Formative Years: Goldeneye 64

If I were to pick a single moment in time when I was most excited about video games, it would have to be around the launch of the Nintendo 64. There was something about the introduction of 3D gaming and being 9 that had me unbelievable stoked for the console. When I finally got my grubby hands on the thing on Christmas of 1996, I was beside myself. Despite following the library of launch titles extensively through EGM (once the greatest publication known to man), there was no way to fully prepare for how different things were going to be.

I still vividly remember hauling the console to my grandparent’s house (where we go for Christmas dinner every year) so that I could continue playing Mario 64 in their bedroom. That game deserves its own post; to this day, it may have the best designed gameplay ever found in gaming.

Not to mention being synonymous with Christmas.

It was during the summer of the following year that I was given a copy of Goldeneye. Although I had played FPS’s before, like Doom and Hexen, this one was different. First, it wasn’t set in some sort of sci-fi alternate reality like most other FPS’s at the time. Second, it was based directly off of a James Bond film, which is more than enough for any elementary school aged boy. Finally, and most importantly, it offered a full blown 4-player multiplayer mode.

Chills.

At this point in my life, I was constantly hanging out with friends. At my Mom’s house, there was always someone from school coming over to hang out. At my Dad’s house, I had two good friends and 4 cousin-in-laws that were around all the time. It quickly became a Friday and Saturday night ritual to hole up in my room with the lot of them, surrounded by snacks, and stay up the entire night playing. Whenever there were more than 4 players, the lowest scoring player had to give up the controller. No Oddjob. There was just something about learning the nuances of each level, finding a favorite gun and a favorite character, and blasting the hell out of your closest friends. Online gaming, while great, isn’t the same experience.

Nowadays, people always seem to throw in an obligatory line about how dated Goldeneye feels whenever they mention it. This always gives me the overwhelming urge to smack them upside the head. The game is 14 years old, of course it’s going to be rougher around the edges than games with over a decade’s worth of improved technology; however, calling it “terribly dated” makes it sound like it’s unplayable these days, which is simply not true.

The thing about Goldeneye is that almost anyone born during the 80’s was at the prime age for that type of game when it launched. Whether someone was a Nintendo or Sony fanboy, literally everyone played the game as a kid. Now that I think of it, that’s what makes the Nintendo 64 such a great console for me. Everyone that I went to high school and college with were at the perfect age for that generation of consoles; they were old enough to have a console, but no one had grown out of gaming yet. It’s why every band practice ended with Bomberman 64, or Wayne Gretzky’s Hockey, or Goldeneye. As I was saying, I really can’t accept that Goldeneye feels overly dated, because it was the one game that we could always pull out during college and be guaranteed to have a blast with.

Although I’m a pretty avid gamer, I’ve come to find that in retrospect, there was only ever one or two games that I was really into at a given time. Whether it was a few months, a year, or longer, these games capture a slice of my mindset at different points throughout my life. For Goldeneye, it was that point of my life when I was just starting to feel independent enough to stay up late into the night, but was still extremely close to a fairly large group of people. It was a blip of time when life was devoid of stress and pressure. A time when happiness was a chocolate cake and a RCP90 in the Complex. And let’s be honest, that will NEVER feel dated.

TAKE THAT ADULT LIFE

Formative Years: Kings Quest 6

(Note: I’ve done my best to come up with 5 or 6 categories  that I can fit most posts into. This will be the first one, “Formative Years”, which will focus on games, experiences, etc. that have contributed to who I am today. If all goes well, it will be similar, but not congruent to, the “Gaming Made Me” series over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun or the “Memory Card” series at Destructoid.)

The late 80’s was an interesting time to be born as a future gamer. It is my understanding that at that point in time, gaming was just beginning to move past the niche market for good, especially with the release of the NES. At the same time, gaming was not the established mega industry that it is today. I feel privileged to have grown up just early enough to have vivid memories of the first games I played, while knowing that these experiences were somewhat unique. In other words, people will probably always remember some of the first games they played, but for the younger crowd, playing COD, Halo, and Madden for the first time will be experiences shared with a much broader audience when compared to the smaller gaming crowd that existed when I entered the scene.

The very first game I can remember playing was a text-based adventure in the very early 90’s. I was probably only 5 or 6 at the time, had poor reading skills, and therefore played the game with my mom. All that I really remember is that I had just gotten teeth pulled, I was drinking a milkshake, and that it was set in Dracula’s castle. Since I can’t remember much else, probably because I’ve mentally blocked out the game and the horrible nightmares it caused, it would make a poor subject for my first “Formative Years” entry. For that reason, this entry will be about the 2nd and/or 3rd game I ever remember playing.
I can’t remember if I played Kings Quest 6 before I played 5, or if I played 5 first, but 6th entry in the series  is the one that left the biggest impression on me. Kings Quest 5 is also one of my all time favorite games, but I replay 6 every single summer, without fail, year in and year out. Regardless of the order, Kings Quest 6 may singlehandedly be responsible for my lifelong enjoyment of video games

So it begins.

The game, simply put, is a masterpiece. Maybe I’m blinded by nostalgia, but the whole thing seems to stand the test of time exceedingly well. With the exception of the pixelated character models, which is to be expected, the game’s beauty transcends time. The landscapes and objects are all distinct and beautifully crafted;  the type of thing that I would gladly hang on my wall in lieu of “actual” art. As a matter of fact, I think my next project may involve getting a few printed on canvas. Pictures to follow.

Furthermore, the game’s soundtrack crammed about as much detail, emotion, and general sense of atmosphere into a few MIDI’s than most modern titles fit onto their 7.1 tracks (DICE and Bethesda games excluded; damn can they bring the sound and the music). Given the nature of early adventure games, where players encounter a single, mostly static screen at a time, the folks at Sierra managed to create a beautifully fused atmosphere by giving each screen its own music, rather than a continuous score undercutting the entire experience. Seriously, go and play the game. Try to tell me that the environments and tunes aren’t made for each other. You can’t, because they were.

Of course, the game would be nothing without great puzzles and a solid story. To me, this is what sets KQ6 apart from the newer wave of adventure games, mostly being released by Telltale. Granted, the old adventure games had it a little easier, with the benefit of being the first on the scene. Obviously, as a genre accumulates titles, it becomes harder and harder to break new ground. Nevertheless, Kings Quest 6 really got my goat in two ways.
First, it managed to weave a bunch of extremely familiar fairy tale threads into a single, surprisingly realized world. The most blatant example is the side story involving the Beauty and the Beast, but the entire plot is rife with familiar-yet-refreshing things that are so deeply embedded in our cultural conscious that it can be hard to figure out where we know it from.

Secondly, the puzzles in the game are nice and subtle. I will take this time to expound a bit upon subtlety in modern gaming. It doesn’t exist. Now, it should be noted that while subtlety in KQ6 often relates to frustrating difficulty (the type where you get near the end of the game and are forced into a game over for not having something that was easily missed 5 minutes into the game), difficulty and subtlety are not interchangeable. For example, Demon Souls is a wonderful example of a game that is difficult, but not by virtue of its subtlety. It is difficult in that it asks you to carefully plan and react to something of which you have no preexisting knowledge. In other words, regardless of skill, it will beat you down and force you to innovate. It is for this reason that I love that game so much.

KQ6 handles difficulty a little differently. It hides important things out of the way and allows you to use some items in multiple situations. Sometimes it gives you things that you only need if you play through the game in a given way (and if you’re like me, it will bug the hell out of you until you figure out why you have it). Naturally, a good deal of frustration comes along with this model of gameplay. I’m fortunate to have played the game when I was young and enthusiastic, because if I played it for the first time now, there’s is a good chance that I would have quit out of frustration after being forced to start over the first few times. Still, if you can get yourself to carry on with the game, it forces you into an enhanced state of awareness, where you want to compulsively explore every beautifully detailed nook of the game. At first, the compulsion is out of fear, but as the game goes on, it becomes a sort of adventurous second nature: a desire to find the game’s secrets.

This is all helped along by the fact that the game featured multiple endings decades before it became commonplace. Sure, you could cross dress to get into the castle, but if you explored and were innovative enough, you would open up hours of extra gameplay through several entirely new environments. To me, this sure as hell beats the “multiple endings” of some games these days, where you are  either begrudgingly called a hero (if you were an asshole) or overwhelmingly praised as a savior (if you were boring as hell) by the same character at the ending of the same scenario with the same overall outcome.

Spoiler Alert.

I’ve also always liked how KQ6 managed to take what is essentially a clichéd love story and turned it into something new and exciting. It didn’t rely on any crazy plot twists and you could basically tell from the outset who was evil and who the good eggs were. What made it so damn intriguing is that it took a tired premise, trying to reacquaint the hero with a lost/forbidden love, but then threw so many interesting characters and zany hurdles in your way that you were never quite sure what would happen next. By the time you reach the game’s conclusion, you are given a sense that you’ve completed an epic adventure and earned every bit of your victory.

At the end of the day, I chose KQ6 for my first FY entry for one reason: gaming is one of my biggest hobbies and much of what I look for in games was introduced to me by Sierra’s masterpiece. To this day, I fancy games that have a healthy dose of difficulty, a true sense of adventure, a vibrant world, and an epic scale. I’ve already picked a few games that will eventually pop up in future FY’s, solely based on the impact that they had on my perception of gaming and the sheer enjoyment I’ve gained from them. Not to ruin the surprise, but they include Shenmue, Morrowind, and Operation Flashpoint, games that unsurprisingly fulfill most of the criteria that I spontaneously made up based on my reflections of my first true gaming experience. I had better pick up an ergonomic keyboard, because if each of them gets their own post as wordy as this one, I’m in for some serious Carpal Tunnel. Happy Hobbying!