Video Games I Have Loved and That Have Loved Me Back

by Michael Channing

Ultima: Exodus for the NES

Ultima: Exodus NES art This is my favorite video game memory. Joe, Craig, and I were at Joe's house for the weekend, playing Nintendo. Ultima: Exodus was the first RPG I'd ever seen, and I was in love with the whole experience. The character selection, upping the stats, choosing the right equipment, learning spells, talking with NPCs. We took turns playing, handing over the controller whenever we managed to kill off the whole party, which was often. Only when the sun came up did we realize how long we'd been playing. This was also my first time ever staying up that late. It was liberating. I had thrown off the shackles of adult control. I had broken through to the other side. Then we spoke to a character in a village, who said, "It's too late to be playing Ultima. You should be in bed." It was a throwaway joke that could have surfaced at any time. But to our sleep-deprived brains, it was meant just for us. We quickly saved, turned off the game, and went to bed.

Zork I for the TRS-80 Color Computer

Zork I box art Zork was once a powerful name. Now as you try to explain text-based adventure games, the blank stares of those who grew up using a mouse will leave you disheartened. There's no graphics? What kind of game is that? Well, my jaded little dumpling, it's a fantastic game. When the troll swings his massive axe at your head, the beast conjured by your imagination is much scarier than any vector rendering created by a committee of artists could ever be. I spent hours playing Zork and hours away from my CoCo thinking about Zork. I drew and redrew maps. I took the game to Joe's house, and we beat our collective brains against the devilish, though mostly logical, puzzles. Some days were successful simply because I discovered one more room or earned ten more points. The Internet was still a gleam in some engineer's eye, so the only hints I had came from a peculiar book I bought about adventure games. The book gave hints to Zork and other Infocom games in code. I had to break the code--I am not making this up--then translate each hint one at a time. Not only did it help me solve some difficult games and call upon the cryptology skills I learned from "The Gold Bug," it also had a section on creating text adventures on your own. Playing Zork led me to writing and programing a game myself. I never created a finished game, but the experience taught me a lot about programming. I still want to write an adventure game. There are some amazing tools available for free with which you can make games quickly and easily. But I've found that devising a plot and filling it with rational, diegetic puzzles is no simple task.

Doom II for PC

Doom 2 box art Yeah, I know, Half-life is a better franchise. But Doom II will always own a special place in my heart because of how I was introduced to it. I was in college, having a particularly stressful day. I had a paper due, and my dad had started calling regularly, pretending to be suicidal. I was frayed. My friend from across the hall knocked and asked how I was doing. I told him I was ready to unravel. "I got just what you need," he said and sat me down at his desk, turned on his computer, and fired up Doom II. "Go on, kill something," he said. "You'll feel better." And I did. As I channeled my rage into blasting away at zombies and demons and spider-legged giant brains, my tension evaporated. Even today, when I'm frustrated and panicky, I say to myself, "I need to kill some zombies." Even if I don't get the chance to unload on the computerized undead, the thought alone is enough to calm me.

Dungeons of Daggorath for the TRS-80 Color Computer

Dungeons of Daggorath for the CoCo This game was made strictly for the Color Computer, so chances are you've never heard of it. It was a first-person, two-color dungeon crawl. Stone giants, blobs, scorpions, and the Evil Wizard were all represented by static line drawings that moved about the maze levels and attacked you, though they always stopped first to pick up the items you dropped, a character flaw any player worth his salt was sure to take advantage of. What lifted the game above the average were two things. First, the sound was better than any game available for the CoCo at the time. Each monster had a unique call, and as they approached or retreated, the sound level would change. The stone giant's roar would echo and fade down the hallway. The chittering of an unseen scorpion sent me spinning in a panic. This kind of dramatic soundscape is common now, but back then it was cutting edge. But the game's greatest innovation was the heartbeat. At the bottom of the screen was an icon of a heart, and it beat regularly. But every step you took, every time you swung a sword, every time you were hit or bitten, your heart would pump a little faster. Too much exertion, and you passed out helpless on the floor.

But even this super-cool feature was not the real reason I loved this game. When I got my CoCo, my mom and dad would both watch over my shoulder as I showed off a new program I'd written. The same with this game. It's one of the last memories I have of them being together. There were already problems between them, and my dad was already on his downward slide. But they watched as I mastered the game over several months. Were they there when I finally defeated the Wizard? I don't remember. Maybe they joined in celebration and patted me on the back and filled the house with a joyful noise. I'd like that.

The Legend of Zelda for the NES

The Legend of Zelda NES box art The best video game ever. There had never been anything like it. It was the first game in which you could save your progress. Game play was non-linear. Even the cartridge was a unique gold color. Other games gave you a single weapon (Space Invaders' canon or Pac-Man's power pellets), and your opponents differed only by color or arbitrary shape. But Zelda outfitted you with an arsenal to use against a gallery of monsters, many of which had unique defenses or forms of attack. And after you beat the final boss, there was A SECOND, DIFFERENT QUEST! You got two games for the price of one. Joe and I played hours of Zelda, trying to ferret out every hidden room. Playing it now reminds me of good friends, of simpler times, of slow evenings after school and long weekends with no responsibility. I can play the game anytime, but I will never have that life again.

Baldur's Gate II for PC

Baldur's Gate 2 box art The whole Baldur's Gate experience was a revelation. A twisting story line that unfolded gradually. Amazing graphics, sound effects, and voice acting. Dungeons and Dragons-style character creation and advancement. Branching subplots with multiple outcomes. There was even the option to play online with friends, which we tried, but I had dial-up at the time and kept losing connection. It evoked the feeling of playing D&D around the table, eating pizza and shooting the breeze. From the very beginning, Baldur's Gate got it right.

The second installment was pretty much more of the same. Several of the NPCs from the first reappeared (Minsc was an instant favorite, so I was glad to see him back in the mix), game play was identical, the backdrops were still beautifully rendered. A few things were tweaked, such as the map and the addition of a quest log. And it's the quest log that, for me, makes it a better game. Not the log itself, but the fact that you needed it. The first game had plenty of side quests. But they were spaced apart throughout the main story. Game number two, however, had an entire chunk of the story carved out to make room for subplots. The main story line actually pauses while you are given quest after quest to handle in whatever order you wish. Take all the time you need to fetch a special book or free a captive or find lost children or slay a dragon. The real plot will be right here when you get back. I can't fully explain why I love this part of the game. Maybe it's the pseudo-control it gives me over the fate of my character. Maybe it's the rapid succession of entreaties that I enjoy. It allows me to finish a few adventures quickly. The sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a challenge is what made me love video games in the first place.

Pac-Man was a fun toy, but it never ended. You could never win. Zelda and Super Mario Bros. changed all that. There was finally a goal to work towards and an ending to justify all the hours you dedicated to mastering the game. You felt like a character in the story rather than a machine manipulating buttons and a joystick at maximum efficiency. It's true escape, not just empty motions.

To all the video games I've played over the years, those I've mentioned and those I haven't: thank you for gathering my friends around me; thank you for filling the lonely times with dragons to slay and damsels to un-distress; thank you for taking me out of this world when it only offered heartbreak; thank you for challenging my mind as well as my reflexes; thank you for the 8-bit island and the 5-gig kingdom to rule as my own.

Being a Nerd Is Not Always Easy

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