Super Mario Bros: The Lost Sanity

When you take one of the most beloved and informative games of all time, jack up the difficulty somewhere just past sane, and hold it back from an adoring public for the better part of a decade, you can cause an ostensible adult to go airborne.

I swear that will make more sense in a minute.

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Mortal Kombat: What Ratings Hath Wrought

People were decrying the influence of video games on popular culture way before Mortal Kombat came onto the scene. Arcades were time-(and money-)wasters. Tetris rotted your brain. Portable gaming systems destroyed kids’ patience (or tried that of their parents, really). If you’re a gamer who grew up in the ’80s, you know what I’m talking about.

These were just the typical portents of the doom of civilization through technology that proved to be almost entirely without base, and most people knew it. How dangerous could dumping block after block on top of one another really be? Were Mario Mario and his brother, Luigi Mario, really that much worse than the A-Team? Hadn’t people heard the same kind of arguments about film, television, and rock n’ roll? Despite a couple busts, video games got more and more popular every year with little-to-no outside intervention regarding their content.

… that is, until 1992, when a gamer could finally rip the still-beating heart out of an opponent’s chest. At that point, everything changed.

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Hal Bailman and the Living Space Base

I’m fresh back from my brother’s wedding, so I’ve been thinking a lot this week about some of the games that we played together when we were small. Indeed, a lot of my early video game meories are tied to my big bro, and although each of these really could deserve their own pixelthèque post, I’ll run down a few of them here. Brian had a friend who “borrowed” DuckTales for the NES and took two years to return it. It was worth the wait, but I must have bugged my brother weekly about why he wouldn’t get my game back (it was his game). There were the times when he would scream at me for cheating at Duck Hunt by sticking the tip of my light gun against the television screen, and then moments later order me to bang my fists on the back buttons of the Power Pad while he ran the races in World Class Track Meet. I remember sitting on the family futon in the living room of our old old old house when he came running in with the box containing our first toaster loading Nintendo Entertainment System, and started this whole mess. Thinking about some of the dates here, and doing the math, it’s probably one of my earliest memories. He says he remembers me forcing him to beat every dungeon in my save game of The Legend of Zelda in order to keep up with his save game, but I can neither confirm nor deny this happening. I remember sitting on the floor of his bedroom for two hours holding down the right arrow on the D-Pad so that he could have super jump all the way through Mega Man 3. And I remember the babysitter who brought over Super Mario Bros. 3, and let us both play, and the anticipation and the wonder being greater than anything I had experienced at that point. There are others, but maybe none so fond as when we used to stay up late in the bed we shared and go through the Nintendo Power Final Fantasy strategy guide and plan out every weapon we’d buy, every spell we’d learn, and where we would grind. Thanks for those memories, GaGa.

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If it doesn’t say Micro Machines, it’s not the real thing.

I have not been much of a racing gamer for a while. I certainly respect how much the genre has evolved from its early days; both the Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport series are an ever-improving apotheosis of racing at home, giving a simulation that is, in some cases, literally good enough to train us for driving on the real-life tracks the games represent

I learned a lot more about driving from these games than it is probably safe to publicly admit. Because of simulation racers, I think about lines and acceleration and vehicular physics in a way I maybe never would have grokked on my own. They were crucial to my skilled-but-not-necessarily-legal driving style.

The funny thing is, I suck at them.

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Battletoads: The Challenge of a Masterpiece

Losing is a part of life. This is not being in second place, either. This is last-place, giving-up-your-dreams, never-going-to-play-professional-sports kind of losing. For every person born on third base (and thinks they hit a triple), there are eight guys at bat who strike out and ten bench warmers. Being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan taught me that, among other things.

Those lovable losers (who are, incidentally, NOT-so-lovable losers; this will come back later) also taught me some other things. It’s the persistence, the journey, and the experience that matter. If you deal with the losses, it makes the victories all that much more precious. “Character” is real. Know all those assholes who can’t handle life without an umbrella? They’re the ones who had everything handed to them and can’t handle a little bit of rain.

Right. Everybody happy? Great. Because here’s a bombshell (note the sarcasm). It’s also nice to win.

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Beat ‘Em Up

You don’t see too many arcades anymore. Most are flagging dinosaurs, nostalgia fuel, or on fire. These days, the best arcades are made of cardboard. But there was a time when arcades were the place to go if you wanted to get your gamer on. They were the land of giants, sleek and sexy arenas where women wore evening dresses and men took their martinis shaken, not stirred.

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I knew then the war was already purposeless

Einhänder: because sometimes being the kamikaze vanguard in the war between the Moon and the Earth is just the right thing to do.

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Kingdom Hearts: or, Why Bill Watterson Was Wrong

Bill Watterson is akin to a cartooning god for many people of my generation. His comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, is justifiably considered one of the greatest achievements in his medium. It had wit, a deft touch of whimsy, and social commentary that still rings true to this day. It also mechanically changed how a Sunday comic strip could be drawn/displayed. The hermit-like artist, through his comic strip, sparked the imaginations of a generation of kids while indirectly making himself an anchor for Generation Y’s youth.

He was also wrong about a lot of things. Comic books can be stupid, but that doesn’t mean he’s not hypocritical for disparaging an entire medium (which is more a less a brother to his own) by blaming the content for the delivery mechanism. It’s also naive to want one’s art to reach as broad an audience as possible while remaining anonymous. This is no knock against his creation, of course, but rather a reminder to my fellows that Watterson was a man rather than a prophet

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Why We Write

We are the video game generation and these are our stories.

We are not the book nerds that came of age in the 1960s, who feasted on Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land, and the newly discoverd Lord of the Rings. We have read those books. We love those books. But they are not the stories that shaped us.

We are not the movie nerds that came of age in the 1980s, who packed the cinemas to see Raiders, and Blade Runner, and Back to the Future, and The Empire Strikes Back. We have seen those movies. We love those movies. But they are not the stories that shaped us.

We are the game nerds. Super Mario Bros. 3 was my Return of the Jedi. Metal Gear Solid was my Die Hard. Final Fantasy was my Lord of the Rings. I read those games. I love those games. They are the stories that shaped me.

A video game is the best story medium that there is. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the receiver of the story is injected directly into the narrative. You are the hero of these stories. Rather than watch Frodo climb Mount Doom, YOU must scale Death Mountain. YOU must kill the Warlock Lord. YOU must be a bad enough dude to save the President.

The avatars live or die by your intervention. When you pick up a controller, unlike when you open a book or sit down in the theater, the ending has not yet been written. More likely than not, the hero of the story will meet an untimely demise, and it will be your fault. Isn’t it all the more satisfying when it is your own victory, not just the character’s? I think about the tension that flowed out of my body, my hair fell flat and blood rushed into my thigh and my white-knuckled grip on my pistol slackened, the first time I shot Wild Dog in the original TIME CRISIS. No movie gun fight has ever invested me as much as circling that rooftop fountain with Mr. Shades&Duster, trading shots.

The other reason video games are the superior story medium is the dual narrative of player experience and story experience that all video games have. Each game has its story. Save the princess. Kill the aliens. Stop the mad scientist. Each game has scripted events and/or cutscenes to advance this narrative. It may be totally linear, it may be choose-your-own-adventure, it may be sandbox, but there are a fixed number of paths the story can take. That’s story experience.

Story experience is great, but it’s not what makes games a unique artistic medium. That’s player experience. Ever pull off a crazy stunt or outrun a fleet of cop cars in a Grand Theft Auto game? Ever experience a really intense mission in Counterstrike, where you were the last living person on your team and you singlehandedly eliminated a dozen opponents? Ever overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in a real-time strategy game, either through guile or sheer determination? Ever gotten lost in World of Warcraft? That’s player experience. It’s the stories we tell our friends at school or work the next day, the crazy thing you did in the game that only you have done in the game. It’s as much a narrative as story experience, but player narratives are unique to the individual players. I am reminded of my playthrough of VVVVVV, when I spent ninety minutes on a bus from New York to Boston struggling to get the last secret token, fighting and slogging to train my muscle memory to input the correct commands to pass the gauntlet. It was exhausting, but when I had achieved victory, I had not just the story, but a cherished memory of a personal experience that straddled the virtual and the real world. These memories of play experience are certainly nostalgia fuel, but they, along with story experience, like the best films, novels, television, theater, and poetry, are worthy of literary analysis.

When I write fiction, I draw upon the great literary moments in games. I don’t think about the Red Baron, I think about Star Wolf. I don’t think about the Phantom of the Opera, I think about the octopus at the opera. I don’t think about John Carter and King Arthur and Captain Aubrey. I think about Mario and Link and Colonel Blair. I’ve never understood why people shy away from literary criticism of games. Every game tells a story. Even Pac-Man, simple though it may seem, is a metaphor about the human condition. You run frantically through a rat maze, gobbling up as much meaningless crap as you can. All the while a ghost is chasing you.

Games are poetry. That’s why I write, to appreciate the adventures they took me on when I was small. In many ways, I think what Steele and Jesse have tried to do with pixelthèque is appreciate the adventure, the player experience – that pillar of game narrative. I’m excited to share my own analysis, memories, and appreciation of this aspect of the gamer’s narrative.

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.

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