Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Essay: Thirty 8-Bit Lives

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

I'm running late so here's a 2-year old piece that was intended for a video game anthology that didn't push through (so far).

"Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A." If the 8-bit generation had a secret handshake, it was the Konami Code. The casual gamer used it to beat Contra but the die-hard fans knew it applied to Gradius as well as other games--even games not developed by the company that made it famous. It was easily something we always attempted no matter what game we were playing: it didn't hurt to try after all (unless you were playing Gradius III--in which case your ship would blow up, or so Wikipedia claims). The Konami code was a cheat, an exploit, yet there was nothing guilty about using it. There were no teachers to penalize us, no parents to reprimand us: games were our own private playground and everything was legal as long as we enjoyed the game.

That's not to say we didn't try to beat Contra without using the cheat. Twenty years down the line, amidst next generation consoles and DVD-ROM games, people are still attempting to beat Contra without using the Konami Code, usually getting as far as the hangar stage where they meet their demise one stage before the final boss. And then they get frustrated and enter the code anyway and start blasting those damn aliens with wild abandon. I mean hey, we got this far with three lives and three continues: look what we can do with thirty! Video game cheats taught us lateral thinking way before there were Game Genies and GameFAQs. If you couldn't beat the game the old-fashioned way, you cheated (I hadn't seen The Wrath of Khan back then).

Not all cheats, however, were illegal. Before there were memory cards and The Legend of Zelda, passwords were one way to "save" your game. Instead of going through Cutman and Gutsman and all those other robots Dr. Wily sent against you (one wonders when Capcom will eventually use B-list superheroes for their villain roster such as Aquaman, Plastic Man, Iron Man, etc...), simply enter the right password in Rockman and you'd end up in the final stage with a powered-up character. Of course I could easily imagine that passwords became games within games for some budding cryptographers. Instead of actually playing the game to reach the end, they'd attempt various combinations in an attempt to discover an exploit that'll give them an edge.

Unfortunately being an unapologetic addict, video games were my only way to socialize with others. I'd drag my parents to the computer shops at Virra Mall (back when the third floor still had a cinema and there were no DVD bootleggers offering to sell you porn) and I'd browse through the various cartridges with names were in Japanese. I'd nag my mom or dad to shell out the few hundred pesos it costs to buy a game and that was pretty much our relationship. When I'm at a stranger's house--the stranger that's really the son or daughter of a family friend but aside from that fact, you share nothing in common--video games was the great icebreaker. You simply shut up and let the fingers jamming on the controller do all the talking for you. Thank God for two-player games.

Some two-player games were really single-player games in which you took turns. Just look at Super Mario Bros. wherein you were always wondering when the other player would die so that you could play already. Then there were the "real" two-player games, either those that were competitive in nature such as Pong or Street Fighter II, or those that were cooperative such as Twin Bee or Ikari Warriors. In the middle were games like Contra wherein if you were careless, you could kill the other player. Jumping too quickly in Contra, whether simply a mistiming or an intentional leap, could spell instant doom for the second player lagging behind as the screen adjusted to the player in the lead. There was more than one instance when the other player took it personally and instead of mutually trying to beat the game, it became a sprinting contest in which the loser would lose a life (hey, that's why it's important to have 30 lives!). In Double Dragon II, it wasn't just your enemies that you could hit with a flying kick but your ally as well. Better start preparing your excuses or failing that, your apologies. And then I remember playing a game like Battle Toads where having a second player wasn't always an asset and could actually make the game harder to beat because once the other player died, you restarted the level. One lesson I learned early in life is that you should be careful who you gamed with: sometimes, other people dragged you down.

Some of the best games, however, were those you played by yourself, keeping you company until the wee hours of the night. Playing Castlevania in the evening gave it a certain ambiance even if the sound effects were lame. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of the Famicom (along with all its inane rituals such as blowing the cartridge and making sure that the cartridge slot was actually clean) over the Atari (although I do miss the joystick with the cherry-colored button on top) was that games started having a story. As much as I enjoy playing Pac-Man and running away from ghosts, I wanted some sense of closure in my games instead of simply aiming for the highest score possible (which is why I was never enamored with the pinball machine), even if it meant something as cliche as saving the princess or saving the world (but high scores were important--they gave you 1ups!). Back in the 80's, in a period when boys thought that female gamers were a myth (tomboys don't count), Metroid had a surprise ending when you discovered that you were really playing a girl.

Unfortunately, not all games were fun. I remember playing Prince of Persia and dying immediately. I never got to the point when picking up the sword mattered. Then there was the game Karateka where you could easily die in one blow if you weren't in the proper stance (hint: don't use the fighting stance on the princess!). Unfortunately, the games I played didn't come with manuals so the only time I figured that out was ten years later, when other games caught my attention. Lastly there were the poisoned mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. 2. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Such games however were just one of the few disappointments as a gamer. You'd think people would be have been thrilled when Hollywood came out with movies like Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter but honestly, they were horrible movies even by video game standards (don't even get me started with the Fred Savage film The Wizard).

Nonetheless, my childhood revolved around video games. It was easily something people my age could relate to and had a level of interactivity that other media could never capture. Video game characters were easily the pop icons of my generation, even when I failed to recognize who celebrities like Kareem Abdul Jabbar or The New Kids on the Block. And amidst the newest batch of game consoles, I still remember the dark red color of the Famicom I used to own and there's always the temptation to try out the Konami Code just to see if anything special would happen.

1 comment:

Noel said...

Aaahh, good old Karateka. I remember watching my dad play that for hours until he was finally able to beat that damn bird. And then, yes indeed...womped by the princess.