Tag Archives: Galaga

An Age of Import

An Age of Import

You never forget your first. Your first time behind the wheel after you get your license, your first broken bone, your first kiss. Major life events are often noteworthy because they happen once or twice over your entire time on this planet, but even the repeated ones get remembered because they have a genesis; an origin. Everything that follows is an epilogue to the weight it bears on your life and the person you become.

Dismissing the maiden voyage of any sort is foolish because you are dismissing precedence and influence. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first Kit Kat, your first pair of shoes with green laces, or first slap bracelet. These set a standard against which you compare everything that follows. And as you regress through your years in your memories, it makes sense that more and more of these seminal events are bundled up with your earlier years.

Those nascent bits are, for the most part, paramount to the later ones simply because they take place in a vacuum. They occupy little space in the grand scheme of things, but when they are the large majority of everything you know, they tend to be important. Picture it as a test tube. It starts out small and empty and you gradually put more and more stuff into it. The volume of the stuff—your memories, your experiences—stays the same but the tube grows longer and longer, able to hold more and more. When the test tube is small, it’s easy to fill it up and each little bit takes up precious space. As it grows, though, it becomes harder and harder to find singularly formative pieces that can fill the void.

That’s why all the video games you grew up with seem to be the most important (and often “the best”) ones to you. Granted, some of those you hold in high regard like Galaga and Super Mario World are actually landmark titles, but the personal value of those games is the important thing here. It doesn’t matter if you grew up on Atari or SNES or 360; what you played as a child will develop your tastes and opinions as you continue to game.

It’s an odd adage of the gaming world that the first Mario Kart you play is your favorite one, but it’s true. While I acknowledge that Mario Kart 64 is a superior product and perhaps the best in the franchise, I will still prefer to race about in Super Mario Kart. It’s way more squirrely than any modern Mario Kart and harder and less pleasant to play, but it elicits a very specific feeling inside of me when I’m puttering around in that Mode 7 world. Sure, it takes me back in the nostalgic sense, but it also reminds me of everything that follows. Playing Super Mario Kart enables me to remember the times I played everything from Mario Kart: Double Dash!! to Mario Kart 7, but it doesn’t go the other way around.

That is, however, a very specific example of a generalized concept. Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Kirby Super Star all hold up to this ideal. Each first not only informs my opinions of future franchise titles but also those of similar ilk. The definition of what feels like a good platforming jump is what Mario felt like back then. The sense of clearing out dungeons and earning rewards for future explorations go back to my time with Link.

These notions are all forward-facing and can’t be directed back. That’s just not the way it works either psychologically or technologically. Information and capabilities advance so aggressively that it would be unfair to point any of it backwards. It’s much like how many important battles were fought before the invention of the gun, but putting modern day warriors into Genghis Khan’s army wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

Our fundamental games would better be served by not calling them landmarks, however, and instead label them as milestones. As time marches forward, more and more of these influential markers are dropped along the way and each one serves the same purpose as those before it. The only difference is that as you go further along, staking each one into the ground becomes harder. You move from open, soft, pliable land that is rife for soaking in anything and everything to hard, cynical tracts of impenetrable dirt and clay. But when you drop them, you can be sure they carry just as much weight because it’s not just about objective quality but about where you are on this timeline and what it means to your remaining trek. This is how you arrive at an undying love for Journey or an impossible or inexplicable passion for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

That’s the odd thing about time, I guess. At certain ages, specific things you thought were important may fade as new ones take place, but the idea that they represent never go away. Road trips are undoubtedly fun but they never match the exhilaration of that drive to your friend’s house to show off your brand new license. You may break an arm or fracture a wrist a few more times down the line but that first cast with all its signatures and scratches represents a frozen moment—a snapshot—in your life. And each kiss, well, maybe some things are always special.

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The Gametrack to Your Life

The Gametrack to Your Life

All it takes is one song. One song and you could be taken back to a time in your life to when you first heard it or—more likely—when it first held meaning to you. I’m sure most kids of the late 90s and the entire 2000s have a very specific memory attached to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, probably one including a slideshow or a graduation party. Others might be some song that happened to come on the radio the very first time you started a road trip with some friends or how your high school sweetheart would lie with you as she listened to (and you hated but never said anything about) Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.”

This is the soundtrack to your life. This is the aural framework from which influences and memories are tied to your being. Your very existence, whether consciously or not, all sprouts from these little dots along your timeline and builds on each new one. This is, after all, how soundtracks work. Take away the soundtrack to Garden State and you just have 102 minutes of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman being depressing. Take away the Pixies’ “Where is my Mind?” from the end of Fight Club and you are left without that heightened catharsis. It’s sometimes the periphery of something that defines it.

Did you ever consider, though, that you have a “gametrack” to your life as well? It is a concept I first heard during the Giant Bomb GDC 2013: After Hours Livestream Spectacular when Paul Barnett of Mythic Entertainment said that he believed that everyone has a golden age in their lives when they played the most video games. Most of these games would end up having a profound impact on that person’s life because it is when they are most receptive to such an external influence. He called it the gametrack to your life.

I think he misspoke slightly, though; it’s not when you play the most games but when you are most ravenous for them. There is a period of your life when you just don’t feel like you can ever play enough and when you’ve played them all, all that’s left is to stew in them. You go back to favorites and replay them over and over again until you feel like you can (and, probably, did) play with your eyes closed or laying upside-down off the couch or with just one hand.

This era often falls within your childhood for no other reason that most people get their start at that time. It’s a familiar curve most people follow: the initiation, the familiarization, and then the hunger. You consume and consume and consume until almost every game in that period of time begins to replace nucleotides in your DNA. These games, by no other metric, become lifetime favorites and cannot be reasoned with or defended for many reasons beyond “just because.”

Mario Kart is a great example of this. Just reading those words prove this notion; you probably pictured a specific version of Mario Kart. For me, it’s Super Mario Kart for the SNES. For you, it might be Mario Kart 64 for the N64 or Mario Kart: Double Dash for the GameCube. This is probably the first Mario Kart you played, and thus the most important one. Every subsequent release is not only compared to its immediate predecessor but also the one on your gametrack regardless of time difference. I still compare how the hop feels to Super Mario Kart.

The entire SNES catalog may be my gametrack. It was during this time when my father would reward me with good grades with a trip to Blockbuster on Friday so I could rent a game. I would take a game like Bonkers or Animaniacs or Cool Spot or Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow and just completely dismantle it over the course of a weekend. And in the intervening weekdays, I would just think about that game and fantasize about the next one. All of these probably informed my affinity for platformers to this day.

And then the Internet happened. More importantly, Flash happened. You can tell this happened a long time ago because Macromedia was still the name behind the software, but the end result is what’s important, namely old arcade games. When computers were barely sophisticated enough for SkiFree and Chip’s Challenge (add those to the gametrack list), Flash came along and wouldn’t you know it, people started cranking out games. Most often, they were arcade ripoffs because those were simple, so I spent hours upon hours playing Tapper and Pac-Man and Galaga and Robotron 2084 and mostly every other game that came before my time once Atari and Commodore 64 games came around. All of those shaped my love of simple but demanding mechanics.

One particular bit stands out as an oddity that I’m sure some small percentage of you out there will remember: Spikything.com. It was the creation of a web developer and designer named Liam O’Donnell but at the time it was everything. It was home to Super BugHunt, Egg Fighter, and, most importantly, Super Kickups. That, more than anything, crafted whatever predilection I have for super simple, easily engaged, highly addictive games.

That’s not to say, however, that your formative years are everything. My growing interesting in singular experience, narrative-driven games began to emerge in high school, and even modern releases along the likes of Journey and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are now on the gametrack (as is BioShock Infinite, if you couldn’t tell from last week’s theme). But that time is still important. That ravenous youth. It sets the theme and gives a place for the aural story to start. Soundtracks, much like the movies they follow, establish so much and take you from one place and leave you at another. Gametracks are similar in that way; it’s just that we don’t know where they end up until they’re done.

What’s your gametrack?

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You Should Probably Play Frog Fractions

Some games don’t make a lot of sense in a bad way. Some games break internal logic and have unintuitive controls and gameplay that doesn’t match up with what you’re seeing and hearing onscreen. That is how bad games don’t make sense; they defy your expectations to work.

Frog Fractions, a free Flash game from Twinbeard Studios, doesn’t make a lick (*badum, chssh*) of sense, but boy does it work. I started playing this game twice because the first time, I thought I was being trolled. I started gobbling up bugs as seemingly random fractions popped off of them and ended up somehow collecting fruit to add to my inventory of unexplained “zorkmids.” I saw that I could upgrade my frog (and I did with the cybernetic brain thing) and felt like it wasn’t going anywhere, so I quit. I thought fellow writing friend Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun had pulled a fast one on me, that perhaps his Canadian-borne illness had finally and properly addled his curly-haired mind. Hell, I couldn’t even see how this game would teach you fractions!

Oh how wrong I was. After I saw that more and more people kept talking about it, I figured I had missed something, so I went in again, this time determined to figure out what made it tick. Collecting fruit, I got another upgrade. And another. Then I unlocked a turtle so I could move and collect more falling fruit. It eventually became kind of hypnotically fun, lining up tongue shots and trying to wipe out as many bugs in one go. Then I unlocked a god damn dragon.

Yeah, a dragon. And a warp drive. And then I went to space. And then I had to fight a boss. And then I had to testify in court. And then and then and then. Frog Fractions doesn’t make a lot of sense.

You start out playing a tower defense game without any towers. Then it kind of turns into a space shooter like Gradius or Galaga. And at a certain point you will play through a rather sophisticated text adventure followed up by blasting through a dancing rhythm minigame à la Dance Dance Revolution. Hell, there’s even an economy simulator in there. And get a load of this groovy-as-shit tune! Frog Fractions is all over the place and yet it all makes sense. Of course you can install lock-on targeting on your frog. Of course you have to get a work visa on Bug Mars. Of course the pink goop tastes like bacon.

Of course Frog Fractions works. It makes all the sense in the entire world that it would. Now go play.

HINT ALERT: if you end up in an awful and seemingly endless loop in the beginning, maybe you should start thinking vertically.

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