Saving the Same Princess Since 1985
1. You Can’t Make This Sit Up
When I was a kid, I had a speech impediment.
Any word beginning with “Sh” befuddled my tongue, and came out with a big wet S sound. So my friend Shane at the time, yeah, I called the kid Sane. Shame was same, show was so, shoot was soooot. I didn’t shush my little brother when he was crying, I sussssssed him.
I stayed after school for a few months—which probably seemed like years—making the shhhhhhh sound with a nun. She had a million sh-words listed on sheets in my blue paper folder, which I was to tuck in my backpack so I could practice at home.
I don’t remember practicing at home.
I remember playing wiffle ball in the backyard, and swimming in one of those blue plastic kid pools with rainbows and lions and tigers and bears painted on it. I remember the shed (said) near the neighbor’s lawn, where I started and never finished (finissed) a rock collection. I remember helping my dad strip the paint off a wall before we put up wallpaper. I remember playing Coleco Vision.
I remember one day in particular, sitting there next to my dad, watching him play Donkey Kong. The little red-overalled guy I’d later know as Mario jumping over barrels, wielding hammers, and—as would continue into the next millennium—trying to save a princess. A few aunts and uncles and perhaps my grandparents were visiting, eyeing this colorful and noisy nonsense with casual curiosity. Very close to the top ladder below the princess—he looked close enough to touch her pink dress—Dad hit the jump button and the little carpenter leapt too late over a barrel. Jumpman jerked, spun and fell to his demise.
“Awwww, SIT!” I yelled.
Dad looked astonished and pissed. Mom opened her mouth—to laugh or to shriek in horror I could not tell—and covered it with her hand. I was ordered to my room and banned from Coleco for a week. I remember my relatives looking confused, not realizing it was my first publicly verbalized curse word.
“He knows what he said,” I think Dad told them.
I sat in my room wanting to play Donkey Kong.
“Sit,” I think I thought. “Bullsit.”
2. Glory Days
I grew up on old books, old movies, old sports, and old board games. Even Coleco, when we had it in 1985, was defunct. Dad had played Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, and Frogger at various drinking establishments in Pennsylvania, and he seemed to take pride in being pretty good at them. These old-school video games took a quick session to learn and a lifetime to master.
It was about patience: in Ms. Pac Man, it’s advantageous to wait in the corner for all the ghosts to come near you before eating the big pellet and making said ghosts dark blue and edible. In Frogger, you have to know when to jump, when to wait, when to dodge, and you have to remain fairly calm throughout or you’ll mess up. The hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, and Jedi-like focus required to excel in these games is uncanny. And when you use up your last life, that’s it, you’re dead. And you paid for lots of deaths with lots of quarters.
Now—in 2011—there are Achievements and Trophies. Microsoft in its addictive-enabling ingenuity created a system for its XBOX 360 gamers: developers now program games to have Achievements for reaching certain feats, or besting some boss, or, in the case of Assassin’s Creed II, for putting the disc in the tray and hitting start.
Every Achievement you earn adds to your profile’s Gamerscore, and you can compare with friends, view your points for each game and think back to all the work you put in.
It’s wonderful. It’s a system that has filled me with childhood joy. Trying to get Achievements has become a game in and of itself, and when you get them, you do, most of the time, feel genuinely rewarded. Indeed, some Achievements require the same level of intense focus, patience, and courage under pressure as those storied 8-bit epics. Few things are better than working through a whole game on its hardest mode and hearing and seeing the Achievement notification onscreen.
But wait a minute.
When I beat Shadow of the Colossus, nothing came up onscreen telling me I was awesome.
I was given no points, no stars, no stickers. Nobody knew of my glory and triumph except me, and that was fine. It was an achievement, and I knew it without having to have Sony or Microsoft tell me so.
But when The Last Guardian comes out sometime hopefully next year, I’ll be sure to earn Trophies—Sony’s late-to-the-game reward system for Playstation 3—with each battle or twist in the story. And I’ll crave them, too. But why?
The quest for more Achievements and Trophies has prevented me from finishing old games from the last generation. I have yet to complete the fantastic Metal Gear Solid series. I have a PS2 collecting dust near my TV. I have Metal Gear Solid 3—considered one of the best games ever—just resting on top of a pile of classic PS2 games. (I try to avoid Snake’s disapproving eyes). Why don’t I go back to finish them? I could blame work, life, or look at my high-definition TV and say it’s hard to go back to those more-pixelated times. But those are all lame excuses. And honestly, it’s more because I have other games to finish on the current generation, and those games have…Achievements.
How sad. Microsoft has turned me—and perhaps an entire generation—into an instant gratification whore.
It’s helped inspire an entire movement. Achievements or similar awards or buttons or stickers or pins are seen everywhere now: Facebook games and mobile games have swarmed the market, all containing addictive, comparable reward systems. The younger generation—the one that grew up more with GameCube and PS2—at least knows they’re probably being catered to by a focus group. The youngest generation—the ones who are currently twelve and have had an iPhone for five years and are level 89 in CityVille and Club Penguin Zen Masters—these kids might just be clueless. They get the grinding side of gaming, perhaps—though they’re paying too much for it, as “free” social games steal your pocket for features and benefits that used to come with fully released titles—but they might not understand the private satisfaction that comes with personal glory. They’ve always gotten a sticker for doing something good—or even for just trying in some cases. You know what I got for beating Super Mario World? Yelled at. Do your damned homework, they told me.
3. All Good Things Must Come To An End
Our Frogger broke.
I don’t know if the ROM disk just got too dusty, or if the Coleco was just in its last flickering days of life, but Frogger wouldn’t play. I was devastated.
It had to be 1986. Reagan was president. The Soviet Union was still basically an enemy, and Tom Cruise was keeping up foreign relations.
I remember asking for a new Frogger.
I remember begging for a new Frogger.
I had to learn that you can’t just replace things on a whim. That things cost money. That money was earned over time. That I had to wait.
Keep in mind, it wasn’t like I had dunked the Frogger cartridge in the toilet, or taken a hammer to it just to see what would happen, or thrown it at the window after getting my frog run over by a little red truck. Nope, it wasn’t even my fault: it just died, like so many dusty old cartridges of the eighties. We tried cleaning it, blowing in it, praying a bit—nothing worked. The circuitry was bad. The electrodes were down. The synapse between cartridge and televised bliss was too big a gap. Even knowing that it wasn’t my fault, my parents weren’t budging on the issue of just getting me a new one right away.
Nowadays, when a kid snaps a Nintendo DS in half, just for fun, too many parents fork over a hundred or two hundred bucks replacing it. If they don’t, parents suffer the slings and arrows of a tormented rapscallion who didn’t get his or her way.
Lost a game on the bus? Get me a new one, and parents do. Left the game at a friend’s house and the friend “lost” it on a camping trip? Get me a new one, and parents do. It isn’t just in-game achievements kids are used to getting handed with ease. They’re also handed impatience disguised as niceness, laziness masked as protection.
Most parents, put simply, are gutless. Thankfully, mine were not.
After what seemed like a decade of saving dimes and quarters, I remember being in a KB Toys, picking out a Frogger cartridge from under a glass case. My dad patted me on the head—I knew he was certainly happy to be able to play again too. We got it home and played for awhile before I fell peaceably asleep.
Two weeks later, the Coleco died.
Can I get a new Coleco?