a way, video games are memories I can keep forever, but not the way you think. I can't print and file away the freedom I felt during the Summer of '95, but playing Earthbound brigs back those sunsets and chocolate bars of my youth. And I can't use a spray bottle to get the scent of a foggy April morning at my parent's house, but playing Brutal on Sega CD can bring it right back to me, fresh as the day it happened. Eternal Champions is an epic snow day; Dragon Warrior is a bee sting; Darkstalkers is fireworks on the 4th of July from mom's front stoop.

How do normal people remember things?

Friday, September 23, 2016

On Summer

Even without a months-long vacation – a concept rendered impossible by my desire to do things like eat and pay rent – I find myself mourning the end of the summer season. Maybe’s is a holdover from when I was a kid, but for me, summer sunrises have always blazed with endless promise, and summer sunsets howl with the potential for adventure.

The second the weather is anything but sub-zero, my mind fills with images of Street Fighter, Super Mario, and Sega Genesis.

The sun shining through my office window right now is a poor substitute for the lazy summer days of my youth. Hot breeze through the window and limitless levels of Duke Nukem 3D; sweat pouring down my face and condensation on an icy Coke Classic; sitting on my mother's bed with a magazine in my hand and the smell of fresh cut grass wafting around the neighborhood, reading about video games I never did play but remember loving anyway; and a quick sun shower to wash it all down with Blind Melon's "No Rain" playing in the background, an irony I'm only noticing now.



Yet my days are no longer shaped by saving the princess, scrounging up magic spells in Final Fantasy, or searching for the Sword of Kings with a bunch of psychic preteens in Earthbound. My kingdom for a Super NES, a cheap dial-up connection and no worries.

But welcome, autumn. Without you, your doppelganger spring, and Old Man Winter, I suppose my memories of those long days of Mario and chocolate milk and sunning myself with a Gameboy in-hand wouldn’t be nearly as precious.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Kautionary Tale

One of the things I regret most is not purchasing hundreds of copies of the Super Nintendo game Earthbound in the late ‘90s, when Best Buy was selling them new for $5 a pop. If I had, I could have sold them on eBay for ridiculous amounts of cash in the early 2010s, and been able to retire to a life of Assassin’s Creed and cheap whisky by 2013.

Instead, I just finished writing my fourth press release of the day while my two trolling coworkers Tweet me insulting gifs. Meanwhile, having just returned his 1,000th meeting today, my boss secretly considers running away with nothing but his guitar and a case of club soda.

Well, at least I was able to achieve the cheap whisky part of my dream life.

The thing is, there was really no way for me to know what my Earthbound inaction would lead to. Today, I’d like to share with you a similarly blindsiding tale, this time a warning for the overenthusiastic. If I can save just one life, the ten minutes I spent writing and promoting this article on my anemic Twitter account will all have been worth it.

The year was 1993. I was in fifth grade, and Mortal Kombat was the hot new fighting game everyone was talking about, even the teachers and possibly their dogs as well. While discussing the game’s brutal and varied fatalities, such as Johnny Cage’s decapitation move, Sub-Zero’s decapitation move, and Raiden’s decapitation move, my friend Eric casually mentioned that if you preordered Mortal Kombat on a home system, you got a T-shirt.

“That sounds awesome!” I presumably yelled. I can’t remember. It was 23 freaking years ago.

“You don’t want it,” replied Eric.

As it turned out, Eric’s uncle (who was somehow only two or three years older than Eric) had preordered MK on the Genesis, and received his shirt. He cheerfully pulled it on and jumped on the school bus the first chance he got.

However, upon showing his face at school, he was pummeled mercilessly by classmates as they exclaimed “MORTAL KOMBAT!” over and over, again and again. I’m told this went on literally all day.

This story taught me a very important life lesson that I’ll never forget: Don't forget to use the block button.

You have been warned.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Video Vignettes – “Night Trapped”



Video Vignettes are 500 to 1000 word short stories about one or more video games. "Night Trapped" features elements from "Night Trap” and “Luigi’s Mansion,” and borrows elements from TV’s “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.”

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The foreboding mansion stood before him, eerily quiet in the still summer night. A breeze broke the silence, gently rattling the shutters and rustling though the naked trees below.

A subtle earthen scent rode the wind and made the man’s nose twitch. Without him realizing it, his teeth began to chatter. Any willpower he had mustered earlier drained out of him, literally gone with the wind. He imagined his face had become as green as his shirt.

But no matter how scared the man was, his brother had vanished – and all signs pointed to him being trapped in the odious dwelling that stood before the man in green.

Each step down the overgrown walkway filled him with dread. Why couldn’t this have been like the last time his brother was missing? All he had to do then was search a few well-known locations thorough the world. Heck, it would have been enjoyable had it not so mind-numbingly boring.

Finally, the man in green stood outside the front door. He tried to peek through the small, square window adorning it. Though the darkness, he could see a tiny, flickering light.

The knob slowly turned and the man poked his head into the mansion, the brim of his hat piercing the darkness first. He put his hand to his mouth and muttered weakly, “Mario? Maaaario!”

There was no response.

He slithered into the void, moonlight illuminating his path. Finally, he stood mere feet away from light, a single candle. As his white gloved hand reached out to grab it, the fire disappeared with a sharp puff of air.

All the lights in the house popped on simultaneously, blinding the man in green. “SURPRISE!” exclaimed a choir of unknown voices.

He let out a terrified yelp and crouched for protection, one hand over his head, and another, protecting his squishy rump.

Through the sound of laughter and loud music, he slowly opened his eyes. In front of him, a group of college age women were dancing together. One was playing a tennis racket like a guitar and lip syncing to the worst song the man had ever heard, something about catching boys in traps at night.



As he starred in bewilderment, one of the women broke from the crowd and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Hi, my name is Dana,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“It’s… it’sa me, Lu-”

“Well, Lou, welcome to the slumber party!” Dana exclaimed. “What brings you here? Food? Fun?” Her eyes narrowed accusingly. “Drinking our blood, perhaps?”

“I’ma just looking for my brother!” he replied, confused.

Dana’s eyes lit up. “Oh, you mean the guy in red? He’s right over here!”

The man in green leapt to his feet and excitedly followed Dana through the giant mansion and into the lounge. From the doorway, he could see the back of a red capped man, sitting on a couch and watching the flames flicker in the fireplace.

“Mario!” he exclaimed. “We gotta get out of here and…”

DING! DING! CLANK! The odd noises gave him pause.

“Mario?”

The man in green cautiously headed over to the figure, reached out, and pulled off its hat. Sitting in front of him was someone he’d never seen before, much younger than his brother. The impostor hadn’t been watching a fireplace at all, but instead playing a pachinko machine. Emblazoned on the machine’s side was a word the man in green had never seen before: “Konami.”

“Who… who is this!?” exclaimed the man in green. “Where’s Mario?”

“Mario has been sent to the Peace Conference, remember?” Dana replied cheerfully. “This is your new brother, Rocky.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” yelled the man in green.

“What do you think of the party, Rocky?” Dana asked.

“This is TOO FUN!” Rocky replied, before karate chopping a nearby lamp.

“As you can see, Rocky just wants to have fun,” Dana explained.

For the first time, the man in green could feel his fear turning to anger. “You can’t just put someone else in my brother’s overalls and expect it to be the same! This man is not Mario!”

Dana’s smile disappeared. She turned and started screaming at a nearby bookcase.

“Now!” she yelled. “Control, Control! You’d better use the trap!”

“Who are you talking to!?” the man in green asked. “What’sa going on?!”

By the time he noticed the camera stashed in the bookcase, it was too late. The man in green felt the floor beneath him and Rocky begin to rumble. He knew whoever was on the other end of the video feed had had sealed his and his “brother’s” fates.

The trap floor gave way, plunging them into the darkness.


Dana stated into the abyss. “You got caught in the night,” she said. “The night trap!”

Friday, September 9, 2016

What Dreams Were Made of - Sega's Dreamcast Celebrates 17 years



Seventeen years ago today, Sega's Dreamcast hit the shelves in North America. The much-loved, short-lived console fell victim to "middle brother" syndrome, coming at a time when it towered over current gen heavy hitters like the N64 and the original PlayStation, But revolution was in the air: the PlayStation 2 would arrive about a year later, a graphics and processing power juggernaut that eclipsed Sega's little white box by a mile.

Despite a user base of nearly 11 million worldwide, Sega pulled the plug on the Dremacast in March 2001, mere months after the PS2's October 2000 release in North America. Frankly, they could have kept it alive and profitable for another year or so, but Sega evoked its long established "drop it like it's hot" sales strategy that also marked the premature deaths of the Genesis and Saturn.

Sega's quirky console has since gained a cult following, thanks in part to its incompetent piracy protection. Though rampant piracy was one of the many nails in the console's coffin, today, Dreamcast devotees can download and play former retail titles, homebrew games, and a variety of wacky software ranging from MP3 players to grainy films reminiscent of another of Sega's old consoles, the Sega CD.

I enjoyed my time with Sega's last son to be sure, but I'm not sure why people wet themselves over the Dreamcast anytime someone so much as farts and it sounds kinda like the jumping sound in Sonic Adventure. (Two bodily function jokes in one sentence. Watch out world, Matt Frey is on fire.) There was some groundbreaking stuff for the time, but nothing really sticks out as classic in my mind. The aforementioned Sonic Adventure, for example, is fun for awhile. However, this was also the first title to start the series' inexplicable focus on Sonic's furry convention friends, like Amy Rose, a bargain bin Johnny Five from "Short Circuit," and Big the Cat, who is a big cat with a small brain and a fishing pole. (Fun fact: he's voiced by Jon St. John, who also voices Duke Nukem.) No one liked those other jerks, so clearly, Sonic's friends became the focus of every Sonic game going forward.

Artist's interpenetration of Big the Cat


From Street Fighter III and Marvel vs. Capcom to Last Blade and Fatal Fury; Mark of the Wolves, we got some excellent home ports of the final wave of great arcade fighting games. But you've seen a Dreamcast controller, right? It kinda looks like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, and it controls just as a cumbersome spaceboat might. I guess what me and my strained comparison are trying to say is, don't expect to the next Evolution Championship to be fought with stock Dreamcast pads.

Then there was PowerStone, a 3D fighter that was like Smash Bros. in many ways, but you don't know any of the characters and no one remembers it because it was on a dead system. It was a great party game if you could get anyone to play it with you, but most of the time, no one would, because DAMNIT, I KNOW IT'S NOT MARIO AND DONKEY KONG; GET OVER IT, MIKE.

Nimoy
When discussing great Dreamcast software, a lot of people like to bring up the unfortunately named Seaman, which did have some merit as being the first video game that asked my about my day and then yelled at me for responding appropriately. But in the end, it was just a glorified Tamagachi with a bad attitude. Not my cup of tea, but it gets bonus points for being narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Perhaps the DC's Enterprise-like controller motivated him to lend his voice to this game. Or maybe Sega just paid him heaps of money in an attempt to save a boring game. Probably that second thing.

Don't get me wrong, though. For a brief but memorable period, the Dreamcast was THE game system to own, sporting must-haves like Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Soul Calibur, and more. Like a lot of early 3D consoles, I don't think it's aged very well. Yet the Dreamcast's influence and contributions to gaming history are undeniable, and for that, I have to hand it to Sega. If the House that Sonic Built was destined to crumble, the Dreamcast was a great console to end with.

It was a bittersweet end to the David that once challenged the Nintendo Goliath. Compared to the lukewarm games they've been making for the last decade and a half, nowadays, Sega's final console seems like it was just a dream.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mario! Mario! Mario!




In early 1990, my mother went to the now-defunct Caldor every Tuesday looking to snag a copy of the hottest new Nintendo game, Super Mario Bros. 3. We heard though a friend that new stock arrived that morning, including NES games.

Having read about Mario 3 in the pages of Nintendo Power for months, my young mind could often think of nothing else. Week after week, Tuesday became synonymous with disappointment. But while on the bus home one afternoon, my brother started freaking out and pointed to our house as we dove past. My mother was standing in the living room, pressing the Super Mario Bros. 3 game box to window. I'd never run so fast home in my life. 

It’s more 26 years later, but I suddenly got the urge to walk outside of my office, lift my arms to the sky, and start chanting, "Mario! Mario! Mario!"

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

SNES Celebrates 25th Anniversary in North America




Yesterday, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System celebrated the 25th anniversary of its North American launch. For a lot of us, SNES wasn't just the next step in gaming, but a revolution: the literal second coming of Nintendo, which had ceased being a hobby and become an essential part of our essence. 

Mario World and Zelda: Link to the Past were just a taste of the unforgettable games to come. Two seminal Final Fantasy games, the first home version of the immortal Street Fighter II, Earthbound, Starfox - Super Nintendo didn't just do games well, it defined genres and launched IPs that remain successful to this day.

Happy birthday!