Posted in Nostalgia Lane

Nostalgia Lane: SimCity 2000

A lot of my memories of high school were wrapped up in finding people with better computers than I had and playing games on them. I had a neighbor across the street that’d let me use his machine to play all of the flight sims, for example.

During my sophomore year, I’d heard that our chemistry teacher had a computer with Sim City 2000 on it. When I asked him if I could take a look, he gave me carte blanche to come in during my free period any time I wanted. Thus, I spent many short play sessions that year diving into Maxis’ latest metropolitan simulator. I think a whole lot of us were pretty wrapped up in it, and since it had marginal educational value, the school gave a blind eye to our obsession.

I never really did much in the way of engaging with the original Sim City, but 2000? That was a phenomenon. The colorful and detailed graphics — for the time — made this an irresistible bit of eye candy. And the opportunity to shape and fashion your own city was equally fascinating. Of course, we’d always end sessions by triggering disasters, but who didn’t?

While I love sims, I’ve always been horrible at the Sim City games. I go broke so quickly and end up being a slum lord. This happened so often I kind of assumed I’d be that in real life when I grew up, too. But for a “tinkering around” game, Sim City 2000 was a joy even if I was terrible at it.

Did you play? What are your memories of Sim City 2000?

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Nostalgia Lane: Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch

I’m sure that there are plenty of you who were like me, a kid who wasn’t part of those affluent families that could afford every device and game system while growing up. Which is fine — I see the value of not being spoiled — but that didn’t stop me from being very envious of other kids who did get certain toys and games that I could only dream about.

One of the most vivid memories I have was in fifth or sixth grade, when a kid in our study period pulled out the Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch. Now, in the mid-1980s, Super Mario Bros. was THE killer app that everyone either played or dearly wanted to play. Everyone was nuts about it, and here it was in a mobile format.

I only ever had the Zelda two-screen Game & Watch years later (which was really awesome, so I’m not complaining), but boy did I want this one after getting some time with it. Looking back at it today, the Mario Game & Watch was fiendishly clever with its limitations. Instead of going the Tiger Electronics route of trying to replicate gameplay in a sad fashion, this mobile edition did away with things it couldn’t really do — like have you stomp on enemies, grow big, or shoot fireballs.

Instead, the Mario Game & Watch focused on platforming, using a grid of lines that could be shaped into either a top-down or side-scrolling landscape. Everything from mazes to pipes to moving platforms to fireball lines could be represented with this, and the goal was simply to get Mario through it and to the princess at the end of the level.

I watched a video in preparation for this post and was still impressed how crisp and good this looks. I’d have my doubt about playing with four little directional touch buttons instead of the classic D-pad, but it still looks very functional.

In any case, that one game session I had with it thanks to a generous friend left me with a strong memory of how good this was. I don’t know why I didn’t save up to buy one or ask for it for Christmas, because I know it would’ve been something I would have played for years afterward.

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Nostalgia Lane: My first three computers

I think all of us have at least one — if not more — computer that meant a lot to us from our past. For me, I have three, all of which happened to be the first three computers that I personally owned.

My first computer was a 386 that I bought with money from working at Pizza Hut as a teenager. By my sophomore year in high school, I was so tired of begging time on the family computer and wanted one to call my own. I recall that I had to convince my parents that owning a computer was an investment for college, and so they relented and let me pick up what I now recognize to be a slightly substandard machine for the time.

Still, it was mine! It came with Windows 3.0, which I soon upgraded to 3.1. While I did some school work and programming on it, mostly this computer was for games and games only. It’s where I played such classics like Wing Commander II, Doom, and Ultima Underworld. I remember rushing home from school every day, eager to get into another lengthy Masters of Orion campaign.

Sad as it is to say, this computer might’ve been my best friend in high school. Other people went on dates and parties; I was happy to be fiddling with autoexec.bat and config.sys to make my programs work even better.

That computer — already long in the tooth — didn’t make the transition with me to college as planned (I donated it to my family as a replacement family computer). The college I went to announced that starting with my class, it was equipping all of us with laptops (that we had to pay for — I think the final cost spread over for years was $2400). It was a laughably chunky laptop with a trackball mouse, but like everyone in my class, I adored it because it was my first portable computer.

I took that thing all over campus, and it was great to have that freedom to write papers under the trees or sneak in a game of solitaire during a boring lecture. We never had internet on it (the next year’s class got that nice upgrade), but I did encounter Windows 95 for the first time on it and pushed its 100 MB hard drive to the limit with fonts, games, badly written poetry, and fuzzy WAV music clips.

That one laptop lasted me for five years — 1994 to 1999 — during my college era, so I definitely got a lot of use out of it. But I certainly couldn’t play any games made after 1995 on it, which really rankled me. This is why I missed out on some of the big essential titles of the ’90s, as I simply didn’t have a machine on which to play them.

After finishing college, I took all of my graduation money and splurged on a brand-new computer. This was a Compaq, if I recall, with a 15″ CRT monitor and a nice sleek short tower. Again, not the best or most powerful machine, but it was a huge upgrade that allowed me to play whatever I wanted.

Just like how my first computer was a great companion in college, this Compaq was my buddy as I moved to a new state (and then a second new state) with my early career. It’s where I finally had internet access (dial up!) whenever I wanted it, and where I enjoyed The Sims and KOTOR and StarCraft and so, so many more games. It’s not, however, the machine that I first used for MMOs, but still, it was a great gaming platform and what finally pulled me away from consoles.

My laptop I sold to a collector at a garage sale back in 2015 (I took out the hard drive), while I gave my Compaq and all of my older games to a college buddy who didn’t have enough money to buy his own.

There’ve been many computers since then, some of which I’ve blogged about here, but none that have that special spot in my heart due to being first, rare, and a vital part of my bachelor lifestyle.

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Confession: I never liked the Nintendo 64

You would think that a kid who grew up enthralled with the NES era in the 1980s and was fiercely devoted to his Super Nintendo in the early 1990s would be a shoo-in for jumping on board with Nintendo’s third console. Yet when the Nintendo 64 came out in 1996, I had zero interest in buying one.

This raises the question, why?

There’s a few answers to that, starting with the fact that I was a broke college student who couldn’t really afford a new console at the time. Plus, I was already interesting in saving up for the PlayStation, which I got a year or two later for all of the roleplaying games that seemed to have jumped onto that bandwagon.

But I think that the biggest reason I snubbed the 64 is that it didn’t interest me at all. I hated the physical design of the controllers and console itself, I really disliked its ugly 3D graphics, and I wasn’t that on board with Nintendo’s key properties any more. You know how you’ll bump into tons of kids who grew up playing Mario 64 and Orcana of Time? I feel very alienated from that crowd, because those games had nothing that called to me.

Oh, I eventually got a Nintendo 64, but it was for my youth group. We installed it in our youth room, and I spent more than a few Sunday afternoons playing GoldenEye and Perfect Dark in four-player. That was kind of fun, sure, but I wasn’t a die-hard FPS gamer or anything.

I also remember trying out Majora’s Mask (which creeped me out) and a couple other titles, but in the end, I deliberately missed out on this console entirely. It wasn’t for me — and as I gradually realized in the early 2000s, consoles in general weren’t for me any more.

I know there have been calls for a N64 Classic, but I wonder how much such a product would remind people that the early 3D games haven’t really aged well at all. There’s a reason why sprite-based games on the SNES and Genesis are still attractive to our modern eyes but those chunky polygons of a bygone era are best not spoken of in polite company.

Did you — do you — like the Nintendo 64? How much is it a part of your gaming history?

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Nostalgia Lane: The oasis of arcade cabinets

No matter where video games go from here, there’s one thing that’s for certain: Gamers won’t be starved for options. From smartphones to consoles to tablets to computers, getting plugged into a video game is effortless. It’s everywhere and in great supply.

But that’s certainly a far cry from my childhood, when games were these amazing rare mythical creations that existed either on very expensive PCs or on limited consoles with cartridges that cost enough that you never had that many. Or, as my mind thinks back today, as arcade cabinets sprinkled throughout the world.

Sure, there were arcades themselves, huge rooms filled with games, and those were always the best treat of them all. Being given a cupful of quarters and set loose into a room to ping-pong between different games was a heady way to blow an hour.

However, arcade cabinets didn’t just exist there. My childhood memories recall plenty of places where you’d spy a cabinet and then beg your parents for a quick quarter and a game, such as at supermarkets or in the waiting areas of restaurants. I loved going to the market with my dad on Saturday because they had a Pole Position and a Dig Dug there, and I got whatever change was left from the groceries. Good stuff.

I also remember those weird cocktail table arcade cabinets that you’d find in, say, Pizza Hut. You’d play looking down, and sometimes there’d be a two- or four-player option that would flip the screen for multiple participants.

Of course, another thing that I recall is how intentionally hard these games were. They certainly weren’t the same version that you’d get on home console. Titles like Super Mario Bros. or Castlevania would come for your throat, and unless you were amazingly talented, you’d be looking at a 45-second session at most for your quarter.

The last time I saw an arcade game outside of a specialty place was in a Red Robin, and my kids still begged me to take a break from eating to go play a game. I always let them because, why not? Those cabinets are a dying breed.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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: