Feature: gaming in familiar places

March 29, 2003 3:24 AM PST

Gaming in Familiar Places
by brandon sheffield

They say you can never go back. WellÖI tried.

Iím on vacation. For the first time in a very long time, Iím on vacation with no work to do, and few obligations. So Iíve taken the opportunity to play the games I loved as a lad, and to try to get a touch of that old nostalgic feeling of wonder that used to accompany my summer days. You may have had something similar once; a time when you could wake up when you chose to, make yourself a noon-thirty breakfast of cheezits and a microwave burrito, and maybe a capri-sun if your parents went in for that stuff. Then you spent the day trying to get the Ďgood endingí in Sonic CD, finish Final Fantasy 3, or beat your hi-score in Thunderforce. They were good times; times I wish I had fully appreciated in the moment. But of course it was difficult to appreciate things at the time. Everythingís unfair when youíre in the pre-teen demographic, no matter how carefree your life may be.

The day that you realize being self-centered doesnít fly in the real world, you start settling for things, you start compromising, and gearing up for your life as a cog in the vast socio-political landscape.

So I wanted to step back this week, and try to relive those halcyon days of youthful enthusiasm. When they say that you can never go back, itís for a good reason. Physically you cannot place yourself back in the same environment, as every body of mass is constantly changing. Nothing can remain the same even for an instant. Mentally you cannot go back, because youíve a host of new experiences behind you now. Youíre not the same person you once were. But videogames can help. They can let you into that old feeling, that surge of excitement that comes from nowhere.

Armed with only my Turbo Duo, SNES and Neo Geo CD, I make a mad dash for the past.

The sun is shining as I place the Ys Books I and II disc into the Turbo Duo. This is the game that took me from casual to dedicated. The Turbo Duo was the first game system I bought for myself, with my own money. Before this I had received a 2600 and an Intellivision Ė but thereafter, every system and game I was to own would be purchased on my own dime. Imagine the feeling of hearing CD audio in a game for the first time. Ys audio. I was mesmerized in a way that I could not comprehend, I was instantly engaged, and had to play the game through to completion. I drew dungeon maps, surprisingly good ones, I now discover. I can traverse the old paths today, and everything is where itís supposed to be. But that sense of wonder isnít there. Thereís a hint of longing, but Iím no longer engrossed. I should have played longer. The sunlight dims, as clouds pass overhead.

I take a walk to the Century liquor store. I used to come here when I had 55 cents for a bag of candy, which was infrequent. Little did I realize that the days between were what made it all the more enjoyable. Itís here that I played Street Fighter II CE for the first time. It was a Taiwanese pirate version, the one where M. Bison turned into Balrog when he did his Psycho Crusher. I got completely annihilated, but knew there was something to this. The days of arcade cabinets at liquor stores are dead and gone. The old Chinese man who yelled at my stepbrother when he stole a Coke no longer worked there. The entire area has been turned into a medical plaza, and only Century remains. The record store where I bought my first Metallica cassette (Kill Ďem All at age ten) is no longer there. You donít want these things to change. Everything good should be preserved for you in a bubble of time.

I buy a pack of sour straws at the liquor store. Walking back I see the place where some kids from across town tried to steal our bikes. We rode like hell, yelling insults over our backs (from a safe distance of course). My step-brother is a 6'1" gearhead now, who just got out of jail. Whoever steals a bike from him is going to be in some trouble.

Iím getting close to something, but I still havenít hit it.

Plug in the SNES for some Final Fight 2. I used to play this game with my stepbrother when we were supposed to be vacuuming. Or washing the car. Or...basically anything else. Itís not the same when taken as a one-player experience. You canít watch each otherís backs, or juggle the baddies between you. Iím wishing Final Fight 2 were Double Dragon 2. Iíd still need a partner. This isnít working out.

I canít seem to play the games the way I used to. Iím trying too hard to win. This is a recent problem Iíve had. I wonít play through anything without getting all secrets, all items the first time through, because unless itís amazingly stellar, I know I wonít pick it up again. This generally winds up with me not having finished the game, never to return to it again. Ugh.

I give up for the day.

The next night, I put Gate of Thunder into the Duo. It was as though Iíd only stopped playing it yesterday. I knew where every enemy was coming from, and every boss pattern. It was familiar to be sure, but it brought nothing back. Still a damn fine game though.

Two days go by. Iíve not touched a controller. Iíve mowed the lawn, messed about on the net, listened to the odd CD, watered the plants. Somehow Iíve forgotten about my quest for nostalgia. I get a phone call from Scott Mollett; fellow staffer and longtime friend of the highest calibre. In an incredibly unusual twist, heís in town at the same time I am. We have a two and one half hour window in which to get together. So what do we do? We play games and reminisce. I break out the Neo Geo CD. That thing hasnít seen play for six years. Booting it up, Iím wondering just why that is. This thing is one of the greatest creations on earth, single-speed or no. Anything that lets me play MVS arcade games for $20-$30 apiece receives my highest praise.

Weíre playing some Metal Slug 2. Weíre kicking ass. Weíre covering each otherís backs. Weíre mocking each other for dying. Iím thinking of the arcade by my high school, the one that smelled like a movie theatre. Sweat, spilled soda and disdain from the proprietor. The old Starcade where my pal and I would cut Japanese class to go play Metal Slug X or Gi-Joe. Or sometimes weíd go after the anime club we co-headed. Metal Slug was somehow perfect after watching Gunsmith Cats. God, what nerds. Weíd head across the street to buy a toasted bagel with butter on it. Then go back and almost beat Maximum Carnage, only to forget the @#$@#% password. Damn it. I never did beat that game.

Lost in my haze I take an easy shot to the stomach, back in the real world of Metal Slug 2. I had just eaten enough vegetable to become fat too. Scott laughs.

I almost had it. Iím getting close to something, but thankfully the quest remains forgotten.

I wake up the next day. Iíve got nothing at all to do. Itís 2 PM the day before I have to finish my vacation. The Neo Geo CD is still sitting on the floor, the CDs that my cat peed on when I left for college are scattered across the throw rug. What the hell. Itís out, may as well play something.

Aero Fighters 2 in the console, I watch the intro roll. Damn, what a nice game this was. Playing through it, I realize that this was the era in which shooters were taken seriously as a genre, not just by a cultish few, but by all persons who called themselves gamers. The musical score would have been perfect for a contemporary anime. The story doesnít make a damned bit of sense. I laugh to see "I am a Ninja. My life is lonely and difficult" flash on the screen. The sun is shining low through the window, and I can see particles of dust swirl aimlessly in the air. I never could beat that last boss without cheating. Yeah, I suck. I press start on the two-player controller and change over, avoiding death by switching horses as it were. Hah! Boss goes down.

Then it hits me...Iím in it. This was the feeling. Not just the game, but the environment, sitting on the easy chair wearing the sweatpants I just slept in. Not going to the bathroom even through I really have to pee, because I want to beat this damned game. Realizing how well the game was designed brings up that old feeling of excitement and discovery. What the hell happened to Video System anyway? Do they still make games?

Iím worried about nothing. This is undoubtedly what enlightenment feels like. Iím remembering every good time Iíve had simultaneously, and projecting them into the future. I wonder if this day will be one of those I recall years from now.

You can go back. Donít let them tell you otherwise. Itís there, you just canít try overly hard for it. The world has to agree with you first. And when it hits you like a wave, donít question it. Just ride it to completion. Life can wait!

I encourage you to dig out your NES or your Genesis and find a day to just isolate yourself and play. Donít worry about what you have to do tomorrow. Go get yourself some candy and a soda. Go call up your pals and play through Double Dragon 2. No matter what happensÖitís good for what ails you.

brandon sheffield