Reminiscing about pixels and hit points
Playing the Java port of Quake II for a while today, I was reminded of the days when computer gaming was a frequent use of my time. It began with Nintendo, as it must have for so many in my generation. We bought one at a junk swap at my old elementary school: the seller giving my mother his personal guarantee that it worked. We had Duck Hunt (which I always cheated at, using the gun mere inches from the screen) and Super Mario. Eventually, we traded that console for a Super Nintento, which I maintain is one of the best platforms ever developed. Between Mario World and Mario All Stars, we were well equipped. Add Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid and you have an awesome system. Add Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasy games, and the rest of the RPG group and you have the real contender, along with the Playstation, for best platform ever.
The first PC game that really hooked me was Myst: back in the days when it was a glorified, colourful Hypercard stack. I remember taking careful notes, and the anger and betrayal I felt when I realized the game was impossible without a sound card: an accessory our NEC 486 (without math coprocessor) lacked. It was on that computer that I got my first glimpse of multiplayer gaming. We played Legend of the Red Dragon - a very primitive massively multiplayer online game - on a half dozen bulletin board services around North Vancouver. This was before anyone had heard of the World Wide Web. My other multiplayer experience was playing Warcraft II over the modem with Jonathan Morissette and Michael Kushnir. I remember how my mother used to become irked, picking up the phone to hear incomprehensible screeching noises. We had to upgrade our 486 to 8 megabytes of RAM in order to run Warcraft II and SimIsle, a game Mica got for Christmas but that we were never keen on. After all, my cousin Jiri had recently given me a pirated copy of Doom.
There was always a bit of an allure associated with Mac gaming. Jonathan's main home computer was a Mac and we would spend entire nights trading off between our two saved games of Escape Velocity. This terrifically exciting and engaging game called upon you to improve your ship, defeat thousands of opponents, complete a complex story line (one of two options), and conquer the galaxy. It wasn't until the two games that marked the apogee of my gaming experience that I found something more addictive. I calculated how many days I would need to go without buying cafeteria food, Coca Cola, or candy in order to afford the cheapest Mac that could run it.
For me, the pinnacle of gaming came with the release of Bungie's Myth. A revolutionary game on many fronts, it combined a truly three dimensional environment with the absolute need to use terrain and tactics to utmost advantage. Unlike Warcraft, where resources could be mined and more men produced, Myth limited you to what you had on the battlefield. Richly immersive, it became ten times more so online. (That said, I have always preferred to achieve perfection in the completion of a single-player game to giving up that possibility for the challenge and immediacy of competing against other humans.) I remember when there weren't more than 100 devoted players on Bungie.net. When we all lived in awe of the Comet: the highest ranked player in the gaming ecosystem, and when we checked the Total Codex daily for news and humour. I spent most of my time on Bungie.net at the rank of Prince, a good way above the single dagger that each player started out with.
The other game that marked the peak of my commitment to these fantastic realms was the original Half Life. By this point, we had already progressed to a Pentium II computer with a Hercules Thriller 3D video card. I remember my appreciation when Nick and Neal got me the new video card that cleared up the clipping and white spot errors in Descent: Freespace and that allowed me to really enjoy Half Life in a hardware accelerated environment. From the attractive hero to the complexity of the environments, the creativity of the weapons, and the calculation involved in gameplay, Half Life was a winner in every respect. While I enjoyed playing the sequel after Mica bought it for me during my last year at UBC, even the greatly expanded complexity of the engine and plot couldn't recreate the obsessive energy that the first game conjured.
While getting into the Playstation era is too adventurous for such a short entry, a few critical games should be named. On Christmas Eve, the year of the Playstation launch, I remember finishing about the first half of Mica's copy of Final Fantasy VII. I went to sleep once the sun was well up, and after I had emerged from Midgar after about fifteen hours of intensive gameplay. The thing that I missed most after we got robbed one year was my Playstation memory card, which included a perfect game of FFVII. I had defeated both of the Weapons - much, much harder opponents than the end boss - and I had a gold chocobo and master materia. Oh, the loss! Aside from the legendary FFVII, the Playstation brought Einhander - that terribly difficult but engaging side-scroller - and the deadly exactitude of Bushido Blade.
Once I moved to UBC in first year, my gaming career entered its final phase. It was defined first by Civilization II, and then by its sequel. I've never been able to resist taking advantage of flaws within a game: how a certain boss in Diablo would just stand there while a fire wall roasted him or how marines in Half Life only activated when you got close enough to them, allowing you to dispatch their stationary forms with one well-directed crossbow quarrel. Civilization II abounded with such flaws. You could make impenetrable walls out of bombers, as long as you had one per square per turn. Civilization III - which became an obsession while Sarah Johnston was still in Vancouver - allowed you to sell cities for outrageous fees, even if they were in atrocious locations. The cash could fuel such a level of scientific research that, playing as the Zulus (my race of choice), you could nuke London by 1000A.D., at which time they would still have nothing better than spearmen to protect them.
I am not sure whether I ever derived anything more than enjoyment out of all these games. I never learned strategy from chess. Actually, I despise chess. It's terrifically boring, though you feel that, as an educated person, you ought to like it. Chess is what people played when there were no better options. Whether I learned anything from all these games or not, I am proof, at least, that you can end up in a fairly successful position despite devoting a great deal of time to them. It wasn't until the later years of high school that anything in my education was ever really challenging or compelling. Perhaps, in that sense, these games filled an important gap. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I salute them, as well as those who made them.
PS. I've left out SimCity: another obsession and the game I played most in my dreams, but one cannot be thorough in such things.
PPS. This list also excludes the more elite and challenging element of computer 'gaming.' By that, I mean the bypassing and overpowering of security systems put in place to guard actual systems and networks. Such things, though long since abandoned as a use of time, can't really be discussed here.
PPPS. How can I leave out Starcraft? Oh, the dozens of games that I played for hundreds of hours each.