Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A personal history of gaming

It's time for another console generation. Sony released its PlayStation 4 last week; Microsoft launches its Xbox One this week.

These things make me wistful. Heck, I remember when I refused to believe a GamePro editorial telling me that 16-bit gaming would come to an end. I was that stubborn. The Sega Genesis/SNES era was a great one for videogames. I didn't think it would get any better. In many ways, the current era that's "over" ended up being just as strong.

What follows is a quick look at my personal videogaming file. I don't play as much now as I used to--a lot of my spare time goes to writing--but videogames were definitely a major part of my childhood. And as they've crept into the public consciousness and become more mainstream, I've been there, too.

Here's a look back.

Intellivision. Oh, Intellivision. You were so clunky with your wood-grain base and that strange golden metal finish. Your controllers looked like little cellphones--although we never realized it because cellphones were a heckuva lot bigger in those days. And who needs joysticks? No one. Your little directional disc at the bottom got it done.

The controller also featured buttons on either side and plastic overlays for the numerical keypads. Woe to the lost gamer who misplaced his overlays and had to learn through trial and error how to play a game.

I loved our Intellivision. This was a system for the entire family, and the first videogame system I remember playing. We've always been a sports-oriented family, so favorites included Major League Baseball (and, later, World Championship Baseball), Slam Dunk Super Pro Basketball, and NFL Football (and, later, Super Pro Football). When we weren't playing sports games, we evaded killer robots in Night Stalker, blew up asteroids in Astrosmash, and evaded hot dogs in BurgerTime (an absolute CLASSIC). Other frequently played games included Triple Action (a game featuring three modes: tank battle, biplane battle, and car racing) and the ports of Frogger and Pac-Man. The bowling game was also fun although I was never very good at it.

We sold our Intellivision at a garage sale one year. I kinda miss the little guy.

NES. Ah, the Nintendo Entertainment System. When I was in elementary school, this was the system to have. I constantly swapped games with friends. The controller was absolutely perfect. D-pad, select, start, B, and A. You didn't have shoulder buttons or anything like that--it was gaming simplicity. The console itself was visually unassuming and easy to use.

As with the Intellivision, sports games were huge for my family. Bases Loaded II: Second Season was an immensely satisfying baseball game. We were big fans of Play Action Football. We never found a great basketball game, though. My brother and I weren't big fans of Double Dribble and we ended up with Magic Johnson's Fast Break, which was a horrible game. Blades of Steel was a fantastic game even though we aren't big hockey fans.

But it wasn't just sports games. I loved Super Mario Bros. (who didn't?) and Bionic Commando. I'm not the greatest fast-twitch action gamer in the world, but I loved Bionic Commando so much that I played it and played it until I could get through it without dying. I enjoyed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game even though it wasn't as awesome as the actual arcade game. Al Unser Jr. Turbo Racing also ranks as one of my favorite NES games; loved the way you could paint your own car and race it. I didn't own the NES port of Smash TV, but I rented it a lot. The Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back games got a lot of play, too. I always loved the Hoth/AT-AT level in ESB. I also liked Tetris (the Nintendo version, not the Tengen one) and WWF: Steel Cage Challenge mostly because you could play as the Mountie. I also have to mention The Legend of Zelda.

I ended up selling my NES to get a Sega Genesis. And, like the Intellivision before it, I kinda miss the little guy.

Sega Genesis. By the time the Sega Genesis really got going, I had a paper route and decided I absolutely needed a Sega Genesis. I can't explain what drew me to the Genesis over the Super Nintendo. The SNES was a fine piece of hardware and had a lot of games I really wanted to play (mostly the Super Star Wars Trilogy, which never made it to Sega's system). I've never really been a huge Mario/Zelda guy (I like the games, but I'm not married to them), so missing out on Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past didn't bother me at all.

When I bought my Genesis, Sonic the Hedgehog was the pack-in game AND you could send off to get Sonic 2 for free. I thought that was absolutely awesome. I really enjoyed the Sonic games although I was never particularly good at them. Loved the Casino Zone in Sonic 2. Those were my first two games for the Genesis.

From a sports game perspective, I spent a lot of time playing NFL Football '94 starring Joe Montana. It was a SportsTalk football game, so you got the announcer that totally didn't sound at all like a computer. That football game was the first one that looked and felt truly realistic as far as the player models went. The passing game never worked all that well aside from a few of the short passing plays like the 212 Shoot, which you could absolutely kill defenses with if you had a decent #2 receiver. In later years, the Sega games went downhill and we turned to Madden Football.

I had RBI Baseball '93 and a couple of the Hardball games, which were awesome because you could name guys on rosters and design logos. The music that played during home runs was atrocious. College Football USA was fantastic; the sheer number of teams was staggering. I loaned that game to a guy in high school and never got it back. You could kill teams with Indiana's Alex Smith...although it wasn't Alex Smith even though it really was Alex Smith.

I couldn't mention the Genesis without including Captain America and the Avengers. My brother and I played that game all the time. I would play Cap, Greg would play Iron Man, and we could get through the game without losing a single life. I never owned Ecco the Dolphin, but I thought it was a fantastically unique game. Earthworm Jim was a revelation, and my friends and I got our fair share of play out of the Mortal Kombat series.

The Genesis had great basketball games in the Bulls vs. series and NBA Live. Given Live's recent history, I think it's best that we remember the 16-bit versions, which played great. NBA Live games were out when the Indiana Pacers were in their golden age, so you could run around and pop threes with Reggie Miller all day. If sim basketball wasn't your thing, NBA Jam and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition provided plenty of over-the-top bball action.

EA's NHL games were fantastic. I had NHL '96.

Sega CD. This was supposed to be the future of gaming.

It wasn't.

Still, I have a soft spot for the Sega CD even though its pack-in game, Sewer Shark, was abysmal.

I had NHL '94 for the Sega CD. This may have been the best version of that fantastic game thanks to the CD-ROM's awesome music. Player cards had grainy video. There was an awesome grainy video intro. ALL SEGA CD VIDEO WAS GRAINY.

Star Wars: Rebel Assault was the reason I got the system. At the time, my family had a 286 that struggled to play X-Wing. The Sega CD Rebel Assault, I would later discover, was missing a level. The video was also grainy. Shocking, I know.

I logged a fair amount of time in the port of Wing Commander and actually enjoyed the quirkiness of the point-and-click Jurassic Park game. That's the only game where I've ever discovered a cheat code by chance without consulting a strategy guide or hearing it from a friend.

How did I not have Sonic CD? Honestly!

I still have the Sega CD and the Genesis. They're in a plastic tote with all of their games. All I need is a new RF adapter for the Genesis and a power adapter for the Sega CD. One day, they'll play again.

Sony PlayStation. I don't remember exactly what possessed me to get a Sony PlayStation other than the fact my friends had one. It was a good system--I took it to college and played it a lot during my freshman year--but the only strong memory I have from it is Metal Gear Solid, which remains one of my all-time favorite games. I actually popped it in the other day. I had the usual sports games, including MLB 99, Triple Play Baseball, a few versions of Madden, etc. I don't remember having a basketball game or a hockey game.

Mortal Kombat Trilogy got a lot of play during college, and we nicknamed Noob Saibot "Noob Cheap-Move-Bot." I'm probably the only MK player who ever enjoyed playing as Stryker, who was admittedly an awful character in design and purpose. We had a lot of fun with Medal of Honor, which was a seriously great game ("Ah! It's Jimmy Patterson!"). A friend of mine and I had a little song we'd sing when you picked up the shotgun: "Shotgun, shotgun, get it, get it." I guess you had to be there.

So I guess while I enjoyed the PlayStation, I wasn't particularly enamored with it or attached to it. That probably explains why my next console became...

Xbox original. It's gigantic. The controller is gigantic.

I loved it.

The original Xbox had a comically short lifespan as Microsoft tried to get a handle on the whole videogame thing. During this first PlayStation/Xbox war, this generation went to Sony. Most of my friends had PS2s. A couple had Xboxes, but the PS2 was much more common. Still, I liked my Xbox. The hard drive was nice for adding music and having plenty of space for saving games.

NHL Hitz was fantastic, and I played it a few months ago. Just a super fun, super addictive game. I love the Franchise mode where you acquire players and equipment as you work your way into the NHL. NFL2K5 was a revolutionary game in terms of presentation and value. Had it not been for this formidable competitor, we may have never seen EA's exclusive license (although we probably would have anyway).

I had Halo and I sucked at it, but the game was pretty awesome. The Grand Theft Auto Double Pack rocked, and I got a lot of use out of that. Lego Star Wars was a great deal of fun. The NCAA football games were usually solid, especially the last couple in that generation. My poor, underpowered Celeron PC couldn't run Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast: Battle of the Colons, so I had it on Xbox. Surprisingly, I really got into Tiger Woods 2004 even though I'm not a golfer.

And then there was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which is probably the best Star Wars game ever made.

I still have the Xbox, although it needs a new power cord.

Xbox 360. Microsoft showed it could make a decent console with the first Xbox.

It showed it could make a great one with the Xbox 360. Despite the red ring of death, despite the Xbox live paid subscription, despite the popularity of the PlayStation brand, Microsoft turned Xbox into a huge brand. The console was designed for multiplayer games, and it delivered. About midway through its lifespan, Microsoft added multimedia content like Netflix. It added Kinect.

But those weren't the reasons I loved my 360 (I don't have Kinect). I loved it because of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. I loved it because of the Online Dynasty mode in NCAA Football--the only place where Purdue could win a national championship. I loved it because of Lego Batman. Halo 3. X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 3. Batman: Arkham Asylum. Arkham City.

I loved it because I used to work in TV news and one morning we decided to feature Madden 10 on launch day. We almost failed to get a coherent newscast on the air because we stopped to watch a Madden game in demo mode.

I loved it for Plants vs. Zombies. The Marvel pinball tables. Guitar Hero II. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

My first Xbox ended up RRODing, but the repair was quick and relatively painless.

In closing

My little trek down memory lane shows I don't have much brand loyalty. I've bounced around from Nintendo to Sega, Sony, and Microsoft. You could even argue I missed the "best" systems from each company (Nintendo's SNES and Sony's PS2). I don't even know if I'll get a next-gen system. History says I probably will, but I don't know which one it'll be. Microsoft made some mistakes in the lead up to this November launch; Sony seized the momentum and released a sexy-looking system.

I'm probably leaning toward Xbox One, however. The product intrigues me and I've been in the Xbox ecosystem for more than a decade now. That doesn't mean I can't change, though, because that PS4 looks awfully nice.

Either way, I'm waiting until these systems get some must-have games. Right now, they don't have an "killer apps."

Oh, a price cut would be nice, too. Really nice. I'll wait for that.