Every now and then, at parties, people get nostalgic, and I’m asked, “What was your favorite toy growing up?” I could aim for architectural brilliance, and say how much I played with Legos as a kid. I had a big, gray plastic tub of assorted Lego pieces—mostly from the Space set—in which I could elaborate intergalactic stations, alien hospitals, and in-orbit communes. According to my mom, I played Lego over my phone with my friend Brian Winter. I believe it—he was a Lego nut, too—but I can’t quite imagine how we did it. Were we building identical buildings, or comparing our sets, or what?
Anyway, Lego is my stock answer. It’s a good one. It makes me look deep and cool. But it’s a lie.
I grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System, and I belong to the first generation of people for whom a home video game system was the norm rather than the exception. Oh, we 1980s kids! The lifelines of my youth were the following: The Legend of Zelda, Rad Racer, Bionic Commando (in which you get to blow up a cyborg Hitler, in a pretty gory final sequence for 8-bit graphics!), Duck Hunt, Contra, RC Pro-Am (the best racing game ever, and which was based on that other 1980s fad, remote-controlled cars), Wizards & Warriors.
Even the lame games held some appeal on rainy days. Shadowgate and Déjà Vu tried to make gameplay emulate books, with still pictures and a inventory that you had to browse through—failed but worthy experiments that I admired. Star Voyager and 3-D Worldrunner—yes, an attempt to make a 3D video game, complete with crappy red-and-blue-lensed plastic glasses, free with every box—were both terrible but I liked them anyway. I was the master of Kung Fu, even though it bored me to tears.
I bonded with my dad over epic bouts of R.B.I. Baseball; it was our method of communication during my teenage years, when nothing else would do. Beyond this, I wasn’t much for sports games, though I could clean up on Tecmo Bowl and Excitebike if I absolutely had to do so. I remember cheering out loud when I finally kicked Mike Tyson’s ass on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!—it had taken a year of hard practice, and being pummeled by the likes of Super Macho Man and Soda Popinski.
At school, we traded for NES games like candy bars: “No way I’m giving up Double Dragon for two weeks for that lame-ass Uncle Fester’s Quest, unless you throw in Legend of Zelda 2, man!” “Oooh, that’s hard. What about Fester’s and Super Mario Bros. 2.” “Is that the one where the Princess can fly? Okay, deal.”
It’s romantic to say that I loved Legos, and it’s true. But I would have slept with my Nintendo on my pillow every night, like a teddy bear, if I could have.
For the most part, I gravitated toward role-playing games—which were just then making the way west from Japan—such as Wizardry and Dragon Warrior, which were so long and complex that they came with (faulty) memory packs in the cartridges, and for which I needed graph paper to make maps.
The other games of choice, my true favorites, were side-scrolling adventure games. These 2D games didn’t try to replicate depth of field as did later PC games such as Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, and Quake, and they certainly weren’t as violent. Sure, you bowled with turtle shells and stomped on cute furry things that nevertheless meant you harm. The primary purpose, instead of killing or simply finishing a level, was to explore. Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, in particular, held so many hidden nuggets—secret corners, power-ups, oddities, shortcuts—that players often kept playing them, even after we’d beaten them, just because there was so much to find. Yeah, it was cool to rescue the Princess and all, but a true point of pride was to know the nooks and crannies that even Nintendo Power (yes, I subscribed to the monthly fan magazine; I wasn’t alone, either) hadn’t uncovered. These games has guidebooks that you could buy at the local bookstore.
As the 8-bit cartridge technology improved, you could save a game in progress, instead of starting over from scratch each time you slid in the cartridge. For this reason alone, The Legend of Zelda was legendary. It was also revolutionary in that you could backtrack, going over terrain that you’d already traversed—something that, for instance, could not be done in the original Super Mario Bros.—and finding that the things you had changed in an environment (a bombed-out hole in the cliffside, a lake turned to sand) remained changed. Metroid—perhaps the best combination of action, exploration, and graphic design ever made for the system—went further. Not only could you scroll from left to right and back again, you went up and down, too. Metroid’s world was huge and immersive in four directions; other side-scrollers, even the more graphically superior R-Type for the TurboGraphix System, seemed small in comparison. Space-age scrollers such as the Mega Man games rocked my world.
Side-scrollers, at their best, mixed knuckle-whitening action with exploratory relish and a splash of pure whimsy. The Super Mario games were full of mushrooms and plants that gave you magical powers, backgrounds that seemed like a psychedelic Japanese man’s idea (untested by reality) of Hawaii, and creatures that would have been oppressively cute if they weren’t also menacing. Castlevania dealt with gothic ghouls and monsters, but the vampire realm felt oddly benign—you wanted to be there. Side-scroller game designers invested so much of themselves into building these nutty worlds—as gamers, we owed it to these kind men (and they were mostly men) to traipse through their elaborate fictions until we could walk through them as comfortably as we walked through our own neighborhoods.
After all, these virtual neighborhoods didn’t have real barking dogs, or bullies around the corner. Exploration didn’t have real risk, unlike walking around in the real world.
Now, I did get outside. I was physically active. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me spend eight hours at a time maxing out on video games—in fact, they’d generally cut me off after an hour or two. That made Nintendo time all the sweeter.
After high school ended, in 1995, video games got less sweet. 8-bit side-scrollers, no matter how fantastical or hardboiled, felt essentially sweet and innocent. This, in part, was a limitation of the graphics. As 16-bit systems were introduced, and PC technology evolved, graphics and sound could get closer to reality. The primary colors and simple design of shooters like 1941 or the trippy submarine game Sqoon were replaced by subtler earth tones, textures, shadows, and sound effects that were realistic rather than tinny. Automobile simulation games, which sought to emulate the technical sophistication of real airplanes and cars, were concerned more with the gamer’s ability to keep track of onscreen numbers and stats than with the ability to improvise a cool, physically improbable move. More detailed graphics meant, mostly, more detailed depictions of carnage. Oh, and the role-playing games? More breasts, their bounce and glistening of skin delicately rendered by souped-up graphics engines. As processors got faster, the side-scroller lost out to first-person shooters; no longer would you see the character you were playing onscreen. The gunfire emulates more accurately the trajectory of real bullets, right down to wind resistance. As the games became more complex, so did the controllers. My Nintendo games had two buttons, a four-way directional pad, a button for pausing, and a button for selecting options. The Xbox 360’s controller looks like you need a manual to operate it.
Within all this advance, there are still plenty of open-ended exploratory games. Nintendo remains the standard bearer. Super Mario 64 took the psychedelic world and journey-based nature of the older games in the series, and successfully transplanted them into a three-dimensional world. The Zelda games are still based on finding out how the world works, instead of just bending it (or breaking it) to your will. But even the great Grand Theft Auto games depend on alarmingly realistic depictions of splashy, nihilistic violence.
I suppose I could have gotten used to the new controllers—hell, even I nearly beat Quake and Tomb Raider. And I’m not pushing for a return to the gaming dark ages of Atari. Still, I retreated into Lucasfilm’s adventure games: the Monkey Island games, the Indiana Jones games, Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist. I went big for text-only Infocom games that were old hat before my time.
Honestly, though, I miss 8-bit side-scrollers. I like the limitations imposed upon a designer by not having three-dimensionality available. With 2D, a designer has to create a captivating world with a limited, forced perspective. Graphics can’t be used (entirely) to suck you in—the world being traversed must be engaging on its own terms. You must feel able to dive deep into the game world, even though there’s no physical depth present.
Well, I missed them, anyway. It turns out that the side-scrolling community has continued right under my bulbous nose. Programmers design them as tests for themselves, and release them for free online. Intrepid designers—i.e., teenage boys with lots of free time—have written software that emulates my beloved NES. More significantly, new side-scrollers are being created for home computers. Many of them are free.
The best that I’ve played recently are products of Nifflas’ Games. The controls are uncomplicated—only the directional keys on the keyboard, and a button or two are used—but allow for supple, intuitive gameplay. The games—Knytt, Knytt Stories, and Within A Deep Forest—feature simple graphics combined with wonderful music and evocative sound design. The whispers of wind blowing through tree leaves, the surge of a waterfall on rocks, and the character’s clip-clop clambering up and down rock faces… it’s all rendered beautifully.
The mix—thoroughly realistic sound design with graphics that are only two steps up from stick figures—is mesmerizing. Nifflas designs backgrounds with subtle shades and layers but that nevertheless so simple that they’re almost abstract. We’re drawn in by the simplicity—instead of being so detailed that we make distinctions between Knytt’s world and our own, it’s so basic that we identify this world with our own. We fill in the gap between reality and ultra-reality. We hear the world of our offices and neighborhoods, rendered fully, but we see something so rudimentary that we have to imagine the intricacies.
It works because the worlds created are worth seeking out, and treasuring. Neither of the Knytt games are particularly challenging—in fact, the first of the series gives the gamer too much help—but each step opens up a new scene that we want to step into. Some of the animals here can harm you, but most are present for atmosphere—a girl wistfully dangling her legs off a cliff, a boy lying on the ground, looking up at the sky; a bizarre animal rooting in the soil for food; a bug drifting through the air. The music is technopop but with unexpected blips and echoes. The terrain, in all directions, invites wandering. Colors, while solid, are rich. You feel like you’ve entered one of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley Sunday strips, but with more right angles and straight lines. The world is modern—that careful sound design!—but veers back to the 1980s with every step.
Nifflas’ Games is worth the trip. (I’m not alone in thinking so—the designer has a fansite.) Let’s hope the site has more journeys in store for us.