Hurray continuity! Welcome to Part 2 of the retrospective. Be sure and check out Part 1 if you haven’t already.
1989 – Dr. Mario – Nintendo introduced the revolutionary Game Boy hardware at the very end of the 80′s, and I don’t think I’ve traveled for more than an hour without a handheld system since then. The first Game Boy iteration’s creamed spinach-colored monochrome LCD screen blurred every time there was a lot of movement onscreen, so sidescrollers and action games didn’t really make the transition so well. Puzzle games, however, really shined on the system, because you could keep scratching the itch with quick play sessions whenever and WHEREever you had a free moment.
Tetris was packed in, but that game was decidedly grown up. Dr. Mario brought more fun to the place-and-drop puzzler than Tetris, with multicolored pills to vanquish the little dancing germs under the microscope. In the back of my mind, I was always a little bit surprised that some overreactive parents’ group didn’t throw a fit over this game. After all, the half-and-half pills looked a lot like Dexatrim.
1990 - Super Mario Brothers 3 – This was arguably the last great game for the NES, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better swan song for any system since then. I never really embraced Super Mario Brothers 2 – it just felt like too much of a departure from the series. Even before I knew about the Doki Doki Panic switch, it just felt… apocryphal. But Mario 3 brought back everything we all loved about adventures in the mushroom kingdom, and piled on a ton of extras that made the whole experience feel fresh.
I don’t have the back issues on hand to check, but I’m pretty sure Nintendo Power started covering SMB 3 about 8 months before its US release. Our local Toys R’ Us was sold out of the game for weeks afterwards, and we finally got a copy after my sister nearly won the spelling bee.
It was a great game that has aged very well, and it lived up to the hype at the time. The Mushroom Kingdom felt very lived in for the first time, and you finally got the idea that Mario was up against something more than just a weird dragon and some turtles to his right… Koopa was a regime and only you could liberate them from Bowser’s tyranny. Heavy stuff indeed. It introduced flying, and the overworld map, and a lot of other staples to the Mario universe.
Most of all, I loved the way this game united my entire universe. It was released at the very height of the NES’ popularity, and my friends and family (even the adults!) wanted to get a hold of this game. I guess you could say it was the first time I was aware of hype surrounding a game, or just the idea of hype in general. I wonder if I’d have ended up in PR if this game hadn’t been so awesome.
1991 - The Simpsons Arcade Game – A woefully underappreciated classic, this is the only game on this entire list that has never seen a port on any home console. Multiplayer side-scrolling brawlers owned the arcades, bowling alleys and pizzerias in the late 80′s and early 90′s, and no one perfected the art form quite like Konami. The Simpsons was one superb entry in a string of stellar coin-ops like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and Wild West COWboys of Moo Mesa.
It’s on the list because I bought a well-loved arcade unit of this game in 1997, from an arcade in Royal Oak, MI, with money I had saved up from a summer job. It was so much more than just another game to play. Once I got The Simpsons home and in my bedroom, it became a trophy to my love of games. It was my enormous stuffed marlin hanging on the wall.
I gained a whole new level of appreciation for the culture surrounding games when I got a hold of The Simpsons. It was the first time that I was really excited about a game that had been released a really, really long time ago (6 whole years!). Keep in mind I was 16. All the magazine articles about the Simpsons had been published in ’91, in publications like JAMMA Digest and Arcade and Amusement Operators’ Quarterly. But it was a shining piece of superb game design by a company that had perfected games in one genre. It was a marvelous example of a GOOD licensed game, with spot-on art direction and a story that could’ve been wedged into a weaker TV season of The Simpsons. I really learned how to recognize a truly great game with The Simpsons.
1992 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time – I distinctly remember renting this game, along with Defenders of Dynotron City at the video store. It was the cover story in Nintendo Power that month, and I had been pouring over the level layouts and screenshots for weeks before release. My grandmother died the next day, and I just remember things were really, really quiet around our house that whole week. My mom talked the guy at the video store into letting us hang onto the game for another 3 day rental period, even though it was in high demand at the time. I’ve always been a huge Turtles fan, but still never bought this game – arguably the best one released for any home console. I guess it just always reminded me of a pretty rough time.
1993 - Zombies Ate my Neighbors – When someone asks me what my favorite game of all time is, this is the first one out of my mouth. I haven’t played it in years, so it’s entirely possible that there’s a gloss of nostalgia around it. But if LucasArts puts Zombies out on the Wii’s virtual console, I’m buying it on day one. This game was just plain fun, and struck the perfect balance between a tribute to and tongue-in cheek spoof of cheesy sci-fi/horror B movies. There was just enough of an established story to get by. Zeke was obviously a huge movie geek, ’cause he wore 3D glasses all the time. Julie was kind of a tomboy, ’cause she always had on a ball cap (even when she drinks the purple monster potion). Beyond that, it was really up to you.
Perhaps most importantly, the credits in this game were a playable level, rather than just scrolling text after you saved the world. You walked around the level and read all the designers’ names, and they all had some personality-defining object or animation for their in-game character. They were all American guys based in Palo Alto. It was the first time I really grasped the concept of all the people it took to make a good game, and that working in games could be a viable profession for me.
1994 – DOOM II – Like nearly every nerd currently between the ages of 25 and 35, I was completely obsessed with the original DOOM. It was the first PC game I absolutely had to have, and I tried to get every non-PC owning friend to come over and see this unbelievable game where you see your gun in front of you and you’re fighting zombies and demons from Hell on Mars!!! I got the first Counting Crows record around the same time, so I spent the entire summer blowing away demons while Adam Duritz belted out Mr. Jones… it led to a very weird mental soup where I still can’t listen to ‘Round Here without my trigger finger getting twitchy.
So of course, I was perfectly ready for DOOM II to be the best game ever. I realize now that it could have been delivered by Super Mario Himself and heralded by a choir of Hooters waitresses, and it still wouldn’t have lived up to the expectations my 13-year-old self had placed on it. But John Romero and the guys at id Software didn’t really do much to help in that department. They spent less than a year developing the highly anticipated sequel, and put what must’ve been millions of dollars and hudred of hours into promoting the hell out of DOOM II.
I played through it in a weekend and was throughly disappointed. It was basically a map pack with one new gun. The new enemy designs sucked, it was still impossible to get a multiplayer match going with your friends on all your modems… I was disappointed.
I had just started writing the first ever game reviews column in my high school newspaper that fall, and I layed into DOOM II pretty hard. It felt like that scene in Jerry Maguire – I wrote and wrote and wrote. The words poured out of me, and by the end I had written my first good, honest appraisal of a video game. It was so much easier to find my voice when I was writing about a game that I didn’t want people to play, and it’s the first time something I wrote actually got a response from my friends.
1995- NHL ’96 – As is required by law in the state of Michigan, my family kept up with hockey fairly regilously. We dutifully bought the first entry in EA’s hockey franchise, NHLPA ’93, a worthy successor to our last heavily played sports game, Blades of Steel.
I took the next couple years off, but then Steve Yzerman and a bunch of Russians got this close to winning a Stanley Cup against the much scarier New Jersey Devils (led by the world’s most intimidating nice guy, Scott Stevens). A picture of Stevens and Yzerman facing off made the cover of NHL ’96 and I was sold.
I had figured my friends and I would be the main audience for NHL ’96, and maybe I’d get in a few games with my dad, who hadn’t touched a controller since NHLPA ’93 and Blades before that. But one day my sister offered to play. She had played Mario games almost exclusively, and barely ever played at this point. She played as the Vancouver Canucks, and sparks flew. They had an ethnic slur for a team name. They had exotic-sounding names like Jurke Lumme and Pavel Bure (and we watched a lot of Sprockets). It didn’t hurt that it was the same roster that took the Rangers to 7 games the previous year, and she had the faceoff timing down to a science.
I had always gotten along really well with my sister, but we spent a lot of time playing together over NHL ’96, and she gained a real appreciation for sports in the process. I like to think it helped her come out of her shell.
Most importantly, I learned a lot about why I love games so much along the way. NHL ’96 became an excuse for us to spend time together, and we had a lot of conversations about real world things that had absolutely nothing to do with video hockey during that time. The rabbi at my wedding talked about how much I love to see peoples’ personalities unfold when we play games together, and I really don’t care that much about winning or losing. I can follow that sentiment to something that started all the way back with this game.
1996 – Super Mario 64 – I got a NES for my first communion, so it only made sense (to me at least) that I deserved a Nintendo 64 for my confirmation. It was a really big sacrement, and the N64 controller was the frst to have an analog stick so, y’know, fair deal.
About a month ahead of launch, Nintendo put a bunch of demo unit N64′s into retailers with one controller and Mario 64. My buddy Mike and I would ride our bikes up there nearly every weekend just to play it. Now that I think of it, Toys R’ Us was kind of a ridiculous distance to cover on bikes from my house, but we wouldn’t have spent that time kissing girls or curing cancer or anything, so no harm done. It was good times, I got to be the best man at his wedding, and we both have beautiful families now. Thanks, Mario!
Mario 64 blew all of us away, and really evolved the platforming genre to keep up with the times. Like DOOM, Tetris, and other genre-definers before it, this game had a ton of soulless knockoffs. But Mario 64 was a collection of really well-executed level designs, complete commitment to an engrossing, narrative world, and loving attention to characters we had all grown up with. It was one of two N64 launch titles, and the system was still impossible to find that Christmas.
I wrote a gushing review of it in my school paper, and a classmate accused me of being way too pro Nintendo. Some things never change.
1997 – Final Fantasy VII – I had been an early convert to the Sony PlayStation, but Crash Bandicoot, Twisted Metal and Resident Evil weren’t enough to convince my friends that this weird, CD-based system with its bat shaped controller and home audio company pedigree would last. But then Squaresoft announced that Final Fantasy VII would be coming to the US on PlayStation, with a faithful translation and the original Japanese series numbering (instead of the screwed up US system, where Final Fantasy VI came out as Final Fantasy III on the SNES). It was a huge sign that Sony and their third-party publishers intended to take hardcore gamers seriously in the US. We had been taken for granted by Sega and Nintendo up to this point, and Sony sure seemed like a white knight with all this… respect.
1998 - Metal Gear Solid – I was living in Shiga, Japan as a high school exchange student in the summer of ’98, and spent a lot of my off time in their arcades and game shops. Like just about all exchange students, the Japan tour was a life changing experience. Japanese studios still accounted for the majority of AAA titles at this point, but I could tell even then that American developers like EA were starting to catch on over there.
In the last few days of my trip, Famitsu magazine featured Metal Gear Solid on their cover and included a demo disc in the shrink wrap. The game had been hyped for over a year on both sides of the Pacific, but Konami was only giving a sneak peak to their Japanese fans. I nabbed a copy after one of my last days of school there, and promptly trekked to the local dirt mall with my buddies when I got back to the States so I could get my PlayStation modded.
We played the hell out of that one stage demo for months, until MGS finally came out stateside. We knew that beginning Shadow Moses level like the backs of our hands, and even had a pretty good idea about the dialogue in the Codec screens. From then on, the MGS series has reminded me of my incredible time abroad. Apropos, because Hideo Kojima stands as one of the last great Japanese auters of game development, and the MGS series is a fantastic love letter to the cinematic, uniquely Japanese school of game design.
To be Concluded…