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Category Archives: The Player – Video Games

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.

 

Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

So this is a random, weird thought, but if you’ve been following this blog, you should be accustomed to such by now. I’ve lately been giving a lot of thought to what’s in the head of a video game super villain as they lay out their obstacle course of doom for the hapless hero tasked with navigating wind, rain, and big dudes with powerful fucking weapons to save generic Cool Planet.

Start with the first level. There’s not a whole lot there. To the gamer and the designer, this makes perfect sense because you don’t want to throw your entire weight in the gamer’s direction right in the first level. It’s the training ground, there strictly to give the gamer a feel for the game. Obstacles don’t ask for very much beyond jumping short gaps to wide targets and enemies are all taken out in one shot. But think about this from the villain’s point of view: It probably makes good sense to them, too. It’s the beginning of the game, and the villains aren’t out to conquer more territory because they’ve gotten ahold of everything in sight. Right? Why else would every area a gamer visits be overrun with enemies? Now, if you’re the good guy, you’re probably not privy to announcing your presence with the deck stacked high against you. That makes the good guy some sort of rebel, or secret agent, or some sort of non-threat – if not a nonentity altogether – who is trying to go about the business of killing everyone in sight and slaughtering the bad guy real quiet-like.

From the game’s point of view, that’s why the first level is so easy. No one knows the good guy is there yet. If they’re on the main villain’s radar at all, they’re a blip that can be disposed up easily. Not everyone in the game’s world liked having the enemies take over, so its conceivable that many people in there tried to rise up at some point. Hell, the bad guys may have even taken out whole groups of better-armed good guys. What’s one more person going on a jaunt with a gun? The bad guys stationed on guard at the first level are probably feeling pretty confident because they’ve probably knocked off a few rebels already, and even if they didn’t, they’re trained, armed, possibly have better equipment and vehicular support, and the backing of the entire enemy organization. So if you were the main villain, what would be the point of throwing your entire arsenal at this one person? It’s barely worth making the effort to vocalize the orders.

Well, this new good guy comes in and defies the odds. They leave a bloody and hubrisful trail behind in that first level and have found every safe spot and weakness on the way through it. But… There’s barely any concern. Sometimes people get lucky. The good guys go into the second level, which is more often than not everything they faced in the first level, just expanded. And again, there’s not a whole lot to worry about. They’re a little closer to your evil lair, but your minions are still capable of stopping them. Right?

Apparently not. The good guy blazes through the second level, and word of their little one-person rebellion by this point is starting to get around. You’re not thinking of it as a significant thereat yet, but after cleaning your guards and sentries out of two different places and taking back what you stole from them, it’s starting to turn into a movement. It’s time to take some sort of action, but you’re too busy ruling and keeping the territories you still have to give the good guy any more than a cursory resistance. The third level is the wake-up call, and things start to get a little more serious and challenging. Enemies are better-equipped and can take more punishment before going down. From the grunt point of view, the time for guard duty is over, and it’s now time to begin a real fight against the insolent up-risers. They start counterattacking instead of just defending.

By the next level, word is starting to get out about the unexpected rebel running roughshod over the minions and taking over the outskirts of your stolen land. The ground officers are now seeing it fit to get involved and are running from one strategic location to the next, making sure there are traps and barriers being rigged up strictly for this rebel. The sentries who were around for the first couple of levels are still there, but they’re also scared to death because they all know they’re going to be fodder, so they’re being used more sparingly. And it isn’t helping that whatever mass resistance movement is starting to form behind the good guy is now occupying their retaken territory and capturing whatever’s left of their rank.

Good guy manages to get through that, and now that they’ve gotten this far, you’re starting to realize something: If – and you now know that the “if AND when” of getting rid of them has turned into a legitimate “if OR when” – you manage to successfully kill this rebel, there’s going to be some fallout. No one made it this far before, a large chunk of your forces have been wiped out or captured, and you’re starting to give in-person suggestions to your officers for dealing with them. This is becoming a full-blown war, and that head rebel who you thought was a gnat is going to become a martyr if they get killed. Fortunately, the good thing about depleted territory is that you can condense the remains of your military and launch a real offense at the good guy. And you’re not deluding yourself by now. This one is now a special case and will need to be dealt with through more direct means. (Red Faction for the Playstation 2 illustrates this gradual buildup better than most – it starts with a scuffle between a miner and a guard, and you start to see wanted posters for your character halfway through the game.)

The head rebel is also starting to anticipate the many types of troops, vehicles, strategies, and artillery you’re able to throw at them. It’s starting to give them a sort of mental edge against your own loyal people, so it’s time to start bringing out the stuff you didn’t expect to have to use. Omega Attack Formation using the flying gunships? Isn’t that overkill? The more they run around, the less it looks like it.

But by now they’re past the halfway point and have retaken over half what you took when you moved in. The people are rallying to the cause, the retaken territory is mopped up, and it’s starting to look like your victory – should it happen – will be a pyhrric victory at best. At this point, it’s time to break out the heavy-duty units. Special forces are in, and you’re probably hiring private mercenaries and bounty hunters too just in case. Something is going to have to work, and it has to be soon; most of your lower-end officers are now captured or killed. A couple of your high-end officers are groveling before you, begging for a second chance, and even though these are guys who have come through for you in tough situations in the past, you’re still reluctant to give them another chance because you’re not sure they can pull it off. You reluctantly give those guys their last chance, and give them your strongest equipment and troops to get the job done, but you’re now scared to death because they just failed again.

Face it, Dear Leader: You’ve lost. You now have your hired mercenaries and strongest minions holding on to your base, and any hope you now have of beating the good guys is strictly in the interest of your escape. What’s to do? Retreat, get out, build a new army, and try again. But just when the last vehicle out is ready to take you away, the good guy bursts in. If you were smarter, you would offer them your recently-vacated spot as your right hand, but it’s not like you have anything left to rule. So out you go to answer for your crimes against humanity.

And THAT is why video game levels progress in difficulty the way they do. Make sense?

Game Over

Game Over

My latest video game purchase was sometime in the middle of last year. It included the rare Suikoden III for the Playstation 2, one of the most acclaimed video games that came out during the PS2’s console generation. Everyone who ever played Suikoden III loved it, with the exception of a particular staffer at Netjak who believed the customization system overhaul was hellspawn. So I took it home and threw it into the pile with Fable II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and all those other RPG’s I was hacking through with every intention of beating in my spare time. I bought the game just before my graduation, which meant I wasn’t swimming with the extra time an experienced gamer needs to commit to a 50-hour-long RPG. Someday, though… One of these days, I’m going to find that time and play through it. One of these days, I’m also going to buy that Xbox 360 so I can finish Fable II and Knights, both of which I abandoned just when school started.

Wait now, was that the Xbox 360 or the Xbox One? I always get the two of them confused. I’m also a little unclear on anything that’s going on with the Playstation 4 and the Wii U. Are they even still things? I’ll get to them one day between my bicycle excursions, writing, work, and the school I’m trying to get into. I can’t do everything at once and, aw, fuck it, who am I kidding? I’m a video game nut and an aficionado. I always will be. But in the last year, I’ve turned into a world-class liar in trying to call myself a gamer. Tabletop games have made a surprise – and quite welcome – comeback in my personal life, but I haven’t picked up a video game controller in over a year. It seems hard to believe now, but here I am, barely even thinking about the hobby that spent decades defining my life. All that time dished out exploring every aspect of video games and then going to Netjak to write about those games is in the past. And for those minus-three people who read this blog and were familiar with Netjak, you now know why Netjak hasn’t existed in the last seven years. The staff – mostly in their late-teens and 20’s – grew up and wasn’t able to keep up.

Video games were always a fluid medium. They grew up, evolved, and changed from an outcast hobby for delinquents into an art form acknowledged by academics all over the world. They also embraced better technology to turn from minute-long coin munchers into interactive epics which let the people engaged with them to go at their own pace, exploring the virtual world or uncovering the story as they see fit. Unfortunately, that draws out the length of games to the extent that only outcasts are the ones with the time of day to make a deep run on today’s machines. And time is just the first problem. There’s also the weird business of having video games hooked up to your account; searching everything and trying to blow up every wall for the 100 percent completion rate; online hookups so I can get my ass kicked by someone in East Outer Jahunga; downloadable content; open-world games where travel takes up 50 minutes of an hourlong mission; and padding through eight-piece fetch quests. That’s to say nothing of the aspects of gaming that I was happy to do in games of my own generation: Level grinding; games that shame players for playing on lower difficulty levels; reading box after box of inane text; tutorials; solving surprise puzzles in games that aren’t supposed to have puzzles; and searching for the lost missing items that will let me continue through the final three levels.

I’ve run out of both time and patience to do any of it. If I don’t like a video game right away, I no longer even have the willpower to fight my way through the first four levels in three game hours to see if it gets better. Life is too short and there are good bicycle trails I haven’t explored yet. I no longer care about having ultimate domination over a video game that spent five months kicking my ass in the second level. Simply getting through the game once is accomplishment enough, because with 206 bones in the human body and me needing to know every single one, I don’t want to expend the mental energy trying to memorize layouts and patterns. There’s too much effort in trying to keep track of everything.

Yes, this is me, everyone’s favorite amateur video game historian. This is still me, saying I’ve lost touch with video games because I’ve replaced them with different hobbies and interests. And it’s also me saying that I realized awhile ago that, as an adult, I’m allowed to play video games to two or three in the morning and have, the vast majority of the time, just didn’t. Okay, well, I did have a few Star Wars Battlefront marathons in Buffalo that ran until the early morning after a bad day, but even then I put the games away when too much fatigue set in. I’m not reading about them very often, I’m barely writing about them at all, and when I do keep up with video games, it’s to visit the local used game store to see if there are any rare novelty games that could make a leap in value or to find out what kinds of deals exist. There’s no point to trying to buy the latest game right when it arrives in the store anymore. New games are expensive, and there’s a planet of good games available for under five bucks, so why kill myself over a near-day of wages when I can wait a year for all the new purchasers to get bored?

Portable games have the attraction for me these days, but I don’t yet have my DS and Game Boy Advance so I can play when I go out and am forced to wait for something. But even that attraction is limited, because the evolution of video games has managed to push them to the point where they’re getting to be more than games. There are games now where you pay real, physical money straight out of your bank account to developers who reward you by giving your in-game avatar a new T-shirt. I don’t want to sound like I yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, because if gaming is something they’re into, that’s okay. But the new wave of video games being sold as 100-hour interactive experiences stopped my gaming dead in its tracks. It’s a little ironic for anyone who liked the games that I did growing up: We’ve come to the point where unlimited role-playing is normal and stories run for months. When I was a kid, I dreamed about what video games could be when the technology got to the point where it was that good. But as I get older, the only games I can enjoy with any depth are the simpler games I first played when console gaming was introduced to my generation. It’s not that I wouldn’t be enthralled by the experience; it’s that I don’t have enough time in a session to make a serious dent in one sitting. Everything I did would be hacking through in snippets that were an hour long at best.

The new technology is overwhelming me. Video game irritants used to be limited to what happened in the game’s world. Now they’re showing up in the very act of trying to play the games. We have pay-to-play, wherein developers are basically forcing the gamers to pay by the level. Games are coming with bank account hookups and subscriptions to new content. I don’t care about multiplayer games if I can’t watch the stupid look on the other player’s face when I crush him after performing the super move that caps an incredible comeback; I also don’t like the wave of online bullying the internet’s anonymity included for free. I don’t care about setting up some sort of avatar for the console’s weird little hub.

It’s a little odd to think that one day, people will be wishing tomorrow’s games will be more like today’s games. When I play video games, that’s what I want them to be – games. Nothing fancy. Perhaps this explains why I went to the retro extreme and have embraced the tabletop again.

Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Games are one of life’s simple pleasures. We all love the big outside escapes – travel, movies, museums, arts and culture events, things like that. But those things tend to cost money and take time, and so games provide everyday escapes from the skullduggery of work, chores, and daily news. Games are fun to play, they take your mind off the rest of the world for a few hours, they can bring people together, and you can use them to learn about basic principles of sportsmanship.

The kinds of games available can be drawn into two different categories: Tabletop games and electronic games. Tabletop games are basically games that can be placed on a tabletop so everyone playing can have equal access to the equipment. They are probably better known as board games, but calling them board games tends to leave out various card and dice games. Electronic games are games that are hooked up to a television or computer. Many of them can be played online.

As many people know, I grew up pretty well-versed in the ways of both, but had a clear preference for electronic games. I spent seven years as a critic of electronic games, but tabletop games were recently reintroduced into my life and I started thinking about which type of game is better. So let’s do this! Tabletop games vs. electronic games. One day, I’ll learn.

Gameplay
Remember that I said games can be used to teach the basic principles of sportsmanship? Yeah, if you play a lot of tabletop games, that’s something you’re going to be learning plenty about. Tabletop games require you to have a good sense of humor about defeat, because even a lot of games where you get a significant amount of control over the game’s universe require good, hard luck. It doesn’t matter how much you understand about the laws of probability – if you’re playing a card- or dice-heavy game, you’re going to fall victim to some weird masterstrokes of fortune. The more complex the game, the more odd luck can get. Games like Dungeons and Dragons add an extra dimension with the sheer details they throw in – Dungeons and Dragons itself is famous partially for the number of 12-to-20-sided dice it includes in a package. While little novelties like that are intended to tip the odds, you’re still not allowed to find your favorite number and plop the die down with it facing up, and that can result in things like a dwarf with two hit points charging through a small army of ogres. (That was something that happened to me once playing Dungeons and Dragons.) Electronic games can also require a certain amount of luck. Back when video games were first starting out, one hallmark was the fact that developers were constantly throwing in little glitches and obstacles made to ensure the game always had the advantage. That meant gamers had to deal with traps in scrolling games meant to throw off any sense of rhythm, which could place a gamer in a precarious situation. Other games were loaded with dead ends and unfair traps which the people playing had no way of knowing about in advance, and to make those matters worse, some sadistic developers would randomize those things, which meant a gamer would put a lot of hard work into getting into the game only to get locked in some inescapable room on a deep run. Electronic games also utilized keyboards and controllers instead of dice.
Winner
Electronic games. Although unfair little gameplay quirks will always be a trademark of electronic games, they’re not showing up nearly as often now, while tabletop games are always depending on the luck of the draw or the roll. Besides, having direct control over a video game character through a controller can mean that someone truly skilled will always have a chance. That’s not the case on tabletop games. Yes, there are degrees of skill required to play tabletop games well, but unless you’re sticking to one of the old school staples like checkers, chess, othello, or go – which don’t depend on luck – you’re always going to be reliant on elements of gameplay that are out of your control.

Social Bonding
Despite their competitive nature, a good game can help cement a bond with people you know and create one with people you don’t. This can be especially apparent with tabletop games, because any tabletop game worth its salt requires that you have other people around to play against. (Unless you like to play solitaire.) Unfortunately, that can also be a great weakness for the shy and introverted: In order to really enjoy a good tabletop game, you have to be able to coax others into wanting to visit you to play. Electronic games can also be a source of fun for friendships; even after the game is turned off, a great game can have friends talking strategy and tactics for hours afterward. And while their solitary nature allows them to be enjoyable for a single person, our increasingly online world actually opens up the outside for those willing to take the time to learn online gaming, because it allows people to connect with others anywhere in the world. It’s not unusual these days for real-life couples to say they first met in the online world during a game of Everquest.
Winner
Tabletop games. Yes, it’s possible to meet people online, but there’s the reverse of that as well: Online gaming has become a source of bullying and sometimes crime. There are a thousand different stories of friends and couples who met online, but the faceless nature of electronic gaming has given rise to forms of blatant sexism, racism, and other bad -isms which have discouraged potential gamers who were dabbling in a new hobby. The Gamergate movement exists because of people who believe electronic games are the exclusive domain of a very particular type of person (think a Y chromosome and a low melanin level); they’ve taken to attacking, insulting, and threatening anyone different from them – roughly half the population – for the crime of having an opinion. You never heard of behavior like this developing from tabletop gamers.

Storytelling
It’s hard to find a good story in a tabletop game, but not impossible. Hell, when I was a kid, I loved a role-playing game called Hero Quest, which became a sort of gateway to Dungeons and Dragons later on. Hero Quest had defined good guys and bad guys who were thrown into various scenarios for reasons told in the fashion of a linear story by a game master who knew the ins and outs of the scene. The game master always had the most access to the story, and would slowly reveal it over the coarse of the game. Electronic games operate on much the same principle, except there aren’t any players there to reveal the narrative – it’s done by the game as you advance. In both formats, the players make choices which are supposed to affect the story, but electronic games were a bit slow to catch on to that aspect of it; the earliest electronic role-playing games were set strictly on rails. You simply walked through the game as any other and tried not to die. Tabletop role-playing games offered a bit more flexibility because it would be possible to find the right piece of information through communication with the game master. Electronic games didn’t have that – you got the information the game felt like giving you, which would only loop itself if you tried to press the issue. If you didn’t have a strategy guide, you were shit out of luck. Of course, not every tabletop game had a story. A lot of the classics just brought people together to play. Electronic games might seem to have an advantage here then, but they didn’t have a lot of story either. Games like Pong, Frogger, and Pac-Man never even bothered. What little bits they had as stories were nothing more than objectives.
Winner
I’m going with tabletop games on this one. Yes, electronic games are evolving and very much improved on the way they tell their stories and interact – Fable II has become a favorite of mine. But you’re still at the mercy of a game which isn’t going to tell you any more than it’s programmed to know. Tabletop games can be easier in reveals and puzzles if you’re able to figure out the right way to communicate. Also, I should note tabletop games don’t make use of arbitrary and unobtrusive bits of debris to prevent you from reaching your goal, either. That’s one of the great banes of being an electronic gamer for a few reasons, not the least of which is because it’s so fucking stupid. But the bottom line here is that your personal decisions have a greater impact in the world of a good tabletop game while even many of the best electronic games stop updating the current events halfway through.

Playing Equipment
A complex tabletop game can turn into an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare. Boards, cards, dice, and figures are often parts of the most basic game setup. That’s no frills here – I’m not even considering the many pieces of equipment that can get thrown into games with 3D settings. Lots of the little accessories needed to play a good tabletop game are small and easily losable. And every time you want to go out and buy a new game, you get a whole new set of more losable equipment meant to go with that game and no other! So you would think the victory for electronic games here would be automatic. And 20 or even 10 years ago, it might have been – you get one CD or cartridge which contained literally everything on it. No need to worry about losing a piece or 13. But with the technology advancing, it started getting a bit more complex than that. If you play your electronic games on computers, you have to make sure the specs are just right, then go through the pain-in-the-ass process of downloading it. That’s called “installing” the game. Taking the time to learn the various keyboard and controller functions can also be a bit of a chore, and the games themselves try to rob you of the fun of learning yourself because they’re increasingly involving mandatory tutorials which can’t be skipped. If you want to play on the internet, you have to buy an expensive piece of equipment that enables it.
Winner
Electronic games. For all the bullshit you have to go through of buying all the equipment and installing the game, most of it is a one-time purchase. And you don’t have to worry about all your little knickknacks being inside the box once you decide you’re finished playing. It’s just a little on/off switch. Yes, electronic games cost more, but it’s worth the price to make sure you don’t lose anything because some poor loser swept the entire board off the table.

Replayability
So you finished a game and thought it was good. That doesn’t necessarily incentivize an immediate second play through. There have to be enough different ways to go about playing through a good game to warrant replays. And tabletop games shine at this: You can always find new people to play with who see things differently and force you to innovate and invent new ways of playing. Luck can always swing from one player to the next, and how the player on the hot streak plays can turns everything in a whole new direction. Video games also offer incentives to replay them: Some have secrets to find, some have different levels to challenge you, and some have variations in the gameplay. Of course, the differences in tabletop game replayability depends on who you have playing, and electronic games have it based on the gameplay itself – some games offer direct decisions on exactly what you can do.
Winner
Tabletop games. Electronic games can only have so much replayability. Games where your actions really affect the surrounding world are a very recent development, and even many of those get a lot of flack for not changing enough. And before them, electronic games were basically rote memorization of patterns. The early attempts at being nonlinear were noble, but all they offered was the same scenery in a different order.

There will always be a place for electronic games, but tabletop games are throwing them off the hotel balcony.

Bad Movies: Pixels

Bad Movies: Pixels

Daenerys Targaryen: “I’m not going to kill you.”

Tyrion Lannister: “No? Banish me?”

Daenerys Targaryen: “No.”

Tyrion Lannister: “So if I’m not going to be murdered and I’m not going to be banished…”

Daenerys Targaryen: “You’re going to play a supporting role in an Adam Sandler movie.”

Movies based on and around video games have existed in Hollywood now for over 20 years, and so far, popular consensus has judged only one of them to be worthy of true greatness. That movie was Wreck-it Ralph, which came out just a few years ago and was well-received by just about everyone, tipped a top hat and winked to those who love video games. Although Wreck-it Ralph featured popular characters from the video game universe, it did so clearly as reference points to watching gamers and spoke to us rather than blatantly pry our wallets open. It understood the appeal of gaming. If I was going to try to deduce a second-place winner, it would be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but that’s only arguably a video game movie. Maybe Mortal Kombat if you’re in that school of thought, but Mortal Kombat sucked, and in any case this is only a very distant second anyway.

Even though gaming jumped into a mainstream hobby and art form in the last couple of console generations, gamers still have to contend with the old juvenile delinquent stereotypes that resulted in atomic wedgies and wet willies back in the day. Whenever we think we’re making progress in the anti-stereotype march, though, something like Gamergate walks in and decides to reinforce all the anti-social, woman-hating bullshit we still have to contend with whenever we tell people our hobbies include playing video games. The latest offender is Adam Sandler’s latest movie, Pixels, and gamers aren’t the only ones who are going to be dragged down with it. Dan Aykroyd makes a short feed-me cameo. Martha Stewart and Serena Williams are in here too. Toru Iwatani – the creator of Pac-Man – has both a cameo and an actor who plays a fictionalized version of him. Hall and Oates, Dan Patrick, Robert Smigel, and Steve Koren all cameo while Billy West has a short voice role. Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean, and Brian Cox all play small supporting roles while Michelle Monaghan and Peter Dinklage are both in large, important roles. That’s a hell of an impressive talent heist, and you have to wonder who lost what bets to end up appearing in a Happy Madison movie.

While you could make the argument that Pixels could potentially damage the whole Gamergate thing by virtue of portraying the avatars of what most of its followers probably are, that damage is easily nullified by the movie’s attitude toward women: There are three characters without a Y, excluding the cameos, and all of them are basically used as prizes for the men. Yes, even Monaghan, who plays a military Colonel that loves to create and toy around with weird weapons. It’s so bad that one of the characters – a hopeless, socially stunted dweeb named Ludlow – has a shrine built to Lady Lisa, a warrior woman from a fictional game. When Lady Lisa pops out as one of the pixelated bad guys, Ludlow is able to make a grandiose speech to her which results in her immediately switching sides.

Adam Sandler hates his audiences. That much has been clear for some time. Maybe the Sandler who broke through in the mid-90’s could have made Pixels into something worthwhile, but current Sandler is badly out of touch with everyone old enough to remember when he was making good movies. Sandler used to play to the better parts of humanity, but lately he’s begun to morph into an odd comedy version of Robert Altman. If you’re anything close to the film aficionado that I am, that might seem like a bit of a distance, but hear me out: Altman is the patriarch godfather of the mosaic drama movie, but that’s about the only split between him and Sandler. Other than that, both Altman and Sandler’s movies are driven by stereotypes highlighting all the worst aspects of their characters. Plot takes a backseat in both their movies – both of them basically wrote out their plots on their coffee break napkins because they wanted characters to drive the movies. Then they went about creating their characters by writing out the worst archtypes they could think of and drawing them out of a hat. Both catered movies about low-class people at their worst. Ask some pretentious film asshole about Altman, though, and you’re likely to hear farfetched explanations about the great web of humanity, or looks at the worst of… And I always block them out right there because these people are dicks who are lying to everyone, including themselves, and sometimes well enough to even believe their lies. No. Anyone who likes Robert Altman – or at least thinks of him as a great filmmaker – simply hates poor people and is looking for justification to avoid them.

Fortunately, Sandler hasn’t been allowed to get away with this. This is perhaps because Sandler is more straightforward and honest about his hatred. It took all of five minutes for him to establish his character, Sam Brenner, as an antisocial slob who couldn’t get a handle on his life because he lost a video game competition as a teenager. If you make it through the first five minutes of adult Sam’s introduction without feeling a gut urge to punch him, check your pulse. He is working as an installer for a team like the Geek Squad. Sam’s buddy Ludlow is a different kind of antisocial, with his basement shrine to a video game character and his conspiracy theories. Eddie Plant, a gaming champion who gave himself the nickname “Fire Blaster,” the appropriate soul brother of real-world gaming champion Billy Mitchell here. Only Will Cooper managed to detach himself from the contest that ruined everyone’s lives, but Will is played by Kevin James, and Will is also the President of the United States. Most critics have been complaining that James isn’t believable as the Prez, but I don’t think of it as playing the Prez. I think of it as James playing his usual role as an incompetent boob, which he does as well here as anywhere.

During the big 1982 competition that brought these four together for the first time, the government took footage of the games and sent it out to some random grouping of stars in space, hoping to make contact with an alien race. It worked a little too well. See, the aliens did stumble into the footage, and they sort of took it the wrong way. Instead of “let’s be friends,” the message the aliens took from the probe was interpreted as “let’s have a pissing contest for keepsies.” So they found their way to Earth, in the form of late-’70’s and early-’80’s-era video game characters, rudely issued their challenge, and started knocking down everything in sight. The Army has been preparing odd weapons which could be used to ward off such an invasion, of course, and what those weapons were originally going to be used for is never explained.

Explanations are perhaps not the point, though. Maybe I’m just thinking too hard about Pixels. But I did find the inconsistency of the video game scenes a little odd. During one attack, the aliens are attacking in the form of the bad guys from Centipede while the good guys stand on the ground, firing away. The next attack revolves around Pac-Man, and Pac-Man is the bad guy. The good guys drive cars based off the four ghosts that chase Pac-Man through the maze. The final act is a splurge of references that director Chris Columbus places onscreen but can’t seem to quite be able to field marshall.

That brings me to one of the major problems: The video game references are nothing but references. This is Sandler directly lifting pages right out of The Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer Book of Filmmaking: References don’t have to be anything but references! All they have to do is get the audience to say “hey, look what it is!” The game references don’t do much that’s creative or original with the material. To reference my favorite video game movie again, look at Wreck-It Ralph. It turned the classic video game Root Beer Tapper into a bar where video game characters met and chatted after hours. Tapper’s bar came complete with a lost and found which contained a mushroom from the Mario series, a warning exclamation point from the Metal Gear Solid games, and a pair of Zangief’s briefs. Ralph met up with a group of popular video game villains who were having trouble dealing with being the fall guy all the damn time. The contrast is used perfectly with Q*Bert: In Wreck-It Ralph, Q*Bert was a sympathetic character whose game got taken away from the arcade. We felt for him because he got placed into a bad situation, but later he was the one who clued Felix in to what Ralph was up to. In Pixels, Q*Bert is given away by the aliens as a prize. He’s more or less a MacGuffin, and Pixels movie laws can’t figure out what to do with him. He gives the good guys some useful information after the bad guys give him away, only for the bad guys to refer to him as a traitor after he does so. Um, hey aliens, you do realize Q*Bert was simply playing by your own rules, right? Then he turns into a permanent version of Lady Lisa for Ludlow at the end, a creepy turn of events which even the movie calls itself out for!

This isn’t to denounce Pixels completely. By any measure, the special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They rank right up there with Tron Legacy, Transformers, and those all-time barometers of movie special effects, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Wars trilogy. They become the star in the final leg of the movie, and for a few brief shining moments, Pixels becomes tolerable. And despite my opening mocking Peter Dinklage’s casting, Dinklage is one of the few actors in Pixels who really throws himself into his part as Eddie Plant. Dinklage is delightfully over the top, and his performance – which channels the charismatic egomaniacism of the real Billy Mitchell – is such a joy to watch that it’s almost enough to rescue Pixels from being unwatchable. More moments with him and Pixels could have been elevated from bad bad into fun bad. Also, Sandler’s buddy, the insufferable Nick Swardson, isn’t in here to obliterate it. Unfortunately, it’s too little, and you’ll get more out of the two-minute short from Patrick Jean.

Playing with Ultimate Power: Super NES vs. Genesis

Playing with Ultimate Power: Super NES vs. Genesis

This is another one of those great 90’s arguments. It seems a moot point right now, sure; today’s kids will never have the pleasure of growing up standing by their favorite video game console, warding off its attackers. In the 90’s, console ownership was like being a fan of a sports team: You picked, you stood by it no matter what, because it was YOURS. If someone attacked, you took it personally, and gunned for the attacker with a barrage of Your Mother insults and shots at the console itself which frequently included the words “crap” and “suck” as well as a bunch of other, much more creative things you could think up that involved more explicit terms. You didn’t care what the objective truth was – all you knew is that an attack on your chosen console was an attack on you, your family, your lifestyle, your religion, and whatever else you held close to your heart.

Time marched on, though, and multi-console homes began becoming the norm. Those of the 16-bit Golden Era shook hands and called our uneasy truce. However, the objective question at hand was never properly answered: Which console, exactly, was the superior console? While others might like to throw in bids for personal favorites like the TurboGrafx-16, Neo Geo, 3DO, CD-I, and Jaguar, those are all being thrown into the wind these days because we all know it was really about two consoles waging a fierce war against each other: In the first corner was that eternal Goliath of video games, Nintendo, which brought what is still arguably its crowning console achievement: The Super NES. In the other corner was Sega and its trailblazing Genesis, which was able to successfully play the David for a couple of years and make itself into a household name. So let’s do this! The Super NES vs. the Genesis. One day, I’ll learn.

Hardware
The Genesis came along a couple of years sooner, and when it did, it was the most powerful console the discerning gamer could buy. After all, its only real competition was NEC and its TurboGrafx-16, which critics kept accusing of being nothing more than basically a pair of eight-bit consoles duct-taped together to emulate 16 bits. The Genesis was released in Japan in October 1988 before being dropped into North America ten months later to capitalize on Nintendo’s apparent laziness and/or inability to admit they probably needed to evolve their hardware in order to keep up in the video game market – after all, Sega was able to get by for awhile on a marketing campaign which showed the Genesis as the embodiment of cool while showing the original NES as a console which kids played. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Nintendo got the point; when they released the Super NES in Japan in 1990 (North America in 1991), they had created a monster bigger and badder than anything the video game demographic had ever seen. The Genesis had a faster CPU speed (7.67 MHz as opposed to 3.58 on the Super NES), a better internal ROM (One compared to a nonexistent ROM on the Super NES), and a synthesizer. The Genesis One had a headphone output and the Genesis in general had backward compatibility with an adaptor. In every other respect, the Super NES swamped it: More colors, better resolution, could show more sprites at once and in higher resolution, and twice as much RAM. They tied in sound processor bits – eight – and in CPU bits – 16.
Winner
Super NES. Yes, the Genesis had a two-year head start, but the problem with a big head start is that the competition quits worrying about timing if it has a machine developing in the wings which is capable of kicking your ass. You can make the argument that it’s not about the equipment so much as how the equipment is used, but this argument is entirely about the equipment. When used to its full potential, the Super NES could do more than the Genesis, and that’s not even bringing the controllers into the debate. The Super NES wins this round.

Mascots
When Nintendo released the NES in 1985, the idea of video game characters was fairly new – Pac-Man had been a massive hit with a song and a Saturday morning cartoon, but he was more or less a novelty which no one thought would ever come along again in a fad industry which, courtesy of Atari, was on life support. Nintendo introduced a certain plumber by the name of Mario, packed his game in with the console, and within five years more American schoolkids were familiar with Mario than Mickey Mouse. After that, Nintendo did it again by introducing Link, Samus Aran, Mega Man, and eventually, Kirby. Thanks in large part to those characters, video games became a cultural force which could no longer be ignored, and lord knows other developers tried to follow Nintendo’s lead. NEC introduced the wildly underrated Bonk on the TurboGrafx-16 while Sega found some success on the Master System with Alex Kidd and Shinobi. NEC bowed out, and Sega carried Alex Kidd and Shinobi to the Genesis while also bringing a memorable duo of hip hop aliens, Toejam and Earl, into their first party line. But it was in 1991 that Sega found a winning formula when it introduced a zippy little blue hedgehog by the name of Sonic, and the console war became a real console war. Nintendo’s mascots were so good that they were able to keep going on their strength, especially when placing them in new 16-bit games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Mega Man X, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. They also created another new character to add to their pantheon, Star Fox, and reinvented Donkey Kong as a good guy. Meanwhile, with no familiar names, Sega got to work finding their own exclusive characters which could help propel the Genesis along: Ecco, a dolphin in search of his lost pod who fights aliens that are endangering the time/space continuum; Vectorman, a robot made entirely of orbs; and Ristar, another underrated mascot developed by Sonic Team whose appearance served as the curtain call for the Genesis.
Winner
Super NES. The fact that Sonic was the character that introduced, embodied, and influenced the entire idea of in-you-face XTREME!!! ATTITUDE!!! in the 90’s can’t be understated, and the games in Sonic’s core series in those days are some of the best ever made. That, however, can’t hold a candle to Mario, who basically created the template to an entire genre of video games which is still very popular; another character – Link – who served as the template to the pseudo-3D action/RPG’s which were popular throughout the 16-bit era; and Star Fox, which turned Mode 7 shooters into viable commodities instead of interesting novelties. And while most people blame Sega’s advertising department for their eventual fall out of hardware development, their first party developers certainly didn’t do the company any favors, either. Toejam and Earl were given two popular games, released to sensational reviews, and never seen again until they showed up on the Xbox; Vectorman had a similar fate, but without the next-gen console update. Shinobi and Ecco were placed on ill-fated consoles before disappearing completely. Ristar was never seen again. Ecco and Sonic both suffered severe quality downgrades when their gameplay mechanics didn’t translate very well into 3D. Nintendo’s mascots have all suffered too, but the Mario and Legend of Zelda series continue to churn out regular Game of the Year material, and Nintendo will always be just fine as long as that’s the case. If you can get away with pitting your first party characters against each other in an acclaimed series of fighting games (Super Smash Bros.), you’re good no matter what.

Controllers
When it comes to actually being able to control your games, both Sega and Nintendo acted on a startling realization which others hadn’t yet envisioned: They were both aware of the fact that video games were evolving, and the standard one-button-to-jump-and-one-button-to-shoot format would soon be outdated. Sega countered by adding an extra action button, so they ended up with three instead of two. Nintendo placed six on the Super NES controller, which was unnecessary and incredible at the time, but it proved to be a great long-term move. Soon after the release of the Super NES, two-dimensional fighting games reached their apex, and the Super NES was better equipped to handle the wide range of moves. Developers struggled to work six-button schemes into Sega’s three-button layout, and after awhile, they just stopped trying altogether. The Genesis adaptation of Mortal Kombat II was missing an entire move, and Streets of Rage 3 had a couple of non-essential attacks cut. Sega rectified the situation by releasing six-button versions of their standard controllers, but the three-button controllers continued to be prevalent until the Genesis went defunct. I’m not sure if it ever became the default pack-in controller. But while the Super NES controller was the more functional, it was also much harder to hold; the Genesis had a nice pair of grips that stuck out on the bottom ends and said, “Grab me!” The Super NES controller had the look and feel of an oversized pill, and it introduced an innovation that became a bane: The shoulder buttons, which felt weird and misplaced. It was very difficult to get at the shoulder buttons because it never felt like my hands were at the proper angle, and how good is a controller anyway if you can’t play a game for more than ten minutes without your hand cramping up?
Winner
I’m going with the Genesis. Maybe you don’t share my opinion of the shoulder buttons, but those poorly-placed innovations made it too difficult to play games. You’ve only forgotten that, or maybe you’re looking at them through nostalgia goggles, but the things were a hassle that never got fixed until an entire console generation later, when Sony’s Dual Shock introduced the pistol grip. I don’t know why people raved about the thing so much. Maybe they were fooled into thinking that boxy old controller with the original NES was still the greatest controller ever, or something. Also, the Genesis had disc-shaped d-pad while the Super NES had no diagonals. There’s some consideration of the gamer for you.

Innovative Games
Part of the reason the Super NES and Gensis are considered the infallible Kings of the Golden Era is because developers started getting bold, and we started seeing them take gaming risks they never would have taken before. Innovation of both consoles ended up challenging all gamers and unleashing their imaginations as they were encouraged to think outside the box. The Genesis had games like Shining in the Darkness, a turn-based RPG played in the first person; Ecco the Dolphin, and exploratory puzzle-based game which boasted digitized graphics motion-captured from footage of real dolphins and immense gameplay rewards to those who stuck it out; and Comix Zone, literally a panel-by-panel brawler set in a comic book. The Super NES brought Star Fox, with its Super FX chip and nonlinear level paths; Chrono Trigger, the legendary RPG which gave us the tech system; and Uniracers, a 2D racing game where you raced unicycles around roller coaster courses. Nintendo introduced pre-rendered 3D graphics with Donkey Kong Country; the Genesis countered later with Vectorman. The Super NES could use scaling and rotation and the Genesis was capable of animated cutscenes. Both of these consoles had a lot going for them in this department.
Winner
Genesis. Yes, the Super NES certainly had a huge share of innovative games that worked, but it also had the option of falling back on established characters. While the Genesis may have spent its early years adapting the invincible game library Sega had in American arcades, Sega had ran out of them by the time the Super NES hit stateside, and after that, they were forced to take chances because they had nothing to ride. The Genesis used celebrity licensing – Michael Jackson and Joe Montana were noteworthy signings – and had to make the Genesis appeal to people who weren’t kids or the parents of kids who needed video games to be safe. So we saw games like Mutant League Hockey, Phantasy Star II, and the blood code version of Mortal Kombat. Retro Gamer said this about the Genesis: “It was a system where the allure was born not only of the hardware and games, but the magazines, playground arguments, climate, and politics of the time.” Exactly. It was born, in other words, of the things that necessitate innovation and invention.

Action/Adventure/Platform Games
Um… Wow. It’s tough to figure out just where to begin with this one. These genres produced so many games and overlapped so much that it almost doesn’t seem worth debating. Mario against Sonic is a fight to the death. Both had access to third party attempts at new characters, like Earthworm Jim and Rocket Knight Adventures. Sometimes, the Genesis versions were better and the Super NES owned better versions of other games.
Winner
Look, there’s nothing that can be said about one console’s collection of these genres that can’t be said for the other. Certainly Nintendo can harass Sega people about having The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but the Genesis was fully capable of taking on that challenge: Sega released a pair of outstanding adventure games, Landstalker and Beyond Oasis, which were as deep and rewarding as any Zelda adventures. Nintendo could throw Contra and Castlevania at Sega, but the Genesis was given mid- and late-life games in both series: Castlevania: Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps hold up as well as any of their namesake games on the Super NES. Nintendo threw Donkey Kong Country – with its new-fangled graphics technique – at Sega, only for Sega to counter with Vectorman which, today, is almost universally considered the better game for miles. Mega Man had to contend with Gunstar Heroes. In other words, if you’re not willing to write this off as a draw, it’s time to get off your fanboy throne.

Role-Playing Games
You would have thought Sega would be just fine wandering into the 16-bit era in the role-playing department. After all, they had released the classic Phantasy Star on the Master System, which had a first-person view through the dungeons and was considered one of the most unique games available back then. With the introduction of the Genesis, Sega fleshed out the idea of a first-person RPG when it introduced Shining in the Darkness, the first game – and still the game many gamers consider the best – in a loose series of games affectionately termed the Shining series. Shining in the Darkness eventually paved the way for a pair of sequels, Shining Force and Shining Force II, both of which are more traditional RPGs with serious elements of strategy. A bunch of other great RPGs also popped up: Light Crusader, Landstalker, Beyond Oasis, Sword of Vermillion, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, and Shadowrun all stood out. Likewise, when Nintendo entered the 16-bit world, they were coming in on RPG strength too: They had a successful series on the NES called Dragon Warrior, which proved to be another template series, so with that alone Nintendo looked all set to go up against the juggernaut Sega had become. And then Dragon Warrior’s developer, Enix… Stopped exporting the series, which in Japan was called Dragon Quest. That didn’t mean Nintendo was down for the count, though; they went about releasing a new Zelda game, and they also had this second party developer called Squaresoft which had released an amazing little RPG on the NES called Final Fantasy. Although the full compliment of available Final Fantasy games didn’t make it to the United States, the Super NES did get Final Fantasy IV – which was Final Fantasy II here – and FFVI, which was FFIII here. Both were considered groundbreakers, and Final Fantasy spent the Golden Era going toe-to-toe with Phantasy Star. Beyond that, Nintendo really got to work churning out classic after classic: Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Earthbound, Breath of Fire… Hell, Nintendo even teamed up with Squaresoft to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
Winner
Super NES. Let’s face it: Sega gets royally stomped in this category. I know this is the second time in a row I brought up The Legend of Zelda and pit it against certain Genesis games, but that was for two reasons: One is because the RPG elements of them are toned down to the extent that you can make a case for them all being either adventure games or RPGs, and the other is because I wanted Sega to have a fighting chance here. I was a Sega person during those days, but even I can admit this: Outside of Phantasy Star, Shining Force, and the action RPGs, there weren’t a lot of RPGs that buffs of the genre got excited about. Most of them are best remembered these days as excellent cult games: There were some damn fine games in the Might and Magic series, and the collection also includes The Faery Tale Adventure, Exile, and Warsong; but if you brought any of those games into a room to throw at the likes of Actraiser or Chrono Trigger – which is in the discussion for the greatest RPG ever, an opinion I tend to concur with – you’ll be laughed out. The entire genre is basically one of Sega’s legendary missteps, especially seeing as how Sega pretty much outsourced its RPGs to the Sega CD after that came out. And no, I’m not awarding points to the Genesis here for the Sega CD or 32X because their games weren’t compatible with the Genesis; therefore, I’m not giving any points for the introduction of the Lunar series, harsh as that is. The cancellation of a Genesis version of Lufia and the Fortress of Doom doesn’t help either. If you like RPGs, you’re a Super NES person, and that’s that.

Sports Games
Although it’s barely brought up today, the 16-bit era was a golden age of endorsement deals from real professional athletes for sports video games. Joe Montana had Sports Talk Football. Jerry Glanville (!) had Pigskin Footbrawl. Evander Holyfield had Real Deal Boxing. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Deion Sanders (who endorsed games for two different sports), Troy Aikman, Ken Griffey Jr., Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus, and so many other professional sports people had so many game endorsements that it’s impossible to list them all. Hell, things got so out of hand that Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal both managed to sign endorsement deals for games that had virtually nothing to do with basketball – Jordan signed his name to an action/adventure game called Chaos in the Windy City and O’Neal went down in history for one of the most notorious gaming blunders in history, a fighting game called Shaq-Fu. This resulted in a massive market for sports games; so much so that sports games became game series which released new versions every year. Of course, the NES had started out giving gamers a handful of classic sports games, including Tecmo Bowl, so Nintendo had momentum going into the Golden Era. Then Tecmo suddenly started producing games for both the Super NES and the Genesis. Nintendo also had Punch-Out, which their fans could brag about for years before Toughman Contest appeared on the Genesis and arguably was the better game (the reasoning was because its boxers were real and didn’t use patterns to let gamers know when and how they would strike). The 16-bit years saw the comic sports game genre reach its apex with Mutant League Football and Mutant League Hockey for the Genesis, while Electronic Arts emerged as a go-to giant in simulations. More arcade-oriented sports games also came out – NBA Jam was very popular. The emergence of sports gaming makes sense – after all, sports has been an eternal theme in gaming, from the time of the first-ever video game – Tennis for Two – to the first hit video game in an arcade, which was Pong. The Golden Era allowed deeper and bigger games than ever before, and the licensing created a sense of realism which didn’t previously exist.
Winner
This is where the Genesis truly shined. Yes, the Super NES had many of the same sports games as the Genesis, but it was never quite able to one-up the Genesis the way Nintendo would have liked. Hell, the Genesis versions of EA Sports’s popular NHL series are considered to be the outright superior – especially in the case of the iconic NHL ’94, for which the Genesis version is the defining hockey game of all time. As if that wasn’t enough, Sega had an entire wing of first party developers right in their own offices simply called Sega Sports, and those guys weren’t just trying to ride the tide to the bank; they produced a series of NFL games capable of holding their own against EA Sports’s mighty Madden series. They also produced World Series Baseball, the defining baseball series of the time, with its groundbreaking, dramatic plate view. The greatest testament to how good Sega Sports was is in their legacy. When Sega went third party, Sega Sports was turned into 2K Sports, and in 2004, they released ESPN NFL 2K5, which is still considered the greatest football game ever made and which scared EA Sports shitless to such a point that Electronic Arts had to run out and snatch up the NFL license for itself. 2K Sports’s basketball games are considered the best available today. (And frankly, Madden football was never that good in the first place. Had sports gamers not been brand loyalty sheep to it, 2K Sports could have fleshed out its potential and Electronic Arts wouldn’t be playing Monopoly.) Furthermore, Nintendo’s attempt to stay on their kiddie image is what probably kept the Mutant League series off the Super NES, and there’s a distinct possibility it kept them from trying to get certain athletes licensed, although that’s just my own hypothesis.

Fighting Games
Ah, a category you were all waiting for because it covers another one of those great 90’s debates: Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat! So, everybody already knows both consoles were homes to some stellar ports of Street Fighter II and, to a lesser extent, Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat has kind of an odd track record on home consoles: The Genesis version of the first game was better, and the Super NES had the better version of the second game before they leveled out at the third and fourth games. But what about the fighters that didn’t have those names? Well, both consoles had very good renditions of the Fatal Fury series which, in the grand pyramid of fighting games, ranks just below Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Both had renditions of the criminally underrated Samurai Shodown, but while the Super NES had all of the original characters, they were compromised by small sizes. The Genesis version axed the least popular character, Earthquake, but made the sprites a lot bigger while making the final boss a playable character in the two-player mode. Both had notable exclusives of popular arcade games: The Genesis introduced a fine conversion of Virtua Fighter 2 in its twilight, and the Super NES got an awesome version of Killer Instinct. Both also had several fighting games which are largely unheard of, and both had home exclusives like Clay Fighter, Weaponlord, and Brutal. Of course, they also both had to contend with the atrocity that was Shaq-Fu blighting their reputations too.
Winner
I really wanted to pick a winner for this one, but I can’t. As with the Action/Adventure/Platform category, the respective output of both consoles is too similar. It’s even more similar that that, in fact, because so many fighting games were made by third party developers, and the exclusives flat out sucked half the time. I know there will be people whining about how I should give this one to the Genesis because it had Eternal Champions and the bloody version of the original Mortal Kombat, but here’s the thing: Eternal Champions was a lousy game. As for the bloody version of Mortal Kombat, don’t give me that shit. The Genesis version was every bit as bloodless as the Super NES version. The inclusion of a code that inserted blood into it doesn’t count, because the thing about video game codes is that they’re not meant to be discovered! There’s a difference between a bloody version of the game and a version which had a blood code; even though everyone knew the fucking code, it still required a set of actions not mentioned in the manuel or alluded to anywhere in the game. I know people want me to give this to the Super NES because its controller had twice as many buttons, but that doesn’t work either because both consoles offered the same range of alternative controllers, and all but about two of Sega’s alternates had six buttons, plus that disc-shaped d-pad the Super NES controller lacked.

Shooting Games
There’s little in gaming more fun than hopping on a spaceship and blowing everything in sight to Kingdom Come, and once again, both consoles had whole sets of shooters created strictly to oblige you. As far as the more multidirectional overhead shooters go, both consoles had Electronic Art’s great Strike series and the whacked-out bit of comic genius that was Zombies Ate My Neighbors. As far as exclusives went, the Super NES had the Pocky and Rocky series while the Genesis had the innovative Red Zone. When it comes to rail shooters, though, the selection couldn’t be more different, and this is a big deal because rail shooters were one of the most dominant genres of video games in the early 16-bit era; they were so popular that even the TurboGrafx-16 built an army of rail shooters which included several all-time greats. Once again, the Super NES was stacked with a list of name games; its list included games from the Gradius, Raiden, and R-Type series. The Genesis had to rely on innovative development, and so it had a list of shooters that included games like Sub-Terrania, MUSHA, and Steel Empire. Both had great shooting games with behind-the-player viewpoints: The Super NES, of course, had Star Fox while the Genesis had Space Harrier II and After Burner.
Winner
I’m giving this to the Super NES. Konami made third party games for both consoles, but they clearly seemed to prefer Nintendo. After all, it was Nintendo that got the Gradius games and a sequel to Zombies Ate My Neighbors – called Ghoul Patrol – which never came out for the Genesis. After Burner and Spare Harrier II were great games, but Star Fox introduced the idea that a shooter didn’t necessarily have to be linear. Although the Genesis did get a Raiden game, had a solid shooter lineup, and introduced Sub-Terrania, it’s very difficult to persuade me that its general quality wasn’t more hit-or-miss than it was on the Super NES. The problem with shooters is that they exemplify a particular ethos about game design: The way shooters are done is so stupidly, insultingly simple that everyone knows exactly what to do and how to do it; but on the other hand, doing it well takes time and practice, and even with that, it’s still very, very easy to suck at it. Although innovation is normally a wonderful thing, in shooting games, you usually want to stick with name brands because doing it well is automatic for them at a certain point, and you want something you know will be good rather than taking a risk on something which, even if it’s not bad, still has a huge chance of feeling like a worse version of something you’ve played before.

Arcade Conversions
It’s hard to believe these days, but once upon a time, the arcade was the place where you could play the newest, biggest, most advanced game available. Arcade games weren’t limited by console technology, so programmers went nuts. If an arcade game made a lot of money, it would inevitably find its way to the Super NES and Genesis, where it was up to the developer to try and cram all the advanced circuitry in those mammoth machines into a 24-meg, 16-bit cartridge. Naturally, conversions could be hit or miss. This was most obvious in fighting games: Street Fighter II carried over pretty well to both. Mortal Kombat Genesis mopped the floor with the Super NES version, and Mortal Kombat II Super NES returned the favor. The Super NES got the superior version of Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown was better on the Genesis. NBA Jam survived almost fully intact on both. Sometimes, developers did weird and unnecessary things to arcade conversions: When Capcom brought Final Fight to the Super NES, it axed the most popular character, Guy, the two-player mode, and a whole level. Later, Capcom basically retracted by creating a version with Guy, but it was still a single-player game with two selectable characters and a missing level. Acclaim cut the ducking punch from the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat II. Both consoles also tried to adapt games which were way out of their league: The Super NES gave it a go with Killer Instinct, while the Genesis used Sega’s acclaimed Virtua Fighter series, and they both turned out well – they kept the fundamental aspects of the games while scaling back the technology.
Winner
Genesis. I give Nintendo all the credit in the world for how the Super NES debuted – it started out by giving people Super Mario World straight off, and that proved to be a sign of the times because it meant that Nintendo was, after years of holding out, recognizing and adapting to the changing nature of video games. They showed that by presenting gamers with an epic specifically tailored to their new console. This isn’t about epics or what’s suited to do what, though – it’s recognition of how good developers did in bringing the arcade experience home. And in that respect, Sega is the undisputed King, albeit on the strength of the early Genesis library. It’s not a coincidence that Sega first advertised the Genesis by playing up adaptations of its arcade library, or that the first pack-in game for the Genesis was Altered Beast; Altered Beast was a weak game, but it was popular and people liked it. Sega then set off on an arcade conversion streak which also included Strider, Golden Axe, Gain Ground, Atomic Runner, and Air Buster. Sega also created a whole new version of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Shadow Dancer. In the early days, if you wanted a certain arcade game to bring home, you bought a Genesis, because if Sega made it, you knew it would show up on the Genesis, and frequently be damn good.

Well, holy shit: My second tie. Oh well. My loyalty was with Sega throughout the era, but this just shows that in the Golden Era, there were no losers in the Super NES/Genesis war. It doesn’t matter by now, though. This fight has been over almost 20 years now, and nearly every serious gamer who was a member of the 16er Generation has – no matter which console they prefer – conceded that both were excellent.

Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero

My fingers are short and stubby. They don’t seem quite right for a first time learner holding a classical-variety acoustic guitar. The classical acoustic guitar, as per its name, produces a very beautiful sound, but it doesn’t leave a ton of room for error. In order to eliminate unwanted twang and feedback, I have to press the strings and hold them completely against the fretboard, and classic acoustic guitars make that very difficult. The fretboard on a classical acoustic is flat instead of arched; the strings are wider apart than on most other guitars; the depth is greater than most other guitars (that means the distance between the strings and fretboard). My kingdom for a nice telecaster. I can perform a halfway decent version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” though, so at least my guitar can play the kind of music it got named after.

I’ve officially gone from being obsessed with playing video games to being obsessed with playing music. When I started to sit down and really learn to play guitar, I did it in part to improve my concentration and ability to linearize more analytical subject matter. You would think video games would be great for that, and to a point, they are. Playing video games isn’t like reading music, though. A video game level usually offers a number of subtle options which allow the gamer to adjust and strategize, tackling the level in a handful of different ways which all serve different purposes. There’s a way to run through a level which will be easiest for the gamer, and a way to do it which might be a lot tougher, but looks really cool to onlookers. Music notes, in contrast, are pretty linear. Certain aspects of a song can differ, but there’s generally one way to play it.

At a cursory glance, you would think 30 years of experience playing one would be a halfway decent start to trying to learn the other, but most video games require the use of maybe four or five different fingers at once, tops. If I decide to apply my experience as a writer to learning an instrument, well, the problem with that is that I use even less fingers on my computer keyboard than I do on my video game controllers. I know how to type properly, but I find it easier and far less painful – especially on my right hand – to just peck out everything on my two acting forefingers. A musical instrument will pretty much require nothing short of two extra fingers, and that’s just on my good hand. Herein lies the problem: My little stubs of fingers don’t like this weird new dance I’m busily forcing them to perform.

I can’t decide whether learning music is about analysis or good old-fashioned instinct, or even whether I’m ramping up the difficulty even further by wondering a question like that. It would seem like the kind of thing you have to be able to turn your brain on and off for. You know the drill – pick up the instrument, flick the off switch, and let your fingers ride like the wind into the sunset while everyone in the immediate vicinity starts comparing you to Jimi Hendrix. Of course, the problem with that is that you’re not actually learning very much by doing that, and you’d probably be booed out of some two-bit nightclub without 10000 practice hours and a very exacting idea of what to do. When I try to be analytical about reading music, I only end up playing like an honorary member of the Keystone Cops Accidental Musical Comedy Tribute Band: See note, dig through my mental archives in a desperate attempt to remember just which note on which string between which two frets I’m supposed to be plucking, pluck note, repeat process until I’ve been trying to play a minute-and-a-half-long song for about eleven minutes. And that’s provided it’s one of the easier songs I practice on. On a particularly difficult measure, I alternate glances between the page, my fingers, and the fretboard, trying to figure out exactly how to decode the weird alien language written down there until I inevitably sink into a default how-to-do-it mode of playing every note I know until I guess the one which sounds right.

Then, of course, instead of practicing until I know exactly what the hell I’m supposed to be doing, I go sit down at my computer and punch out a thousand words about just how much I suck at playing guitar. It’s my natural instinct, being a writer and all, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Like learning how to do anything else well, starting out as an amateur guitar player gave me a real respect for what the people who are already good at playing guitar can do. One of the first images that comes to mind is the music video for the classic AC/DC song “Thunderstruck,” which opens with a nice close-up of Angus Young’s fretboard as he plays the lightning-fast riffs. It gives me a sense of envy, watching Young as his fret hand glides all over, fingers moving nimbly with the grace and knowing order and purpose of spider legs. How the hell does he do that? One day, I hope to be that good. I also like to imagine there are great guitar players out there, somewhere, who once saw a smooth video gamer playing his best game and thought the same thing to themselves. The difference is that I’m not yet able to name any video gamer who managed to parlay his video game talents into worldwide fame and well-known status as a millionaire boozehound and sex god.