How the PlayStation 2 killed console gaming for me

While computer gaming was really important to me in the 80s and 90s, I held an equal fascination for console games. They simply worked, for starters, and that wasn’t always something you could take for granted with loading up PC games and trying to get them to run. They were popular, too, and full of fresh experiences. From the Atari 2600 through the original PlayStation, I spent countless hours playing Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and more.

In fact, the PlayStation quickly became my second favorite console of all time. There were SO MANY great games for it, including some terrific RPGs, and I depended on it greatly toward the end of my college years when my laptop was aging and couldn’t really handle any modern titles whatsoever. Getting the PlayStation 2 when it came out in the fall of 2000 seemed like a no-brainer. Yet it turned out to be the move that killed console gaming for me going forward.

Some of this wasn’t the PS2’s fault. I am, at my core, a PC gamer, and when I got a new desktop following my college graduation, I had the ability to play those PC games once more. Throw in the internet and the intriguing field of online games, and I found myself starting to distance myself from the SNES and PlayStation in my gaming time. I simply wasn’t following console market that much any more, and most new systems didn’t set me on the edge of my chair with anticipation.

But the problem was in 2000, I wasn’t married, I had virtually no social life, and I had way too much free time on my hands. If I wasn’t working, I was most likely home, and that gave me a lot of hours to fill up with gaming. A LOT of hours. For those four years prior to meeting my wife and three years prior to really getting into MMOs, I was starving for games. I simply ran through them too quickly and would be prowling Media Play on a regular basis looking for something new and different to experience.

Even though my interest in consoles was waning, when the PS2 came out, I remembered all the great times I had with the PS1 and purchased it on launch week. That did not pan out so well for me, because there really wasn’t that much to play — at least, no games of great interest. I held out for Final Fantasy X, which ended up being the only title on that console that I played to any great length, but for the most part, I’d buy or rent PS2 games, get bored of them quickly, and then despair that I had just wasted that money.

I was in denial that I had outgrown consoles, or at least what consoles were offering. The types of games that interested me — strategy sims, RTS, adventure games, RPGs — were not the games being made for the PS2. Yes, it was pretty, but it felt surface-level and hollow.

After a while, I simply stopped buying anything for the PS2 and used it, as many did back then, as a DVD player. At some point I sold it off, and after that, I never really looked back on the decision to divorce myself from consoles. Sure, I fiddled about on the GameCube and Wii, because who didn’t? But I never got back to those long sessions on the couch or cared much about the console wars after that point.

The PS2 had an amazingly long run, and I’m sure it’s a favorite to many who owned one. But it’s telling that I could not formulate even a top five — nevermind top 10 — personal best game list from that console. It was time to move on, and the PS2’s lackluster launch lineup and subsequent titles showed me that what the console market found interesting and what I wanted to play were quite divergent from each other.

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My 10 favorites NES games

I’ve been meaning to write this list for a while, especially since I’ve done my top 10 SNES, PlayStation, and Atari 2600 games. What makes coming up with a list of my favorite 10 Nintendo Entertainment System games a little weird is that unlike the other game systems I’ve done, I never owned a NES. Instead, all of my friends did, and so my experiences were always bumming off someone else’s system. Even so, I had my favorites! Here goes nothing.

1. Ikari Warriors II

I’ve seen this on some “worst of” lists, but for me it was always a fave because my friend and I would play co-op on this shooter for hours when I went over to his house on Sunday afternoons. Yes, occasionally we’d get stuck in the levels and end up shouting at the other person, but that was half the fun.

2. Super Mario Bros.

My first NES game and my introduction to the 8-bit era. It really blew me away at the time with its graphics, its tight platforming, and all of those sweet power-ups. I never wanted something so bad as when I saw this game in action.

3. Super Mario Bros. 2

I’m tired of the fact that this is a gaming “black sheep” that gets bashed repeatedly these days. Let me tell you that most of those snobby reviewers are dead wrong — we loved this game when it was released and everyone played it like crazy. It had really colorful graphics and the choice of character felt so liberating.

4. Super Mario Bros. 3

Might as well round out the trilogy, because once I played this one, I never wanted to go back to 1 or 2! Three still holds up so well today with its varied lands, a huge assortment of power-ups, secrets, and paths.

5. Contra

The Konami code turned this game from Nintendo Hard to a high-powered playground. Even with that one-hit death thing, the rocking music, the many types of guns, and the weird alien levels made us feel like we were Rambo going nuts in our own movie.

6. The Legend of Zelda

Here’s the thing: I’m just not that big of a Zelda fan. Ever since A Link to the Past, I feel like I’ve outgrown whatever appeal these games have. Yet the NES original held my fascination for its RPG elements (including all of its loot) and how my friends and I were trying to figure out all of the secrets of this game before internet walkthroughs and guides.

7. Spy Hunter

James Bond if it was just James Bond’s car. And that worked as a really odd shmup that had you blasting cars with machine guns, throwing out oil slicks, and when the time came for it, trading in the car for a speedboat. We played the heck out of this at my cousins’ house in Florida.

8. Blaster Master

Sunsoft always knocked it out of the park with its music, and Blaster Master has one of my favorite level themes of all time. It was a good Metroidvania-style game with the ability to jump in and out of your tank/car, not to mention those overhead levels. Lots of gaming variety here, and I never got tired of tossing out bombs.

9. Batman

I always preferred this over Ninja Gaiden as a wall-jumping platformer. Batman always seemed cooler, and he had more weapons and better visuals. Plus, again, that rocking Sunsoft soundtrack.

10. Castlevania

I went back and forth between Metroid and this, but in all honesty, I’d choose to play Castlevania back then and now. It’s more straight-forward, has better weapons, better music, and that awesome gothic horror vibe.

Honorable mentions:

  • Metroid: Great starting music and double jump
  • Double Dragon II: Fun mindless beat-em-up
  • Rygar: Don’t know why, but we kind of like this game and played it a lot
  • Dragon Warrior: The NES didn’t have a lot of straight-up RPGs so this one caught my attention by default
  • Duck Hunt: Why couldn’t we shoot that dog?
  • Battletoads: Really great animations but it was too tough and unforgiving as a co-op
  • Metal Gear: Way too tough and poorly translated, but the inventory and sneaky play was intriguing
  • Goonies II: This game gives me all kinds of warm fuzzies that makes me think back to my youth. All I remember is the low-tech firepower these kids had, but that made the game that much more interesting.

NES Classic finally joins my home arcade

About two years ago, I went through an agonizing and frustrating bout with the internet in general and Amazon in specific while trying to obtain the hot-yet-unavailable NES Classic. Nintendo either had underestimated the interest in an all-in-one retro gaming console or (more likely) deliberately underproduced stock to drive up interest and demand. In any case, no matter how diligent I was in trying to nab one, I never could — and I certainly wasn’t going to pay scalper prices.

So I played the waiting game. That was eased by last year’s release of the SNES Classic, a console which I had wanted much more anyway. Since then, I have hooked up the SNES in my office where it enjoys a lot of play from me, my kids, and anyone else in the church who has a hankering for nostalgia and genuinely fun games. Hearing my kids talk about Mario, Zelda, Starfox, and Street Fighter II puts a lot of happy in my heart, since I can share some of my own childhood with them.

I wasn’t really gunning for an NES Classic any longer — not seriously, at least — but a batch released on Amazon late June and, what the heck, I went for it. Got one in the first minute, and it shipped to my house about 10 minutes before me and my family were leaving for a week of camping. Totally forgot about it during that week, too, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it waiting on the kitchen counter when I came back.

I am at the point in my life where I’m very much opposed to spending money on games that I won’t play, so if I buy it, I have to play it. I set up the NES Classic on my desk and quickly put it through its paces, dipping into old favorites like Super Mario Bros 3, Castlevania, and Zelda while trying out a few titles (Kirby, Mega Man 2, Dr. Mario) that I never had the opportunity back in the day. Since our family never owned an NES, my exposure was limited to whatever friends would have or arcades would feature. Man, remember how much tougher the arcade versions of Mario and Castlevania would be? We were practically pouring quarters into them to survive the first levels.

Generally, I’m pleased with the purchase. I’m sure it’s going to get some play at our house, especially with the Mario games. However, I can’t help but keep comparing it to the SNES Classic, which dominates in every way other than the actual number of games. The SNES simply has better titles, better controllers, and more games that I want to play today versus ones that are enjoyable for nostalgia alone. The save states and other options are very welcome, and it’s always possible that one or two games might be worthy contenders for a retro gaming series.

It definitely feels satisfying having it in my collection. There are a few NES titles that are really missing here — TMNT (1 and 2), the original Contra, Dragon Warrior, Castlevania 3 — but I’m quite sure that Nintendo will break out an NES and SNES Classic II one of these years. Keep milking me for my nostalgia dollars, I’m good for it!

Nostalgia Lane: Turtles in Time (SNES)

For all my kids know of the Super Nintendo System, it’s pretty much two games: Super Mario World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. This is because they’re quite not old enough for the complexity of the other titles’ controls (but they’re getting better!), so these one- or two-button games are perfect for them on the platform. And frankly, Turtles keeps winning out as a crowd favorite.

I can’t blame them; it’s one of my favorite games on the SNES as well. Has been since the mid-90s. After the brutally tough TMNT game on the original NES (I was never aware of the sequel on that console), getting a Turtles game that was both fun and accessible was a revelation.

At its core, Turtles in Time is a streamlined beat-em-up that delivers more on visuals than on mastering any real martial arts. If you can jam on a button real fast, you have a good chance of winning. But the colorful figures, the expressive animation, the choice of four Turtles to play, the fun levels, some vocal clips, and the kickin’ music all come together to create a party-like atmosphere of a game. It’s just sheer fun to play with others.

Plus, there’s time travel, as the title implies. For my taste, it comes too far into the game (and as far as I know, there’s no save states, so every time you have to start over), but at least it’s there.

And even though you can be a simple button-masher, Turtles in Time has more to offer for those looking to master its gameplay. Various moves can be performed like jump kicks and (my favorite) grabbing an enemy and slamming them back and forth on the ground, Hulk-style. You can even fling a character at the “camera,” thanks to Mode 7 graphics, which actually is the only way to beat Shredder in the Technodrome (see above picture).

Even though the environment isn’t complicated to traverse as in a platformer, there are usually a lot of elements with which to interact. Barrels can be hit to explode (naturally), pizza picked up to be eaten, your character can fall into sewer holes and moan about it, and so on. The choice of Turtle (and weapon) that you pick changes things up a little too — I prefer Donatello for his long reach with the bo staff, but my one son always picks Raphael for his really quick melee attacks with the sai.

Turtles in Time is also polished to a T, and it really shows. It looks, sounds, and performs great all the way through, and the fact that it doesn’t require a huge manual to know how to play it means that just about anyone can pick it up to enjoy. It’s a real shame that this wasn’t included on the Classic SNES, but at least I have a physical cartridge (which is somewhat expensive to buy these days) and another copy on my Retropi, so we’ll keep on playing it in my household for years to come.

Nostalgia Lane: Age of Empires II

I clearly recall visiting my family in Indiana in fall of 1999 while clutching a game manual in my hands. Just the day before, I had picked up a copy of the new Age of Empires II, and it was killing me to not be able to play for a few days (although family visitation was good and all that). So resolved to study the manual cover-to-cover as a balm to sooth my anxiety.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were my RTS period, and what a glorious era that was. There were so many of those games out by then, but then along came Microsoft and there went a few months of my life, woosh, sucked right into Age of Empires II.

Coming from a background playing the Civilization games, I was perfectly primed to receive AoE2 with open arms. It was kind of a micro-civilization fantasy simulator, where you could slap together various cultures on a map and then race to build up your kingdom before raising armies to send out conquering forces.

The hook of this game was that each of the 13 civilizations would progress through four ages, from the Dark Age to the Renaissance, with each successive age providing new building and troop options. So you always had to balance building up your current age while putting aside some resources to move on to the next one. Fall behind, and the other civs with their advanced technology could end up steamrolling you.

Age of Empires II was so polished and played so smoothly that I held it up as the gold standard to similar games afterward. It was all of the little things that made this enjoyable, including sending peasants out to forage bushes for food to creating crazy armies of troops to see how they’d fare against other civs. Want a rank of primitive musketeers to fight war elephants? This was the game for you.

It cut out the turn-by-turn slowness of Civilization to give more of the flavor of progression and focus more on war and conquest. I was glad to hear that it got an HD remake a few years back — and a few new expansions, it looks like! — and I’m definitely psyched to hear that Age of Empires IV is in the works. The third game was enjoyable, but its New World focus felt very different than the other entries. I’m looking forward to heading back to the classic structure of civilization- and era-jumping.

7 of my favorite tower defense games

I’ve gotten the impression that tower defense games aren’t that respected in either games media or among more “serious” gamers, but for me, I’ve always loved them. They’re a favorite of mine, in fact, especially on mobile devices. Tower defense is a relaxing puzzle of sorts that combines warfare, mazes, and defensive strategy with that satisfying bubble wrap “popping” of enemy units. I often play a round or two at the end of the day, as these games help lull me into sleep (I know that sounds bad, but it more speaks to its relaxing qualities).

Today, I wanted to share my six favorite tower defense titles to date:

1. Desktop Tower Defense

This might have been one of the first tower defense games I ever played, and to date, it’s one of my wife’s most-played video games ever. There are a lot of different types of tower defense titles, and this one falls into the “use towers to make your own maze” category — with hand-drawn towers and units. I eventually fell out of like with this because it ascribed to the “keep giving mobs more and more health until they’re raid bosses” design, but it was a lot of fun for a good long time.

2. Bloons

The Bloons series worked so well because balloons are great fun to pop, and moreso if you’re using silly monkey towers to do it. It’s fast, there are tons of types of “bloons” that zip by, and the popping of each one releases endorphins in my system.

3. Kingdom and Frontier Rush

Absolutely wonderful titles with great art, a huge variety of towers and upgrade paths, and enemy types. Plus the voices ascribed to units gave them a lot of personality, and this was the first tower defense game that I played with hero units. I probably played Frontier Rush through at least a dozen times.

4. Dungeon Warfare

Nobody seems to talk about this gritty title, which is an incredible shame. It’s like Dungeon Keeper meets tower defense, and there’s a massive array of towers, traps, enemies, maps, and upgrades. So so so much replayability here.

5. Creeps

Creeps might not have been the most original tower defense game of all time, but it gets a nod on this list for its imaginative art and premise — that you’re trying to stop nightmares from getting to a kid in bed.

6. Crazy Kings

Yes, this has energy timers and other F2P elements, but I’m really keen on this game because it’s got so much to do, has fun art, has all sorts of gameplay modes, and there is never a lack of things to do. I probably play this now more than any other.

7. Plants vs. Zombies

This is more lane defense than a strict tower defense game, but there’s so much overlap that who cares. I liked the first game way more than the sequel, and had a blast with all of the hilarious plants and zombies on the field. Ramping up each map got old after a while, as did some of the restrictions on later levels, but it was a huge amount of fun while it lasted.

Nostalgia Lane: Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim

We all have those beloved video games that, no matter how old they get, we still take out for a spin every year or two because it’s simply our favorite. Chrono Trigger is one of those games for me, but another one is a 2000 real-time strategy game that, to this day, entertains me.

On the surface, Majesty (the fantasy kingdom sim) sounds like a very generic RTS: You build up a fantasy kingdom, earn money, pump out troops, conquer foes, win levels. Yet the game contained a big twist that hadn’t really been done before. You see, you can’t control your units, you can only influence them.

While players get control over their buildings and the options they contain, once a particular hero is created, it operates independently of the player’s direction. Rangers tend to go out and explore the map, Rogues will look for easy gold to plunder, Gnomes will help build structures, and so on. They’ll fight if they think they can win or have other helpful troops around, they’ll buy their own armor (which you supply via shops) and gear, and they’ll bring back money for you to tax for further expansion. It’s like creating your own little MMORPG world and seeing how it unfolds.

It’s strange, but this twist took the tired genre and made it special. It becomes easy to see units as having their own personalities (which is further helped by memorable and sometimes-hilarious voice acting and a huge roster of names). I never failed to cheer on units that leveled up high, got decked out in gear, and finally worked up the courage to take out an enemy castle.

Majesty really paid special attention to every element of the game. Between stages, a Sean Connery-sounding adviser briefs you on the next level. Each building has its own animations, and there’s a certain pride in seeing a kingdom come into its own with tax collectors, guard towers, and even cemeteries (which keep track of all of your deceased heroes).

So if you can’t control units, does the game get boring? Not at all! You kind of serve as a “quest giver” for your heroes, plopping down flags at certain locations to encourage them to explore or plunder (of course, you have to add gold as a reward, and the more gold you put, the more heroes are going to be attracted by it). Judicious use of flags is essential in overcoming levels.

Plus, there is a strategy to building placement and upgrades. Some buildings, when constructed, mean that you can’t create another type (for instance, Dwarves and Elves hate each other, so you can only go with one or the other). Sometimes buildings offer you a choice of two different heroes, and you can only have four or five heroes per building.

The end result of all of this is a relaxing, charming, and engaging game with a lot of personality. Sure, the maps weren’t much to speak of (just flat fields in various colors), but it did the job. Oh! And the music was fan-freaking-tastic. Loved it.

There was one expansion that added a number of quests in the far north, and unfortunately, that’s all we got. There are 33 quests/maps in total, and a few years ago the game was repackaged with higher resolutions as Majesty Gold (which is also available on GOG.com). I was really excited when Majesty 2 was announced, but it turned out to be a dud with zero personality and fun — the opposite of what made the first game so great. I highly recommend the first to anyone who would like a RTS with a little free will mixed in.