Nostalgia Lane: Dungeon!

Back when I was a kid, I’d say that a majority of the vacations our family took was to visit other members of our family. Every so often we’d make the long drive down from Indiana to Texas to see our aunt, uncle, and four cousins, which was just fine with us. Not only did we like having cousins to play with, they had great toys — an NES (which was amazing to us NES-deprived Olivetti kids) and a closet full of board games.

One Thanksgiving in particular (I forget which year), we all got hooked on playing a particular fantasy board game that was in my cousin’s room. It was a bit like D&D, just more simplistic and fast-paced. We raced around a dungeon, fought monsters, grabbed loot, and enjoyed the fantasy of it all. There weren’t a lot of board games that me and my brothers all liked to play together, but this one seemed to fit the bill.

Years passed and I forgot about this game as I did about so much from childhood. However, something this year triggered a faint memory of the board game, and out of curiosity I tried to track it down. I asked my brothers, but seeing as how they were younger than I when we played it, they have no recollection. Or as my brother Jared said, “You were always more into that fantasy roleplaying stuff than we were.” True that.

Many, many Google searches later, and I finally found the title of my mysterious dungeon-themed board game. It was… Dungeon! Probably should have started with that, but oh well. I found it! I know it’s silly, but reclaiming parts of my long-forgotten childhood is important to me, especially when I can pass it on to my own kids.

Anyway, Dungeon! is a very old game, dating back to 1975 in its original incarnation. It’s kind of like a gateway to D&D proper, containing the stripped-down mechanics of dungeon crawling and looting. It got reprinted a few times, and the pictures above are the ones that I saw when we played it.

In Dungeon!, you pick a starting hero (human fighter, elf wizard, dwarf cleric, halfling rogue), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They then start to explore and conquer a sprawling dungeon made up of six levels. Earlier levels contain weaker monsters and lesser treasures, but it gets tougher when you move up in levels.

There’s a bit of dice rolling involved during combat encounters that offer something different than just whittling down hit points. For example, make some bad rolls, and you could lose treasure or even die and have to grab a new hero. There are some items and spells that can be used during adventures, and the whole aim is to gather a set amount of treasure (which varies depending on the class) before anyone else.

Nothing super deep, but it was fun — and I did ask for it on my Christmas wish list this year in the hopes that I can try it out on my fledgling household heroes.

Nostalgia Lane: Project Space Station

I took it for granted that I grew up during the Space Shuttle Age of NASA. Maybe it wasn’t as history-shattering as the landing on the moon, but the space shuttle was a huge icon of my childhood, from the Challenger to SpaceCamp to an interesting computer game in 1985 called Project Space Station.

Project Space Station was, in essence, a NASA simulator in which you had a small fleet of space shuttles and was tasked with building a space station while operating a financially successful organization. As a kid, I was pretty horrible at this, never able to turn a profit or figure out what needed to be done to become stable and start working my way up to a huge, bustling space station.

One of the unique factors was that this game’s clock (mostly) kept ticking forward. This mattered, because you were juggling several things at once: shuttles on the ground, shuttles orbiting, the space station, projects, yearly budgets, and the like. The idea was to start small, get a module or two in space, and start doing experiments to make money for bigger and better missions.

In theory, this game was totally up my alley. I was a scifi nut back then (still am) and in love with the space shuttle. But there were two things that kept me from playing it after a while. Well, three if you count the fact that I always went broke.

The first was the arcade sequences that happened with launch and landing. I was *terrible* at these, especially considering all I had was a clunky IBM PC keyboard to work with. Joysticks? On an IBM in the 80s? We weren’t royalty, you know. Failing at these sequences meant lost time and position and a continued loss of money.

The second factor was losing astronauts in space. I killed them off a depressing number of times, usually from forgetting that they were up there orbiting too long. They’d run out of air or water or something, and now I had a giant floating casket that I had to retrieve via EVA and bring back to earth. As a kid with an overactive imagination, this genuinely creeped me out, even if I never saw the actual astronauts. I still didn’t want them to die.

I had forgotten about this game for many years afterward until recently stumbling upon a screenshot and doing some research into what the game was even called. Project Space Station wasn’t a runaway success, but it did well enough for itself and was a good indicator of my love of sims to come.

Nostalgia Lane: Lemmings and Tetris

Back in the 1980s, I’d say that I was so game-starved that I would play just about anything that we could get access to and running on our aging IBM PC. And you know what ran on just about any computer at the time? Tetris.

I have a soft spot for puzzle games, and I think that Tetris is where all of this began. There was something so hypnotic and zen-like when I got into a long stretch of Tetris. I could shut my brain off and bask in the satisfaction of making the blocks line up just so. Seeing lines — and the occasional tetris — vanish was a thing of joy. I spent countless hours late in the evening playing this, and I think it helped a little to distract me from a lot of the problems that I was facing at school and in my own teenage-addled head.

One thing I get super-nostalgic for is the backgrounds that came with the PC version, like that space station up there. I vividly felt the influence of the Russians — then our sworn enemies — in every screen, and while that had a foreign feel to it, I couldn’t help but love the game even so.

And since I’m on the subject of puzzle games, let’s talk about Lemmings. Ah, Lemmings! This is what happens when you take constantly moving puzzle games, give them personality, and then allow the player to blow them up at will.

Lemmings was a game that really benefited from the improved VGA and SVGA graphics of the early 1990s. That allowed us to see smaller and more colorful sprites, and those sprites came in the form of green-haired lemmings who would wander around — usually right toward something that killed them — until you guided them safely to the next gate.

The ingenious part is that the players’ tools in this game were turning normal lemmings into special ones. You could make a lemming a digger who would dig straight down, for example, or one who would stop everyone from going past him, or one who would build a diagonal bridge. Trying to create a safe path for the majority to the gate while the lemmings were bustling about was nerve-wracking at times, but it was amusing as well. I never got tired of blowing them up! Probably why I never beat the game.

Nostalgia Lane: Castlevania Symphony of the Night

One of my favorite game series back on retro consoles is Castlevania. From the first game, with its pulse-pounding soundtrack and lethargic whip action to Super Castlevania IV on the SNES, I adored the tone and fun of these hunted house games. Things seemed to go off the rails with the N64 game, but the PlayStation brought it back in style for the surprisingly amazing 1997 game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Poorly translated and pretentious as all get out, SOTN was nevertheless an astounding action-RPG. This time around, players jumped into the shoes of Dracula’s son who had to explore his dad’s castle and put an end to evil, etc. While the game started players out with high stats and powerful equipment, after the first boss battle we were all knocked back to a weakened state with minimal gear and had to scrounge and explore and grind to get good again.

I’m not lying when I said that this game came out of nowhere. I don’t think anyone was anticipating it when it arrived in the US, but I happened to pick it up and then spent dozens of gleeful hours jumping around this castle, experimenting with different weapons, and digging the amazing soundtrack (which is highly worth checking out even today). The RPG elements in the gear and level added a nice additional layer of complexity past the platforming elements, as did the fact that when you beat the game… the castle flipped over and you had to navigate an upside-down realm. Take that, Stranger Things.

There were pets. There were magic attacks. There were meme quotes and shapeshifting. There were boomerang razer discs that became my go-to weapon. There were also atrocious loading times that happened at every single death, which was highly unfortunate. There were even multiple endings.

While it was still Castlevania, it felt like more, you know? I got far more playtime out of this game than other titles in the franchise and fed that inner yearning to explore. I also appreciated that the series went back to lush 2-D sprites instead of the muddled, ugly 3-D graphics that consoles of the late 1990s were spitting out. It made the game more attractive and timeless.

Was it perfect? No, but it looked and sounded so top-notch that I was willing to forgive it for its sometimes flawed level design and haphazard creature placing. Thinking about this game right now makes me want to play it — and unless I go the ROM route, I have no easy way of making that happen.

Nostalgia Lane: Diablo II

The other day I was thinking about titles that will never arrive on GOG.com — happy 10th birthday, by the way! — and in addition to The Sims franchise, I know we’ll never see anything from Blizzard’s library. That’s a shame, because Diablo II would be a great fit for GOG, especially considering how big this game was for many people back in the early 2000s.

I wasn’t a Diablo II fanatic, but I did put many hours into this action RPG in 2000. The first title largely escaped my notice, but it was hard to ignore the phenomenon that swirled around this hit sequel. Blizzard took what worked from the first game and added a lot more to the sequel — more classes, skill trees, areas, and online functionality.

Compared to StarCraft and Warcraft, Diablo skewed far more to the gothic grimdark than Blizzard’s other games. That gloomy and gory atmosphere added a lot to the unique feel, but Diablo II wouldn’t have been as big of a hit if it wasn’t for that trademark Blizzard polish and the addictive gameplay loop.

Watching loot explode out of enemies was certainly compelling. It always made me feel as though I had won some sort of casino game, over and over again. I’m sure I was never very good at the game — I can’t recall getting further past Act II — but I did have a blast playing it and trying out the different classes. My favorite was the Necromancer (because pets), although I came to severely dislike Diablo II’s rigid talent trees that refused any refunds or respecs. It really discouraged experimentation and sometimes resulted in a botched character that would necessitate a reroll.

Diablo II could have been an entry point into MMOs, now that I look back at it, except that I never did engage in the online mode nor stuck with it past a few months. At the time I was much more in love with RTS and straight-up RPGs, but there was a good stretch when I’d come home and do nothing else than click-click-click my way to victory and loot.

Retro gaming is the new hotness

Probably my most-repeated inner lament is that I wish that I had all the gaming options I had today back in college and afterward when I was living those bachelor years, flush with spare time. Now it feels as though a massive practical joke is being pulled on me, what with more interesting gaming entertainment out there than I could ever sample, nevermind play to any degree of completion.

And it’s not just new games and MMORPGs that vie for my attention but also the rapidly growing market of retro gaming. It used to be that retro gaming was pretty much either emulators or hard/expensive-to-find old systems/cartridges/CD-ROMs. Now that companies have seen how we’ll throw money at the same games we’ve owned a half-dozen times over, they’re packaging them up again and making them incredibly easy to attain. PC players have virtual platforms like Steam and GOG that are full of old classics dusted off and booted up again. And console players can either partake of retro titles sold through virtual stores on modern machines or by purchasing one of the wave of retro all-in-one consoles that are being released.

We had the Genesis and Atari retro consoles going for a few years now, but the release of the NES Classic two years ago seems to have fired a starter’s pistol for a whole new wave of nostalgic monetization. Now we’ve seen yet another Genesis console, the SNES Classic, the Neo Geo Mini, and the newly announced PlayStation Classic. Plus whatever Nintendo will announce later this fall (either GameBoy or N64, most likely, although I’d love a SNES Classic 2).

I’m not going to go nuts snapping up all of these retro consoles. I’m very pleased with the SNES Classic, for sure, and it gets a lot of play in our household. But that was my favorite console of all time and hard to collect for. Do I really want or need a PlayStation One with 20 games for $100? I can get Final Fantasy VII on my tablet or through one of several other ways these days, and I’m not exactly champing at the bit to replay it right now.

GOG is a godsend for its continual expansion of its retro PC library. That, in my opinion, is a lot more difficult to establish, what with the work needed to make older games run on modern PCs. Will we ever see an IBM 486 retro desktop? For all I know, they’ve done it already. Or are doing it. Hey, they did it with the Commodore 64, right?

Whether or not I buy these games and systems doesn’t matter to me as much as knowing that work is being put into preserving these titles and bringing them over to systems and one-shot devices that can keep them operational for the next decade or so. That sparks in me the desire to see more, more, more in this field, even if it does sometimes smack like nostalgic double-dipping by studios.

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.