Friday, August 10, 2007

Nintendo flashback

I can’t help myself. That little clip of the “Goonies II” video game that I posted last week got me thinking about the heyday of the original Nintendo Entertainment system. To the best of my recollection, my brother and I got our first NES for Christmas 1988. I was nine years old. My family had just moved, and we were enrolled in a smaller school where we didn’t have any particularly close friends... So we spent roughly the next three years playing video games. When my family moved again, we stopped. I never graduated to Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, PlayStation, Xbox, etc. Whatever skills I had then have failed to evolve, and now I simply don’t have good enough reflexes for newer video games. (Which is probably for the best.) But I can still wax nostalgic through the magic of YouTube, where a younger generation of players has posted “speed runs” of those original games… making me feel slightly ridiculous about the weeks and months I spent trying to accomplish what they can accomplish in twenty minutes.

Disclaimer: It occurs to me that maybe nobody cares to hear me wax nostalgic about my geeky childhood. But, I say, what’s a blog for if not for self-indulgent rambling? Apologies in advance if I’m alienating either of my attentive readers.

Anyway, I think I can narrow down my list of most memorable games to nine more – not counting “Goonies II.” In no particular order…

Super Mario Brothers 2 (Nintendo, 1988)

This was the first game we owned. It was brand new when we got the system for Christmas, and was the subject of the first issue of Nintendo Power, which came with the system. (I’m amazed to see that Nintendo Power is still being published, though the format has changed a bit. Originally, the magazine was filled with tips and maps, to help players “beat” a certain game. Now, it looks like its mostly filled with promotional material.) Without that magazine, it might have taken us weeks to beat the evil King Wart. With the help of the magazine, we did it in a few days. The great thing about this game was that, even after we beat it, we kept playing it. It’s one of the few linear Nintendo games that never got boring. (When I say linear, I mean that the object of each level was to move from the beginning of the map to the end and, at the end, face a gatekeeper – we always called them the “boss”.) What kept SMB2 fun were the surreal landscapes and the quirky characters, which all looked and moved like cute circus freaks. At the end of the game, we found out why everything in this world was so odd: Mario dreamed the whole thing. Think of it as “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Wizard of Oz” as a video game.

Honorable mention: Adventure Island (Hudson Soft, 1988) – just as lively, but not quite as fun because of the main character’s restricted range of motion

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out (Nintendo, 1987)

This was one of the first games I bought… and, man, it stressed me out. The game puts the player in the role of a diminutive boxer, “Little Mac,” who faces off against a series of increasingly domineering opponents. It starts with a glass-jawed Parisian lightweight and progresses to the then-world champion, Mike Tyson. (When he lost the title, Nintendo reissued the game as “Punch-Out!,” with a white lookalike in the role of world champion.) The fighters were consistently amusing: there was a crazed Nazi, a Flamenco dancer, an Indian magician, a hard-drinking Russian, and a Hollywood weight-lifter. Once you learned the weakness of each fighter, the game was pretty easy… but, until you picked up on their quirks, the suspense between punches could be pretty unnerving. It took me a long time to beat Mike Tyson. His punches may look incredibly slow by today’s video game standards, but they weren’t slow at all for my 10 year old reflexes. After his defeat, Mike winks and says “I’ve never seen such finger speed before.” Today, this makes me feel a little bit dirty.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1988)

It was the epic scope of this sequel’s medieval mythology that drew me in. It had a royal family, a sleeping princess, knights and wizards aplenty, mysterious crystals and magic spells, monsters and man-beasts, and a prophecy about a Prince of Darkness who can only be reawakened by the blood of the hero. Sort of like Harry Potter. In order to sort out all of these elements, you had to explore the entire game-universe and collect information. I thoroughly studied the game’s layout in an early issue of Nintendo Power – I remember coming home from school, finding it in the mail, and reading it cover-to-cover until night fell and I was squinting to see in the dark. I didn’t even want to get up to turn on the lights. (Yes, I was just as obsessive then as I am now.) I promptly began saving money to buy the game, and I played it for weeks. Eventually, I had to buy the NES Player’s Guide so that I could figure out where to go and what to do. (Crafty marketing on the part of Nintendo Inc.) In the tradition of the great myths, the end of the game pits the player/main character against his doppelganger, a shadow version of himself. Glad to see that somebody was reading their Joseph Campbell.

Honorable mention: Kid Icarus (Nintendo, 1987) – the storytelling is more two-dimensional than in Zelda, but it’s just as “educational” on the subject of ancient mythology

Metroid (Nintendo, 1987)

It occurs to me that I was familiar with James Cameron’s “Aliens” before I ever actually saw the film. His vision permeates the world of Metroid. Like Zelda II, the format is non-linear, and follows the quest of Samus, a space-suited bounty hunter on a desolate alien planet populated by a variety of strange critters… and not one single human being. The planet is run by “Mother Brain,” a giant queen alien protected by hundreds of levitating parasites (“metroids”). When she’s defeated, our explorer sets a bomb to destroy the alien planet, then reveals his true nature. Samus is – gasp! – a woman. The quicker you beat the game, the fewer clothes Samus is wearing she… um… reveals herself. (See the YouTube speed run for something comparable to Sigourney Weaver’s attire at the end of “Alien.”) What I loved about this game was the bleak tone. The creepy minimalist music enhanced the player’s sense of isolation, and it genuinely got under my skin. Having always been a bit morbid, I never wanted to leave the world of that game. There were so many secret discoveries to be made that I spent endless hours (practically an entire summer vacation) searching for new portals and new chambers. I was convinced that I would find something that wasn’t on the maps. In some strange way, the world of that video game affected my imagination just as much as the dark planet of the “Alien” films.

Honorable mention: Blaster Master (Sunsoft, 1988) – equally dark, but hard as hell… I could never get past the third or fourth level

Contra (Konami, 1987)

As I said, my brother and I got into Nintendo games at the same time, and we only had one NES. This meant that we had to take turns playing. Contra gave us a rare opportunity to be onscreen simultaneously. Even better: the unforgettable Konami code (up up down down left right left right B A start… I remember this useless bit of information just like I remember old phone numbers and zip codes… and the number that Robert Stack used to give at the end of every episode of “Unsolved Mysteries”) gave us enough extra lives to actually beat the game. I think we got through the entire thing during our first run, but we continued to play because, hey, who doesn’t like blowing shit up? The run-and-gun style game follows a pair of guerilla soldiers to an underground bunker on a remote tropical island, where terrorists and aliens are conspiring to destroy the world. Or something. Once again, the blockbuster action-horror film “Aliens” is an obvious inspiration. I have to imagine that Contra was a common example among parents who were concerned about video game violence in the mid-80s. Thankfully, my parents never complained. Maybe because this particular game was so good at keeping me and my brother from fighting over whose turn it was.

Honorable mention: Lifeforce (Konami, 1986) – another two-player Konami game that pits the military against ugly aliens

Castlevania (Konami, 1986)

While we’re on the subject of Nintendo games inspired by horror films, I can’t leave out Castlevania. This game was a virtual who’s who of gothic movie monsters. It pits you, the heroic knight Simon Belmont, against vampire bats, ghosts, zombies, skeletons, hunchbacks, fish men, ax-wielding knights, Medusa, The Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, The Grim Reaper and finally Count Dracula. My parents wouldn’t allow me to watch horror movies as a kid, so this was as close as I could come to seeing these creatures brought to life. Unfortunately, the Grim Reaper always kicked my ass, so I never got to square off against the Dracula… until the sequel, which was in some ways more fun than the original because of its new RPG format. At any rate, I remember watching my friend Mitch fight Dracula for the first time. When the Count turned into a giant gargoyle, he almost wet himself. The end credits were classic. Oh, and by the way: The YouTube speed run makes the Grim Reaper look pathetic. Apparently, all you have to do is throw holy water on him and he can’t move. Who knew?

Honorable mention: Friday the 13th (LJN, 1989) – okay, so it was a lame video game… but it had some pretty creepy music. Unlike in the movies, there are actually innocent children being slaughtered at Camp Crystal Lake in the video game. That’s got to be worth something, right?.... right?

Mega Man 2 (Capcom, 1989)

Here’s something that any fan of 70’s sci-fi should have loved: a bionic man pit against an imaginative world of ruthless killer robots. The gimmick with this series was that each “boss” had his own special weapon: Air Man attacks with a wind-shooter, Heat Man attacks with a flamethrower, Metal Man attacks with metal blades, Quick Man attacks with a series of boomerangs, etc. When Mega Man (that’s you) beats each boss, he takes their weapon. And each boss is particularly vulnerable to one of the other weapons. In the end of the first game, Mega Man squared off against Dr. Wily, the mad scientist who had corrupted the other robots, and in the end Wily falls to his knees crying for mercy. Mega Man, having some shred of humanity, lets him go…. time and time again, sequel after sequel. There were 7 games on the original NES, which I believe is more than any other series. Basically, it was the same thing over and over, but with different weapons. I guess the designers knew not to mess with a good thing. This was my favorite entry in the series because it was much more detailed than the first game and because, well, by the third sequel, I had a pretty strong sense of déjà vu.

My friend Bobby, over at Virtual Fools, recently wrote his own retrospective on Mega Man 2. Check it out.

Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 1989)

I think I was starting to run out of enthusiasm for Nintendo around the time Ninja Gaiden came out, and it sucked me back in for a while. Part of the appeal of this game was the cinematic storyboards – miniature movies placed in between each level, to chart the emotional progression of the hero as he tries to find his father’s killer. This obviously made an impression on one of my friends at the time. When I was having trouble beating the last boss, I asked him how he’d managed it, and he told me that he just imagined the guy had killed his father. That didn’t work for me. I love my father and all, but I was more of a tactical player than an emotional player. Until then, I didn’t realize that anybody was an emotional player… but I suppose that could account for the success of games like this. Films and video games have become more and more alike since then. In fact, the hand-held cinematography of some recent action-thrillers makes me feel like I’m playing a video game. I have trouble with that because, as I said earlier, my hand-eye coordination isn't what it used to be. Ninja Gaiden II (Techmo, 1990) worked for all the same reasons the first one worked. By the time Ninja Gaiden III came out in the summer of ‘91, I was pretty much done.

Final Fantasy (Square, 1990)

At some point, I got tired of Nintendo, and sold all my video games at a yard sale. It must have been at the end of summer vacation 1990. The following summer (1991), I got bored and bought another one. I remember that it came with a free game, an RPG called Dragon Warrior (Chunsoft, 1989). I didn’t think I’d like a strict role-playing game (there were no “action” scenarios in Dragon Warrior), but I didn’t have much money, so I figured I’d give it a shot. To my surprise, it captivated me the way the best video games always had – the same way a movie or a novel would pull me in, by making me forget the real world and become immersed in a completely fictional world. After that, I turned to another RPG game called Final Fantasy. This one had a much larger universe, and allowed the player to strategize each moving using different fighters, weapons, etc. It was a game that required planning, not reflexes. I remember one week, toward the end of summer, where all I did was eat and play Final Fantasy. Those were the days…. back when I could kill time like that without feeling guilty. Hell, now I feel guilty just writing this blog about it.

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