Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Besties, 1993-1999

In this installment of Besties, I'll look at some of my acquisitions from the mid to late 1990s, along with my favorite games for each. By now you know the drill. If you don't, you should have read the first one!

By the way, did the 1990s seem really long to anyone else? Like, longer than the next two decades combined. Maybe it was because I was in my teens and twenties back then, and time seems to run at 33RPM when you're that age. Either that or I just blotted the Bush II years out of my mind...

Nintendo GameBoy
Released: 1989
Owned: 1993

(image from Wikipedia)
My memories of owning a GameBoy are vague... it may have been a Christmas present, or it may have been a lucky catch at one of the thrift stores I frequented in the early 1990s. I better remember my introduction to the system... one of my classmates purchased it at launch, along with Castlevania: The Adventure, and I was dazzled by them both when he brought them to school. It was hardly a shining moment for the Castlevania series, but keep in mind that my last handheld gaming experience was Milton Bradley's Microvision. You're bound to be impressed by anything after growing up with one of those.

A few years and much brainwashing by David "Sushi-X" Siller later (mental note: don't trust anyone who thinks this is sexy), my opinion of the GameBoy had soured. Nevertheless, it was the only handheld I could afford at the time, and it had all of gaming's biggest names thanks to Nintendo's industry dominance. One franchise that was forgotten by most was Solomon's Key, brilliantly adapted to the GameBoy as Solomon's Club. It wasn't as challenging as the NES game, with smaller stages and a password feature, but that actually worked to the game's benefit, making it more user-friendly. Even my brother was seduced by the charms of Solomon's Club; no small feat when you consider that his tastes leaned more toward the flashy violence of Mortal Kombat and Doom.

Years after parting ways with that GameBoy, my mother brought home a tackle box with a red GameBoy Pocket and several accessories inside, including the camera and printer. I didn't think much of it at the time, having upgraded to the more powerful GameBoy Advance. However, it was a thoughtful gift, so I held onto both the GameBoy and a handful of boxed Pokemon games as a keepsake. That was a smart move... these days, that random gift has a lot more than just sentimental value.

Emerson Arcadia 2001
Released: 1982
Owned: 1994

You know what's awesome about the Emerson Arcadia? Nothing particularly, but it had value to collectors, so I snapped it up from my brother's friend for ten dollars. After suffering through experiencing the system's library, I traded the Emerson and a half-dozen boxed games for a Vectrex. I didn't keep that very long either, but it was nevertheless a better use of my time.

This is where I'd list my favorite game for the system, but the Emerson Arcadia doesn't make that easy. It's a Frankenstein's monster pieced together from every annoying flaw I hated in a late 1970s game system, from the harsh sound of the Atari 2600 to the bedeviled hard-wired dial controllers of the Intellivision. Even the box art is objectionable, with sketchy, copyright-skirting watercolor images that just scream cheap. Okay, fine... if you're going to make me choose an Arcadia game, let's say Cat Trax. It's a dodgy Pac-Man clone with a cliched Tex Avery motif- your cat can turn the tables on a pack of dogs by transforming into an animal control van- but it's fast-paced and doesn't require extensive use of that stupid numeric keypad every system had to have back when the Arcadia was released in 1982.

By the way, a free word of advice. Don't talk smack about the Emerson Arcadia around any Australians, because they grew up with a rebranded version of this horrendous system (the Tunix or the Ham 'n Eggs or whatever), and they get a little pissy about it. We're talking "boot through the fence of the American embassy" pissy.

Atari 7800
Released: 1986
Owned: 1994

Fun fact! Atari's hapless rival to the NES was originally designed as a replacement for the 5200. In fact, there are rumors that during a board meeting, Jack Tramiel took a hammer to the 5200 to drive home the point that the system had no home at Atari. 

You just know Atari wanted to put a
numeric keypad on that joystick, instead
of that silver strip.
(image from Wikipedia)
Unfortunately, the Atari 7800 solved some of the design issues of the 5200 while creating entirely new ones. It was backward compatible with Atari's most successful game system, the 2600, but it inherited its tone-deaf sound processor, leaving it at a disadvantage against the more advanced NES and Master System. Past that, the software library was still stuck in 1983, with dozens of dated arcade conversions which cemented Atari's reputation as a living fossil. The company wasn't willing to adapt to modern trends, and gamers spited them for their stubbornness.

Yet there were some of us who were born at just the right time to appreciate both the golden age of gaming and what Nintendo brought to the table after the crash. It's why I picked up an Atari 7800 from a yard sale and added it to my still modest collection. I'd be lying or crazy if I told you that I enjoyed the 7800 as much as the NES, but playing a manic shooter like Robotron: 2084 was comfort food for someone who was just old enough to reach the joysticks when the game made its arcade debut in 1982. Sure, that game might have been possible on the NES, albeit without the vibrant color and the sheer volume of enemies. However, as anyone who's played the lackluster NES ports of Joust and Stargate will attest, it wasn't the right place for that older than old school experience.

GCE Vectrex
Released: 1982
Owned: 1995

In the early days of game collecting, the Vectrex was a holy grail among consoles. If you were lucky enough to find one, you'd be treated to a novel experience no other system could reproduce. No one draws glowing lines like Vectrex! No one's resolution is as fine as Vectrex! No one scales and rotates in real-time like Vectrex! Er, you get the idea. The Vectrex even has a rectangular four button controller that's bound to remind you of the NES game pad. Numeric keypads, who needs 'em?

Alas, I wasn't lucky enough to find a Vectrex in the wild, so I had to speed things up by trading with a collector. He got my Emerson Arcadia (poor guy...), and I got the Vectrex, weighing in at a hefty fifteen pounds thanks to its built-in vertically oriented monitor. After sampling the system's library of games with the aid of a multi-cart, I got bored and sold my holy grail to another collector. To quote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose... poorly.

Several years later, I was reunited with the system after finding it on Bidville, an auction site back in the days when there were other auction sites than eBay. Bidville no longer exists, but the Vectrex is still in my collection. Now I just have to find a copy of Star Castle, which was my favorite game on that multi-cart. It's a classic David and Goliath story, except David is a tiny star ship and Goliath is protected by three spinning walls. The part about sinking a pebble into his forehead still holds, though.

Sega Game Gear
Released: 1991
Owned: 1996

I remember why I bought a Game Gear... I'd gotten a prototype version of GG Frogger in a trade, and obviously needed the system to play it. I just don't remember how it happened. My best guess is that the Game Gear turned up at a thrift store or yard sale, and after some money traded hands, I added it to my expanding collection.

If at first you don't succeed...
make it portable?
(image from Wikipedia)
The Sega Master System didn't excite me, so it stands to reason that its handheld counterpart wouldn't do much for me either. Like the Atari Lynx, it was a full color portable, but the Game Gear felt rather low rent by comparison. Many of the games in its library were either holdovers from the Master System (Drancon's Revenge, Woody Pop) or heavily watered down adaptations of Sega Genesis hits (Streets of Rage, Columns, Sonic). The remaining handful of exclusives are best left unmentioned, except as a warning to prospective Game Gear owners starting their own library. Seriously, Chicago Syndicate is so bad. You don't even know. You don't even want to know.

GG Frogger, though... now that was fun on a bun! Imagine a sequel to the arcade game with friendly cartoon artwork, lengthy scrolling playfields, and a new objective... finding a trio of frogs scattered across the level and bringing them back to home base. Some of the Game Gear's Japanese exclusives are worth your time as well, especially Namco's port of Mappy and Ninku Gaiden Hiroyuki, starring a penguin who shoves ice blocks into hungry monsters. (Any resemblance to Pengo is strictly coincidental.)

Atari Lynx
Released: 1989
Owned: 1996

The 1990s were a wonderful time for collecting. Case in point: I was able to find two copies of the elusive 2600 title Chase the Chuckwagon in the span of two months. It was a pretty sorry game, with a dog plodding through a dull maze to reach a horse-drawn carriage at the top of the screen. In other words, it's a fitting cross-promotion for the cheap, processed food that turned your dog's poop white. However, as trade bait with other collectors, it was immensely valuable. Those two copies of Chuckwagon netted me a big box full of gaming goodies that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford.

One of those prizes was an Atari Lynx, the ├╝ber-handheld that left me starry-eyed from the moment I first saw it in EGM. It had a full color screen... the GameBoy did not. It had stunningly close conversions of Atari arcade games... the GameBoy did not. It had hardware scaling and rotation... hell, even the Genesis and TurboGrafx didn't have that! Even after Atari dropped support for the Lynx, I desperately wanted one in my collection, and after all those years of wishing, that dream had become a reality.

For the next year or so, life was good. I spent hours with the best games the Lynx had to offer, like Desert Strike, Robotron: 2084, and the star attraction Toki. This quirky action title, ported from a Fabtek arcade release, offered a taste of the quality Japanese platforming that the GameBoy had enjoyed for years, and was miles better than other attempts at the genre, like Scrapyard Dog and Viking Child. But alas, I eventually became bored with my toy (or just got tired of going through a mountain of AA batteries), and traded it into a Bookman's shortly after moving to Arizona in 1997. Funny how quickly yesterday's must-have winds up on tomorrow's discard pile...

Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Released: 1991
Owned: 1997

One hard lesson I've learned as a gamer is that you should never let your fanboy instincts get the better of you. Specifically, don't vow that you'll never buy a game system from a company you despise, because the world around you will change, and so will your loyalties. Sooner or later, that console you loudly protested will be in your entertainment center, and you'll have egg on your face.

The Super NES's Japanese counterpart, the Super
Famicom. The Super NES got boxy and
purple on its way to these shores, because...
well, someone at Nintendo must have
thought Americans would like it better if it
were beaten with the ugly stick first.
(image from Wikipedia)
So it goes with the Super NES. As a rabidly devoted Genesis fan, I promised myself that I would never buy one... only to break that promise when the 16-bit console wars ended and I wanted to catch up on all the games I missed in the early 1990s. My friends remembered the vows I made, and took great amusement in reminding me of them years later.

Okay, fine! I regret being an obnoxious Sega fanboy. I can't say I regret the Super Nintendo, though, and I definitely don't have second thoughts about making Super Mario All-Stars & Super Mario World my first game. This generous collection was the pack-in for the Super NES near the end of its life, and I was lucky enough to find a copy at the same pawn shop where I bought my system. It's valuable to collectors, and more importantly, it's packed with gaming goodness. Even in 1992, when the console wars were at their most heated, I'd sneak in a few minutes of Super Mario World whenever my family went to Wal-Mart for groceries. Come on, I'm not made of stone.

Sega Saturn
Released: 1995
Owned: 1997

This was the first game system I bought when I moved to Arizona in the late 1990s, and for sheer entertainment value, it remains one of my best investments. I can't count all the hours I spent with my Saturn, playing games that ran the gamut from fantastic (Street Fighter Alpha 2) to hilariously terrible (Battle Monsters), and from easily found (Daytona USA) to obscenely rare (Panzer Dragoon Saga). And when I ran out of American releases, I turned to Japan for my fix, spending many more hours with Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, and Grandia.

For two solid years, the Saturn was gaming for me. It didn't matter that Bernie Stolar had publicly disowned the system, or that the few Saturn games available in the United States were shuffled to the clearance aisles and bargain bins of stores. It may have been dismissed as a lemon by ninety percent of Americans, but I was determined to squeeze every last drop of tangy juice I could out of the Saturn. Turns out that with a little effort and a whole lot of importing, it had plenty to spare; enough to sate my thirst until I purchased a Dreamcast at the turn of the century.

Of the many Saturn games I played, the one I enjoyed the most was the game I bought before I even owned the system. Shortly before my trip to Arizona, I picked up a discounted copy of NightWarriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge at a Meijer in central Michigan. That slashed price should have been a clue that the Saturn was on borrowed time, but that didn't matter to me. I played the game before at a friend's house, and loved it so much that I was willing to take a gamble on the system that played it. I took the road less traveled, and twenty years later, I still don't regret the trip.

Panasonic 3DO
Released: 1993
Owned: 1997

One fun "feature" of this $700 console is that
you had to loosen the screws on the back of
the controller to make the D-pad recognize
diagonals. This could have used a bit
more playtesting, me thinks.
(image from Wikipedia)
I had such high hopes for the 3DO back in 1993. However, it was stuck between the rock of less expensive, better established consoles and the hard place of more advanced (yet still cheaper!) upcoming machines like the Playstation. When faced with such tremendous pressure, the 3DO's only option was to lie back and wait to be crushed by the competition.

By 1997, the 3DO had been forgotten by most players, with the only trace of its existence being the critically panned Army Men series. However, I still wanted this old fossil of a game system, and after some excavation, found one at a Bookman's in Sierra Vista. The 3DO and a few games cost twenty five dollars, and although I didn't use it nearly as often as my Saturn, it was still a worthy investment. 

After all, it had a darned good port of Super Street Fighter II Turbo, probably the best you could find on a home console until it was released for the Saturn and Playstation years later. Way of the Warrior was entertaining too, although in more of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way. Then there's Mark Hamill getting slaughtered by a shaggy Thundercat, and Kirk Cameron's proclamation that he was raised by a kind herd of wild cows, and Trip Hawkins wilting when Chris Kohler told him his friend bought a 3DO for twenty five dollars...

Yeah, all that was worth the price of admission.

Released: 1978
Owned: 1997

This was an odd find, discovered at a dusty old thrift store in Tucson and purchased for five dollars. I wasn't even sure what I had... all I knew for sure is that it looked kind of like a video game system and that I needed to buy it.

It was indeed a game system... just not a very good one, which tends to happen with these late 1970s obscurities. I only owned one cartridge, Boxing, and its brightly colored, noodle-armed pugilists didn't hold my attention for long. (I'm told that Space Destroyers is the APF's best game, but you could play Space Invaders clones on everything back in those days.)

The system had collector's value, so I was able to more than recoup my losses. I wouldn't learn about the APF's historical value until much later, when I looked up the console on Wikipedia. It turns out the machine was designed by a man named Ed Smith, an African-American tech wizard whose life story parallels that of Jerry Lawson, the creator of the Fairchild Channel F. How do I keep missing this stuff?

NEC TurboGrafx-16
Released: 1989
Owned: 1997

That plastic thing on the back
actually comes off, revealing a
bunch of I/O pins. The pins
were designed for optional
peripherals, but you could
probably make you own with
the right equipment.
(image from Wikipedia, obvs)
The TurboGrafx-16 will forever be tied to one of my biggest gaming regrets. While visiting a Toys 'R Us in Lansing, I had fifty dollars to spend on whatever I wanted. I could have purchased a clearance priced TurboGrafx, but instead, I put that money toward a Sega Genesis game. Not just any Genesis game, but that non-stop thrill ride, Ecco the Dolphin, where you spend half the time gulping down schools of fish and the other half solving cryptic puzzles. Cue that scene from Police Squad 3 where a hundred people in a crowded theater slap their foreheads in unison.

Look, I did get that TurboGrafx eventually! I just had to wait a few years, until one turned up at a Bookman's in Tucson. (Like all good sun-baked nerds, I spent most of my free time and nearly all of my free money at Bookman's. It's where I got most of my Saturn games, too. But I digress...) The price was about the same, but luckily, I got to choose from a small selection of HuCards rather than being stuck with Keith Courage, the dopey pack-in.

I went home with Galaga '90, which was the best TurboGrafx title they had. But if I were to choose the best game the system had, it would have to be R-Type. It was a visual dynamo with the same vibrant colors and huge bosses as the arcade version, and a memorable experience even if you missed Irem's demanding shooter the first time. If R-Type had been the TurboGrafx pack-in, uh... the Genesis still would have beaten it. Then again, it wouldn't have been such a thorough drubbing that NEC had to sell its remaining systems for the price of the competition's cartridges.

Sony Playstation
Released: 1995
Owned: 1999

Years after the Playstation was released, Sega released a game called Segagaga, with a depressingly familiar storyline. As the head of a smaller console manufacturer, you've got to keep your struggling business alive, thwarting attempts by the nefarious Dogma to drive it into bankruptcy.

As a satire of Sega's woes, it was pretty obvious, but at the time, I didn't understand the concept of "dogma." Now I think I get it... dogma is accepting a set of beliefs or a pattern of behavior not for any rational reason, but because it's the way things have always been, and must continue to be. It's the kind of grim inevitability that Sony brought to the game industry with its Playstation line. You had to own one of their systems, because you had no other choice.

I held out for as long as I could with the Sega Saturn, but with the system orphaned in America and steadily losing support in Japan, it was only a matter of time before I had to get a Playstation. So with a deep sigh, I accepted fate. I traded a handful of my import Saturn games to a guy named Gregg (did they have a discount on Gs when he was born...?) for a Playstation, still sealed in the box. It was a pretty good deal at the time, but twenty years later, you could probably trade the same games for a grocery cart full of Playstations.

Anyway. I traded a few more of my Saturn games to another collector for a starter pack of Playstation titles... Armored Core: Project Phantasma, Rival Schools, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha. I enjoyed them all, but of the four, I got the most mileage out of Street Fighter EX. Heck, I still play EX occasionally on my Vita... it's got that rock solid Street Fighter gameplay I crave, along with polygonal graphics that elicit contented sighs of nostalgia rather than groans of disgust. 

I've purchased many Playstation games since, both on disc and from Sony's online store, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. Well, that and Bloody Roar II. And Suikoden II. And... well, lots of games, honestly. I didn't like getting a Playstation, but at least Sony made it worth choking down the bile in my throat.

Stay tuned for part three of Besties! It's no longer the 1990s, and there is time for the Dreamcast, Playstation 2, and a few systems Jess missed in the previous century.

1 comment:

  1. You've owned far more gaming consoles than I ever have and I know this list is still growing.

    In contrast to your initial vendetta against the Super Nintendo, I never saw the Sega Genesis or TurboGrafx-16 as the enemy; I envied them. I had outlets for playing the Genesis (and Street of Rage 2 and Sonics 2 and 3 in particular), but I'd always see these cool-looking games in magazines and think "Wow, I wish I could play that." Of course, I would find that some of these games weren't as amazing as I'd imagined once I finally played them years later, but I still found plenty to love.

    It's a shame we'll probably never see another English release of Snatcher. Lousy corrupt Konami...

    The Super Nintendo, it used to be easy to say which RPG I loved most (Final Fantasy "III") but that was before I discovered the various wonderful games that Square never localized, along with many, many, many others. Now I just don't know anymore.