The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Sonic Bust: The Rise and Fall of My Life in Games

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

One of the most interesting things about being a thirty-something in the new millennium is that by definition, this means that we grew up during a second, technology-based Renaissance.  We have seen computers transform from huge, boxy behemoths that didn’t do much and were only owned by the rich, into tiny miracle machines that everyone owns at least one of. We have bore witness to the inevitable fall of enormous rotary telephones, and the ubiquitous rise of personal cells thinner than a deck of cards. We have felt the awesome effect that the internet has had on all of our lives, from the days of achingly slow modem connections to virtually nothing, to the heady times of blazingly fast fiber-optic connections to everything virtual. And of course, we have watched video games go from lines and dots on an Atari-controlled screen, into nothing less than life re-imagined and rendered in three dimensions. Is it any wonder that kids today don’t know how to play outside?

Back when I was growing up, video games were around, and despite the fact that we had an Atari system at home (fully stocked with both Pac Man AND Space Invaders), the really cutting edge games could only be found at video arcades. For me, one of the best weekend of my year as a kid was Convention Weekend, where my father packed up the family and took us to a hotel in the Catskills where he would schmooze with his professional contemporaries.  What that meant for him is irrelevant; what it meant for ME was two full days with a pocket full of quarters, running around the hotel game room (every big hotel had one in those days) to my heart’s content. It was during one of these heady excursions that I got my first true video game crush: Spy Hunter.

There were so many things about Spy Hunter that blew all other games of the time right out of the water. First of all, it was the first game I can remember where your actions had some bearing on what happened next. As you drove endlessly along the road, you would occasionally get to choose which fork in the road you took. This choice would affect which weapon you’d get equipped with next, and thus which enemies you’d be facing soon after. And while the special weapons varied in their overall effectiveness (the smokescreen worked well, but could not be controlled and ran out quickly, while the missiles could only work against the helicopters, which only came when you had missiles. The true SH savant would hold out for the oil slick, and then use it with care.), it was a heady feeling to have such control over your environment. Second of all, it was the first game where there were different ways to play the exact same world. Sure, there were the standard rules of the game that required you to destroy all the various evil cars chasing you down while avoiding all the civilians on the road…but those civilians went down so easily! And remember how much fun it was to mow down those pussy motorcyclists? Play that game the right way, and you feel like James Bond tracking down the enemies. Play it the wrong way, and you got a feeling similar to what the kids of today must have when they turn on Grand Theft Auto.

From here, my relationship with video games could be described as a series of intense love affairs that flamed up quickly, and died when the next thing came along. (Does that make me the gaming equivalent of a boytoy? And why have I written this article in such a way so as to imply that my childhood was filled with romance and passion, when it was instead filled with…well…video games?). Let me offer a brief glimpse into each of these fleeting relationships here:

Super Mario Brothers – The original Mario Brothers game was, I think we all have to admit, pretty lame. These two Italian guys leapt around a static series of pipes, avoiding and destroying turtles. Every once in a while, you could smack a question mark which made the turtles turn upside down. (Fun note: my Word Document does not get the preceding sentence AT ALL!) Overall: boring. However, SUPER Mario Brothers was an entire WORLD! There was a quest, and dungeons, and SECRETS…it seemed like that game could go on forever. When my parents finally caved and got me my own Nintendo system, it was the enclosed SMB cartridge that really caught my eye. (It didn’t hurt that my other options were the pathetic Hogan’s Alley, and whatever lame running game came with the Power Pad.) I must have played that game for weeks on end. I was ecstatic when I discovered the secret vine to Level 8, and I was euphoric when I figured out the tricky sequence at the end of Level 3-1 that granted you unlimited lives. When I finally and inevitably got bored, Nintendo answered with sequels both lame (SMB 2) and incredible (SMB 3). The stranger Mario’s adventures became, the more enraptured I’d become.

Base Wars – Sports and Video Games go hand in hand. I played more than my fair share of Atari Baseball, Nintendo Wrestling, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, and John Elway’s Quarterback, but the whole sports game genre didn’t really click for me until I got my hands on the little-known Base Wars. Set in the future, it presupposed that baseball players became too expensive for the game, and so owners created androids to play, and changed the rules to make it more violent. As the owner, you picked your team, from the type of android you wanted playing each position, to what special gear you wanted to equip them with. With each win, you earned money that let you upgrade the arm, shoulder, speed, and weaponry of an individual player. In other words, it was war, set to the tune of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Let me assure you that, by the end of my time with this game, you did NOT want to fuck with my team.

Sonic the Hedgehog – Eventually, the drumbeat of bigger and better systems became simply too loud to ignore, and we upgraded our NES to a Sega Genesis. The graphics were undeniably better, and the game play was much smoother. Included in our box was Sonic, a game as fun to play as it was completely absurd to explain. (You’re this hedgehog who runs really fast, and you have this sidekick fox who follows you around. You have to collect these floating rings, and defeat an evil scientist, so you can rescue these little baby hedgehogs.) The most impressive thing about this game was its fluidity; you could run forwards, backwards, and upside down to your heart’s content, with nothing impeding your progress except the time limit. And hell, you just couldn’t help but pull for the little guy too.

Mortal Kombat – Despite this game’s transcendent popularity, there’s really no reason why I would have gotten into it. I never fell in love with its predecessor Street Fighter, and my quarters never found their way into the way-too-pixellated-for-today’s-standards stand-up versions that dominated arcades in the 90s. Don’t get me wrong: I loved WATCHING these games, and whenever my friend Ed discovered a new secret button combination for a fatality, I was just as stoked as the next guy, but for the first time, my own inevitable ineptitude really got in the way of my taking over the reins. However, when we finally got our hands on the cartridge, and I could fail in the privacy of my own home, I realized what the buzz was about. Whether through strategy guides or experimentation, there was nothing quite as gratifying as hurling a spear into an enemy’s neck to the sounds of “Get over here!” or whatever special move existed deep within the controls of your favorite character. And when you had ultimately figured out the buttons enough to rip out a 16-bit spine, or summon a dragon to bite off a vanquished foe’s top half…well then, how could things get any better?

And this, sadly (or happily, if you’re my wife) was the end of the line for me. Even as I slowly mastered the controls of the Sega Genesis’ far-more-complex-than-NES’ controller, I understood deep down that the technology was growing too complicated for me. It’s not that I’m a technophobe, or that I can’t get my way through the latest gadgets, it’s that for me, a game is supposed to be FUN, and taking hours to learn the subtleties of a sophisticated controlling mechanism to play a vast and bewildering world was just too much for me. I never once played an X-Box, or a Game Cube, or whatever came next for Sega. It’s not that I didn’t WANT to, it’s only that I was afraid of failure and ineptitude.

These days, when I read about all the latest and greatest games, listen to my friends rave about the wonders of the Nintendo Wii, or OCCASIONALLY get my arms through the strap of a Guitar Hero instrument, I get both nostalgic for the days when I was on the cutting edge, and grateful that I let the craze pass me by. I have far more to occupy my time these days than in my video game heyday, and as beautiful as the virtual worlds created by today’s designers are, I am happy to report that the one outside my living room can be pretty great too.