Last updated Feb 1st, 2008

Video Game Memories

I recently stumbled across a series of articles called The 50 Essential Video Games, i.e. the 50 games (although I'm not sure how "the Macintosh" qualifies as a "game") that the authors thought were the most famous, most influential and most important releases in the history of video games (at least up until the beginning of this decade, which is when the articles seem to have been written). I was surprised to find that I actually agreed with a lot of their choices, and even their reasons for choosing them. But being the contrarian that I am, I couldn't fully agree with the list - there seemed to be a few on there that were only selected because they were favorites of a particular author.

So, I figured I might as well put together a list of my own favorite games. In no way am I claiming that these games were particularly important to the history of the genre, although there is some overlap between my list and those articles. These are just the games that I found the most addictive, the most fun - the ones I wasted the most of my precious time on. The ones I still get the urge to play, even though I no longer have access to many of them. The list is purely subjective and is presented for amusement purposes only.

While writing my list, it kind of morphed into a rambling description of my experiences from the early days of video games and home computers up to the present. This lengthy discourse might have some nostalgic value for some folks, but it will surely bore most people to tears. Read at your own risk.

I should start out by qualifying that I am not an expert of any kind in the field of video games. I've never owned any generation of PlayStation, and I don't feel that I really missed anything because of that. I won an XBox (first generation) in a raffle at a Microsoft convention that my boss sent me to (how's that for lucky?) and bought a handful of games for it but was never all that thrilled with it. When it comes to video games of the last 20 years or so, I'm pretty much a Nintendo fanboy. I can hear the hard-core gamers clicking away to other web pages after reading that, but that's OK. I just turned 40, I have a job, a wife and a daughter, so I'm lucky if I can find 5 hours a week to play video games. I've never been particularly fond of driving games, fighting games or first person shooters (with the exception of Doom). And nowdays when I play video games, my eight year old daughter usually wants to play too. Thus, we're a Nintendo family.

But that's not where I started out. In fact, I came late to the Nintendo party. I'm an old-timer - I can remember when the Atari 2600 was hot stuff. I still own a working Odyssey 2 and a Microvision. But let's start at the beginning...

The Early Years

The very first video game I can recall playing - and it's a stretch to even call it a video game - was one of those hand-held "football" games with the grid of LED lights. Anyone under 30 has probably never even seen one, but my brother got one in the mid 1970s for Christmas or a birthday or something, and we both became obsessed with it. Your football "player" was represented by one of the glowing red LED lights. It "moved" across the screen by turning off the current LED and turning on the one to the left, right, up or down, depending on which directional button you pressed. The object was to get across the screen from left to right, but there were three (I think - it might have been more) computer controlled LED lights that moved around the screen and attempted to "tackle" you by crashing into your light. If you could make it all the way to the right side of the screen, your player wrapped around to the left and you kept going. Each circuit of the screen counted as 10 yards (I think - it has been literally decades since I've seen one of those games in working condition). It didn't take long until I was good enough at the game to run the full 100 yards of the field just about every time. Still a fun game though. I'd love to find one at a flea market or something.

That football game belonged to my brother, but I eventually owned a couple little hand-held oddities. They were similar to Nintendo's "Game and Watch" games (which I didn't find out about until long after they had faded from popularity), in that the game consisted of moving your "character" from one pre-printed position to the next, trying to dodge similarly pre-printed "bad guys" and achieve some sort of goal. Nothing actually moved on the screens - it was all just a matter of turning off one picture and turning on the next. I don't even remember what the first game was called, just that it involved running your character through a haunted house while dodging ghosts and bats. The other one as called was a called "Epoch Man", and (as you might guess from the name) it was a blatant rip-off of Pac Man. I think I still have Epoch Man hidden away in a drawer somewhere, but the haunted house game has been lost to the mists of time. I used to play those games for hours, which just goes to show how easily entertained we were back then.

As an aside, it wasn't really a "video" game, but I also had the electronic Dungeons and Dragons board game. You would position your metal figurine on one of the game's squares, and then the circuits would pick a random other square as the location of a treasure guarded by a dragon. As you moved around the grid of the game board, it would use sound effects to tell you when you hit a wall (which the player was then dutifully required to mark with a plastic wall piece) or if you woke up the dragon by getting too close. The object was to wake the dragon and lure him away from the treasure, then find and steal it and get it back to your "base" before the dragon caught you. All done with sound effects, little figurines and plastic walls. My daughter actually still enjoys playing this game - she just dug it out yesterday and challenged me to a game. I was a little shocked when I saw the price sticker that is still on the decaying box: $50. For a game that came out somewhere around the end of the 70s (actually 1980 - I just looked it up on Google), I'm amazed my parents spent that kind of money on it. I seem to recall a small, brown hand-held Dungeons and Dragons game too, but that might have been my brother's. It didn't really leave any lasting impression on me.

The other early device I owned (I still have it and it still works) was the Microvision. It was (I think) the first hand-held game to use interchangeable cartridges to play different games. This was several years before the GameBoy. The "graphics" were just a grid of black squares. But the programmers who made the games got the most out of it. It came with a game called Blockbuster, which was just the standard Pong variation where you used a paddle to bounce a ball against a wall to systematically "break" all the bricks in it. I remember hearing my Mom playing that game in the attic, where it was hidden away waiting for Christmas morning. She decided to try it out before giving it to me, and she got hooked on it. I was such a Microvision fanboy that a while back I decided to try to re-create all the games with a Javascript Microvision Simulator. I managed to get a few games done, but it was more work than I had hoped for and I eventually gave up. The game that broke my will was Sea Duel, which was my favorite cartridge as a kid. You could either play as a ship (which gave the ability to blanket a 3x3 grid of squares with depth charges) or a submarine (which had a single block "torpedo", but it could fire the whole way across the screen). Players took turn programming in their moves and shots and then the game would play them out. The first player to score six hits on the other won the game. It seemed pretty easy, but try writing that in Javascript! My hat is off to the original programmer, whoever that might have been.

A Video Game Odyssey

The Christmas after the Microvision (or possibly the one before or maybe even the same year - it was three decades ago, you can't expect me to remember details), for reasons that I've never quite understood, my Dad decided to get the family an Odyssey 2 home video game system. Now, my Dad has never been technically inclined. He knows absolutely nothing about computers, and even less about video games. I have to go to my parents' house on occasion to fix their high-def TV and surround sound system if it gets screwed up. And if their computer goes on the fritz - forget about it. So I have NO idea what prompted the old man to buy us a home video game system. But we played the heck out of it. It came with a 3-game cartridge that had a Night Driver style game called Speedway (dodge the cars scrolling down the screen), an overhead racing game called Spin-Out (beat the other player around the track a certain number of times) and a game called Crypto-Logic, which simply allowed one player to type in a phrase (the Odyssey came with a keyboard, which made parents think it was educational compared to the Atari 2600) and the computer would scramble the letters and the other player had to try to decipher the phrase. My brother, sister and I played those games to death. We constantly begged our parents to buy more cartridges for the system, and before it became obsolete we had racked up a fairly decent library of games.

My favorite Odyssey game was Quest for the Rings. It was a blatant Lord of the Rings / Dungeons and Dragons rip-off (most games for the Odyssey seemed to rip *something* off), but it had the distinction of being the first (to my knowledge) video game to incorporate a board game. The "Dungeon Master" would set the board up, hiding metal ring and monster tokens under plastic castle discs. The players had to move around the game board, turning over each castle to see what they had to battle to earn the ring. Each castle was of a certain type - Dungeon (plain maze), Crystal Caverns (invisible wall maze), Inferno (fire wall maze where touching the walls meant instant death), or Shifting Hallways (the walls moved). Each castle could be inhabited by the basic low-level "orcs" (shambling human shapes) or it could also have "Nightmare monsters" (combinations of what looked like flying elephants and octopus-spiders) or the dreaded Dragon. Lord help the players who got the Dragon in an Inferno. Each of the two players would select a player type - Warrior (could kill orcs with a sword), Wizard (could cast a paralysis spell), Phantom (could turn invisible) or Changeling (could walk through walls). The game could either be played with the two players co-operating to try to find and capture all 10 rings, or they could compete against each other (as well as the monsters) to see who could get more of the rings. It was a blast. It was one of the first games I introduced my daughter to (the Odyssey is still kicking, although the power cord tends to short out if it gets bumped at all), and despite the game being 30+ years old, she still enjoyed it (I think the board game aspect helped). I'd love to see a modern remake of this game with the same high-quality packaging and board game parts, but with modern graphics.

Another Odyssey 2 game (and another rip-off) was the first to ever get me so frustrated that I literally lost my temper at the game. My parents took the Odyssey away from me for a while because I threw the joystick at the TV screen in anger over the ease at which Alien Invaders Plus (which probably could have been called Space Invaders Minus) killed me off. Fortunately, the joysticks on the Odyssey were physically wired into the console and didn't detach, so it didn't come anywhere near actually hitting the TV (that probably would have gotten the system taken away forever). I can still remember the sense of joy and accomplishment I got when, after hours and hours of practice, I finally played a perfect game and beat the invaders' leader 10 times in a row without taking a single hit. Come to think of it, the game really did add to the Space Invaders concept. The basic game play was the same (player controls gun at bottom of screen, firing up past your shields towards "aliens" (the standard Odyssey stick figure) who are firing back. But this version added shields for the aliens (which couldn't be destroyed by the player's fire), guns for the aliens (which could be destroyed, making them harmless) and a giant, spider-like leader who hid behind his troops at the top of the screen and would only come down for a direct confrontation if you first defeated all his henchmen. If the player's gun got hit, it turned into a stick figure guy and if you were fast enough, you could run him behind one of your shields and hit the button to turn the shield into a new gun. You only lost a life if you were hit by enemy fire while outside your gun. You won the game if you cleared 10 screens and hit the spider-boss each time.

Most of the games for the Odyssey 2 had at least some element of fun to them. Unlike the Atari, there weren't many third party games released, which was bad in that it doomed the Odyssey to a relatively small library of games and an obscure status in the history of video games, but it was good in that there weren't a bunch of really crappy games out there. I can't tell you how many Atari 2600 cartridges I brought home from a store with great anticipation, only to discover that the game sucked (Worm War One, anyone?).

Anyway, two games that stand out in my memory as being important to me, personally, were K. C. Munchkin and Computer Programming. The former was yet another blatant rip-off (this time of Pac Man), but it allowed the player to design their own mazes, which was my very first experience with "programming" a computer. The actual Programming cartridge was kind of a let-down in comparison. It came with a thick book explaining how to program the Odyssey, but I never managed to get it to do anything all that interesting. Still, those games instilled an excitement in me for actually controlling computers, which is probably why I ended up as a programmer. The Odyssey was the "gateway drug" that eventually led me to a Commodore 64, a Computer Science degree and a career of designing and writing software and web sites. The funny thing is that about a year ago I explained this whole chain of events to my Dad and asked him what had prompted him to buy the Odyssey in the first place, and he had no idea. I don't think he really remembered what the Odyssey even was.

The Mighty Atari

For almost three decades I was under the impression that the Odyssey 2 was the first cartridge-based home video game system. Our family certainly owned one for quite a while before we got an Atari 2600. It was only recently that I discovered that despite its blockier graphics, the Odyssey actually came out a few months after the 2600. And even the 2600 wasn't the first - there were at least one or two earlier cartridge-based home systems. It was like learning that Santa Clause ate the Easter Bunny, but I'll get over it.

I'm guessing that the reason we had an Odyssey first was because it was cheaper, but eventually the Atari's price came down to the reasonable range. By that time it had lost its novelty for everyone else, but it was new to me and I was psyched to get one. I wasn't a big fan of the pack-in game, Combat. But eventually I discovered the Adventure cartridge. Man, that game blew my mind. You could move from room to room! There were mazes! You could use a sword to kill dragons! Sure, the "dragons" looked like a duck with a beer gut, but still! The game even had a version that put all the objects in random places at the start so it was different every time! And that glowing chalice - had you ever seen anything as cool as that glowing chalice? I know that anyone under 30 would think a mildly-retarded chimp would quickly get bored with that game, but at the time it seemed amazing. And I'm not the only person who thought so - one guy went so far as to write a DOS-based game called Indenture which not only perfectly emulated the original Adventure cartridge, it added new rooms that expanded it 10-fold.

But the best part was the easter egg. What a concept. I can still remember finding a book called "How to Beat the Home Video Games" in a department store (I'm thinking it might have been a Service Merchandise, but I'm not sure). I pulled it off the shelf and started flipping through the pages and hit the entry on Adventure. And there I read something amazing - there was actually a hidden room in the game, and to get into it you had to find a hidden object, take it to a certain room and then bring in other objects to open the way to the hidden room that contained the game's programmer's name in glowing letters! The very idea that such a thing was possible amazed me. Needless to say, I bought the book (which I still have) and was soon impressing my friends (or trying to, anyway) by showing them Warren Robinette's name.

The odd thing about the Atari 2600 is that it stands out in my mind as the big video game system of my childhood, and I probably bought more games for it than for any other system, but I can't really think of too many other stand-out games off the top of my head. In fact, I ended up selling my 2600 to a neighbor when I bought the ColecoVision's Atari cartridge adaptor (I still don't understand how that thing could have possibly been legal), and when my ColecoVision broke down I just never tried to find another 2600. The fact that I had gotten burned by so many lame 3rd party games might have put a damper on my love for Atari. The big "video game crash" of 1983 probably also had something to do with it, although I had no idea such a crash had taken place until years later when I read about it in a magazine. Living through it at the time, it just seemed like there weren't that many good video games around any more. And the timing of it probably had a lot to do with my disinterest - in 1983 I was getting into the later stages of my high school years and by 1985 I'd be off to college. Computers had started to take my time away from gaming, not to mention going to parties, general socializing and the fact that I finally had a girlfriend (who eventually became my wife). I never gave up video games entirely, but my interest definitely started to wane towards the middle of the 80s.

Anyway, I remember having a game for the 2600 called Tunnel Runner that seemed pretty amazing at the time. It was a first person perspective 3D game where the player had to navigate a maze filled with monsters that looked vaguely like Pac Man with fangs. You had to find a glowing triangle hidden in the maze and then find the exit to go to the next level, before getting cornered and chomped by the monsters. It wouldn't seem all that impressive nowdays, but at the time the graphics were spectacular. It was the first 3D game I ever saw. I eventually owned another 3D game called Crypts of Chaos or something like that, which tried to add Dungeons and Dragons elements like various monsters and weapons and magic, etc, but the graphics were so poor and the game was so hard to figure out that it didn't really stick with me.

Another Atari 2600 favorite is Activision's Ice Hockey. There was only one player on each side, and it wasn't too hard to bounce the puck off the wall and send it the entire length of the "ice" into the net, but it was fun. I didn't actually discover it until decades later via an emulator, but I could easily kill hours of time playing that game. It was fun despite the fact that I could beat the computer's player by 30 or more goals. Maybe because of that fact.

I owned a lot of Activision games back in the day - Pitfall, River Raid, Freeway, etc. Their games always looked stunning (for the time) and were lots of fun to play for the first couple hours...but (and I know this will be considered heresy to many), I often found Activision games got boring fairly quickly. The ultimate example of that phenomena is probably Kaboom!, which was a fun game where a guy at the top of the screen dropped bombs and the player had to catch them at the bottom of the screen with a bucket of water that you moved back and forth using the paddle controller. As the game progressed, each new "level" had more bombs that fell faster. The problem was that it took about 5 games to get as good as you were ever going to get, and then after that pretty much every game ended at about the same level.

Speaking of the paddle controller, I just saw someone on a video game newsgroup asking recently why no one makes paddle games for modern systems. I never really thought about it, but he has a point - the paddle was a "standard" controller back in the early days, just slightly less popular than the joystick. I wonder why it has faded from the scene so completely. I guess there's only so much you can do with a paddle, but it'd be nice to see some modern paddle games. How about a Warlords remake - that was a great game on the 2600.

Anyway, Activision also made one of the most puzzling "games" for the 2600, Space Shuttle. It was a remarkably realistic (given the hardware) shuttle simulator, with a novel-length instruction booklet. If I remember right, the object was to successfully launch the shuttle, get into a stable orbit, capture a satellite, orient yourself for re-entry and finally land the thing. I think I managed to do all that successfully once, just out of sheer determination. Another series of games that were just baffling were Atari's "SwordQuest" games - I'm fuzzy on the details, but I think there were supposed to be four cartridges based on Earth, Fire, Water and...Air? The first person to solve all four was supposed to get some fabulous prize that was worth a small fortune, but I don't think they ever even released all the games, much less awarded the prize. I remember buying the first game and being absolutly disgusted with it. The player just ran from room to room, picking up random objects and putting them in other rooms. Sometimes rooms would have a "challenge" in them similar to Frogger or other games, but mostly I just ran around with no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Did anyone understand that game? Can you explain it to me? I just remember being really annoyed by that cartridge, and I never bought any of the subsequent ones.

I played the Atari Haunted House cartridge a lot. And Space Invaders - once a friend showed me how to do the "two shots at once" trick, I played that game a ton, and could usually roll the score over. Asteroids was another one I could kill hours playing. I even owned the much-maligned (and rightfully so) Pac Man game, and the equally hated E.T. game. To be fair though, I didn't think E.T. was that bad. It was annoying when you would try to levitate out of one of the pits only to immediately fall back into it, or would fall into one just trying to move from one screen to another, but with a little bit of practice the game was playable and surprisingly challenging.

Into the Arcades

Even though Arcade games were around for a while before the first home systems came out, I didn't get to have the arcade experience until long after I had mastered the Odyssey and Atari. From what I've read, the games mostly showed up in bars at first, and being in elementary school at the time, I didn't frequent many bars. Eventually video game arcades started springing up everywhere - mostly in malls at first, although at the height of the craze I remember a used car dealership in my home town that was briefly transformed into an arcade, and even a five-and-dime store that opened a room in the back with a handful of cabinets.

But arcades back then were mostly seedy places (seems like most mall arcades today, even though they're smaller, less crowded and better lit than in the old days, still have that seedy vibe - why is that?). Anyway, my parents (by which I mean my Mom, since Dad rarely ever took us out shopping) weren't about to let their young kids venture in there.

But eventually Mom figured out that she would have a much easier time shopping at the Park City mall in Lancaster, PA if she handed my brother and I a few dollars and dropped us off at the arcade. For the youngsters out there who are familiar with that mall and never had the pleasure of seeing the arcade in its prime - man, did you miss out. It was on the lower level - last time I was there, it was the location of a Kohl's department store. That space used to be taken up by an ice skating rink, a flea market and a massive arcade. It was dimly lit, incredibly noisy and had about a hundred or so game cabinets in it. It was heaven for a pre-teen boy with a handful of quarters. And speaking of seedy, there was also a two-screen theater in the same general area (I think it's an eyeglass shop now) where one screen showed "family" movies and the other showed pornos. Hard to believe such a thing could have existed in this sanatized day and age, but back in the late 70s anything went. We never told our parents this, but one time a gay guy tried to pick up my brother in the arcade. While he was in the middle of a game. We politely told the guy to get lost. Probably should have called the cops (by brother couldn't have been much older than 12 or 13 at the time).

Anyway, the first game that I really took to in that arcade was Sinistar. I probably just watched it the first few times I went into the arcade, half-afraid to play it. The thing taunted potential players! A robotic-looking scull would appear on screen and say that it HUNGERED, and proudly proclaim "I AM SINISTAR!" Eventually I got the nerve up to put a quarter in it, and was instantly hooked. I don't know what it is about that particular game, but it will always be one of my absolute favorites. Years later, I got a tip from an internet friend about a Sinistar machine that was being sold cheap by an amusement company, so I rented a U-Haul and drove half-way across the state of Pennsylvania to buy the thing. And it's still sitting in my basement.

If you've never played the game, it's insanely difficult. The player controls a space ship, which is used to fly around and shoot asteroids. After absorbing enough shots, an asteroid will eventually start spitting out crystals (and, eventually, it will explode). Once each crystal appeared, the ship had to be flown into it to pick it up. Each crystal automatically became a "Sinibomb". You could collect up to a maximum of 20 Sinibombs. But there were enemy "workers" (which looked like bugs) who were constantly trying to steal your crystals before you could pick them up, and enemy warrior ships that both shot at you and shot at the asteroids to generate crystals for the workers. The workers carried the crystals to the Sinistar (the robot skull thing) construction site. The Sinistar required 20 crystals to build, then "fused" into the solid face piece and 12 outer edge pieces. Once he was built, the Sinistar made a bee-line for your ship, shouting threats ("BEWARE, I LIVE!" and "RUN, COWARD!") all the way. If you hadn't collected at least 13 Sinibombs by then, you were toast. If you had the bombs, you could release them and they would home in on the Sinistar...but if anything else got in the way (asteroids, workers, warriors), the bomb would go off prematurely, not damaging the Sinistar. It took 13 solid hits on him to send him to a screaming, exploding death. And if you managed to do it, the game then went to the Warrior zone, where the enemy gun ships got faster, meaner and much greater in number.

I think because of that high difficulty level, most players were scared away from Sinistar. There was never a line for that game, and I rarely even saw anyone else playing it. For years I could walk into the Hershey Park arcade and get the high score on my first try. Sadly, they finally got rid of their cabinet a couple years ago. For those who have never played the game, be sure to give it a try if you ever stumble across one. The graphics and voice simulation probably seem laughable now, but the game was just amazing back in the early 80s.

Another game that I played a lot in the Park City arcade was Gyruss. It was yet another offspring of Space Invaders, but what set it apart for me was the fact that it was circular. The enemies gathered in the center of the screen and would make bombing runs out towards the edges of the screen, while the player's ship could go 360 degrees all around the top, sides and bottom of the screen. There were no corners to get stuck in. Plus, if you hit a satellite target at the beginning of each round, it doubled your fire power (you could shoot two shots at once). And there was an objective - the player started at the outer edge of the solar system and every few rounds advanced inwards another planet (where they got to rack up points in a bonus sharpshooting round). The goal was to get all the way to Earth (thereby saving it from the invading alien ships, I suppose - I never actually made it that far). The game itself was great, but the crowning touch was the soundtrack, which pumped electrified classical music on steroids at the player. Fun.

I've only scratched the surface of that Park City arcade, but those were my favorite games. I also remember playing Crystal Castles, Pole Position and many other games. I remember the day that the cartoon-based Dragon's Lair first arrived. I think I tried to play it once or twice and realized that I was only getting about 30 seconds of entertainment for my 50 cents (I think it was one of the then-rare 2-quarter games), so I stopped playing and just watched other people play it. One day a guy came in who could get all the way to the end of the game, which just amazed me. Other early arcade games that I remember ejoying were Bosconian, Mappy and Reactor, which seem like "lost" games today. Reactor's sound system ROCKED - man, could that thing pump out the music.

Seeing the World in ColecoVision

Back on the homefront, the next generation of game systems had come out. I had one friend who got an Intellivison and another who got an Atari 5200, but for some reason I was really sold on the ColecoVision. I begged my parents for it (or maybe even saved up my meager paperboy income for it, I forget), and eventually had one of my own. I played Donkey Kong on it for hours, and when Donkey Kong Jr. came out I played that one even more. Recently, I downloaded and installed a ColecoVision emulator and tried playing those games again, and it's hard to believe that they could have held my interest for so long.

I remember playing the game Looping a lot. It involved flying a hard-to-navigate stunt plane through increasingly difficult courses and shooting at obstacles that got in your way. I also had Omega Race for the ColecoVision, and played it a lot even though I sucked at it. There was some other game that was similar to Asteroids, but you could somehow equip your ship with extra guns that fired sideways or behind you, and there was an ugly alien who would appear on screen and taunt you. I completely forget the name of that one.

But the ColecoVision cartridge that will always hold the fondest place in my heart was a game called Wing War. I never see this game mentioned by anyone else, but I loved it. The player controlled a dragon, with the ability to flap its wings, direct its flight and make it grab things with its talons. It could also spit fireballs, but they had very limited range when the game started. The dragon's lair was in an underground cave, which was made up of multiple screens which the player could fly between (going off the edge of one screen switched you to the next one). Eventually you would find one of the two exits from the underground area (assuming you avoided the falling rocks, dropping spiders and plants that shot fireballs at you) and could go "outside". Come to think of it, who ever heard of a dragon that could be killed by a spider? Oh well. The outside area had lots of open air to fly around in, a river area and a volcano area. It also had birds, bees and some sort of water creature that could kill your dragon.

The objective was to collect three types of crystals (by grabbing them with your claws). There were air crystals (which were a bugger to get, because they fell from the sky and would vanish if they hit the ground. Did I mention that if the dragon bumped anything while flying, it dropped whatever it was carrying, which usually meant instant destruction for the air crystals?) There were fire crystals which flew out of the volcano and would kill the dragon instantly if he touched them before they cooled off. And there were water crystals by the river. If you could get one of each type of crystal back to your lair (and the air crystal had to be the middle one you brought back - if you brought back water followed by fire or vice versa, they cancelled each other out), the dragon advanced one level of experience. For each level of advancement, it got a little stronger and its fireballs could fly a little bit further.

When the dragon got strong enough, there was a small tunnel in the cave area that lead to a room where some sort of fireball-throwing demon creature was guarding a huge diamond. If you got strong enough that your fireballs could reach and kill the demon, you could steal his gem and take it back to your lair. I think that also advanced the dragon another level, but it would be a while before the demon would come back, stronger than before (thus preventing the player from just leveling up over and over with the diamonds).

One of the reasons that this game sticks out in my mind (besides just being a fun game, and getting to be the dragon instead of trying to slay one) was that the game was completely open ended. You could keep playing as long as you wanted, as long as you didn't kill off the three dragons you started with. There were even occasional dragon eggs flying around (yes, the eggs had tiny wings) outside that you could catch and take back to your lair for extra lives. The big catch - there was a flying lion-type creature (I think the game called it a griffin) that showed up outside as soon as your dragon advanced a level or two, and that thing was deadly. It flew much faster than the dragon, could change directions better, and would even follow you sometimes down into the cave area if you tried to run away from it. It was basically designed to make it nearly impossible to get your dragon past level two or three and get it strong enough to go steal the diamond.

But there was a bug in the game. If you could catch the griffin's attention down near the ground, and then fly upwards for all you were worth until you got to the highest of the sky screens, sometimes the griffin would come shooting up after you, miss your dragon and go careening right off the top of the screen and out of the game. If you could pull that off, the thing never came back, at least as long as the current dragon was alive (or maybe until that game ended, I forget). I remember staying overnight at a friend's house and taking the ColecoVision along. He had his Intellivision out, but we started playing Wing War and pulled off the "disappearing griffin" trick early in the game. We ended up playing the same game all night long, setting some ridiculously high score and having a dragon that was so super-powered that it could kill the demon from all the way across the screen and steal the diamond with ease every time it appeared.

I would love to play Wing War again, but I have yet to find a ColecoVison emulator and game ROM that work correctly. The one that I did find always crashes after a minute or so. Needless to say, my actual ColecoVision console died years ago. I don't know if the game ever came out on any other systems. If anyone has a clue on how I can play that game again, let me know (eichler 2 at Comcast dot net).

A Real Computer (sort of) - The Commodore 64

As I mentioned in the Odyssey section, my interest in video games eventually became an interest in programming computers and then a career as a programmer/analyst. My first step down that path was a big misstep, but at least it got the ball rolling. I talked my parents into buying me the failure that was the Adam computer. It was an add-on that connected to the ColecoVision and turned it into a programmable computer. I remember writing a password program to try to keep my brother and sister from using the Adam when I wasn't around, and it took my brother all of five minutes to figure out how to crack it. I also remember trying to write a graphic adventure game, where the computer would present pictures and give choices on what the player wanted to do next. Sort of like Dragon's Lair, but more puzzle-oriented. Like a mix of Zork and King's Quest, neither of which I had heard of at the time. It's a shame I didn't put more time into it - I could have been a video game pioneer. Oh well.

As it turned out, I didn't like the Adam very much, and it developed some sort of technical bug - wouldn't load games or something like that - so my Dad took it back to the mall video game store where he bought it (I think it was an Electronics Boutique) and gave 'em hell when they didn't want to give him a refund. In the end I think he settled for store credit and used it to buy me a Commodore 64, which turned out to be what I should have bought in the first place.

I got a lot of programming experience on the Commodore. I bought that thick reference manual that all C64 owners seemed to have, although I didn't understand at least half of it (the thought of machine-level programming scared the heck out of me at the time). I also bought a book on how to write video games, and eventually wrote an imitation Zork text adventure game that had dozens of rooms, a maze and a few real puzzles the player could solve. Considering that it was all written in Basic on a 64K machine, and I wrote it in my early high school years without taking any programming classes, it was pretty impressive if I do say so myself. My senior year of high school, I took the only programming class available, which was taught by a gym teacher, if I remember correctly, and for the final exam I wrote a Lunar Lander like game in which two players had to use thrust buttons to attempt to dock a space craft with an orbiting satellite. It wasn't a great game, and the test was actually supposed to be writing some sort of accounting software, but the teacher was so impressed that he gave me an A anyway.

But, of course, the real reason I loved the Commodore 64 was because of its games. It seemed like everyone I knew had a Commodore, and once one of my friends got ahold of a program that allowed you to copy store-bought software, our game libraries grew exponentially. I know, we were evil scum for pirating software, but back then we didn't really know what we were doing, and it's not like the software industry would have gotten more money out of me anyway (I was a broke high school/college student). Over the years I think I've pumped enough money into the video game industry to make up for my youthful indiscretions. I probably had more games (at least more good ones) for the Commodore 64 than for any other video game system I've ever owned. By the time I got to Penn State, I had dozens of games, and once I got hooked up with some Commodore users there, that total went up to around a hundred.

Epix's Summer Games and Winter Games (Olympics simulations) were big hits in college. We used to get big groups together and compete against each other in all the events. I remember thinking that video game graphics couldn't possibly get any more realistic - it was just like watching the real Olympics on TV! Hard to believe, now. I also remember coming home from class one day to find that my dorm roommate had gotten a perfect score in the figure skating event AND beaten my unbeatable time in the bobsled. To this day I still think he must have found some way to hack into the program and change his scores.

Leaderboard Golf was another sports game that was popular for group play. There were a few times that we got the maximum number of players (which was four, I think) and set it up to play all 72 holes the game offered. We ended up playing all day. I was usually pretty good at it too, which made me fond of video game golf simulations. I was sent to a COBOL training class early in my working career, and since it was easy stuff (the class was geared towards absolute computer novices, not college graduates with programming degrees) I'd always finish the assignments in no time. To keep me occupied, the teacher set me up in another room with a PC golf game. Heh. I'm currently semi-hooked on the golf on the Nintendo Wii's Sports disc. It's kind of amazing how, despite great improvements in the graphics and the Wii's new motion-sensitive controller, the basic mechanics of video golf are still almost exactly the same as they were way back in the Leaderboard days - take the wind into account, pick your club, pick your angle and try to power your shot so as not to hook or slice.

Anyway, back to the Commodore. The Zork games were huge for me, too. I became obsessed with finishing them. I started (for reasons I no longer recall) with Zork II, and when I couldn't solve it I backtracked to Zork I. I don't think I finished any of the original trilogy of games on my own; I remember buying hint booklets that were printed with invisible ink that you had to rub with a special pen to reveal the clues. I agonized over each one, sure that I could figure it out on my own if I just tried a little harder. I had several other Infocom games (their version of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was a highlight), but Zork is the game that stands out. For those young 'uns who never had the pleasure, the game was entirely text. It would describe your location and any objects around you, and then you would type in directions on where to go, what to look at more closely, what objects to take, what actions to perform, etc. The goal of Zork I was to find all the treasures and put them in a trophy case, which would then open the door to Zork II. The goal of Zork II was to get to Zork III, and the goal of the third game was...geeze, I don't remember. To defeat the dungeon master, or something like that. I just remember that Zork III was really hard. I remember describing the games to my Dad, and I must have made them sound interesting because he actually wanted to see one. After typing into it for a few minutes, he finally asked "So when are we going to see some of this stuff you were telling me about?" Guess I forgot to mention there were no graphics. Dad was less than impressed.

Another Commodore game that wasted hours of my time was Space Taxi. The player had to pilot a jet-propelled taxi (which was subject to realistic gravitational forces) and pick up and drop off customers at their desired platforms. But gravity was the only realistic part of the game - the levels ranged from a ping-pong table (you had to land on the paddles between times that the ball hit them) to a giant beanstalk that grew more platforms as time progressed to a cavern with ultra-narrow passages and platforms that moved back and forth. To make it even more difficult, you had landing gear that had to be put down to land, but when the gear was down the left and right thrusters were disabled. If you landed without the gear down, you crashed and destroyed one of your three taxies. If you hit a wall, you lost a taxi. If a moving object (snowflakes, shooting stars, cannon fire, etc) hit you, you lost a taxi. If your gas ran out, you lost a taxi. If you dropped a customer off at the wrong platform, or just took too long to get them to their destination, you didn't get paid for the trip (and had less money to buy gas). And as if all that weren't enough, there were levels that added wind gusts, or reversed your controls, or randomly interfered with your jets, or made the slightest bump of the joystick send the taxi screaming across the screen. The game was just fiendishly difficult.

Space Taxi could be played three different ways. The 24 levels were split into 3 "shifts" of 8 levels each. Each shift cranked up the difficulty level - the early shift had the ping-pong, beanstalk and similar, relatively easy screens. The afternoon shift had the "medium" screens (i.e. hard). The night shift was made up of the 8 most insanely difficult screens. You could either play a single shift, play all 24 screens in order, or play all 24 screens randomly. If you managed to complete all 24 shifts, rumor had it that there was a bonus 25th screen that would appear. I became obsessed with seeing that 25th screen, and after many, many hours of playing, I finally saw it and beat it. Oddly, I can't remember what it looked like or what happened when you beat it. (Looking it up on the web revealed that it featured representations of iconic images from the publishing company's other games, and a secret message that gave the player a hint about one of the first cheat codes in video games - you could type a certain sequence in on one of the menu screens and get extra options like jumping to a specified level, etc.)

I recently saw that someone made a modern-day remake of Space Taxi, and you could download and play a demo version. It was OK, but they made the levels too big so the player had to scroll around to see all the landing pads. Ruined the flow of the game. It's a shame, because the original Space Taxi was a classic.

That "50 Essential Games" article that I mentioned at the top of this page praised Ultima IV over and over again. One of the authors involved in putting that site together felt that Ultima IV's "morality quest", in which you had to gain certain virtuous traits for your character and surround him with a party of other people with similar traits, made the game a breakthrough in the role-playing genre, and made it stand head and shoulders above the rest of the Ultima series. Now, I will agree that the fourth Ultima installment was a good game, but it wasn't far and away better than the previous two.

I first encountered the series when I bought Ultima II for my Commodore. The box looked intriguing (I can still dimly see it in my mind - a red, devil-looking creature surrounded by flames and treasure), and it came with a cloth map and instruction books. The description made it sound a lot like Dungeons and Dragons, which I had dabbled in with friends. So I bought it and became quickly addicted.

The second and third installments were the only ones that I played when they first came out. Ultima IV arrived just before I went to college, so I didn't buy it because I didn't think I'd have time to play it. A friend of mine who also went to Penn State had it, so I did at least have some contact with the game from time to time - I just remember that it didn't seem too dissimilar to II and III, and that my friend eventually gave up on it because he couldn't find the last person he needed for his party. Years later, I found an Ultima collection for the PC and bought it. My intention was to start at the very beginning of the series and play through them all. I got as far as finishing Ultima IV around the time my daughter was born, and...if I thought college was going to take up all my free time, I had no idea what parenting was going to be like. I think I started playing Ultima V, but didn't get very far into it and had to give up for lack of time. I wonder if that collection would work on a Vista machine...

Anyway, having played all of the first four Ultima games (plus the pre-Ultima "Akalabeth", or however it's spelled), I still think Ultima II was the best of that lot. It had time travel (and even shifted the continents around as they drifted in the past, or were shattered by nuclear war in the future). It allowed the player to fly to other planets in a rocket! It had a "time of legends" and an insanely hard to beat final villain in her ultra-cruel castle. It had 3D dungeons, back in the earliest days of home computing! It had a McDonalds substitute that you could steal food from! What more could you want?

By comparison, III's moon gates were just annoying and IV's morality-based quest was just a new (and also somewhat annoying) twist on the old theme. It kind of makes me wonder why some people praise IV so much, and if there might not be an element of religious bias to it. Or maybe it's just a desire to point out counter-examples to the people (usually religious fanatics) who blame violent video games for all of society's woes.

Anyway, Summer/Winter Games, Zork, Space Taxi and Ultima only scratched the surface of my addiction to the Commodore. I was a huge Archon fan - for those who don't remember the game, it was a chess-like game where not only the different pieces had different properties, strengths and weaknesses, but the board itself would continually shift from favoring one player to the other and back. And you didn't capture a square simply by landing on an opponent's piece. When that happened, the screen turned into a battlefield, and the two players had to fight for the square. The goal was to either completely wipe out your opponent, or capture five special squares on the board that were marked with diamonds. I usually played against the computer and eventually got good enough that I could arrange it so that I wiped out his last piece while capturing the fifth diamond spot, thus winning the game both ways. Often without losing any of my own pieces.

There was the Seven Cities of Gold phase, where I spent weeks exploring a computer-generated continent, trying to map 100% of it. I had heard a rumor that the goal of the game was to find all seven golden cities, but I think that was bull since I never found even one. Fun game though, and perfect for an obsessive-compulsive like me.

Raid on Bungling Bay was one of those games that was so frustratingly difficult that it became a mission in life for me to beat the dang thing. The player piloted a helicopter that had to seek out six enemy factories and destroy them with bombs. But you could only carry so many bombs, and there were jets that fired rockets at you and tanks on the ground that took potshots at you. So the helicopter frequently had to seek out the aircraft carrier that was its home base (and which was constantly moving so it was never where you last saw it) and land for repairs and reloading. The first couple factories were a piece of cake to destroy, but as each one went down, the game cranked the difficulty level up a notch with more enemies that were faster, fired more often and were more accurate. Plus it seemed like whenever you flew away from your aircraft carrier, it would immediately be attacked by jets that you had to return to shoot down. By the time you were seeking out that last factory, the game had gotten to "insanely difficult" level, with so many enemies on-screen that the poor C64's processor was slowed to a crawl. But I did manage to actually finish the mission a couple times. If I remember right, the game would then show you a newspaper article about the heroic helicopter pilot who single-handedly defeated the forces of evil. Of course, if you failed, the article was about what a loser you were.

The more I write about the Commodore, the more great games are coming back to me. There was a game called Dino Eggs in which the player had to time-travel back into pre-history and collect dinosaur eggs. But there was the looming threat of the mother dinosaur's foot, which would stomp down from the top of the screen and smash you flat. The only way to ward it off was to build a fire, but that would sometimes cause eggs to hatch, and then you had to go corral the baby dinos before something bad happened to them (like getting killed by the snakes and spiders that were constantly coming after the player). Getting yourself or a baby dino hit by a baddy would mean loss of points and, if you didn't get yourself back to the time machine, you'd eventually "devolve" into a spider yourself. Fun game even if the controls were a little frustrating.

How about Boulderdash, where the player ran a little bug-looking guy around, digging tunnels through the ground and trying to steal diamonds without dislodging boulders that would fall on and kill your character with a loud BANG. The levels were all laid out so that the first few times you played them, it looked easy to grab all the diamonds, and it was only after you sat there wondering what the heck happened that you realized how fiendishly the boulders were arranged to fall if you didn't grab the loot just right. I used to play that game a lot, even though I would always get to the level with the green slime and then not be able to get any further. I think the trick was somehow turning the slime into diamonds, but I never figured out how to do it consistently.

Spelunker was another one that falls into the "great game with really frustrating controls" category. Eventually I got good enough at it to get all the way to the bottom of the cave and find the pyramid hidden there, but if you were even a millimeter off in one of your jumps, it usually meant instant death. And that timer that kept running out (I forget what it was that it represented, and what you had to pick up to refill it, but man was it annoying). I'd love to see a remake of that game with more reasonable controls.

There was a game where you flew a magic carpet, and there was a strip poker game (eventually we figured out that you could just rename the image files in reverse order and the blocky-looking, computer graphic drawing of the girl would start out naked - I'm surprised no one has remade such a game nowdays with real pictures...or maybe they have and I just don't run in those circles any more), and there was a drawing program that we used to make a nasty caricature of the neighbor in my dorm that no one liked, and there was a football game where you programmed in the plays and then the computer would visually execute them, and on and on and on. There was the action/puzzle game Impossible Mission, which I spent many frustrating hours with until I finally solved it (for years afterward I would occasionally imitage that cheesy, computerized voice that yells "NO, NO, NOOOOO!!!" at the end of the game). There were the Beachhead war games, which provided hours of fun blowing stuff up. More games than you could shake a slow floppy drive at. Lode Runner, some sort of Star Trek game, etc, etc, etc. It just seemed like a magical time for a computer geek like me. New games every week, new uses for the computer that I had never even imagined. I even bought a modem for my Commodore at one point, although the only use I ever found for it was connecting to Penn State's library to browse the card catalog. Woo. That actually put me off modems for a while, so I was a relatively late adopter of the internet at home. At least for a computer geek.

The last Commodore game that I'll mention was a racing game. I don't even remember the name of it (if I ever knew), and it wasn't even all that much fun as a game (although watching the little stick figures run out of the car in flames after a crash was amusing). The reason it sticks out in my memory was because you could design your own race tracks, which is what I spent most of my time doing in that game. It was yet another sign that programming computers was my future.

Return to the Arcades - the Penn State Experience

As my high school years neared their end, I somehow decided that I was going to go to Penn State. No one in my family had ever gone to college, but it was pretty standard procedure by the mid-80s for students who got even average grades in high school to go to college. I had generally done better than average, but wasn't considered a real standout student, at least not until my second year at Penn State when I started getting better grades than some of the folks from my high school who had been in the "gifted" classes.

Anyway, not knowing the first thing about getting into college, I took the SATs my junior year of high school, and got a decent score, so I didn't even bother to take them again senior year. Looking back, that just boggles my mind. Also mind-boggling is that Penn State was the only school I applied to - I had never heard of the concept of a "safety school". I guess Penn State is the safety school of most kids in this area anyway.

However it happened, I got in. And a relative of mine (I distant cousin, I think) had just graduated from Penn State, so he gave me some tokens that he had left over from a place called the Golden Dome arcade. Not long after that, I read in a video game magazine (yes, I used to be geeky enough to buy video game magazines) that the Golden Dome arcade in State College, PA actually gave arcade games away to anyone who could beat the high score on the machine. I absolutely couldn't wait to get to college.

When I finally got to town, I searched high and low for the Golden Dome arcade, but never did find it. Anyone out there go to Penn State in the early 80s and remember the place? I'm assuming it went out of business sometime around 1984 or early 1985 (which is probably why they were giving away machines).

Despite that disappointment, State College was still a great town for arcade fans. There was a huge arcade downtown, right across the street from the area where my dorm was. I think it was called "Playland". I spent many, many hours in there and many, many quarters that I couldn't really afford. On one of my very first trips into that place, I hung my winter coat on a coat rack and when I went back for it, it had been stolen. I went a couple weeks without a coat in the freezing cold of a State College winter because I was afraid to tell my parents about it. They found out eventually, and made the two hour drive to bring me a new one. Needless to say, they weren't pleased. I still went to the arcade on a regular basis, but I never let any of my possessions out of my sight again.

Playland had a lot of games that I had never seen before, but the one that stands out in my mind was a cockpit racing game that used three screens so that the player was surrounded with the area they were driving through. I think it was called TX3 or something like that? I was amazed that it was only 25 cents and not 50, so I played it a lot. It was in a back corner of the arcade, and right near it was an ancient Lunar Lander game, which also absorbed a lot of my quarters.

A couple years after I started school there, the arcade got in a new racing game that was polygon-based, and provided feedback to the player through a seat that rumbled and a steering wheel that fought you in sharp turns. I played that one a ton even though it was 50 cents, but I just can't remember what it was called. I remember there was a choice of two (or possibly more) tracks, and I always played the stunt track which had a loop you could drive through and a big ramp to jump over.

I think I also discovered Marble Madness in that arcade, and probably plunked a lot of quarters into Gauntlet as well. They had the vector-graphic Star Wars game too, which seemed amazing at the time. Oddly, I used to play a lot of pinball in that arcade as well (High Speed was my favorite), and I suck at pinball so I never play it anywhere else.

There was another arcade in town, although I don't think it opened until my Sophomore (or possibly even Junior) year. I can't remember what it was called, but it was just a few doors down from Playland, upstairs from City Lights records. I spent a good bit of time in there too, although it seemed to draw more of a pool-playing crowd than the usual video game junkies. I played a lot of Choplifter in there though.

When I first started school there, even the Hetzel Union Building (which was about half the size it currently is) had some video games in the basement level. I remember a racing game where you had to ride a motorcycle through a 3-D landscape, and at one point in the game the legendary Sinistar head flew over the track. I'm thinking the game was called Time Rider or something like that - I played that one a lot my first few weeks at school.

By the end of my college career (which corresponded exactly with the end of the 80s - I graduated just before Christmas in 1989), I had started to notice that most of the games in the downtown arcades (the ones in the union building had long since disappeared) were either driving games or fighting games or...other driving or fighting games. The really wild, creative and just downright strange games were getting fewer and farther between. And with their death, the arcades seemed to slowly dwindle away. The smaller place with the pool tables went first, but the last time I was in State College, I think even Playland was gone. Feels like I lost an old friend. I've read that the common wisdom is that the popularity of home video game systems pretty much killed the arcades. That might have something to do with it, but the fact that game makers just kept cranking out clones of the latest fighting and driving games didn't help.

Missing the boat - The Nintendo NES

Maybe it was the "great video game crash" of the mid-80s (although I wasn't aware that such a thing had even happened), or maybe it was that high school and college were taking up more of my time, or maybe it was that I was focusing more on computers than video game consoles, but somehow the dawn of the "Japanese era" and the arrival of the original Nintendo NES completely passed me by.

By the late 80s, I had sold off my original Atari 2600 and hadn't touched the Odessey 2 or Colecovision in years. Home video game systems had pretty much fallen out of my life...until I saw a couple football players who lived in my dorm at Penn State playing Ninja Gaiden (sp?) one day. Wow, home video games had come quite a way since I last checked in. What the heck was that little gray box anyway? Nintendo? Never heard of 'em. Whatever happened to Atari? Keep in mind that in the era when I went to college, students were fairly out of touch with the "outside world". There was one TV in our entire dorm building, and I rarely watched it. Heck, having a telephone in every room was considered a luxury when I first got there (there were still guys living in the dorm who could remember when there was only one phone per floor, and the poor sap who lived across the hall from it was constantly trying to track people down to receive phone calls). The time of the web and an ethernet connection in every room was still a decade away. So I missed all the buzz and advertising for Nintendo.

But after seeing one in action, I was once again hooked. Next time I was home on break (I forget if it was Christmas or Summer), I bought an NES. I never developed that much interest in the Duck Hunt game that came with it, but Super Mario Brothers came to dominate my life. I was determined to find every secret, beat every enemy, see every level and finish the game. Eventually I did, just in time for Super Mario Brothers 2 to come out. I'm not sure what it is about that game, but it remains my favorite of the series. It's not because you could play as a different character on each level - I pretty much stuck to Mario except for one or two stages where I knew one of the other characters had a major advantage. There's just something about the design of the game that seemed perfect - the graphics looked great (I still think SMB 2 looks better than SMB 3), the gameplay was just right (SMB 3 got a bit too complicated) and the difficulty level was perfect (SMB 3 gets way too hard in the final levels). Not too surprisingly, when my daughter got old enough to start being interested in video games, Super Mario 2 was one of her early favorites, partly for the game itself, but mostly because she could play as Princess Peach.

Eventually I bought my own copy of Ninja Gaiden, although I don't think I ever finished it because, like SMB 3 which I did finish out of sheer, bloody-minded determination, NG got ridiculously difficult in the later stages. Another connection to those football players who originally introduced me to the NES came when they traded me their copy of the Blockbuster clone Archanoid for a bottle of grain alcohol. That quickly became one of my favorite games, as it took me back to my days of the Microvision's Blockbuster, but also added added nice little twists like different brick layouts for each level and "pills" that would drop out of some bricks when they were broken. The pills were different colors, and if you could catch one, each color would give you some sort of power-up, such as adding guns to your paddle that could shoot remaining blocks (that one was easily my favorite), or making the ball stick to your paddle so you could move it into position (handy for getting those hard-to-reach final blocks), or splitting the ball into three simultaneous balls. (Actually, now that I think about it, I might be thinking of a similar game I had for the PC and not Archanoid). Anyway, I think those football players thought they were getting a steal, because the paddle controller (which they gave me along with the game) was starting to short out because it looked like someone had tried to yank the wires out of it in a fit of rage. A little TLC got the controller back into working order. That bottle of booze was probably emptied that week, close to 20 years ago now, and I still have the game. Heh, heh.

At some point I bought the original Legend of Zelda game. I remember being excited because it seemed like a massively upgraded version of the 2600's Adventure. I did enjoy the game, but eventually got frustrated because so many of the "puzzles" in the game were so unintuitive. I think I eventually read how to solve the game in a book or a magazine and finished the thing. But I had gotten so frustrated with it that I sold my original cartridge at a used game store. Eventually I bought the second one, and actually liked its side-scrolling action. Looking back, that game sticks out as the oddball of the Zelda franchise, but back then it seemed like a more advanced version of Super Mario Brothers, which was exactly what I wanted. I eventually finished the game (probably also with the help of some book or guide) and sold that cartridge off too.

About six months or so later is when I discovered what a bad idea it is to sell off games, especially if you're an obsessive video game player/pack rat like me. I started getting a strong urge to play the Zelda games again, but couldn't bring myself to spend money on something that I had been foolish enough to get rid of in the first place. Eventually, many years later, I played both games using an NES emulator on the PC, and considering how far the Zelda games have come since then, maybe it wasn't such a tragedy that I sold them. But ever since then, I've had a strict "no selling off games" policy.

I still think of the original NES as the system that got me back into console games, but when I got it out of mothballs recently for my daughter to play, I was very surprised to discover that I never owned all that many games for it. Even counting the two Zelda games that I sold, I probably never owned more than a dozen NES games, if that.

Get a Job

As the 90s dawned, my school career finally came to a much-lamented end, and I was forced to get a job. That, plus moving into an apartment with my then-girlfriend (now wife) occupied a lot of my time, so I missed the entire Super Nintendo generation. Maybe I even thought I was getting too old for video games. An idea which has since left my head without a trace.

The only game I remember playing during this period was Doom, which someone had snuck onto a computer in a training room where I worked. Doom really made an impression on me. I couldn't believe how good the 3D looked, or how gory it was. Remember, I had been out of the loop for a while, and my previous experience was with primitive Atari and Coleco graphics or cutesy Nintendo characters. Suddenly seeing a realistic-looking game where you blew the brains out of monsters came as something of a shock. I somehow snuck the game onto my regular work computer (back when we could get away with stuff like that) and whenever I had some free time (and the bosses weren't looking), I'd go off and blast some bad guys. I think there was another game called Out of This World or something like that, but I must not have played it much because it didn't leave nearly as much of a memory as Doom. Other than that, I'd occasionally dust off the NES at home, but I didn't do a lot of gaming.

An Unexpected Gift - The Nintendo 64

As a complete surprise, my parents got me a Nintendo 64 for Christmas shortly after they became available. I'm not even sure that I knew such a device existed, but within days I was obsessively hunting for stars in Super Mario 64. I got so hooked on that game that I even took it along when I went to visit an old college friend a couple months later. I'm not sure if he was amused or angry when I hooked it up the TV in his den and started playing it. I just remember being disappointed that he had no interest in it and wasn't impressed with it. Playing such a realistic (well, in a cartoony way) 3D game really blew my mind at the time. And, of course, I became determined to find all of the stars in the game, even buying my first official "guide" book since way back in the Zork days. Eventually I did finish the game, but I was so hooked that I played it all the way through several more times just for fun.

As addictive as Mario 64 was though, the game that really took over my life for a while was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The last I had seen of Link and company was the second game for the original NES. Having missed the entire Super NES generation, I couldn't believe how far the Zelda games had come. It was a whole 3D world to explore, complete with tools, weapons, realistic computer-controlled characters...even a horse you could ride! That game was just unbelievable (to me) for its time. And when my daughter was around five years old, I dusted the game off and played it again, with her watching the whole thing and cheering Link on. She ended up becoming obsessed with all things Zelda for about a year - we even had a mostly-Zelda Christmas one year (I forget if it was 2004 or 2005). After much searching, I found Link and Zelda action figures (complete with their respective horses) on eBay, plus three different soundtrack CDs from the game (original, remix and orchestral) and we even created home-made t-shirts with Link and Zelda's images (because we couldn't find any official ones. Unfortunately the ones we made ourselves fell apart within days after Christmas). I tried my hardest to track down someone who could make us a VHS copy of the Legend of Zelda cartoon show, but had no luck. By an amazing stroke of coincidence, the entire series was released on DVD a few months later, so we bought it for our daughter for Easter. She probably watched every episode at least a dozen times and was always bugging me to watch it with her (man, was it bad).

As an aside, my wife has an interesting theory about why our daughter took to Zelda so quickly. My first run through the game happened during her pregnancy, and almost every day I'd come home from work and spend the entire evening playing Ocarina of Time. For the last few months of the pregnancy, my wife was on bed rest, so she didn't have much choice but to sit and watch me play the game. And she thinks our daughter "absorbed" the game at the same time. That might have a little something to do with it, but personally I just think that the girl likes to be involved in whatever dad is doing, so when I played the game, she wanted to be there. It has cute characters, so she liked it. As kids do, she went through a phase where it was the "big thing" for a while. But she hasn't watched the cartoons or listened to the music or played with the action figures in well over a year, and hasn't even shown much interest in the games. Kids move on.

But before she moved on, I snagged a copy of Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask off of eBay, complete with box and instructions. I had never played it, and to be honest it wasn't my favorite game of the series (the whole "Groundhog's Day" concept of repeating the same three days over and over didn't grab me), but to my surprise my daughter loved the game. I think she liked the idea of getting different "powers" by wearing different masks.

I owned a few other games for the Nintendo 64 - Wave Race, Rampage, and, um, well...I'm pretty sure there were a couple others, but nothing is coming to mind right now. Oh yeah, that 3D Donkey Kong that was basically a variation on the Mario concept, except that you played as Kong or one of his relatives. That was actually a pretty good game, and it was another one my daughter got interested in, to the point where she dressed up as Daisy Kong for Halloween that year. Very late in the 64's lifetime I picked up a used copy of Smash Brothers (at a children's used clothing sale, of all places) because the box pictured all the characters my daughter liked (Mario, Link, Zelda, Donkey Kong, etc). I wasn't even sure what the game was about, but it became the surprise smash hit (no pun intended) of the neighborhood a couple summers ago. We had a tent set up in our back yard, and when the next-door neighbors had a deck party, all the kids in the neighborhood showed up along with their parents. When it got dark out, there wasn't anything for the kids to do while the parents socialized on the deck. So I set the Nintendo 64 up in the tent with a portable TV and a handful of cartridges, and when those kids discovered they could beat the heck out of each other in Smash Brothers, it became an instant favorite. The kids ask for it now every time there's a neighborhood get-together.

My Brief Fling with the XBox

As mentioned way up at the top of this rambling mess, I literally had an XBox handed to me for free. This was back when Microsoft was trying desperately to promote the thing and gain market share in the video game field. Where I work, we use Microsoft products pretty much exclusively, so one day my boss sent me to a local conference on Visual Basic programming. They were holding a raffle with various prizes (a free copy of Visual Basic, programming books, etc). The grand prize was an XBox. Not the 360, but the original XBox.

I really only entered the raffle because the other people from my office who attended the event entered, and because we figured that we might win the copy of Visual Basic and save our procurement people a few bucks. It didn't really occur to me that there were only a couple hundred people at the conference, and my odds of winning the XBox were actually pretty good. At the end of the event, it came time for the closing speeches and the raffle. It was getting late in the day, and I think a lot of people decided they'd rather go home early than stay for the closing. But the people I was with were the conscientious types, and figured as long as our employer was paying to send us there, we should stay for the whole thing. So we sat in a room with about a hundred other people who had stayed and listened to the closing comments, and finally it was time for the raffle.

Now, as each name was called, they took that name out of the "pot". You had to be present to win, and a lot of names were called for people who had already left. Plus there were a lot of "small" prizes that were given away early. I think someone in our group won one of the books. When they got to the XBox, there might have been around 50 or 60 names left in the bin. The first couple names they drew had already left. Just as I was starting to get excited about the idea of possibly winning the thing, they pulled another slip of paper out and called my name. Woo-hoo! I took it straight home - it never even occurred to me that I should report it at work. But word got out, and eventually my boss came and said that since the Government had paid for me to go to the conference (I work as a civilian for the Navy), that technically I should have brought the XBox in and given it to the Navy chain of command. But he didn't press the issue (he might have been yanking my chain for all I know), and I figured "What is the Navy going to do with an XBox?", so I kept it.

I was never really all that thrilled with the XBox though. I played the racing game that came with it (which seemed amazingly realistic at the time), and the other game that came with it - Jet Set Radio Future or something like that. A game designed to appeal to a much younger target audience than me - the player had to rollerblade around various vaguely-futuristic looking, Asian-looking cities and spray paint graffiti while avoiding the authorities. I avoided playing it for the longest time because it just didn't seem like my sort of game, but eventually I tried it and liked it enough to play through to the end of the game. I also bought one of the NHL hockey games for the XBox, just because I wanted to try one, and I was kind of desperate for anything else to play on the system. It was OK, but I lost interest in it pretty quickly. Never even finished the "season" that I started. I might have bought one or two other games for the XBox, but I honestly can't remember any. There was a demo for a Star Wars game included with the boxed set of the movies that I bought a few years ago - I played that a bit but quickly got tired of it. Certainly didn't make me want to run out and buy the game.

So if the XBox was that generation's system for "hardcore gamers", I guess I'm not hardcore. On the other hand, since the term "hardcore" seems to refer to the type of people who buy the most technologically advanced piece of hardware the second it becomes availble, and then use all their free time playing ever-more-realistic versions of the same old first person shooter and racing games, then I guess I'm better off not being hardcore.

The Advantages of Having a Kid - The GameCube and Gameboy Advance

Back on the Nintendo front, my daughter's Legend of Zelda phase lasted just long enough for us to decide to buy a GameCube just to play The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. She lost interest in the game pretty quickly, but I ended up playing it through to the end. It's no Ocarina of Time, but it's not as bad a game as many reviews would have you believe. And I eventually got used to the cartoony, "flat 3D" look of the game (I think that style is called "cell shading" or something like that).

But the biggest thing to come out of Wind Waker was actually the Gameboy Advance. I had never owned any version of the handheld GameBoy system before. My Mom actually bought one of the original GameBoys and used to play Tetris on it a lot, but I never really had much interest in it. The crappy little screen and black-and-gray graphics seemed like a throwback to the Microvision of the previous decade. (As an aside, it's a shame that Tetris wasn't created until long after the Microvision faded into obscurity - a version of that game probably could have been pulled off on the Microvision, and would have made the system a much bigger success. Hmmm, I wonder how hard it would be to program a javascript version of Microvision Tetris...).

Anyway, back to the story. If there's one thing that Nintendo is really good at, it's putting optional "features" into games that interact with other Nintendo software and/or hardware, thereby getting gullible players to buy even more Nintendo product to get the "full experience". And it worked like a charm on us, when we discovered the "Tingle Tuner" feature of Wind Waker. The instruction book was very vague about what exactly the Tingle Tuner could do in the game, but it was clear that you had to buy a Gameboy Advance and connect it to your GameCube in order to find out. And it almost sounded like that was necessary to finish the game. So we bought one, hooked it up and discovered that the Tingle Tuner was pretty much worthless. I'm still not sure what it was supposed to be used for, other than allowing my daughter to use up all of Link's coins and drop bombs on his head at the worst possible moments.

So there we were, stuck with an expensive GameBoy Advance SP and no use for it. Eventually I decided that we might as well buy some other cartridges for it, since it was just lying around. That's when I discovered the wonders of the used GameBoy cartridge bins at various GameStop stores. They came without instructions or boxes, but it seemed like a real bargain to be able to buy a new (to us) game for five or ten bucks, plus an extra discount for using the GameStop card that I let them talk me into buying. Before I knew what hit me, I had shelled out a few hundred bucks for a huge GameBoy library.

Initially, I asked the guys working at GameStop what would be a good game to buy for a young girl. One of their recommendations was the Game and Watch series of cartridges. I had never even heard of Game and Watch before (somehow I missed that entire family of handheld games), but each cartridge contained several small, easy to learn games, and most of them featured the common Nintendo characters that my daughter was already familiar with. Eventually we owned all four cartridges in the series, and they became very popular, especially on long car rides. Well, the first cartridge from the old black-and-gray days didn't get played much, but the other ones saw a fair amount of time in the slot.

There were other games that held the spotlight for a while, such as Yoshi's Tilt and Tumble and Arcade Advance (I've always liked the arcade game Scramble - my brother and I used to play it together, with me flying the ship and firing the laser gun, and him timing and dropping the bombs). My wife used to like Dr. Mario for the original NES, so I bought a copy of the two-fer cartridge with that game and Puzzle League, and she has been obsessively playing those two games for the last couple years.

But eventually we started to run out of things to do with the GameBoy Advance. I had noticed, during my many shopping trips to GameStop, that there seemed to be a whole series of games called Pokemon. They all looked pretty much the same, except that the cartridges were different colors. I had been avoiding those games because I had no idea what the heck Pokemon was, but one day out of boredom I looked the name up on the internet. After reading a bunch of reviews of the games, I figured it was something my daughter might like. What really sealed the deal was when I read that Pokemon Crystal was the first game in the series that allowed the player to choose between playing as a male character or a female character. Perfect. So I bought Crystal for her, thinking that she'd play it for a couple weeks and that would be the end of it.

It's now around two years later, and Pokemon has become the official obsession of our household. The girl got a little way into Crystal and got stuck and asked me for help. Soon I was playing the game more than she was, and became determined to finish it. But finishing the "story" and becoming the Pokemon champion wasn't enough, oh no. Not for an obsessive collector type such as myself. By the "end" of the game I had probably caught about a hundred different Pokemon...but there were over 250 types in the game! How could I stop before catching them all? Obviously, I couldn't.

The fiendish buggers at Nintendo cleverly designed the Pokemon games in such a way that, while you could "finish" each game, you can't possibly catch every critter in any one game. You have to buy one of the other games to catch certain Pokemon (oh, so that's what all those different colored cartridges were all about). And if you want to transfer the ones you caught in, say, Pokemon Gold, over to Crystal - why, then you have to buy another GameBoy Advance. And a cable to connect the two, which turned out to be a HUGE hassle. But eventually we had everything set up and I did finally collect all 250+ types of Pokemon. Even though I had to "cheat" and take advantage of a well-known bug in an early Pokemon game to get a Mew, and also had to buy a device to manipulate the cartridge's memory in order to get one of the others (possibly a Jirachi, but I might be remembering that wrong). You see, it's not enough to just buy all the hardware, the connection cords and multiple games - to unlock some of the buggers you have to go to special Nintendo events, and if you missed them or they weren't held in your area, you're out of luck. So I don't feel at all guilty about "cheating" to get those last couple.

Anyway, while our daughter never really got into the "main" games of the series (although she did put a decent amount of time into Pokemon Leaf Green), she ended up finding a used copy of Pokemon Channel in a GameStop store and talked me into buying it. What an odd game - it involved watching Pokemon-themed TV with your pet Pikachu, and occasionally wandering out into the wild to spot rare Pokemon, which would ask you Pokemon-related trivia questions and give you Pokemon trading cards if you got them right! It seemed like a really bizarre concept at the time, but looking back at it, it was a fiendishly brilliant promotional tool for all things Pokemon (if you want to be kinder, you could say it was an attempt to bring together all the things kids liked about Pokemon). I was more than a little disappointed that you couldn't transfer "caught" Pokemon from the game over to the "real" Pokemon games (especially since some of the ultra-hard to find, rare ones were relatively easy to get in Channel). But for my daughter it kicked off an obsession with watching Pokemon cartoons on Cartoon Network whenever they're on and collecting the real trading cards. We've hit a local flea market nearly every weekend for the last year or so, and spent hundreds of dollars, but we've managed to build a darned nice collection of cards - we only need about 25 or so to complete the collection, and most of those haven't been released in the United States yet. If we can complete this collection and keep it in good shape, it could end up paying for part of my daughter's college education, assuming she's willing to part with it by then.

Wind Waker and Pokemon Channel weren't the only games we bought for the Cube. Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door had a long and successful run on the system, with my daughter spending as much time playing it as I did (to be honest, I wasn't wild about the game, which is probably why it hasn't gone back into the system since we finished it). Super Smash Brothers swept the neighborhood last summer since four kids could beat up on each other at the same time. We bought Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness and played it off and on - I finally sat down and made a concentrated effort to finish the game so we could transfer some rare Pokemon over to Pokemon Emerald for the GameBoy, which is the one we're currently trying to capture everything in, in preparation for buying Diamond and/or Pearl so we can transfer them over. If I can get all the way to level 100 of Battle Mountain one more time to get a Totodile (hard to get in the Advance generation games), that'll probably be it for XD.

But the game that has really taken over the GameCube lately is Super Mario Sunshine. We actually bought a used copy of it for Christmas last year, but it kind of got pushed into the background due to the Pokemon craze. Recently I decided to finish off some of these games we've had hanging round for ages (because there's probably going to be a new wave of games this Christmas, and I wanted to wrap up loose ends before staring more games). I did manage to get to the end of Sunshine, but watching me play it has sparked a new interest in the game in my daughter. She's been playing the game a lot lately, although she's content to just run Mario around, try out the different jet packs and such, and do the "Blooper surfing" level over and over again. But it has lead to an interest in Mario Brothers games in general, and she's been digging back into the older games, playing Super Mario Brothers 2 on the original NES and Super Mario World on the GameBoy.

Christmas 2007 - a whole new generation of Nintendo

Christmas '07 has come and gone, and it left behind a Nintendo Wii system, a Nintendo DS handheld and a new batch of games.

The Wii came with the usual Wii Sports, which I had a good bit of fun with Christmas morning, playing golf and bowling, but haven't really played much since. My wife also bought Wii Play just to get the extra controller. I spent most of a day during my Xmas vacation playing all the various games on that one (I particularly like the neon air hockey game, the 9-ball pool and the target shooting), but that game has also been languishing ever since.

The game that really took over was Rayman's Raving Rabbids. My wife bought it for me on the recommendation of a friend, and I was quickly hooked on it. It's basically just a big collection of "minigames" that make nice use of the Wii controllers (like shaking them up and down to run, or using the pointer as a gun to fire plungers at the bad guys), but what makes it so much fun is the demented "rabbids" (twisted looking bunnies) that you have to compete against. I haven't gotten this many laughs out of a game in ages. I completed 100% of the game games within days of first starting to play, but it's still fun to go back and play them again. Not to mention that my daughter really likes the game, and my neice (who has a Wii of her own) got so worked up over it that she talked her parents into driving her all over the county the day after Christmas looking for a copy.

My wife suggested to her mother that the Wii version of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess would be a good gift for me. It's kind of embarrasing playing a game with "Princess" in the title, and the game is basically just a rehashed version of Ocarina of Time, but I still kind of like it. There's the new controller scheme, new dungeons, more detailed (but oddly drab) graphics and a different (well, similar but not identical) plot. Plus you get to be a wolf sometimes, which is fun. Anyway, it's looking like I might actually be able to finish this one without looking anything up on GameFAQs, which is nice.

I had been hoping for Super Mario Galaxy, but no one got it for me. I managed to talk my wife into letting me pick up a copy at Sam's Club (despite our bank account being pretty much drained due to Xmas), but so far I've only played far enough to pick up somewhere around 20 stars. To be honest, the game isn't overwhelming me so far. It's not bad, but the reviews that I had read made me think it was going to be the greatest video game ever. It's fun, but I don't think I like it as much as Super Mario 64. And it's not the graphics bonanza I had been lead to believe. And the controls are a bit clunky - I often find myself running "upside down" on a planet and can't get Mario to turn the direction I want him to go. But those are all just minor quibbles - it is a good game, just don't buy into the hype too much before playing it.

On the DS front, I bought Super Princess Peach for our daughter, since she likes playing the Mario games so much. So far, it seems to be her favorite game, even over Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, which my wife arranged for the two grandmas to buy her. She hasn't even broken the shrink-wrap on Pearl yet. She said she's leaving that one for me to play, so we can eventually trade pokemon. The problem with that idea is that we'll need to buy a second DS...curse you, you clever Japanese buggers.

Almost on a whim, I bought my wife Big Brain Academy for Xmas, because she had played a demo version in a store and seemed to like it. I actually addressed the present to both my wife and my daughter, but so far the girl hasn't touched it. My wife, on the other hand, seems mildly obsessed with the game. She already has her "brain weight" well up over a thousand grams. Funny story: I tried the game a couple times and absolutely couldn't break the thousand mark no matter how hard I tried. Then my wife and I got invited to a New Year's Eve party, and she took Brain Academy along in case she got bored. After ingesting an unhealthy amount of alcohol (we're talking about seven or eight cups of beer over a couple hours, plus a couple shots), I picked up the DS and played a game of BBA...and scored well over 1000. Maybe I have some Johnny Fever DNA in me somewhere.

That's where things stand, here at the beginning of 2008. What will the coming year bring? Who knows. I'm guessing we'll probably get that second DS eventually, and I know I've missed the last couple Zelda games for handheld systems (Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass), so I'll probably get those eventually. And for some reason I've got an urge to try the Simpsons game for the Wii...

You know, before I started writing all this up, I would have said that I'm only a casual video game player. I've gone through some phases where I've played a lot of video games (back when the Odyssey and Atari were new, during my late high school and early college years with the Commodore, and when I first got the Nintendo 64), but overall I'm not really the type who spends the majority of my free time playing video games. And yet I've managed to write a web page rivaling the length of War and Peace about all the games that I've enjoyed over the years. Maybe I'm more of a hard-core gamer than I thought.