Ranking all of the video game consoles I’ve owned from worst to best

controller

It’s weird to me how cool the original NES controller still looks. Simple, sleek, and future-y.

For most of my life, I’ve been a computer gamer. Computers simply offered me more titles and more of the types of games that I liked, including RPGs, strategy, adventure, and simulators. Yet I wasn’t that picky as a kid and stuck my nose up at consoles; a game was a game, in my book. So while I certainly haven’t owned a lot of consoles over the years, and the last mainstream one I got was the Wii, I’ve managed to rack up about eight systems (not including handhelds) over the years. Thought about ranking them from best to worst, so here we go!

Best: Super Nintendo

Man, I was and am still in love with this system. It was mind-blowing at the time of its release, with way better-looking games than the NES — and ones that played a lot better, too. The controller felt great, the colors popped, and the library of titles contained so many classics, including Super Castlevania IV, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario World, StarFox, Turtles in Time, and Contra III. Ever since we got it back in 1990 or 91, it remained the console fixture in our parents’ basement. I think there’s still an SNES there to this day, although I have a few decks and a handheld version at my house as well.

PlayStation

For most of my college years I went without a console, but when Final Fantasy VII came out I couldn’t stand not being on board with the fun. So one summer I got the PlayStation and was sucked into 3D gaming — grainy and low-performance though it was. So many terrific titles on that system: Chrono Cross, Silent Hill, Resident Evil 2, Castlevania Symphony of the Night. Playing video games on discs instead of cartridges felt really futuristic — if flimsy — and I will never forget the pain of managing save spots on those little memory cards.

Atari 2600

You never forget your first, and the Atari 2600 was mine. We played this wood-laminated system to death during the ’80s, enjoying it far past the video game crash of 1983. Graphics were horrible, sure, but clever designers still managed to make some wonderfully addictive games. I sunk so many hours into shooting asteroids and navigating Ms. Pac-Man’s maze.

PlayStation 2

I was initially so excited for the PS2 after having lived with the original system for several years, but for whatever reason the PlayStation 2 didn’t quite meet the same awesome factor as the first. Sure, the graphics were better and the system had taken a technological jump forward, but I found myself really desperate for good games and (for the first year or two) not finding many. I have vivid memories of blowing $50 in a game every week for a while, only to be dissatisfied with it a couple hours after taking it out of its packaging.

Gamecube

I think the Gamecube deserves a lot more credit than it got. We even still own one, to play Mario Kart Double Dash on our TV, since that was my wife’s favorite back in the day. The system looked a little weird and the small discs felt like they were being cute at the expense of having enough storage space. But I really enjoyed the controller and there were some memorable titles, including Eternal Darkness.

Wii

The Wii always felt like a party console rather than something you’d ever seriously game on. I only ever played Wii Sports, Guitar Hero, and the Dance Party games on it. It’s intuitive for a pick-up-and-play crowd, but I didn’t like the wiimote controller and how many batteries I had to use for it. I did use this system for an exercise program a while back, which was interesting if ineffective.

Nintendo 64

It seems like a lot of people sport fond memories for this system, but for me it was a massive let-down after the SNES. The 3D that the N64 pumped out looked like butt — crude polygon tushies. I couldn’t even bear to play Super Mario 64 or Zelda or any of the “classics” that people rave about. It did get some play in our youth room for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, which were — to be fair — enjoyable multiplayer shooters. But EGADS was that one of the worst controllers I’ve ever held.

Worst: Ouya

And then we get to the bottom of my personal console barrel. I briefly got excited about this crowdfunded console and convinced my family to buy one for me for my birthday. Now it sits in my closet, a hidden monument to dashed dreams, pointless design, and wasted money. I should’ve known better.

Nostalgia Lane: 4 bizarre shareware titles from the 90s

 

keen1. Commander Keen

PCs were never the platforming powerhouse that consoles were, and we mostly had to go to shareware to find decent substitutes for Super Mario Bros., etc. Commander Keen was a particularly good one, I recall, as it boasted a lot of personality as you played as an imaginative kid going up against space aliens and other bizarre enemies.

Probably my favorite detail is if you left Keen alone, he’d eventually start tapping his foot and going through other annoyed animations.  I can get it on Steam now and I probably should.

jill2. Jill of the Jungle

Jill was kind of the Tarzan contemporary who explored a jungle in a somewhat non-linear fashion. Lots of platforming and tricky jumps, along with some fighting against oversized ants and the like. I thought the animation here was pretty impressive for the time, especially with everything Jill had to do. Although I always thought that her lack of pants  meant that she must have had scratched up legs.

wolf3. Wolfenstein 3-D

Everyone knows Wolfenstein, although not as many remember its predecessor (a top-down stealth game that I played on a friend’s Amiga) or how it used to be segmented into different episodes. There was an episode, the second I think, that was more about zombies. I just loved the fluid, non-stop action, the secrets, and feeling like a Rambo going up against Hitler.

bio4. Bio Menace

OK, I admit that I remember nothing from this game itself, but when I saw this splash screen I was awash in “oh yeaaaaah.” Because how wonderfully cheesy is this? I think it’s the hero’s ‘stache and mullet that really sells it.

Nostalgia Lane: Gaming in the early 1980s

tronI certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was growing up, I happened to be right smack dab in the middle of the video game revolution.

Sure, there were arcade cabinets and even a couple of the older consoles that released prior to my birth in 1976, but thereafter we saw exponential growth (marred, of course, by the video game crash of ’83). I wasn’t aware of any of the larger scope of it, of the industry, of anything outside of my personal sphere. But video games popped into my life more and more regularly as the years went on.

There was a night when our family went to our pastor’s house for a Christmas party and I ended up watching his son play Adventure (a text adventure game) with wide eyes and an even wider imagination.

There was the joy of getting to go to the Spaghetti Warehouse for dinner, because we knew that it had cabinets like the Star Wars Arcade game. Really, any time that we got to visit a place with cabinets was a special time, whether it be Pizza Hut’s tabletop Castlevania, Indianapolis’ Union Station, the Pole Position cabinet at our local IGA, or even the rare arcade room loaded with more games than we could digest.

There was the excitement of having the Atari 2600 come into our house, with games like Ms. Pacman and Defender and Asteroids. It became our family’s go-to console for most of the decade.

There was the envy of seeing my friends and cousins play on the newer Nintendo Entertainment System (and occasionally getting to play myself). Even though a NES never graced our house, Zelda, Contra, Spy Hunter, and the rest all played a big part of my childhood and sparked my imagination about what could be in games.

There was the shady purchases of shareware disks at kiosks at the mall, with dot matrix printer labels proclaiming “100 programs!” and the like. Less shady were computer stores with their giant game boxes, most of them with system requirements past our family’s PC.

There was the invasion of video games into movie and TV culture, particularly cartoons: Captain N, Super Mario Bros., Zelda, The Wizard.

There were the days that I tried to make “video games” with legos (like pinball machines) or started programming my own in BASIC. And the day that my friend showed off Manic Mansion on his computer — using a cassette tape drive.

To me, it’s surprising how clearly I can remember playing certain games even at a young age, like Tron and Gauntlet and Centipede with its track ball. Even so, I can’t say that my youth was dominated by games; they were merely a fraction of my experiences and interests. I’m happy to say that my parents kicked us out of the house every day to play across the neighborhood, go swimming, and do chores. My friends and I talked about games once in a while, but just as important were stickers, crawdads, Garbage Pail Kids, and how awesome transformable robots were.

Nostalgia Lane: Windows 95

winWerit reminded me today that it’s the 20th anniversary of Windows 95, the game-changing OS that lurched PCs forward. It was of course buggy and problematic — this was a Microsoft product, after all — but it was also quite significant.

I had grown up using DOS for most of my childhood, although when I purchased my first PC it came with a copy of Windows 3.0. That’s not a typo — 3.0. I got a free upgrade to Windows 3.1 a couple of months later and used that for a good three or four years. This was back when I was getting over my mistrust of mice — cursor keys were good enough for me, thank you very much — and wrapping my head around graphic menus with movable icons instead of a fixed text menu. The numbers one through 10 were good enough for me, thank you very much.

So fast-forward to 1995, my second year of college. We all had these laptops as part of some new initiative to equip every student with a computer (in 1995 it wasn’t taken for granted that everyone would have a PC), and our class being the first wave, we had these incredibly ancient, clunky machines that we loved. They ran Windows 3.1, but when Windows 95 came out we were informed that we could get a free RAM upgrade (from 4 to 8 megs!) and get the new OS. So that’s what I did.

Windows 95 wasn’t as huge of a leap as going from DOS to Windows was, but it was still a bit of a tech shock. The big feature was the new “start” button that kept all of the applications tucked away in nested menus, which was a nice change from the cluttered screen of Windows 3.1.

I liked being able to customize my desktop a bit more with Windows 95, although I probably overdid it with whatever I could find on the internet. And it wasn’t too long that we were so comfortable with 95 that going back to 3.1 was painful.

Nostalgia Lane: My childhood as a BASIC game programmer

basic_largeMy parents often said that I was destined to be a video game developer when I grew up, mostly because that’s where my attention was as a kid — both in playing and making them. Our family’s first PC came with a gigantic instruction manual for BASIC/A, a simple programming language supported by DOS and accessible to weirdos like me who wanted to try their hand at making playable games.

Throughout my junior high and senior high years, I grew into a (in my mind) master of BASIC. I would whip up thousands of lines of code based on game design documents that I drew up in class, and even though the finished product was a tangled mess of spaghetti code (which drove my computer teacher nuts), it tended to work.

It’s one of my big life regrets that none of the games that I made survived. The 5 1/4″ floppies on which they resided were no doubt thrown out a long time ago, back before I had the means to back them up elsewhere. And no, unlike Richard Garriott, I did not print out my code so that I could type it in later. In any case, little of it was pure genius, but it was personally interesting.

My biggest series was “Starship Simulator,” which actually worked unlike certain Derek Smart products I could name*. I recall four in the series, with the first three giving you command over a starship to modify and then send out in battle. There wasn’t a lot of narrative here, just customization and battling. Starship Simulator 2 was the only game I remember that was actively played by friends and family members; I think I hit on a sweet spot of fun. Starship Simulator 4 put the player in the role of a captured captain who had to fight his way out of a starbase, room by room. It was incredibly difficult to make, with the program keeping track of a grid of 100 rooms and what was in each, but I liked it.

I was enraptured with the idea of taking all of the pen-and-paper RPG manuals I had lying around and turning them into computer games, so I made a lot of RPGs. Not great ones, again, but somewhat technically accomplished. I did a Terminator 2 RPG (you had to fight more difficult terminators until you beat the T-1000) and a couple generic fantasy RPGs probably based on my fascination with Zelda.

I also did more than a few adventure games, as I might have written about earlier. These were fun to make, since they involved a lot of writing and weren’t that hard to program. Keeping track of variables and puzzles was the trickiest part.

For my sports-oriented friends, I created Battle Golf, which mixed golf with land mines, volcanos, and other death traps.

Unfortunately, making graphics and bits that moved on screen was a little out of my league (and out of the capabilities of BASIC back then). I did as much as I could with simple line drawings and ASCII art, but the most I was able to accomplish were small shooters or racers where you would drive a car (an asterisk) between dots. I did as much as I could with colors, however, and used BASIC to make fun music tracks for my game (sometimes I would reverse-engineer a song, like the Star Trek theme, into BASIC notation).

BASIC was a bit of a pop culture fad in the 80s, too. There were one or two kids’ book series where you’d read a story and occasionally have to type in a program into your computer to advance the plot (so to speak). And I picked up more than one magazine that had several pages of code to copy onto your computer. Later on, I would spend a lot of time modifying someone else’s code and trying to improve on it or twist it to my own ideas.

In college I had a computer degree and took a couple of programming classes — C++ and FORTRAN and even assembly — but by then the magic of programming had vanished for me. I was more interested in writing and playing than trying to wrangle the increasingly complicated code to make games. Maybe in some other universe, alternate me stuck with it and became a game designer or (more likely) an IT guy.

*All of them

Site alert: Changes to the Retro Gaming page

In anticipation of returning to the fertile lands of retro gaming next week, I reorganized the Reto Gaming page here on Bio Break. There are two significant changes:

1. I clearly separated and outlined the Retro Gaming (playthroughs) vs. the Nostalgia Lane (memories) sections.

2. I added a Retro Gaming On Deck section with all of my to-play games (mostly for my reference, and which may or may not ever get played).

Nostalgia Lane: Wolfenstein 3-D

I was dubious. “So… it’s a game where you go from room to room and shoot people? Doesn’t sound that great to me.”

“Just you wait until you play it,” my friend James assured me.

It was after church in the fall of 1992, and I was hanging out with my twin friends at their house. While we didn’t always have a lot in common (they were sports nuts, me a sci-fi geek), video games were where we could always agree. They had just attained a shareware copy of some game called Wolfenstein 3-D, and although I didn’t know it then, I was about to enter the world of first-person shooters.

Using the shareware model — where the first episode of a game was released for free and you would pay for (or pirate) the remaining episodes — id’s Wolfenstein 3-D exploded among the gaming population. It used an older 2-D property that was mostly about stealthing around Nazi castles and turned it into a rip-roaring action fest.

Despite the name, Wolfenstein 3-D wasn’t 3-D at all, but a pseudo 3-D (2.5-D) that used a lot of visual trickery to convince you that you were moving around in a 3-D environment. There was no jumping, no aiming up or down, and not an awful lot of weapon variety — but it was a blast.

I think it had to do with the whole Nazi angle. You start out as a prisoner of war who kills his guard, takes his knife, and begins a rampage through several German fortresses. Each level had tons to explore, with locked doors, secret passages/rooms, treasure to pick up, and lots of unsympathetic mobs to mow down.

wolf3Weapon-wise, there was the default knife, the pistol, the submachine gun, and the minigun. Everything other than the knife used the same pool of ammo, so if one wasn’t careful, you’d run out of bullets with the minigun and be stuck stabbing guards at point-blank range.

There were so many small details about Wolfenstein that made it endearing:

  • Being attacked by German shepherds was actually scary, even though they were weak
  • The guards barking out simple German phrases (“achtung!” forever became a part of my vocabulary)
  • The thrill of running along a wall slamming on the space bar and eventually finding a secret room bursting with treasure
  • How id would taunt you with the different difficulty level descriptions
  • BJ’s face becoming bloodier the more hurt you became

But really, for me it was about getting into the zone of rushing through levels, taking out Nazis, and becoming good about staying alive. Like any classic video game, there was that moment of zen-like gaming where you’re just playing on a whole different level.

Wolfenstein 3-D probably became the most notorious for its depiction of Hitler wearing a mechanical battle suit and shooting rockets, which is why most kids from the early 90s have a horrible grasp on history. Still… I can’t deny that it felt really satisfying to take him down in a red puddly mess.

Doom’s arrival on the scene quickly made Wolf a game of the past, but for me it’ll always have a special spot as a new experience and an introduction into 3-D gaming.