My friend and colleague Brian Taylor visited Chicago over the weekend, and I tell you, I barely got to drag him all over town the way I’d planned. In another life we might’ve gone to Three Aces, Grange Hall Burger Bar, and all the other places the foodies have not yet discovered and ruined. We did visit Myopic, but there wasn’t time enough to go around the corner to Quimby’s. (We did hit up the Paramount Room, even though I warned the burgers aren’t as good as advertised, and then my hamburger was ridiculously delicious, and then I felt foolish in a really nice way.)
Mr. Taylor and I went directly from the airport to Videogames Then & Now, which is this fantastic store out in Norridge. If you are ever in Chicago, do yourself a favor, rent a Zipcar, and make the drive.
We ought to have recorded ourselves talking in there, because we were hilarious. As a matter of fact, the gentleman behind the counter thanked us for being such lively loiterers, and I admitted to him that ordinarily I am very in-and-out of that store, all business. This time I was excitable, even a little bit twerpy; I’ve seldom had so much fun in public.
BT and I spent a long time among the stacks of NES cartridges. We are both great fans of the MacVenture games and their NES ports, and I found Shadowgate pretty easily. Brian wanted his own copy of Déjà Vu, and I located that pretty nimbly, too. I also snatched up the NES Gyruss—that “tube shooter” is only the greatest arcade machine ever—while Brian, who is even more into hardboiled crime fiction than I could ever aspire, picked up a bizarre little game called Nightshade. I hope he decides to write about it.
BT nearly convinced me to buy NBA Jam for Game Boy; I’d googled game footage on my iPhone right there in the store, and we marveled at what a full game experience was packed onto that tiny cart. (He could not convince me to even consider this abomination, no matter how he tried.)
In the Xbox 360 aisle I began raving about Prey, which I remembered as short, strange, brain-bending, and unironically racist. Used copies were priced to move at just $8, and soon enough I had talked both of us into snagging copies. (BT would find his chance to make good headway through Prey the next day, because I took like two hours to get ready for the concert.)
We also sat down with an old issue of Nintendo Power and basically copy-edited it. We flipped through multiple “how to beat” and “cheat codes” books, too, a couple of which were authored by Jeff Rovin.
“The cover of this book reminds me of—did you ever see that Unauthorized Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book?” I asked Brian.
“I had it!” BT said. “In fact, I think it may have also been written by Jeff Rovin.” (ATTN BRIAN: it sure was!)
Of course I soon began shouting about the perfect invention that is the Nyko Perfect Shot, which is a gun-shaped saddle for the Wii remote. My favorite FPSes are “on rails,” I love light guns, and as something of a former arcade rat I very fervently believe—and I am plagiarizing Margaret Robinson when I say this—“touching hardware matters.”
Now I lamented in-store that I have only one Wii light-gun game (“It’s Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles,” I told Brian, “and I loved co-op because it stopped Nik and me from arguing, for once”). Brian laughed, then assured me that House of the Dead: Overkill would be worth my while.
Then, immediately after we left the game store—and this is the probably most ridiculous part—we popped a U’ey and drove back to a GameStop to look for Dead Space: Extraction.
Back at the ranch, I demanded that BT look at some of my favorite Atari 2600 games. Most of these are really beautiful ports of fuller arcade experiences.
Someday I will write about the thousand iterations of Gyruss—I’m a little horrified by the NES reinvention, actually—but I do believe the 2600 port is the most jaw-dropping of all of them. Seriously, this music is incredible:
I also showed him Berzerk; 2009 was kind of a dark year for me, I explained, so every day after work I’d come home and sit on the floor and play it. It is so spare, so austere. “I don’t think of it as a port,” I told him. “I really think of this as the true version of the game.”
Instead of treating the game as a fast-paced shooter, I make Berzerk into this slow, contemplative thing, where I patiently wait behind electrified walls until the robots destroy themselves. It has never occurred to me to play it any differently, and now I was blurting “I think I’m playing this wrong,” and BT was saying, “I think you are!”
I play videogames on an eight-year-old HD cathode television, and when it finally burns out or breaks, I will probably pay through the nose to have it repaired. This decision has something to do with my affection for light-gun games, which sometimes rely on scan lines, but it has everything else to do with the Atari 2600. Professor Ian Bogost has made much of the value of phosphorescent bleeding, and in a game like Berzerk the walls really do burn blue in the eeriest way. (Here is its original arcade incarnation; note how luminous the walls’ glow.) I explained all this to Brian because I was suddenly embarrassed about my television set.
I also showed BT Solaris (“Like, the Tarkovsky film?” “NO”) and Space Shuttle, which was a gift from Kevin. BT was especially smitten with that game, because—and I did a terrible job of demonstrating this without the game’s reference sheet—the 2600’s six switches are meant to represent the shuttle’s control panel. The game itself is a meticulous procedural.
The Video Game Critic deftly explains:
In addition to the normal joystick controls, Space Shuttle uses all of the console buttons to control things like primary/secondary engines, cargo doors, and landing gear. The manual is a thick, 30-page booklet containing procedures, diagrams, and charts. A quick reference sheet is also included, and there’s even a template to place over your console switches! The screen displays the instrument panel and a view out of the windshield.
BT started talking about what a novel thing it is, to have the hardware itself become such an integral part of the game experience, and I responded with some weird anecdote about a magical game I had played in childhood, but anyway I agreed with Brian. Then we talked about how emulation always fails in some way anyway, but in this case it fails spectacularly.
Brian played Shadowgate for awhile, and then I started playing the NES version of Uninvited. I began to panic as my character was gradually overcome by the forces of evil, shouting that I didn’t realize the NES version had a “time limit.” I shut the console off. (Now I discover that the NES version doesn’t have a time limit—it’s much more insidious than that. I am carrying a single item in my inventory that is A) useless, and B) slowly killing me.)
We were completely stunned. “It’s prog rock!” I shouted. “Fantasy psychedelia! Wizards and mushrooms!” (I’m not actually ‘into’ progressive rock, although I inexplicably become furious whenever I discover someone does not love Electric Light Orchestra.)
And although Solstice is 8-bit, we could absolutely hear what musician Tim Follin was getting at. “Can you hear it?” Brian asked me. “Like a tin whistle?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I agreed. “And this guy is like way into lutes.” Incidentally, with thirty seconds’ research, I located this photo of Follin holding a mandolin, which I figure is close enough.
I regret not knowing about this visionary sooner, as he’s already retired. But I was pleased to discover that Frank Cifaldi interviewed Follin in 2005.
In the end it is probably all right that Brian and I didn’t record ourselves saying or playing anything, because it would’ve gone on for hours and hours.