Revisit the crude progenitor of one of gaming’s global mega-franchises, and you’re left with feelings of nostalgia, fondness … and bewilderment, too.
The elaborate production values, prolific marketing campaigns and blockbuster status of today’s Street Fighter and Final Fantasy bear little resemblance to the winking-pixel simplicity of their earliest forebears. It’s enough to make you wonder: How did we, as a generation of gamers, fall in love with characters who existed only in eight bits? How did we perceive such richness in an era where the idea of “narrative” seemed absurd? And how did we become immersed for life when game design was so simplistic, often brutally difficult and frequently counterintuitive?
Today’s generation of ’80s babies are fortunate to have shared a childhood with gaming – we grew up with them, and they with us. It’s a strange inversion, in a way: Now that we’re older, wiser and perhaps a bit more jaded, games have risen to the occasion, offering compelling characters, fleshed-out environments and engrossing stories to transport us to another world. But when gaming was at its most primitive, our imaginations were at their most active. And imagine we did; the characters of favorite Nintendo and Sega titles formed the substance of our playground games, the landscapes of our neighborhoods could be easily transmuted into vivid game worlds and we could be heroes alongside our friends. Had games been richer, more sophisticated and more complete in our youth, maybe there wouldn’t have been so much space for us to fill in with our wishes and our dreams; had characters and stories been more defined, there may not have been room for us to define them ourselves.
Childhood games were often canny precursors to real products; in fact, Jeremy LaMont and his friends were playing Super Smash Bros. before it even existed. “We would choose teams of videogame characters, from the most iconic hero to the lowliest Goomba, and pit them against one another on the field of battle,” he says. “In this bloodsport, winners were determined (as many little boys’ playfights are) through debate. If you could cajole your opponent into conceding that Simon Belmont had whipped the fire flower away from Mario before he got it, touché. Luckily, Pidgey was there with a magic carpet to fly Mario to safety while the team regrouped.”
Plenty of other players found room to expand on the slate of characters in games like Mega Man, including a young Anthony Neal, who made a hobby of inventing his own bosses. “I would draw them up, to the best my 7- or 8-year-old hands could muster, on sheets of notebook paper, along with their various powers and, of course, their weaknesses,” he writes. His derivations – “Sword Man” and “Gun Man,” among others – were not especially original, but one of the bosses he imagined is actually featured in Mega Man 9: Tornado Man. “Obviously I had no input or influence on MM9‘s villain whatsoever,” says Neal. But the dichotomy between the result and his original vision stands out nonetheless: “Green is a horrible color for him, and he was a piece of cake to defeat,” he gripes.
While games provided plenty of fodder for boyish power fantasies, they could inspire devotion as well. RPGamer.com editorialist Sam “Nyx” Marchello shared a veritable Lunar obsession with a fellow female pal growing up, poring through the game’s strategy guide as if it were a piece of illustrated literature rather than a manual, and eventually extrapolating her own comics revolving around the adventures of their “boyfriends,” characters Kyle and Nash, with whom they’d elected to be in love. Nyx recalled their Lunar days with a fond pang at her friend’s wedding – where her playmate had at last decided to forego Kyle in favor of a real husband.
Of course, not all gamer memories are about idyllic creativity or love. Given that most of the games with which we grew up revolved around fighting, it’s unsurprising that so many kids recall having gotten hurt. Austin Walker, US/Canada editor at OneLastContinue, recalls having jump ropes confiscated from him because he and his friends were using them as whips in their games of Castlevania‘s Belmonts-versus-Draculas. Likewise, Asael Barcena’s parents must have worried endlessly over their son’s Mortal Kombat fandom – he remembers slinging his dog’s leash at his brother while shouting “Get over here!” Scorpion-style, whenever he felt the urge.
It only takes one lapse in judgment for pretend violence to become all too real, as Dominic Sileo found out. He and his friends used to envisage themselves as Street Fighter heroes whenever they played in the public pool, turning acrobatic flips underwater or splashing to simulate Blanka’s electricity. “However, one day my cousin decided he wanted to Spinning Pile-Drive me,” Sileo recalls. “I foolishly obliged. That was not the smartest of decisions. Being upside down, spinning and having your head smacked into the ground of a concrete floor (even in a pool) is never really the greatest of ideas. We got kicked out of the pool for the rest of the day on that one.”
This pretend-combat continues to influence many gamers even into adulthood. Growing up play-fighting Mortal Kombat on the playground’s balance beam (so that losers could “fall into The Pit,” of course), Michael Rousseau later pursued the discipline of martial arts – where his videogame memories are an occasional liability. “I thought for the longest time that the best way to finish a fight is with an uppercut,” he reflects. “Even with my martial arts training, I still find myself wanting to forgo simple, safe and proven self-defense techniques in lieu of a flashy uppercut. It’s a tough habit to break.”
It didn’t take a fighting game to bring out the morbid side in some kids – Michael Grove remembers being inspired by Oregon Trail. “As the precocious little second grader I was, I’d assemble a party of students and drive them across the country on a Muppet Babies-grade ‘journey of the imagination’ using a piece of playground equipment as a wagon,” he says. “If memory serves, I’d kill off one or two kids every time. For the sake of emotional impact.”
These days, we’re too old to play pretend – and games are much more grown-up, too. We’ll never have back those magic days, but it’s endless fun to remember them. And while many of today’s games lack the abstraction and simplicity that made it so delightful to expand, to explore and to flesh things out in our young minds, we’ve still got games that leave room for imagination. Some of our most successful, popular and beloved titles immerse players using what’s unsaid rather than what’s apparent – think Portal or Shadow of the Colossus, constantly begging the player to imagine what happened in their worlds, the silent whys and whens.
So although they’re all grown up, games still have the power to set us dreaming. And many adults who grew up with games are now able to watch their own children play in many of the same ways they once did. Russell in Colorado watches how Disney’s Princesses on Wii has inspired his 4-year-old daughter’s play, and how she shares her invented games with others on the playground – even those who don’t own or play the videogame she’s so enthusiastic about.
Designer and professor Brenda Brathwaite, who’s been in the industry for over two decades, now watches her two daughters experiment with gameplay ideas: “My daughter Maezza (8) took all the pillows off the couches in our living room to teach her 4-year-old sister Avalon how to play a platformer,” she says. “She’d tried it with the game [Ratchet & Clank], and Avalon wasn’t succeeding. So, Maezza decided that an analog method would work well. Sure enough, it did.”
There’s an entirely new generation of players being drawn into a medium that’s become much more accessible and diverse. The relationship between videogames and childhood creative play will be different for our children than it was for us, but it will certainly remain. As we continue to enjoy videogames as adults, our experiences with the evolving medium will always be inextricably connected to the creative play of our formative years. New games, whether they’re direct successors to our old best friends or simply influenced by them, will continue to amaze us with their advances – and they’ll also remind us how much we’ve grown up.
Leigh Alexander is News Director at Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland weblog, and writes about games and gamers wherever they’ll let her.