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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Dangerous Manual For Gamers

Welcome back. This week we'll be delving into something more substantive than who I am and why I'm blogging here; though I expect I failed to answer both questions spectacularly last week.

This week we'll be delving into how to properly raise a gamer. I draw my inspiration from The Dangerous Book For Boys and the Daring Book For Girls, two tomes that address some practical education that is sorely lacking for our nation's youth. They are well worth checking out if you have kids, or were a kid in the days before they added a fourth letter to Tag.

As a father who will face sharing my penchant for blowing up things in a digitally simulated fantasy world, I think it's important for the young gamer to understand his or her roots. See, when I was a lad, we didn't have games like Bioshock or Infamous. First Person Shooters didn't really come along until I was in high school, and the term "sandbox" still referred to those square things in playgrounds that cats liked to poop in.

As for epic storytelling, you had two choices: Read a book, or play a graphical text adventure. It wasn't until the late 1980s that the first Final Fantasy came out, along with the Sierra graphical text adventures and the venerable Lucasarts games.

Today the options for gaming are wide open. You've got your First Person Shooters, you've got your Third Person Shooters, you've got your point-and-click adventures, you've got your 2D platformers, you've got your 3D platformers. Heck, you've even got 4D platformers if you can take a little pompous self congratulation and pretension. You can play games that let you choose how the game ends, you can play games with multiple paths to the same end, you can even play games that don't have an end. You can play alone, play with a friend, or play with a stranger who will call you cheap because you know how to use the sniper rifle-- and you don't even have to be in the same room. You have games that use buttons, and ones that just know where you're standing and what you're doing with your arms.

Yessir, gaming has changed since I was a lad. There are no longer video arcades in every mall, where gawky teenagers lay their quarters down for a turn to get completely dominated by the seven year old spamming Hadokens. Todays youth will likely never see a pinball machine outside of a highway rest stop. Nor will todays youth understand why Strider had to be so freaking hard (Answer: You used to have to pay someone for all those continues you're using).

So, how do we make sure todays kids appreciate all they've got when it comes to gaming? Fear not, for I have compiled (dun da da Dun dun Dun DUUUUNNNNN!) a list! A list of games that the new gamer should play before he or she starts playing all the new hotness that's currently out there.

Why? Because if your first experience with a First Person Shooter is Halo, then you can hardly call yourself a gamer. Bioshock is a great game, but unless you've seen what came before, you can't really understand why it's so great.

So, in no particular order, let's examine a list of gaming essentials:

1) Pac Man. Yes, it's trite. But you know what? Trite is just Right with a T in front of it. At least it is if your hearing this read to you, and not reading it. But G-d gave us homonyms for a reason, and we use them here, mister!

Anyway, Pac Man is really the jumping off point. Oh, I'm sure I'll take some heat for not starting with Pong, but for that core single-player experience you can't beat Pac Man.

Pac Man gave us the arbitrary objective that nobody in his right mind would care about, but you still do. Because that little pie chart looking dude is hungry, gosh darn it, and we're going to eat that cherry if it costs us a million dollars in quarters!

Pac Man had a pattern, and if you're going to hold your own against todays boss fights, you need to understand patterns. Pac Man also taught us to conserve our resources. You get four power pellets per level. Four. You can't go back to the shop and buy more, or send your invisible robot buddy to fetch you extra lives. Once those power pellets are gone, it's just you and the invincible mob of rainbow ghosts.

To be a true gamer, you have to learn to respect and fear Pinky.

2) Bullet Hell. Okay, so that's not a game so much as a genre. But if you're going to play shooters, you have to go through bullet hell. Space Invaders, Galaga, Galaxian, Centipede, Millipede, Missile Command, Contra-- these are where you must cut your teeth. Back in the old days, we didn't have fancy buttons to slow down time and make dodging our enemies easier. We had to be sharp, we needed to have reflexes, we needed to know how to lead a target. And most importantly, we needed to have understanding parents who would give us lots of quarters, because the first lesson you learn in Bullet Hell is that death comes easy. You don't have to play all of the bullet hell games-- but I'd say pick two or three just to get an appreciation for the fact that gaming requires skill.

3) Wolfenstein 3D. So, you want to move on to First Person Shooters (hereafter FPSs)? Then you need to meet Grandpa. This was back in the days before the WASD-Mouse combination for controlling an FPS character-- we had to use the arrow keys, and we were thankful for it. We didn't have fancy 3d graphics. We didn't have the Havoc engine. Heck, we didn't even have stairs. It was just us, a selection of basic weapons, and rooms full of nazis that died exactly the same way and left exactly the same blood-soaked corpse no matter which way we were facing. We did, however, have the most bad-arsed flamethrower ever conceived. That sucker had some range on it.

Once you've bested MechaHitler, you can move on to...

4) Doom. But not that newfangled 3D, monsters-jump-out-of-storage-lockers Doom. I'm talking old school, 2D sprite-based pink demons. We still couldn't tilt our heads up, but we could shoot at bad guys who were upstairs from us. We also had a chainsaw, and if we had the stamina we could earn the BFG. Booyah.

And once you've defeated enough of Id's iconic evil horde from hell (there are somthing like 99 levels), you may then play...

5) Half Life Every other FPS from Doom to here was just trying to be this. This was the first FPS with a story that didn't take the player out of the world for any reason. From the tram ride in the beginning to the bouncy-bounce room at the end, you were Gordon Freeman. Even the health powerups and ammunition pickups were revolutionary for the time. For the first time in an FPS rather than being glowing orbs floating at eye level above the ground with the word "HEALTH" or "AMMO" scrawled on them, they just looked like medical equipment and bullets. Not only that, but the powerups were located in logical places. No more could you expect to find a +100 health pack stuffed in a nook in the air ducts. Nope, they were in medical labs, in barracks, and perhaps located near dead people who didn't get a chance to use them.

Half Life: This stuff just got real.

Going backward in the wayback machine, we'll look at platformers. And if you're going to look at platformers, you need to get to know...

6) Mario.. It's hard to describe exactly how much influence Mario has had on gamers. He started out rescuing a babe in a red coctail dress (Her name, incidentally, is Pauline) from a giant gorilla using only his wits and the occasional mechanical hammer. No matter how many times we saved her she always got caught by that gorilla again, and the gorilla would just get stronger. That might explain why Mario dumped her for Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Brothers.

These days Mario is in everything-- driving games, sports games, fighting games, and of course platformers. We'll be limiting our discussion of Mario to platformers in this section. If you're going to understand where platformers came from, you need to follow Mario's arc from the beginning. So lay your hands on the one-button controller of Donkey Kong. This is the essence of platforming: running, jumping, climbing, and dodging.

Then came Mario Brothers-- note the absence of the word "Super." This was a co-op one-screen platformer where Mario and his brother Luigi had a run in with proto-goombas. Don't try to butt-stomp them, though. In the original Mario Brothers, you had to knock them on their heads by hitting the ground they walked on from underneath with your head.

After that came Super Mario Brothers, which featured the magic growth and fireball mushrooms that you could eat to become more powerful. This game also introduced the warp-zone, which you could get to if you jumped places you didn't think you could go. It also restored the Donkey Kong tradition of rescuing women from hulking beasts that like to throw things at you over and over and over, until either you break or the game does.

Then came the sequels, which refined 2D platforming. And then we had Mario 64, which took platforming 3D while miraculously not wrecking the franchise.

There is no single Mario game that you can play to really get a feel for how far platformers have come. Every Mario Platformer is good in its own way, so you'll just have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Donkey Kong awaits, and from there you can play Mario Brothers, then Super Mario Brothers. Super Mario 2 and 3 are useful to see how 2D platforming evolved into SuperMarioWorld, which is the gold standard as far as this gamer is concerned.

I recommend at least trying every Mario platformer, 2D and 3D, with the possible exception of Super Mario Sunshine, which I personally hated. Mario knows why.

7) Final Fantasy. So let's shift gears a bit and address RPGs. Or, at least, JRPGs which stands for Japanese RPG. I know a lot of people don't like JRPGs, but they are an influential genre. You shouldn't let anyone tell you whether to like it, you should experience the amnesia for yourself. And that starts with Final Fantasy. All of the elements of a true JRPG are in Square's iconic first entry into the Final Fantasy series. Random Battles, turn based combat, level grinding, party management, air-ships, and, of course, the dot-dot-dot school of emoting. You get to pick your party in this one, but I recommend against going with all white mages. If you do, prepare to fall down a lot and die.

8) The Legend of Zelda. I'll admit I never played a Zelda game all the way through. It's not a type of game that appeals to me. The Action RPG (or ARPG, which is the noise I generally make trying to play one) in the Zelda style offers neither enough action nor enough RPG to suit me. But The Missus loves Zelda, and I have to live with her. Plus, I would be entirely remiss to fail to mention such an influential title. If you're going to play action RPGs, Zelda is the place to start, and you have to start at the beginning. Because the beginning is where the start is. They're like synonyms and everything.

9) Fallout. If we're going to talk about JRPGs and ARPGs, you can bet your sweet bippy we'll be talking about regular RPGs (which, ironically, are NOT called RRPGS, though they sometimes are called WRPGs, which stands for Wregular RPG). And if you want to know what RPGs are about, you have to experience the isometric, postapocalyptic world of the original Fallout. Fallout is not a long game, unless you want it to be. It's also not a hard game, unless you make it one. You roll your character completely blind the first time you play, make choices that actually influence the way the game plays out, and you can befriend a dog who will fight and die for you and ask nothing more than an iguana on a stick.

It's not the first regular computer RPG ever, and I'm sure I'll take some flack for not including Ultima (which I exclude not out of disdain, but because I've never played it and won't recommend a game I haven't played), but it's a very influential title, and if you're going to play the Bethesda incarnation you should wrap you brain around the original to appreciate what came before. Plus, the Fallout3 doesn't let you target the crotch to make people explode with the power sledge.

10) Starcraft. So, you want to play Real Time Strategy, eh? You think you're hardcore because you've heard of Sins of a Solar Empire? You think your victories in Red Alert 3 make you ba'ad, or phat, or whatever formerly denigrating term has been converted to a superlative by besneakered rapscallions?

Well until you've experienced the Zerg Rush, you need to back that truck up. Starcraft is the RTS so iconic that it took them over 10 years to make a sequel that might possibly surpass it. The only thing that's been in development longer is Duke Nukem Forever, if you can call that development.

That's right. I made a DNF joke. It's that kind of site.

You can look to Warcraft too, a bit, but Starcraft actually features character races that are significantly different from each other, rather than just green humans with pig farms.

11) C-C-C-C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER. Fighting games get their own segment, like Mario and Bullet Hell, because there really isn't one good fighting game that captures the essence fighting game experience.

You could, of course, start at the beginning and play the original Street Fighter. But then you'd be convinced that old games suck, and this is contrary to the purpose of this article. So you'll have to start with Street Fighter 2. Capcom's perennial favorite is the grand-daddy of one-on-one, 2D sprite based fighting. Before they started spamming sequels with random combinations of the words ultra, hyper, super, mega, tournament, championship and edition, we were spamming hadoukens with Ryu and Sonic Booms with Guile. Games like Street Fighter 2 are the main reason why any arcades at all remain open, aside from crummy cheap broken claw machines and crummy cheap rigged games that claim to let you win a Sony PSP if you can hit the buttons at the right time (yeah, right. I'm sure that game is totally possible to win.) Street Fighter 2 might feel a little slow for those of you who think doing a fireball (down, down and toward, toward) and pressing all six attack buttons is an acceptable way to win a match, but this is where it all started.

Street Fighter 2 also brought us the first female fighting game characters in Chun Li and Cammy, thus inspiring a whole generation of perverts at deviantart.

Of course, if you insist on being avante garde you can play SNKs contribution to the fighting game scene, since King of Fighters came out only 4 years after Street Fighter 2, but my understanding is that you have to pick one or the other, because being good at SF2 precludes understanding what the heck is going on with the controls in KOF, and vice versa.

KOF also brought us Mai Shiranui, who had the benefit of satisfying rule 34 (which you must NEVER google if you value your sanity or-- if you're reading this at work-- your job) of the internet without the intervention of the internet.

Of course, there's more to fighting games that just spritely fireballs and inappropriately dressed women. Fighting games went three dimensional in the early 1990s. If you're first exposure to 3D fighting games is Dead or Alive's contribution to, ahem, physics engines, then you need to go back to your roots and see how far fighting games have come. Virtua Fighter featured a deep move set, colorful characters, and a physics model that meant if player 1 jumped then player 2 had time to make a sandwich and eat it before player 1 got close enough to punch out of the air.

Fighting game snots will tell you not to bother with Tekken. But fighting games snots think that counting frames of animation and timing button presses to them is normal human behavior, so they can be safely discounted as people who take things entirely too seriously for their own good.

12) Final Fight. This is a game that was shamelessly cribbed from and ripped off throughout my entire childhood in arcades, and it provided the seeds from which games like God of War sprang. The Beat-Em-Up. Two buttons (attack and jump) and hitting them both together would cost you health and clear a room. It was also hard as heck, because you paid cash money for continues and Capcom wasn't running a charity.

The Final Fight formula capitalized on by lots of intellectual property holders (X-men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, Alien Versus Predator) and all of them were their own flavor of awesome. (I have a special place in my heart for the AVP one) but to truly appreciate the beat-em-up genre, you really have to start with Final Fight.

You will receive extra credit points for sampling Bad Dudes. If you're bad enough to save the President, have a cheeseburger!

And though it's not a classic game, you should really lay your hands on a copy of God Hand on the PS2. Now there was a game.

And there you have it, new gamers. I'm sure I missed some genres (flight sims, combat flight sims, driving games, turn-based strategy, adventure games, MMORPGs) and I'm sure to have alienated some readers by excluding their own favorite classics (Xcom, Civilizations, Full Throttle) but there is a very good reason for that: I haven't played enough of the classics in those genres to have a good recommendation.

Perhaps if there is enough interest in this article-- which is already mightly overlong (anyone making "that's what she said" jokes will have to live with the fact that he's the sort of person who makes "that's what she said" jokes. You've been duly warned)-- and I get some interesting emails on the subject, then I'll write a part 2. For now, I'll leave you with this.

Happy Wednesday, me buckos. Next week: Should you be worried that the characters on your cereal boxes will murder you with an axe? Find out next Wednesday here at Free Toy Inside.