There are a handful of things that I consider paramount to a good life. These are things I know that I could never live without. The top of the list is obviously my wife Heather, and I’m not just saying that because she reads this blog. Truth be told, I really could not survive without her, partially because she keeps me sane(-ish) but mostly because she keeps me happy while butting up with my bullshit. It should also be glaringly obvious that music is on that list as well. I mean, I’ve written for close to half a year consistently about my love of music, so that should be a no-brainer. I definitely need my friends, and I’m still not saying that just because some of them read this, too. They help shoulder the load of my sanity maintenance, letting Heather have days off occasionally. Plus the are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, in a variety of subjects that I am not well versed in, so I have some great conversations. Also on that list, a little bit behind the already mentioned things, is video games. I latched on to video games a long time ago, and have never let up in my love or need for them.
It started a long time ago with an Intellivison. My dad had one. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it was a ridiculous looking console that had controllers with a full number pad, buttons on the sides and a preposterous silver disc. These were attached to the main unit by what looked very similar to phone cords. For its part, the main console was a gray plastic rectangle with wood grained accents to, I don’t know, blend in with the wood grain paneling families had in their “den” at that time. Does anyone even have a den anymore, let alone one covered in wood paneling? Did we just stop calling it the den? Did we fold the idea of the den into the living room, or did it evolve into the “man cave?” In any case, my dad would pull it out and hook it up to the TV every now and again. His favorite game was Pitfall, and there remains to this day a picture of a TV screen in one of our picture albums of his high score in it. You can’t see anything, because it was impossible to take a picture of a CRT TV with a standard camera without special equipment or at the very least turning off all other light sources and not using a flash. But Mom and I still know he did it. Over time, I was allowed to play it, too. It was only for special occasions, since you had to hook a special switch to the back of the TV to get it to work, but sometimes during the summer or on a weekend here and there, he would hook it up and we would play Astrosmash or Lock’n’Chase or Snafu. One of my favorite games was called Night Stalker, where you attempted to break out of prison and defeat increasingly difficult robots, while also avoiding the bats and spiders and frequently having to go find more ammo. My best game was called Demon Attack, a game similar to Space Invaders or Galaga in that you control a cannon that could only move back and forth across the bottom of the screen and fire upwards at waves of increasingly difficult attackers. I would play that for hours on end, and once made it to the 30th wave of demons, prompting another blank TV screen picture in the photo album.
I relied on the Intellivision for many years of entertainment. I actually still have it, in a box in my guest bedroom, just waiting to be dusted off and given a chance. I don’t see it happening, but I will never get rid of it. This system kept me company until the mid to lat Eighties, when the Nintendo Entertainment System started showing up at friends’ houses. The graphics and gameplay of my archaic Intellivision seemed opressively lackluster compared to the NES, and I really wanted one. I got by for a while by abusing friendships and overstaying my welcome at people’s houses who had them (You may recall my episode with Fred and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game). Mostly I found time to play with them on sleepovers and the like. I played almost all of Kid Icarus while my friend Kris (of mix tape fame, but many years before that) slept. My friend Kevin was the most tolerant of my obsession, and helped feed it with a wealth of two player games. We used the “Konami code” to get 30 lives and we eventually conquered Contra. I slept over for an entire weekend at his house as we stayed up late with Super Mario Bros. 3 and the latest issue of Nintendo Power that had all of the secrets and maps. Though I begged and pleaded, I never ended up owning an NES. My parents wouldn’t budge on it. I understood why years later, when I learned what money was and how it worked, but at the time I was devastated. I made due imposing on my friends.
Whenever I found myself at the mall, I would end up dumping a bunch of quarters into the games at the arcade (always located in or near the food court). I would get invited to birthday parties at the roller skating rink and after a couple of laps around the floor I would retreat to the arcade and dump five or ten dollars in change into Rolling Thunder or Gauntlet. Why did whoever played the barbarian always steal the food when my elf was low on health. It didn’t matter who it was, it always happened.
Years later, Nintendo and Sega decided to move from 8-bit to 16-bit games, and new systems came out like the TurboGraphix-16. Again, I petitioned my parents for a new system, as my Intellivision looked more and more outdated and I had beat most of the games we had to my satisfaction. Once again, I could not convince them to buy me a video game console. Kevin’s parents had bought him the new Super Nintendo, and I spent a couple of weekends playing Super Mario World and Mario Kart with him. My parents finally gave in a little, while at the same time decided to teach me a little bit about how money worked. A deal was struck. I would save half, and my parents would pay the other half. It was the right thing to do. I was an only child, and stood a very good chance of becoming a spoiled brat if they weren’t careful. So I did odd jobs around the house, painted the shed and my Mom’s swing, mowed the lawn and increased my weekly chores to increase my allowance. I stored ones, fives and tens in an old mayonnaise jar until I had saved enough, and then I got my Sega Genesis. It got hooked up to the TV that weekend, and I played Altered Beast and Revenge of Shinobi as much as I could. However, since it was hooked up the TV in the living room, I had to bargain with my parents for time on it. They eventually got sick of this, and my Christmas gift that year was my own 20″ TV.I have so many fond game memories, especially ToeJam & Earl and Kid Chameleon. I would go down to the local video store weekly all summer and rent two or three games for the week. I saved up for weeks to by the X-Men game when it came out, and played that for long stretches of time.
I loved my Genesis, though I still played on friends’ Super Nintendos from time to time, and still loved a good arcade. I spent and five friends once cashed in ten dollars worth of quarters (each) and played the X-Men six player arcade game from start to finish on the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ from start to finish. We defeated Magneto just as two of our group (Wolverine and Dazzler) had just plunked their last quarters into the slot.
As I went off to college, the video game landscape was changing. PlayStation was started to become popular, Sega had released the Saturn, Nintendo had released the N64 and computer gaming was getting popular again. I was preoccupied with having a “college experience,” but the call of gaming would not let me go. One of my roommates in the fall semester had brought his PlayStation, and I got good at Battle Arena Toshinden 2 and Warhawk, though I was not good at Resident Evil. But the real pull game from a bit of shareware called Quake, by the same people who had created Doom. My fellow nerds and I started regularly taking over computer labs and running 16 player deathmatch servers. I was pretty good, and had a great time with it, too. My biggest competition that I knew was a guy named Josh (not my current best friend, a different one who I knew for less than a year). He was one of the best players in our group, except for one night. We had taken over the computer lab in the Arts & Humanities building, and Josh decided to take the teacher’s computer in the front of the room. That night, no matter what he did, one of us would inevitably get him from behind not long after he spawned. We weren’t spawn camping or anything as vile as that. But through two hours of solid play he managed to get barely a dozen kills as opposed to hundreds of deaths. When we finally got kicked out of the lab, we finally let him in on the secret that the teacher’s computer was still hooked to the overhead projector which was mirroring his screen onto the wall behind him in eight foot by eight foot glory. We only had to look up to know where he was.
My spring semester in college was even less successful academically than my fall semester. I continued playing Quake as much as possible, but also moved in with Jeremy, who had a PlayStation. Many hours were devoted to playing King’s Field and King’s Field II on that, as well as Tetris and Global Domination on the 386 computer Heather had loaned to our room. My studies pretty much ended then, but I stuck around until the end of the semester when they kicked me out.
After having access to a PlayStation and a host of computers and being exposed to Quake and Warcraft II and Diablo, it was rough going home and only having my beat up old Genesis. I put all of my efforts into remedying that for a while. When I came out to Ohio to visit friends, it didn’t always involve hanging out and telling stories (though that was most of it). Sometimes it was playing Beyond the Beyond and desperately trying to save up 20000 in game dollars to buy a boat that we needed to continue the story by grinding 50-70 at a time in the most difficult part we could find. After three hours of grinding, we were halfway there with diminishing returns and we shut it off, never to play again, only to discover years later we had missed a key plot point and the boat was prohibitively expensive because of it. Sometimes I would stay up all night playing Suikoden with Jeremy’s brother Peter and screaming “FUUUUU SUUUUUUU LUUUUUU!!!!!” at our favorite axe wielding tiger when he went into battle. Sometimes it was playing Breath of Fire III with Jeremy and Peter and watch Jeremy do the “Pico dance” for Pico (the “Jesus Onion” as he was dubbed, since he would come back from death due to regeneration) every time he won us a battle. It involved Jeremy spinning in a circle saying “picopicopico” in a high-pitched voice and flapping his hands. These episodes usually pissed off Heather, who did want to spend the time hanging out and telling stories, but then I was too tired from gaming all night. Since she was typically the one who drove me there, I can see her point.
I finally did buy my first computer in 1998. I bought a few games in the early going, including Sid Meier’s Civilization 2. The first weekend I had it, I spent over 40 hours playing it. The next weekend, I spent over 70 hours straight playing it. I didn’t eat much or sleep at all. I took breaks for the bathroom, or to go smoke or get more to drink. I crashed hard after that marathon, and missed a little work because of it. I didn’t even win the game. It is still, to date, my longest continuous gaming session. As I get older, I doubt I’ll beat it, so it looks like it’ll stand for a bit. I bought a few more games for the computer. I trolled eBay for good bargains, and I discovered warez sites, where i was able to download a fully cracked game in a week of downloading small files. I also have fond memories of burning a lot of night playing Baldur’s Gate. It was a brilliant game, huge in scope and with a brilliant story, but I kept getting frustrated by having to switch discs all of the time. The game was so big, it came on five CDs, which had to be switched in and out of the computer depending on what zone you were in. It only became frustrating when you accidentally went to the wrong zone, and then had to switch to get there and switch again to get back.
My computer came with me to Bowling Green, where I sank a lot of hours into Diablo II. I was looking forward to also having access to Jeremy’s PlayStation again, and had bought a couple of games for it in anticipation. I was very disappointed to learn that the PlayStation had died a month or two before, and Jeremy had spent so much money saving up for the apartment that he couldn’t afford to replace it. We survived off of my computer for a while, but saved up and bought a used PlayStation off of Funcoland. It didn’t consume all of our free time right away. Then we bought Monster Rancher 2. Since a big component of Monster Rancher was that random monsters spawned from any disc you put into the PlayStation (including other games, CDs, computer games and software, and ever free AOL discs), we spent weeks going through our collection and making extensive lists of what discs gave you what monster. Then we borrowed CDs from friends and added to the lists. Then we played the game and bred monsters and fought them and bred them some more. So much time was spent on this game that friends who came over started getting involved in the stories and bloodlines of our various monsters. It was a little odd, but it was an obsession for quite a while. Things got really bad when I saved up and bought a Sega Dreamcast. I only had two games for it, Soulcalibur and Crazy Taxi. Crazi Taxi was a decidedly single player affair, though according to most I played it so well it was enjoyable for others to watch. I had an epic four hour run one night, and that was the night I found out you shouldn’t play Crazi Taxi for four hours and then get into a car and try to drive like a civil person. I didn’t wreck or anything, but I didn’t feel right about it. Soulcalibur was an even bigger deal. Hours were spent playing friends in round robin tournaments with no end. Rivalries were formed between my Taki and Nick’s Mitsurugi and Jeremy’s Lizardman and Heather’s Maxi (the character). Trash talking was harsh, gloating was worse, tempers flared and people were openly admonished for knocking an opponent out of the ring instead of finishing them off with a k.o. like a “real” player.
Through the years, my obsession with video games waxed and waned here and there, but never left entirely. It was able to do great things for me, like distract me from real world responsibilities and cause tension in my relationship. Mostly it was a good thing, though. I eventually moved from my Dreamcast to a Nintendo Gamecube, and from that to a PlayStation 2. My computers got better, too, as did my internet access. When massively multiplayer online role-playing games started to get huge, I jumped into one called City of Heroes. You would play in this online world as a superhero. You would go on missions and team up with other heroes to face bigger threats and mission chains. I and my friends spent long hours in this game. We would play late into the night. One night, after a long stretch of missions, my friend Josh fell asleep while playing. I know this because we found him in a corner of the mission we were in running constantly into a wall. He was our healer, so we had to call it quits for the night. I also spent a bunch of time in World of Warcraft. I finally figured out that MMOs were not for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy myself or like the gameplay, I just never wanted to team up with anyone, and there came a point eventually where you had to to advance. That was the point that I always quit out.
There are so many more gaming stories from my life. Some are long and epic, some are short and poignant, some are funny and ever some are sad. But video games have been an important part of my life and my identity for a long time. I’ve even been able to leverage them for good, doing the Extra Life Game Day event three years running now and raising a bunch of money for children in the process. I haven’t bought a new console since the slim design of the Xbox 360, which was sold a couple years back. Now my gaming is almost exclusively on the computer, with little bits on my phone. I’ve made a better effort to find a balance between gaming and all of the rest of the important things in my life. Most times I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. I still have a random night here and there where I’m up until 4am playing Stellaris or an entire Saturday where I’m playing Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor. It happens less than it used to, though. But I don’t doubt that gaming will always be a part of my world, and I’m pretty okay with that. In fact, this post got delayed because I spent all of yesterday gaming when I should have been writing. Priorities, eh?