Nobody loves Dr. Fetus!

SMB: Those three letters are enough to make a gamer recall some of the greatest and (occasionally) some of the hardest times of their lives. Everyone who’s played SMB can think back with a sense of triumph to their successes, and more specifically, to their failures. Sometimes the memories might have more to do with what went wrong, sure, but there is definitely a point at which that success, that victory, is achieved. When that happens, it all becomes worthwhile.

And so it is with SMBSuper Meat Boy.

Oh, you thought I was talking about that other one?

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What a Horrible Night to Have an Incorrect Quotation

As anyone who reads this knows, I’m a legacy gamer of sorts, at least insofar as my mom was playing video games before I was ever born. I was never scolded for playing too many games, even when maybe I should have been, but it was not long before I surpassed her in breadth of knowledge and skill when it came to gaming.

Before any of that, though, I didn’t know the difference between a penny and a quarter.

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DuckTales: Doin’ It Right

Licensed games have been a bit sketchy since time immemorial. These are titles that are directly licensed from popular franchises, typically rushed to production, and (seemingly) used for no other purpose than to deprive unwary gamers (or gift-buyers) of their money. No need to bring up examples; any gamer aware of the breadth of the medium’s history understands this.

The typical licensed game takes something that is close to a fan’s heart and neuters it. Replace a fun story with bored storytelling. Take a narrative suited to its medium and cram it onto a disc. Spend more on advertising than on the game itself. It’s enough to give any fan an allergic reaction to anything near a licensed title. The bottom-line (and deadline) usually trump loving care, as they so often do even with non-licensed games, except that when a non-licensed game flops there are no uber-fans to leap to the forums, their keyboards of fury ablaze with righteous indignation.

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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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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.

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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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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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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