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Sega’s Complaint

Sega’s Complaint

The newest rage in the world of video games seems to be miniaturized classic consoles with a grand selection of their greatest games downloaded into them. After the success of the NES Classic and the subsequent follow-up with the Super NES Classic, you had to know Sega would hop on the mini train at some point. Unfortunately, Sega’s way of getting in on this trend was to hand a blessing to AtGames, which gave the world the Sega Genesis Flashback. And at first glance, the Flashback looks like a delivery from the silicon heavens; it has a whopping 85 games packed into it! That’s four times as good as that lame Super NES Classic and the mere 21 games programmed into it, right?

(Sucking air through teeth…) Well… Yeah, you know how Sega managed to keep shooting itself in the foot and doesn’t produce consoles anymore because of its famously stupid release strategies? Some bad habits are just that hard to snap. That list of “85 Classic Games” is an insult to Sega, the Genesis, and anyone who knows anything about the classic games of the 16-bit Golden Era. The game list includes a list of 28 unofficial, unlicensed games like Air Hockey, Chess, Hangman, Snake, and Wall-Breaking. That means 28 games on the Sega Genesis Flashback are smartphone games you play in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. What’s more forgivable is the inclusion of a handful of difficult-to-find games from the Master System and Game Gear; the Master System selection includes three Alex Kidd games (Alex Kidd held Sega’s official mascot spot until Yuji Naka churned out Sonic the Hedgehog) and the first Phantasy Star game, while the Game Gear selection includes Sonic Chaos and Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble. But when you get to the crux of the Flashback – AKA the Genesis classics, AKA The Entire Damn Reason You’re Buying the Thing – the collection is sorely lacking. Yes, it has a few offbeat choices like Sword of Vermilion, The Ooze, and Chakan: The Forever Man. Yes, it has the Mortal Kombat games. But the whole collection of games that are classics on the Genesis doesn’t give you anything that hasn’t already been made available on any other large-scale collection of classic Genesis games. Hell, you can go out and buy Sonic’s Ultimate Sega Genesis Collection for the Playstation or Xbox for a selection of games that’s better than this. What’s really notable are some of the games that aren’t here: Where the hell is Ecco the Dolphin? What about the notable action RPGs: Landstalker, Light Crusader, and especially Beyond Oasis? In the early, pre-Sonic days of the Genesis, Sega built its 16-bit brand on the strength of its sports game lineup. So where are all of them? Where are the third party exclusives?

Yes, we all give Sega their proper disrespects for nuking their own hardware division. But we overlook all the little mistakes Sega kept making which caused interested gamers to support Nintendo over Sega. We can complain about Nintendo’s family-friendly reputation or the way they keep leaning on their established franchises, but come on! In Nintendo’s case, those are nothing complaints. Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid are at the forefront of Nintendo’s game collections because they’re incredible franchises which have earned premier spots in the hearts of gamers everywhere. It kills gamers that Sega was close to being the juggernaut that Nintendo is. Sega had everything Nintendo did, they stole Nintendo’s market share for a little while, and industry dominance was within their grasp. When you fall from grace as hard as Sega has, though, bad hardware releases are only part of a much bigger problem. Here are some of my own educated ideas about why Sega, with the entire video game world almost theirs, blew it all to hell.

The Genesis Controller

Okay, the Genesis controller looked like Sega was preparing for a leap in game design back when the console was released; it had three action buttons and a concave d-pad, which proved to be forward thinking when games started getting more complex. But Nintendo eventually followed that by including a controller with six action buttons with the Super NES. Now, I hate the Super NES controller with a flaming vengeance, but that’s only because the action button placements – which introduced shoulder buttons – made the thing so uncomfortable for me to hold with my deformed hand. (Sony rescued my ability to play games one console generation later when it introduced the pistol grip.) Nintendo may have been late to the game, but the influence of the Super NES controller can’t be denied. Shoulder buttons are everywhere because Nintendo had an early vision of gaming with six buttons, and the Super NES caught fire just when fighting games started coming into vogue. Most fighting games require more than three buttons – the reigning king of the genre, Street Fighter, needs six, and its close peer Mortal Kombat started out needing five. So mainstream gamers who liked fighting games latched on to Nintendo. While Sega quickly got to work producing a six-button version of its primary controller, they never got around to packing it in with the Genesis. That means if you liked fighting games, you either fought with the clunky three-button layout or plonked down an extra $30 for a single six-button controller. The Genesis versions of Street Fighter II and the original Mortal Kombat may have been superior, but that meant little when they were barely playable with the pack-in controller.

Potential Franchise Abandonment

Real old school Genesis fans might remember Toejam and Earl. The two funky dudes from Funkotron starred in one of the key Genesis exclusives from the early days of the console – it came out just a few months after the first Sonic game. The game was quirky, fun as hell, and came with some of the console generation’s best character design. It was also very unique, and we haven’t seen anything quite like it since. And the characters themselves had designs and attitudes all of their own – they were strong characters. Even making exemption for Sonic’s recent appearance, there was no reason for Sega to avoid pressing ToeJam and Earl as representative characters to their brand; the duo even got a sequel in 1993. And then that was it! Although the two of them were a true 90’s duo – they sported sunglasses and backwards baseball hats – Sega avoided making anything new until launching them on the Xbox in 2002, and there’s been a fourth game in the rumor mill ever since. Much of the same story happened with Vectorman. Vectorman got two action games which are considered among the era’s best. Sega even timed the games to match up with Nintendo’s revival and subsequent reboot of Donkey Kong as a good guy. Like Nintendo, Sega used Vectorman to introduce a new graphic technique. But Donkey Kong got a ton of exposure on his way to becoming an indispensible part of Nintendo’s canon while Sega kept both its awesome new character and beautifully fluid new graphic technique under wraps, and Vectorman was never heard from again unless you count a cancelled Playstation 2 reboot which destroyed everything gamers loved about the originals. RiStar was a star-shaped, long-limbed character developed by Sonic Team who got one of the best platformers of the era before disappearing until showing up in the nostalgia packs. If ANY character was screaming for a mascot role, it was him. Even some of Sega’s tried-and-true characters got shafted. Anyone want to tell me why Shinobi didn’t show up on the Dreamcast after a popular arcade game and three brilliant and beloved Genesis carts? Holy shit, Sega.

Where the Cool Third Parties at?

One of Nintendo’s most infamous and public fuckups with the Nintendo 64 could have been avoided had they only paid more attention to Sega: The failure to secure any good third party exclusives early on. I’m not saying the Genesis didn’t have any amazing third party exclusives, but the ones that could have come in and created a buzz for Sega – like Castlevania Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps – didn’t come in until later in the console’s lifespan. By then, it was getting to the point where everyone who had to go with one console or the other had made up their minds, and the ones partial to both owned both. And Sega wasn’t exactly partial to highlighting the third party games that would have helped their cause. Gunstar Heroes may be a beloved classic now, but almost everyone missed it because no one knew it was there. And you have to look at some of these exclusives: F-22 Interceptor? That was a flight sim where you flew a VERY preliminary version of the jet fighter that eventually became the F-22 Raptor. Toughman Contest was a first-person boxing game in the mold of Punch-Out. Some of these third party games were truly excellent, of course; they helped make the Sega Genesis into the SEGA GENESIS. But they didn’t stand by anything that would have created any franchise recognition.

I Want My RPG

Okay, so when Sega started creating RPGs, they had the deck stacked against them already – Nintendo had Enix and Squaresoft signed as second party developers, and they had delivered Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES. The Super NES gave fans two more Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger, widely considered the greatest RPG ever made. But Sega didn’t exactly start off the RPG standoff from a great deficit; after all, they created Phantasy Star, and for three games, Phantasy Star was able to fight blow for blow with Final Fantasy for 16-bit RPG supremacy. (With hindsight, this looks pretty silly because Phantasy Star – while it acquits itself rather nicely in the bigger picture – hasn’t aged nearly as well as Final Fantasy.) Sega also created the Shining series, a very good series of strategic RPGs which became beloved by its fans. Then Sega took things to the next level… By creating the Sega CD and shoving almost every piece of RPG-related software onto it! I guess Sega figured they were going to get some extra Sega CD sales by placing a genre with hardcore cult fans onto it, but hardcore doesn’t mean stupid. If anyone was stupid, it was Sega for thinking anyone was going to pay the $300 for the Sega CD – more than the Genesis itself – to play a single genre of games. So the Genesis didn’t attract any RPG players, even though Lunar: Eternal Blue, Popful Mail, Vay, and other games were on it because Sega went out of their way to price gamers out. Speaking of the Sega CD…

That Damn CD Player

It cost $300. Was it worth it? Well, RPG players didn’t exactly take to it, even though their favorite genre’s output from Sega was almost exclusively there. The selection of other games on the Sega CD were FMV games which were barely interactive and a list of games ported from having been on the Genesis already, in some cases for months or even years in advance. Yes, the Sega CD had Sonic CD, which is frequently considered Sonic the Hedgehog’s best game (and that’s NOT an opinion I concur with). It had better ports of games that were already classics on the Genesis, like Eternal Champions, Ecco the Dolphin, and Earthworm Jim. But Sonic CD wasn’t worth a $300 add-on and anyone who wanted those classics was already happy playing them on the Genesis. So no, it wasn’t fucking worth it. Not even close.

Taking the Sonic Out of Sonic Team

It’s pointless to prattle on about how Sonic the Hedgehog’s transition to three dimensions ruined him – every other game writer of my generation has covered that at length. I’m going to point out that Sonic’s fall started right out on the Genesis, and that it should have been obvious right from the start. Sonic’s final outing on the Genesis was Sonic 3D Blast, which was primarily done by Traveller’s Tales. Now, we have to note a couple of things about Sonic 3D Blast: First, the game is a technical marvel, and Traveller’s Tales made an obvious herculean effort to get it right. Second, they understood the true appeal of Sonic’s core games: Exploration. Speed was a big part of it, but the real fun was in launching Sonic in a random direction and seeing where he would end up. The trouble happened because exploring was an option in the core games, and if you hated a level, you could always run Sonic out of it as fast as possible. Sonic 3D Blast didn’t have that option. It not only required exploration – a bad enough sin as it was – but it also turned the best part of Sonic into a combination fetch quest/escort mission. Can you think of a worse combination of genres to put together? And to top it off, they threw it all into an isometric view which rendered a lot of Sonic’s signature abilities useless. There’s a safe argument to be made that every sin committed by the 3D titles was some sort of effort to right the wrongs started in Sonic 3D Blast. There’s another safe argument to be made that everything Sonic did wrong since started here.

The Selections on those Classics Collections

You would think that, somewhere along the line, Sega would have learned a few useful lessons. Well, you have to give them credit for a couple of things, anyway: They DID learn lessons. But they didn’t seem to learn the RIGHT lessons. Even now, having made the switch to third party development, they don’t seem to understand much of their own appeal. Look at the numerous collections of Genesis classics they’ve been offering since the Dreamcast days: Toejam and Earl and Sub-Terrania haven’t shown up on any of them! Yet Sega is intent on shoving Golden Axe and Altered Beast down our throats at every turn. Golden Axe is fairly forgivable because of the mix of beat-’em-up gameplay and a strict fantasy setting. But Altered Beast? Look, I know it was a hit and people liked it at the time, but if any popular video game was like pop music, Altered Beast is it. It’s a guilty pleasure that people hate themselves for once loving. It’s more of a gimmick than a game, and not a particularly unique one these days. No one cares about it. On their newest collections, instead of rectifying this situation, Sega threw Alien Storm at us. NOBODY GIVES A FUCK ABOUT ALIEN STORM! We barely give a shit about Golden Axe, and Alien Storm is just a slightly deeper version of Golden Axe with a sci-fi slant! Meanwhile, Beyond Oasis has shown up once, Dynamite Headdy has shown up once, Toejam and Earl and Landstalker and Light Crusader have all been absent, Shining in the Darkness has shown up once, RiStar has shown up twice, and where the fuck is MUSHA?! Iconic third party games are gone. Furthermore, every game they release was available for the Genesis. A few games from the Sega CD would be nice inclusions. Sonic CD, as mentioned, is still widely considered the best Sonic game ever made. The FMV games – especially Night Trap, which was mentioned in congressional hearings – should be included for posterity’s sake. And, again, they’re not placing any third party games on these things, so iconic titles like Aladdin and Castlevania Bloodlines still aren’t available to 16-bit fans who never owned them. Yeah, Sega seems hell-bent on applying its shitty console release strategies to its classic collections.

Where are the 32-Bit Classics?

I guess Sega’s 32-bit failures have given them the impression that no one cares about their offerings from that doomed era, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Chaotix, Clockwork Knight, the Virtua Fighter games, Daytona USA, Panzer Dragoon, Nights, Shinobi Legions, and a grab bag of other games are not only remembered, but loved. So where have they been hiding?

The Coolest Part of Sonic and Knuckles

Sega had a dream when it released the first Sonic the Hedgehog game: Being able to hook it up to a cartridge of a future game in the series. And by the time Sonic the Hedgehog 2 rolled around, it wasn’t a dream anymore; Sega was well aware of the fact that they could do it. And they designed a few areas of Sonic 2 with that whole concept in mind. Sonic 3 came in and went, and Sega did the same thing. Then came the fourth game in the series, Sonic and Knuckles, and the concept came to fruition. You could physically hook Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 up to Sonic and Knuckles to play through both of those games as Knuckles and open up new areas. The concept was taken to a new length in Sonic 3, where Knuckles had access to places which felt like an entirely different game, and which also offered the option of playing through Sonic and Knuckles as Tails. Then the nostalgia packs came out with every Sonic game on them, and this whole concept was entirely absent. That’s leaving chunks of all three of those games closed off to exploratory players. (And it also begs the question: Why did Sega use that technology only that one time?)

 

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The Worst Video Game Controller Buttons Ever

The Worst Video Game Controller Buttons Ever

If you’ve ever spent a lot of time playing video games, you’ve certainly noted the fact that not every controller is created equal. I can go on to amend that by saying that not every button on a controller is created equal, either. You would think that as game controllers and games themselves got to be more complex, designers would figure out how to make use of auxiliary buttons better. And, well, they did, but that doesn’t mean every button on a controller is going to be used well. And even with games allowing gamers the freedom to change up the control schemes in ways that are best suited to their tastes, some designers just still have trouble assigning decent uses to perfectly good controller buttons.

You know what? You can just blame the popular gaming blog Kotaku for this one. It was one of their famous unspecified lists. I read it, liked the idea, and decided to create my own, but with explanations! So here’s my list of the worst controller buttons ever, with undefined and haphazard qualifications!

10 – D-pad, All Directions

Nintendo 64 Controller

I’m one of the very few people who gave a wholehearted, enthusiastic endorsement to the much-hated Nintendo 64 controller. That, however, was based more on the comfort I enjoyed while I held it, the analog joystick, and the cool Z button. But let’s be honest: The detractors have some solid arguments, and they start with its deadweight of a d-pad. The question about this thing is, WHY?! Why is it there? Why did Nintendo even bother? There wasn’t much of a point, because nearly all the d-pad’s functionality was outsourced to the analog stick – even menu screens used it. And despite gamers widely complaining about getting stuck using the analog stick – you have to remember that this was the very early days of 3D games, and gamers back then had never used analog sticks before – Nintendo forced it onto everyone. Few, if any, games came with an option to use the d-pad, and so it just sat there being useless.

9 – Select Button

NES Controller

The original NES controller is the defining video game controller of all time. Every controller today is based on its interface: D-pad on the left, action buttons on the right, selection buttons in the middle. That being said, one wonders why so few people can still manage to find a valid function for the Select button. Yes, designers have been getting better about it, but the original Select button was damn near useless. It sits there, taking up space, being forgotten. The Konami code didn’t require it. When Sega designed the Genesis controller, it didn’t even see fit to include some form of it, opting instead for a single menu button – a Start button – and three action buttons. When NEC cranked out the TurboGrafx-16 and almost carbon-copied the NES controller, it tried to be a bit more inventive – the way to reset most Turbo games is to press its Select and Run (the Turbo’s Start) buttons at the same time, but it still didn’t give poor Select a real function. In just about every form, Select sits, inconspicuous in its form, limited in its function, and you get the feeling that in 99 parallel dimensions, it doesn’t exist at all. As opposed to this dimension, where it just might as well not exist.

8 – D-pad, Left

Various Controllers in the 8- and 16-Bit Eras

We can argue about the real origins of the side-scrolling adventure game until the cows come home. But what will never, ever change is that fact that Super Mario Bros. is the inarguable point where games started to model themselves on it. What did the game do? Scroll. Where did Mario start? On the left. Where did he go? To the right. Thus, a permanent template was created, and video game characters forevermore started on the left and moved to the right. This mindset enveloped games so much that, if you’ve ever gotten ahold of one of the very rare games that does it the other way around – or, hell, if you’ve even played a game that so much as offered a single level that does it – it feels completely unnatural. So where does that leave the poor left button on the d-pad? Well, there’s no denying that it has a lot of importance. After all, a gamer needs to have room to dodge, set up defense and counterattack, and weave. But there is a whole genre of game where the characters can’t even turn left! There are a lot of other games where gamers aren’t allowed to backtrack, including the original Super Mario Bros. itself. So how’s left as a useful controller button? Of course, this has been dying out since games started going 3D, but gamers around my age remember when there was one direction to move in, and it was the right.

7 – Z Button

Gamecube Controller

The thing about influential inventors and innovators is that we tend to only look at their successes. We ignore their failures completely. And everyone who ever invented anything has failed a lot more than they’ve succeeded. Nintendo, for all their influence, has made a lot of controller shit. You would be amazed how many people think their greatest work is the Gamecube controller. While a comfortable controller, it contains a LOT of obvious blights. None are worse than that Z button. Almost certainly crammed onto the Gamecube controller purely as an afterthought, the Z button sits tucked near the R button as nothing more than an auxiliary menu button. It feels like a weird outcropping on the controller rather than a real button, and to press it feels like making it click.

6 – Left Analog Stick, All Directions

All Xbox Controllers

It’s a universally accepted fact that the original Xbox controller was just a really bad idea, but even with the compact model that quickly became Microsoft’s norm, people tend to ignore the unnatural thumb alignments. The now-standard Xbox controller is basically a knockoff of the Playstation’s Dual Shock, which would be just fine if not for the unusual placement of the left analog: It sits above the d-pad rather than below it, while the right analog is distal to the d-pad. This setup takes a little bit of practice before your thumbs manage to adjust to it, and even when they do, it never seems to develop into anything natural. Now, this isn’t so bad in a lot of games because the double analog setup usually doesn’t mean very much – the sticks are used to perform two different functions. But if you’re into fighters or first-person shooters, THEN it gets to be an annoyance. The problem is more muted in fighting games because you only need a single d-pad to play them, and the proper d-pad is often an option, but nothing feels right about quarter-circle or double-tap motions with the analog so far away from the grip. In first-person shooters, it gets pervasive because you need both sticks for basic controls, and nothing about the movement/viewpoint setup feels right.

5 – Buttons L and R

Saturn Controller

Sega had led a wave of innovation with the Genesis and the Dreamcast, but it seems like they were playing catch-up during every phase in between. After gaming evolution wrecked the original Genesis controller (as well as the ability to play fighting games on the Genesis), Sega knew it couldn’t go on with anything less than six buttons… Which it included on the Saturn controller as buttons A, B, C, X, Y, and Z. You might notice that this means the Saturn controller HAD six buttons WITHOUT adding L and R! So in its attempt to keep up with the Joneses – the Joneses in this case being Sony and Nintendo, both of whom adopted shoulder buttons – it added a couple of plastic shells to the Saturn controller which it placed on top and referred to as “buttons.” They were there as replacements for the Mode button on the Mega Drive, which is video-game-ese for, “they didn’t do jack shit.” Basically, Sega put a pair of keep-up buttons on a controller strictly for decoration.

4 – D-pad, All Directions

Gamecube Controller

It would be pretty easy for me to make this argument by just copying and pasting my entry for the Nintendo 64 controller up there. But, to reiterate, the damn thing is useless. And the Gamecube controller comes with the added bonus of being far too small for it to be comfortable to use. The thing is about the size of the Game Boy Advance d-pad; not something that one would expect a real, adult-sized hand to fight with on a big boy video game controller.

3 – Buttons L3 and R3

Playstation and Xbox Controllers

No one thinks of these buttons, and there’s a good reason why: They tend to be obscured by being hidden inside the analog sticks. You press them by pressing down on the sticks; I don’t mean hitting the directional stick in the down direction, I mean it in the sense of applying pressure to the stick. Imagine trying to crush it between your thumb and your hand. This is one of those “break glass in case of emergency buttons,” to be used in case there’s no other place to put a weird, offhand function. Useful functions placed inside the sticks feel like they’re being forced there, so designers compensate by trying to hide optional, offhand junk functions into them. The sirens in the Grand Theft Auto games were put into the L3 and R3 buttons. There’s a reason why these buttons do such weird things: They’re impractical and they don’t press easily. Even the engineers at Sony and Microsoft think they’re jokes; there are gamers who have owned those consoles for years without ever figuring out these buttons even exist.

2 – C-stick, All Directions

Gamecube Controller

This was another result of a Nintendo attempt to drag gaming evolution in a direction it clearly wasn’t going to go in. This had its origin in the Nintendo 64 controller, which had four singular buttons pointing in four directions referred to C Up, C Down, C Left, and C Right. Those were intended to be camera buttons, but they ultimately functioned as the action buttons they were destined to be. The C-Stick is sort of just… There. It just sits, innocuously, not doing anything one way or the other because it’s another instance of designers – including Nintendo itself – not knowing what to do with it half the time. Now, the idea wasn’t a bad one – it placed an increasingly common function into a controller device set aside strictly for it. But it would have been a huge help had anyone been able to figure that out. There were a lot of games in which the C-Stick just wasn’t functional. (Are you sensing a theme yet?) Many other games just outsourced them to the shoulder buttons, which was the common thing to do at the time. What the C-Stick DID do was give FPS buffs a way to finally play their shooters the way they were meant to be played, with one stick to move and the other to look, so I guess it did serve as a camera stick in that capacity, at the least.

1 – L Button

Nintendo 64 Controller

Wow, what a blunder this sucker was. Now, when Nintendo made the Nintendo 64 controller, it did so with the idea of offering control options to gamers. As we’ve already seen, though, those options never, ever came into fruition. The L Button from the Nintendo 64 controller was supposed to be used in conjunction with the action buttons, the R Button, and the Z Trigger (which, by the way, looks like it will make my list of greatest video game buttons). But forget a controller that intimidates people who have all ten fingers – the Nintendo 64 Controller required three hands, or at least it would if the entire left side wasn’t so flaccid. The L Button’s work on the Nintendo 64 Controller was outsourced to the Z Trigger. When the Nintendo 64 was introduced, the Z Trigger was already a lively button – the hand-form pistol grip made it easy to reach and keep your index finger on at all times, and that made it useful for a handful of its own functions. It changed the way we look at first-person shooters. But all of the usual L Button functions were also automatically handed over to the Z Trigger too. Few games offered options, and even in the very few games in which the d-pad was at least usable in SOME way – such as a menu screen – the L button just sat there, outcast to the point where it should have come equipped with its own little anarchy sign.

Birth and Death of an NFL Loyalty

Birth and Death of an NFL Loyalty

When I moved to Chicago, the Buffalo Bills hadn’t yet reached irrelevance. In fact, despite their record for the previous year being 5-11, they still seemed like a fairly safe option to get behind. Drew Bledsoe had spent three years in Buffalo and led the Bills to the edge of contention in two of them. He was unceremoniously shoved out the door after the 2004 season to make room for 2004 Draft pick JP Losman, and the team had also dug up Lee Evans and Willis McGahee, respectively a receiver and running back. Both of them were oozing with talent. So if anything, 2005 could have been written off as a growing pain year. But it still panned out in what has since been acknowledged as typical Bills fashion: The Bills not looking bad early in the season, with a 3-3 start after the first six games, only to win just two of the remaining ten.

In Chicago, the Bears appeared to be undergoing the long-promised resurgence. Their record was the mirror opposite of the Bills’ record, and that 11-5 was enough for them to claim the division crown. Their offense wasn’t good, but as any follower of the Bears will tell you, proper Bears football was never about putting points on the board; its always been about keeping points off the board. In that respect, the Bears delivered, and their 202 total points against was enough to lead the NFL. The Bears had even gone the opposite of the Bills in delivering their record; with a 1-3 record after the first four games which looked like another one of the team’s endless post-1985 write-offs, the Bears tore off on an eight-game winning streak before a 2-2 split in their last four games. Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton (whom the Bills once yanked out of retirement to lead them to their second winning season this century) pulled just enough decent plays out of his ass to let the Bears fall back on their defense after slated starter Rex Grossman was injured. First round Draft pick Cedric Benson, a running back, suffered a similar fate and had a contract dispute which kept him away from training camp. He was replaced by journeyman Thomas Jones.

I expected to be spending much longer living in Chicago than I did, so I did what my mother did when she moved to Buffalo: I adopted the local teams but held on to my original loyalties. It seemed to be the natural thing to do, even though I didn’t feel a natural draw to most of the local teams. Most of them were pretty easy to talk myself into, though, because there’s little I respect more than a good history, and Chicago’s teams had those in spades. The Cubs and White Sox were both originals teams in the NL and AL for baseball; the Blackhawks were a member of the Original Six; and the Fire had been one of the most stable and consistent teams in MLS since the league was created. The Bulls were a relative baby – they were an expansion team from the late 60’s, some 20 years after the NBA’s formation and the failure of other professional basketball teams to take off in Chicago.

The Bears were one of the founding members of the NFL, and over the course of their history, they accumulated more wins than any other team any more titles than every team except the Green Bay Packers. Every amateur football historian knows that. Every football fan knows the Superfans and the Super Bowl Shuffle. I arrived in Chicago just weeks after the Steelers beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, which meant I got to spend the summer updating myself on Bears history, and there were some pretty cool things to learn: The 1940 NFL Championship, with the Bears winning a 73-0 squeaker over Washington. It set records for points and point differential. (Gee, ya think?) The Sneakers Game, the dynasty of the 1940’s. But my brain started telling me something was slightly amiss because all the Bears writings and paraphernalia emphasized one thing: 1985. I learned more about the 1985 Chicago Bears than I did about any other era in NFL history because it was the only thing Chicagoans seemed to care about.

I ignored that weird feeling, though, because in 2006, the Bears hit a high they hadn’t attained since 1985. They paced the league at 13-3 and finally made their return to the Super Bowl. Even though they were decisively waxed by the Colts, they won me over on account of the fact that they made football FUN again. The 2006 Bears were third in points against and – absolutely fucking incredibly – second in points scored. Rex Grossman was healthy the whole season. Thomas Jones set the tone on the ground. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs made countless big plays on defense. Kick returner Devin Hester became the team’s secret weapon, running seemingly every other kick into the endzone. The Bears started the season by beating Green Bay 26-0; it was the first time Packers quarterback Brett Favre had been shut out since high school. In week six, they posted an incredible comeback win over the Cardinals, returning from a 20-0 deficit without scoring a single offensive touchdown. Eight of their players showed up in the Pro Bowl. After a 40-7 hammering of the Bills, the first thing I said to my mother was, “40-7?! Please explain that.”

Chicago fans have a national reputation for being rabid and knowledgeable, and during 2006, they were living up to it. In the buildup leading to the Super Bowl, it was impossible to not see anyone or anything decked out in their colors, but the excitement was still a bit restrained. The Bears were going to be facing the Colts, after all, and if there was one name away from 1985 that Chicago knew, it was that of Indianapolis star quarterback Peyton Manning. I developed a respect for the fans because even though they were hoping for the good outcome, they were still tempered with the realization that this was going to be Manning’s year. That should have done the trick.

The euphoria surrounding the Super Bowl didn’t even last through the offseason, and my perception of Bears “fans” was put to the test in the first regular season game of 2007. I asked a co-worker what he thought about the Bears’ odds of beating their first opponent, the San Diego Chargers, and his response was just, “Huh?! Oh, I dunno. DA BEARS.” The Bears lost the game 14-3. During the season, it became apparent that 2006 was an anomaly that came from hitting an early peak and playing two patsy divisions (the NFC West and AFC East) during a time when the NFC was going through a power void. The better AFC West and NFC East were both on the schedule in 2007, and while the Bears acquitted themselves well, they still lost too many key matchups against pushovers and finished 7-9.

2007 was the season that set the tone for my years failing to support the Bears. The team turned from a contender into an indifferent nonentity. Nothing symbolized that more than a running back controversy between Jones and Cedric Benson. While Benson was a first round pick, he wasn’t as good as Jones in any of the ways that matter in his position. The Bears dumped Jones anyway, and that lopping – which turned out to be as bad as every football fan said it would be – gave fans the excuse they needed to spend the year at lunch. The team was facing an uphill battle in the hearts of Chicagoans anyway; the Cubs had hired Lou Piniella as their manager that year and come out on the top of an exciting division race with the Milwaukee Brewers. For all intents and purposes, they looked ready to contend.

The 2007 season ran by inconspicuously. The Bears reversed their record to end the following year at 9-7, but good luck finding anyone who remembers anything that happened. Okay, well, fans knew two things: Rex Grossman sucked and needed to be replaced, and Matt Forte needed to be the new featured back. If we throw in the constant comparisons to the 1985 Bears, that makes three things. Basically, a Super Bowl euphoria was followed with two seasons of blah before the coming of Jay Cutler. The Bears had needed a good quarterback since Sid Luckman back in the 1940’s so badly that fans managed to talk themselves into thinking Jim McMahon was good. Cutler’s first season was maddening. After watching Rex Grossman’s power bombs from 2006 (he’ll always have that one year), Cutler played remedial football. It was routine for the Bears to hang 48 on the Lions in one game, then lose 10-6 to the 49ers in another. They lost 45-10 against Cincinnati but hammered Cleveland 30-6. As often as there were dazzling performances from Cutler, there were weeks when I could have outplayed him, and I can barely throw a football.

The Bears, in short, were not an endearing team to watch. Their style was as boring as it was outmoded. A bad team can still be fun, but a boring team commits the ultimate crime of sports. What really got to me, though, was the constant harkening back to 1985. Buffalo lost the closest Super Bowl in history because of a missed last-second field goal, but the fans managed to let it go. In Chicago, the Bears WON the fucking game 30 years before, and the fans were convinced that crew of brainless headhunters played the most modern version of football possible. They lionized Mike Ditka, a bad coach lucky enough to ride a good defensive coordinator with a load of talent, and one of the loudest stupid people in sports. 

It was in 2010 that I decided something was badly amiss. The 2010 Bears went 11-5 and won their division, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were, well, good. Racking up wins is one thing, but for a team to be legitimate, it has to be beating opponents in some very specific ways. The first game of 2010 was the famous Calvin Johnson Rule game, where Calvin Johnson was robbed of a touchdown because of an obscure and inexplicable rule about “completing the process.” (That was the official term used in the rules.) The touchdown happened right as time ran out, and it would have won the game for Detroit. That was the setting for a season in which the Bears somehow caught all the lucky bounces. A contender doesn’t win with luck; they beat bad teams decisively and take what they need from the good teams. That wasn’t the Bears of 2010. The Bears took very few chances while nature fell in their favor.

When the fans started endorsing the way the Bears were playing, I stopped trying to wrap my mind around them. The way the fans thought was that hey, the Bears were in first, they must be good! Never mind the fact that the Bears barely beat a 4-12 Bills team in Toronto by only three points, or that they got whomped by two teams with losing records, or that they couldn’t take a game from the eventual Super Bowl winner despite holding them to just ten points. When Green Bay exposed the Bears for what they were in the NFC Championship, fans were flabbergasted. Jay Cutler was removed during the game because his knee was visibly out of place, and every fan in Chicago told him to toughen up. Then they bitched about how much better the current backup was.

2010 was my last football season living in Chicago. Since m time in Chicago had been such a huge game-changer, I tried to remain loyal to my adopted teams, but ultimately the Blackhawks and White Sox were the only ones that made it out with me. I never took to the Cubs, and I dumped the Fire almost immediately. The Bulls held out a bit longer, but after some time being a Buffalo sports fan again, I realized that I was frequently finding solace in watching the New York Knicks rather than the Bulls, and the Knicks finally became my official team. As for the Bears, they proved to be my ultimate holdout, and my slip on them was gradual. As I got adjusted to watching the Bills every week again, I just got more into the games than I ever did following the Bears. In Chicago, I was always eager to learn the Bills scores. I never felt any pull to the Bears, and in one Monday Night Football game where they were dominating the other team, I realized that I just didn’t care. I should have been euphoric, but I didn’t feel much of anything aside from my brain telling me to jump up and down screaming my lungs out.

And that was pretty much it. The final nail in the coffin was coming out to Seattle and finding a huge pocket of raging football fans who knew their team and loved their sport. I chatted up a playoff game one night at work that the Seahawks lost, despite making a stirring near-comeback. When I told my co-worker that it would have been the second-greatest comeback in league history, he knew what the biggest one was. The fans were so good that they were the first thing I latched on to in order to find some semblance of familiarity. The Seahawks also offer a lot more than the Bears – a fleet young quarterback in Russell Wilson, a dynamic running back in Marshawn Lynch, and a dominant group of defensive backs known collectively as the Legion of Boom. Within a few months, I had embraced the Seahawks. The Bears were dead to me.

Sports Fandom Lessons from My Mother

Sports Fandom Lessons from My Mother

Football season is now here, and you know what that means: It’s time for those of us in real civilization to unleash our inner beasts! We’ll get drunk at the oddest hours of the day, get in drunken fights for no reason, and refer to specific teams in the first person as if we have anything to do with their success on the gridiron. At least it certainly seems that way. The truth is, there are good and bad ways to be a decent fan, and the people who get highlighted in news reports just happen to be on the animalistic side of things.

Football was one of those personal hand-me-downs from my mother to me. She was the true football fan in the family, and the one who taught me how to be a good fan. Here are some of the things I learned about being a good sports fan that came from her.

1 – Your love for a team should spring from a love for the sport itself. Sports are ultimately entertainment, so your civic pride doesn’t mean a whole lot if you’re forcing yourself through a sport you think is a screaming bore.

2 – Yes, it’s perfectly okay to be loyal to more than one team. In fact, it’s the far more sane option if one of your teams is going through a rough patch. It doesn’t matter which team it is, either; mom was loyal to the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets for her whole life, as a Long Island native who settled in Buffalo. Just make sure you abide by that key word: Loyalty. No stopping your fandom for one just because they’re bad, and no adding the team of the moment just because they’re good.

3 – It’s okay to skip a game if you don’t think it’s going to be much of a contest. In fact, this is another great way to keep ahold of your head during a rough patch. At the very least, you can find another game to watch which will hopefully be better.

4 – Along those same lines, it’s okay to flip off your own team’s game and do something else altogether if the contest gets out of control. If the game is boring, or over after ten minutes, or both, what’s the point in trying to sweat it out and endure? My mother admitted to having a soft spot for the Baltimore Ravens a few years ago because, “They’re the one team I’ve never seen give up in a game.”

5 – Even if you hate a team with every fiber of your being, if they’re truly good, show them a little respect. This goes back to the previous rule about loving the sport more than the team. Really, it’s what fans will sometimes say about hating players, but loving them if they’re on their team.

6 – Watch the game with a sense of objectivity. Really, there’s little in sports fandom than having the mindset that the league is against your team. A lot of blown calls by the “refs against your team” are in reality the result of your team blowing a play. Much we all hate to admit it, football fans all know The Forward Lateral was simply a lateral and that it was the result of piss-poor kickoff coverage. I’m MUCH harder on the No Goal fiasco of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, but even I’ll admit that Brett Hull makes a few points in its defense.

7 – Tempting as it may sometimes be, don’t hold grudges for bad things other teams did to yours ten years ago. That’s just immature. (Mom never quite got over the Wide Right game, but she never held it against the Giants, either.)

8 – Perplexing as it may be, other people might not necessarily be fans of the same team that you are. Although I myself am of the idea that opposing fans should not be allowed to get too settled in at your team’s stadium, that doesn’t mean they should ever be personally assaulted. As a corollary, they should be treated like guests again once the game is over.

Easy Setting Gamer

Easy Setting Gamer

A few weeks ago, I bought the Playstation 3 classic Bioshock Infinite. After a few marathon gaming sessions, I managed to bound through the game, and as I write this, my position is on the final airship, locked in an epic battle against other airships which procure soldiers and robots onto mine. The object is to make sure the power source on my airship stays up and running while blowing up the other airships. That would be easier if the enemy airships weren’t slamming me with some of the most dangerous and difficult enemies the game can throw at me.

The irony is that I’m playing Bioshock Infinite on the easy setting. Does anything about the scenario I just described sound easy? For a point of comparison, I also bought the original Bioshock, which I’m playing on the normal setting. Now, I should point out in fairness that even though these two games bear the same series name and several common elements, they are two totally different games. Bioshock is done in the first person, but it otherwise has the feel of a common survival horror game – the challenge is in the many ways the game deprives players of the equipment they need to stay alive. The atmosphere is one of suspense and dread, and the player has to learn to maximize every available resource or they’ll be dangerously underequipped at points when it counts. Bioshock Infinite is a true shooting game; enemies are everywhere, ammunition is expendable, and the primary challenge is in not getting hit with bullets. But even so, I’ve only just entered the second area in the original Bioshock. It’s nearly as awesome as Bioshock Infinite, but with the difficulty up a little, I’m more like slowly hacking through it. I keep getting stymied in the same place.

I’m an easy setting gamer. I find nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, a lot of gamers seem to disagree. And that line of disagreeing gamers runs right up to and includes the people developing the games. Easy-shaming is a video game trope that’s been around for quite a long time. Easy-shaming is a way game developers mock gamers who play through a game on the easy setting in some way. Some games are more blatant about this than others; in Art of Fighting for the Super NES, the reward for beating the game on the easy setting is the word “CONGRATULATIONS!” displayed on the screen as it echoes on the soundtrack. That’s depriving gamers of the real ending. Back in the 16-bit Era, it would take on much nastier forms. Streets of Rage 3 only let easy setting gamers play through the fifth level. If a gamer got that far, it gave an ending which mocked them. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi simply cut back to the intro screen after a victory and told gamers to try the next difficulty level. Shadow Dancer is an extreme case because you didn’t get the real ending until beating the game on its hardest setting.

Some games don’t even wait that long to make fun of gamers. They’ll have an easy setting named “wimp mode” or “wuss” or something equally as degrading.

I tend to prefer to believe that this way of psyching gamers out is a way for developers to make up for their own shortcomings with making the game. Veteran gamers all know that an increase in challenge levels means the developers have to come up with a way to jack up the challenge, and that they sometimes suck at this. Sometimes enemy attack patterns change, sometimes the game speeds up, sometimes the levels get flooded with more baddies, and sometimes enemies have more health and do more damage. Increasing the challenge is more than just flipping some code switch. That means that developers tend to run low on creative ideas for how to do it themselves. The Madden series is famous for its catch-up speed. One of my favorite role-playing strategy games, Shining Force II, didn’t do anything except make the enemies far more aggressive on higher settings. Fighting games are probably the worst about driving the challenge high. They get cheaper, and the computer is faster and suddenly equipped with an array of techniques the game’s physics don’t ordinarily allow. Mortal Kombat II, for example, let the computer throw the player when the player tries to hit it with an uppercut. That’s a move which just isn’t allowed with two players.

I’ve never gotten along with easy-shaming. The core idea which surrounds it seems to be that gamers play games strictly for a challenge and should do everything in their power to make the games as hard as possible. That’s a philosophy that I disagree with. One reason is that back in the 16-bit Era – which, should you need reminding, is the one I grew up with – the idea that games should be as hard as possible was little more than an excuse for developers to pad games. It meant being lax on real creativity in favor of jacking the challenge up to a bruising level, so even good gamers wouldn’t stand a chance. Essentially, it was a way to make a cheapo.

A good challenge is a nice thing to have in a video game, but it’s not something I consider a requirement. In fact, if the game gets too difficult, I frequently get frustrated with it. This isn’t the 70’s anymore, and no one plays video games to run up a score counter. Since the onset of the NES Era and Super Mario Bros. changing everything about the way we view games, they’ve been good for transportation. Escape. Imagination’s fertilization. And the onset of 3D games has only emphasized that. When we play 3D games, we want the freedom to run off and explore vast, complex worlds to our heart’s content. When developers try to limit how far a gamer can get or what they can do just because they don’t agree with the difficulty the gamer is playing on, it makes them look like a bad football coach complaining about the refs. It’s outright infuriating if one particularly difficult object or enemy is blocking you from a section of the game.

Furthermore, part of that escapism is trying to cope with real-life frustrations. Easy-shaming is a mindset for kids, but all the people who were kids when easy-shaming started grew up long ago. They’re adults themselves now, and they have everyday stressors which get the better of them more often than they would like to admit. As anyone with any rudimentary psychological knowledge will tell you, stress is about control, and adults worry a lot about control over little things in their lives. We feel stress whenever things start to fall out of our control, and we react in different ways. Video games are a good way to deal with stress in a safe and fun fashion. If the player is forced to ramp up the difficulty in a padded game in order to open something up, they’ll turn into one of those walking cliches about people who keep getting stonewalled. They’ll start to feel a loss of control in their video game as well, at which point their stress-coping mechanisms will switch over to beating up the controller… Or something else that happens to be in the vicinity.

Games have also been accepted as an art form now. The only people left who oppose that idea are talking Helen Lovejoy heads. (“THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!”) The last real, notable critic of video games being art was Roger Ebert, who died some four years ago. And Ebert, one of the classiest people and smartest interpretive thinkers to put pen to paper, backed off a couple of years before his death. He never accepted video games as art, but a time did come when he admitted that he was in over his head and no longer knew the subject the way a critic should. In any case, forcing gamers to play at higher difficulty levels detracts and distracts from a game’s artistic value because it mutes the feelings being telegraphed by the artists. Where the real emotion when a game is too busy conveying frustration, confusion, and anger because of an asshole developer? There’s little to be appreciated in art if the artist is clouding the emotions they’re trying to convey in more conflicted emotions. If the gamer quits, there’s no point. If they push through anyway, what they’ll feel more than anything else is a sense of relief.

In short, I play video games to see different realities. I want to see the magic of a good story unfolding. I like a well-made piece of art. I don’t think I deserve to be condescended to just because my desire for those things overrides my desire to get angry with a form of entertainment.

 

The Best of Chicago in Ten Years

The Best of Chicago in Ten Years

Seattle Weekly ran its Best of 2017 issue today. On the introductory page, they ran a piece predicting the future. What would the Best of Seattle be in 2027? I liked that idea and knew I had to rip it off. Here is the Best of Chicago in 2027.

Best News Story

Be honest: When Chicago’s street gangs, underground activist groups, and police colluded in 2024 because they were sick of getting abused by National Guard soldiers here by Donald Trump’s martial law edict, we thought it would be a tenuous alliance at best. They would barely get along, do just enough to fight back, and return to their prescribed places after everything was over, win or lose. But that didn’t happen! Everyone got along swimmingly, and the tide of the war turned as the Red Star Alliance smashed the Guard’s front lines on every street from Madison to 95th. They chased the Guard out for good with a quick and decisive victory against the Bronzeville Bulge, coming within a hair of killing Trump himself when he showed up to lead his henchmen in Bronzeville… And failing only because Trump boarded the first helicopter out when he realized that hey, war is dangerous.

After that, the Alliance stayed together. The violence and murder rate dropped instantly, and notoriously dangerous Chicago was suddenly one of America’s safest cities almost overnight. The Alliance’s quest to rebuild Chicago’s ruined neighborhoods has resulted in an influx of adult education centers, after school programs, and job services for anyone in need. But nothing they’ve done so far is on the level of what they’ve created this last year: A set of independent banks and credit unions which found a way to offer loans out to wannabe homeowners and wannabe business owners without any interest. Between that and the residents of the South Side now getting in touch with their creative dreams, the ruins of the Martial War are sparking back to life faster than anyone could have imagined.

Best Real Estate Story

Willis had to know that its attempt to buy out the name of the Sears Tower wasn’t going to go over very well. But the latest sale of the iconic building has finally placed it in the hands of an owner who has decided to restore the tower’s rightful name. The Sears Tower has finally returned to us, and the city has taken the extra step of declaring the name of the building – not the building itself, but its NAME – a historic landmark so this kind of thing never happens again. The city has also decided to punish Willis by attaching its title to the now-former Trump Tower, a move meant to be just as permanent so Willis has to keep its name on a building of shame.

Best Sports Story

In a year of great sports stories – Jonathan Toews retiring a champion after defeating old linemate Patrick Kane and the defending champion Buffalo Sabres in the Final, the Cubs winning their fourth Fall Classic since 2016 over the Seattle Mariners with a 109-win, all-time squad – the best sports story may be the most unusual sports story. When the Bears announced their move to San Diego two years ago, every NFL pundit imagined Chicago would be up in even more arms than the ones the Martial War was being fought with. But the people hardly raised a peep at all. A year went by with no football, then the McCaskeys announced they would bring Bear football back to Chicago!… Only, in an odd twist, “Bear football” meant an entire team of cardboard cutouts of the 1985 Bears. The cutouts stand out on Soldier Field every Sunday and do nothing. Despite that, though, the McCaskeys have made the Bears a financial success, charging $500 a ticket, and Soldier Field sells out every Sunday as the cutouts do nothing and the scoreboard slowly runs the score up to 46-10 over the course of a few hours.

This is more than a fanbase trying to compensate for a lost team. This is one of the most dedicated fanbases in the world apparently not even realizing the team is gone. The cardboard team is more than enough to placate them. A staffer went to one of these football “games” and tried to interview fans. When they pointed out that the team was literally made of cardboard, fans looked downright confused. When they said these Bears aren’t even playing football, the fans simply said that it was BEAR FOOTBALL, REAL FOOTBALL, not the pansy passing game they play today. It’s almost as if the fans don’t even know what football is.

Best L Line

The Circulator would be awesome if the city managed to get around to actually building it. At least there aren’t any construction delays, so that’s a plus.

Best Political Story

Rahm Emanuel is out of office. But what makes this story unique is that the people of Chicago VOTED him out! No other city has even done corrupt politics the way Chicago has done corrupt politics, and Chicago frequently responds to corrupt politics by opting for the evil they know over the evil they don’t know. Now, just to set the record straight, no one thinks the Buck O’Hare Scandal is why people got fed up with Emanuel. His crime was trying to get away with replacing the sweet relish on a Chicago dog with KETCHUP.

Best Art Exhibit

The Real Capone, which got the city to take a hard look at the reality of one of its mythologized heroes. Chicago sells so many little knickknacks with Capone’s face on it, you would think he was some great champion of the people, but Capone was a nasty character. This art exhibit showed the side of him that all the cheap souvenir shops don’t show you: The victims and their families, all in graphic detail. Several souvenir shops around the city have announced that they will cease selling Capone’s merchandise.

Best Architecture Story

Remember how the Sears Tower lost its title of the tallest building in the United States to Freedom Tower years ago on a silly antennae technicality? Well, as it turns out, Chicago was right to lose its mind over it. Several members of that committee were found to have taken bribes from the New York City Government to vote in Freedom Tower’s direction. The committee ended up being rather blatant about this; when a new bank tower in Tallahassee, Florida, which was clearly shorter than both ended up becoming the tallest building in the United States, we knew something was a little fishy. They all lost their chairs and the rightful place of the Sears Tower was restored.

Best Theater Story

The restoration of Englewood from its wholesale destruction during the Martial War has people across the country wondering if Englewood is going to turn into a new Harlem. The notoriously violent pre-War neighborhood has gotten a makeover and a hell of a reputation to go with it. The Halsted stretch of Englewood has given rise to a series of alternative theaters which run every kind of theater known to man. There’s an emphasis on African-American work, of course, with such iconic plays like A Raisin in the Sun and A Soldier’s Play, theater based on the books of Richard Wright and the life of Malcolm X, and poetry interpretations. Much is the district is painted up and down with colorful murals which would have been illegal before the War. The new Englewood Theater District has attracted so much attention that notable African-American playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange have recently announced their decisions to debut new, never-before-seen works there.

Best Pizza

Giordano’s. Eight years running.

Best Hot Dogs

Franks ‘N’ Dawgs. Nine years running.

Best Newspaper

The Chicago Tribune. They own this newspaper, after all.

Best Street

Milwaukee Avenue. The Milwaukee Strip between Ashland and California remains the city’s best-kept secret if you’re looking for unique, out-of-the-way swag.

Best Ice Cream

Margie’s. It’s probably just time to retire them from contention by now.

Best Donuts

Glazed and Infused. Not only excellent donuts, but they deserve credit for the low-key role they played in the Martial War. Alliance spies used to drop off phony donut deliveries from Glazed and Infused under the guise of gifts from those supportive of Donald Trump and the martial occupation. Guard troops loved the things so much and ate so many that they ended up slowing down and being easy pickings for the Alliance.

Best Cafe

Ipsento. Not so much for the coffee as for their version of London Fog.

Best Bar

The California Clipper, which also doubles as an excellent and popular music venue.

If There was a Classic TurboGrafx-16 Mini…

If There was a Classic TurboGrafx-16 Mini…

It was a year or two ago that Nintendo introduced a(nother) really cool idea: They released a miniature version of the old classic NES, the console that turned the middling toymaker into a worldwide phenomenon and household name. The game selection was programmed right into the console. You wouldn’t be able to buy new games for it, and the game selection was good, not great, but it was a great idea and fans wanted more. So in September, Nintendo is giving us more! They’re doing the same thing with their shining beacon to video games, the Super NES, and they’re doing it with a far more impressive game selection than the NES had. The NES edition had a strong selection; there were expected titles like Mario and Zelda, Metroid, Kirby’s Adventure, Ninja Gaiden, and Castlevania, and occasional odd choices like StarTropics, but there were a few clunkers as well: Mainly old arcade dime classics like Donkey Kong, Excitebike, and Ice Climber with a few love-or-hate games like Zelda II and Mario II and a couple of things there just to mess with gamers’ heads. The Super NES selection is far stronger. Provided the never-released-in-the-United States Star Fox II is as good as its reputation, the weakest game in the bunch will be Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country was a solid platformer which is overrated today due to the crime of not really being innovative enough.

This piece isn’t about that, though. My first video game console was NEC’s short-lived entry into the console market, the TurboGrafx-16. I loved the thing, and today it’s a rare console and a sought-after collector’s item. So being a former Turbo owner, I wonder that if NEC were to ever try this, what games should they include on the Turbo? Well, here’s my list of suggestions. I haven’t played all of these games – the Turbo was a difficult console to get games for even when it had something resembling a commercial peak, and today it’s just damn near impossible. But I know my video game history well, and will be making these suggestions based on a combination of personal experience and knowledge earned through my years as a game reviewer.

Bonk’s Adventure

The obvious first pick. Bonk’s Adventure was the game that gave the Turbo a name and face, especially in Japan, where the PC Engine (the Japanese version) outsold the Famicom (the Japanese NES). This is probably the most unheralded platformer ever made. The story of a caveman whose primary weapon is his oversized noggin, Bonk stretched the Turbo to its limits with a variety of ways to literally use Bonk’ head. The deep and diverse array of unique levels: One level takes Bonk through a dinosaur’s GAT track. Another places him in a cave with multiple layers. Others have him riding walking trees across desert quicksand, climbing a really tall tree, bouncing through the clouds, and entering a castle. The grand mother of Bonk’s level design, though, takes you on an incredible near-psychological trip up a waterfall and on a circulatory path where you’re made to watch Bonk’s friends get brainwashed before taking a trip to the moon. The little graphic quirks and touches of humor – a large dinosaur wears a baseball hat, Bonk climbs with his teeth – make this a fun and quite memorable play for those fortunate enough to have played it.

Bonk’s Revenge

The sequel to Bonk’s Adventure is a little disappointing. While Bonk’ Adventure took extra pains to stand out amidst other platformers, Bonk’s Revenge tears down the formula and rebuilds it with something much closer to a Mario game. Revenge more or less leads you down the primrose path, encouraging and rewarding players who stop and smell the roses, in the same fashion we’ve come to expect from any Shigeru Miyamoto game. Even the chikkun army – Bonk’s most prevalent foes from the first game – can be seen lazily lounging around in a lot of different places. So no, Bonk’s Revenge isn’t exactly blowing you through with white-knuckle intensity. What the new approach does, though, is open up each world to new exploration and allow gamers to create their own paths to the finish line. Bonk’s Revenge even introduces that great mechanic of exploratory games, flying, which allows gamers to do that… And it pulls it off. In most games where flying is an option, it’s a novelty which is there strictly to make getting through a level easier. Bonk’s Revenge, however, has the most fully realized usage of flight since Mario, which means there are alternate platforms, paths, and rewards waiting for gamers who take to the skies.

Neutopia

There are two rules of game design engraved in stone with lighting bolts from Mount Olympus:

1 – Never, ever, EVER try to be a blatant ripoff of another game.

2 – If you’re going to ignore rule number one, know what the fuck people loved about the game you’re ripping off.

The way Bonk’s Revenge played made it an affectionate shout-out to the Mario series. Where it was ultimately content to stand with its own persona, though, is where Neutopia goes a lot further with another cherished NES classic: The Legend of Zelda. Neutopia ignores that first rule up there, but it OWNS the second. Neutopia one-ups The Legend of Zelda in one way – it has four ginormous overworlds to explore as opposed to Zelda’s one – and the rest of the gameplay mechanics make it a smoother game overall. Am I saying it’s up to the level set by The Legend of Zelda? No. I’m just saying that its imitators don’t come any more solid than this.

Bloody Wolf

The requisite muscle commandos that had to appear everywhere back in the 1980’s were the stars of this game. Most reviewers seem to like comparing Bloody Wolf to Contra, but the closer comparison is Heavy Barrel. Bloody Wolf manages to do it all one better, though, because it has a little bit of weapon depth and comes with a fully fleshed-out story. There’s even a big unexpected twist right in the middle of the game! This is another game where the levels have more depth than games in similar molds are usually allowed; one level doesn’t end until you rescue all the hostages, another takes you on a wild raft ride,and yet another makes you stage a daring escape from enemy grounds with only a knife. The action is white-knuckle, intense, and never-ending. Rambo would be proud.

Cadash

Maybe you love RPG’s but just don’t have the time to sit down and enjoy a full-time epic adventure? Cadash is the game for you! Just take an ordinary side-scrolling action game and add a few common elements in RPG’s, and you’ll have a full-fledged RPG that can be played in its entirety in under three hours! Yes, there’s a story here, and there’s magic spells and a distinct fantasy world. But the thing is, even with some of the common RPG elements pulled out, you still have a tight and developed story in Cadash. That’s not to say Cadash goes all out with its RPG characterization, though – the combat is straight action and requires reflexes.

Ninja Spirit

Have you ever wondered what you would get if you threw Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden into a blender with a common shooting game? Ninja Spirit feels a lot like the result. Ninja Spirit’s level design isn’t going to challenge your perception of a good video game, but what that lacks, it makes up for in its ability to overwhelm you with bad guys every step. Although Ninja Spirit’s main character, Moonlight (yes, that’s his name), comes equipped with the standard ninja sword, he comes equipped with three other weapons too: The shurikens, plus a powerful and unlimited long range bomb and a sickle and chain. Only the sword there is short range. Plus he can pick up a pair of alter egos which are spirit clones that walk alongside him and can damage enemies just as easily. Fast and intense, Ninja Spirit is a sort of spiritual successor to the old-style arcade games where the object was less to win than to survive. The only difference is that Ninja Spirit has a level structure.

Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III

Yeah, I know: This game is unapologetically cutesy. Parasol Stars looks and plays like a colorful smorgasboard, but it comes off as a wild action/puzzler combination. Although this game is fun enough with a multi-layered combat system, thousands of hidden items to uncover, great bosses, and multitude of challenging levels and strange enemies, it really comes to life in its two-player mode. The second player can add a new element of both offense and danger because the extra help comes in handy, but players can stun one another. Parasol Stars may look like it’s for little kids, but don’t let the cutesiness fool you; it can be chaotic and reckless when you start to really get into it.

Air Zonk

Unfortunately, my Turbo library wasn’t a large one. My exposure to Air Zonk was limited to playing demo booth samples for extended lengths of time, but they did let me get a respectable length into the game. Air Zonk was Bonk reimagined as a futuristic shooter, and it was a great one. It had Bonk’s trademark quirkiness and humor to go with an unpredictable weapons system which included the ability to fly with friends who lanched missiles, and to combine with those friends.

Here are some games I haven’t been able to play, but which are often listed on underrated and underplayed classic game lists:

TV Sports Football

The Turbo wasn’t a good sports console; every sports game released on it lacked a license. This one seems to have been some sort of gaming breakthrough when it came to video game football, though. It featured up to five players and announcers calling every move.

The Legendary Axe Series

The first was the Adventure Game of the Year when it came out. People don’t seem to have taken quite as well to the second, but it has its fans.

The Crush Series

Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush are considered THE two greatest pinball video games ever made.

Military Madness

This was the awesome Advance Wars series before Advance Wars was a thought in its creators’ minds.

Blazing Lazers

Often seen first on lists of the Turbo’s best games, this is reputedly damn near the perfect shooter.

Gate of Thunder

Ditto, but on the TurboGrafx CD.

Splatterhouse

An action game, but it was the earliest forbearer of what is now the popular survival horror genre. Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and the others all owe a debt to the original Splatterhouse. This one received a couple of Genesis sequels before being rebooted decades later on the Playstation 3.

Y’s Book I and II

Another game in the mold of Zelda, but this one includes more traditional RPG elements and abilities, plus the Zelda shout-outs are a lot less obvious.  I HAVE played this, but only the Nintendo DS remake.