The Best Twelve Games Ever Made or Barring That The Twelve Games I Have Memories Of That Seem Worth a Damn
I’m on the playground at Parkwood-Upjohn Elementary School in Kalamazoo, MI. It’s late 1989 and I’m sitting at the top of the jungle gym next to a friend. I don’t remember which. I’m in fourth grade and everyone I know owns an NES. My family has a Commodore 64. I’ve never beaten Super Mario Bros, but my brother has a 5.25″ floppy disk of a clone for the C64 that lets me warp to the last stage. You fight a long, thin, fire-breathing dragon inside a large brick room. I never beat it. I know my times tables, we all learned them years before this, but I still feel like I’ve made a genius point when I say that since Super Mario Bros has eight worlds of four stages each and my C64 clone has 32 stages, they’re basically equal in quality. My friend is not convinced. Neither am I.
I’m behind my brother and his friend Josh K. as they sit in front of the C64 at the desk in the Family Room back in Arizona. It’s before we move to Kalamazoo for a year, I am likely around seven or either years old. The character selection screen for Epyx’s G.I.Joe game is on the tv and Josh K. notices Snowjob and Blowtorch next to each other. “I always get them confused,” he says, “and then I pick Blowjob.” They laugh. I laugh too, but I don’t know why. I’ve just heard my first sex joke.
I’m in Kalamazoo. I’m barely nine years old, I’ve left my friends and classmates and house and now my parents, my brother, my sister and I live in a basement apartment in snowy Michigan. I make friends with the kid who lives across the hall, one apartment down. They have an NES and Super Mario Bros 3. It’s the first video game I ever beat. I make friends with other people in the building, and other kids in other apartment buildings in the complex, but no one has any good games. One kid has a Turbografx-16, but even he knows there’s nothing worth playing on it. The only thing worth playing is Mario 3.
I’m back in Arizona, we’re all back, the whole family in the same house, at the same school, with the same friends. My next door neighbor, Chris, has a power pad that we never set foot on, competing in long jumps by slamming our fists into his carpet. He shows me Mega Man 3. It becomes the second NES game I ever beat and at ten years old it’s the first video game I actually love.
It’s New Year’s Eve 1989 and the ball is dropping. I’ve stayed up the whole night for one reason only and I’m not going to miss it. The Packard Bell 286SX my parents had gotten us as a Christmas gift is on and I’ve loaded up Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego. I sit there at ACME Detective Agency’s lab, watching the real-time date on the Chronoskimmer intently, waiting for the moment when the dial would turn over to 1990. It doesn’t disappoint.
It’s the summer of 1992 and I’ve graduated Pueblo Elementary School. Our 286SX, which felt so new a year and a half before, can’t play the copy of Ultima VII: The Black Gate that my brother has bought. At first it’s because there is a corrupt diskette, and Babbages allows us an exchange. But eventually we realize that there is simply not enough RAM. So Babbages allows us another exchange, this time for Star Trek 25th Anniversary. It pairs well with our home-recorded VHS copies of every single Star Trek episode, but not well enough. Aside from a hint-line requiring trip-up of a Base 10 conversion, we breeze through the game in a matter of days. My brother is disappointed. He returns it to Babbages once more, claiming another damaged diskette, and brings home Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and a copy of The B-52’s album “Good Stuff”. The rest of the summer is spent whipping vines and putting orichalcum into slots to the sounds of “Is That You Mo-Dean” and “Tell It Like It T-I-S.”
I’m nine years old and on one of many visits to the mini-golf course in Kalamazoo, a place I only remember golfing at maybe once or twice, but that I played arcade games at often. There’s a Playchoice-10 and a Robocop and video poker machines but the only game I want to play, the only game anyone ever wants to play is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We all crowd around and hot-swap out when someone runs out of quarters. It’s the first arcade game I beat and the first one I beat twice.
I’m in middle school and it’s one of my first times at the apartment of Devon, who will become my oldest friend. We’ve gathered together under the pretense of building a kite for class but instead he is showing us Final Fantasy II (IV). I’m bored watching him walk around the overworld but every time he gets into a battle the bass reverberates in my chest. Years later, during a summer spent volunteering at the library, I bring over a book of Game Genie codes and he, incredulous that I’ve never beaten the game, will use the book to cheat our way to victory in one night. That day at his apartment, however, all I have is the music and as I lay in the grass outside his apartment complex, waiting for my mother to pick me up in the early evening sunset, I think about Mega Man and I think about music and I wonder who gets to make those songs.
It’s Summer 1994 and I am accompanying my brother to some comic book and record stores. Our no-console curse has been broken for a year now, ever since he put up his own money to buy a Model 2 Sega Genesis and CD combo, and we’ve enjoyed Lunar: The Silver Star and handful of other games. He asks me about the Shadowrun video games, because Devon and I do some pen and paper role-playing. I tell him that the SNES game is neat but the Genesis game feels more true to the spirit of Shadowrun. Being true to the spirit of Shadowrun is important to me because I am a teenager and also because the SNES game has a hand cursor and is isometric and that’s too many weird things for a console game. The Genesis game, by contrast, is dark and ugly and I die before I get anywhere. It is very true to Shadowrun. He nods in understanding. By the end of the day he has sold/traded his Genesis and Sega CD and all his games for a Super Nintendo and Super Street Fighter II. I will never quite understand how that happened, but now I can play as Fei Long, so I don’t mind too much.
High school is over and I am regularly bringing my home-built PC over to Devon’s place to play Action Half-Life or Quake III: Arena or Starcraft. I am terrible at every game. I try to play Diablo and fall asleep. When I forget my computer and have to use an old one of his, some misconfiguration makes Half-life crash to desktop when a rocket is fired, presumably because the video card cannot handle the contrail. His housemate is an actual game developer and we try to make things ourselves. Devon succeeds helping code an installer for his housemate’s new game. I have trouble recreating the first VR mission from Metal Gear Solid in Unreal Tournament. I try ditching polygons for Doom map editing, but the monitor I use at his place has convergence issues which makes red and blue grids very difficult to use. I am continually frustrated. I move with my family to the east coast where, one night after work, I call Devon and we hash out a Metroid-themed Bejeweled clone inside a java applet. Years later, I cannot recall exactly what I contributed other than picking up the phone. I keep thinking about Metal Gear Solid. I think about the night I spent at Devon’s, on his couch, watching a terrible nihilistic ultra-violent cyberpunk anime and deteriorating into sickness as the night wore on until finally waking up the next morning to the sounds of torture as Devon attempts to resist Revolver Ocelot. He’s playing off of a CD-R burned from a Blockbuster Video rental and something must be wrong because when Ocelot should stop torturing you, he continues. We don’t know something is wrong. We think we’re just terrible. But I’m still sick, still laying on the couch barely able to open my eyes. Ocelot activates the torture bed once more, one more time than he should and Liquid Snake chides him for killing another hostage. I’m partially delirious. If you die in the game, you die in real life.
It’s Los Angeles, 2004, and I am at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. I’ve been once before, three years prior, on the credentials of Devon’s housemate, but now we are back on brand new credentials, ones we’ve made up ourselves. I find myself in the back corner of Namco’s booth, behind a wall of kiosks advertising Tekken’s Nina Williams in Death By Degrees, in front of a TV below a placard that says KATAMARI DAMACY. The colors are vivid, the music is jaunty, the premise is simple. That fall, when the game comes out, no one believes me when I tell them to buy it. Then they play it.
It’s 2009, I’m in my second solo apartment and I’ve decided to make friends with coworkers because I don’t have anyone else. They’re all good and nice and disgustingly young. We’re in front of my tv, not even on the couch but on the floor, and it’s our 63rd attempt at this N+ level. We’re dead in seconds. We’re laughing. I have to go to the bathroom so I let them make some attempts without me while I do my business. I think about the beauty of movement in that game and how transcendent it feels to have a perfect arc of a jump, a grace of fluidity that is unparalleled. It feels like art. It feels like religion. I head back into the living room to mention this to them and that’s when I realize that they probably were able to hear my farts from the bathroom. I don’t say anything.