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Archive for the ‘Games of our Lives’ 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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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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Dick: I guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?
Rob: No…
Dick: Not alphabetical…
Rob: Nope…
Dick: What?
Rob: Autobiographical.
Dick: (In awe) No fucking way.

No doubt inspired by the brilliant movie (and book) High Fidelity, I’ve seen a lot of music bloggers run with an autobiography-through-music meme lately: pick one record (or song) for each year of your life.  Not the best seller from that year, or even the best record, but the most important one, personally.

Of course, I immediately thought of games, and what my collection would look like if I had never sold any games, and arranged them autobiographically.  Also, I threw in a little running commentary along the list.  I’d be really interested to see some more of these, so feel free to leave a link in the comments for your list.  Without further ado, read on for Games of Our Lives (part 1)…

1981 – Donkey Kong – Obviously a banner year for me, ’81 was no slouch when it comes to pop culture either.  Three days after me,  MTV was born and video killed the radio star.  And of course, Shigeru Miyamoto introduced the world to the original 800-pound gorilla and the most unlikely protagonist since Mickey Mouse: a plucky, mustachioed hero in red overalls dubbed Jumpman.  More on him later…

1982 – Burgertime – I can’t say I played a ton of this one-screen classic in the arcade.  I was busy with other stuff like solid foods, figuring out the appropriate places to put poop, etc.  Six years later, I got this game along with my Nintendo Entertainment System, so we spent a lot of time together.

1983 – Grand Prix – We got an Atari 2600 when my sister struck a deal with my mom about not sleepwalking for a certain length of time.  It worked.  I was too young to really grasp the mechanics of a lot of Atari games at the time, but Grand Prix is about as simple as it gets.  Push the button (and Atari controllers only had one) and move the car with the joystick.  Also, I was weirdly entertained by the screen flashing bright pink whenever you crashed into something.  I’m surprised I never had a seizure or anything.

1984 – Paper BoyAnother one that I was too young to play in the arcades, but absolutely loved when it was ported to the NES.  My first paying job was as a paper boy during junior high school and I think, subconsciously, that job only appealed to me because of this game.  I can still close my eyes and hear the tally screen after each level, counting up the subscribers and non-subscribers on your route.

1985 – Super Mario Brothers – This game was mentioned in two separate speeches at my wedding, so that should give you some idea just how much of a toehold this fictional plumber has in my life.  Want more?  As I write this, a Mario figurine stares back at me from my desk.  My wife will celebrate the day I finally quit wearing my team Mario jacket from a previous job.  I had a dog named ‘Mario’ growing up, and once dressed up as Mario for Halloween. That was Halloween 2006.

I think so much of what makes the original SMB great lies in its simplicity.  There aren’t any cut scenes to watch before you jump into the game – you just know that something is happening in this strange world, and it’s all to the right of where you are now.  It was such an accessible game that everyone at least tried it a few times.  Above all, playing SMB is one of the few shared experiences that my entire generation has in common.

1986 – Bubble Bobble – Catchy tunes, great character design and a vibrant color palette really made this game stand out from other early third-party NES games.  I first started playing it on my aunt & uncle’s NES, before we had one at home.  I used to write down my level passwords on a notebook next to their TV, and my cousins would pick up the game where I left off, writing down all their passwords during their respective visits.  I’d say we invented long distance cooperative gameplay, but I would imagine this same exact process went on in every Nintendo owning home throughout the mid-to-late 80’s.

1987 – Punch Out!! – Just like Super Mario Brothers, Punch Out!!‘s control scheme was elegant in its simplicity.  Everyone could identify with the game’s protganist, Little Mac, and pretty much every guy in his late 20’s/early 30’s can name at least one of the game’s larger-than-life opponents.  At it’s core this game’s a really, really impressive test of timing, rhythm, pattern recognition and scientific method.  It’s held up very well over the years, and was a tremendous hit when it showed up on the Wii’s virtual console in 2006.  Bonus points for including Mario as a referee.

1988 – Mickey Mousecapade I got my Nintendo as a present for my First Communion, along with this game, Burgertime, and the Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt combo cartridge.  Like everyone else, SMB introduced me to platform games, and I loved it.  But the cool thing about Mousecapade was that it let ME control an iconic character that I was already absolutely crazy about.  It’s a formula that game publishers large and small continue to trade in today.  This game added some nice touches, like the “keep Minnie Mouse close behind you” mechanic, and excellent level and enemy design based on Disney classics from Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Fantasia, etc.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 in the days ahead!

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