My Personal History with Electronic Games: N of N

Previously on Game Restart: [it’s a series]


Because of the Wavebird, games which were released for every platform of that generation wound up being purchased just for the GameCube. Wireless was a pretty big deal, especially since the new CRT television didn’t require me to sit so close to the display in order to play. Besides, then you get to use the Wavebird.

The PlayStation controller is not bad. It was far worse before the Nintendo 64 controller made the scene though, when it lacked analog sticks. But those sticks make all of the difference. It’s a good, solid controller. The PS3 doesn’t change the formula much, and from what I can gather, neither does the PS4. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it is a valid approach.

But the GameCube controller is the best controller—and unfortunately the high water mark for all console controllers of its type. Look at the buttons. Affordance is built right into it. The X and Y buttons are bean shaped, but in different ways, and they feel different under the thumb. The A and B buttons are not only differently colored, they’re differently sized. This combination is unbeatable. Opinions may differ, but unless they agree that visual and tactile affordance are important, those opinions are objectively wrong.

My infatuation with the GameCube only increased, and I hadn’t even gotten to the best games. I started to wonder what I’d been missing in ignoring a titan in the electronic games industry.

The first purchase was a used Nintendo 64, one of the purple “Funtastic” colors probably inspired by Ive’s approach to Apple’s industrial design (being unafraid of bare metal, I found this really appealing). I didn’t have any other examples of such (fixated as I was on SGI gear at the time), but the purple appealed to me as a loud reference to the N64's provenance: the Onyx’s Reality Engine2. I purchased a number of cartridges for the system (sorry, game paks), and this included the first game in the Rogue Squadron series. Fortunately, my N64 came with the additional RAMBUS RAM for the best visual case the console had to offer.

About here is when I noticed how much more powerful the N64 was over the PlayStation. The N64 was a more capable console in virtually every respect, save one, and that was game capacity. But, given that my finite downtime wasn’t going to permit me to play every game for every console (and, frankly, the reality is that you can load a disc up with prerendered cutscenes and still wind up with a short game), this wasn’t that much of a concern. Oddworld told me it was LOADING SO GET OVER IT, so I adopted a similar posture towards the game cartridge itself: it was a valid approach to data packaging to have it load obscenely quickly and without any moving parts. So your cutscenes are rendered in realtime—fine by me. I would be all over it.

And in the long term, cartridges would prove more durable than optical media. The differences in cost were negligible to me, since I was buying everything secondhand anyway, and though the price of being an early adopter is nothing to be sneezed at—it is a choice. Also, being a consumer, the expense difference in production was likewise not much relevant.

I explored a used Nintendo Entertainment System and a few carts, and the SNES followed shortly thereafter. My forays into each of these was pretty perfunctory, I must admit. I didn’t think to ask enough questions, no doubt @halfassedtenacity would have helped with recommendations for either.

As a result, I think I missed out. All three used systems were traded or sold for access to a board game (regrettably) and some pocket money when my wife I traveled to England for a vacation conference on paleontology in 2009 (a necessity I do not regret). I regretted the N64 loss the most, and even the SNES a bit, but I don’t much miss the NES.

I had no nostalgia for any of these games on these systems, and it was harder for me to perceive—back then—their cultural value and the design lessons they could have afforded me now. As an 8-bit system, the NES is possibly most comparable to the Commodore 64, though of course the C64 had advantages over the NES, in that it was programmable, and more ubiquitous. Then, too, is the reality that I find the SNES/NES controllers more cumbersome to use than the N64's own controller. I freely admit this point is purely personal: I prefer a stick to a d-pad.

That being said, the GameBoy Advance (indigo, again, for reasons) became my first legitimately portable game console. I bought Tetris Worlds for it, and a disappointing Spyro game, Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and that was it. The console’s utility actually really shined when used in conjunction with GameCube games. (The Nintendo DS logically followed follow-up, but I didn’t acquire a New 2DS XL until late last year.)

While this was going on, Nintendo apparently had decided to get me into one of their franchises. Luigi’s Mansion was charming enough, but I didn’t know much about Mario games at all. This lack of grounding mitigated my interest somewhat, but more on this some other time, perhaps.

In spite of my poverty and lack of physical coordination, Dragon’s Lair was compelling to me growing up. I’ve always been interested in animation, and this early (if abortive) attempt to marry games and the style and appeal of hand-drawn animation feels absolutely natural. Pixel based output can be made, in a very real sense, to resemble hand-drawn characters (which they always were to begin with, really). 

The advent of 3D imaging and art included a quest to produce decent-looking cel shaders. While I loved the photorealistic take of Myst and Riven, these examples differed from realtime examples in one major respect: Myst and Riven actually aged very well. Quake and friends…maybe not so much—especially on consoles. Most contemporary examples of realtime 3D offered murky dark and dreary environments to play in, whereas Riven (admittedly prerendered), was in bright sunlight. Also, not to get too involved in this, Myst and Riven’s aesthetic drives the alienation and discomfort of the player in unfamiliar surroundings, and photorealism is a good way to evoke this—the resulting unfamiliarity with the setting can enhance the player’s attention to important details. But that’s a design rabbit hole for another time. Moving on.

Cartoons are appealing and a natural match for systems limited in their ability to recreate realism.

So, Zelda. There’s a lot I’ve left to learn and play in this particular franchise, but my first iteration was the GameCube version of Ocarina of Time, which runs under emulation. I acquired it by the first—and only—preorder for a game at Toys-R-Us, a few months after picking up the GameCube itself. The kiosk was there, and I was there, and I thought to myself, why not, just for a bit and five minutes later the next thing I know is I’m preordering a god damn cartoon that you can play, the first successful one ever so fas as I knew at the time. 

Saturday morning suddenly had a dynamic camera. And better writing.

Wind Waker arrived a couple of months later. I stopped playing OoT, because, I had no nostalgia for the game and the graphics are that much less appealing. Competing with Wind Waker meant I would choose Wind Waker and I’m kind of not sorry for preferring such a gorgeous looking game. If Nintendo wanted me to play Ocarina of Time more, they should have made Wind Waker look less pretty and be less compelling, so, their fault, really.

I must admit I didn’t understand some of the louder fan reactions to Wind Waker’s look. But gamers are often a cowardly and superstitious lot, and can overreact and take offense to changes that are actually pretty awesome. I, like millions of others, paid them no mind.

With Myst and Riven, the genre of the Scott gets to explore islands game was born, and Wind Waker had in me a firm fan—one completely new to the franchise. Adventure games had never been better.

After all of this, I have to admit, I skipped the Wii.  Not because of a lack of interest or an illogical dismissal of motion-control (which is absolutely marvelous and gamers who can’t see that are missing out), but because my time isn’t always my own, and it and its successor, had to fall by the wayside for a while.

I was able to return in time for the Switch. That—and the sole game we have for it—must wait for another time and with that, that basically brings this exercise to a current state. Next I’ll be revisiting the “console wars” of the 90s, and how I not only wasn’t involved in the slightest, it probably mattered less than everyone seems to think. (Or maybe it did, and I've yet to make up my mind on it.)

One thing’s for sure. There was no good reason to call it a war.

—N of line.