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 — 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.

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!