Saturday, January 6, 2018

Besties, 1982-1992

Someone on Twitter asked other users to list every system they've ever owned, along with their favorite game for each. When you've been at this as long as I have, that's a loaded question... I've had dozens of systems, and there's no way I could have adequately described my experiences with them on a micro-blogging site. With this in mind, I'll expand upon those experiences in a series of articles on my macro-blogging site.

A few notes before we begin. I'm going to limit this to distinct product lines... I'm counting the Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS as separate systems, but a Sega Nomad is just a Sega Genesis in handheld form. (Which usually doesn't work anyway. Cough.) I'm also going to list these systems in the order I received them, as best as I can remember. This list goes back at least thirty-five years, so my recollection might get a little fuzzy for the earlier entries.

With that out of the way, let's start from the top...

Magnavox Odyssey2
Released: 1978
Owned: 1982

If nothing else, the Odyssey2 had
the coolest box art, full of
futuristic neon images.
(image from Wikipedia)
Nobody's ever going to accuse the Odyssey2 of being the best console they've ever owned, but for me, it was the first. I was very young so I can't remember the specifics... all I know is that one day, my family was browsing through a Magnavox showroom floor, and the next, there was an Odyssey2 in our living room. We weren't the only ones... my mother's friend had one, and the farmer's kids down the road had one too. Apparently Phillips had some really slick salesmen back in those days.

Anyway, eight year old me had a lot of fun with the Odyssey2 (because he didn't know any better, cough), but the best game in his collection was without a doubt K.C.'s Crazy Chase. The sequel to an earlier Pac-Man clone that Atari found too close to the real thing for comfort, K.C. munched pine trees and the body of a roving caterpillar for points. Finish a stage and K.C. let out a hearty and startlingly lifelike laugh... perhaps sampled from the designer when he found a way to make a game that was just Pac-Man-like enough to draw in an audience without getting Magnavox sued.

Atari 2600
Released: 1977
Owned: 1985

Naturally, everyone in the neighborhood who didn't have an Odyssey2 owned the Atari 2600 instead. It was the industry leader, after all, even after more advanced successors like the ColecoVision and Atari 5200 were released. However, I didn't get my hands on one until after the crash of 1983, when my mother remarried. Her new husband's son had just left for college, and left his Atari 2600 in the basement for anyone who wanted to play it.

And play it I did... I must have spent hours with Yar's Revenge and the lackluster port of Pac-Man, taking a break only to read the comics that were included with the games. Things only got better when I scavenged yard sales for games to add to my collection, and peaked when the dollar stores at malls were flooded with unwanted 2600 titles. Well, unwanted by everyone but me, of course. These criminally cheap games were some of the best on the system, but none were as ambitious as Solaris, a futuristic shooter with surprisingly deep gameplay and 3D effects that put even the NES to shame.

Milton Bradley Microvision
Released: 1979
Owned: 1985

BlockBuster video game...
oh, what a difference!
(image from Wikipedia)
The Microvision was another fringe benefit of my mother's second marriage. My stepfather took my brother and me to a nearby warehouse store, filled to the brim with clearance priced goods. My brother grabbed a Transformers action figure (possibly Optimus Prime; he'd remember better than I would), and I claimed a Microvision as my prize.

There was nothing special about the Microvision, as I've mentioned in a previous post. Its resolution was laughably coarse, and the brains of the unit were built into the cartridges rather than the console. Despite this, I spent a lot of time on car trips pecking away at the pixelated walls of BlockBuster. It was the system pack-in, and the Microvision's best game... a lucky break for me, as it was nearly impossible to find any of the others.

Mattel Intellivision
Released: 1978
Owned: 1986

Like today's Xbox One X or the Neo-Geo in the 1990s, the Intellivision was the high-end console of its time... a little more expensive than the competition, but also a little more advanced. While the Atari 2600 was puttering around with watered down ports of arcade games, the Intellivision treated its owners to World War II flight simulators, real-time strategy titles, and sports games licensed by the NFL, MLB, and the Professional Bowler's Association. (Hey, it's a sport too! Shut up!)

However, when the crash of 1983 happened, the once coveted Intellivision became as worthless to the general public as any other game system. I was quick to capitalize on this by picking up an orphaned Intellivision at a yard sale. The system, a voice synthesizer, and a couple dozen games cost me twenty dollars, but playing B-17 Bomber until the metal strip on the top of the system burned to the touch was priceless.

Atari 5200
Released: 1982
Owned: 1987

Yes, yes, the controllers are terrible.
That's why you get the Wicos.
(image from, yeah, Wikipedia again)
Before the NES, the Atari 5200 was at the top of my list of most wanted game systems. Sure, all the cool kids were getting a ColecoVision, but the more colorful graphics of Atari's system were more appealing to me. I preferred the 5200's library as well... the games were just more familiar to me, as opposed to the ColecoVision with its random assortment of arcade titles, some more obscure than others. Everybody loves Donkey Kong and Zaxxon, but who even remembers Victory, Looping, or Slither? (In the case of the last two games, who would want to?)

My cousin and a friend both owned Atari 5200s, but alas, it took a while before I had one of my own. I found the system and all the trimmings at a thrift shop in central Michigan, but it cost thirty dollars, and I was thirty dollars short that day. So I just kept borrowing my friend's 5200 until he bought an NES, and unloaded his old console on me for chump change. Years later, during a collecting frenzy, I picked up another Atari 5200 and as many games as I could to make up for the one that got away at that thrift store. 

One of those games was Wizard of Wor, a port of the intense Midway arcade game that just barely edges out Moon Patrol and Mountain King as my favorite cartridge on the Atari 5200. It hasn't aged gracefully, playing more slowly and looking a lot blockier than I remember, but the pulsing bass and the general excitement of the arcade game is still there, even if the Thorwors look like angry shrimp.

Nintendo Entertainment System
Released: 1985
Owned: 1988

My relationship with Nintendo has been pretty volatile... one day, I'll be madly in love with them, and the next, they'll do something to spoil the mood, like kill their fun social network or unceremoniously bury the flagship console which cost $300 at launch. (Uh, just to name two random examples.) Nevertheless, Nintendo has done more to shape my tastes as a gamer than any other company. The big N dominated the video game industry with its Nintendo Entertainment System while I was still an impressionable teenager, and debuted franchises like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid, which continue to influence both modern game design and pop culture.

Beyond all that, games on the NES were fun, but in a more substantial way than they had been on previous systems. The play mechanics were more complex, and thanks to cut scenes and endings, the action had a purpose beyond reaching the next stage or beating high scores. It was an evolution of the gaming experience, and I had to be a part of that. It's why I purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, with money I earned from raising animals on my parents' hobby farm. (Yes, I was in 4-H and everything. Life in the rust belt during the 1980s was a little weird.)

I had a lot of fun with the NES, particularly with Mega Man 2. I loved the original Mega Man, but somehow, this was even better, with massive bosses and a cartoony charm the first game was lacking. However, my loyalty to the system started to falter when Sega released its 16-bit Genesis, and Nintendo's response was putting its seal of quality on a cavalcade of licensed crapola by Acclaim. (Come on... Bart vs. the Space Mutants alone would have been enough to make anyone consider jumping ship.)

Sega Genesis
Released: 1989
Owned: 1991

Remember when 320x240 pixels
was considered "high definition
graphics?" Things were so much
simpler then...
(image from... yeah, those guys)
Let me paint a quick picture for you. It's the summer of 1991. I'm in the back room of a game rental store that's been transformed into a makeshift arcade. All the latest consoles I've been reading about in EGM are there, and I can play anything that hasn't already been rented out for just three dollars an hour. One of those games was Forgotten Worlds, which made my NES look almost as cutting edge as a UnivacGuess how long it took before I decided I absolutely had to own a Sega Genesis?

Shortly afterward, I sold my NES and thirteen games to the same rental store for $150; just enough scratch to purchase a Genesis of my very own. For the next five years, my loyalty was with Sega... and I'm embarrassed to admit that I made sure everyone knew it. When I wasn't making an ass of myself on the front lines of the console wars, I was playing Genesis hits like Dragon's Fury, Alisia Dragoon, Streets of Rage 2, and of course, Treasure's frantic Gunstar Heroes. It's everything you loved about Contra, without the vein-popping frustration!

Released: 1982
Owned: 1992

Oh boy, this one. I realize this machine has plenty of fans, but for me, the ColecoVision was a victim of lofty and ultimately unfulfilled expectations. Everyone in the classic gaming community praised the ColecoVision's pack-in Donkey Kong as a nearly perfect arcade conversion, so you'd better believe I snapped up the system the moment I found one at a yard sale. I ran into my uncle's house with the ColecoVision tucked under my arm (probably with its controllers and their ridiculous coiled wires dangling behind me), plugged that enormous power supply into the wall, and fired up the system, expecting to be blown away.

It blew, all right. Not "me away." It just blew. I paid only ten dollars for the ColecoVision so I really shouldn't complain. Yet when I remember all that hype about the ColecoVision bringing the arcade home, only to play a port of Donkey Kong that's objectively worse than the incomplete NES version, all I can do is complain! It's not just Donkey Kong, either... arcade conversions on the system range from reasonably accurate (Venture, Lady Bug, Galaxian) to that fresco of monkey Jesus (Time Pilot, Roc 'n Rope, Mr. Do!, Omega Race, Gorf, et al), and the inconsistent quality is hugely frustrating. A little research quickly reveals the problem... the ColecoVision was thrown together with off-the-shelf parts. Its Z80 processor can be traced back to arcade games, but its ugly color palette, limited RAM, and lack of hardware scrolling curbed the system's ambitions.

Good arcade ports do exist for the ColecoVision... they're just not a guarantee, despite what Coleco's marketing may lead you to believe. Burgertime is very impressive; superior to the NES version that came years later. Frenzy has an edge over its arcade counterpart, with more expressive artwork for the lead character and an eerie science-fiction soundtrack replacing the robotic voice from the original. Then there's Mr. Do!'s Castle, which doesn't look quite as sharp as the arcade version but nails the gameplay and that jaunty soundtrack. If every ColecoVision game had been up to the same high standards, I'd be complaining a lot less.

Sega Master System
Released: 1986
Owned: 1992

Remember that friend with the Atari 5200? He also owned a Sega Master System. After the excitement of guiding a snail through a maze and blasting an ever-reviving Zanoni wore off, he sold it to me for a couple sawbucks. I don't remember the specifics... it had been a long time ago, and it wasn't one of my more memorable acquisitions. What I do recall is that during a fit of boredom, I connected the Master System to a headset called the Victormaxx StuntMaster VR. The StuntMaster was actually designed for 16-bit systems, but because the Master System shared an A/V port with early models of the Genesis, I was able to turn Hang On into a pseudo-virtual reality experience. Sadly, I think the eyestrain from looking into the headset lasted longer than the respite from the boredom.

If you think this looks good, you should check
out the recent remaster!
(image from YouTube. Yay, I broke the streak!)
Anyway. Master System games are as memorable as the system itself, which is to say, not very. There are a lot of ports of Sega's SuperScaler arcade games, which the hardware is woefully ill-equipped to handle, and the occasional gem like Ys, Rampage, and Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap. You've probably been hearing a lot about this one now that it's been revived on modern game consoles, and there's a damned good reason for the comeback. Dragon's Trap is a lengthy action-adventure title with a hero who regularly changes forms to adapt to the terrain... Fish Man can swim in deep water, and so on. The Master System isn't known for this kind of game, but Dragon's Trap is on par with anything the NES can dish out... and looks better thanks to the system's lush color palette.

Stay tuned for part two of Besties! We'll dive deeper into the 16-bit era of gaming, and check out some long forgotten relics from previous generations.


  1. I really like how you handled this, Jess! Much more interesting than just a simple list--even if I've only ever played three of the consoles you discuss here. BTW, I like that Gunstar Heroes is your favorite Genesis game--or at least one of your favorites?

    1. Yeah, I'd say that was accurate. Gunstar Heroes holds special significance to me, because it marked the end of a dry spell for the Genesis. That game brought the system roaring back to life after a crappy year full of American developed shovelware based on cartoons and comics.

      Beyond that, Gunstar Heroes felt like the kind of games Konami was publishing for other systems, rather than the crappy afterthoughts they released for the Genesis (ie Sunset Riders with half the characters and stages, a crummy TMNT: Tournament Fighters, etc). Specifically, it felt like Contra, but faster, less punishing, and with more creative license. Treasure was able to do things with the game- silly, indulgent, fun things- that Konami never would have let them do, and that mattered a lot to me.

    2. Not everything Konami released for the Genesis was rubbish, you know. Might have been disappointing on the arcade scene, but they still made some great stuff.

      Contra: Hard Corps had a sense of humor and the Japanese version was much more forgiving with its life bar and 70 lives code. Castlevania: Bloodlines had solid gameplay (save for a couple of sticking points) and a password system. Rocket Knight Adventures has some pretty great set pieces. And all three had pretty great art direction and music.

      Add on a Sega CD and then there's Snatcher, one of Hideo Kojima's best non-Metal Gear productions. "What if Blade Runner, but with body-snatching Terminators?"

  2. Not intending to Brainy Smurf it up but it's funny that you should single out Bart vs. the Space Mutants when it comes to licensed crapola, because I learned recently from GoggleBob that the Sega Genesis had the game, too! Sometimes Genesis did what Nintendoes:

    1. Yeah. Sadly. At least I knew to avoid it the second time.