Nostalgia Lane: The Legend of Zelda

I’m not much of a Nintendo fanboy, nor am I deeply entrenched into the Zelda series. In fact, to this day, I’ve only really been sucked into just two of the titles, and it’s those two I wanted to reminisce about today.

The first of these was the original 1986 Legend of Zelda on the NES. Now, I didn’t have an NES, but believe you me, this game was so incredibly popular in our grade that I sought out every neighborhood friend who had a Nintendo, this game, and a willingness to let me hang out to play or at least watch. That was the original streaming, kids: Watching over a friend’s shoulder because it was the next best substitute to playing yourself.

Anyway, I was completely fascinated with Zelda because it was this action-packed game with a whole lot of RPG elements. I loved the idea of collecting and using all sorts of different items, not just for combat but also for exploration. It was an action-RPG before I even knew what that sort of thing was.

I did have get the amazing two-screen Zelda game and watch portable in 1989, which became one of my favorite handhelds ever. It was really clever how it offered sprawling dungeon crawling and even a bit of item collection and usage.

But for my money, the high point of my Zelda adventuring came in 1991 with A Link to the Past. By then, we had a SNES, and you best believe that this was one of the first games we bought for it. You got your money’s worth here, both in terms of quality and length, because you could pour dozens and dozens of hours into exploring this sprawling world (and an alternate dimension version). I don’t know how I beat this without walkthroughs — I think I did have some magazines that offered tips and hidden secrets — but I did a couple of times.

And that was it. I didn’t get a N64, so my interest in Zelda plummeted to nothing for the successive Nintendo consoles. I don’t know, nothing seemed to grab me as a “must play” the way those first two games did, and I’m content with that being the case for me.

Nostalgia Lane: GameBoy

Today, if you don’t mind, I’d like to wax nostalgic about Nintendo’s Gameboy series.

When it came out in 1989, I think every kid in the world desperately wanted one of these portable gaming systems. Nevermind that they were enormously chunky, had a blurry green monochrome screen, and sucked down batteries like crazy — they were a hand-held Nintendo gaming system.

For someone like me who endured much of the ’80s with those cheap Tiger Electronics handhelds, the Gameboy looked like nirvana. It offered many of the classic Nintendo franchises — Super Mario, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Zelda. But I never did get one of the early units and had to borrow a system whenever I had the chance.

It was a whole lot of fun when I did, I should mention. I was particularly impressed with Super Mario Land and it’s teeny tiny version of the platformer that was all the rage.

I actually didn’t end up getting a Gameboy until much later in the 1990s. By then, they had come out with more compact and power-efficient units — and color screens, believe it or not. But the first one that I honestly loved getting was the Gameboy Advance in 2001.

By then, I was living on my own and had stupid disposable income for things like this. If the regular Gameboy was the counterpart to the 8-bit NES, the Advance was supposed to be the counterpart to the 16-bit SNES. How could I NOT get it?

The lack of a backlight made playing the Advance a chore at times, but I persisted because of its amazing game library.  Mario Kart: Super Circuit, Super Mario Advance, Legend of Zelda, and more were at my fingertips, feeling a lot like I had a pocket SNES at the ready. One of my all-time favorites from that era was Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, a game that devoured hours upon hours of battling and leveling.

The SP was a great upgrade from the regular Advance, especially for its foldable compact form and much better screen. And I have a great fondness for the 2005 Gameboy Micro, the last Gameboy to ever come out. It was so tiny and yet worked amazingly well. Before the time when I had a smartphone in my pocket all the time, this was great for gaming on the go.

But now, of course, I have a smartphone — and I never got on board with the DS generation. Still, the Gameboy bridged a decade and a half of mobile gaming, and at least I got to experience a bit of that.

Nostalgia Lane: Geocities

If you were to trace all of my online activity and involvement back to a single starting point, it would be in the mid-1990s on a place called GeoCities. Back then, the world wide web was this vast unknown thing full of potential to all of us, and just surfing it was a deep thrill. Keep in mind that for me, the only online experience I’d had prior to 1995 was a stint with BBS connections.

If there’s anything that I miss the most from this era, it’s that heady feeling of newness and excitement. The WWW offered so many sights and repositories of information and fandoms, and at college I had unlimited access to it. But it wasn’t before long that my desire to make my own mark started raring up. The only problem was that I was a broke college student, and getting a web domain and host cost money.

Enter GeoCities. With this service, Yahoo granted a free slice of virtual real estate (and an email address) to anyone who wanted to come by and claim that homestead. It wasn’t a massive amount of space, mind you — there were storage limits to keep people from going hog-wild and abusing the system — but it was more than enough to set up fan sites and journals and what have you.

GeoCities was structured in a very unique fashion, too. It was made up of several “neighborhoods,” each hosting a certain theme.  So if you were going to make a scifi-themed site, you’d set up shop in Area 51, but if you were going to shill for Bob Dole or Bill Clinton, you’d want a spot on Capitol Hill. There were neighborhoods for sports, fashion, wine, pets, and so on. Me? I moved into CollegePark, as I figured that I was a college student and all.

Everyone who used GeoCities had to figure out how to format in HTML, and it was a testament to your skill if your site didn’t look like absolute garbage in the end. A hallmark of a GeoCities page is a look that makes your eyeballs bleed — bad frames, dozens of moving GIFs, color clashing, bad font choices, and so on.

Yet it was a riot even so. Everyone was having so much fun with all of these tools, and we’d covet each and every visit to our sites. There were guestbooks for people to leave comments, hit counters of all varieties, web rings to join and promote, MIDI jukeboxes to annoy the ever-loving snot out of any visitor, and so on.

I had a great time expressing my creativity, and this activity led me to make the Mutant Reviewers — a cult movie review site that, indeed, is still going on even to this day.

That can’t be said for Geocities, which was shut down a while back (although many of the sites were preserved by internet historians who like filling their garages with trash). In its place has arisen Neocities, which seems to be offering a lot of the same ideas and structure — just more modernized. While I’m much more comfortable with blogging platforms these days, I applaud Neocities’ creators and the people who are keeping that creative, discovery-driven spirit alive!

Nostalgia Lane: Descent and Heretic

Today we’re going to take a trip in the wayback machine to 1994 for a pair of shooters that popped up on a number of gamers’ PCs — myself included. The Doom craze really lit a fire under the development of a lot of copycats, but the most interesting were the ones that genuinely tried something different.

Descent definitely accomplished this. Instead of running and gunning as a person, the player was put inside a small spaceship that would careen down the corridors and rooms of asteroid bases. The innovation here was, essentially, making the shooter a flying character. Attacks and action happened in three dimensions, not two.

It definitely made for wild level designs, although it was also really easy to get lost and turned around in some of these places. The 3-D map helped, but honestly, I didn’t want to stop the action to try to figure out a GPS.

The action here was fairly decent, with different weapons and shields and whatnot. The goal of each level was to find the base’s self-destruct button, hit it, and then turn around and race for the exit. That was a nail-biting moment, especially if you didn’t completely clear a level or memorize the path to the door.

I really appreciated that Descent had silky smooth gameplay, but the generic bases and robot enemies took away from the personality that so many of these shooters had.

Of course, if you wanted personality, you could just boot up Heretic. This was very much a Doom clone, only with more of a fantasy splatterfest theme. It had a few interesting innovations, such as being able to look up and down and fiddle with an inventory, but the basic Doom gameplay loop was in full effect.

I think that Heretic’s big appeal was simply its heavy metal fantasy tone. We really dug that sort of thing in the mid-1990s. I guess it felt rebellious? It certainly was too cartoonish and pixelated to feel real.

I never played Heretic as much as Doom and some others, but that’s probably because I only had the initial shareware episode. Looking back, I wonder if this had any impact on the development of Blizzard’s Diablo, because both seem to revel in this grimdark atmosphere.

Nostalgia Lane: Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES)

As I’ve talked about perhaps too often on this blog, the SNES was — and still is, in my opinion — the best gaming console ever. There were so many amazing games for this system that still hold up really well today (see: SNES Classic), and I thought I’d talk about a few of them in this space as I have exhausted most of the older computer games I used to play.

One of the most underrated titles on that platform had to have been Zombies Ate My Neighbors. At its core, Zombies is a send-up of scifi and horror B-movies without any real concern about continuity or story. You play either Julie or Zeke, kids who apparently have the sole task of defending the neighborhood against everything from chainsaw-wielding hockey players to giant ants to murderous dolls to the titular zombies.

The goal was to rush around each stage’s map to collect all sorts of goofy weapons (squirt guns, frisbees, weedwhackers) and power-ups, defeat any monsters along the way, and get to 10 innocent people (cheerleaders, tourists, babies) before the monsters did. Once all of the innocents were either saved or killed (with at least one left alive), then a portal to the next level would open. The trick was that the next stage would only have as many innocents as you saved in the previous one, so you didn’t want to let too many perish. A helpful radar in the corner would point you toward the remaining innocents on a stage, but it was up to you to find them in what could often be a maze.

While there was a frantic pressure to save lives, a lot of the sheer fun — and it WAS fun — of Zombies Ate My Neighbors is goofing around, exploring the levels, finding secrets, and occasionally drinking a potion to become a giant purple monster who could bash the bad guys with ease. The levels and monster designs were so very interesting to behold, and you just wanted to get to the next stage to see what the devs had cooked up.

What took this game to the next level was playing it in couch co-op. Players would jostle over weapons and where to go, but it was still a blast to have someone to watch your back and mow down the hordes of evil.

Just a tremendous game all around. It also helped that the game had an amazing soundtrack:

Nostalgia Lane: Flightmare

The underlying mission of doing Nostalgia Lane posts on this site is to reclaim lost bits of my memory — games that were moved into long-term storage decades ago and haven’t been seen since.

There was a particular game from my IBM PC days that I vaguely recalled — something about airplanes and bright magenta graphics — but I couldn’t remember the name. Then I stumbled across it a couple of days ago and experienced that pleasing rush of reclamation as long-term storage surged back into the forefront.

So the game that I was trying to think of was Flightmare, a 1984 title that remains a rather unique experience. It’s set during a post-apocalyptic world where all of the bad guys have total control of ground vehicles and the good guys have all of the planes. For some reason. Just go with it.

As a plane, your job is to fly out and intercept the motorcycles, trucks, and rockets that are gunning for your factories and airfields. If they reach them, they’re toast, and since the factories make new planes and the airfield stores them, this is a problem.

When you do intercept an incoming force, the game switches to the above screenshot that tries to simulate 3D in a non-3D gaming era. You get two views of your plane — from above and from the side — and you have to switch lanes from the above view and then dive down in the side view to blast the bad guys. This gets REALLY tricky when you have to shoot  the tires from a truck, since you can only do that when the truck goes up a hill — and those hills want to smash your plane like nobody’s business.

While all of this is happening, the world map keeps moving, so there’s an immense pressure to wrap up fights and jet to the next ones. But you also have to keep an eye on fuel and ammo, docking with a blimp when you’re low on either.

Flightmare was really tough, I remember, but pretty fun too. It was pure action with a little bit of snark in the form of battlefield messages from your foes and inspirational slogans from your side. I’ll always remember “Win one for the Gipper” from this game way before I knew who the “Gipper” actually was.

Nostalgia Lane: 9 more Atari 2600 games I liked

I’m going to try to work on cleaning out my drafts folder in the new year, so here’s a list that I started a while back of nine Atari 2600 games that I remember fondly

Desert Falcon: While it didn’t look as good as the 7800 version, obviously, it was kind of impressive that the 2600 could pull off a diagonal shooter like this. It was one of the late-era 2600 games and a lot of fun.

Superman: This was SUCH a confusing game, especially for kids, but I remember watching my babysitter play it and be impressed with all of the different features that the game designers tried to cram into this title.

Spider-Man: Basic, sure, but Spider-Man actually delivered on the core concept of wall-climbing and web-shooting. A little imagination behind it, and it was a fun distraction.

E.T.: Everyone loves to dump on this game in the modern era, but I have a different perspective. First of all, it’s not like we could just return games or buy new ones; getting a new Atari game back in the early 1980s was a big deal, and so we played the heck out of whatever it was. And I actually liked the complex gameplay. Pulling off a successful run in this game felt like a good achievement.

Megamania: I won’t lie — I played this to totally pretend I was piloting the Enterprise. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. And it was a far better Space Invaders-style game than Space Invaders.

Tennis: Activision had ALL the good games on this system, I swear. Even Tennis was kind of addicting, and a good two-player game with great controls. I played my mom in this all the time.

Defender: One of the best things about the 2600 was that many of its games let you slip into this zen-like state of just playing without thinking about it too much. Defender was like that, and I spent many afternoons shooting aliens and rescuing falling people before they went splat.

Astroblast: A halfway decent shooter that had a wide range of colorful and bizarre shapes to blast.

Chopper Command: Who didn’t love that sunset? Oh, and those tight controls and highly engaging gameplay as you piloted the most lethal choppa in the world?

Nostalgia Lane: Scorched Earth

In 1991, our high school moved from the old building to a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. I still have very fond memories of the “new carpet smell” of my sophomore year, as well as the marker boards, the huge science lab, and the sprawling computer lab.

I took programming for a couple of years to build off of what I had self-taught with BASIC, but in all honesty, we only did coursework about half the time. The other half was spent playing smuggled games — the most popular being Scorched Earth.

I had no idea that Scorched Earth was a huge hit globally. All I knew is that my classmates and I were obsessed with this multiplayer artillery game.

Scorched Earth didn’t look immediately impressive, but that was deceptive. You would set up matches with a whole lot of options, and then every player would take turns lining up shots and trying to wipe each other out to be the last tank standing.

What made Scorched Earth so dang fun was that it was brimming with crazy options and weapons. You weren’t just shooting little artillery shells; you were lobbing nukes, MIRVs, napalm, bouncing bombs, and so on. Tanks could move and use various gadgets like shields and parachutes to try to extend their lifespan. And the battlefield could get really nuts with dirt geysering everywhere, wind blowing shots to and fro, and even gravity being switched off.

If you didn’t have friends to play against, the computer was always willing to take on the role of opponent. I liked how the different CPU tanks would have their own personalities and skill levels, sometimes even smack talking you while they tried to murder your face.

Scorched Earth put gameplay first over presentation, becoming a shareware classic for the ages. And, bonus, it got me through some really boring weeks of high school, so there’s that.

Nostalgia Lane: How shareware revolutionized my gaming

My career trajectory in the 1990s was almost equally divided between “completely broke high school student” and “completely broke college student.” Sure, I had jobs and even a couple of computers, but I was never so flush with disposable income to be snapping up any game or game system that caught my fancy. A brand-new boxed PC game was a major purchase for me — and I sweated the decisions to get the few I had. They had to be excellent or otherwise I was out 50 bucks and potential months of entertainment.

But all of this started to change during my high school years. One Sunday afternoon I went over to a friend’s house, where he showed me a free copy of Wolfenstein 3D that he got. Free? I asked. Free, he said. Apparently there was this new thing called “shareware” that made it actually legal to copy and pass along games.

Within a year or two, the shareware revolution was everywhere. All the kids at my school — and later at my college — would pass around shareware copies of Duke Nukem and DOOM and pretty much anything with “Apogee” stamped on it. I found my gaming library now filled to the brim with potential options, and it was glorious.

Shareware was an ingenious marketing tactic for the pre-internet gaming scene. The idea was that a company would freely distribute versions of its games with only part of it unlocked — the first “episode” or somesuch — and then encourage players to buy the code to unlock the rest of the levels (or send away for the full version). Players would do the footwork of copying and passing along the games, and studios would see a certain percentage of all recipients convert into paying users.

Of course, that didn’t always happen — the paying part. I don’t recall how many shareware games I bought in their entirety, but I don’t think it was too many. What I do remember, very vividly, is getting as much entertainment out of the “free” unlocked part of the game as possible.

And you actually did tend to get a lot for free, here. Duke Nukem 3D’s first episode could last you hours if you were hunting down all the secrets. Kroz was one of my favorites to explore. Wolfenstein and Doom made for great bite-sized gaming sessions. Commander Keen was one of the best platformers I experienced on the PC at that time. And there were numerous other shooters, pinball games, flight sims, and so on.

Shareware quickly faded once the internet spun up in the late 1990s. Now anyone could access demos and order full versions of games online, so there really wasn’t a need for this street-level marketing. But I am so thankful that it existed, because it put games in front of me that I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

Nostalgia Lane: Webrings

The mid-to-late 1990s was a weird and wild time for websites. The internet and the web was practically new to all of us, so we were giddy just to get our own personal slice of it and make a virtual home. But yeah, it was really strange as everyone tried to figure out the best way to set up websites and connect to each other — especially as this was in the era before Google when search engines weren’t all that great or helpful.

So somewhere along the way, people got into their heads to invest in the idea of “webrings.” The concept here was to group up (mostly amateur) websites that covered the same topic or general theme so that visitors could easily surf — we said “surf” a lot back then — between them and discover new sites. It was a way to drive traffic and be discovered, even if it was awkward as all get it out.

Because it really was. One person would be the webring owner and then have to coordinate adding all participating sites onto a list. Every participating site would put one of these webring frames on their page with links back to the OG webring owner, an invitation to join it, and various navigation tools.

I think the best part about webrings is that you knew you were getting a curated list, so if the owner had any taste at all, you knew you could depend on where the webring would send you next.

While I most definitely had a Geocities site — animated GIFs and guestbook and MIDI player and all — I don’t specifically recall if I did participate in any webrings. I’m sure I must have. I do, however, recall using webrings a lot when I was bored and wanted to see other sites. Of course, loading up a page back then took up to a minute or more, so you wanted to make sure you were getting something good and not some 8-year-old’s “THIS IZ MY FIRST WEBBY PAGE!” announcement.

Slow as surfing was, there was something really fascinating to actually exploring the internet back then that I don’t feel in the slightest today. It’s that once-and-then-gone-forever moment where novelty and ignorance intersect, and I had a lot of fun just seeing the creations and information that other sites had. It’s what led me to meeting a good online friend in 1997, which in turn led to the creation of a mutual movie review site, which in turn led to my interest in blogging.