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Nostalgia Lane: Metal Gear Solid

When I look back at my time with the original PlayStation, what surprises me most is how short of a window I actually spent with it versus the wealth of experiences and memories that came from it. I purchased my PS1 in the summer of 1998, and by 2000 I had gotten a PS2 and was phasing out the original.

Yet there were so many amazing titles that I enjoyed during this time, including the legendary Metal Gear Solid. Like plenty of others, I first encountered with with a demo disc of the opening level. This I played extensively until I bought the whole thing and absolutely feasted on it during my last year of college.

There really wasn’t another game like this that I had ever played up to that point in my life. It was a seductive mixture of stealth elements, cinematic storytelling, action setpieces, a bit of Metroidvania exploration, meme quotes, and secrets.

Metal Gear Solid — the third in the series — put players in the role of Solid Snake, a special ops agent sent to a remote Alaskan island fortress where he’s got to infiltrate a base, put down tons of highly skilled bad people, and stop a nuclear missile-launching robot from activating. Along the way, the comms radio and various cutscenes kept the stakes high with a multitude of characters, secret agendas, and betrayals.

Unlike a lot of other action titles at that time, MGS rewarded brains, daring, and stealth rather than running and gunning. It rewarded you not to be noticed, since drawing too much attention would most likely get you killed in short order. So there was a lot of sneaking around, distracting guards, hiding in cardboard boxes (!), and using a wide variety of tools to accomplish your goals.

Even with the jagged polygons, MGS had a style that looked good (and still does, in a sense). And it played so smoothly, which was paramount to the think-on-your-feet gameplay. But what I liked the most was how inventive it was for the time. There are so many little secrets, multiple ways to accomplish tasks, fun gadgets, and bosses that sometimes had to require out-of-the-box thinking.

I mean, that first time when I had to fight Psycho Mantis and eventually realized that the only way to beat him was to switch controller ports? Genius.

Weirdly enough, it would be the last time I really liked a Metal Gear Solid game. I did get the second one on the PS2 and was — like everyone else — disappointed that you didn’t get to play as Snake for half the game. I also grew pretty weary of the twisty-turny overly philosophical storytelling by the end of MGS and was in no mood for even more of that nonsense in the second one.

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Nostalgia Lane: Nintendo GameCube

When I think of the video game consoles I’m most nostalgic about and attached to, it’s actually a small list. The SNES, obviously, at the top. Then the NES and original PlayStation. Apart from that, I don’t really carry much of a torch for, say, the N64, PS2, Wii, Xbox, and the like.

Then there’s the weird case of the GameCube. Ask me a few years back if I was nostalgic for this 2001-era device, and the answer would have been, “Nah.” But the more I’ve thought about it, the more it’s really risen in my estimation. Honestly, this right here might be the sleeper hit of a console in my personal gaming history.

After the SNES, I pretty much blipped over the N64 in favor of the PlayStation and continued on to the PS2 like any cool kid of the early 2000s. But somewhere along the line, I did pick one up, because by the time I was dating my now-wife, we were playing rounds of Double Dash on it. One of my favorite video game memories was playing through the entirety of the freaky Eternal Darkness with my friend at his apartment.

Our use of the GameCube only grew once we had kids, as they ended up loving so many of the titles that we picked up for dirt cheap at garage sales. Super Smash Bros, Animal Crossing, Pac-Man, Double Dash, and more became their staples.

I mean, to this day my kids still play the GameCube — and they also have a Switch on the side. My 10-year-old beat Zelda Wind Waker for the first time the other day after dozens of stabs against Gannon, and his siblings were jumping up and down cheering him on when he did it. My kids love leaving notes for each other in Animal Crossing or beating the snot out of each other as Pikachu and Jigglypuff in SSB.

Beyond its rather great library of games, the GameCube is to be commended for its still-pleasing design, it-just-works functionality, small form factor that fits anywhere, and — my favorite — the excellent game controllers. They might well be my favorite game controllers ever made. And you know what? I don’t have to recharge them or swap in a battery. There’s something to be said for plug-in controllers.

I’m sure that if I had grown up with a GameCube it would be a larger presence in my life, but as it stands, this 22-year-old console did a great job winning me over anyway.

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Nostalgia Lane: Jumping from CGA to VGA

The other day I was watching a video that was showcasing a lot of MS-DOS games from the ’80s and ’90s — some I played, a lot I didn’t. But when I spied a rather obscure old favorite of mine, Snipes (above), in the bunch, I felt that tidal wave of nostalgia hit me. However, this time it wasn’t for a specific game — Snipes was fine, but I haven’t been holding a torch for it — but rather the unique transition in computer gaming between two distinct graphical eras.

You see, I grew up playing titles on an early ’80s IBM PC and continued to do so until 1992. It’s all we had, so I made the most of it. But this machine that was marvelous in 1982 was starting to get creaking by 1985 and was a dinosaur by the time the new decade came. I scrounged for any games at stores that’d actually work on it, often resorting to jumbled collections of freeware rather than the latest hottest titles.

And all of these old PC games either were done in ASCII (like Snipes) or CGA. ASCII had its advantages, such as a full array of 16 (!) colors and relatively fast gameplay, but it could never not be basic-looking. So most of the bigger stuff I played was CGA. And let me tell you kids, if you’re of a younger generation, you have no idea how much we suffered with CGA. Every game had four colors, and two of them were *weird.* There was black, white, bright magenta, and bright cyan.

It all looked like this:

Why magenta and cyan? It’s something technical about how PC graphics used to work and how the companies who made these computers weren’t really thinking about gaming. No matter what the explanation, every single non-ASCII title I played was decked out in these unnatural garish colors. King’s Quest? Silpheed? Sudoken? Magenta, black, white, and cyan. Even the NES had a better color palette.

(Yes, there were other four-color palette sets, but it was very very rare that I saw games that used them.)

So I spent a decade struggling to get games to run on this machine, and when they did, I had to endure that color scheme (and pretty bad gameplay speeds and controls).

But then something wonderful happened. Something marvelous.

We entered the ’90s, and computers seemed like they lurched forward in power and features. The 386s and 486s that were flooding the market were truly “next gen” in the games department. That’s around the time when we graduated to EGA and (especially) VGA, and the difference was like night and day from how things used to look:

Colors. COLORS. Shades! Beautiful, beautiful pixel art. Higher resolutions. Smoother animations.

I might be slightly fond for the old MS-DOS games I cut my teeth on, but I am powerfully nostalgic for the ’90s VGA revolution. There was something about how cool and advanced all of it looked, and I found it a joy to watch game developers come up with different ways to take advantage fewer artistic restrictions. And when you coupled the vastly improved visuals with SoundBlaster and AdLib sound cards (which took the PC out of the bleep and bloop speaker era), these games became so rad.

Even shareware games of a lesser quality than the AAA games still had a huge appeal because of their look and style. A simple pinball game, platformer, or shmup was a whole lot more entertaining when your eyes weren’t bleeding from the visuals.

And it just kept getting better.

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Nostalgia Lane: What do I miss about ’90s internet?

I noticed that a recent thread on the Gen X Reddit talking about the internet in the 1990s blew up into an interesting discussion. The question was posed, if you could go back to that era, especially the early internet scene, would you?

On one hand, it’s a completely ridiculous question. We’re so tied into the internet these days and used to being connected. Having instant access to communication, entertainment, and information is a given now. It would be a kind of torture to have our current knowledge and expectations — and then willingly subject ourselves to painfully slow data transfer speeds, no wifi, no portable internet devices, and almost none of the sites and apps we use on a regular basis today. It’d be awful, especially (for the purpose of this hypothetical) if it was a one-way trip.

But on the other hand… there’s something to this. So many of the responses on that thread express an almost sorrowful wistfulness that the ’90s internet era is very much in the rear view mirror. And after doing a gut check myself, I can say that while I don’t have strong feelings about today’s internet — which I take for granted as we all do — I definitely had and still hold a lot of fondness for that time period.

I think when you look past the limitations, it’s the fact that it was such a sheer novelty. The world was exploding into connectivity, and after 18 or so years of my life without any sort of online experience, now a door was opened and I got to step through.

Websites were portals to be explored. They all looked like butt, so a far greater emphasis was placed on content and personality. Our social connections were more through chat clients, guestbook posts, and email — although forums quickly gained traction by the end of the decade.

And there’s something to be said about how limitations with access garnered more appreciation of what you actually got. It’s the same with TV, movies, and a whole lot of other things. When I have access today to a billion video games, it devalues most of them in my mind. Even good ones aren’t as special as the handful of titles that we had back in the day.

Part of that scarcity of the internet made us more patient as we explored it. So many nights at college, I’d sit in the computer lab and slowly surf the web around the world, seeing if my favorite sites had done anything new and then looking for unexplored territory. It really did feel like a journey.

Of course, I understand it’s easy to romanticize all of this. But the truth is that during this extremely small slice of time, the internet was unique and mysterious and heady in a way that it will never be again. My kids won’t ever experience that wild transition from an analogue to a digital world, nor will my grandkids. I wish I could have bottled up some of that for them and I to sample, but it’s gone — and it ain’t coming back.

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Nostalgia Lane: Pitfall for the Atari 2600

What may have been the strangest thing about playing Pitfall back when I was a kid is that I didn’t even realize I was playing a “platformer” — one of the first real ones, in fact. We didn’t have that terminology yet. It was just this cool game that everyone wanted to take a turn with, even though nobody knew how to win it.

(I mean, you could find all of the treasure before the timer expired, that was the technical win condition, but did you ever know anyone to do this in the Atari 2600 days? I never did. You simply played it for the joy and challenge before you utterly failed, because that was the Atari way.)

As one of the earlier games in our 2600 library, my memories of Pitfall are not a cohesive whole as a series of fragmented little clips:

  • Seeing my cousin be way better at it than me
  • Watching my dad howl in frustration when he fell into the croc’s mouth for the umpteenth time
  • Loving any screen with the swinging vine
  • Thinking that the scorpion actually looked like a cartoon face with an angry giant eye
  • Having that moment when the quicksand pit opened up and I fell into it, because I felt foolish
  • And finding that sweet spot on the croc’s eyeballs that was safe to stand

Oh, and that sweet, sweet Activision box art:

I definitely was not that great at Pitfall, but I dove into it time and again. What made me happiest is that I had a lot of freedom of choice in how to explore the world. I could go left, right, down into the underground, back up — the game wasn’t forcing me onto a path. Getting good at jumping over logs and the scorpion and the crocs was a genuine skill that I could practice, too. It was a HUGE game world (255 screens, a feat that was insanely impressive for 1983)

Looking back at it today, what strikes me the most is the absence of power-ups. We’ve gotten so used to them, it’s wild to consider a time when you didn’t have any. Not even a weapon, either! Just running, jumping, climbing, and (in my case) dying most ignobly.

But man, it was a great rush.

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Nostalgia Lane: Mario Bros. for Atari 2600

Out of all of the stories I have playing Atari 2600 games, this one may be the longest. Indulge me, however.

So it’s the summer of 1986, and I am in deep envy as some of my friends got the new Nintendo Entertainment System and were enjoying titles like Excitebike, Zelda, and — of course — Super Mario Bros. The second I got my hands on SMB over the previous Christmas at a friend’s house, I was absolutely head-over-heels in love with its design and platforming fun. I played it at anyone’s house who had it and in the occasional arcade or Pizza Hut (although those versions were tougher).

But we weren’t getting an NES, at least any time soon, so my options for home Super Mario Bros play were limited. However, I thought I might have a shot, because I saw that the Atari 2600 had “Mario Bros” on a game shelf at my local toy store, and so I asked for it for my birthday.

Now, keep in mind that I didn’t have the internet or even magazine reviews. I just was hoping that, like some other arcade ports, Atari was able to come up with a crude but workable version of Super Mario Bros. There was a lot of denial in my head — even the titles were different — but I clung to hope. I celebrated my birthday in Florida at my grandparents’ home and unwrapped Mario Bros there… which did me no good because the console itself was back up in Indiana.

But I had the manual, at least, and once again tried to fool myself into thinking that this may be Super Mario Bros even as the very game documentation said otherwise.

When I got back home, the truth finally settled in: This was no Super Mario Bros. But after I got past that crushing disappointment, I found that this was actually a fun game in its own right. Mario Bros is a one-or-two-player game on a static screen where you try to flip critters, kick them to their doom, and grab the occasional flashing rainbow cube-thing for extra points. There was a yellow power bar that could be smashed to knock over all critters on the screen, or else you could jump underneath them and flip them that way.

You did have to watch out for a fireball that would go back and forth between the tiers. There was also bonus stages where you could grab lots of coins within a time limit.

Unlike Super Mario Bros, there were no power-ups and no jumping on top of critters to kill them. But it was decently fun, especially when someone else joined you. It was a frantic race to see who could get the most points — and also who could betray the other. You see, you could un-flip the critters through the power bar or jumping beneath them, so if your opponent was closing in on the critter, you could un-flip it and kill your friend that way.

Good times.

Anyway, it wasn’t that complicated, but I always liked the design of Mario, Luigi, and the crab and turtle dudes. Maybe it wasn’t the game I’d hoped for, but fun was had even still.

P.S. — Many years later, some fan actually made a fairly decent SMB port for the 2600, which is so impressive that I can’t believe it actually works.

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Nostalgia Lane: Radar Lock for the Atari 2600

When people talk about playing the Atari 2600 back in the day, they usually aren’t referring to “1989.” By then, the NES was already the dominant console pretty much everywhere and the 2600 was this incredibly old relic from 1977 (when I was just a year old).

But it was a little different in our household. From start to finish in the 1980s, console gaming in our house was just with the Atari 2600. Discussions with our parents about upgrading to an NES went nowhere (“We already have a video game system!” would usually be the response), and we were still a couple of years away from getting our SNES. So believe you me, my brothers and I played the heck out of the 2600 when we couldn’t go over to a friend’s house to play something newer.

That meant we were also on the prowl for newer games in the late ’80s that featured better gameplay and graphics as Atari tried to extend the lifespan of the system as long as it could. This hunt resulted in part with the acquisition of Radar Lock, a title from 1989 that I’ve never heard people talk about.

And that’s a shame, because Radar Lock quickly became one of my top-five Atari 2600 games ever. On the surface, it wasn’t anything that special: You piloting a fighter jet around the sky, blowing up enemy planes before you ran out of fuel and/or ammo. Also you had a handful of missiles and proximity mines (which, unfortunately, were accessible via the second joystick because of that “only one button” thing the 2600 had).

What it lacked in complexity and depth, Radar Lock made up for in superbly solid gameplay. It was a fast-paced arcade fighter sim that had you dogfighting over an endless ocean. The sounds of the machine guns were weighty and the satisfying explosions of enemy craft kept my butt planted in my seat. Along with titles like Asteroids and River Raid, this game was a perfect “zone out and play for long stretches of time on autopilot” experience.

The graphics were also a highlight: Bold, crisp, and colorful. You jet’s tracers did a neat gradually disappearing effect as they arced out and then down. I always liked the “taking off” sequence at the start, as well as the point in the missions where you had to dock with an airborne tanker to fuel up. I learned later on that making the horizon tilt left and right was actually a very difficult thing to do for the 2600 and required a lot of cheats to make it look smooth.

So while other kids had Top Gun, I had Radar Lock — and spent so, so many afternoons after school blasting my way through waves of bad guys.

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Nostalgia Lane: The last games of the Atari 2600

You know what fascinates me? The final titles officially released for any console. Usually nobody’s paying attention at this point because we’re already two, three generations past it, but as someone who used to play consoles well past their expiration date, I think it’s pretty cool to look at these final games. Sometimes they’re surprisingly advanced, using every trick learned to pull out the stops that wasn’t conceivable earlier in the console’s history.

For me, the console that stayed in our home for the entirety of the ’80s was the Atari 2600 (which was only replaced when we got a SNES in ’91). While my friends were deep into the NES by the late ’80s, I was still picking up the few random titles that the 2600 could do, like Radar Lock (which was an underappreciated gem). So I wanted to look at the final batch of games the system created.

For the U.S., there were four titles that came out in 1991 that marked the end of the run. The first was an adaptation of the arcade hit Ikari Warriors, which was a run-and-gun shooter. I never played it, and it certainly looks primitive compared to other editions, it’s kind of crazy they got something like this to work at all.

MotoRodeo was a monster truck racer that offered split-screen (!) competitions. Sentinel is the only light gun game that the 2600 ever had, which is news to me — I never knew the console had ANY.

Then there was Xenophobe, which is one of my arcade guilty pleasures. Man, if I saw Xenophobe in an arcade, I’d run right to it and smash all the quarters I had into its waiting embrace. I loved the gooey Alien-like atmosphere, even though I had no idea what I was doing or how to win a level. Shoot and don’t be impregnated by aliens, I guess.

The actual gameplay is really advanced for the Atari 2600, with music, cutscenes, items, platforming, and lots of enemies. This is one that I would’ve honestly loved to have had on the console.

But the very last Atari 2600 released in the world before the console’s decomissioning was actually in 1992 in Europe. The game was called Acid Drop, a puzzle game in the vein of SEGA’s Columns.

While these are the last, they aren’t all the most complex. There were a batch made from 1988-1990 that featured far more options, graphics, and gameplay than the early days of Space Invaders and Pac-Man. That might be worth another article.

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Nostalgia Lane: Super Mario All-Stars

While the SNES was absolutely amazing for RPGs and other fun genres, this still was very much the era of platformers. My brothers and I played Super Mario World, Castlevania IV, and Contra III to death — partially because we loved them, and partially because new games were expensive and only granted on birthdays and Christmas. So rare were they, in fact, that it was unthinkable to advocate for a game whose quality was yet to be determined. You didn’t want to buy, say, R-Type 3 and find out that it was so bleeding difficult that you’d never get past the first stage.

Therefore, it was like a weirdly targeted gift when Nintendo came out with Super Mario All Stars in 1993. At the time, this was AMAZING. It was all four NES era games — Super Mario Bros 1-3 plus the Japanese Super Mario Bros 2 — bundled together in a single cartridge. Even better, there were save states and all of the games were remastered to bring them up to SNES-level graphics.

For a broke teen in the ’90s, this was the most bang for your buck that you could get, especially considering that the playability of at least three of the titles had long been proven to be terrific.

Sure, none of the games could really hold a candle to Super Mario World, but they were still a lot of fun. SMB1 was certainly a heaping of nostalgia (and still handled tight), the Lost Levels was an interesting challenge, SMB2 was a childhood favorite of mine, and SMB3 is an undeniable classic. Honestly, we probably spent more time playing SMB3 on this than the others combined.

But that didn’t matter, because at least there was a choice. I know, we’re in a time today where there are more free games at one’s fingertips than can ever be played, but this certainly wasn’t the case in 1993, especially with an offline console. In one stroke, our SNES had four games added to it, and we felt like rich kings.

I wish that Nintendo had done more with this format for some of its other properties, such as making an All-Star Zelda or something with the first two games remastered. Or All-Star NES collection — pick four classic games and spruce them up. Considering that this game sold over nine million units, you’d think Nintendo would have picked up on the possibilities.

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Nostalgia Lane: Console demo discs of the ’90s

Back in 2020, I mused about how much I loved the PC Gamer demo discs, including their thematic CGI menus. But those weren’t the only demo discs on the scene, and today I wanted to cast my memory back to the console equivalent.

The earlier disc-based consoles, especially the PlayStation 1 and 2, weren’t internet machines capable of downloading demos and games. I mean, technically the PS2 could be kitted out with a modem for like two games, but for all intents and purposes, it wasn’t online. So players had limited options when it came to accessing new titles: Pony up a full price based on reviews and/or word-of-mouth, try it over at a friend’s house, rent it, or snag a demo disc from somewhere.

This pre-internet period for consoles was a boom era for the demo disc. By stripping a title down to a single level or so, companies could squeeze several titles onto a single disc and distribute them all over the place. Studios saw it as shrewd marketing, but us players saw it as a whole lot of free gaming. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a majority of players who used these discs weren’t doing so to try-before-you-buy — they were engaging with these mini-games as if they were the full product.

I played several of these demo discs to death, especially in the period of my life where disposable income was a laughable concept. And I appreciate that it expanded my gaming adventures past titles I would actually pay for. I wouldn’t buy a Tony Hawk game, but I would certainly boot up a free demo to kill an hour or two.

Unlike PC Gamer’s demo discs, I never had a regular source of discs for consoles. Some I got from various magazines, or game stores, or even Pizza Hut. Once in a while, a studio might include demos as bonuses if you purchased a main product. I know Squaresoft did this, such as getting a few levels of Parasite Eve if, say, you bought Final Fantasy VIII.

I’m not super-nostalgic for demo discs, but back in the day they offered up dozens of hours of fun for the low cost of nothing. Sampling all sorts of different games and perhaps even finding a title to invest the price of a box was an adventure in and of itself.