Friday, May 26, 2017

Tripping Down Grunge Music Alley

With the death of Chris Cornell, I decided to revisit early-to-mid-90s Seattle-born grunge music. My journey took me to Soundgarden (obviously)...with a little Audioslave thrown in there for good measure...but then to Stone Temple Pilots...and then, finally, to Alice In Chains.

Surprisingly, in the end, I became more focused on Alice than Soundgarden, though, had it not been for Cornell's death, I wouldn't have rediscovered Alice. So thanks to Chris for leading me down the rabbit hole.

In particular, I became fixated on Alice's EP from 1994 entitled "Jar of Flies". I played it from beginning to end and all sorts of memories flooded back into my mind. See, "Jar of Flies" was the very first CD I ever bought. It was the sixth grade and I had just purchased my very first Sony CD player at the local Lechmere department store. I was all excited that I had "gone CD" (from cassette tape) and I wanted my first CD purchase to be something real special. But, at 12 years old, I was more or less a music ignoramus. I had no idea what bands I even liked.

I browsed the selections of new releases at a store called "Tape World" located in North Attleboro's Emerald Square Mall. I saw that there was a new album by Alice in Chains out. I figured, shit, I loved that song "Would?" that always played on the radio circa 1992/3. Surely I would love this new Alice in Chains album.

So I purchased the album and, at first, I was a little disappointed, mainly because the entire album was...acoustic. Yuck! I wanted electric shit, man, like that "Would?" song or, wait, now I remember the other one that played on the radio: "Man in the Box". That one rocked hard, too!

But acoustic? Fiiiine, I'll give it a shot. I felt obligated to, anyway. I had spent a good fifteen dollars of my paper route money on the album and it was my first and only CD. I HAD to listen to this CD lest I waste money. I had to play SOMETHING in my new Sony CD player.

Well, the album grew on me. And grew on me. And grew some more. Listening to it today, it's almost like a soundtrack for my entire year in the sixth grade. Every single note triggers memories of my time in Eleanor Johnson Middle School...the teachers I had...the friends I hung out with...the skateboards I thrashed upon...the girls I started to crush on...the album encapsulates all those memories for me, mainly because that album was the only thing I was listening to at the time.

But did I ever give the EP the appreciation it deserved? No. I didn't. No way. I was 12 years old. I didn't know better.

Listening to "Jar of Flies" today, I'm absolutely blown away by how beautiful it is.

But I'm also blown away by how f***ing sad it is.

You can hear melancholy in every note. You can also hear the heroin that numbed the melancholy of the lead singer Layne Staley. Layne's voice drooooooones in each and every song, like it's already a ghost moaning from another dimension. He, of course, was destined to become a ghost sooner than most. He died of a drug overdose in 2002 at the young age of 34.

So it's weird. This blog should be about Chris Cornell, right? Well, it is, in a way. His death lead me to rediscover one of the first grunge-era casualties, not including Kurt Cobain. Layne went first and, more than any of the others, he embodied the depressed, toxic-blooded vibe of the grunge era. Then STP's Scott Weiland died, only a year and a half ago. Also a drug overdose. Then Chris went...suicide due to depression.

Eerily, all three of these melancholic bands were my first three CDs. "Jar of Flies" was first. But then "Superunknown" was my second. Third was "Purple" by Stone Temple Pilots. All three albums were fantastic, all born out of the grunge movement but so unique from each other as well.

Anyway, I post one of my favorite "Jar of Flies" songs below called "Nutshell". If you're in a good mood, I warn this song may make you sad. If you're already in a sad mood, this song may make you more sad. If you're in a deep state of depression and you listen to this song? Well, I gently caution you to stay away from any loaded gun or bottle of sleeping pills or especially a noose that looks strong enough to hold your bodyweight.

"Nutshell" unplugged...



"Nutshell" album version...

Thursday, November 10, 2016

I USED TO BE A GAMER

It was early summer, around June 2016. Somebody had posted a video gaming article on Facebook. I didn’t believe what this article was saying. No way. It sounded WAY too good to be true. It was all rubbish.

But, then, later that night I saw the same story on the evening news. Yes way? Really? Are you for freggen’ real? Surely the evening news doesn’t lie…well, at least not about this kind of stuff. This was all very, very interesting. No, not interesting. It was exciting. No, not exciting. It was fregging awesome!

Nintendo was due to release a “Classic Nintendo” plug-n-play system for the 2016 holiday season. This “Classic Nintendo” would look exactly like the classic 8-bit Nintendo only a little smaller; plus, it would have 30 classic pre-loaded games, some of the best games ever to have come out on Nintendo! We’re talking all three “Super Mario Bros.”, the original
“Mario Bros.” “The Legend of Zelda”, “Mega Man 2”, “Castlevania”, “Metroid”, “Punch Out”, “Ninja Gaiden”, “Dr. Mario” and, oh, so many more! As for the controllers, they would be exactly the same as classic Nintendo’s controllers and if you already owned some of those controllers they would work just as well.

The release date?

November 11, 2016.

Holy crap! This was such exciting news. All my favorite games (with some exceptions) were said to be among those that were pre-loaded. I really needed to get this Classic Nintendo machine. To heck with finding a soulmate or meeting one of the two remaining Beastie Boys; owning this Classic Nintendo was what I needed to fill the one last remaining void in my life.

Man, the only problem was that November was just too damn far away. I could not wait five whole months for this Classic Nintendo thing to come out!

But then I started mulling everything over in my noggin a little more and, well, I realized that I had already been down this road before. It was about ten years ago in 2006 that I purchased a Classic Nintendo “emulator” called the “Yobo” (not to be mistaken with Yolo!, as in, “Yolo, man, you only live once!”) and I was so excited because I could play all the classic Nintendo games I wanted, all my favorites from childhood.

The Yobo.
But the excitement didn’t last too long. I played about 10 minutes of “Excite Bike” and then perhaps 20 minutes of “Super Mario Bros. 3” and, well, I quickly got sick of playing. Much to my dismay, playing classic Nintendo games didn’t give me the feeling of completeness that I thought it would. In fact, it made me feel overly empty and anxious with the feeling that there were more important things I should be doing with my time. I was wasting life, draining my soul.

I didn’t want to accept all this, though. I was in denial about potentially, possibly—MAYBE—not being a gamer anymore. This denial stuck with me and, every once in a while, I would be out at a GameStop and I would decide to treat myself to a video game, usually for my most current consul: the Playstation 2. As delusional as I may have been, I would genuinely have the feeling that THIS game would be the one, the one last game to fill that void inside of me and make me happy for the rest of my days. But then I would take the game home to play and, well, I would get that same feeling of emptiness and anxiety. After about 20 minutes, I’d have to stop. I was like some drug addict who kept chasing an evasive high that he was never going to catch.

So would buying this new “Classic Nintendo” plug-n-play consul be any different? I so wanted to believe it would be different, but I knew the reality was that I would play a game or two for about 20 minutes—maybe a half hour tops—and then I would get that same anxious feeling that I needed to be doing something else.

Damn! Why did things have to be this way? Something in me had changed because, when I was young, I LOVED video games. I couldn’t play enough of them and they actually gave me that feeling of pure stimulation and satisfaction. When I beat levels, I felt accomplished, like I was actually doing something productive in life. Why couldn’t I feel that way anymore?! What happened?

Oh yeah. I grew up. That’s what happened.

Indeed, I did grow up and, no matter how hard I try to escape into the world of a video game today, 20 minutes go by and I feel so anxious I literally kind of feel nauseous. Even just the other day I watched a new trailer for the new “Zelda” game that will be released on the Wii U. It’s called “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”. I watched the trailer and said to myself, “Oh that looks so siiick, dude” and although I didn’t explicitly say to myself, “If only I had that game, I would be happy” that’s still what I was thinking in my head, at least initially. But then logic kicked in and I realized it would be the same old story: I’d play the game for 20 minutes, feel sick and stop.

Crap, it’s kind of like being that Alex character in the movie A Clockwork Orange where they literally recondition his mind to get physically sick when he’s exposed to violence or even having violent thoughts. In my case, it wasn’t violence that made me sick; it was video games! O misery! Lost, lost, lost were the days where I could play video games for a normal amount of time and actually enjoy doing so!

But at least I had the opportunity to enjoy video games when I did. I’ll always have the memories, I suppose, which actually leads me to the point of why I’m writing all this right now: since it’s impossible for me to enjoy playing video games anymore like I used to, I shall attempt to go back in time and relive my gaming days via the process of writing about them.

So come on my fellow ex-gamers! Current gamers are welcome, too! Come one, come all, come hop down a giant green pipe with me and enter a warp zone called video game memory...uh...world.



THE PRE-NINTENDO YEARS

My very first memory of a video game was from when I was very young. Well, duh, I would hope it was from when I was young; otherwise I should probably go get a brain scan to check for some lesions in the hippocampus (insert nerdy laughter here).

But, yes, my first memory of a video game was in the early 80s. My dad had bought one of those cheap computers that you could plug into the back of your television. Actually, if I remember correctly, I don’t even think there was much of a hard drive, basically just a keyboard that we somehow plugged into the back of our small, black-and-white television and, whala, we had an instant computer.

It’s very possible that this computer had all sorts of capabilities, but the only thing I remember is that the hard drive had at least two games loaded on it, both of which were essentially knock-offs of games that were popular on Atari at the time. The first game was a knock-off of “Space Invaders” called “Alien Invaders” and it used to freak me out, even though it basically consisted of very unidentifiable “aliens” made out of a few blocks of pixels. I think it was just the word “alien” that gave me a really creepy feeling, but I was genuinely scared of the game. That’s right: a few blocky pixels arranged into a formation that loosely represented an alien actually had the power to scare me. Talk about suspension of disbelief. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it.

The other game that was on the computer was a knock-off of “Pac-Man” and I think it was called “Mouse” or “Cheese Hunt” or maybe it was even called “Mouse Eats Cheese” because that’s basically what the game consisted of: i.e. a mouse eating cheese. The mouse character was represented by a greater than/less than shape and you traveled around a maze-like structure eating small rectangles that represented cheese. There may have even been little pixelated cats chasing you in the maze that you had to avoid, kind of like the ghosts in “Pac-Man”.

My parents thought the “Alien Invaders” and “Cheese Hunt” computer sufficed for a game system and they didn’t see any need to get anything better, mainly like an Atari. In fact, my only exposure to Atari was through my cousins who were lucky enough to own one. Every once in a while, my siblings and I would go over their house and I would watch them play one particular game that, for whatever reason, also creeped me out.

This game was called “Joust”.

“Joust” was a simple game where I guess you were some knight-like character riding a bird-like creature that resembled an ostrich. You would fly around on this ostrich and joust enemy jousters.

I was mesmerized by “Joust” and, yes, somewhat creeped-out by it. The sound fx especially gave me the willies; I can still hear the sound of enemy jousters growing out of those breeding pits and I guess it was a sound that made me nervous because I knew I'd suddenly be overwhelmed by new enemies.

Or maybe there was nothing creepy about the game and I was just a wuss.

Oh, and there was also “Breakout” where you had to unplug your joystick controllers and plug in the "paddle" controllers with the rotating dial. “Breakout”, for those of you who don’t remember, was a simple game where you bounce a ball at a wall of brick-like rectangles. Each time the ball hits the wall, a rectangle breaks and you beat a level when all the bricks have been broken. Of course, the ball starts bouncing faster as the levels get harder and you have to keep bouncing it back at the wall with a rectangular cursor you move back and forth with your controller. Oh, what am I doing describing Breakout to you?! Everybody knows Breakout!

Although most of my exposure to Atari games occurred at my cousins’ house, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I did end up purchasing a used Atari several years later, well after I had a Nintendo and probably even after I had a Super Nintendo. See, a house in my neighborhood was having a yard sale and it was selling a fully-functional Atari with about 50 games and several different controllers—both joysticks and Breakout-friendly paddle controllers. All they were asking for was 20 bucks! Well, 20 bucks was damn cheap for an Atari and 50 games but all I had was a paper route at the time and 10 bucks was all I had to spend. I haggled with my neighbor a bit, flashed her my dimples, batted my eyelashes and she eventually said the Atari was all mine for 10 bucks...IF it didn’t sell by the end of the day. Amazingly, the Atari never sold so, late in the afternoon, I returned to the yard sale with my 10 bucks and walked away with a new video game system! 

I took my new baby right on home and unloaded the box on my living room carpet. I couldn't help but immediately notice that some games were missing, especially one game I particularly had my eye on called “Pitfall”. I later learned that a nephew had come and taken some games he wanted before my neighbor sold the system to me. Blast that nephew! I really wanted “Pitfall”.

It was all good, though. Beggars can’t be choosey. I walked away with an Atari, several controllers and ALMOST 50 games…all for ten bucks. You really couldn’t beat that.

Over the years, I played the Atari here and there but, overall, I never played it that much. The problem was that the game consul got more and more difficult to hook up to newer televisions what with its crab-like, non-coaxial hookery thingamajigs and I eventually threw the Atari up in the attic—well, I didn’t throw it up there; I boxed it first. Lol.

In 2006, I needed some extra cash and I ended up selling the Atari to a used game store called “Play ‘N Trade”. Well, correction: “Play ‘N Trade” didn’t want the actual system but they did want the games. I ended up selling the games for 30 cents each. I know: it was kind of a crackhead move and what I mean by that is only a crackhead would sell original Atari games for 30 cents each. I wasn’t using the 30 cents for crack, though; in fact, I probably should have been, because my actions probably would’ve been better justified if I was at least a drug addict looking for some quick cash. Not the case, though. I actually just made a rather dumb sale and, spoiler alert, it wouldn’t be the last dumb sale I made at “Play N’ Trade”. But I’ll talk about that a little later. I won’t get ahead of myself just yet.


THE 8-BIT NINTENDO YEARS

To no surprise, my siblings and I eventually grew tired of playing “Cheese Hunt” and “Alien Invaders” all the time and we started bothering our dad about getting us an actual video game system. Since Atari was already several years old, he figured it would be better to buy a newer video game consul that everybody was talking about.

That system was called the “Nintendo Entertainment System”. Code name: the NES.

This "NES", however, was still pretty new and expensive so he wanted to wait a little bit--maybe like a year or so--for the price to go down.

In the meantime, my brother and I amused ourselves with a “new” computer in the house and I put quotes around “new” because it was really just an IBM computer that my dad had brought home from work one day and never brought back. This computer was quite primitive and it kind of resembled a briefcase with a small, black-and-green (not black-and-white) monitor built right into it. For the most part, the only thing this computer was really good for was word processing. However, this computer had a secret. A dirty, naughty little secret…

If you typed the command “Run Larry” into the computer, a secret game would start booting up. This game was called “Leisure Suit Larry”.

“Leisure Suit Larry” was a video game for adults; in fact, you were supposed to be at least 18 years of age in order to play it. The computer confirmed the gamer was 18 by asking three questions that apparently nobody under 18 would be wise enough to answer. They were random history or geography-related questions. I was certainly not over 18. Neither was my brother nor any of his friends that used to come over and play this game with us. We could easily figure out the answers to the questions, though…well, mainly my brother knew them because he was pretty smart, but we also had a house full of “World Almanacs” with the super-small print that had a bunch of random information crammed into them. If we didn’t know the answers to the questions, the almanacs did! Oh, I still remember how exciting it felt after answering the third question correctly and you could see that the computer was now booting up the game for you. It was like hacking a code. We were in!

Now, “Leisure Suit Larry” has gone through several evolutions over the years—it’s even an App you can get on your smartphone today—but the one version we played was, I think, the very first version of “Larry” ever. The game, if you don’t know, featured a character named Larry who existed in a virtual world. You would type commands into the computer and Larry would act out at least some of these commands. Well, okay, he would probably do only about five-percent of the commands because a very finite amount of commands were programmed into the game. You learned pretty early on what commands Larry would respond to and then you would basically type the same commands each time you played the game. From what I can remember, I know there was a “go to bar” command and also a “call a cab”, “go to store” or “go to casino” command, things like that.

A color version of "Leisure Suit Larry".
At one point in the game—and this is when things get a little dirty—you’re able to pick up a prostitute and then you go off into a room with her, do a little of the old funny business and then come back out. The game didn’t show anything, mind you. I mean, it wasn’t THAT dirty of a game; the funny business was merely suggestive. But what I do remember is that, after the funny business and after leaving the prostie behind, you had to remember to “command” Larry to take his…um…prophylactic off. Because, if you went back into public with the rubber still on, you would get arrested by the police for public indecency and it would be GAME OVER.

Yes, that’s right: this game was on an office computer. To this day, I’m not even sure what my dad did for a job (the word ‘purchasing’ comes to mind) but I’m pretty sure “Leisure Suit Larry” had nothing to do with it. Maybe his work programmed the game into the computer so fellas in the office could take a break from work, decompress and de-stress via Larry if they wanted to. But I’m almost positive my dad had no idea this game was even on the computer. I think he was pretty oblivious to its existence and I’m not even sure how we discovered it was on there but we did and the memories we made playing “Leisure Suit Larry” were priceless. At the young age of five or six years old I learned what a rubber was and that you should never wear it in public lest you get arrested by the police.

Hmm, or maybe my dad did know of Larry’s existence and perhaps this explains why he suddenly seemed ready to go out and buy a NES for us. It wasn’t even Christmas and he suddenly said to us, “Okay, it is time.” Maybe him getting an NES was his way of getting us to stop messing around on his computer. Maybe he knew we were playing Larry but never confronted us about it.

Then again, I think it was a sale on the NES that my dad wanted to take advantage of. I think a good deal was what inspired him.

Either way, it finally happened in the summer of 1987. Our dad purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System from a New England-based department store named “Lechmere” that no longer exists. In fact, only the ghost of Lechmere exists, as there is a subway station named Lechmere just outside of Boston in Cambridge. Well, it’s not really a subway station, more like a trolley station for the Green Line. I’m just trying to oversimplify things for non-Bostonians. This is all irrelevant information, though. Sorry.

Indeed, the Nintendo was on sale for a great price, but the catch was that it didn’t come with any games, not even Super Mario Bros., which usually came packaged with the system. So we never had Super Mario Bros. until much later, but I don’t think we even officially “owned it”. I think it was one of those games we borrowed from somebody and just never ended up giving back. That happened a lot. We ended up with several games that we “borrowed” from friends.

But, yes, my dad was happy that he got a good deal on the NES, though he realized that he would also need to buy a game for us to play on it, so maybe he didn’t end up getting that great of a deal in the long run anyway. As far as the games went, my brother and I had quickly browsed through some titles at the store and we decided that the first game we wanted to own for our brand new Nintendo Entertainment System was a game called “Rush’n Attack”. And that’s what we ended up getting. Indeed, “Rush’n Attack” was the very first Nintendo game I ever owned and was really the very first official video game I ever owned.

“Rush’n Attack” was actually a brand new game for Nintendo at the time and it was made by the power-house Japanese video game company Konami. The game was pretty simple. You play as an American special operations soldier and try to destroy a “secret enemy weapon” being developed on an “enemy” base, but I mean, come on, obviously this “enemy” was the Russians. You’re armed with a knife throughout the whole game but you’re able to pick up other weapons throughout the levels, such as a missile launcher, a pistol and also hand grenades.

“Rush’n Attack” was known by NES gamers to be one of the best games on the market at the time. I liked it well enough but I was young when we bought it and I found the game difficult. I probably would have been better off getting Super Mario Bros. as a first game. In fact, there were probably loads of better choices out there for first games but we were ignorant and the artwork on the “Rush’n Attack” game package looked so badass.

If I had to do it all over again, the game we should have bought first was another Konami creation: “Contra”. No doubt about it. Contra, man. Contra!

I think “Contra” was probably my favorite game for Nintendo or at least it was among the top five. “Contra” was a kickass war science fiction game best played with two players and also best played with the famous Konami code that gave you 30 whole lives; you know the one—up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right…I don’t have to finish, you know it.

In the game, you play as an American special-operations soldier but you’re not fighting the Russians in this one; you’re fighting an evil army known as the Red Falcon Organization…so, yeah, basically a bunch of “red” commies and wait, yeah, basically the Russians. The year is 2633, though, and the Red Falcon Organization is under the influence of an evil alien entity. Your mission is to destroy the Russians…um, I mean, the Red Falcons. And also destroy that pesky alien entity!

My first exposure to “Contra” was at my friend’s house who lived right up the street from me. His name was Lee and, one day, he had a bunch of kids from the neighborhood over his house because he wanted to show us this new video game his dad bought for him called “Contra”. I was absolutely mesmerized by the game and I didn’t even want to play it. I was perfectly content just watching the other neighborhood kids play and this was actually a very common thing for me: that is, I often enjoyed watching video games be played more than actually playing them myself.

Despite my love for “Contra”, I never actually ended up owning the game, though I borrowed it from friends (and perhaps rented it from the local “Video Paradise” video store) on several occasions. My only problem was that I could never get the damn up-up-down-down code to work right. You had to time it just perfectly as the intro screen played but I could never do it. I think you had to finish the code by the time the explosion sound effect happened in the intro and, no matter how perfect I got the timing down, the code still never worked. Seemed to work fine for everybody else, though. I was cursed.

I had much better luck with Contra’s (unofficial) sequel “Life Force” which was just like “Contra”, except, instead of you being soldiers, you were two spaceships flying through a giant alien’s body. And instead of battling members of the “Red Falcon Army”, you were battling, well, various smaller alien lifeforms within the larger alien. Aliens were really big in the 1980s apparently. I think they were mostly symbolic representations of the Russians.

But, yes, “Life Force” was an incredibly fun game and I somehow managed to nail the Konami code every time. Thirty lives were all mine and I beat “Life Force” without a problem. Did I ever beat the game without using the code? Y'know, now that I think of it, no. I didn’t. And, actually, this makes me kind of sad. Or ashamed. At the end of the day, I’m really kind of a cheater. I beat that game unfairly.

I’ve gotten a little bit ahead of myself, though. “Life Force” was a game I didn’t really own until a tad later into the 1980s. Let’s take things back about a year to the first “Nintendo Christmas”, which is what I call the first Christmas I had after first owning an NES.

I won’t go on the record and say for sure that we didn’t purchase any games between the time we acquired “Rush’n Attack” and that next Christmas, but I don’t really remember that we did. I think we mainly borrowed games from friends and rented games from the local “Video Paradise” store. Yes, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t until Christmas 1987 or 1988 that—thanks to Santa Claus—we officially owned our second AND third Nintendo games.

Those games were “Ghosts ‘n Goblins”…

And “R.C. Pro-Am”.

“Ghosts ‘n Goblins” was an adventure game taking place in, I believe, somewhat medieval times. You play as a knight in shining armor but you start the game off in your underwear, hanging out with a princess in a graveyard. Then, a devil-like entity flies down from a castle in the sky and takes the princess away from you. Pretty cool way to start a game, right? Then you jump in your armor and go try to find the princess whom you apparently just made love to in a graveyard. During your quest, you encounter zombies, ghouls and, of course, ghosts and goblins.

The problem with “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” was that it was REALLY fregging hard. From what I remember, I was lucky if I could get past the first level and I’m pretty sure I never got beyond the second level. If you got damaged by a ghost or goblin once, you would lose your armor and suddenly be back in your underwear (this was essentially the equivalent of Mario shrinking from large to small when he gets damaged). Then, when you get hurt again, you die and have to start over from the beginning of the level or the halfway point if you made it that far. I think you only had a few lives to work with, too. Maybe there was a code out there somewhere, but—if there was—I didn’t know about it, that’s for sure.

The controls were a little difficult as well. For example, it was much harder to jump over a pit than it was in, say, “Super Mario Bros”. Up was up, down was down, left was left, right was right etc. In other words, there wasn’t much flexibility, so jumping in a 45-degree angle was rather difficult.

For a while, I was almost convinced that “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” was a flawed game and wasn’t even beatable because it was so hard. I was proven wrong, however, when I was riding the bus home from school one day (I was in the 1st or maybe 2nd grade) and an older kid named Dan told me that he had beaten the game no problem. Dan was one of the cool kids and he always rode in that small seat in the very back of the bus next to the emergency exit. Although this seat was basically only big enough for one person, it was technically a two-seater. In fact, this particular seat was considered like a throne and whoever sat in it was basically king of the entire school bus. Dan sat in this seat all the time. Nobody dared take it from him. Therefore he was king of the entire school bus.

Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that, when Dan said he had beat “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” without a problem, not only did I NOT question him but I actually definitely believed him. There was an aura of confidence that Dan emitted. He wasn’t the kind of person that needed to lie in order to make himself look cool. He was just cool by nature, right down to the core. Now that I think about it, I guess Dan was my first man-crush.

So, yes, “Ghosts ‘n Goblins”—although rather difficult—was a beatable game. Where I had thought the game was lazily thrown together by careless video game programmers, I later learned that “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” was considered one of the best Nintendo games ever made and was actually designed with the utmost effort and care. The game is a favorite amongst hardcore NES gamers, yet—to this day—I’ve never really gotten beyond the second level.

Rad Racer.
A game like the aforementioned “R.C. Pro-Am”, on the other hand, was much easier and, thus, much more enjoyable to me. This was probably the best race car game ever made for Nintendo. In my opinion, it blew a game like “Rad Racer” right out of the water. Then again, these two racing games were very different from each other. “Rad Racer” was pretty much a first-person perspective racing game where you’re behind the wheel of a Ferrari or F1 race car and you’re driving into the horizon of the race course in front of you. “R.C. Pro-Am”, on the other hand, had an overhead, bird’s-eye-like view of remote control cars that you drove around a track in a loop.

“R.C. Pro-Am” was fun as hell and my brother and I—along with some neighborhood friends—got a lot of use out of that game. Playing two-player mode was great fun, but, for the most part, I remember racing against the computer and the courses got harder and harder the longer you played. At some point deep into the levels, one of the cars you raced against—usually the orange car, I believe—would start blinking, go berserk and then start going about three times as fast as the fastest speed you were able to go. I’m not sure if it was a glitch in the game but this car was insane and was basically unbeatable so there was really no point in trying to beat him. Basically the orange car going berserk was an indication that you were playing too long and it was time to start doing your homework.

Also, I should probably mention that it was around the time of “R.C. Pro-Am” that my brother and I acquired a new controller for the Nintendo called the “NES Advantage Joystick”. This was a controller that essentially looked like the controls you would use on an arcade video game, complete with spring-loaded joystick and extra-large buttons. It also had additional buttons that said “turbo” on them, but these buttons never seemed to do anything, at least not for any of the games that I played. Supposedly maybe they worked for “Rad Racer”? Or maybe that’s just an old wives’ tale straight out of ancient Nintendo lore.

Overall, the “NES Advantage Joystick” didn’t give you much of an “advantage” over the computer or other players, but it was really effective when playing a game like “R.C. Pro-Am” because it was much easier to steer the car with the joystick. Plus, it was a really durable, well-constructed controller that just felt really good in your hands. I liked that controller a whole lot, actually, and I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere…well, I think I had it up until recently. It may be gone now, I’m not sure. Yep, gone, forget I ever mentioned it.

“R.C. Pro-Am” did, indeed, keep me busy for much of the 1988 area. “Ghosts ‘n Goblins”? Not so much…

But it was also around this time when I was being exposed to “The Legend of Zelda” and I say “exposed” because I never actually owned the game until much later in the early 90s. My cousins would bring the game over and I would basically watch my cousins, my brother, and even my sister try and guide Link through wilderness and labyrinths in his quest to rescue Princess Zelda from the evil warlock Gannon.

Zelda was another one of those video games that I initially enjoyed watching more than I did actually playing it. I could literally just sit back on the couch and watch it be played for hours. I wasn’t the only one who did this, either; even though one person was actually operating the controls, everybody shared their ideas and thoughts as to which way they thought Link should go, whether he should try a bomb here or there, move a rock etc. The game had so many puzzles and secrets that everybody’s input was welcomed and needed.

I should also say that “Zelda” was yet another game that creeped me out in a significant way, particularly the labyrinth parts of the game. Not to be overly specific, but I can still hear the sound of the “dragon roar” you would hear when you were getting close to the room with a final labyrinth boss. Man, that sound would just give you a nervous feeling because you weren’t positive which room exactly the boss was in but you knew you were close. It didn’t even sound like a dragon roar, though. Due to Nintendo's 8-bit technical constraints, it sounded more like a creepy sneeze coming from a robotic ghost. In fact, if it had sounded like a real dragon’s roar, it would have been less creepy. The technical limitations actually worked to Zelda’s advantage and made the limited sound fx all the creepier.

But, yes, the Zelda game was overall very mysterious, strange and eerie. Even the old medicine man who gave you the map to give to the (even creepier) old woman was creepy. Playing the labyrinth levels with that same music on a loop kind of put you into a weird trance and it was a strange but extremely fun experience playing the Zelda game. But, yes, creepy as hell. Or at least to me it was.

Like I said, I never owned Zelda until much later. The summer between fifth grade and sixth grade I decided to buy it at the local “Kay Bee Toys” store. I already owned a Super Nintendo at this point, but I thought playing Zelda would keep me occupied for my summer vacation and prevent me from getting bored and driving my mom nuts, which was known to happen. I ended up playing the game for several hours of summer vacation, but I never ended up beating it.

Having brought up “Kay Bee Toys”, though, I’m suddenly reminded of another memorable video game that I ended up owning for the NES. I guess I’m done talking about Zelda so I will abruptly make the transition to talking about this game.

The game was called “Rampage”.

There was tons of buzz about “Rampage” when it first came out. It was a hot item that was supposedly THE game to own, a must-have. I happened to be at the Braintree Mall (just outside of Boston) with my dad one day and we paid a visit to the Kay Bee Toys there. I had no interest in toys at that point in my life so I went straight to the front counter and perused the display of video games hanging on the pegged wall behind it. Holy crap! There it was: “Rampage”.

I was convinced that owning “Rampage” would bring instant happiness and satisfaction to me for the rest of my life. I begged my dad to buy it for me. I told him I would never ask for anything ever, ever again. He would never have to buy me another Christmas or birthday present for the rest of my life. “Rampage” was what would make my life complete.

My dad wasn’t instantly sold on the game because it cost about 60 dollars! He told me he would think about it a bit and then we went off to do some dull errands within the mall. For the next hour or so I pulled out every subtle manipulation tactic I could come up with. “You know, dad, we recently learned in school that playing video games boosts brain cells.” I also went on to tell him that I would do any chore he wanted me to do around the house. I just really wanted “Rampage” so, so bad.

In the end, my dad gave in and bought the game before we left the mall. I said, thank you, thank you, I love you so much, dad! He also told me not to make a big deal about it with my mom and especially don’t mention how much it cost!

I brought “Rampage” home, slid the game cartridge gently into the mouth of my Nintendo Entertainment System, AND…

It wasn’t all that great of a game. The “plot” basically involved you playing as either a Godzilla-like monster or King-Kong-like monster and you destroyed city buildings while the military shot at you in tanks. You literally just climbed buildings, punched at them, ate an occasional person or snack, and you did this until the building was so weak it crumbled to the ground. Then you proceeded to the next level and did the same thing to another group of buildings. You kept on doing this in level after level upon level after level.

In fact, “Rampage” literally had hundreds of levels. But it was the same thing over and over again: punching buildings until they crumbled to the ground. And it was pretty hard to get killed, at least to the point of a GAME OVER. Nope, you just kept going and going and going. “Rampage” was probably the only game I ever played that was just too easy and too boring.

So, yes, unfortunately “Rampage” didn’t quite live up to its reputation, but I never admitted this to my dad. I wanted him to believe that his money was well spent and I was the happiest kid in the world. Besides, it wasn’t THAT bad of a game. I got a lot of use out of it. I enjoyed destroying building after building for probably too many hours, but, man, the game did get old by, like, level 25.

Bart skateboarding along the Great Wall.
What’s special about “Rampage”, though, is that it goes down as being the only time I remember that my dad—out of the blue—bought a video game for no special occasion. Christmas was usually the time when I got my video games, sometimes two or maybe even three if my brother asked for ones, too. Maybe for my birthday I would get one as well. In fact, I’m pretty sure I remember getting the game “Bart Vs. The World” for one of my birthdays, which was a video game based on the TV show “The Simpson’s”. I don’t remember too much about what the game was about but I do remember a really cool level where you skateboard as Bart along the Great Wall of China (see above photo).

But, yes, Christmas and birthdays: this was when my collection of Nintendo games would grow a little larger. There was, however, one Easter when I was delightfully surprised to find a Nintendo game in my Easter basket. This was very unexpected because I usually only got a couple action figures in my Easter basket or a maybe a Hot Wheels if I was lucky. As for candy, I never got any candy because I was allergic to it (or so my mother told me). Perhaps my parents felt bad that I couldn’t get candy like most normal children and they made up for this by getting me a video game instead. That may have been the reason or maybe I was just doing well in school and they thought I deserved a prize. Whatever the reasons were, I woke up on Easter morning (1988 or 1989 I believe?) and found a video game in my Easter basket called “Jackal”.

“Jackal” was another war-related game from Konami, kind of like “Contra” and “Life Force”, but you played from an overhead angle like with “R.C. Pro-Am”. You are in a special-forces Army jeep that gets dropped off in “enemy territory” (code for Russia, of course). Your mission is to pick up POWS and ultimately destroy a “secret enemy weapon”—gee, where have we heard the term “secret enemy weapon” before? Oh, that’s right: “Rush’n Attack”. Man, we were really conditioned to fear those Russians, weren’t we?

The overhead view of "Jackal".
“Jackal” was a very fun and awesome game (admittedly much better than “Rampage”) and it was even better playing “co-op”, meaning with two players. To my knowledge, I don’t think you could use the famous up-up-down-down Konami code with this game, but you didn’t really need it. The game was easy enough and, with some effort, pretty beatable, even for the non-gaming wizard like myself.

To my surprise, I later learned that “Jackal” was an arcade game before it was an NES game. In fact, most games I owned had previous incarnations as arcade games (“Rush’n Attack”, “Ghosts ‘n Goblins”, “R.C. Pro-Am”, “Rampage” and others). What I never realized is that most Nintendo games existed as arcade games before anything else. I guess the game designers figured, well, if it worked for the arcade, it will work for the NES.

My ignorance in the area of arcade games was mainly due to the fact that there just wasn’t a video arcade around me for the first part of my childhood (one came later but I’ll talk more about that in a bit). I would probably only go to a bona fide arcade about once a year, usually while on vacation down on Cape Cod. A family amusement center named “Barn of Fun” in Dennis, MA. comes to mind. It was a miniature-golf place but it also had a sweet arcade with Skee ball and TONS of video games. It no longer exists but I just thought I would mention it in the rare case that somebody out there knows what I’m talking about.

Other than the good old “Barn O’ Fun”, my arcade game exposure was limited. However, every once in a while, you would encounter a video game machine in a random place, like in a restaurant or bowling alley, or even inside a mall.

One time, I was at the beach with my family and my cousins down on Cape Cod for just the day. After the beach, we headed to a nearby outlet mall right near the Bourne Bridge for dinner or to do some shopping—whatever it was. The only thing I remember about this mall was that it had one—just one—video game…and it was the coolest video game I had ever laid my eyes upon.

That video game was called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game”.

“TMNT: The arcade game” was a kick-ass four-player Konami title (are we starting to see a pattern here?). You play as the ninja turtles and try to save both April and Splinter after they’ve been kidnapped by the evil Shredder. In your (New York City) travels, you battle foot soldiers, robots, Bebop and even Rocksteady!

I loved the ninja turtles growing up and this game was essentially taking the cartoon and enabling you to play it as a video game. In other words, you were kind of interactively engaging with the cartoon. That’s how good the graphics were!

I played the crap out of TMNT and what I remember is that I was pretty good at it. Usually arcade games were super hard so it could gobble your quarters, but the difficulty level for this particular game was reasonable.

To my delight, “TMNT: The Arcade Game” got released for the Nintendo in 1990 and, to no surprise, it was the number-one item on my Christmas wish-list that year. I didn’t get it for Christmas, though, and I was bummed...but then I got it for my birthday—January 5th, only a couple weeks after XMAS—and I was thrilled. The game even came with a Pizza Hut coupon for a free personal pan pizza! I never used that coupon.

As the 1990s kicked into high gear, I continued to play TMNT in ridiculous amounts. But there were also three other key games that I was playing around this time as well:

“Mega Man 2”, “Tetris”, and, well, the last one’s a surprise. Can you guess it, baby? It’s known as the number-one Nintendo game to ever come down the pipeline and, yes, I just gave you a hint there, baby. I’ll let you think a minute while I talk about the former two games:

The opening menu screen for "Mega Man 2".
Both “Mega Man 2” and “Tetris” were “borrowed” games from friends that we essentially ended up keeping, well, forever. The former game—"Mega Man 2"—is known today as being one of the best Nintendo games ever made, probably within the top five or at least top ten. In the game, you play as a heroic robot named Mega-Man and your mission is to defeat the evil Dr. Wily who has made eight evil robots you must battle first. This means there are eight levels to beat, one for each robot. When you start the game, there is a menu where you actually get to choose which robot and which level you want to take on first. There is Metal Man, Air Man, Bubble Man, Quick Man, Crash Man, Flash Man, Heat Man, and Wood Man. I think Wind Man and Heat Man were my favorites. Those were the levels I always wanted to tackle first. In fact, I'm pretty sure I usually just played those levels, along with a few others, over and over again. I didn't even really concern myself with beating the game.

Then, there was Tetris, which I spent many an hour playing. If you’ve been living on Mars for the past few decades and just returned, Tetris is a puzzle game where you try to fit pieces together of different sizes and shapes. They keep falling from the top of the screen and you have to arrange them in an order so they fit together. Once you fit one line together, the line disappears and you get points. Reach a certain number of points and you proceed to a higher level of difficulty. The pieces keep falling faster and faster as the levels proceed. If they stack up too high, you’re screwed and if they reach the top? GAME OVER.

I’ve probably played Tetris for way too many hours of my life. Like with many of the NES games, the music was hypnotizing and, after a few levels, you fell into a trance so you kind of just kept playing and playing and playing. The only bad part was trying to fall asleep at night because your brain was still in Tetris-mode. All you could see in your mind’s eye were Tetris pieces falling from the sky and you had that stressful feeling that you must hurry and fit them all together.

Okay, now it’s time to talk about the third game I mentioned, the mystery game, the game known to be the number-one NES video game of all time. Did you guess it?

We first caught glimpses of this video game in the 1989 movie The Wizard starring Fred Savage of “Wonder Years” fame. The movie is about Savage and his little gaming-wizard brother Jimmy (played by Luke Edwards) hitching their way across America so Jimmy can play in a world video game championship in California.

The Wizard, by the way, also starred Beau Bridges and even Christian Slater! It was a fun little movie that was crammed with Nintendo product placement and all sorts of actual Nintendo games like “Double Dragon”, “Ninja Gaidan”, “Rad Racer” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (i.e. the first and far more inferior TMNT, not the aforementioned arcade game sequel). Overall, the movie was basically a giant advertisement for Nintendo but, in particular, it was an advertisement for a brand new game that had yet to be released. You know the one. The game was…

Super Mario Bros. 3!

“Super Mario Bros. 3” is, indeed, known to be the number-one NES video game of all time. The game was a follow-up to Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2, the latter of which was also a great game, though admittedly a little…um…strange. The reason why Super Mario Bros. 2 was “strange” was because it literally started out as a completely different game in Japan called “Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic”. This game had completely different protagonists that were later changed to Mario, Luigi, Princess and Toad by Nintendo America, thus converting the game into a Super Mario Bros. sequel. This kind of explains the strange enemies (i.e. Birdo, Mouser) that seemed to exist in a world very different from the Mario Bros. we were used to. I mean, the final enemy isn’t even Bowser. It’s an evil frog named Wart!

Super Mario Bros. 3 however, marked a return to classic Super Mario Bros. mythology, though many new features were added to that mythos. Probably one of the most memorable of these new features was the addition of an item with magical powers. Along with the traditional mushroom, fireflower and star, there was the now-famous “super leaf” that could turn Mario into a flying raccoon. There were also other items such as frog suits that enabled you to jump higher and swim faster. Oh, and there was a Zelda-like flute that enabled you to magically enter a warp zone.

Overall, Super Mario Bros. 3 graphics were quite impressive with a three-dimensional background that created more depth in the visuals of the game. Some levels had hills you could slide down on your fanny. There were also ice levels where you slipped and slid all over the place. Cool pipe levels. Water levels. Giant levels where question-mark boxes—not to mention enemies—were about five times larger than normal. Flying pirate ship levels, lots of cannons and, oh, all sorts of goodies.

Indeed, all I have to do is hear two seconds of “Super Mario Bros. 3” music and I’m brought back to Saturday mornings in the very early-90s. I had a tough week of third or fourth grade behind me, crawled out of bed with eye-crusties impairing my vision and played a bunch of Super Mario Bros. 3 while still in my jammies. I played a TON of that game and it was really hard to get me to stop. In fact, there was only ONE thing that actually possessed the power to stop me:

A whole other video game system…a new system everybody was talking about. This system was called:

The SUPER Nintendo Entertainment system. Code name: the SNES.

To be continued...