Carmen Sandiego: A Different Kind of Globe-Trotting

“Edutational” games tend to come in two categories.

  1. The “game” that is really just a badly strung together lesson, complete with exhortations to do one’s best with shoddy gameplay that would make most gamers roll their eyes in disgust, if not for the parent looking over their shoulder. Yeah, okay, they’re better than doing real homework, but not by much, particularly with Earthbound calling from the side cabinet.
  2. The edutational product that’s barely edutational: it’s a game that passes itself off as “fun in education” with more emphasis on the former and little on the latter. I still love these games, but let’s be real. Most of the educational dynamics (planning, decision-making, economics, resource management) are really just gameplay dynamics found (beefed up) in other titles.

Guess which one kids prefer. Guess which one parents prefer.

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It’s-a me, Mario! Here we go!

I moved to New York City from Tulsa in the summer of 2003. I feel like I say this a lot, but that was a strange time in my life. I had upended everything I had known, while in the process making some personal decisions that hurt those close to me, not least of all the girl with whom I moved to New York. At the time we found our apartment, we were engaged; by Christmas following the move, we were no longer dating. It should tell you something about the exigencies of living in New York that we continued to live together for another year and a half after that.

In that first year, I saw Peelander-Z at Pianos on my 21st birthday, left college due to inability to pay, worked as a barista for the first (but certainly not the last) time, and met several people who would become my best friends in New York, including some fucking guy. In addition to all that, I went back to Oklahoma to reconnect with my friends and family every few months. Given my frequently-shifting personal circumstances and relationships, each visit proved to be a little different and occasionally surreal. With all that change, I needed a constant. That constant was Super Mario 64.

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Tunes, Not Toons: The Music of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Other Classic Games

I’m going to take a different take here than what a writer would normally tackle when discussing Super Mario Bros. 3. This isn’t going to be about the platforming, the game’s place in history, how it did/did not catapult Mario (and Nintendo) into the stratosphere. What I’m here to do is talk about the music in the title and how it links us to our childhood.

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He’s got some sort of pig power…

Before the age of the internet, it was much more difficult for a gamer to get information on what he or she wanted to play. Once a month you got your game magazine, more often if you read a couple. Other than that, you had your friends and their opinions. As we all eventually learn, sometimes your friends are wrong.

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NHL ’94: Abstraction and Simplicity in Video Gaming

Video games are about abstraction. The gamer takes a controller or keyboard and mouse and is suddenly put into the role of a superhero, soldier, or plumber downing mushrooms to grow big enough to take down a princess-stealing dinosaur. One can travel to distant galaxies or stick around at home, making life more comfortable for simulated humans with consumer products and love. There is a literal fourth wall—the screen between TV/Monitor—with a game on one side and a player on the other.

This is why controls are so important to a title. Good controls remove one more barrier between a player and the gaming world. Bad controls take a player out of a game, like seeing a boom shadow in a film. The illusion is shattered. Frustration replaces aspiration. It takes time to learn the controls of a game, of course, but if the design sensibility matches the learning curve, the transition becomes seamless.

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Munching magic pills and listening to repetitive electronic music

If you want to get strictly technical about it, video games have been a part of me since before I was even born. That sounds sort of stupid, I will grant you, but I totally mean it.

Before I was in the picture, my parents had a dog. He was a red chow chow called Sampson and he was the greatest dog that ever happened.

I mention all this because he is my earliest game connection.

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You are a man now.

Ninja Gaiden was an odd game for an odd time. It was part of the inescapable ninja craze of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that I appear to have never grown out of, judging by the star tattooed on my shoulder. There were many other ninja games from that time, ushered in by (among other things) the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The key difference between this and the rest of those games, though, is a simple one: Ninja Gaiden is totally awesome.

It’s also harder than hell.

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SimCity: Creating (Artistic) Communities

SimCity came about in a rather roundabout way. Will Wright, working on a completely different title, discovered that he had much more fun developing the level editors for the game than the game itself. Believing (rightly so, as it turns out) that others might share his interest in civic management, he eventually created a game that, though puny by today’s standards, is the grandfather of all city-simulation titles.

Thus, a franchise and a genre were born. Soon, gamers would be harnessing all kinds of zones, ordinances, and utilities to create masterpieces of design. Theme parks followed, as did hospitals, ski resorts, prisons, and even schools. The classic top-down look has been little changed since then, but other forms of expression changed the flow to keep things from getting stale. Where would we be without the disaster button, filling us with the power of Old Gods to rain down our displeasure on the unwary Sims of the cyber world?

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