Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Phantom Troublemaker on Video Games – Nintendo Entertainment System

In my last post about video games I wrote about my first video game console – the Atari 2600 that my dad inexplicably brought home one day.

The Atari was fun and certainly a landmark in my life, but the subject of today’s post was literally life changing in more ways than one. Today I’m talking about the video game console that changed the world forever – the Nintendo Entertainment System.

After the Atari my parents became oddly anti-video games. I don’t know the story and I suppose I could ask them, but for whatever reason when the NES came out they would not get me one. And I’m not talking about just flat out buying it for me. I’m talking about not even for my birthday or Christmas. They told me that if I wanted one I was going to have to save up my own money to get it, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t believe that would ever happen.

It was an odd stance. If I’m being honest, I was fairly spoiled as a child. I was a good kid and for the most part deserved it because I didn’t cause much, if any, trouble. But I didn’t want for much. I had all of the Star Wars and GI Joe I wanted. They kept me focused on specific toy lines, but within those I was well off. And maybe that’s what was behind it. Maybe one day they decided that I did have too much and that a line had to be drawn. I dunno.

Whatever the case, this is an event that stands out in my life. I was nine years old when the NES was released in North America and owning one became the most important thing in the world. Especially after being told that my usual source of playthings wasn’t going to help out.

I can’t remember how long I had to save money. If I had an allowance at the time, it was less than five bucks a week. I must’ve saved birthday, Christmas, and any other money I got for a long time. My memory is fuzzy here, but I think I bought the bundle with Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. with the zap gun. I had wanted the bundle with R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), but after playing with it at a friends’ house I realized it sucked. The same thing happened later with the Power Glove. I had to spend my money on these things, so it changed my priorities quite a bit.

This is the lesson I learned from the experience of having to pay for the NES myself. Believe me when I tell you that I took better care of that video game console than almost anything else I have ever owned. I was also picky about games. When my parents said they weren’t buying me video games, it was all-inclusive. There’s another important story there, but it will have to wait a minute because I haven’t even gotten to the console yet.

I believe I paid $179.99 plus tax for my NES. I can’t be sure. I didn’t want Duck Hunt and didn’t understand why I couldn’t pay less and not get Duck Hunt until I got home and found that it was on the same cartridge as Super Mario Bros. Grown-up logic states that two games being on the same cartridge is still two games. Little kid logic dictates that I got one less cartridge than I thought I was getting and was disappointed, even though I didn’t even want one of the games in the first place.

But I had my Nintendo console and I was both proud and excited. I’m sure I played the heck out of Super Mario Bros. and gave Duck Hunt some cursory plays, but I honestly don’t remember any of the circumstances surrounding the day I bought the system. I don’t even recall where we bought it.

Obviously I didn’t spend the next ten years playing Super Mario Bros. Well, I mean, I did, but I eventually got other games as well. I only remember the specifics of two of them – Legendary Wings and Super Mario Bros. 2.

A friend got me a game I knew I didn’t want for my birthday. I don’t remember what it was, but we took it to Toys R Us to return it. Since it was still sealed, they said I could exchange it for something of equal value. Needless to say, this birthday present game from another middle class kid was not a brand new, full price game, so I was a bit limited as to what I could buy.

I spent a long time looking through games in the store before I made my decision. Nothing seemed particularly great, but as you know if you’ve ever been a kid, I had to have a game right then. It simply wasn’t possible for me to wait and save my money or see if their inventory of value-priced games improved eventually. So I bought Legendary Wings.

Legendary Wings looked cool. I was into mythology by then, so the image of this Icarus-like character with a laser gun appealed to me. I can’t say that Legendary Wings is the worst game I’ve ever played. I worked in video game stores for years and had access to virtually every game made between 1985 and 2005, so I’ve played some shit you’ve never even heard of. But that game will always bear the stink of being the first shitty game I owned. It took me all of five minutes to realize that I hated it.

The next day Mom took me back to Toys R Us to return it and I encountered another first – being stuck with a thing that I had spent money on that I hated. Once games are open you can’t return them. I didn’t know this at the time. I think my mom argued with the clerk over it, but rules are rules. And that’s why, to this day, shitty video games are still being produced.

Side Note: Invariably someone is going to feel the need to comment here or over on Facebook, “I liked Legendary Wings!” Shut up. Nobody wants to hear it. Unless you’re going to travel back in time and give my younger self fifty 1980s dollars for that crap game, you keep your wrong opinions to yourself.

By Source, Fair use,

Super Mario Bros. 2 was a whole different story. That game was the most hyped game ever. It’s probably still up there for record-breaking pre-release anticipation, at least for me. I had the Nintendo Power subscription. I watched all the right afternoon and Saturday morning cartoons. I knew this thing was coming and I couldn’t possibly have been more excited.
We were living in Houston, Texas the Summer that the game was released and it probably saved my life. I was eleven years old and I did not want to go to Houston, Texas. We were there for some kind of job exchange program that my dad’s company was doing. Once we got to Houston I hated it. It was so hot and humid all the time. I still have nightmares about the climate there.

To my parents’ credit, they did everything they could to make the situation better for me. In retrospect, it was one of the most amazing Summers I’ve ever had. We had season passes to AstroWorld and WaterWorld (the theme park, not the Jack Black movie), I got to see Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys on their “Together Forever” tour, I got to buy toys from toy lines that were not part of my normal collecting habits like Army Ants, and I had no bedtime and was able to discover the magic of Late Night With David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. It was a golden three months aside from the climate and the complete and utter lack of anybody my age to talk to or do anything with.

Plus there was Super Mario Bros. 2, which was probably one of the few games – if not the only – that I got on the release date.

At first I was jarred by how different it was from the original. Of course, none of us knew at the time that it wasn’t actually Super Mario Bros. 2 and that it was actually  Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. I loved how colorful it was, I loved having four characters to choose from, and I really dug how outright strange it was. To this day Shy Guys are my favorite video game villains and Super Mario Bros. 2 is one of my favorite games.

I played Super Mario Bros. 2 more than any other game simply because I had nothing else to do. Outside of that Summer I actually wasn’t a huge gamer. I tended to spend my free time watching TV or staging intricate storylines with my GI Joe toys. But in 1987 that game ruled everything.

Obviously there were other games, though I have no idea where they came from. I didn’t have much income and my parents never bought me games, but somehow I ended up with a large number of cartridges, now that I’m thinking about it. For ease of writing and probably reading, I’m just going to bullet point some of these (they’re all games I played when I was a kid – I’m not including stuff I played later when I was able to check stuff out from the video game store):

*Ninja Gaiden – Outside of Super Mario Bros. 2 I think this was my favorite NES game. It’s one of the few that I completed, and I had to do this by leaving the game paused for hours at a time – sometimes overnight or when I had to go to school. I still think that it’s one of the best and most compelling action games to have come out on the system. I got really caught up in the story of Ryu Hayabusa and his story of revenge.

*The Legend of Kage – I don’t think this one was necessarily popular, but I dug the heck out of it. It was a side scroller where you played as a ninja. I suppose it was a simplified Ninja Gaiden, but I enjoyed it.

*Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – I didn’t play the first Castlevania until a compilation (I think for PlayStation?) years later. This one was my jam, and jam I did. The fact that the game actually shifted from day to night and that it became more dangerous at night blew my mind. And also made it so I couldn’t play it at night. Seriously – the nighttime stuff freaked me out.

*Little Nemo: The Dream Master – Long before I had any awareness of Winsor McCay’s comic strip I was guiding Nemo through Slumberland looking for keys. I never even came close to finishing this one, but I enjoyed it.

*Hudson’s Adventure Island – This is pretty much a lousy Super Mario Bros. knockoff, but for some reason I liked it.

*Ghosts’n Goblins – I loved this game, but I hated it so much. It was hard as crap and I couldn’t ever get anywhere, but I adored the graphics and this knight who ended up in his ridiculous boxer shorts when he got hit. I would always get to this one part where you had to jump up a mountain or something and then I would die.

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*Milon’s Secret Castle – First of all, the cover for this game is incredible because it looks like something from a Rankin-Bass production. I think I might be the only person who liked this game. Everyone I knew hated it for some reason. A sure way to get a friend I had grown tired of to leave was to put in Milon’s Secret Castle.

*Solstice – One of my favorites. This is the game is how I discovered that I love puzzle games. You guided a little wizard through a massive maze of 3D style rooms and had to avoid traps and solve puzzles. I never finished it because every time I would get to the last room (or maybe the room before the last room) the game would glitch and I would get stuck on a hovering platform. Even though that was a huge source of preteen rage, I still have mostly fond memories of this one.

*Shadowgate – Speaking of puzzle games, Shadowgate was THE BOMB. This was another favorite and would lead to my discovery of point and click adventure games on the PC like King’s Quest (the greatest video game series of all time). I loved how creepy this was. It was like living a choose your own adventure book!

*Mega Man Series – Give me any or all of them. I loved these fucking games. There was no other series that provided such variety in levels and bosses. And the brilliant mechanism that awarded you the abilities of the bosses you defeated is one of the smartest things ever done in a game. These were all hard as crap and I’m not sure I finished a single one, but I loved the heck out of playing them. Blue Bomber 4 Life.

*Kid Icarus – Greek mythology was one of my obsessions when I was a kid. This game had everything I wanted and totally made up for the winged disappointment that was Legendary Wings. Guiding Pit through all of those crazy vertical levels and battling pixelated versions of my favorite monsters was delightful.

*Rygar – One of the few games where the home console version was superior to the arcade version. The arcade version was a side-scrolling action game, while the NES version was more akin to Metroid. It did not have passwords or a battery, though, so this was another one you had to leave paused for hours in order to progress. I don’t think I ever finished it.
*Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Unlike most people, I preferred the first one. I loved the big maps and driving the Party Wagon around.

*Batman – I loved this game because I loved all things Batman, but I think I was terrible at it and never got anywhere.

*Duck Tales – One of the greatest NES games of all time. I finished it, but played it through several times. A remastered version is available for download from PSN and I highly recommend it. I had an awesome time playing it with my son.

*Strider – BAD. ASS. Everything about this game was cool. It was my first exposure to a sword/gun combo. And that slide attack was incredible! I also feel like Strider looked better and ran more smoothly than most NES games.

*Pro Wrestling – Finally, of course there’s a wrestling game on the list! This game wasn’t good at all, but the characters were fantastic. All I ever wanted to do was be The Amazon and bite people’s faces.

I played more games than just these thanks to an innovative moneymaking scheme that swept the nation – video game rental. Businesses like Blockbuster noticed that thing I mentioned above – most video games suck – and added game cartridges to their rental library of VHS tapes and Laser Discs. It was a revolution. Now we could actually try games out before buying them! You could even rent an entire console!

Notice, if you will, that you can’t go to a store and do any of that anymore. There’s GameFly, which I’m sure is a great service, but the days where you could just walk into a store and browse row upon row of video game boxes are gone. Some would probably argue that being able to have them streamed or delivered or whatever straight into your home is better, but I miss the tactile experience of licking up a box and looking at the cover; which often had nothing to do with the game (much like the VHS tapes the games shared the store with).

For a solid ten years the Nintendo Entertainment System was a constant companion. It’s amazing to look at the history of the console and see the games evolve from simplistic piles of blocks that were barely more complex than Atari games into fast-paced, smoothly animated action romps like Battletoads (which I didn’t mention before because it was hard as crap and I hated it despite loving it).

You might be wondering why I didn’t mention classics like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Tetris, or whatever game floated your personal boat back in the day. I couldn’t play them all, you guys. Some stuff fell by the wayside for a few years. Eventually I enjoyed the adventures of Link. I still hate Tetris. And I discovered one of my favorite games of all time in Super Metroid.

But that’s a story for the next post – the 16-bit consoles and my time at Video Game Exchange!

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post and have a video game reminiscence of your own, join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and get in on the conversation.

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