Video games can often frustrate us, sometimes so much that we launch into temper tantrums in our basements and dance with rage in front of our televisions. Who hasn’t pitched a controller at the nearest wall at least once? All of us have; it’s the main reason Performance and MadCatz stay in business. But although difficult bosses and annoying mazes can drive us to seething anger, when was the last time a game physically hurt you? (Or at least made you extremely uncomfortable?) This is the story of a stupid kid, an awesome game, and a whole lot of pain.
The Genesis 6-Pak was a new acquisition of mine – I’d traded for it with a friend and had been mostly interested in Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. Those were two great games, and we all spent many happy afternoons dishing out justice to hordes of enemies. But brawlers get old after a while, and soon I was looking for something different to fill the hours. Sonic The Hedgehog was nothing new, and Columns seemed stale when compared to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. Super Hang-On was similarly overshadowed by that adrenaline rush in cart form called Road Rash. There was one other game in the compilation, though, some ninja game. I’d never really looked at it.
And I’d been missing out, big time. For the initial few days I was unable to get past the first area due to my bad gaming skills. But that one level was still awesome enough to hold my attention captive. Japanese ninjas and samurai, fighting to the death under the Oriental moonlight! It was so different from anything else I’d seen, and the atmosphere really fired my imagination. Soon I got my hands on a guide from GameFAQs, and behold – my ninja skills increased! The next thing I knew I’d gotten far enough into the game to catch a glimpse of soldiers and machine guns. My assumptions were upended and I knew that I’d found a game that was either brilliant or stupid. I was intrigued either way, and quickly swore to see this game to the finish. The date was set, my parents’ permission to play over my allotted video game time was secured, and a walkthrough was printed out. A twelve-year-old versus the might of Neo Zeed.
Before that, however, there’s a little detail I need to clear up. This all occurred during that strange time of year just between summer and fall when the temperatures start fluctuating drastically. A few days earlier we’d been sweltering under the type of oppressive heat and humidity that only Missouri can crank out, but then everything had abruptly gone Arctic. To a kid who had been bumming around the house in nothing but shorts all summer, this change was hard to embrace. That’s why I trooped down to our basement in Tarzan-like attire despite the frigid temperatures. No shoes, no socks, no shirt, and no furnace either. Did I mention that our basement was fully underground?
But I laughed in the face of it all.
Once I’d set the game on the easiest difficulty level and activated the infinite shuriken cheat, the adventure began. (I was twelve and had mediocre skills, you have to remember. I was also a chicken, but that’s beside the point.) The first few areas were easy for me due to sheer familiarity. All the same, I clearly remember spending a long time at the garbage processing level, repeatedly snagging the 3-UP icon and dying in order to stockpile lives. I didn’t want anything to be left to chance. Ironically enough, it was with this gross act of gaming cowardice that I started to notice the cold.
I was skinny, which meant that there was no real body fat to keep me warm in those heinous temperatures, and like I said, I was dressing like a Tarzan wannabe. Soon I started to shiver, but I wasn’t about to go upstairs to get a sweater – I had exactly two hours to beat this thing, and I didn’t want to waste a second of that precious time. I resolved to tough it out. Hey, this walkthrough was only a couple pages long, after all. How long could it take?
At first the shivering was just an annoyance, but soon it started to affect my ability to play the game. My reflexes slowed and I began to take hits routinely; only with luck and the Ikazuchi magic was I scrape past the baddies. Then what few muscles I had started locking up, just in time for the highway stage. I found that I literally could not move my fingers fast enough to dodge the red sports cars, and between the bottomless pits and the ninja girls I died numerous times. Suddenly, I looked in the top right corner of the screen and saw that the meter had finally dropped from nine to eight lives. Was it really possible that I’d squandered all those lives I’d stockpiled?
My sloppy gaming and outrageous luck continued. Soon I’d reached the latter stages. I’d never seen any of these before, and not knowing what was around next corner made me tense. I only had a few lives left before I’d have to use a credit, so soon I was inching along, twitching with surprise every time a ninja appeared or a soldier fired. When that edginess was compounded with the shivering I started to ache all over, literally. My teeth began to chatter without warning-a violent, headache-inducing chatter. But still I would not yield. If that Japanese ninja with the American name could face death for his true love, I could beat this game without putting a shirt on!
Finally came the infamous Labyrinth-that last stretch before the showdown with the evil master Zeed himself. Dire warnings from the walkthrough popped into my mind: “You must have two magic uses and a POW before fighting Zeed. It’s the only way to beat him and get the good ending!” It was here that the scariest thing that had ever happened to me in my short life occurred: black spots started appearing in front of vision. At first I thought it was some sort of freaky glitch (I was playing on RF, after all), but soon I realized that it wasn’t the game. It was me, and I panicked. I paused the game and began running around our little basement, flapping my arms and jumping up and down. After a few seconds the dots faded and I stopped shivering so much.
My heart was racing when I stepped into Zeed’s lair. I activated Ikazuchi and leapt to my feet, hammering at the attack button wildly and watching frantically as the weight descended on Mushashi’s fair fiancé. But the math was on my side, and after a few desperate moments my hairy opponent bit the dust. I tossed aside my controller, threw up my clenched fists in victory, and stood over my Genesis. I’d beaten the game, and I’d gotten the good ending. The final image of Joe and his girl standing on the starlit hillock was burned into my mind forever.
Then the Sega screen came up again and I was back at the beginning, an hour and fifty-two minutes later. I’d beaten it in under the two hours, and I hadn’t put a shirt on. Sure, it took two cups of hot chocolate to return my body to normal temperature. It had hurt, and I didn’t feel like ever playing Revenge of Shinobi again. But what counted was that I’d defeated Neo Zeed once and for all.
No pain, no gain.