Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Besties, 2000-2004

Welcome back my friends, to the collection that seemingly never ends! In this chapter, we'll look at the ten consoles and handhelds I picked up at the turn of the century. After two years in Arizona, I returned to Michigan, admiring its lush green vistas while rounding out my collection with the latest in gaming technology, as well as a few stragglers from the 20th century.

Nintendo Game Boy Color
Released: 1998
Owned: 2000

I was lucky enough to go to the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 1999, tagging along with a fellow fanzine editor and some of his buddies. What I saw of the Game Boy Color at the show impressed me... Capcom was rolling out everything from NES classics (1942, Ghosts 'n Goblins) to more recent franchises (Resident Evil, Street Fighter Alpha) in a show of support for the system. Other titles featured at the show, including R-Type DX and Crystalis, gave every indication that the Game Boy Color was going to have a lengthy lifespan with tons of terrific games.

That wasn't the way things turned out, though. The Game Boy Color quickly became a dumping ground for dreck, with a dozen atrocious titles based on films and cartoons being added to that pile every month. The system's hardware didn't hold up too well either, a rehash of the nine year old Game Boy with double the clock speed, triple the memory, and limited color output that brought it up to par with competing handhelds... released seven years earlier.

With all its faults in mind, I can't explain why I went out and bought a Game Boy Color anyway. I guess it was to hold me over until the release of the Game Boy Advance, a system that also had great potential, but actually lived up to its ambitions. Great games were never in short supply on that system, but for the Game Boy Color, you had to pull up your sleeves and dig through that pile of dreck to find the gems. Most people will point to Pokemon or the colorized version of Link's Awakening as high points for the GBC, but personally, I liked Space Invaders... it's a cramped but otherwise clever re-imagining of the Taito arcade game, with an eerie soundtrack straight out of a 1950s science-fiction flick.

Sega Dreamcast
Released: 1999
Owned: 2000

You may recall from previous posts that I was a huge fan of Sega. However, by 2000, most of that loyalty had eroded thanks to corporate decisions of cataclysmic stupidity (the 32X, launching the Saturn early, killing the Saturn early, etc.) and a flippant attitude toward customers ill-suited to a company trailing behind its competitors. When your latest flagship console goes down in flames and you really, really need to keep your remaining fans from defecting to Sony or Nintendo, it might not be prudent to release limited quantities of your last few Saturn games, then taunt the frustrated players who can't find them with full page ads in widely read gaming magazines.

One of the few consoles that
doesn't looking flattering in
black, thanks to its somewhat
bulbous design.
(image from Wikipedia)
With all this in mind, it would have been wise for me to steer clear of Sega's next console. Yet like a moth to the flame, I headed straight for the Dreamcast, buying this doomed system the minute I found one at a local pawn shop. It cost a hundred dollars that I could barely afford on my modest budget, and I spent the rest of the month eating tuna fish and crackers while speeding toward each new goal in Sonic Adventure. It was an entertaining but not especially nutritious way to pass the time until my next paycheck.

By any reasonable standard, that Dreamcast was a stupid purchase. Less than a year after I bought the system, Sega unceremoniously drop-kicked it out the back door and became a third party developer for the consoles I should have bought instead. Yet despite it all, I've got no regrets. I had more fun with one year of the Dreamcast than three years of the Playstation 2 thanks to its more creative and ambitious software library. It was also a fixture at every party I went to in the early 2000s, with Soul Calibur, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Capcom vs. SNK 2 leaving players spellbound. Nearly twenty years later, Capcom vs. SNK 2 is still the best crossover fighting game ever made, with tons of content and two casts of characters that go together like peanut butter and jelly. 

I got burned by the Dreamcast, but I guess that's the risk you take with a candle that burns twice as bright.

Neo-Geo Pocket Color
Released: 1999
Owned: 2001

I didn't have much faith in the Neo-Geo Pocket at first, but playing a few of its games in an emulator made me a believer. I thought I might be able to convince my father to buy me one for Christmas, but when I asked, he laughed in my face and gave me underwear instead. 

I suppose it goes without saying that I don't get along too well with that side of the family.

Dan's still a weenie. And
that's the way we like him.
(image from Emuparadise)
Anyway, I did eventually get a Neo-Geo Pocket Color, but I had to earn it, doing design work and writing reviews for a game store's web site. It was time well spent, not only because the Neo-Geo Pocket was the best handheld I'd owned up to that point, but because I made it mine with diligent work and a minimum of groveling to obstinate relatives.

Speaking of work, SNK's contractor Dimps put a whole lot of it into their games, making it easy to forgive the Neo-Geo Pocket's limited color output and chirpy sound processor. Chibi fighting games were nothing new, starting with Takara's Nettou series on the Game Boy, but they were never this crammed with animation and technique! SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium is the crown jewel topping an already strong selection of fighting games, with three styles of gameplay, tons of mini games for variety, and the interaction between SNK and Capcom's best brawlers that made Capcom vs. SNK 2 on the Dreamcast such a delight.

Neo-Geo CD
Released: 1994
Owned: 2001

When you're a video game collector, you learn a few things about the hobby. Sometimes that knowledge is offered free of charge by other collectors, and sometimes it's a hard lesson learned from a stupid and costly mistake. Alas, the Neo-Geo CD was one of those hard lessons. I traded a handful of my import Saturn games to get one from a guy in Brazil. He sent me the system, minus an AC adapter. Without that crucial component, I didn't have a Neo-Geo CD... I had an SNK-branded boat anchor. I sent the system back to its owner in the hope that he'd send my games back... you can guess how well that went.

I gave the Neo-Geo CD another shot a few years later, this time purchasing it from eBay rather than some random Usenet channel and making sure all the accessories were included. That went a little better, but honestly, the Neo-Geo CD isn't a system anyone really needs to have in their collections. With the aid of an emulator, the Dreamcast runs its games just as well, while reducing the access time from minutes to seconds. If you've absolutely, positively got to have a Neo-Geo CD, I'd suggest an early release that requires less loading. There's always Ninja Commando, which is Commando, but with ninjas. And time travel. And the bright colors and questionably translated dialog you've come to expect from Neo-Geo games.

Nintendo 64
Released: 1996
Owned: 2001

I'm convinced that the biggest difference between Generation X and Millennials, aka the generation that's killing X, is their opinions of the Nintendo 64. Keep in mind that Gen X was in its cynical twenties and that the Millies were just kids when the system was launched in 1996. The elder generation dismissed Nintendo's cartridge-based console as a toy and longed for something more sophisticated. The younger generation... well, we know how they reacted when they ripped open the wrapping paper at Christmas and found a Nintendo 64 waiting for them.

The impeccable taste of Generation X,
illustrated by the popularity of Friends.
And Zima. And Vanilla Ice. And...
(image from MTV)
I had both feet firmly planted on the Gen X side of this debate, and wrote off the N64 as a dud shortly after its release. Sure, it had Super Mario 64, but what else was there to play after that got boring? There certainly wasn't much coming from third parties, who preferred the high capacity and low cost of the Playstation's compact discs. So I dragged my feet on buying a Nintendo 64 until 2001, when a ratty-looking model of the system popped up at a pawn shop for a discount price. It looked like the reset button had been snacked on by a rabid weasel, but it was stupidly cheap, and the system wars of the late 1990s were long over anyway. I had nothing to lose but some pocket change and a little space in my entertainment center.

My jaundiced opinion of the Nintendo 64 hasn't changed much, but it wouldn't have changed at all if it hadn't been for the generosity of a friend who lived close by. He let me borrow a few of his own games, giving me a chance to judge the system more objectively. Not all of those games were good, mind you, but Paper Mario alone may have been enough to justify the N64, filling a gap in the system's library and pioneering the timing-based combat that's become a staple in the RPGs released since. It brought depth to Mario's world as well, making its turtles and mushrooms more than just targets for the plump plumber's work boots.

Nintendo Virtual Boy
Released: 1995
Owned: 2001

On the quasi-portable side of Nintendo disappointments, there's the Virtual Boy. I nearly bought one of these in 1997, when its price in stores plunged to twenty dollars. Years later, when I saw it again in a thrift shop for the same price, I caved. I messed with the Virtual Boy for a little while, and when the novelty of Nintendo games in red and black wore thin, I sold it to somebody else. Maybe I should have held onto it... thanks to its infamy as Nintendo's biggest flop and the upward trend of retro game prices, the Virtual Boy has become crazy expensive, selling anywhere from one hundred to five hundred dollars on eBay. Oh well... hindsight is a bitch.

It took careful consideration to pick my favorites for some of the other systems on this list, but for the Virtual Boy, it's easy. That honor goes to Virtual Boy Wario Land, no question. Every Virtual Boy game asks you to take a break from the system after twenty minutes, but VB Wario Land is the only title where that advice may actually be necessary. It's a pretty addictive side-scrolling platformer, but a more traditional one than later games in the Wario Land series. Levels are kept fairly linear, and power ups are used to progress through them, instead of subjecting Wario to all manner of cartoony abuse. 

What makes this game uniquely suited to the Virtual Boy is that each level has two planes, with the obese treasure hunter leaping between them to stuff his pockets with coins and hearts. Later games like Mutant Mudds, Fez, and Nintendo's own Super Paper Mario have toyed with perspective too, but it never felt as fresh or as fitting as it does here.

Nintendo Game Boy Advance
Released: 2001
Owned: 2001

Oh baby, now that's what I'm talking about! Well, it's what I will be talking about, anyway. I anticipated the Game Boy Advance in the same way a hungry wolf anticipates a steak held just out of reach, and it's not hard to understand why. Previous Nintendo portables skimped on the hardware for the sake of battery life, but the Game Boy Advance kicked things into overdrive with features that were considered cutting edge on home consoles ten years earlier. A wide screen display! 512 onscreen colors! Scaling and rotation! Lifelike sampled sound effects! A processor fast enough to handle texture mapped polygons! The press liked to call the Game Boy Advance a handheld Super NES, but that system could never handle something like this.

Just enough light to see the screen
on the first model. Maybe.
(image from Difference Between)
There was no way I was going to miss out on that kind of action! So I ran to the nearest K-Mart (back when K-Mart was a store and not a historical footnote) and put the system on layaway. A couple weeks later, I finally had a Game Boy Advance in my clutches, and I was happy. Mostly. Kinda. There was that issue with the screen, which wasn't backlit, or frontlit, or visible at all without sitting under a fluorescent shop light. I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and that the Game Boy Advance was my ironic punishment.

Too small to use for longer than fifteen
minutes at a time, but better.
(image from Wikipedia)
Nintendo got it right with later models of the GBA, letting me appreciate the system's many perks without going blind in the process. Over fifteen years and several superior handhelds later, I still have a soft spot for this little thing. I own five models of the Game Boy Advance, including two of the extra bright SPs and that tiny Game Boy Micro that nobody else wanted. I've got a Tupperware container overflowing with games, and made one of my own with homebrew development toolsI hacked my GameCube for the sole purpose of playing Game Boy Advance games, replacing the standard issue Game Boy Player disc with the more accurate Game Boy Interface. I'm dedicated to this machine, is what I'm saying.

It's hard to pick a favorite game in a library full of overachievers, but if pressed, I'd have to go with the launch title Fire Pro Wrestling. I spent so many hours creating fighters and sending them into the ring against faintly disguised wrestling superstars that it would be unfair to choose anything else.

Sony Playstation 2
Released: 2000
Owned: 2002

Ah, Playstation... my old nemesis. I suppose it was inevitable that I would buy the PS2, just as I had Sony's last system. After all, it was a success out of the starting gate in spite of a lackluster launch library, vaulting past the Dreamcast and maintaining a healthy lead over the Xbox and GameCube years later. 

I wouldn't have bought a Playstation 2 if it had been an option, but I had to go with where the games were. Beyond that, I needed a cheap DVD player... and in those days, DVD players didn't come much cheaper than this. With this in mind, I bought the system at a pawn shop a couple of years after it launched. My old web site claims that it cost me $200, so I'm guessing that meant another month of tuna and crackers. Unlike the Dreamcast, it didn't feel like it was worth the sacrifice, at least not for the first couple of years when the PS2 was up to its neck in Grand Theft Auto sequels and knock-offs.

But then along came Katamari Damacy. Namco's roll 'em up had the vivid colors and unrestrained creativity that had been so commonplace on the Dreamcast years before, suggesting that at long last, I'd have something to do on my Playstation 2 aside from watch movies and run over hookers. Third party developers continued to color outside the lines with games like Graffiti Kingdom and Culdcept, making the wait for the Wii and Xbox 360 a little more bearable.

Released: 1978
Owned: 2003

And now for a little pedantry! Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no such thing as a Bally Astrocade. This system first debuted as the Bally Professional Arcade in 1978. After a couple years of flat sales, Bally left the home console market, and sold the rights to the system to Astrovision, which renamed it the Astrocade.

One neat feature of the Astrocade is its
combination joystick/paddle, which can be
used to "dial in" your settings from the
couch. Now that's convenience!
(image from Wikipedia)
(woodgrain paneling from the 1970s)
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about my personal experience with this machine. I found an Astrocade at a yard sale, on my way home from community college. It only cost a few dollars, and it was in remarkable shape, containing the system, the controllers, the warranty card, and a note to the previous owners wishing them a merry Christmas. It was a pretty exciting find... frankly, I'm surprised I didn't leave a trail of pee behind me on my way back to the car.

As ancient game consoles go, the Astrocade is adequate; not terrible, but not in the same league as the Atari 2600 or the Intellivision. It was designed with the same technology that was used in the arcade game Gorf, but since they used half the hardware, you get roughly half the quality. This is especially apparent in The Incredible Wizard, the Astrocade's port of Wizard of Wor... the system's coarse resolution makes the characters barely recognizable, and the thumping bass in the background is gone, taking some of the game's intensity with it.  Still, it's a damn fine conversion when you consider that it's running on hobbled hardware, running rings around the 2600 version with its constant flicker and dull colors.

Nintendo GameCube
Released: 2001
Owned: 2004

I don't remember precisely when I bought a GameCube or how much it cost, but I do recall my motivation for the purchase. I wanted to throw off the oppressive shackles of Sony... or something. I dunno, I was a bit of a drama queen in those days. Realistically, there was no chance one nerd buying a GameCube at a pawn shop was going to put more than a pebble-sized dent in Sony's empire. However, I needed more variety than what I was getting from the Playstation 2, and in that respect, the GameCube delivered.

My favorite Cube game was also one of its most controversial... The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. The game abandoned the more realistic look of Ocarina of Time for squat, cartoony characters, frustrating fanboys in the process. The chibi makeover was actually a smart move, making Link more expressive than he'd ever been in the past. Watch the plucky little elf crack open a treasure chest with wide-eyed wonder, and just try to tell me the new art direction was a mistake! No, the real issue with Wind Waker is all the sailing you've got to do to get from point A to point B, then having to pay Tingle a king's ransom in Rupees to find the real Triforce pieces and reach the final showdown with Ganondorf. It's such a great fight that it's worth suffering through all the extra padding, but you can't tell me you didn't want to ring Tingle's greedy green neck after he sent you back to the ocean to fish for more trinkets.

In the next installment of Besties... er, is anybody still reading this stuff? If you are, I'll look at some of the more recent systems in my collection, ranging from the PSP to the decidedly less impressive N-Gage. If you're not, just let Grandpa ramble for a while until he falls asleep.

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