Video Games I Have Loved, and That Have Loved Me Back:
Part Three

by Michael Channing

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (NES)

Romance of the Three Kingdoms box art When my mom moved my brother and me to Clarksville to escape my dad, I left behind everyone I knew. My loner tendencies kicked in full-force, and I would often shut my door all weekend and barely speak to anyone. I made little attempt to find friends, so Mom tried to find friends for me. She talked with the neighbors upstairs, found out they played paintball and Dungeons and Dragons, and tried to get us together. It was awkward, a sixteen-year old trying to steer a conversation with two married adults towards D&D, but somehow we hit it off. Tony became my best friend, something of a big brother, really, because he talked with me about girls, sex, family issues. He was my glimpse into what adulthood might look like, and I was his way of holding on to his youth. But mostly, we each saw the other as a pal to hang out with. We did indeed play paintball and D&D, as well as some other RPGs and board games. We also bowled, watched movies, dreamed dreams of owning an arcade, and we played lots and lots of video games.

Tony introduced me to the Koei line of war games for the Nintendo. Koei makes some great games, in particular the Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchise. You play as a warlord in feudal China, battling other masters to claim land, recruit generals, and control the country. I don't think Tony and I ever actually finished a game. After playing a long time, one of us would make a dumb mistake, and an AI warlord would bash through our defenses, cutting our territories in half. So it would be correct to say I sucked at the game. But it was fun to build armies, attack the enemy, surround their generals, drive them from their castles with fire. You could bribe disloyal generals away from other warlords, which brought a heavy sense of accomplishment.

I hate the idea of war. I watched helicopters from the 101st fly overhead as the first Iraq war began and wondered how many of those men--some only a few years older than me--would make it back alive, how many would come back haunted. But a fake war is a blast. And I fought it with my best friend, late nights and weekends, sharing sodas and pizza, aware that my youth was short and adulthood was looming. But at the time, it seemed possible to live in both worlds.

Messiah (Windows)

Messiah box art Tony had a friend named Bob. They bowled in a league together. Bob, as it turned out, also played board games and RGPs and video games. So naturally Bob and I became friends, too. We put hours of playtime into card games, board games, ping pong, video games. One day while shopping at Babbage's (what Game Stop used to be before it became a pawnshop), we stumbled upon a game called Messiah. The slightly profane title caught the eyes of us two skeptics, so we read the back of the box and knew we had to have this game. I felt weird asking my friend to essentially buy a game for me, so I offered to split the cost. Bob agreed, and we made our purchase.

Messiah is a game the likes of which I've not seen since. It's a third-person shooter where you take the role of Bob. (The name choice was a nice bonus for us.) Bob is an angel, very much like the Cupid you see on Valentines, with a chubby baby's body and tiny wings. Bob is sent to Earth to cleanse it of sin. It's a future populated by warring police and gangs of rebels, hapless workers, sultry streetwalkers, genetically mutated giants, and rats, all of which you can possess and become during the game. Bob does this by sneaking up on someone and leaping between their shoulder blades. He slips into their bodies and gains control of them. He can then pass himself off as a police officer to enter their headquarters or sneak through water pipes in the body of a rat. The game often uses doors to mask the passage from one area to another and pauses as the door opens and the new area loads into memory. Bob and I laughed out loud when we came to an automatic door in the middle of a pipe and the rat had to activate it to open.

The best weapon of the game is definitely the nail gun. It whisks its target across the room and literally nails them to the wall. When it hits you, it rips your host body away and leaves Bob the tiny cherub hovering in mid-air.

The game won us over with one level in particular. In a central location, there is a complicated lock that you need to open in order to get into the next section. The lock will open if a water tank is filled to a certain level. Turns out blood will do in the place of water, so your task is to possess and then sacrifice bodies into a giant shredder to fill the tank up with blood. Gruesome, yes, but we thought it was cool. Weird minds think alike.

You know the most enduring thing about this memory? When we bought the game, I didn't have enough cash on me to cover my half. Bob never asked me to pay him back.

Tapper (arcade)

Tapper arcade game This one may seem strange, based on all the other games I've written about in this series. There are no quests to go on, no levels to gain or artifacts to collect, no weapons, no puzzles, no dungeons, just screen after screen of the same reflex-oriented game play. You play as a bartender serving beer (or root beer depending on which version you find) to customers as they approach the end of several very long, old-timey wood-and-brass-style bars. If a customer reaches the end of the bar without getting a drink, he attacks you and slides you face-first down your own bar in the manner of old western movies. So you have to pour beers and slide them to your customers fast enough to keep them happy. You also have to chase after empty glasses before they hit the floor and shatter. Game play is just a joystick and a big, realistic-looking beer tap. You pull back on the tap to pour a beer, release to serve. It's a reflex game, sure and simple. But it's the memory that makes the game special for me.

I was on a church group skating trip. There was a girl in our group that I sort of fancied. I heard through the grapevine that she thought I, too, was cute. So I avoided contact with her by playing ten dollars worth of Tapper in the arcade. When my money ran out, and I couldn't luck into any quarters left behind in the coin returns of any other games, I had to actually skate. She was there, and we skated next to each other for a few rounds. Then we held hands. Then our skate wheels collided, and we flopped to the floor. A dozen other people stumbled over us, someone rolled over her hair, I got kicked in the knee, then we all sat and waited for the church van to pick us up.

I loved playing Tapper.

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Dragon Warrior NES box art I've written about the third Dragon Warrior in the second part of this series, how fun it was to level up the character and progress from wooden weapons and cloth armor to steel plate and vorpal blade, to slowly build your skills and defeat stronger and stronger monsters as you roam the ever-widening countryside in search of wrongs to right and dragons to war with. It was a beautiful escape. Years later, my love for this franchise led me to a life-changing discovery.

My first year of college, lonely and lost, overwhelmed by classwork and the building pressure to make lasting and frightening decisions that would impact the rest of my life, I wandered into one of the computer labs and started reminiscing about my youth. I longed for my basement room, for my friends, for video games, so I decided to take a sweet trip down Nostalgia Lane on this new thing called the Internet. I Alta Vista-ed Dragon Warrior. I found screen shots, forums about how great the game was (glad to see others agreed with me), weapon and armor guides, a list of spells, a monster manual. All the reasons I loved the game came flooding back, as did the feelings of freedom and folly that are solely the realm of children.

There were also puzzling statements I kept running into. Here and there folks sounded as if they had downloaded the game. Downloaded? You can't download a Nintendo cartridge. But through some process that seems more magic than science, you can port a cartridge into a type of data file called a ROM. You can then play that ROM with a program (what they used to call apps in the wild west days of the world wide web) called an emulator. When I Sherlocked my way onto a web site that held a digital collection of every single NES game ever made, I must have looked like a starving pioneer stumbling into a super market for the first time. Every game? For free? Is this even legal? Turns out it's not. But if the internet is good at anything, it's well skilled at getting a man to bend his morals. I stole thousands of dollars of games and burned them to a CD. I marveled at that miracle: I held every NES game in my hand at once. Most of them were crap. But I owned them all.

Of course I played all the Dragon Warrior games again, and Zelda and Final Fantasy. I also played all the games I couldn't afford as a kid. I relived the best parts of my childhood and marked off some items on the bucket list I started when I was twelve. I even bought a Super Nintendo controller retro-fitted with a USB plug. When I was a kid, Nintendo was one of my escape hatches out of the crumbling family situation I was locked into. Here it was again easily accessible, relatively free of charge. I've been playing these games over and over throughout my life, and they've been good to me every time. Breakup? Job frustration? Unfulfilled dreams? Nintendo took me to a place where none of that could touch me. It makes me happy to know that kids will have access to those games for as long as the internet exists and Nintendo turns a blind eye to wobbly morals.

Oblivion (Windows)

Oblivion box art I started playing Oblivion close to eight years ago. I've restarted it a few times, switching character classes, and as the years went by my reasons for playing have also changed. At first, I simply wanted the experience of finishing it. Though I came close, I never did complete the main plot. After a life shakeup, I focused more on the side quests. This game is jam packed with them, everything from retrieving a lost sword, to exorcising a ghost, to solving a theft. Finishing the quests gave me the illusion of being useful in a world where I barely fit in. When I found that you could buy and decorate houses in the game, I concentrated all my playtime and in-game money to outfitting my virtual abode with the finest furnishings. I stocked my ingredient pantry and filled my trophy closet with all manner of magical weapons and armor. My real life was in disarray, but my game life was purposeful and fulfilling.

As a married man, I used the game to relax. The last time I restarted, I vowed not to use fast travel, which meant any time I wanted to go anywhere, I had to go the entire way on foot or horseback. Traveling from one corner of the map to another transverses hundreds of virtual miles and can take up to twenty minutes of real time. This itself became my reason to fire up the game. It was a pleasure to watch forests give way to fields, which soon became covered in snow. Day darkened to night, and constellations appeared. I stopped to watch the river flow, stood atop waterfalls and mountains to gaze at the beautiful electronic scenery. Back on Earth, I had chores and a job. There was shopping to do, floors to vacuum, a lawn to mow. But for a few minutes at a time, I was a free tourist in a magic kingdom. I could explore the underground, scale cliffs, dive for treasure, stroll through waving fields of grass. The actual quests and encounters became secondary to simply exploring the environment. It was Zen-like to wander aimlessly through forests, over bridges, and up icy mountains. A calm washed over me. When I closed down the game, I was ready once more to tackle the tasks of the everyday.

As a father, my game time is nearly zero. If I do have any moments to myself, I either read or write. But I still cast back to Oblivion, to the rolling hills and rushing rivers, to the sprawling cities and country villages, the goblin nests and abandoned fortresses. I visit them in my mind as a way of clearing my head. It helps to remember a time when I could take my time and there was an entire world I could travel. Now I rush from work to the store to home, tiptoe from task to task in the dark as the baby sleeps. Remember that time I ran through a field for fifteen minutes? That was a great day.

All is Full of Love

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing