Gamers around my age tend to sound like the grumpy old men commenting on any aspect of the newer era’s popular culture: It ain’t what it used to be. In a lot of cases it’s the illusion brought on by the amount of art within the culture that made the cut and proved to have real staying power, but gaming is weird; it’s in constant evolution. I’m currently writing a book about video games, and it’s impressive how many new forms of games that have come and gone in the amount of time I’ve been playing video games.
One of the unexpected side effects of the newer generations of video games on us old gamer dinosaurs has been complacency. Given the capacity to do more things, create more secrets, and churn out better graphic images, video games as of late have gotten much easier. They revolve more around finding items and getting a 100 percent completion mark than challenging the gamer. There’s an occasional exception like the Playstation 2 version of Shinobi, but those are rare, and younger gamers don’t seem to like them. Back when I began playing video games, we didn’t need no one-hunded percen’ m’plete rate! The satisfaction of beating a video game came from getting deeper and deeper into the game, hacking away, learning a little bit from your mistakes each time you played. Replay value was the result of the game kicking your ass time after time until you either won the game or destroyed your controller in frustration, whichever came first.
Over the last few years, I’ve taken up the habit of buying what I frequently refer to as nostalgia packages, collections of 16-bit – or sometimes even older – games placed onto one single disc for the benefit of game preservationists like myself. Although I don’t actually own a Nintendo Wii, I recognize the huge content of downloadable classic video games to be one of the console’s major drawing points. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of old games on my collection of nostalgia packages, and as a mature person now, my controllers all currently remain intact. However, it’s very bemusing to try to play one of the 2D classic action games I loved and die constantly, knowing I would never have been such easy bait back in my 16-bit gaming heyday.
In my book, I’ve made a lot of frequent references to what I call the second level wall. It’s a nickname I pulled out of the air for the sole purpose of describing what was a recurring theme in my video gaming habits: My ability to need only two tries to get through the first level, then getting stuck in the second for weeks or months at a time. I could know the layout of the level, the placements of all the enemies, and the attack patterns of any extra-difficult bad guys or bosses I would have to fight. It would take me forever to pass the second level, no matter what I did, until one day the game would decide to give me a break or two and I would finally conquer the second level, breeze through two or three more levels, and then get stuck again. It wouldn’t take me quite as long to break through my newer stuck point, but it would take time, and the pattern would repeat until I finally beat the game.
I own several nostalgia packages, some from developers looking to preserve their history (Sega), some from developers looking to pawn their dirty secrets off on an unsuspecting audience (Capcom), some representing an collection of games starring a particular character (Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man X), some featuring a lot of good games that have aged poorly (Namco). I can get through most of the Sonic games just fine, but while they were revered for many outstanding qualities, their challenge wasn’t one of them. The first two Sonic the Hedgehog games had their rough spots, but they were a cinch once you knew the games’ patterns; Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was downright easy; only Sonic and Knuckles posed a real threat time after time. (And I’m just going to do Sega a big favor and pretend the ill-conceived Sonic Spinball and inexcusable Sonic 3D Blast never happened.)
Mega Man X was a series I was almost totally unfamiliar with when I bought the Mega Man X package. (Strange that such a hardcore gamer would say that, but I didn’t own any Nintendo consoles until well into the 32-bit console generation.) Having only played Mega Man X4 for the Playstation in the past, I wasn’t expecting to breeze right through the game. Each game is a learning process and a puzzle of its own; as a member of the 16-bit generation, I knew that. But I was expecting a little bit of distance upon my first play. I was at least expecting one or two levels from Mega Man X2 by the time I shut the machine off. But instead, I was able to clear the introductory level that came before the enemy selection screen, and I had to work to earn even that. As for the six other games on that disc, they didn’t grant me that much.
A little bit better was Ristar, a criminally underrated platformer from Sonic Team – the guys who created the core Sonic series – that showed up and became the last really great game for the Genesis when the 16-bit era was all but gone. The first level wasn’t much of a problem, and even though the second level was the damned water level, I still managed to defeat my second level jitters and make it through alive. The problem came with the first act of the third level, in which the game’s difficulty level seemed to skyrocket in the short congratulatory cutscene between the second and third levels. I wasn’t able to make it halfway through what turned out to be a very difficult and tension-filled first act. There was a Gauntlet-like game called Gain Ground on one of the collections which I liked, but my old enemy, the second level, showed up in its usual spot and once again tried to suck all the fun out of the game. I felt real elation upon conquering Gain Ground’s second level for the first time in years.
Nothing compared to the spirit-stealing hellstorm that awaited me when I started up the package from Namco, though. Namco’s classic collection was a strong cast of all-star games from the moldy old days, when games were just games – a time when video games weren’t meant to give you things to explore, secrets to uncover, or deliver memorable gaming experiences in the same way other forms of media gave good experiences, but instead to sadistically kill you off and take more of your money by allowing you just enough clout to believe you could do better. Namco is the developer responsible for quarter-crunchers like Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga. But from my younger days as a gamer, there were two games on the Namco collection which I had never played, but knew about and was interested in: Rolling Thunder and Dragon Spirit. Rolling Thunder was a standard action game in many ways – you moved through a corridor, shooting every bad guy you see. The arcade version of Shinobi would later find success taking after the formula and turning the main character into a ninja. I’ve found some success with Rolling Thunder, but it took a lot of time, and even though I’m better at Rolling Thunder than I used to be, I still have to stay as alert as possible in order to make any progress in it at all.
Dragon Spirit introduced the idea of using independent attacks depending on whether or not your assailants were attacking from the air or ground. It also turned the main character from the usual space fighter pilot into a big blue dragon. Also… Okay, you know what? It’s a unique and damn good shooting game in every way. It’s also one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. The main character, Amur, could take two shots before death, but even in the early goings of the first level, that wasn’t enough of a buffer. I died playing Dragon Spirit. A LOT. It seemed that my old second level wall had reared its ugly head in the first level this time, and I’m still so raw that half the time I play, I still can’t even make it to the first checkpoint. I still never passed the first level. But today, I had my first small victory in Dragon Spirit when I finally made it through the first level and faced down the boss. Dragon Spirit is so hard that I don’t even care that I wasn’t able to beat him. Just seeing him was enough.
Its been a long, strange fight to regain the kind of skills I once possessed as a gamer. But those old games, no matter how frustrating, helped me create part of my drive, and I’m currently very grateful to be reminded of that. Games these days are too easy; they allow constant continues and loading from the last save, the enemies are easier, and the objectives can largely be completed at any time you like. In the old games, you had one goal and you hacked your way through the game until you got there. Not many people win the entire battle the first time. But you hack away and you keep on learning, and as you build experience and sometimes get caught in a wave of good luck, your small victories start to pile up. And sometimes, you win it all.