December 9, 2010

Old Skool Gaming Nostalgia - Part I: NES

Ah... old school (skool) gaming. The words send images of pixalated action whizzing through your head. If you're like me, chances are you were just a kid when they had first come out and they quickly became a permanent part of your childhood. But there's also a chance you were around to see the beginning of it all when home consoles and video arcades began popping up all over your home country. For me, I'll always remember them as a way to enjoy my free time, share adventures with my friends and make my skin whiter than an albino.

Press Start for a lifetime of memories and sequels.
It all started with the original Super Mario Brothers for me. The Nintendo Entertainment System (AKA the NES or the funny grey box on top of the TV) was released almost exactly a year before I was born in 1986. My grandma had one of these grey boxes atop a TV that looked like it had come from the Stone Age. My earliest memories were of me fighting my way through hordes of Koopa Troopas and Goombas on my way to save some princess I had never met. I was too young to care about any sort of objective though, the whole thing was like a giant virtual playground for me. I mean when, other than in my vivid imagination would I ever get the chance to run around stomping on flying turtles and mushrooms in a magical land full of pipes leading to coin-filled treasure troves, vines leading to a sky full of traversable clouds and - strangest of them all - a severely underfunded roar system riddled with gaping potholes of doom? Well... in my mind, all the time - thanks to Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros. and other gems that came out on the NES.

I swear this is the last time I save you Strawberry Shortcake...
I remember the day I finally rescued the princess, after searching far and wide across the Mushroom Kingdom and finding her mushroom retainers (I called them Strawberry Shortcake) who promptly informed me that I had hauled balls running around and dodging all manner of bizarre creatures and land formations for nothing. "Thank you Mario! But our Princess is in another Castle!" Strawberry Shortcake would say and promptly flip me off. I only saved her like 10 times on accident and this is the thanks I get? Ungrateful bitch.
Anyway, after that hassle I finally found the right castle and saved Princess Toadstool. The feeling of heroism and accomplishment that rushed through me at that moment was a feeling I would strive for in the decades that would follow. Like a drug, the feeling of playing and beating a video game ran through my veins and hooked me on them. I had to have more. Luckily for me, I didn't have to wait long before the Princess found herself captured again... but that's a long story.

Cue awesome music and an an intro I didn't read.
One day I had the fortune to see a new game in the always-changing stack of games being cycled around my family. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a new video game and had to be played. So I blew on it and jammed it into the NES's slot like I was going for a world record.

Do do do do... do do do... do do...


The creepy Twilight-esque music began to play, instantly enthralling me. Super Mario Bros., this was not. I pressed start to see myself instantly phase into a level by means unknown to me. Then again, I never questioned how Mario got where he was so I really couldn't be bothered to care. I spend the better part of the day firing my way through the enemies crawling over the walls and floors like the spiders so common at my Grandma's house. I played until my eyes burned, getting absolutely nowhere. I'd have to wait 'till the next trip to Grandma's before I could play again... but it would be worth it.

I knew I should have taken that left turn at blue square #6446
Upon my next arrival I was introduced to the Nintendo Player's Guide which, like the games, magically appeared one day. I opened it up and - to my excitement - found a map of Zebes; the planet on which all this madness apparently took place. It was composed of in-game screenshots and, over that, various markings and numbers with corresponding text to denote a point of interest. I followed the guide to the letter, picking up all the power ups I could find and memorizing every passage, every enemy and discovering the best ways to defeat them. After killing the bosses Ridley and Kraid it was time for final showdown; Mother Brain. This was intensity like I had never experienced. In Mario, all I had to do was worry about the same overgrown lizard and whether he would shoot axed out of his head or not. Not this time. The two bosses I had defeated already had hit points, different weapons, and the rooms were built differently to encourage you to use your environment like a ninja.

What makes this motherly is beyond me...
So, with that in mind, I continued on into Mother Brain's hideout to encounter the most disturbing and difficult nemesis yet; Metroids themselves. Using the advice I had learned in the guide, I froze them with my icebeam and shot five missiles at them to kill them. If I failed and they began to suck the life from me, I morphed into a ball and dropped some bombs to shake them. Finally, I made it into the final room, taking bombardment after bombardment by Mother Brain's personal security system. It took a few tries, but I finally made it through, coming face to... brain with Mother Brain - the space pirate leader behind this whole operation. I drained my extended missile capacity to near exhaustion, dodging shot after shot from her personal security system and did my best to avoid the lava in the floor below. Suddenly, the screen shook and the brain began to incinerate! I had done it - I had won! But wait... wait's this? A TIME BOMB?!

I scurried to find the controller I had victoriously thrown across the room in a fit of joy and continued into the escape shaft in the room beyond. I jumped up platform after platform as the time quickly ticked away. I thought I was dead for sure until, in the roof, the exit appeared. I shot through the door and continued to the top towards another experience I would never forget.

Success! You have completed your mission. Oh, and guess what...
I had seen my first cut-scene... and something else. What was this now? I get a congratulatory message and Samus takes off his helmet to reveal his terrible 80's hair? It took me a while to figure out what I was actually seeing, but when it registered it blew me away. Samus - bold space bounty hunter who had survived treacherous Zebes and the three most infamous space pirates in the galaxy - was a girl. It blew me away. No longer were games just a bunch of controllable characters on a TV screen. No... they were real beings with a story, and I was a part of it.

Angel Land? Sounds stupid but I'll humor you.
Upon another visit the pile of video games next to the console cycled again. After an experience like Metroid I was bored of Mario and wouldn't settle for anything less. However, to my shock, Metroid was no longer there. I shuffles through the grey cartridges, stopping on something I had never laid eyes on before; a game called Kid Icarus.

The first thing that hit me, like Metroid, was the atmospheric beeps that I recignized as music.

Dee dee dee dee dee dee, do do dee do do dee do, daaaaaa, daaaaa, daaaaaaaaa...


The games I had played were so memorable I could tell you just about anything about them instantaneously. I was so fascinated with them I would take the player's guide with me everywhere I went so I could learn everything there was to know about the games.

Anyway, Kid Icarus. It was another verticle platform game, like Metroid, but with the scroll effects of Mario. That is to say, you could not go backwards once the screen scrolled. But in this case, the bottom of the screen meant death so if you scrolled up past a platform you needed on your journey upwards you were screwed. A lot of the times I'd find myself jumping up through platforms and into an enemy, get knocked off, and fall to my doom. I would have to get used to this happening A LOT during the course of this game.

You might call this, a stairway to heaven... unless you fall off.
One of the most entertaining features for me were the first in-game mini-games I had ever played. There was a game where you shot at chest of some sort and each chest you shot would reveal hearts (which were used for money) or axes which were used to free angels who would help you in boss fights. The catch was, one of the chests contained this shriveled up demon baby (or possibly an eggplant with a face, you could never really tell what all those pixels were sometimes) and if you hit it, you'd lose the chance to get the items. Also, some freaky-ass music would play, which was encouragement enough not to reveal the demon baby.

Avoid demon baby. You do not wanna hear the "losing" music.
Along with the mini-games there were various rooms like shops where you could buy items with your hearts, which would show up in your inventory. One of my favorite things were the rooms where you would be tested by the big man himself (God, if you're confused). He would throw heavenly books directly at your face like a drunken librarian in order to "train" you for the battles to come. If you survived the training, you would either earn a "Power Up!" You also had the option to run out of the room to which he would shout "You Weakling!" I still think that's hysterical.

After completing each stage you'd get a certain amount of points for reasons unknown. After a certain number of points, you'd "Power Up!". Little did I know, this concept of powering up would have a huge effect on me later on. If you did Power Up, a nifty little sound would play and your hair would change color before you continued walking on to the next stage. Each time you powered up, your life bar would be extended by 1 box, which always helped immensely - especially when enemies started hitting A LOT harder.

Shops, a map, inventory and power ups. A prelude to awesomeness.
On boss stages (which were horizontal, unlike most levels) you could also find a torch and a pencil which would show up and help you out by showing you where you were (torch) and where you had been (pencil). It was my first RPG-type dungeon. You could also go to the hospital (every dungeon had them... go figure) in case one of the enemies turned you into an eggplant (inside joke?)  or a hot spring (also found in every dungeon) to cure your health. I know what you're thinking, and you're right; every dungeon was a rehab clinic gone to hell.

After going through the stage freeing angels trapped in concrete by Medusa (the bitch in charge of all this), finding the torch and the pencil, and buying things in shops you'd eventually come to the boss room. At this point, all the angels you had freed up to this point would come down and help you fight the boss 3 at a time. As your arrows and their hit the boss, it's hit point counter on the bottom-right of the screen would slowly tick down to 0. When that happened, they would spontaneously combust with such pressure that they're morph into a brick of smelted gold. It didn't make sense to me either. The brick of gold would then show up in your inventory under "Treasures" when you accessed it in following stages.

Angels usually died before getting a shot off. I guess God sent in the newbies.
After 3 consecutive repeats of 3 stages followed by a boss dungeon you eventually unwrapped your 3 treasures for the final boss fight: Medusa. This stage is a trip. Those pathetic feathery appendages have blossomed into fully-grown angel wings, you receive light arrows, and a shield that can reflect Medusa's attacks. I guess God does answer prayers... either that or it was just pity for all those times you fell off a platform to your doom below.

Man this is getting repetiti- DEAR GOD!
So you fly through a variation of clouds, followed by ruins of some sort which repeat for what seems like ever, dodging all sorts of enemies that fly at you like bugs on a highway in a last-ditch effort to kill you before you can make it to Medusa. If you survive, the music suddenly picks up intensely and the repetitive scenery makes a sudden change to reveal this monstrosity directly in your path.

Giant snakes continually shoot out of her hair along with petrifying "sight waves" which can be deflected by your mirror shield - but only if hit dead-on. Firing also lowers the shield, so you have to time your attacks when hitting snakes or her enormous eye. After making her scream enough times (bow chica wow wow), the eyes disappears, revealing what I assume is the goddess you were trying to rescue all along (I dunno, I never paid enough attention to the lore). One screen-shaking orgasm later, she explodes and you fly on past her remains like a boss.

Thank you, Pit. Enjoy this quality Beekeeper outfit.
The goddess you saved thanks you with an anticlimactic reward for all the shit you've just been through and the end credits scroll across the screen like the ending to an epic movie. There are a few different endings you can get when various conditions are met (score I'm guessing) but I typically got something like this. But I couldn't care less at the time. This was yet another genre of game that I had experienced for the first time and would stick with me forever.

If you've made it this far you are a true nerd, like myself. With as much as I love writing, particularly about video games, I think I'll end with one more. I'd like to think that I saved the best for last, but it would only be by a mere fraction in terms of the experience the gems I've just gone over left me with.

I had no idea what I was getting into...
A lonely mountain waterfall flows eternally as the sun sets over sleepy Hyrule. Still one of the most epic title screens of all time. This was another one I had to use the guide for right away when I discovered the sheer vastness of this new top-down view world. Though one of the first things I remember seeing as a distinctive black square embedded in the rock wall of a nearby mountain. Curious, and without any form of direction, I decided to explore.

Is that a sword under your robe or are you just happy to see me? Oh, it's a sword. 
Link - whom I discovered was the main character out to save Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil sorcerer Gannon with the help of my trusty nerd manual - starts off without any form of weaponry on him. Well golly gee, I guess it makes sense that if I'm going out to save the land of Hyrule from this "Gannon" guy it would make sense to bring a weapon. I had this sense, Link did not. Fortunately, inside the cave was an old man who had more sense than Link did and brought a weapon with him. I guess what hey say is true; with age comes wisdom... and the insatiable need to live in a cave lying in wait for little boys so you can show them your sword.

Once you get the sword, you're doomed to wander the land hopelessly without any form of direction whatsoever. Ah... my first open-world game. It would have been nice if I wasn't hopelessly lost. With the help of my guide, I tracked down the locations of the various dungeons placed around the land. Each dungeon is filled with enemies, secrets, a special item and, of course, the boss in charge.

Wow! Those spiky vacuum cleaners had money inside!
Already, I had seen a lot of these elements in the games I had played - items to enhance your abilities in Metroid and the inventory in Kid Icarus - but this was a hybrid of the two games. This was a new recipe that had taken ingredients from the two games and made it into something that tasted good. The signature element of Zelda, of course, was the tune played upon discovering the secret item locked away in the depths of the dungeon. Typically, this item would help you defeat the boss ahead but would always be required to access an area you couldn't get before. There were bombs that allowed you to blow through cracks in walls and take shortcuts through dungeons or enter hidden rooms, new shields, armor and magical items that would help you survive tougher areas, and even a ladder that let you cross over water.

A typical dungeon - minus rape by sword.
After long hours of exploring the landscape and encountering increasingly harder enemies I was completely sucked into the game. The ability to go where I wanted freely like in Metroid was something I had experienced before, but with a different twist. This was a true adventure, like I had always seen it in my dreams inspired by adventure-driven movies and books. I wasn't able to make it all the way to Gannon and defeat him until much later, but the adventure continued on and I revisited many old areas, honing my abilities as a gamer and learning some skills that would become invaluable in the long trek of my gaming obsession.

Whew! That's it for this part. For more flip to Side B...

2 comments:

  1. funnily enough i still have most of the old consoles and games

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  2. I traded all mine in for the N64 when it first came out, which I still have. I went back to a trading post years later and got my own SNES but have never gotten my NES back. Some day, I'll go get one and buy back all the classics that defined my childhood and the nostalgia will come rushing back again. :)

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