Archive for the ‘Old school’ Category

As I prepare to say goodbye to to the blog, I thought it would be a great time to revisit “Games of our Lives.”  The original 3-part series was some of my favorite material to write, and I still go back and re-read them every now and then.  I intended to cap off each year with a new entry, but that got away from me after I concluded part 3 with 2007. So without further adieu:

2008 – Super Smash Bros. Brawl – The original Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 was a high school, and later dorm room favorite.  I didn’t play very much of the GameCube followup, but the promise of more Smash Bros. on the Wii – a console I was already having so much fun with – was a no brainer.

Brawl is the last game I stood in line for at a midnight launch, a month before my wedding in 2008.  It could very well be the last midnight launch I EVER attend.

With all its game modes and hidden characters, Brawl is an unbelievably deep game.  A month after launch, I was still having a blast discovering things in the single player mode.  So when I couldn’t sleep the night before our big wedding weekend, I naturally popped in Brawl.

The familiar feeling of smacking around characters like Link and Kirby with my old pal Mario really brought me back.  I had just quit my job the day before, and was about to start my family the day after.  But for a few pre-dawn hours, none of that mattered.  I got to play.

2009 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – Last year was the first time since I started writing the blog that I named a Game of the Year, so it would have been easy to choose New Super Mario Bros. Wii. But when I think back on 2009, it all kind of pales in comparison to an unseasonably warm Sunday in early November when I got to meet my beautiful daughter.

I had missed the first Uncharted. It came out before I got my Playstation 3, and while it sounded cool (especially Nathan Drake’s badass shirt per Tim Schafer), but there were a ton of great games in my backlog by then.

Among Thieves was met with critical acclaim upon release, and must’ve set some kind of record for enthusiast press podcasts devoted to singing its praises.  It’s a technically solid game, puts endearing characters into a compelling story, and even threw in rich multiplayer modes for good measure.

All that aside, I was desperately trying to finish Uncharted 2 as my wife’s due date approached, and that’s why it will always stick out in my mind.  That whole week was a blur of making sure we were ready, from packing the hospital bag to washing the newborn clothes.  And whenever my wife took a nap, or I managed to snag a spare moment, I would jump back into Nathan Drake’s search for Shangri-La.  I was at the final boss, this close to beating the game when we finally had to go to the hospital, and I didn’t end up beating it until about a week after we brought my daughter home.  So it has the distinction of being the first game I played as a dad, too.

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In case you’ve been under a rock, today is the 25ht anniversary of Super Mario Brothers original Japanese release.  As I write this, “Mario Bros” is the #5 trending topic on Twitter.  In addition to the usual suspects, a ton of mainstream press covered it.  I even saw a headline about the anniversary on that screen in the elevator in my office building.  Y’know, the one that everyone awkwardly stares at, so they don’t need to make conversation.

It’s appropriate that the anniversary happens to fall on the release date for the latest Halo game, Reach. These two properties couldn’t be further apart.

Halo is the very essence of what drives the industry today – a multiplayer-focused shooter fueled by competition, favored by angsty teens (and ghastly teens-at-heart), where it’s not uncommon to count more epithets than bodies. I’ll admit it – I’ve never played much Halo.  It just never appealed to me.

Mario games look downright quaint by comparison, with bright colors, squeaky clean character design, and all those side adventures in cart racers, puzzlers, brawlers, RPG’s…

Just take a look at their flagship characters.  Halo’s Master Chief is a faceless cipher under that impenetrable helmet. He and his space marine buddies have now starred in 5 games, but are still mostly marketed around (and purchased for) the multiplayer experience.  Besides, he just wouldn’t fit in a fun, happy-go-lucky cart racer.

Mario doesn’t speak either, outside of the occasional “it’s-a-meeee!’ or “let’s-a-go!”  But his charisma and charm have moved 240 million games – just among the character-focused core series.

Mario has been a constant through some remarkable personal benchmarks.  For those of you just joining us, some highlights: One of my first published reviews was on Mario 64.  I broke the news to readers (and in turn, some of my friends) about my wife’s pregnancy via a post about New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  And when it came time to take the baby announcement photos, my daughter had on a Princess Peach onesie.  Mario was even mentioned twice in speeches at my wedding – one of those during the actual ceremony.

Playing a Mario game evokes much of the same feeling for me as watching my daughter play on the floor does now.  There is an innocence, and a simplicity to it that will always be endearing.  I can’t help but smile when it’s just me, and the jumping, and the coins.

Happy birthday, buddy.

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I can’t get enough of Mass Effect 2.  I’ve spent nearly all of my play time over the last three weeks with it, hardly touching any other games.  Looking at its impressive debut at #2 on January’s NPD rankings after only six days on shelves, I’m not alone. And with all that love comes A LOT of coverage in the enthusiast press in this immediate post-release honeymoon period.

Mass Effect's' story is driven by players' choices - rooting it in the here and now

There’s been some bitching backlash on Twitter about ME2 coverage fatigue this week.  And if you’re suffering from it, well… this is probably not the post for you.  Sorry.  Perhaps a link to this awesome site will make up for it?  Cool.

Aaaanyways, there has also been some really excellent discussion around the game.  Be sure and check out Rebel FM’s full hour of thoughtful banter (with some very minor spoilers) and a particularly good episode from the 1Up guys.

All these very qualified games journos have lauded the way choices the player makes throughout ME2 impact the story.  Sure, BioWare games almost all have some level of this “choose your own adventure” mechanic, but it really sings this time out.  The choices feel natural.  As a result, I found myself making my in-game decisions based more upon what I actually felt was right (or at least justified) given the circumstances, rather than explicitly trying to play either the badass or boy scout role.  And in the end, my character was more believable as a hero with shades of gray.

I wonder if this approach to decision-driving storytelling actually handicaps ME2 it in the nostalgia department.  If it had come out 10 years ago when I was younger and obnoxious less patient, my playthrough (and by extension, my Commander Shepard) would be completely different.  I’d probably go Rogue more often, my character would be kind of a jerk, and the body count would be a lot higher.  If I were to blow the dust off that game today at 28 years old, I’d play it just as I am now, with more balanced choices.

The most elegant example I’ve seen of nostalgia-by-way-of-videogame was in the 1988 CLASSIC (and sick day movie favorite of yours truly) Big. In the movie’s third act, adult Josh is playing through the same adventure game that we see young Josh playing as the film opens:

You are standing in the cavern of the evil wizard. All around you are
the carcasses of slain ice dwarfs….Melt wizard….What do you want to
melt him with? …Throw thermal pod

He makes the same choices in both playthroughs, and that’s what makes Josh remember what it’s like to be kid.  I’m not sure anyone could, or would even want to, play through ME2 the exact same way from different stages in their life.  So does that make it… unnostalgic?  Non-nostalgic?

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Of course this game will be awesome. He looks like the frickin' Rocketeer!

Just like last year, this Christmas’ new games slate went lighter than planned, as quite a few high priority games’ release dates slipped into the first quarter of next year.  Hardly anyone wants to delay a project release, especially when you consider how long the development cycle on current gen games can get.  But sometimes a game could benefit from a few more months of polishing, as was the case with this year’s GOTY contender Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Other times, a real juggernaut hits retail, and it makes more sense for a publisher to hold back a release until it can find more room in headlines and on shelves.  Modern Warfare 2 and New Super Mario Brothers Wii in particular sucked all the air out of the room this year.

It’s been fascinating to watch what Capcom’s community team and developer Airtight Games have been doing with the extra time until the release of their delayed title, Dark Void. Of course, they’ve checked all the necessary boxes: a fan site, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed. Their Twitter community manager is really committed to speaking as the character of a survivor from within the Void, and ties in the game’s fiction nicely with even routine things like giveaway contests.

And this is where it gets really cool.  Last week Capcom announced Dark Void Zero, an 8-bit “prequel” to their soon-to-be-released current gen game.  Retro lightning already struck twice for Capcom, with Mega Man 9 and the outstanding Bionic Commando: Rearmed, so why not try for a third?  But Mega Man and Bionic Commando really are established, well-loved franchises with all the history and nostalgia that entails. 

Dark Void’s a completely new IP.  And it’s been hard out there for a pimp new property lately.  Just ask EA!  On top of developing an impressive fiction to serve the current-gen Dark Void game and the fan community, AND developing a fun 8-bit game to expand that universe and generate buzz, big C also developed a suitable backstory for the 8-bit game, as if the property had existed during that era.

All this attention to detail in the pre-release period has elevated Dark Void from a title I was merely interested in to pretty much a must-buy on day 1.  I’ll probably download Dark Void Zero to boot.  Well played, Capcom.

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ctown fair sign 2Last week, yours truly was called upon to protect the city and county of New York from the forces of evil.  Luckily, jurors get a whopping 2 hours for lunch and my local Hall of Justice is a few shorts blocks away from one of NYC’s truly hidden gems – Chinatown Fair.  Once famous for its dancing, tic-tac-toe playing chicken, Chinatown Fair is the city’s last bastion of the smoke filled, dimly lit arcade scene that bore nerd havens in malls and boardwalks around the country throughout the 80s and mid 90s.

I had last been in a proper arcade sometime in college (Pinball Pete’s represent!), but arcades had begun a quick and steady descent into obsolescence in this country some years before that.  Starting with the earliest consoles, each generation inched closer and closer to delivering a true arcade experience.

The Playstation/Saturn era finally delivered parity, but the home experience still came up short in perhaps the most critical area: competition.  This generation’s online matchmaking took care of that, and now  just about the closest thing you can find to an arcade in the States is some kind “Chuck E. Cheese for adults” nightmare with lots of bad food and fairly lame out-of-home-attraction type games.


CF's networked SFIV cabinets - the only ones in NYC?

Chinatown Fair is unapologetic in its lineup and old-school decor.  The place is lined wall-to-wall with Capcom, SNK and Namco fighters.  A few big cabinet driving games, light-gun shooters, shmups and the obligatory Dance Dance Revolution machines round out the collection.

The latest additions to CF are all imports, as the scene’s still vibrant across the Pacific.  It was a good opportunity for me to see how arcade companies are adapting their hardware to suit more casual play styles, just like in console games.

A few driving and rhythm games at CF feature a proprietary card system that tracks players’ progress, much like a players’ club card in a casino.  So after a one-time nominal purchase on the actual game cabinet – for example, a racer based on the anime Initial D – the player can insert their card into any Initial D cabinet they encounter in any arcade in the world, and they’ll be able to use the car they’ve customized on the tracks they’ve unlocked progressing through the game.  It’s like having a savegame file that’s always with you, or an Xbox LIVE account that works in the arcade.

I thoroughly dug my visit to Chinatown Fair.  It feels like one of the divier spots from my time in Japan.   And I mean that as a huge compliment.  I can understand how the arcade business model got phased out, but it’s kind of a shame that there are so few of them left for younger gamers to experience.  If you happen to know of a particular good spot in your town, be sure and leave it in the comments.

I'm such a baller

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Last week, LucasArts announced they’d blow the dust off their venerable adventure games catalog, offering an ongoing selection of hits via Steam.  Of course, gamers everywhere rejoiced, and the immediate questions were all positive: ‘what other platfroms will these be available on?’ and ‘what other classics will they release next?’

The announcement came on top of Major Nelson’s release of this summer’s Xbox LIVE Arcade schedule.  They’re mining some classics as well, with remakes of LucasArts’ own Secret of Monkey Island and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time as well as a re-release of Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

These announcements, and the fanfare surrounding them, show what a compelling revenue stream a publisher’s back catalog can make.  And it makes very good sense.  It takes a much smaller team and significantly less expense to prep an old, critically acclaimed gem for re-rerelease on a new system, even in the case of a full refresh like this week’s stellar Secret of Monkey Island remake.  Gamers that might just be discovering that IP through Telltale’s new episodic Tales of Monkey Island series can go back to the original and see what made these characters and the whole SCUMM system so endearing.  

Publishers don’t need to put any expense or energy into packaging these titles and bringing them to retail.  When the games are strong enough, as is the case with LucasArts’ catalog, they don’t even really need to market them very much.  The enthusiast community will do it for them.  Essentially, a rerelease of a true masterpiece is a pure profit play for a publisher that put in all the years of hard work building a great library.

As long as publishers don’t turn the valve too far and just start releasing every piece of crap title they’ve ever produced, I hope to see a lot more classics coming down the pipe.  In this still very sequel-heavy business, re-releasing the early gems from a series a few months ahead of a new installment could be a very wise marketing spend.  For instance, Ico  and Shadow of the Colossus should hit the PSN store a few weeks before The Last Guardian hits the shelves.

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I’ve been meaning to write a reaction to last week’s sale of id Software to ZeniMax, but it’s honestly taken me this long to figure out how I felt about it, exactly.  For anyone that was an avid gamer in the mid 90’s, id (and particularly the DOOM series) represented a very specific division between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

If you were a teenage nerd in the mid 90's, you recognize this poster

If you were a teenage nerd in the mid 90's, you recognize this poster

They were unapologetically hardcore in their approach to game design: their subject material was edgy at the time, and their games always required top-of-the-line hardware to run really well.  You either dug DOOM’s horror/sci-fi storyline, complete with impaled space marines and hooved demons, or it turned you off.  You either had the patience to manually configure a mulitplayer session, or you didn’t go near it.  Id’s developers even appealed to a very specific audience, with cars and attitude more befitting the founders of Image Comics than the code monkeys of the day.

In its heydey, DOOM was tremendously popular, but only among the specific audience of hardcore gamers.  This planing away of less-than-hardcore gamers was not only a ballsy move by the id guys, it helped light the way for a lot of nerds avid gamers to figure out who their friends were, and where they fit in.

On the one hand, ZeniMax seems like the perfect place for a shop like id.  As pointed out in last week’s superb “Listen Up” podcast, id’s strengths complement ZeniMax’s own Bethesda studio’s weaknesses perfectly, and vice versa.  Guys like John Carmack can continue to work on bulletproof code and not have to worry about moving up the food chain and staffing up as a publisher just to maintain their IP.

But a part of me is a little… not sad… nostalgic for the loss of id as its own entity.  While they stood in one place and cranked out shooters seemingly fueled by Red Bull and teen angst, this industry changed around them. 

World of Warcraft came along and showed PC gamers that they could play with each other online in scenarios that weren’t always framed by the barrel of a gun.  Microsoft’s entry into the console game brought a “shooter box” into the market that had fixed specs and a user base too large to ignore, so id’s constant pushing of the hardware envolope had to be roped in for their games (not to mention their more profitable engine licensing business) to be a success.  Like a former chart topper turned lounge act, DOOM‘s shock value wore off with age and Grand Theft Auto, then our Wiis and casual gaming friends, wives, and mothers showed us that you could hold a controller and smile at the same time, in a non-ironic way.

The DOOM movie: too late to be awesome, too crappy to by funny

The DOOM movie: too late to be awesome, too crappy to be funny

Meanwhile, Race to Witch Mountain’s The Rock starred in the long awaited big screen adaptation of DOOM.

In reaction to the sale, estranged co-founder John Romero tweeted “i guess i was shocked and sad to see the id Software of old changed forever today. it’s a new day and a new id.”

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The NPD report for February came out last Thursday, and if the industry keeps up this pace, I may have to issue a teary, self-depricating apology for my New Year’s rant about release scheduling.  The first quarter of the year has always been pin-drop quiet, even during some of the industry’s best years.  It gave gamers, retailers, and developers a much needed breath after the holidays.  This year?  Not so much.

On a recent visit to GameStop, I had to choose from perennial favorite MLB The Show, the long-awaited Peggle: Dual Shot, the better than expected GTA: Chinatown Wars, and Street Fighter IV.  Of course, Resident Evil 5 just dropped, and Gears 2, Little Big Planet and the rock-out-with-your-plastic-axes-out games continue to get killer DLC on an a regular basis.  It’s unlikely that such a bountiful first quarter was 100% intentional.  Holiday release schedules get ambitious, marketing budgets get slashed, and before you know it, a locked-in holiday blockbuster gets shuffled into the following year.

However, I’m willing to give Capcom the benefit of the doubt with Street Fighter IV.  All along, they’ve been favoring a hardcore gamer audience in marketing this title, with a steady flow of info from their Capcom-Unity blog and Twitter feed.  And their down ‘n dirty “Fight Club” event was just about the only pre-launch promotion this year that I really, really wished I had worked on.  At the end of the day, this title exists for that hardcore, multi-system owning gamer that purchases over a dozen games a year.  Capcom was refreshingly unapologetic about it, and I’m glad to see they were rewarded for it.

Nintendo juggernauts like Wii Fit, Wii Play, and the Mario Kart titles will (very deservedly) continue to consume the best-seller list month in and month out, because there’s a new casual gamer born every minute.  I hope third parties continue to use different parts of the year and inspired, innovative promo to show their biggest fans how much they still care.

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Welcome to Part 3 of my first attempt at continuity.  Be sure and check out Parts 1 and 2 before you move on to the finale…

1999Ready 2 Rumble – I graduated high school in 1999, so this was a huge transition year for me.  I left my parents’ quiet house in the suburbs for the sprawling, gorgeous Michigan State campus in East Lansing.  I met literally thousands of new people, and got a fresh start on the rest of my life.

Sega had spent my high school years pissing away all the good mojo they had garnered in the Genesis days by releasing unnecessary hardware like the Sega CD, 32X, and the Saturn in rapid succession.  They had also cast off surly dick Bernie Stolar, and were ready for a fresh start themselves.  So when the Dreamcast launched on September 9, 1999 (“where were you?”) it was like we just instantly understood each other.  Kind of like that part where two characters stay up all night talking in… some Cameron Crowe movie, I think.

The Dreamcast had its quirks: weird controllers, a proprietary disc format, and a hefty Windows CE operating system under the hood.  It was ahead of its time.  To be fair, I was struggling through Japanese 101 and slowly learning that I was pursuing the wrong degree.  So no one’s perfect.

The eventual nail in the Dreamcast’s coffin was the absence of EA Sports games.  But it still managed to sneak in a few really, really solid sports games like launch title Ready 2 Rumble.

About halfway through freshmen year, this game transformed my dorm room into an extended hours arcade.  Its hilarious cast was a throwback to Punch Out!!, and quick pick-up-and-play controls made it a natural weapon of choice for our assembly of amateur drunks college freshmen from all over the Midwest.

2000Chu Chu Rocket – Another Dreamcast gem, Chu Chu Rocket was the first game to take advantage of the system’s built in modem.  For the uninitiated, it’s hard to believe just how addictive a puzzle game about getting lots and lots of mice into a rocket ship can be.  And I understand that.  But once you got the hang of this game, its dark sense of humor and frenetic pace combine for an itch that you just can’t help but scratch.  The online play was laggy, but totally worth it.  After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than sending a cat into your opponent’s rocket at the last second before launch.

2001Ico – There are two types of gamers in this world: those that have never played Ico, and those that LOVE it.  But you shouldn’t be ashamed to be in the former group.  After all, this masterpiece really struggled to find its audience in the US, was woefully short printed, and (just to complete the trifecta of nerd Spanish Fly), was eclipsed by the much higher profile Grand Theft Auto 3 at release.

I didn’t track down a copy until years later, towards the end of my PlayStation 2 days.  I was hooked immediately.  This was clearly a game that took itself very seriously, and that was ok.  The team behind Ico created a work of art, and they wanted us to think about, explore, and feel the game just like any legitimate artist in any other medium.

They dispatched with some very essential game-y trappings: all the characters speak in a made up language, and there’s no onscreen HUD or gauges of any kind.  The story was gripping, and even heartbreaking at times.  We would only refer to this game as ‘the hauntingly beautiful Ico‘ (never just ‘Ico’) around my bachelor apartment Queens.  Play it for a few minutes and you’ll see why.

2002 – SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals – The first game to take advantage of the PlayStation 2’s add-on broadband adapter, SOCOM promised to deliver to consoles the same fast paced, multiplayer squad-based combat that PC gamers had been enjoying for years.  It even came with a nifty USB headset so you could bark orders (or dirty jokes, depending on your squad) in the heat of battle.

My college roommates and I never really got that deep into the online component, though.  The headset worked in single player too, so you could order around the dumb-as-posts AI squad mates, Boomer, Jester and Specter.  This is way more entertaining than it sounds.

2003 – Evil Dead: a Fistfull of Boomstick – This wasn’t the best game of 2003 by a longshot.  ’03 was a banner year for the industry with Call of Duty, Mario Kart Double Dash, and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time all hitting shelves.  Boomstick was flawed by comparison, but I had spent much of my senior year of college interning with a small ad/sound production studio, and had the great pleasure of working with Ash himself, Bruce Campbell.

It was the first time someone that I had actually met was the star of a video game, and that really made me appreciate the fact that this game tried so hard to capture the feeling of the Evil Dead movies.  It may not have succeeded 100% of the time as a game, but it’s still one of the best games out there based on a movie property.  It doesn’t hurt that I happen to LOVE this particular trilogy, too.

I bought Boomstick about a month before I moved from Michigan to New York, so it was the last game that I played in the basement of my parents’ house, passing around the controller with my friends.  For that reason alone, I’ll always have a soft spot for this game.

2004 – NFL Street – When I think of my first apartment in New York, 3 things immediately come to mind: hideous linoleum, Oh My God’s Interrogations and Confessions record, and long sessions of NFL Street. I barely knew my roommate, Geoff,  when we first moved in to that bachelor pad in Astoria, but we became fast friends by happy accident, hanging out way too late in dive bars, commiserating over our entry-level peon jobs, and spending entire Sundays shaking off hangovers and passing the controller back and forth.

Neither of us made very much money, so after the cable bill and Coors Light expenses, we couldn’t buy a ton of new games.  Around the same time as I picked up NFL Street, we saw indie rock superband Oh My God at a bar in the Village, and their latest record went on infinite loop in the apartment stereo.  For the next few months we played that game and record to death simultaneously.   Whenever I hear a song from that record, to this day, I just see visuals from NFL Street in my head.

EA had 3 iterations of the NBA Street series to hone the pro-sport-meets-the-sandlot formula, and they absolutely nailed it with this game.  The character creation system was robust, with endless possibilities for player looks, clothes, and attributes.  I’ve found recent entries in the Madden series to be a little intimidating, with enormous playbooks and all those audible options on both sides of the ball.  The EA Sports BIG team stripped away all the nonessential bullshit for Street, leaving us with the most fun, eminently playable football game since Mutant League Football.

Like any case of a Midwesterner moving out to The Big City, there were definitely some bumps along the way that first year.  Our landlord was a dick.  The place was drafty.  I spent two months unemployed.  But when I think back on all the good times we had, watching hilarious movies, exploring the city and playing some great games, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

We eventually moved into classier digs, started listening to other CD’s, and Geoff was the Best Man at my wedding.  It’s too bad the NFL Street series didn’t have the same luck, as both sequels ended up unplayable.

2005 – Guitar Hero – It may be hard to believe, but the father of gaming’s new favorite genre started from very humble beginnings.  The original Guitar Hero was a PlayStation 2 exclusive, during that system’s twilight years.  Required, packed-in peripherals were a huge no-no, and a $75 price point seemed sky-high for any piece of software.  Barely anyone had heard of developer Harmonix, and retailers hated the idea of devoting so much floorspace to such an X factor of a game during the holiday rush.  Looking back on it, it’s sort of amazing that the game succeeded at all.

I was representing GamePro magazine during Guitar Hero’s launch cycle, and went on a holiday press tour with editor Sid Shuman.  He raved about GH in every single interview, and by the end of the tour I just HAD to pick it up.  I grabbed a copy in release day, from a huge stack at my local Gamestop.  It didn’t seem like they were going to move fast.

Shortly after the game came out, we had a perfect gaming storm in New York.  It was the coldest winter in years, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority entered into a lengthy work stoppage.  Living in Queens, I wasn’t required to go into my office in Manhattan.

The more I played GH, the more I felt like I had to share it with EVERYONE I knew.  I took my PS2 everywhere for the next few months, and I wasn’t alone.  GH got a huge bump through word of mouth, and it was a bona fide hit by Christmas.

The music genre’s obviously grown by leaps and bounds since then, and online multiplayer, downloadable content and now full-on authoring modes have opened up music games to a much larger audience.  I’m willing to bet there are quite a few Xbox 360 and PS3 owners out there that wouldn’t have bothered with a system if not for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. It was nice to be one of the first evangalists.

2006 – Bully2006 was the Wii’s big coming out party, and I was just as swept up in it as every other gamer (and kid, soccer mom, and granparent, apparantly).  But when I look back at all the releases from ’06, this one jumps out at me.

By the time Bully came out, the Grand Theft Auto series was a well-oiled machine.  Vice City and San Andreas expanded the GTA universe beyond Liberty City and established the GTA3 engine as a legitmate multigame cash cow.

That engine didn’t really sing until Bully, if you ask me.  Bully’s characters felt new and fresh compared to the endless stream of GTA gangsters, and everyone could relate to its high school setting.  The entire game existed well outside of GTA’s recipe for success, which was remarkably ambitious of Rockstar.

I happened to be at Rockstar’s NY headquarters on launch day for an interview.  It didn’t work out, but at least I got a newly minted copy of Bully as a parting gift.  It was my first real, legitimate brush with a job in video games.  Thank God it wasn’t my last.

2007 – Super Mario GalaxyThe Wii launched with an outstanding new Zelda title and the groundbreaking Wii Sports in 2006, but its otherwise scant launch lineup left hardcore Nintendo fans (like yours truly) scratching our heads and wondering, “where’s Mario?”  The old, reliable super-plumber had been driving karts, playing golf, basketball, baseball, and even board games – but the last true Mario adventure for a home console was the maligned Gamecube platformer, Super Mario Sunshine*.

Galaxy launched to unbelievable expectations.  It had to prove the Wii’s unorthodox “remote + nunchuck” control scheme could really work for a non-sports game.  It needed to make a platformer relevant again, in a sea of flashy squad-based shooters on more powerful consoles.  And it needed to stand up to the nostalgia and fun of ALL of Mario’s previous adventures, because they were all playable on the Wii’s virtual console by the time Galaxy came out.

My wife (then my fiance) got me Galaxy for my first real Hanukkah, and I can honestly say it lived up to all my expectations.  With the exception of a few contrarian critics (who got a lot of traffic for their negative reviews… just sayin’), it was a rousing success.  Most importantly, it captured that Mario game feeling.

Galaxy looked better than anything we had seen on the Wii thus far, and it married the separate two-handed control scheme to classic platforming.  I couldn’t stand to leave my copy for long, so I brought it back to my Michigan to visit my folks over Christmas – and the Wii to play it on.

* NOTE: It’s recently become cool on forums and blog comment sections to claim that you’ve always LOVED Super Mario Sunshine, and declare that it’s a misunderstood misunderstood work of staggering genius.  It was a good game.  Just not a fantastic game.

2008 – ? – It’s too early to say just yet.  There are tons of worthy candidates going into the fourth quarter, and lots of potentially great games on the horizon.  So far:

LittleBigPlanet may be the first game since Super Paper Mario to really capture my wife’s attention.  The Sackboy character might just be cute enough to draw a wider audience to the PlayStation 3, and the Tinkertoy aesthetic is tough for anybody to resist.  I think it might really grasp the limited-only-by-your imagination paradigm shift that Spore was so close to finally realizing.

Metal Gear Solid 4 lived up to my really high expectations. There was a moment there where I had withered, old Snake crouched for a bit too long, and he groaned and grabbed his back in agony.  I had to laugh because I was playing with my headphones on, to keep the ambient gunfire from waking my wife on a weekend morning.  A far cry from the plucky 17-year-old that brought back the original MGS demo back from study abroad in Japan.  Are we really that old, Snake?

Super Smash Bros Brawl is the only game that I felt was worth going to a midnight launch for this year.  I’ve always loved the series, and the promise of online multiplayer, a level designer, and all those characters combined for some kind of record in terms of gameplay value per dollar.  I can’t imagine having a game like this available as a 12-year-old with limited means for game purchases.  It’s so deep that it’s essentially its own platform.

I couldn’t sleep at all the night before our big wedding weekend.  I woke up around 4 am and ended up in the living room.  I popped in Brawl, and for a little while before all the craziness and life changing of the weekend ahead, it was just me and Mario.  One more time.

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Hurray continuity!  Welcome to Part 2 of the retrospective.  Be sure and check out Part 1 if you haven’t already.

1989 Dr. Mario – Nintendo introduced the revolutionary Game Boy hardware at the very end of the 80’s, and I don’t think I’ve traveled for more than an hour without a handheld system since then.  The first Game Boy iteration’s creamed spinach-colored monochrome LCD screen blurred every time there was a lot of movement onscreen, so sidescrollers and action games didn’t really make the transition so well.  Puzzle games, however, really shined on the system, because you could keep scratching the itch with quick play sessions whenever and WHEREever you had a free moment.

Tetris was packed in, but that game was decidedly grown up.  Dr. Mario brought more fun to the place-and-drop puzzler than Tetris, with multicolored pills to vanquish the little dancing germs under the microscope.  In the back of my mind, I was always a little bit surprised that some overreactive parents’ group didn’t throw a fit over this game.  After all, the half-and-half pills looked a lot like Dexatrim.

1990 – Super Mario Brothers 3 – This was arguably the last great game for the NES, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better swan song for any system since then.  I never really embraced Super Mario Brothers 2 – it just felt like too much of a departure from the series.  Even before I knew about the Doki Doki Panic switch, it just felt… apocryphal.  But Mario 3 brought back everything we all loved about adventures in the mushroom kingdom, and piled on a ton of extras that made the whole experience feel fresh.

I don’t have the back issues on hand to check, but I’m pretty sure Nintendo Power started covering SMB 3 about 8 months before its US release.  Our local Toys R’ Us was sold out of the game for weeks afterwards, and we finally got a copy after my sister nearly won the spelling bee.

It was a great game that has aged very well, and it lived up to the hype at the time.  The Mushroom Kingdom felt very lived in for the first time, and you finally got the idea that Mario was up against something more than just a weird dragon and some turtles to his right… Koopa was a regime and only you could liberate them from Bowser’s tyranny.  Heavy stuff indeed.  It introduced flying, and the overworld map, and a lot of other staples to the Mario universe.

Most of all, I loved the way this game united my entire universe.  It was released at the very height of the NES’ popularity, and my friends and family (even the adults!) wanted to get a hold of this game.  I guess you could say it was the first time I was aware of hype surrounding a game, or just the idea of hype in general.  I wonder if I’d have ended up in PR if this game hadn’t been so awesome.

1991 – The Simpsons Arcade Game – A woefully underappreciated classic, this is the only game on this entire list that has never seen a port on any home console.  Multiplayer side-scrolling brawlers owned the arcades, bowling alleys and pizzerias in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and no one perfected the art form quite like Konami.  The Simpsons was one superb entry in a string of stellar coin-ops like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and Wild West COWboys of Moo Mesa.

It’s on the list because I bought a well-loved arcade unit of this game in 1997, from an arcade in Royal Oak, MI, with money I had saved up from a summer job.  It was so much more than just another game to play.  Once I got The Simpsons home and in my bedroom, it became a trophy to my love of games.  It was my enormous stuffed marlin hanging on the wall.

I gained a whole new level of appreciation for the culture surrounding games when I got a hold of The Simpsons. It was the first time that I was really excited about a game that had been released a really, really long time ago (6 whole years!).  Keep in mind I was 16.  All the magazine articles about the Simpsons had been published in ’91, in publications like JAMMA Digest and Arcade and Amusement Operators’ Quarterly.  But it was a shining piece of superb game design by a company that had perfected games in one genre.  It was a marvelous example of a GOOD licensed game, with spot-on art direction and a story that could’ve been wedged into a weaker TV season of The Simpsons.  I really learned how to recognize a truly great game with The Simpsons

1992 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time – I distinctly remember renting this game, along with Defenders of Dynotron City at the video store.  It was the cover story in Nintendo Power that month, and I had been pouring over the level layouts and screenshots for weeks before release.  My grandmother died the next day, and I just remember things were really, really quiet around our house that whole week.  My mom talked the guy at the video store into letting us hang onto the game for another 3 day rental period, even though it was in high demand at the time.  I’ve always been a huge Turtles fan, but still never bought this game – arguably the best one released for any home console.  I guess it just always reminded me of a pretty rough time.

1993 – Zombies Ate my NeighborsWhen someone asks me what my favorite game of all time is, this is the first one out of my mouth.  I haven’t played it in years, so it’s entirely possible that there’s a gloss of nostalgia around it.  But if LucasArts puts Zombies out on the Wii’s virtual console, I’m buying it on day one.  This game was just plain fun, and struck the perfect balance between a tribute to and tongue-in cheek spoof of cheesy sci-fi/horror B movies.  There was just enough of an established story to get by.  Zeke was obviously a huge movie geek, ’cause he wore 3D glasses all the time.  Julie was kind of a tomboy, ’cause she always had on a ball cap (even when she drinks the purple monster potion).  Beyond that, it was really up to you.

Perhaps most importantly, the credits in this game were a playable level, rather than just scrolling text after you saved the world.  You walked around the level and read all the designers’ names, and they all had some personality-defining object or animation for their in-game character.   They were all American guys based in Palo Alto. It was the first time I really grasped the concept of all the people it took to make a good game, and that working in games could be a viable profession for me.

1994 – DOOM II – Like nearly every nerd currently between the ages of 25 and 35, I was completely obsessed with the original DOOM. It was the first PC game I absolutely had to have, and I tried to get every non-PC owning friend to come over and see this unbelievable game where you see your gun in front of you and you’re fighting zombies and demons from Hell on Mars!!! I got the first Counting Crows record around the same time, so I spent the entire summer blowing away demons while Adam Duritz belted out Mr. Jones… it led to a very weird mental soup where I still can’t listen to ‘Round Here without my trigger finger getting twitchy.

So of course, I was perfectly ready for DOOM II to be the best game ever.  I realize now that it could have been delivered by Super Mario Himself and heralded by a choir of Hooters waitresses, and it still wouldn’t have lived up to the expectations my 13-year-old self had placed on it.  But John Romero and the guys at id Software didn’t really do much to help in that department.  They spent less than a year developing the highly anticipated sequel, and put what must’ve been millions of dollars and hudred of hours into promoting the hell out of DOOM II.

I played through it in a weekend and was throughly disappointed.  It was basically a map pack with one new gun.  The new enemy designs sucked, it was still impossible to get a multiplayer match going with your friends on all your modems… I was disappointed.

I had just started writing the first ever game reviews column in my high school newspaper that fall, and I layed into DOOM II pretty hard.  It felt like that scene in Jerry Maguire – I wrote and wrote and wrote.  The words poured out of me, and by the end I had written my first good, honest appraisal of a video game.  It was so much easier to find my voice when I was writing about a game that I didn’t want people to play, and it’s the first time something I wrote actually got a response from my friends.

1995- NHL ’96 – As is required by law in the state of Michigan, my family kept up with hockey fairly regilously.  We dutifully bought the first entry in EA’s hockey franchise, NHLPA ’93, a worthy successor to our last heavily played sports game, Blades of Steel.

I took the next couple years off, but then Steve Yzerman and a bunch of Russians got this close to winning a Stanley Cup against the much scarier New Jersey Devils (led by the world’s most intimidating nice guy, Scott Stevens).  A picture of Stevens and Yzerman facing off made the cover of NHL ’96 and I was sold.

I had figured my friends and I would be the main audience for NHL ’96, and maybe I’d get in a few games with my dad, who hadn’t touched a controller since NHLPA ’93 and Blades before that.  But one day my sister offered to play.  She had played Mario games almost exclusively, and barely ever played at this point.  She played as the Vancouver Canucks, and sparks flew.  They had an ethnic slur for a team name.  They had exotic-sounding names like Jurke Lumme and Pavel Bure (and we watched a lot of Sprockets).  It didn’t hurt that it was the same roster that took the Rangers to 7 games the previous year, and she had the faceoff timing down to a science.

I had always gotten along really well with my sister, but we spent a lot of time playing together over NHL ’96, and she gained a real appreciation for sports in the process.  I like to think it helped her come out of her shell.

Most importantly, I learned a lot about why I love games so much along the way.  NHL ’96 became an excuse for us to spend time together, and we had a lot of conversations about real world things that had absolutely nothing to do with video hockey during that time.  The rabbi at my wedding talked about how much I love to see peoples’ personalities unfold when we play games together, and I really don’t care that much about winning or losing.  I can follow that sentiment to something that started all the way back with this game.

1996 – Super Mario 64 – I got a NES for my first communion, so it only made sense (to me at least) that I deserved a Nintendo 64 for my confirmation.  It was a really big sacrement, and the N64 controller was the frst to have an analog stick so, y’know, fair deal.

About a month ahead of launch, Nintendo put a bunch of demo unit N64’s into retailers with one controller and Mario 64. My buddy Mike and I would ride our bikes up there nearly every weekend just to play it.  Now that I think of it, Toys R’ Us was kind of a ridiculous distance to cover on bikes from my house, but we wouldn’t have spent that time kissing girls or curing cancer or anything, so no harm done.  It was good times, I got to be the best man at his wedding, and we both have beautiful families now.  Thanks, Mario!

Mario 64 blew all of us away, and really evolved the platforming genre to keep up with the times.  Like DOOM, Tetris, and other genre-definers before it, this game had a ton of soulless knockoffs.  But Mario 64 was a collection of really well-executed level designs, complete commitment to an engrossing, narrative world, and loving attention to characters we had all grown up with.  It was one of two N64 launch titles, and the system was still impossible to find that Christmas.

I wrote a gushing review of it in my school paper, and a classmate accused me of being way too pro Nintendo.  Some things never change.

1997 – Final Fantasy VII – I had been an early convert to the Sony PlayStation, but Crash Bandicoot, Twisted Metal and Resident Evil weren’t enough to convince my friends that this weird, CD-based system with its bat shaped controller and home audio company pedigree would last.  But then Squaresoft announced that Final Fantasy VII would be coming to the US on PlayStation, with a faithful translation and the original Japanese series numbering (instead of the screwed up US system, where Final Fantasy VI came out as Final Fantasy III on the SNES).  It was a huge sign that Sony and their third-party publishers intended to take hardcore gamers seriously in the US.  We had been taken for granted by Sega and Nintendo up to this point, and Sony sure seemed like a white knight with all this… respect.

1998 – Metal Gear SolidI was living in Shiga, Japan as a high school exchange student in the summer of ’98, and spent a lot of my off time in their arcades and game shops.  Like just about all exchange students, the Japan tour was a life changing experience.  Japanese studios still accounted for the majority of AAA titles at this point, but I could tell even then that American developers like EA were starting to catch on over there.

In the last few days of my trip, Famitsu magazine featured Metal Gear Solid on their cover and included a demo disc in the shrink wrap.  The game had been hyped for over a year on both sides of the Pacific, but Konami was only giving a sneak peak to their Japanese fans.  I nabbed a copy after one of my last days of school there, and promptly trekked to the local dirt mall with my buddies when I got back to the States so I could get my PlayStation modded.

We played the hell out of that one stage demo for months, until MGS finally came out stateside.  We knew that beginning Shadow Moses level like the backs of our hands, and even had a pretty good idea about the dialogue in the Codec screens.  From then on, the MGS series has reminded me of my incredible time abroad.  Apropos, because Hideo Kojima stands as one of the last great Japanese auters of game development, and the MGS series is a fantastic love letter to the cinematic, uniquely Japanese school of game design.

To be Concluded…

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