Archive | May, 2011

Game Gear

11 May

I knew that the coming 3DS system update would add the ability to purchase classic Nintendo, Game Boy and GBA games via Nintendo’s online store. But for some reason I was unaware that it was also going to allow us to buy and play Game Gear games on our 3DSes.

My first reaction to this news was, “Yes. Yessss.” But then I thought about it some, and I’m not so sure I miss any of those Game Gear games. I think I miss the Game Gear itself.

As I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t allowed to own any proper videogame consoles growing up; I played PC games pretty much exclusively. I say “pretty much” because my parents did allow me and my sister to have handheld game systems, a compromise that they informed us of in typically devious fashion. After refusing to let me get one for months, they suddenly gave us both Game Boys for Christmas. (I think it was for Christmas, anyway.) It was almost more than I could handle.

As excited as I was about the games I would get to play, I was even more excited about the hardware itself. The way the new plastic and the electronics smelled, the weight of the system in my hands, the layout of the buttons. The speaker on the lower-right corner, those four ‘AA’ batteries lined up in the back, giving the system some extra heft.

I also remember the Game Boy came with its own headphones. They were color-coded—I just looked them up and found a picture. I’m surprised by the level of feteshistic nostalgia I feel when I look at that picture. Those headphones were for Game Boy Use Only; they were not for Walkman (or later, Discman) use. They were for listening to the Tetris theme, over and over and over and over again.

Eventually the Game Boy lost its hold over the portable gaming market. My friend Bjorn got an Atari Lynx, a monstrous thing with reversible controls, a wide, washed-out screen and a weird selection of games. He had a game that involved flying a blue fighter jet, and I was really bad at it. But who cared? The Lynx had a color screen.

So pretty soon everyone wanted a color handheld, and in a year or so we had three choices: the Lynx, NEC’s extraordinarily overpriced but allegedly amazing TurboExpress, or the Sega Game Gear. The Game Gear seemed like the best compromise between affordability, game library and screen-awesomeness, so I decided I wanted one.

For a long time Game Gears were prohibitively expensive, at least for me. But on a random visit to Sam’s Club with my dad, I wandered over to the electronics section. I remember thinking, “Wow, Sam’s Club has an electronics section? I thought they only sold box wine and weird extra-large sweatshirts!” As I walked through the field of vaguely sad off-brand TVs and stereo recievers, I saw a small screen glowing in the distance. Holy shit, it was a Game Gear.

A bundle package, in fact. It included a Game Gear, carrying case and two games and for more or less the list price of the baseline unit. I’m not totally sure which games came with it… I know one was Sonic the Hedgehog. I barely had the money for it, but I made the purchase right there.

I’ll never forget how awesome the Game Gear felt to hold, to play. The contours of the plastic, the grooves dug in beneath the D-Pad and the two big buttons. The odd, half-moon start button. The glowing red power light and of course, the big, glowing screen.

Sega was really into the screen. They had this (*sold separately) TV Adapter for the Game Gear that, they stressed, could turn your Game Gear into a TV!

The above image was on the box, and was featured in all of the promotional materials for the system. There was always an asterisk that read:

*Simulated Image

I have a feeling that the TV Tuner’s actual reception was less than crisp, but for me, that was unimportant. I was never, ever going to buy it.  The important thing was that simply by existing, the TV Tuner proved that the Game Gear’s screen was as good as a TV screen. For kids whose only portable gaming experience was the Game Boy, this was a big frickin deal.

I loved my Game Gear. I don’t entirely remember the games I had on it, though I do know I had Mortal Kombat. I suppose that at some point or another it was given away or it broke. I’m actually a bit troubled by the fact that I can’t remember what happened to it… maybe it’s still in a drawer at home somewhere. I doubt it.

But I am struck by how vividly I remember the way that rounded black rectangle felt in my hands, the way I would organize and lay out my game collection before traveling with it. Little things like what it was like to plug in the power adapter and how the batteries went into two separate compartments on the back, one on each side of the cartridge-tray.

I felt a sort of lonely, personal attachment to the Game Gear, because none of my friends had one. In fact, to this day I don’t believe I’ve ever even met someone who had one. None of my friends in the videogame community have ever talked about owning one. As far as I know I’m the only person in the world who ever bought a Game Gear. Maybe that’s why they were on sale at Sam’s Club.

At any rate. I don’t know if playing Game Gear games on my 3DS will bring back warm Game Gear memories any more than browsing Google Images did, but I’ll sure give it a shot. Plus Shinobi was pretty sweet, from what I remember.

On The Outside

5 May

There are walls around gaming. How they got there is a thorny and complex issue, but the fact remains that more so than most forms of entertainment or expression, there is a divide between those who play games and those who do not.

I’ve written a feature for Kotaku that comes at that issue sideways. It’s titled “But I Don’t Play  Video Games! Don’t Worry. Portal 2 Will Teach You How.” It was a fun piece to write, and I’m hopeful that it will convince a few non-gamers to give Portal 2 a go.

But gameplay can be so difficult to talk about—what’s that old saying? Something about dancing and architecture? In order to really understand video games, you can’t read about them or watch someone else play; you have to play them for yourself. It’s why we all cried bloody murder when Roger Ebert dismissed the art-game Flower after watching a videotape of another person’s playthrough, and it’s why you couldn’t possibly understand my adoration of the building blocks game Minecraft simply by watching me punch holes in a virtual hillside with a pixellated axe for a few hours. Playing Portal 2 is a wonderfully kinetic, joyful experience, and it’s one that I really want you to have.

As a side note, I noticed that a lot of people have talked about their adventures (and misadventures) guiding their friends and loved ones through Portal 2‘s co-op levels. Although I understand the impulse to bring the uninitiated along with us on a tandem co-op excursion, I actually think that if someone’s going to discover videogames through Portal 2, he or she should probably start with the single-player campaign.

Cooperative gaming is awesome, but it can also be surprisingly frustrating, particularly for players of varying skill levels. I can easily imagine sitting as a co-worker or girlfriend apologizes over and over, “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m doing. Wait, how do I aim? Where are we?”

Co-op gaming just doesn’t have the patience of a single-player game, if that makes sense. If you move too slow, there is always someone waiting on you, and that’s stressful. By contrast, one of the fine things about Portal 2‘s single-player campaign is that it’s almost never time-sensitive, so new players can slow down and adjust to the controls.

If we do get some new gamers into the fold, I hope that we can welcome them with open arms. I have been really interested in the reaction to Garrett Martin’s PAX East Piece that we ran at Paste. Some have remarked at how similarly they feel, and others have been upset and outright hostile about it.

In the piece, Garrett recounts how the convention brought out his inner cynic, and how difficult it can be not to feel bummed out by it all.

Maybe it’s because I’m a proud dilettante annoyed by those more dedicated than me. Or maybe it’s because someone can enjoy video games without wearing t-shirts with Portal references or listening to MC Frontalot or laughing at bad web-comics that focus exclusively on one of the great multitude of entertainment options available to us today. I hate cynicism, but then this all sounds very cynical. PAX East makes me hate myself.

Several of Garrett’s points resonated with me, though I felt a bit differently about PAX Prime than he did about PAX East. An excerpt from my own writeup from last fall’s big shindig in Seattle:

During the Q&A segment of a videogame journalism panel, a middle-aged English professor approaches the microphone and prefaces her query by cautiously asking why there aren’t more people her age in attendance. Without missing a beat, a journalist on the panel quips, “Because they’re all too busy playing Farmville!” A deep guffaw rises from the crowd and, realizing he might’ve overstepped, the panelist quickly backpedals and graciously answers her question.

The exchange is indicative of the delicate balancing act with which many gamers are faced—if we must revel in our specialness while also welcoming newcomers, surely there is going to be some conflict between the two. Videogames traffic in personalized fantasy, so it’s not a surprise that some of us have a hard time opening them up to the rest of the world. Is there anything harder to share than one’s fantasies?

I dunno, I guess. In many ways, gaming is like any other area of interest. It’s something that rewards you the more you do it. But it’s also very much its own animal—like I say in the Kotaku piece, games don’t quite “come to you” in the way that other media like movies and TV do. You have to actually play them to enjoy them.

Jazz is actually very similar—more than almost any kind of music, Jazz requires understanding in order to appreciate and enjoy it. (I know this is not true for everyone; I’m speaking broadly here.) It’s why jazz listeners can be such insufferable snobs, and why so many people are turned off by the music. It sounds like chaos until you understand the structure, vocabulary and common practices of the musicians who perform it. But once you do, it is an incredibly beautiful form of expression to let into your life.

When it comes down to it, I’m not really certain what it is that makes gaming culture so off-putting to so many, particularly to so many who work in and write about the industry professionally. But I’m glad that we are seeing more and more games that I can so easily recommend to my non-gamer friends.

If there are aspects to gaming culture that we find distasteful, surely diversifying that culture can only be a good thing.

Sackboy photo taken at PAX East by Brian Taylor
PAX Prime photo by Annie Wright

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