Saturday, July 24, 2010

How I Got Into Gaming

Little-known fact: My career as a gamer nearly ended not long after it started. I almost turned out to be a normal kid.

Rewind to a time when I was much younger, back in the age of single digits. We had an old Atari 2600 with a good selection of games at my grandparents' house; I have fond memories of climbing up to the guest bedroom and trying my tiny hand at Frogger, Yars' Revenge, and Haunted House, taking on Raiders of the Lost Ark with my father, then taking him down in Combat. I grew up on gameplay, not graphics, and those simple-yet-challenging time-waster games honed my skills and helped to shape my notions of what a video game should and should not be.

I wanted to have a gaming system at home, and Santa Claus was generous enough to bring me my very own Nintendo Entertainment System one year. Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt came standard, of course, but there were two more games to keep the cartridge company: Gradius and Crystalis. Quite a nice selection, actually--a platformer, a primitive first-person shooter, a sidescrolling space shoot-em-up, and a top-down action-RPG.

Duck Hunt never held my interest for too long; my aunt also had an NES, and I'd occasionally play the game at her house when we were over to visit, at least until I discovered the superior Hogan's Alley. Like anyone else who's ever played with the Zapper peripheral, I stood close enough to the TV that my gun tapped the screen as I fired. Those ducks never got away.

Super Mario Bros. didn't fare much better. I liked all the running and jumping, but the controls were just too loose compared to the necessarily rigid Atari games I was used to playing, and I just didn't have the attention span to play all the way through the game in one sitting, especially when the levels started getting more difficult and repetitive.

Gradius was a lot of fun, especially when I got my dad to go in for the 2-player mode (lots of fond memories of playing video games with my family members), but it wasn't a question of attention span--we simply weren't good enough to last longer than stage 2 or 3. Getting to stage 4 was pushing it, and anything beyond that required the use of Game Genie. I cheated my way through most games when I was younger, but it helped me to feel a sense of accomplishment that encouraged me to keep playing.

Crystalis was my favorite, though Gradius came close. This is another game my dad played with me for a while, but even with Game Genie, we reached a point where we physically could not proceed: the first boss of the game, a teleporting vampire, was utterly invincible! The hero's sword just clanged off his cape! It was hopeless. What a dumb idea, to make a video game that people can't beat. I put the game on the shelf, and I almost put my gaming career up there with it.

Gradius was fun, but given its linear nature and lack of replay value when the only progress made is by using cheat codes that allow you to maintain all the best weapons and shielding the whole time, there wasn't much reason to go back after a certain point. Duck Hunt was still an OK diversion, but I was a creative enough lad that there were other ways to occupy my time. Super Mario Bros. had just gotten old.

My Nintendo actually sat unloved and unused for a period of time that might astound anyone who knows how much I enjoy video games. It probably would have been abandoned even sooner if it weren't for the rule my parents enforced that I could only play video games for an hour a day. That's a rule that was in place for several years, though the time limit got more flexible as time went on, but it definitely helped to keep me from developing an unhealthy dependency at such an impressionable age. Good parenting, I say.

This is the part where I would have grown up to be...actually, I'm not sure what. Probably more bookish and into television. Video games were expensive, so my game library wasn't really expanding. I played video games with my friends when I was over at their houses to visit, but the few I remember are ones we were really bad at. Games were fun enough, but I was just as happy to play Magic: The Gathering or run around on the playground pretending to captain a starship.

I tried out Faxanadu and The Legend of Zelda at other people's houses. I rented The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout from the local video store. My babysitter brought her alien Game Gear and let me try Columns. My friend's father was always playing a different SNES RPG every time I came to visit. I borrowed my grandmother's Game Boy to play Tetris. I got Final Fantasy as a birthday gift, but I ended up being too chicken to enter the final dungeon for fear that my whole party might get killed off.

I was exposed to a wide variety of games, and I got a lot of enjoyment out of video games, but there was no groundwork in place for gaming to turn into a real hobby. I'd reached the end of what I could do with my home library of games, and I typically didn't have enough time or practice with other people's games to make significant progress.

There were definitely games I liked, and I talked about video games with my friends enough to suggest that I was a total fanboy, but I had yet to find a game that ensnared my attention and captured my imagination the way, say, Star Trek had. I enjoyed Super Mario Bros. 2, for example, but I wasn't drawing up my own levels at home or doodling pictures of the characters during school, which I absolutely did with a few other games.

Things quickly changed when I discovered the stash of Nintendo Power magazines belonging to the son of someone my mother was friends with. I was lucky enough to acquire a small stack to bring home with me.

Despite all the video games I'd played, it wasn't until reading a magazine about video games that I truly became interested in the hobby. As I turned the pages, I discovered fascinating worlds and exciting adventures to be had--clearly, Nintendo's sneaky plan for having a self-promotional elite hint magazine was working.

Dragon Warrior promised an immersive world of strategy, exploration, and dangerous monsters--not too far off from some of the reasons I liked Star Trek at the time. Flashback: The Quest for Identity looked like a neat blend of the platforming I'd come to love and the creative puzzle-solving I enjoyed--plus, there were aliens, and I was already well on my way to being a huge sci-fi dork.

There were many games that caught my eye, but one stood high above the rest. My game library suffered from linearity and repetition; this game seemed to have a limitless replay value. Most of the games I knew had memorable bosses but forgettable stage enemies; this game's foes, both large and small, were simply oozing with character. Most of the games I knew also had a tiered weapon system, where every weapon you got was just an improvement on the old one; this game gave you choices, and each weapon had its own distinct abilities (something I appreciated about the swords, armors, and spells in Crystalis).

This game was different. This game was more up my alley than anything I'd ever seen. This game was Mega Man 2.

That year, Santa brought me Mega Man 4.

Initially, I was ready to sack the elf responsible for the mix-up. Still, it was a Mega Man game, and I really didn't have any other video games to play at the time, so I gave it a shot.

I failed miserably. That game was hard. Eight stages to choose from, and I couldn't get anywhere.

But, I kept going, and it wasn't long before Mega Man 2 got pushed to the back of my mind as a curiosity. The controls were responsive, the gameplay was right up my alley, the music was great, the visuals were pretty, and the game was just complex enough to stay interesting despite repeated Game Overs. At first, it was all about exploration--try out a new level, see what the game has to offer, see how far I can get. Then it was about strategy--determining which stages I had the best shot at defeating, and figuring out how to defeat the boss if I ever got that far.

Once again, this was a bonding opportunity for me and my father, as I distinctly remember calling him in for the showdown against Dive Man so that he could monitor my energy so I could pay attention to the fight and reserve the E-Tank to the very last moment.

There was an incredible sensation of accomplishment for the victory, and the reward wasn't just that I'd get to go to the next stage--I got a shiny new weapon that'd bring me continued success.

I think that password may still be excitedly scribbed down in the instruction manual somewhere.

That's when I knew this was my game. It was a long and difficult road to make any kind of progress whatsoever in Mega Man 4, but each success led to greater success, and by the time I reached the fortress stages, it was sheer skill and willpower that kept me going to the end. I even packed up my NES and brought the whole system on vacation just so I wouldn't have to go a week without playing. I was hooked.

When you put that much time, effort, and focus into something, that something becomes a part of you. The experience of spending weeks upon weeks to beat Mega Man 4--a game that I can now breeze through in just over an hour--is one that shaped who I am as a gamer. I've rarely worked so hard in my life for one of my fandoms, and most of the other examples I can think of are also Mega Man-related.

I can't give Mega Man 4 all the credit, but I can trace so many aspects of my life as a gamer back to that game. I'm a Mega Man nut because I think the games are fantastic, but Mega Man is the game that truly got me into gaming as a hobby, a passion, and not just something to do instead of watching TV.

Somewhere around that same time, I picked Crystalis back up. With the wisdom I'd gained from playing games like Final Fantasy, I realized my character was not yet strong enough to take on the indestructible bat boss. If your level is two low, your sword simply clangs off of the enemy you're trying to hit. I puttered around a field and a cave for a while, hacking apart blue blobs and slaying tiger men, and after a time I was able to defeat the boss that almost prompted me to abandon gaming. I'm glad I went back, too, because Crystalis ended up being one of my all-time favorite video games.

Despite its tendency to cause frustration, gaming is still one of the best stress-relievers I know. It's a chance to escape from the outside world when I need a break, but it's also a way to immerse myself in music and visual art and feel like I'm actually accomplishing something all at once.

Gaming has allowed me to connect with people whose interests might not otherwise match up with mine, and it's the reason I'm letting my creativity run free on the Internet with GameCola articles and YouTube videos. Gaming has kept my inspiration flowing through good times and bad, and I've made new friends from around the world thanks to this silly little hobby. It's even helped me to connect with my family on a different level than usual, and it gives me an excuse to wear some really fun t-shirts.

Everybody's got a hobby. I've got a lot, but I might just be a gamer above all else. My geekdom started with the Atari, continued with the NES, stuck around because of friends and family, and became a full-fledged fandom with Nintendo Power and Mega Man. It's part of my history, it's part of who I am, and, I hope, it will be a part of my future.

Someday, I want to be there with my son or daughter, shouting, "USE AN E-TANK NOW!!!"


A Philosophical Nerd said...

Excellent post. I grew up on the Atari and Nintendo, myself. I never really became a fanboy of any one system developer because I was constantly going back and forth. I started on Atari, then moved to Nintendo. Then rather than upgrade to Super Nintendo, we jumped to Sega Genesis. Then from Sega Genesis, I went to Sony PlayStation. Now I'm an Xbox360 player, though I still play on the Wii and PlayStation 2/3.

Not to mention all my friends had difference video game systems and games for them. When I was still on Nintendo, I had a friend who introduced me to Sega Genesis. And when I went to Sega Genesis, I still had a friend who had upgraded to Super Nintendo.

I know games tout the more "social" aspects now because of all the on-line gaming, but I personally think that video game systems before the internet really did more to foster being social because you actually had to leave your house and go see a friend to play games (and sometimes get four or eight friends together to hold epic Street Fighter tournaments). Those were really the days.

Scott said...

I grew up with a Nintendo and a library of maybe 18 used games that my father bought for 20 bucks (Caveman Games, Terra Cresta, Dig Dug II, Bubble Bobble, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr., THREE copies of Mario 1 without Duck Hunt...). A lot of them were pretty crappy, so I traded them away for other games, eventually working my way up to Crystalis, where I had the same damn problem you did the first time through. I figured it out, though, when I went back to explore some more, thinking I had missed something.

Dragon Warrior, Crystalis, Final Fantasy, Contra, and Super Mario Brothers 3 dominated my NES. I didn't even get a Mega Man game until I traded Crystalis for one in high school, and that was Mega Man 6.

It's funny that you said "This is the part where I would have grown up to be...actually, I'm not sure what. Probably more bookish and into television. Video games were expensive, so my game library wasn't really expanding." because that's exactly where I was. The NES was my only gaming console all the way up to my second year of college, so I pretty much completely missed out on the SNES, Genesis, Dreamcast, N64, Gamecube, Playstation, and Playstation 2 except for an hour here or there at a friend's house, which didn't happen all that often.

So yeah, I went for books.

Light Warrior said...

Fascinating history! I was a fan of Final Fantasy almost as much as you are of Mega Man, so I can somewhat relate. However, even though I considered the original Final Fantasy the greatest video game of all time for quite a while, that actually made me NOT want to play the sequels, for fear that they would be worse and not do Final Fantasy justice. When I played FF7 (second best game of all time, according to GameFAQs), I thought that playing all the FF games might be a worthwhile pursuit. Unfortunately, FF8 (though it had an outstanding storyline) drove me crazy with unfairly difficult boss battles, arbitrary instant-death and instant-game-over attacks, and enemies that level up with you (rendering experience points and leveling up utterly pointless). Some FAQ advisors even recommend AGAINST leveling up in FF8. (Then what's the point of playing?!) I decided to give up on playing FF games, but still appreciate the good ones like I, VII, and IV.

Flashman85 said...

APN: Thanks! I don't really have anything insightful to add, but I'm nodding my head in approval.

Scott: Ha! Good to know I'm not the only one who got stuck in Crystalis! And I guess I can let the trade-in slide because you got a Mega Man game out of the deal...

Interesting final point; I can definitely see that happening to myself, in different circumstances.

quixote88pianist: Thank you! Your take on Final Fantasy is very interesting--I've declined watching a few movies because I doubted they'd hold up to the original, but I don't think that's ever happened with a video game.

Seems we've got similar taste in Final Fantasy games, though. I have yet to play VII, but my two favorites are I and IV (plus Mystic Quest, if that counts).

Loruxz25 said...

Awww, yeah! Mega Man is the BOMB, and so is Yars Revenge, and Combat, and.... It all just makes me wish for an "old school" system. Older games are (and always will be) superior! Cept for Cave Story. I love Cave Story. Good luck with the commentary for MM6! Oh, by the way..... USE AN E-TANK NOW!! ;)