Nice Shooting Captain

The most succinct description of Captain Skyhawk is probably that it was for people who thought Marble Madness would have been better if only you were flying a jet from Top Gun.

This is not an entirely wrongheaded assumption, and not just because I am really, really, really terrible at Marble Madness. (Despite my predilection for Arkanoid, I have never really gotten along with trackballs.) In Captain Skyhawk, you take the role of Captain, uh… Skyhawk, I guess? I’ll go with Skyhawk. You take the role of Captain Skyhawk and his heavily modified F-14 (unless F-14s are spaceworthy; then it maybe was not modified) against an alien invasion. You fly over the isometric M.C. Escher-esque world of Marble Madness dodging incoming fire from enemy air forces, ground troops, and the occasional sphinx (the late ’80s and early ’90s were a weird time, you guys), as well as avoiding mountains, as all good pilots should. Then, after you finished that stage, you transferred into a second section where you were dogfighting with enemy jets in the style of Top Gun (the game, not the movie). The main difference there is that you were going to fuck up the landing in a space station rather than on an aircraft carrier.

You can watch someone play through the whole game in three parts if you’ve got 20 minutes to spare. It is a time of great innovation.

And there’s the thing: if you were really good at an arcade game, there was nothing to it. The games were designed to eat your quarters, so getting better was in a very literal sense a solid economic proposition. The worse you were, the more money it would cost you to finish a game.

From the very first moment that games transitioned into the home, there was some friction between that extreme difficulty model and the nature of home play. In the case of something like, say, Pac-Man, it did not matter much; the game’s difficulty increased on a predictable curve, for one, but more importantly, it was fun regardless of the venue. (Well, not entirely regardless.) The issue really came up when there was a game whose fun was derived not primarily from the play, but from that special frisson of knowing that if you didn’t do well you were going to have to pump another quarter into that slot.

When those games came home, the transition was not seamless. What was fun in the loud, jangly, smoky, crowded environs of the arcade became frustrating or worse, boring, in the friendly confines of a future cynic’s bedroom. The game’s price had been paid, so there was no real-world incentive to get better, and without that push, games were very different.

Of course, that makes it sound like I don’t look back fondly on my experience with the good Captain. (That is in opposition to the Sky Captain, who really could have done with being more like Captain Skyhawk himself.) The truth is that I don’t have any negative memories of the game itself; it was really fun. All my qualms about it are from the perspective of a grown-ass man looking back with a critical eye.

It boils down to the fact that Captain Skyhawk was not actually an arcade game. It was developed by Rare specifically for the NES and released after games like Ninja Gaiden had shown one of many paths to differentiating an arcade game from its home experience. While one can see a clear inspiration for some of Rare’s later work here, including exploring the idea of 3D that they would push later, it does not have anything resembling the complexity that home games were starting to evolve.

This is what bugs me. I liked the game a lot. I rented it several times. getting slightly better at it each time. Finally, it came one of those times where it was okay to ask my mom to buy me a game, and I asked her for Captain Skyhawk. She brought it home after work one Friday evening and I got to it.

Then I beat it before dinner.

I have a very deep opposition to the idea that amount of content and cost should be proportional; the type of people who judge an album’s value based on the number of tracks it contains are wrong-headed, and I have never heard a convincing argument otherwise. So it is with games. I don’t have a problem with, say, Mirror’s Edge clocking in at ten hours or so versus Fallout 3 and its potential for spending over a hundred hours in its game world. Those games cost the same at retail, and there are critics that claim the value proposition between them is skewed. I disagree, for the same reason that I don’t automatically assume a 600-page novel is better than a 200-page one.

Even still, and even at that young age, I could not shake the feeling that I’d been had as I watched the short sequence celebrating my victory over the generic alien bad guys. My mom had just spent like $50 or whatever on a game that I was, for basic intents and purposes, finished with. And that was after spending $15 or $20 on rentals before. I don’t know. It felt bad somehow.

I chose not to tell her I beat the game for a few days. It still feels like the right decision.

And yet! At some point, I loaned the game to one friend or another and promptly forgot all about it. To this day I have no idea who I loaned it to, just that it was not in my game collection any more and that was that. So what, right?

So what nothing. I lamented its loss up to the point where I started working and making money for myself, and I proceeded to rectify that loss for three dollars at a used game shop.

I don’t know exactly what that was about. I spent even more money on a game that I probably wasn’t going to play, despite it being one of the catalysts of me understanding the concept of the value proposition by way of feeling a little ripped off.

I don’t know. Maybe if there was any logic to the pattern of my life choices, that would stand out, but in a world where practically everything I have ever done defies reason, it’s just another tiny drop in the bucket.

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