29 April 2010

Kingdom Hearts – Playstation 2

I love Disney. They were my favorite movies when I was a kid and I still love to watch them today. I have the songs in iTunes, and they are often heard in the office of the school newspaper where I work during layout night. I’ll never get sick of Disney. So yes, I was super excited when the game Kingdom Hearts was announced. It’s a combination of Disney and Final Fantasy. I got to fight alongside my favorite Disney characters. Could life get any better?
I can’t play this game and not be happy. Sora, the main character, is absolutely adorable and you get to play the entire game with Donald and Goofy by your side. They are the most ridiculous yet best choices for a mage and a knight. You fight with a keyblade that can open anything that is locked, including all the different Disney worlds you travel to. If the galaxy was really a bunch of different planets that revolved around the stories of different Disney movies, I’d become an astronaut.
I was a little upset though when I reached the first Disney related world in the game. It was focused on Alice in Wonderland which is one Disney movie I never really got attached to. Despite my lack-of-care attitude towards the Disney movie, fighting through the world was still lots of fun. The Queen of Hearts wanted to chop off Alice’s head once again and we had to rescue her from a terrible fate. She doesn’t get her head axed, but she does disappear. For some reason, she was considered one of the seven princesses in the game. Alice is far from a princess, so that bothered me a bit.
Before I knew it I was being trained by Phil from the movie Hercules to be a hero. Hades doesn’t approve and sends Cerberus to the arena to get rid of the keyblade holder. That is not a fun battle. All the different Disney villains are under the command of Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. The keyblade will ruin her plans of controlling the heartless so she, as well as Jafar, Ursula, Captain Hook, and the Oogie Boogie Man plan to do whatever they have to in order to stop Sora from rescuing all the hearts that are in danger.
I swung through the vines with Tarzan. I grew fins and swam with Ariel through an underwater kingdom. I ran through creepy graveyards with Jack the Pumpkin King. I fought through the alleys of Agra bah with Aladdin and Abu. I flew to the top of Big Ben with the help of Tinker Bell and Peter Pan. I rescued Pinocchio from the belly of Monstro. Whenever I was low on items I had Huey, Dewey and Louie ready and willing to sell me supplies. I traveled the worlds and rescued 101 Dalmatians. When it was time to save the seven princesses, the Beast teamed up with me so he could save his one true love, Belle. Who wouldn’t want to do all of this?
On top of there being many different Disney characters, there were all the greatest Final Fantasy characters involved as well. Aeris is no longer dead; instead she aids you in your journey to stop the heartless. Squall calls himself Leon and tells you about your keyblade. Wakka, Tidus and Selphie are your friends from back at home. Cloud is working for Hades. Sephiroth is still out to get the hero. I’m jealous of Sora, Riku, and Kairi for being able to live in a universe where all of these great characters have been combined into one awesome galaxy.
All of this combined is pretty much the definition of enjoyment. There were funny parts, sad parts, and touching parts. There’s anger, betrayal, and great friendships that form. The voice acting was done beautifully and the characters kept their identities outside of their proper movies. Action RPGs always seem to have great game play, and Kingdom Hearts didn’t fall short in the least bit. The music is catchy and always seems to get stuck in my head after I play it. I did wish there was more Disney involved in the game, but that all gets fixed in Kingdom Hearts 2. We can get into that another day.
Every child that watches a Disney movie at some point in their lives wishes they could live through the great experiences shown to them through the movies. Kingdom Hearts lets every gamer’s inner child come out and play. You get to live part of your life through Sora and hang out with the Disney gang. This is definitely one of my favorite games, and I proudly hang a little keyblade from my car’s rear-view mirror to prove it.
By Heather Aug

27 April 2010

Radical Dreamers – Super Nintendo

I knew Chrono Cross was the sequel to Chrono Trigger, but there was another game that was related to one of my favorite series. It was a side story to the game Chrono Trigger. My curiosity was peaked and was then devastated when I found out that the game, Radical Dreamers, was never released in the United States. Luckily emulators and roms exist, and I know I’m not the only person who would have wanted to play this game in English. I searched the web and found a translated version of the game.
I didn’t know what to expect from the game, and I was very surprised to learn it was a text based game. You didn’t control a little pixel man and you couldn’t swing a sword. There were words; lots of words on a background picture that changed depending on where you told Serge, Kid and Magil to go. I was playing a picture book. I really wasn’t thrilled with what I was playing at first. I didn’t get to run around and talk to people and fight enemies that popped out of nowhere. All I had were choices. I needed to give it a chance though, so I pushed through.
Turns out, choices aren’t so bad after all. I like to read and I’m a sucker for stories. I’m sure parents wouldn’t be upset if their children played more games like this one. It’s a little book on a TV screen. Not as nice on the eyes, but it’s still a good read. As I played, I saw where many different ideas and concepts of Chrono Cross came from. Kid and Serge were together even before they were reborn into El Nido.
Thankfully I’m a patient person, because you need that to play this game. Traveling in this game took a while because it was text based, and you had to read whatever passage appeared in each room. The entire game takes place in one area, Viper Manor. I got lost easily since many areas look the same. I’d get to an intersection of hallways and forget which areas I’ve searched. If you go the wrong way, you have to read your way back to a new area. I was often tempted to keep a notebook with me just to make sure I remembered where I went.
Despite the small frustrations, I enjoyed everything that was happening. The choices made playing this game a different experience every time. Fighting monsters was fun in this game. Since all the action was in words, they didn’t have graphics to hold back the details. The beauty of a book came out in a video game. I got to imagine my own experience instead of having it shown to me. Your choices led to many different outcomes. When I ran into a trap, I had to make sure I figured out how to either escape or disarm the trap or else it was game over. I was often thankful for the emulators save states.
Radical Dreamers is not a typical video game, but it’s games like this that make me appreciate the Chrono series. The main games are great, and this game is just a taste of what made Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross such memorable gaming experiences. It’s a quick but complex game. It’s definitely worth the Internet hunt.
By Heather Aug

26 April 2010

Max Payne - Xbox

This game had me at "Rain Dogs."
"Rain Dogs" is one of the better albums by Tom Waits. People who don't know Tom Waits should look him up; but most people who are going to appreciate him already know his stuff.
In a scene near the middle of the game one of the thugs I was about to murder sings a lyric from the title track of that album. The scene in the game takes place in an alley and it's raining at the time.
I had to pause the game to make sure I heard it correctly. Tom Waits isn't obscure, but he is on the fringe. To hear a lyric from one of his songs in a video game was a shock, even for someone such as myself who had been preaching about the artistic leanings of video games for years. This was likely a throwaway piece of dialogue stitched into the script by a Waits fan on the development team, but it spoke to the kind of people who make video games. People who appreciate art. (Or, to be fair, people who appreciate the art that I appreciate.)
Max Payne continued to wade into unfamiliar territory. My oldest niece, a Manhattan dweller, found it interesting to see how the game interpreted the big city. Friends of mine who aren't into gaming but love film noir were taken in by the over-the-top storyline.
I liked the voice acting and the graphic novel presentation, but what I liked best was unapologetic violence and how it was milked for every drop of cinematic impact possible. The game looks goofy now - Max looks like a paper character pasted onto the background - but it's still a tight shooter with excellent "wow" moments. I remember playing through it when it came out and feeling like I was being let in on something nasty. Rockstar games catch a lot of heat for their violence and anti-social sensibilities, but the one thing nearly every Rockstar game does that almost none other can is allow the player to feel like they're being let in in a secret. Remember how you felt when you first saw Pulp Fiction? Remember that feeling of watching something different, something cool and something a little bit dangerous? No one does that like the people at Rockstar. GTA gets all the press, but Max Payne wrote the book.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

24 April 2010

Medal of Honor: Underground - Playstation

I brought my shiny new PS3 home on a warm day while my wife was still at work. I knew I had at least three hours of interruption-free gaming ahead of me before dinner needed to be cooked and adult life had to resume.
I found the launch titles I had purchased lacking. There I was with my shorts on, a T-shirt hanging comfortably off of my 34-year-old frame. The windows were open and the breeze was calming. Buyer's remorse set in almost immediately. This black box of technological promise cost me near $600. Where was the wow factor? Where were the life-changing graphics and revolutionary technology I had been promised?
After a monumental let down I remembered that the PS3 was capable of playing Playstation 1 games. Wow. A brand new heavy in the electronics world was capable of playing games that could have easily run on the primitive technology that lived in my modest cell phone.
But it was something.
I popped in Medal of Honor: Underground and fell in love all over again. At a time when console FPS games and WWII backdrops were rare, this game excelled in breaking boundaries. It was barely an expansion to the wildly popular Medal of Honor, but the improvements to story and character made this a whole new game. As a female warrior packing weapons and a camera, you were truly embodying a fantastical character in a genre best-known for brutes and bullets.
I played that game for hours and obsessed on it later. I played nothing else for a week until I finished it. My new PS3 could play blu-ray discs and superior shooters such as Resistance: Fall of Man, but all I could think about was Manon and her (my) crusade to avenge her fallen brother.
That's a game, my friends. That's a fine memory.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

22 April 2010

Clock Tower 3 – Playstation 2

I’m not good with anything that is meant to be scary. So, of course, I go and buy games like Silent Hill and Rule of Rose. I’ll be OK the first time I play a horror game, but then the night comes and I hear noises I don’t normally hear and get paranoid that a murderer/ghost/zombie/alien is in my house trying to eat me. I lay in bed wide awake until I get so tired that I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. It’s the silent night that gets to me after putting my emotions in a frenzy by being chased and having grotesque creatures pop out at me. After that experience, I never like to play the games alone. My boyfriend likes to laugh at me for this reason. He also doesn’t find them frightening like I do.
I was not expecting this reaction when I bought the game Clock Tower 3. I liked the pictures on the case and the summary on the back seemed interesting. It was also cheap, so I added it to my collection. It wasn’t bad at first, but when the first chase scene happened I started to have a mini panic attack. All you (Alyssa) can do is run and hide. The only weapon you can use against the enemy is a little bottle full of holy water that you splash in the enemy's face. He stands there writhing in pain for a few seconds, and then he’s chasing you once again. My anxiety is always on edge until I finally escape whatever weapon the current murderer that’s chasing you has. Once he’s gone I pause the game, take a deep breath, and then continue searching for clues about the murder that had occurred.
In high school, I didn’t really have anyone to play video games with. My three best friends at the time, Sara, Tiffany, and Patti, all were interested in other things. I was the odd one out in our little group, but we were still great friends. I don’t know why, but one night I introduced them all to Clock Tower 3. We all sat in Tiffany’s brother’s room in the dark and they all watched while I played. I didn’t have to freak out alone anymore. Sara really didn’t care, but both Patti and Tiffany were on edge while a big brute with a hammer chased after the tiny little blonde girl.
Since they were both screaming and panicking, I was able to be the brave one. I found all the clues that were needed while they were huddled behind me freaking out. The best part was when the mystery of the murder was solved and Alyssa got to kick some creepy murderer butt. I was pumped up from being chased constantly, and I had my friends cheering me on. I got my weird mystical bow and arrows and trapped his evil soul. The spirits of the people he murdered were no longer trapped, and they moved on from their own tragedies. Tiffany, Patti and I rejoiced while Sara was probably sleeping out of boredom.
It felt good to see my friends enjoying a gaming experience, even if they were just watching. Sara is still one of my best friends, Tiffany has moved away to North Carolina and we only get to speak on Facebook, and sadly Patti and I are no longer friends (all over stupid, pointless girl drama). Despite the separation, I will treasure this memory until I’m old and grey.
I still develop anxiety from these games, but whenever I am feeling brave I gather my nerves and bring Clock Tower 3 out of my game case. It helps to remember the excitement my friends had when I played the game for them. As long as I think of the good times we had with this game, me and Alyssa can defeat, or avoid, any dangerous creeper that comes out way.
By Heather Aug

20 April 2010

Gran Turismo - Playstation

The freedom, power and sense of independence is what drew me into wanting my first car. Until I could drive legally, I drove anything I could get my hands on: BMX bikes, ride-on lawnmowers, tractors in the Maine woods. If it had wheels, I wanted in – wicked in. I got my hands on a borrowed moped and didn’t want to give it back. I couldn’t afford my own at the time. A radio-controlled Hornet dune buggy had to tide me over until the very second I was 16.5 years old, the legal driving age at the time. And, of course, there was Pole Position II.
Despite the $500 price tag, my first car was almost prohibitively expensive, with the insurance and gas (no luck getting gas money from my equally destitute friends) tipping those proverbial scales. The car broke down every other month and for a time, I had to use a shoelace from my track shoes to operate the windshield wipers. I loved that car, right up until the day a friend borrowed it totaled it in the same afternoon.
I was carless for months following and used TV to get my fix. Car shows and racing events are what kept me going. I developed a deep lust for racing, for that was the ultimate freedom. Not only were you driving your own car, but you were seemingly breaking every known law in the process. Racing too, was expensive and out of reach for a dude with a high school education, and back then, no desire to go to college. Against my better judgment though, I went to college and graduated with thousands worth of student loans. I couldn’t even dream of getting into racing.
But that’s where the Gran Turismo series saved me. Pick any car, pick the most exotic track you could find and all of a sudden you could blast through time and space in a suped-up rig that you paid for with game dollars. GT-40s, Mitsu Lancers, Lancia Integrales. Could life be any better?
As time went on, my salary rose slightly, situations changed and I found myself on course to buy a car and build it into a race car. A rally car in fact. But I go back to my racing video game setup and I actually use it for cheap practice sessions. I try not to bump into anybody (an accident in a game costs thousands in real life, no matter how light the hit). I practice threshold braking, left-foot braking, clipping apexes and executing Scandinavian Flicks. I turn the music off and the sound effects up. I want to hear my engine bouncing off the rev limiter so I know when to shift.
When I cross the line in a video game race, the adrenaline levels almost match that of being in a real car. Almost.
By Kristian Gove

19 April 2010

Final Fantasy VI – Super Nintendo

I was six years old in 1994 when the game Final Fantasy VI (back then, it was Final Fantasy III in North America) was released for the Super Nintendo. We owned an SNES at home, and my brother had a copy of this game. This, of course, meant that I was not allowed to play it. Despite this, I would still sit next to him and gawk at the screen every time the game was turned on. I didn’t know why, but something about this game just grabbed my brain and would not let go.
My brother is six years older than I am, so we didn’t really have much in common. We never went to the same school together. We never experienced anything new at the same time. We lived in separate universes. He spent his time teasing me because I was his little sister, and I found plenty of ways to annoy him. When he played Final Fantasy VI though, we held a silent truce. When I look back on this time though, I think he still tried to trick me. I don’t know if he really believed this was the pronunciation, but he told me that chocobos were “chickaboos.” So for the longest time, this is what I called them. I still remember the day I realized how very wrong that was. I must admit, I felt very silly for saying something so terribly wrong.
We both liked the game for different reasons. He got to enjoy the actual gameplay, and I enjoyed seeing the chocobos and the moogles. The music was pleasing to my ears. The main protagonist, Terra, had green hair, and that was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. As time went on, I paid more attention to what was actually happening in the game. The story intrigued me, so I kept watching. When the time came for me to finally play the game on my own, I knew the storyline like the back of my hand.
The game stayed with me even when I wasn’t inside the house watching the action happen. I would go outside and play “superheroes” with my friend Eddy and I would pretend to be the girl with the green hair. I would inform him of Kefka, a major threat to the planet, and we would go fight some evil. When I was alone in my room, the thought of a moogle would keep me company. I wished Shadow’s dog, Interceptor, was my own pet. He would trust no one but me, unless Relm came along. Then we could have all been best friends.
Even though I practically memorized the game before actually playing it, it was still exciting when I first played it when it came out for the Playstation. This game filled me in on the whole reason why Final Fantasy games are so popular. The plot was well thought out, the game play was fun, and the characters had personalities. To this day, I still believe that this is the best Final Fantasy game that has been made, though I must admit that I’m thoroughly enjoying Final Fantasy XIII. I don’t need all the fancy graphics and the complex game play. Give me my turn-based fighting system and my Esper summons and I’m set for some fun times.
Both my brother and I have taken our separate paths in life. Once I went into high school, we grew apart. To this day we still aren’t very close. I’m close to graduating from college and in May I’m moving into my first apartment 400 miles away from home. The day will come though when my brother and I will reconnect. Final Fantasy VI brought us together once, and I’m sure it will have the power to bring us together again in the future.
By Heather Aug

18 April 2010

Chrono Cross – Playstation

I clearly remember the thrill of it. I had my own money, and I was buying my first video game for myself. I worked hard for this moment. I set the table for dinner, cleaned my room, and did other chores that are expected of a twelve year old. As I browsed the shelves for the perfect choice, Chrono Cross caught my eye.
Since “Chrono” was in the title, I figured it was related to the game Chrono Trigger, which was another game I loved. That fact gave me high hopes for this game, so without second-guessing my choice I brought it to the counter and paid. Little did I know that I was buying the game that would have the strongest impression on me and would still be my favorite game today.
The game starts with action and a scene that leaves the player wanting more. You learn right away how to battle and a future goal of the hero and his friends. After the sinister scene of a future murder, the player discovers that it was all a dream. The hero then awakens to his mother calling to him, exactly like how the game Chrono Trigger begins. That was also a good sign that I was in for a great gaming experience.
I fell in love with the hero, Serge, right away even though he was a silent character. The game barely began, and you were getting some of his story. A little old lady reminds you why you have a fear of cats, and you learn of a fond friendship between Serge and his childhood playmate, Leena. I absolutely hate when a gamer does not get to know the characters he/she controls for so many hours. I knew that I would befriend many intriguing characters just by talking to the villagers in the first town.
Everything about the beginning of this game made me glad I bought it. Serge’s hometown, Arni, blew my mind. The music was calming and inviting and the town itself was beautiful. I wished that I grew up in such a quaint, little place. When you go to the docks of the town, you see a vast deep blue sea that spreads over many other breathtaking sights. It made me look forward to visiting the other areas of the El Nido archipelago. I still prefer the sight of this game to the recent ones that have much better graphics. The colors were so vibrant, everything in that game was pleasing to the eyes. Even things that were meant to be ugly had a beauty to it that is hard to find in many other games. You can tell that the creators of this game cared about what the product of their time and talent would be.
I was also introduced to my favorite video game character of all time, Kid, as well. She was feisty and full of life, and added a glee to all the different situations of the game. The first time she told an enemy that she would “kick your arse so hard, you’ll kiss the moons,” I was glad she was on my team. Without Kid, this game would not be what it is. Her involvement is a big part of what makes me replay this game over and over again. I was heartbroken when the beginning scene of this game came true, and Kid was taken away from Serge and I.
The story of this game kept me interested and always wanting to know more. It was complex, and it made the player actually have to think about the events that were occurring. If a story is bad, I will not enjoy the game. I’ll suffer through it and regret wasting my time on it. With Chrono Cross, I had no regrets. The themes were deep and meaningful. The game brings up the importance of choice, and the “what ifs” that everyone wonders if they chose differently in a part of their life. The game even brings up the issues of race and prejudice. Granted it was demi humans that were suffering instead of people of different colors, but it still reminds the player of the behavior of people today. You will never get bored of this story. To this day, ten years later, I still learn something new about the plot every time I replay the game.
The game itself wasn’t enough for me. I ended up taking the soundtrack from my brother. None of the music bothered me in this game. Usually, I’ll like a few songs from the game and not really care for the others, but it was different in Chrono Cross. I listen to this soundtrack when I do homework. It helps me think straight. Even my dad found a song in this game that he loved, and he will play his bass guitar to it. He was pleased to see me playing this game during my last Spring Break when I was home. He didn’t even play the game and he still found something to enjoy about it.
I’ve played plenty of great games, but I still prefer Chrono Cross over all the others. A few weeks ago I thought that my game wasn’t working anymore, and I was genuinely upset. Turns out my PS2 is just starting to reject original Playstation games, but I can handle that. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a proper funeral for those discs when they stop working. It will be a sad day. Until then though, I will cherish every moment of the game and reluctantly buy a new copy when it does stop working.
By Heather Aug

17 April 2010

Pro Wrestling - NES

Not only do I write for this blog, but I read it too. Yes, it's true. I'm always interested in reading what others have to say about their memorable moments in video games and how they compare to my thoughts. Recently I had the pleasure of reading an essay from a buddy of mine, Victor Alvarez. I'm sure you have heard of him and quite possibly even read his work. He's quite good and has a way with words. So I woke up before work the other morning and pulled up the blog he had just written. In little time did I realize that I was the primary focus. I was shocked. In no way did I think I would be waking up to the kind words from Victor expressing his feelings towards myself and my new fiancé. I was flattered. I quickly called my girl and told her to read the blog that morning because it was about us. It really made both of our days. It also reminded me what a lucky guy I am. I have a beautiful fiancé, a daughter who is the light of my life, a loving family and great friends. What more could a guy ask for? Right after that a funny thing happened. I began to think about my life growing up. There was a time where I could never have imagined having a girlfriend, a family of my own or even talk to a girl.
You see, growing up I was the trademark overweight kid that use to get teased all the time in school. I hated school. Kids were mean, and they still are if you're not what they consider cool or popular. I was a geek. We're talking from way back to third grade until early high school. I was a chubby, quiet, glasses-wearing geek who played video games. Not only did I play video games but I loved comics, Dungeon & Dragons and anything else that you could think of that would put me on the other side of the spectrum as far as girls were concerned. I would come home from school and do my homework - I was a good student - and then I would play my video games. I had many different systems as generations changed ranging from Atari, Commodore 64, the NES and onward. Probably one of the most highly played games for myself was Pro Wrestling on the NES. Oh, I didn't tell you, I loved professional wrestling. I could never get enough of it. The problem with that was that there was never really any good games (if at all) that captured the body slamming love I had for wrestling. I don't know why I love wrestling so much but I did. A fat kid watching all these big muscular guys beating on each other and wishing I looked like any of them. Of course, one of my idols was the immortal Hulk Hogan. He was everything. I said my prayers, took my vitamins and each day I still woke up as the fat kid that people picked on. But I had my video games and that made me happy.
When I bought my NES, besides Super Mario Brothers, I ran out and bought Pro Wrestling. It was amazing. It was so life-like. There were only about five wrestlers you could choose from but each of them were unique and that was so huge for me. Each wrestler had a finishing move just like the gladiators I watched in the ring and I would make my way up the rankings for a shot for the championship belt. Man, did I play that game a lot. It even had a referee. That was unheard of for any wrestling game. The graphics were superb and it even came equipped with all of the pro wrestling rules and regulations. I do remember one of my favorite wrestlers was Starman.
Starman was the equivalent to one of today's high flying superstars. He could soar off the top rope, fly across the ring and was lightning fast. He was the man who was going to make me a champion. I remember playing for hours on end until I finally defeated King Slender for the VWA Championship of the World. What an accomplishment. I did it! But it wasn't even close to over. The game was so great that it allowed me to defend my title. I took on all takers. I was a people's champion; no one would be refused. So as I battled opponent after opponent I retained my title. I was a true champion until it happened; I had to wrestle The Great Puma. The Great Puma was the champion of the Video Wrestling Federation. This was the real deal and I wasn't about to disappoint my fans. If you have never picked up Pro Wrestling on the NES - and I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't -the Great Puma is one of the toughest bosses in quite possibly the history of NES games. I'm not kidding you. He was awful, mean and nasty. I'll be honest, I couldn't beat him straight up. I had to go for the count out. I know it's not the way of a true champion but it's the only way I could beat him; and I did it. I took him outside the ring and I pounded on him. I pounded on him just enough that he was down and then I quickly rolled back into the ring before the 10 count and got the cheap victory. Ok, for anyone who knows professional wrestling you can't win the title on a count out, but hey, it's the NES.
The bottom line is that I loved that game and that's all that mattered to me. Looking back, at that time and long after I never dreamed I would find a girl who would ever be interested in me. Why would they? I was the walking definition of any geek in any 80s movie trying to build their own girl because they couldn't get one. It looked like it was me and my video games forever, but you know what? Things change. Boy, do they change. Everything I thought was going to be reality couldn't have been farther from the truth. I found one of the most beautiful girls ever and she loves me. I questioned her thought process on this but she said she was serious so who was I to argue. I'm 6'4" tall, about 250lbs and ironically no one picks on me anymore. Maybe saying my prayers and taking my vitamins paid off? Either way, I'm one of the happiest guys in the world. I'm still a geek and that will never change but it's funny to look back on how things were and how they are today. So did I really need Victor to write a blog about me to remind me how lucky of a guy I was? No, not even close. But it did give me a great excuse to write about a game that I loved growing up and a girl who I love even more.
By Stephen O'Blenis

16 April 2010

Shaq Fu - SNES, Genesis

There are video games and then there are VIDEO GAMES. Some of them just transcend an entire generation of gamers. Street Fighter is one of those titles. For some reason people flock to it as if it were the Holy Grail of fighting games. On the other side of the coin though sits a little gem known as Shaq Fu. While all the cool kids were over hanging out at the arcade showing off their Street Fighter skills, I was kicking anyone’s ass who would throw down with me in Shaq Fu.
Yes, Shaq Fu is a classic. It maintains a special place in my heart because I never saw the lore of Street Fighter, but Shaq was a different story. I loved the way the man played his chosen profession of basketball (since his days at LSU) and the way he capitalized on this to pursue his other passions. I think he gets a bad rap for milking things, but really, he has such genuine enthusiasm for everything he does. I’ll watch his movies, listen to his music, he even introduced me to one of the greatest culinary advancements during my lifetime – The Double Decker Taco (seriously, has there been a better food invention in the past 20 years?!). So the least I could do was check out his video game. And it wasn’t bad.
I may take some heat for this, but my main takeaway from Street Fighter is the d-pad/joystick + button combos, and, you know what, Shaq Fu has them too! That was enough for me. I’m all for the underdog. I was in college when Shaq Fu came out so there was always non-stop gaming going on in our dorm. The Shaq Fu challenge
consumed months of ‘study’ time for us.
It was absolute fun and Shaq was a character everyone either loved or hated. Some of his in-game adversaries were a bit strange but at the end of the day they all packed a little something special so you could easily have a favorite. And the thing was the game was easy to pick up and play and with a little time you could find some
glitches to exploit and strategies to use.
So when I was thinking about what games really made an impression on me, about what I’ve personally played and its impact, Shaq Fu was one of the first to come to mind. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it was an iconic game for me. Prior to that only a few fighting games really stood out (like Killer Instinct) but due to time and circumstances Shaq Fu happened when there were always lots of people around and when there was nothing we’d rather be doing (for the most part). And I know my fellow floor mates all felt the same way.
What does this really say about the game? Not too much I suppose. But it definitely proves that regardless of how technically good a game may be, it can still be an absolute blast – in those days it came down to how much fun can you make it. Shaq Fu was the ultimate in cashing in by wrapping a persona around an established gameplay mechanics but for me, it was something more. It occupied months in my SNES and great memories and, at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing in the world. Long live Shaq Fu!
By Rob Fleischer

15 April 2010

Super Star Wars – SNES

My favorite holiday has to be Christmas. I just love the feeling of the season, the lights, the music and just being together as family. When I was younger I would always find a new video game and a big box of Swedish fish for myself under the tree. It was so exciting. It was a time where we would open all our presents and I would search for that special shaped box and would just tear into it. I usually asked for a specific game for Christmas and the anticipation of that morning would kill me. It seemed like forever and as far as I was concerned Christmas Eve was the longest day ever. One of the things that made it a special day was that I knew after our big dinner all my friends would come over to my house and we would play for hours on end. It was a tradition. My house always seemed to be the place everyone wanted to hang out. It was just a fun and relaxing place. My friends loved my parents and my parents didn't mind everyone piling over during the holiday. It just made the day even better with a household full of people.
There is one specific Christmas that I remember very well. It was 1992 and I asked for Super Star Wars for my Super Nintendo. At the time, this was a highly anticipated title for the system and for myself. I really wanted this game. The thing you have to realize is that I was a geek and I loved games; ok, I still am so when I asked for Super Star Wars for Christmas I had really hopes that I would wake up Christmas morning and have the opportunity to begin my Jedi training. My parents would always tease me and tell me that they didn't know if I would get the game or maybe they couldn't find it just to push me over the edge. That was just wrong and I didn't find it funny but it just made Christmas morning even more exciting when I finally found the package under the tree. I tore open the wrapping paper as my eyes opened wide and I just stared at that black box with Luke, Han and Leia on the cover. It felt like I waited forever for this moment. I couldn't wait to run to my room and pop it in the system and fire it up but before I did that I had to find my box of Swedish fish. Traditionally I would find it in my stocking but sometimes I would score the really big box and it would be wrapped somewhere underneath the tree.
Then the time came when I finally got to go to my room and play. Wow. The game was amazing; it was everything I expected. This was the first time that you were able to play as Luke, Han and even Chewy. You couldn't do this in any other Star Wars game so this was something special. Oh, and if you haven't figured it out I'm a huge Star Wars fan so it didn't get much better than this. I had to foil the plans of an evil empire and that was exactly what I was going to do. Normally I would last about an hour if I was lucky before I picked up the phone and called my friends and tell them that I got the game. The graphics, the sound, the characters - it was everything straight from my favorite movie and I couldn't wait to share it with everyone. When I called my friends, the first thing I would ask is what time were they coming by because I knew we would be playing late into the night.
Even now I still remember jumping around as Luke Skywalker on a huge sandcrawler and working my way to the top in hopes to find C3P0 and R2D2. These were the droids I was looking for! I started out with my blaster taking Jawas out along the way leaping from conveyor belt to conveyor. It was a while before I could finally use my lightsaber and that's when things really picked up. Nothing was cooler than doing somersaults in the air with my lightsaber and landing on a helpless Jawa. Impressive, most impressive. I played this game for hours and I enjoyed every minute of it. It took some time to make my way to certain points in the game that allowed me to play as the other characters. I have to be honest, I couldn't wait to play as Chewbacca. This was the first game that ever allowed you to play as the famous Wookie and I wanted to shoot his crossbow more than anything. When I finally made it to the cantina in Mos Eisley my dream finally came true. I was Chewbecca. He may have been slower than Luke and Han but he was big and he meant business. His crossbow was awesome. I made my way threw the cantina letting out the occasional howl as I made my way to the Falcon before the Empire found me. She was the fastest ship in the galaxy, ever heard of her?
By this time my friends had finally showed up and we piled on my bed and began to play. We past the controller around so everyone had a chance to experience the goodness but it was really hard to give up your turn. This game was awesome but as unfortunate as it was not to be able to play it gave us the opportunity to head out to the kitchen to the candy dish and grab a handful of Swedish fish. Then we rushed back to the bedroom to make sure we didn't miss anything during the game and that we didn't drop and fish along the way. This is what gaming was all about. Old school gaming that raised the bar of video games to something that had never been experienced before. I loved it and when it was time for my friends to leave I stayed up and continued playing by myself. It was a perfect day.
Time really goes by so fast. I remember this day so well it really seems like it was yesterday but unfortunately that isn't true. I'm 36 years old now and I have a beautiful 8 year old daughter who makes Christmas a whole new experience for me. Those were the times that I look back on and remember how easy life seemed to be. Christmas was a special time in my house - and still is today. It wasn't because of the gifts or the food but because of the fond memories of my friends and family and how we all treated each other. It was a great way to grow up. Christmas is different now that I have my daughter and it's special in a whole new way but the funny thing is that even now when I look under the tree I find a video game and a box of Swedish fish. Thanks, mom and dad.
By Stephen O'Blenis

14 April 2010

Chrono Trigger - SNES

There’s been at least a couple of times in this blog I’ve written about a guy named Joe Q. The “Q” is short for Quattrucci and “Joe” is short for Joseph. Among those who know Joe, almost any would agree that he can be loud and like most of us, occasionally obnoxious.
He’s also a complete and total, one-in-a-million kind of character. I’ll put it this way: A lot of people out there know Jamie Silva, a Riverside native who took the Townie football team to a state championship before having a fantastic athletic career at Boston College. Today, he plays for the Indianapolis Colts. I never knew Jamie that well, we played on a couple youth sports teams together when we were young, but I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him and from all reports he is one of the most revered Townies in recent memory.
Before he played in The Super Bowl, however, Jamie was Prom King runner-up his senior year of high school. The winner? Joe Q.
More important than any of this, however, Joe Q is one of the most loyal people you will ever meet and one of the best friends a guy like me could ever ask for. We first met when I was 12 or 13, I don’t remember, but I was young. His grandmother (the late, famous and absolutely fantastic ‘Mamar’) and aunt had moved in next door to us a few months earlier.
For a couple days a week, Joe Q would spend the afternoons at his grandma’s until his mom picked him up from work. We both liked basketball and video games. We also both liked Little Caesar’s pizza.
We hit it off instantly.
For the remainder of my adolescent years there were few people, if any, I was closer to than Joe Q. Though he would only come by the neighborhood a couple times a week during the school year, he was around every day in the summer, long before either of us had jobs or other responsibilities. We played plenty of basketball down at “The Gully,” and we went to two national duckpin bowling championships together, coming in second one year as a doubles team.
For the record, Joe Q was a much, much better bowler than I.
Between all of this, we played a lot of Chrono Trigger. For those who don’t know, Chrono Trigger was an RPG released for Super Nintendo in the late 90s. The game has since developed an extremely devout cult following due in no small part to the fact it was incredibly well made. Just think about this: Chrono Trigger was a SNES game that had more than 10 different endings.
Fallout 3 can’t even say that.
I can’t tell you how many times Joe Q and I beat the game together. I don’t think we saw every ending, but we saw a whole lot of ‘em. We would spend hours going through the game time and time again, drinking Fresca and laughing about a whole series of inside jokes that wouldn’t make sense to anyone except us no matter how I tried explaining it. (If Joe Q happens to be reading this though, I have one word – Frog.)
Anyway, around our freshmen years of college, Joe Q and I had a brief falling out over the stupidest thing in the world (a girl) but that’s long behind both of us. Nowadays, I see Joe Q once in a blue moon, usually stopping by next door (his mom and his aunt live there now, two wonderful people who are good friends to my entire family) or at the occasional function, like a graduation party.
Maybe it’s odd, maybe it’s not, but it’s never awkward to see Joe Q. I think when you spend the kind of time together at the ages we were, it doesn’t matter how long you go without seeing each other, you pick up where you left off. Like riding a bike or something.
Whenever we do see each other, we go over work schedules and try a find a day we could get together for a drink. We usually leave things with an “I’ll call you Wednesday” or “Next week looks good,” then Wednesday or next week comes and the phone doesn’t ring on either end because there are jobs and girlfriends and all the other things that make adult-life different from childhood.
I may not see Joe Q as much as most other people in my life, but he’s a great guy and I know that no matter what type of path this life leads me down, there will always be those days every so often where me and my old friend get to kick back for a few minutes and remember kicking the crap out of Lavos with Luminaire.
By George Morse

13 April 2010

House of the Dead 2 - WII

Stone Cold Steve O'Blenis is everything you could want in a friend.
Big enough to handle himself if we get into a bar fight.
He's a good guy trying to make his way in the world while raising a great daughter and trying his best to enjoy the things he enjoyed as a child: Star Wars, professional wrestling, sports and video games. It's no surprise he and I became fast friends when we worked together at the same newspaper more than 10 years ago. Back then he had a fiance and I had a rotating door situation with women, which is to say I had nothing and no one. The fiance became a wife who became an ex-wife. Out of this relationship he got a fine daughter and a clear head. He spent the next few years of his life working hard, getting to know his little girl and, I believe, getting to know himself again. And at the right time, when he least expected it, a girl named Diane walked into his life.
I met Diane one night and liked her immediately. She's a good girl with a good heart who isn't afraid to be generous and caring to anyone. She's like Steve: Honest, solid, and extremely good looking. (She really is. Steve aint so bad himself.)
So I was relieved when he said he was going to marry her. Part of me thought the big guy got burned too bad to go back. It happens. But he's a strong dude and she's the right woman and I couldn't be happier for him.
And this is what we talk about these days when we finally carve out some time for cocktails at the local pizza joint down the street. Last night we celebrated his upcoming marriage and did a few shots of tequila. We ended the night by watching the Hulk Hogan scene in Rocky III and then blasting some zombies in House of the Dead 2. For all the press the Wii gets for being a party games machine, few of my friends are interested in anything more than bowling or light gun games. Bowling is good enough to warrant buying the system in the first place. When you play, you might as well be in a bowling alley. You've got beers and a couch and everyone gets up and takes their turn and then cheers for the next guy. It's social.
Demented and said, but social. (With apologies to John Hughes.)
House of the Dead 2 - and all quality light gun games for that matter - offer the perfect mindless backdrop for two grown men to talk about their love of certain women and Hulk Hogan. The zombies keep coming - if you're good enough, because the game is hard - and the violence and story are so ridiculous that you feel compelled to either shout at the screen or lay back and ignore it while you discuss something important.
And that's just what we did.
Big Steve and I may not get as many Monday night play dates as we do now once he gets married, but I know I'll cherish them all just the same.
Good luck, brother.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

12 April 2010

Jet Set Radio - Xbox

In Jonathan Franzen's collection of essays, "How to be Alone," the author who gained fame for shunning Oprah with his superb novel "The Corrections" talks a lot less about being alone than his titles suggests. I already knew how to be alone, but I figured a collection of essays on the subject would be a good read anyway. Plus, I dug the his other work.
He touches on the sex-advice industry and supermax prisons, among other things. When I read this collection I was A) not alone; B) doing just fine sexually, thank you; and C) not doing anything that would land me in a supermax prison. (Regular prison, maybe.)
It was 2002 and my wife (then girlfriend) and I were living in Philadelphia. We moved there from Baltimore after a brief and passionate courtship so she could pursue graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I left behind a profitable gig tending bar, my family and most of my friends. I was in love and feared nothing. I assumed I'd find a decent bar job quickly.
That didn't happen.
The first gig I found was at an Outback Steakhouse knock-off where they train you for every front-of-the-house position before they let you behind the bar. It was the worst 3 weeks of my life. I wore a uniform and was trained by a nice kid whose mom picked him up every day. The food was lousy, the atmosphere disgusting and the cleanliness was questionable. I once worked a joint in Baltimore where every cook behind the line was on work release from prison. Those guys were spotless and worked hard. These hacks in Philly sent plates out of the kitchen with bugs in the rice and burned the bacon nearly every time.
Meanwhile, my wife spent her days walking the halls of knowledge in one of the world's greatest cities. She worked hard and made friends. An academic at heart, she loved it.
I struggled.
With $18 in tip money in my pocket I would hit the cheapest dive bar I could find for a few drafts before coming home, defeated. Annie was often asleep by the time I got in the door. I would either read or play a game on the Xbox. When I read, it was Franzen's collection of essays. Despite the love I had for my wife, I felt as alone as ever. Franzen offered nothing.
The Xbox, on the other hand, was just the mind-candy I needed to forget about the fact that I was a grown man with a writing career behind him who was currently upselling diners on fried onion appetizers in the world's worst chain restaurant.
This is when I turned to Jet Set Radio. Imagine a cell-shaded city in the future where odd-looking characters on Rollerblades tear through the landscape spreading counter-propaganda and graffiti of their own design. The game was beautifully rendered – the world it conjured as unique as Blade Runner and as imaginative as Oz. Easy to play, hard to master (the hallmark of gaming greatness) Jet Set Radio took me out of the hellhole for long enough for me to remember I was not defined by the place that issued me a paycheck. I was a young man in love who had the opportunity to write freely, meet new people and explore a new city. I eventually did all of those things, and have come to look back on my time in Philadelphia as a second college experience of learning and good times. (It helped that I soon got a better job in a better bar.)
Most of the entries in this blog are of fond memories of the good times in our lives and the games that helped to shape them. Jet Set Radio was a fine game that came to me in a terrible time. When I play it now, I remember everything I gave up in that time and all the wonderful blessings I've received since.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

11 April 2010

Super Mario Brothers - NES

When my brother was in high school, I would wake up to the vibrations of his stereo, pushed up against the wall between our rooms, pounding up against the sheetrock. It would be about 6 a.m., and I couldn’t quite discern the lyrics at that hour, but I didn’t have to. I knew it would be Motley Crue’s Shout At the Devil, on regular rotation. His room was the opposite of my peach, lacy bubble, with its white, imitation-French dresser and mirror. He had a small collection of vinyl, but it had the essentials – Kiss - Detroyer, Police - Zenyattà Mondatta, Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast. This modest collection was pushed up against a glass cage holding a white rat, which I still can’t believe he got past my mother. The room smelled like boy, and rodents. The walls were still bright red, but he got rid of the Star Wars curtains and bedspread a few years back, the ones I loved to stare at while he read me Arnold Lobel. I was too old for read alouds, but I still liked marching in and flopping down on his bed. Now I just sat there, wearing his huge Police concert T-shirt, memorizing song lyrics and gawking at his weird, teenage boy-artifacts – a plastic skull that glowed in the dark, a collection of bandanas, a stolen traffic light – until he kicked me out. My new favorite activity was forcing him to look at my latest issue of YM, and to tell me which girls he thought were the prettiest. I found this beyond fascinating. The girls he picked never matched up with my choices, and the huge chasm between the male and female psyche grew ever-larger. I later aborted this mission, going back to reading Nancy Drew where the world made sense. I thought we had a good thing going until one day, he just up and moved into the basement. He was no longer a wall away, but in a whole grown-up apartment downstairs, now with a double bed, a better stereo system out of my listening range, and a separate entrance to get girls in. By now he had run away from home once, graduated high school, and been in a fist fight with my father. He was away more, and I was invited in less.
Then I found my in. My brother needed an opponent to play with him on his new Nintendo system, where he introduced me to Super Mario Bros. At first I was psyched just to be there, to get some spy time in the man-lair. I grew up with an Atari, and loved swinging on a vine over a pit of crocodiles just as much as the next kid on my block. But this was different. More and more often, my fingers would itch for the control, for that satisfying crunch of bricks, and the magical trill of notes as I expanded from a flickering rainbow flower. I could now speed through the secret passages to advanced worlds, and slide under twirling bars of fire with ease. I could even make it through those evil spiky cloud-things that followed you everywhere, like an annoying little sister. It was perfect timing for me to learn how to beat this thing. It was summertime, and I was past the age of playing outside all day with my pals. The boy who had been my best friend since birth, who lived right across the street, didn’t want to hang out with me much any more. Not even for wiffle ball. Wearing “sulky” became my new fashion statement. The perfect retreat was my brother’s dark, cool basement apartment, the best place to hide from the heat and my adolescent boredom. He worked all day for some auto-part cleaning company, and I had long, quiet days to myself. I spent way too much time down there that summer, just me against the dragon. I saved the princess dozens of times. Eventually my brother moved out, taking Super Mario with him, and I made my own claims on the basement. I threw my first boy-girl party. I had my first open-mouth kiss in its cool dark, and years later, was consciously bored during make-out sessions on the old couch my brother had left behind.
During a recent trip down into a grown-up pal’s man-lair, surrounded by Spider-man posters and action figures, my friend Victor stuck a NES controller in my hand. I have continually resisted his temptations, riding high on my preachy-horse about the mindless violence of video games. I spend my days trying to get kids to read and lecturing them to tear their eyes away from various blinking screens. He knew I had a few glasses of Shiraz, and a belly full of chicken wings. I was weak. He said, “You know you want to.” As soon as he started it up, I didn’t have to think about what was coming around each corner. I knew instinctively what blocks to bash, and how far back I would have to start running to leap safely over a gap in Mario-world. Victor and my husband were staring at me with their mouths half-open, as I plowed through the tunnels, bopping and slamming those little turtle things and using them as bowling balls against my enemies. The automatic movement of my fingers brought to my nose the smell of my old wet, basement, and I half expected my brother to reach over and give me the deadly “collar,” halfway through the game. My initial thought was that it is disturbing that there is room being taken up in my brain for the reserve of these game-playing reflexes, space that could very well be occupied by much more important information, or a more significant experience or lesson from my youth. I then realized, it was playing this game, feeling rejected by the various boys in my life, I first chucked aside my fashion magazine and saved a princess instead. Lesson learned. I strutted out of the basement after pulverizing my husband at the game. “That was hot,” he said.
By Megan Southard

10 April 2010

100 Essays in 100 Days

This is the 100th post to the Phoenix Games Blog Project. What began as an exercise in discipline - post one gaming essay every day for a year - has become a devotion to the subject of people and the games they play; our fond memories of the seemingly benign video games in our lives.
Some of these posts - by myself and a small crew of writers - are beautiful. Some are the grinding of gears.
Looking back now, I'm glad the quality of these 100 essays is largely excellent and I am forever grateful to the folks who have helped to make this happen (especially the Pride of Riverside: George Morse).
Tonight I will celebrate with my wife and another couple. No one at the table (save for myself) would call themselves a gamer. I think each of them would call their relationship with video games to be marginal at best.
I would disagree. To wit:
Megan is a close friend of mine. I've known her for longer than I've known my wife and longer than she's known her husband. I respect her in every way you can respect another human being. She is funny and smart and beautiful. And when she has a few glasses of wine and the party here is breaking up, she's pretty keen on coming down to the basement and playing some video games. I've talked her into playing Rock Band and Wii bowling, but she's a Super Mario girl at heart. I was impressed with how quickly she remembered the patterns and secret passages on the NES classic. The last time we played it she had a blast and swore she would write a blog entry for me. It hasn't happened. If someone polled her on the street and asked her if she played games I bet she would say no.
But does she have fond memories that exist because of gaming?
Her husband, Jack, is an engineering type who owns a high-end bicycle shop on the East Side of Providence (www.legendbicycle.com). I've liked him since the day we met, well before he and Megan got married. The two of them fell in love at our home. Not exclusively, of course, but their courtship dovetailed with a variety of parties and dinners held here up to the point when Jack proposed to Megan on the way to our home one evening. She said yes and we drank champagne. On any one of those evenings we likely wound up in the basement, playing Warlords or some other old-school title to offset Jack's self-proclaimed ineptitude at games. He may not be a gaming champion, but he likes to play. And now he knows that his wife was a Mario junkie in the 80s. A fact that should not be kept from any husband.
And then there is my wife … my long-suffering wife. She's not a gamer. Not even close. In the near-decade I've known her we've played games maybe a half-dozen times. She claims she has a problem with depth perception or something but the truth is she just doesnt enjoy it. That's fine. No problem.
You know what one of the first things she told me about her youngest brother was?
That he owned an Xbox. We were walking in the woods on our second date and talking about our families. I told her I also had an Xbox and that he and I could link up and play together over the Internet. She thought that was cool. (She was wrong, by the way, he had a Gamecube.)
Then she told me a story about her other brother who wanted a Sega Genesis more than anything in the world back in the 16-bit days. Her parents believed any sort of media other than books or newspapers was evil so they refused to buy one for him. Not long after they ruled on this he actually won a Sega Genesis in a TV prize drawing. The first game he ever played was Altered Beast.
"I can still remember the game talking to you," she said.
"Rise from your grave!" she said.
Yup. That's a fond gaming memory.
Gaming has been in the homes of Americans since the early 1970s. We all have memories that involve video games. Whether we know it or not, these games that were once distractions have become a part of all of our lives. Some of these memories are trivial and some are as precious to us as the first time we heard a rock and roll song. On this blog we've got 265 more to go.
Thanks for coming along with us.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

Scorched Earth - PC

Brian was a genius. Still is, probably. I haven't seen him in a decade (we're not the kind of guys who call each other every Sunday afternoon to chat)
Through the magic of Facebook and the rare e-mail I hear he is alive and well.
A self-taught computer programmer who grew up in the Commodore 64 era, Brian was the kind of guy who could question anything and not come off as a know-it-all. We'd see a news item or documentary on TV and he'd say something such as "That doesn't seem right," and then explain why it wasn't. A new technology would emerge and he'd talk about how it probably worked - and he was usually right. I always thought he'd make a fine newspaper reporter, but he wasn't interested in the career path I had chosen.
Brian and I were friends in the middle of my college years. We were the only guys with real jobs at the time. He programmed computers and I was a copy boy at the Baltimore Sun. Maybe that's why we hit it off so quickly, or maybe it was because he looked so much like Michael Knight's evil twin from "Knight Rider" that I just had to get to know him.
Either way, Brian and I spent many an evening - especially during periods without girlfriends - shooting the breeze over late night cocktails. As a backdrop for these conversations, a video game was always being played. Most often that video game was an early PC classic called Scorched Earth. Developed back when DOS was still relevant, Scorched Earth was a turn-based strategy game featuring a tank on either side of a randomly-generated 2D map. The variety of weapons at your disposal was staggering but the interface was simple: Adjust your speed and altitude for one shot at a time. Then wait for your opponent to do the same. Scorched Earth is the archetype for an entire genre of games that has become more sophisticated since Brian and I stayed up until the wee hours discussing politics, health care, foreign policy and girls.
Of course, Brian was far superior at the game than I. This was also true for most of our other nerdly pursuits: Magic The Gathering, anything on Sega Genesis, arcade games. Having a friend such as Brian is humbling. You know he's smarter than you are and you know he has the mad skills in the dork Olympics that you'll never have. Yet he's still willing to hang out with you. Maybe that's the reason. It's like dating a chick out of your league. You know she could do better, she knows she could do better, but something about your charming self keeps her coming back.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

08 April 2010

Cruisin' USA - N64

Like most kids who grow up in Riverside, Rhode Island, my family wasn’t what you would call “wealthy” during my childhood years. We weren’t poor, I never went hungry or had to wear dirty clothes and I always had fantastic Christmas holidays and birthdays, but money was tight and my parents did well to teach us the value of a dollar.
In 1989, we moved out of a three-decker on Bullocks Point Avenue (next to an empty lot formerly home to Barry’s Pizza) to a spot on the Barrington/Riverside line near Haines Park where we’ve been ever since. Our new home was a small place that like most Riverside homes still had the feeling of a summertime beach house. I was five-years-old at the time and for the first few years, me and my sister shared a room. We were young, we had bunk beds and though we didn’t have a lot of room, the whole family had plenty of fun in our little house near the bike path.
About the time I hit fourth grade, the old bedroom went to my sister and my “bedroom” became a room on the front of the house that had been converted from a porch years earlier. There was a doorway about three-feet wide between my room and the living room and I didn’t have space for anything more than the bottom half of the old bunk bed set and a cabinet-style TV from the 1970s.
I may not have needed it at the time, but privacy was a luxury I would have to go without. At least until I was 14.
I don’t remember where the idea first came from, but sometime before the summer of ‘98 I approached my parents about building a room in the basement. Unlike most of my childhood requests that came with answers like “Maybe” and “We’ll See,” my parents signed off on the deal almost immediately and within a month a contractor we knew through Little League was hard at work putting together my room in the basement.
And let me tell you, it was awesome. Until my senior year of high school, the basement became my own kind of mini-apartment. By the time we threw a second floor onto the house my senior year of high school, my basement room was covered in posters reminiscent of my entire youth, I had worn out my stereo from blasting so much loud music and I had even found a spot for my dad’s old Penguin mini-fridge.
At first, however, all I had for the gigantic room was the old cabinet TV and the bottom half of the old bunk beds. Not that it mattered. I had more privacy than ever before (something that becomes an increasingly big deal through those adolescent years) and I also had my trusty N64 complete with a copy of Cruisin’ USA.
If you happened to miss the Cruisin’ USA boat, the title is a classic racing game more cartoonish than realistic. It features easy to play mechanics with a surprising amount of difficulty on some of the more challenging courses.
Being 14, having a room in the basement, it was also the perfect game to mute while opening up my speakers to Metallica and the Smashing Pumpkins. At an age when so many of us just want to be left alone, I had a miniature universe all to myself.
Today, I still live at home and I have a great room on the front side of our house. I have a decent view of the bike path and plenty of clear shots into my neighbors homes for that “Rear Window” kind of voyeur inside all of us. Since I moved on up, the basement has been turned into an office. The ceiling that used to seem so high is only a few inches above my head.
I’ve never really been into racing games since that first summer, probably because I played Cruisin’ USA until my eyes bled but no matter how many years have passed, it’s hard not to get that feeling of being 14 whenever I venture down there.
By George Morse

07 April 2010

Track and Field - NES

Since it was first announced more than three years ago, the Nintendo Wii’s central selling point has remained its interactive nature. We’ve seen Wii Fit and snowboarding games with nifty looking peripherals and pilates games and a whole other series of stuff that takes gaming off the couch.
But the notion that this whole thing was some sort of new technology befuddled me. After all, when I first heard about the Wii, my mind instantly traveled to a simpler time when I didn’t work or drive. To me, the whole concept seemed cheap and under-handed.
Why? Because of Track and Field of the NES. Long before video game controllers had joy sticks and motion sensors, there was a gray mat covered in blue and red dots that allowed gamers to run sprint races and jump hurdles. There was even a long jump portion that, despite my sincerest efforts, couldn’t be tricked by my jumping onto a nearby chair.
The graphics were what you would expect from a NES title and the game was repetitive, but it was Nintendo Wii 25 years before Nintendo Wii. It even had some of the Wii’s corniness (like that dumb music in the Wii bowling alley) by way of competitors whose names mirrored difficulties.
Yes, the game may not have had the level of interaction we see from today’s Wii titles, but that little gray mat could sure take a beating and I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could get through the varying degrees of difficulty with each stage.
Today, my Nintendo Wii gets turned on about once every couple months. I like the system, I just don’t like jumping up and down alone in my bedroom when I can avoid it. When I had Track and Field, however, I never let up on the thing. Maybe it was the novelty that came with the game’s mat, maybe the title was just well done.
In either case, I’m still waiting for my Wii to give me the enjoyment I got from a much simpler game from a much simpler time.
By George Morse

06 April 2010

Madden 2002 - Gamecube

My father-in-law is not a physically intimidating man. He is thin and fit, does Yoga and swims in the ocean whenever possible. It is his mind, however, that you have to fear. He's a smart DC lawyer with a ravenous appetite for newspapers and political debate. I knew all of this before I ever met him. I knew that he hung around with guys like Ralph Nader. I knew he worked with Teamsters. I knew a phone call from him could have someone trembling in minutes.
So I was thinking about all of this as my wife (then girlfriend) and I drove to his house so I could meet him for the first time. It was a beautiful afternoon and I was assured I had nothing to worry about. We met and pleasantries were exchanged. Things were, however, a bit chaotic. It's not what I was used to. If my parents are having people over for a meal they start planning a few weeks in advance. The table is set at the crack of dawn. Refreshments are stocked to the rafters. Double the amount of food necessary is made and served in appropriate vessels.
My father-in-law, on the other hand, is a seat of the pants kind of guy. So when we arrived for our fajita lunch in the back yard nothing was ready. My wife sprung to action and began mixing salsa and peeling avocados. This gave me one of my first misconceptions about my wife: That she likes to cook. She says she does.
She doesn't.
But she made it happen that afternoon. I helped with peeling things and doing some dishes. To my horror I realized the switch for the garbage disposal was installed in front of the sink at crotch level. All I had to do was lean forward and the machine would spring to life and rip one of my hands off. Meanwhile, her father was peppering me with questions about politics and newspapers. I had given up journalism at the time and was tending bar. This did not dissuade him from asking me a few hundred questions in rapid fire succession that were all designed to answer the only question that really mattered to him: Are you a Democrat or not?
My wife's youngest brother, Michael, proved to be wise beyond his 13 years. He saw I was sweating it out - I'm not sure if it was the politics or the fear of a crotch-induced garbage disposal accident that was making me sweat. Either way, he motioned to the TV in the corner of the living room where a Nintendo Gamecube beckoned like a life raft on a stormy sea. I slipped out of the kitchen and sat down on the floor.
He fired up Madden 2002, a game I had never played and was sure to fail. He picked the Redskins. I picked the Ravens. His father played some Greatful Dead and I threw up a little bit in my mouth but said nothing.
The game was on. While we played Michael told me he liked to compare his dad to the Eugene Levy character from "American Pie."
"Keep it real homies," Michael said, and I laughed like an idiot. Tension was being released. Somewhere in the house my wife was chopping fajita vegetables while her father was happily burning boneless, skinless chicken breasts on the grill outside. We kept playing. Madden is a tough game to pick up and play but I managed to get by. It's a perfect game to bond over with a future brother-in-law because there's no gun violence or foul language, just the accepted violence of football and the horrible color commentary.
My father-in-law and I have grown close in the years since that first meeting. We talk politics and cook together. He's a great guy. But I will always be thankful for the rescue efforts of my man Michael and the mindless distraction of video games when faced with an awkward situation.
I won the game and refused to ever play him again to maintain my spotless record.
We went outside in time to see my father-in-law cleaning lawn chairs with an old bottle of 409 and some paper towels.
"He's keeping it real," Michael said.
He sure was.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

05 April 2010

Crackdown - Xbox 360

This was the game I was playing the first time my Xbox 360 died. We were having our living room painted at the time and everything was covered in sheets and tarps. All the lamps had been removed and the only light source in the evening was the painter's industrial flashlight. I hung it on a ladder and we read or socialized in our vacant room by the harsh light of labor. It was in the room where I played Crackdown for hours on end. I found the missions and driving pretty pedestrian, but climbing the city in search of new orbs was intoxicating. It's the kind of game you play like a bastard when you first get it and then never play again once the initial high wears off.
I'd like to thank the good people at Microsoft for making sure that high was harshed prematurely. My Xbox 360 red-ringed on me in the middle of playing Crackdown. It was also a day before my wife and I were to treat ourselves to a weekend in Newport. I went through the agony of dealing with customer service and waiting for my box to arrive only to put the bricked console in it and hope for a safe return.
Then we went to Newport and got into a fight our first night there. Then we had a fine morning and a better evening and I had a T-bone steak the size of a toilet seat.
All was right with the world.
When I came home I gave the steak bone to the dog and marveled at the fine job done by the painter.
As I write this I can see Crackdown out of the corner of my eye. It sits on my recently-alphabetized Xbox 360 game shelf. It is sandwiched between The Club and Dante's Inferno - both games that give an initial buzz but wear thin quickly.
Although, I never did get all of those orbs . . .
By Victor Paul Alvarez

04 April 2010

Ninjatown - Nintendo DS

I went to my first gaming convention last weekend. It was PAX East in Boston and I met some nice folks, played great games and spent too much on food and cocktails. I had a blast and am looking forward to my next convention. While I was there I met a lot of industry folks I know but have never met in person. All my gaming coverage for the newspaper stems from e-mailing contacts all over the world (though mostly on the West Coast). There are probably 100 people I speak to via e-mail frequently but couldn't pick out of a lineup. I met a few of them in Boston and made some new contacts as well. The one guy I was most looking forward to meeting was Rob from Sandbox Strategies. Rob's a Rhode Island guy working in New York. He's a family man and a gamer of a certain age (that age would be close to mine). This all means he's a fan of games, a real fan. He can talk about the classics as easily as the newer titles and he takes none of it too seriously.
We had dinner and talked about our mutual passion and the one game he kept mentioning was something called Ninjatown for the DS.
Ninjatown is a tower defense game published by SouthPeak Interactive. It has a cute and fuzzy exterior that belies the serious game hiding beneath. There are sunny skies, lush forest and rolling hills in the land of Ninjatown where adorable and honorable Ninjas live. After the mysterious eruption of a nearby volcano, Ninjatown is attacked by hordes of sinister enemies lead by Mr. Demon, who, of course, is bent on destruction.
In a classic yet inventive take on the genre you will build armies to beat back the large variety of Mr. Demon's minions. I'm not keen on blowing into the microphone of my snazzy DSiXL (it's a loaner from Nintendo) but I did so with abandon when prompted to by the game. I also yelled into the microphone to activate a special attack, something I find hard to explain to my wife who already thinks I'm a little crackers when it comes to the whole gaming thing.
Fans of the tower defense genre should absolutely be playing this game right now. Despite great reviews this sleeper title wasn't on the lips of anyone I was talking to at the convention.
Except for Rob, that is.
There were plenty of other games he could have been trying to sell me on that night but he kept coming back to Ninjatown. It is by far my best memory of the weekend – talking shop with a guy who cares – and it's currently the only game I want to be playing. Seeing how I have yet to defeat God of War II or Just Cause II, that's saying something.
There's another game Rob mentioned a lot over the weekend, and that game is Shaq Fu for the Sega Genesis. He claims he's going to write a blog entry about it for me soon.
Well Rob, the clock is ticking . . .
By Victor Paul Alvarez

03 April 2010

Ice Hockey - Atari 2600

This blog began 93 days ago when I decided to spend a year defining the canon of console gaming. I was to post one essay every day about one of the greatest games of all time. I soon realized that, despite a few exceptions, greatness in gaming is defined as much by the experience the gamer has with the game as it is the qualities of the game itself. The blog has become a daily reminiscence on gaming from a few authors, all from different places in the world, but mostly it's been George Morse and I cranking them out. George is my reporter at the newspaper. In this business we often say things such as "he's my reporter" or "she's my photographer." By saying "my" I certainly don't mean that I own George or that he exists to do my bidding. He gets that. Most people get that. (Except newspaper photographers, who can be a prickly bunch.)
What George has certainly become is my friend.
Now more than ever I have less certainty about the future of the newspaper business and my role in it. But I know this young punk from Riverside with a good heart and head will always be a friend of my family. He knows my kids, has watched our pets and impressed my wife with his intelligence and charm (a serious accomplishment).
And there was a time before life got complicated for the two of us that we used to play video games together nearly once a week. We eventually settled into a routine of either Gears of War or No Mercy (N64). But in the early days when he was still my reporter and not yet my friend, I took great pleasure in whipping up on him in Atari games such as Activision's Ice Hockey. It's probably the best sports game for the Atari 2600 - and still one of the most fun sports games ever made. It's two-on-two hockey on a crisp rink with colorful characters. Unlike many early sports games the precision on this primitive title is excellent. Passing is effortless as is the transition from one of your players to the other. Control is perfect and, despite a decent computer opponent, playing against another human being is a blast.
Especially when that opponent is George.
I would eventually discover that George is a better gamer than I. He has beaten me at most games, but he routinely hammers me at No Mercy, which is a game near and dear to my heart. But I owned him in Ice Hockey.
This column is sure to ignite a new rivalry. Maybe George and I will take to the ice soon to revisit the Arnold Street Cup. If he manages to get one by me, I will revisit this post with an update.
Until then, consider this the definitive account of how an old man kicked his reporter's ass at a game that was created five years before the reporter was born.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

02 April 2010

Super Mario 64 - Nintendo 64

It’s hard to believe that after more than 90 days of essays about the greatest games of all time Super Mario 64 has yet to appear on this site.
But that’s going to change. Right now.
Although I have played video games for my entire life, the last time I asked for a video game system as a present or gift was in the early 1990s, when I bugged my parents for a Sega Genesis. Since then, I received a Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Playstation 2 and even an Xbox 360 (a birthday present from my beautiful girlfriend) without solicitation. It’s not that I didn’t want any of these things, I just always felt guilty asking friends and family for high end electronic items that, despite their massive level of entertainment, are ultimately a waste of time that keep you from the great outdoors.
Every single time I got a new system, however, I was happy as could be. Especially when I got my PS2 with the Rocky video game.
My parents bought me an N64 for Christmas one year right after it came out, when parents of younger children than I were braving lines and mini riots at Wal-Mart to get one. I hadn’t asked for my N64, but that’s why it was the best gift I got that year.
Unlike today, this was a time when systems still came with games. The obvious choice for rolling out N64, of course, was Super Mario 64.
And boy did it deliver. I talked with countless people about this game and I have never really heard any criticism. Moving Mario from the 2D side scrolling world to the 3D world came off flawlessly. The charm of the Mario franchise was evident in every aspect of the game and the re-vamped platform format brought next excitement and adventure to a character more than a decade old.
That Christmas Day, when I opened my new system, I ended up with about a half-dozen friends sitting in my bedroom. Yes, they had all also received different types of video games and other toys for Christmas, but I was the one kid on the block with an N64.
We played Mario for hours, a lot of which was spent messing with the unnecessary but cool opening feature that allowed you to warp Mario’s face in a variety of dimensions.
In the years since my Nintendo 64 days, I haven’t picked up any subsequent Super Mario titles. I own a Nintendo Wii, so having the right system isn’t an issue, but the new games seem a little trippy and hard to follow. No, the new Mario isn’t for me. Mario 64, on the other hand, will always have a place in what I consider to be the canon of gaming.
By George Morse

01 April 2010

PGA Tour Golf II – Sega Genesis

I’ve never been a big fan of golf.
Sure, there were plenty of times when I was a little bit younger and a little bit dumber that me and a few of my buddies threw back a half dozen beers a piece and stumbled over to a nearby driving range. And there were plenty of times I got way too competitive with family members and girlfriends during rounds of mini-golf. There were even a few times I tried to hack through 18 holes with an old boss who had a three handicap.
The game has always come across to me like some kind of elitist activity reserved for rich guys and athletes who are good at every other sport anyway. On TV, it’s even worse. And this is coming from a guy who can watch two hours of bowling from the 1980s on ESPN Classic Saturday afternoons.
But golfing video games, well, what kind of player doesn’t enjoy shooting a few rounds? I’ll admit, today’s mainstay of Tiger Woods PGA Tour-Whatever has made things a little more complicated and a little more realistic, but there was a time not too long ago when golf games were little more than pressing a button for power and a button for accuracy.
Like PGA Tour Golf II for the Sega Genesis. At the time it came out, it was a good-looking, easy to play game that was at least as good or better than any other sports simulation on the market. I never owned the game, instead I was lucky enough to borrow it for about a year from one of my dad’s softball buddies.
Yes, I have plenty of memories from making eagles, winning tournaments and beating my dad (of course). None of these memories, however, can rival the time my dad’s pal came to take his game back.
It was Halloween, 1990-something. Me and my sister, we weren’t even teenagers, so my parents would always take us out trick or treating. For the other kids, we left a basket of candy outside our house with a note reading “Please Take One.” You know, the notes everyone ignores before dumping 50 snack-sized Snickers bars into their pillow case.
For a few years though, we had a secret weapon. Around the corner from my front door, the driveway was pitch black, like a cave. A cat couldn’t see into that abyss.
That’s where we set the trap.
Now you might not believe this and I don’t blame you for being skeptical, but the story I’m about to tell you is entirely true and I have witnesses. Growing up, our family pet was a rottweiler topping 160 pounds named Butkus. He was huge and intimidating and could have eaten a grown man alive. He was also the most gentle, calm animal I’ve ever known. Most importantly, he was also remarkably intelligent.
So when my dad’s softball buddy came by the house to pick-up his game, he reached down into the little bowl outside out front door and took a candy bar. That’s when Butkus peered his gigantic head around the corner, staring down the right-center fielder.
I remember it clear as day, the guy, his name was Scotty, he looks at my dad and goes “I wonder what will happen if I take two?”
His hand wasn’t halfway towards the bowl for seconds when Butkus came charging around the corner, tied to a rope that stopped him about a foot from the dish. His bark echoed through the neighborhood and Scotty jumped about five feet back before landing face-up on the ground.
Over the years, I saw this repeated more times than I can count.
Now I’m not sure how my dog learned that people should adhere to the honor system of simply taking one. But he did. And no matter how long we would be gone on Halloween, our dish was never empty at the end of the night.
They say you’re not supposed to give dogs chocolate and while that may be true, every Halloween we gave Butkus a couple Snickers bars for a job well done.
By George Morse