Here is a story of a lifelong friendship, of trials and tribulations, of long separations and joyous reunifications, of love, hate, lasting devotion, sublime ecstasy and seething rage. Mostly though, this is an age-old tale of a boy and his scrolling playfields, 512 color palette, and six-channel stereo sound…
I became a video gamer at a very young age playing Atari 2600 on the old wood grain console. I still remember the hours spent with my dad playing Pitfall 2, Jr. Pac-Man with my mom, or Video Poker with my Grandfather (I’ll win back that allowance money yet Grandpa!). I remember the constant Indy 500 challenges from my best friend Tony. I spent a lot of time in the video game aisle at Toy’s R Us or Kay Bee browsing the selection. I was even going to swap meets to see what bargain rarities I could find.
Ten years later I was an avid gamer. I had a newer Atari 2600 and a 7800 with at least a hundred games. Little did I know that something new was on the horizon. You see, Tony had an NES. We would have frequent sleep-overs playing whatever we rented at Blockbuster. Whenever he stayed at my place he would constantly make fun of me for still having my Atari. I didn’t mind… well, maybe a little. What I didn’t know was that my whole gaming world was about to change dramatically.
I still remember the first time I saw the original commercial for the Genesis back in ’89. I thought if I could just get a unit with only ONE game, I would show Tony once and for all! I also remember thinking that I would never be able to get one because, alas, we were poor and video game systems were expensive. But the Gaming Gods were about to smile upon me. Less than a month later, a relative stopped by wanting to show me something, but being very secretive about what it was. It turned out that it was a brand new, in-the-box Genesis! He bought it a couple weeks before, played Altered Beast, got tired of it and was now giving it to me.
I still remember the first time I pulled it out of the box. It was very shiny and smelled like fresh plastic. The cables still had tie wraps on them. I knew how to connect everything myself (being a young audio/videophile in training) and did so despite the repeated offerings from my relative to help.
For the next three days, literally every waking moment was spent playing Altered Beast. It was like nothing I’d seen before on my tiny thirteen inch TV (hey I said we were poor!). The graphics, the colors, the sounds – nothing I’d played outside of an arcade could compare. I was completely blown away, which is really saying something considering I was only playing Altered Beast. I studied every frame of animation. I knew exactly when and where the magic balls would appear. I memorized every enemy and boss location. I uncovered every weakness. And since the instructions showed the wrong buttons to continue (darn you Sega!) I got to play every level multiple, multiple times. Days later when I finally awoke from my Genesis coma, I had finished Altered Beast, yet my appetite had just been whetted for 16-bit action.
There have been very few times that I remember being aware that I was having a life defining moment, especially when I was that young. But I knew. I had been playing games for most of my life and never before had I been so wrapped up in one. I looked at my Atari. It looked tired and somehow older from a just a few days earlier. With a twinge of guilt I collected all my games and set the system aside. I still played it from time to time, but it was never quite the same experience.
From that point on for every Christmas, every birthday, any time I had any money given to me for any reason, all I wanted was more Genesis games! I had all the classics: Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, Super Monaco GP, The Revenge of Shinobi. Super Hang On, Ghouls n’ Ghosts, and Zoom. (wait how did that get in there?). I subscribed to Game Players and Sega Visions magazines. I studied all the maps, wrote down secret codes, read with interest all the interviews, previews, latest news and CES coverage, and the single most important thing I read during my high school years (sorry Principal Robertson), the video game reviews! I eagerly learned how to distinguish between smoothly-animated, great sounding, all weekend fun-fests and something that sounded good in the commercial but was really just me wasting $50 (plus an additional $15 for another controller after I threw my last one against the wall BECAUSE I JUST WASTED $50!). Over the next several years nearly all of my free time was spent with a Genesis controller in my hands. I swung swords. I punched, I kicked, I body slammed, I threw shurikens, I blasted alien ships, I leaned into hairpin turns, I battled ghosts, I went on quests, I collected rings, and I made zombies dance!
Like every Middle East peace treaty and Hollywood marriage though, it would not last forever. When I was seventeen, I joined the Navy and my Genesis went into storage. It got pulled out for a gaming session here and there, but most of the next six years was spent in a box while I was touring eastern Asia and the South Pacific. I was stationed in Japan and discovered the awesome wonders of Japanese technology, arcades, and anime. I got a Playstation (which I played on my Glasstron!), with copies of Resident Evil 2, Tomb Raider, and Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and never looked back.
When I was discharged, I started a new kind of life; I had a new car, a PS2, satellite TV, surround sound, and a brand new computer. I pretty much forgot about my Genesis. Alone and neglected in an old box in the back of the closet, I came across her one day while searching for some speaker wire. I thought “what the hell, once more for old time’s sake.” I blew off the dust, plugged in that RF switch, then heard the all too familiar “rise from your grave!” Suddenly, I was thirteen again sitting in my mom’s apartment. A familiar jolt of excitement overcame me as I entered a Sega-induced trance. I remembered where all the zombies were popping up. I remembered exactly which direction that blue wolf was coming from. I knew just where to stand on the first level so the boss couldn’t hit me. Twenty minutes later, as I sat watching the ending credits, another familiar feeling came over me which produced a single thought: “I. Need. More. Genesis. Games!”
And just like that I became a retro gamer.
Of course things had changed somewhat since high school. I now had the financial means to fully support my gaming habit. I soon discovered the back section at every video game store in my city (you know the one). eBay became one of my most visited sites. Every week I bought more games, controllers, and two little add-ons. My game collection more than quadrupled. I finally ditched that old RF switch and got some AV cables! My controllers went wireless. Everything stopped flickering and freezing so much after I got that Official Sega Genesis Cleaning Kit (in its original box with instructions!). I listened proudly after I hooked up those official Sega Speakers. I discovered the subtle nuances in getting a testy old Mod1 Sega CD unit to work. Finally got that pink gun for Lethal Enforcers!
Now it’s 2010, ten years since I left the Navy. I don’t collect as much now that I have a family to support. Tony has long since moved out of state to start his own family. Free time has become a precious commodity to me, leaving me less time to spend in the realm of 16-bit chewy goodness. It is a somewhat bittersweet feeling realizing that my old friend is twenty-one years-old (they grow up so fast!). Old enough to drink and start her young life in human years, but nearly ancient for a piece of electronics. As I look around my house, I realize nothing else that plugs into a wall or runs on batteries is even close to half that age. Taking a closer look at her, I notice the shiny face gave way to scratches on the Sega Genesis logo. There is a bunch of dust on the plastic vents on the side. The volume jack sounds sketchy at best, when it is working at all. The reset button is a little touchy too. However, no matter how much I abused and neglected her over the years, her red LED still shines bright.
Staring at her now a flood of electronic memories come rushing back to me. The all night RPG fests. Hearing “challenge!” from Tony when he picked up SFII, Mortal Kombat, or Lakers vs. Celtics. That rush of adrenaline the first time I plugged in a new game. Feeling like a nervous father pacing outside the delivery room BOTH times I had to send her in for repairs (years before I learned the ways of the electron and the soldering iron). The extreme guilt whenever I picked up a thrown controller off the ground. The pride I felt when I attached my new Sega CD and then my 32X. Hours upon hours of Road Rash or Zombies Ate My Neighbors with my wife, who is also an avid gamer.
In closing, I have to disclose the whole reason I took this trip down memory lane in the first plane and wrote this article. It was a seemingly insignificant event that took place a couple of weeks ago. As I was researching (read: playing a game in order to write a review for this site) I watched as my two-year-old son picked up a three-button controller, stared at the screen and started pushing buttons. He didn’t know that it was set to a one player game, never mind that his controller wasn’t even plugged in; he still looked at the screen expectantly. He dared to glance away only for a moment to look at me and say, “play huh-gain da-dee!” then it was right back to the screen. That was when I saw an all too familiar gleam in his young eyes. I smirked as I realized the cycle was just starting again…