Sunday, November 12, 2017

My Life in Pictures: The Places

Welcome, dear reader, to the first in a two-part feature that I'm calling "My Life in Pictures." What I intend to do here is provide some visual context to the stories and experiences I've detailed over in the "Memory Bank" section; think of this as a companion piece. Specifically, I'm going to share with you images of the places and the people that are most relevant to and most intrinsically linked with my best memories of my history with video games. I say "going to" because this will be an ongoing chronicle, since, as of November of 2017, I haven't yet been able to pool together an adequate-enough collection of old photos (many of those I desire to own are currently in the possession of family members who live in other parts of New York or otherwise out of state).

But since the time is right, and I've been so eager to put this feature together, I've decided to get a jump on things. That is, I'm going to start with what I have and then proceed to add in more imagery over time as it becomes available to me. I hope you don't mind.

So let's get going with part 1 of this feature: "The Places," wherein I'll be providing you a view of the locations that comprised the world in which I grew up and formed a love of video games.

Let's begin with the house in which I lived for the majority of my existence.


There it is: The red-bricked house located at 1157 83rd Street between 11th and 12th Avenue in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. This is place where I made just about all of my life's best memories.

There you see the mile-long staircase that all of our mobily challenged relatives would complain to us about, especially during snowy winters. It's the same staircase up which my friends and I would excitedly run whenever we were in a rush to get to get indoors and play a newly acquired video game.

To the right is the front porch, upon which we'd hang out, play some handball, and generally enjoy being goofy kids. I was always the fastest of the bunch, so the responsibility would fall upon on me to chase down the blue ball whenever it would bounce over the railing and roll down the street. And since the block was sloped--the street constructed at around, say, a 35-degree angle--this usually meant that I'd have to sprint an extra two or three blocks to catch up with it.

Behind the three porch-level windows is the den, which I'll show you in a moment. The three above those belong to my parents' bedroom. And the two at the top dare you to imagine what wonder and mystery lay in the attic resting beyond. In reality, there wasn't much of anything up there. Really, I'd only peeked into it two or three times over the years. The reason: In order to access the attic, you had to place a ladder in one of the second floor's cramped closets and climb up to it. I have no idea why it was designed that way. All I knew was that the process was incredibly uncomfortable and I had little interest in partaking in it.

To the left and right are two separate entrances to the backyard, which wrapped around the back patio to form a C-shaped space. On the left was the barbecue and dining area, while the right side housed an above-ground pool (well, it did until problems with leaking forced my father to remove it). The two sides were connected with by a narrow path that was sandwiched between the patio wall and blanketing foliage (unpruned tree branches plus overgrown plants and shrubbery) that completely obscured your view of the sky; there was always an air of eeriness to that spot, and the feeling of which would only become magnified if it was a dark and cloudy day.

It was a great area. There was tremendous atmosphere to it: It was quiet and peaceful. A lot of the houses were old (we're talking 80-plus years), their presence working to imbue the surrounding environment with a pervasive feeling of nostalgia. And the whole aesthetic was just perfect for a kid like me, who found great value in letting surrounding environs--and even mental images of them--form the backdrop to my art and gaming sessions.

I tell you, man: I really loved that house. I was so sad to learn that the new owners tore it down and replaced it with something more modern-looking. For the longest time, I held on to the dream that I'd one day accumulate enough wealth to buy it back and raise a family there--give them what my parents had given me. Then suddenly all of that was crushed.

"But it's probably for the best," I've since come to think. It's clear to me now that you can't hold onto the past forever. If you do, you just wind up anchored in the same place forever. Life is too short for that. There comes a point when you simply have to move on.

Still, you'll never convince me that the old house didn't have 100-times the character. They'll never make 'em like that again, and that's too bad.


Here's the den (the left side of it, at least) that I've spoken about numerous times in the past. This was my domain--my base of operations. It's where I spent many an hour watching cartoons and old sitcoms on our big-screen TV (located on the room's right side) while working on my art and writing projects. It's also where I stored all of my toys, which were piled into a number of large cardboard boxes. Years later I'd move my gaming systems out from my room and into the den so I could play them on a bigger screen.

The den's was an L-shaped design. It was completed by the little nook that could be found to the left of the rearrangeable couch. Back there was a cabinet stand whose shelves housed my parents' record collection and the record player that my friends and I would routinely mess around with--mainly for the purpose of playing records in slow-mo mode, which would produce hilarious results.

The walls are provided a comforting brand of visual conveyance via their lovingly remembered wood panels, with their brown diagonal strokes. Looking at them, I'm reminded of how superior wood-paneling is to the plastered, blandly monochromatic coating you find on the walls of all houses built after 1995. I miss it dearly.

If you look left of center, you'll see the hanging light fixture that served as the room's main source of illumination. This was the light under which I'd park myself whenever I was playing games the Game Boy or Game Boy Advance games that desperately required its radiance. I spent so many hours in that spot playing Metroid II: Return of Samus while watching TGIF sitcoms.

In the later years, this room became my office. We cleared away all of the toys, replaced the existing couch with a smaller piece, and installed a corner desk in the far-left corner. That's where my first computer went. It's also where my current computer is, since I'm still using that same desk, with the same sofa rocking chair. Both are a little worse for wear these days, but hey--they still get the job done.


If you moved two rooms over, you were here, in the dining room. On any holiday, this was where all of the action was. Many Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts were enjoyed here. If it was New Year's Eve, people were endlessly cycling in and out, family members and friends alike vying for the chance to grab themselves a slice of pizza or their preferred Chinese food item. And when everyone was sick of eating--after everyone was finished stuffing their faces with dessert--my father would break out a deck of cards and get a game going. And for the rest of the night, the room you see before would become the site of the most fun, liveliest Poker games you'd ever see; we'd play every possible variant of it (5-card, 7-card, No Peek, Klondike, Draw, and whatever wacky games my relatives would make up on the spot). Sometimes we'd mix in a few rounds of Pokeno, which offered a wonderfully entertaining combination of Poker and Bingo.

These gatherings meant the world to me. They were a huge part of the reason that I couldn't wait for the holiday season to arrive. I cherish my memories of them.

It's just too bad that it all had to come to an end.



Here's the entrance to the dining room, beyond which is he living room. You can also see the entrance to the den in the background. I hope to find better photos of these locations.

Until then, enjoy looking at those three kids, whoever the hell they are.


This is the basement, which is difficult to accurately depict, since it underwent a number of renovations and remodels over the years. Originally the gray support poles were hidden from sight by the four-sided love seats that were built around them. My brother, James, talked my father into removing them so that he and his friends could use the additional space to set up a pool table. In the back you can see the bar, which survived several remodels but ultimately succumbed to design realities when the basement was transformed into a small apartment in light of the house being placed on the market.

To the left of the photo were a number of cabinets, all of which were ripped out and replaced by the shelves that formed the newly installed entertainment center. My brother placed a TV on the top shelf, and he positioned a coffee table out in front. Thus, this area became the basement's gaming space; all of the consoles were placed on the table for easy access. This was the setup as I described it in my Final Fantasy II and Doom pieces. The general area around the bar's right side was the vantage point from which I first viewed these games.

"Who's the guy holding the pool cue?" you ask. I've got no clue. My brother had hundreds of friends.


Here's the basement's right portion as it came to look a few years later. By then the pool table was gone (my brother and his friends decided to also use it as a Poker table and summarily destroyed it), and an L-shaped couch took its place. Also, the smaller Sony-brand TV that occupied the corner was replaced by a big-screen TV, whose presence helped to cement this side of the room as the basement's new gaming space.


Oh, and here's one of those (poor-quality) pictures I mentioned in my Super Mario Bros. 3 piece. This is one of those that my brother took at 2 or 3 a.m. on the night when I beat the game for the first time. It was a school night, and I couldn't sleep. That's why I wearing pajamas in one of the shots. 

Don't think for a second that you're ever going to see that one.


The dining room's northern exit led into the kitchen, which also featured an L-shaped design. At the time, its appliances were considered "technologically advanced." In the middle-right you can see the pullout toaster, which stopped working after about, oh, five years. In the foreground (not depicted) was an embedded range whose center hatch revealed a flame grill, which our mother forbid us from using, since she hated cleaning it; to the left of the range, and the jutting countertop it overlooked, was a newfangled refrigerator that boasted both water-dispensing and ice-making capabilities! Wow! And you know what's even more incredible?! They both broke within five years! My father never bothered to get any of the appliances fixed; to him, all that mattered was the illusion they created.

Among those you can see are the red counters I've mentioned in a couple of my "Memory Bank" pieces. Directly to the right of the depicted couple (the Catricolas, who you might remember from my Blaster Master piece) is the counter upon which my brother and I play-tested the Nintendo DS and specifically Metroid Prime Hunters.


Around the bend was the far side of the kitchen. The dining portion wasn't originally part of the kitchen; before this area of the house was remodeled, it was a separate room--a ceramic-tiled "playroom" that my brother and I shared. Basically it's where we stored all of our toys. And to answer your question: Yes--this section of the blog is named directly after that playroom. It represents a personal space wherein I can do whatever I please.

The pullout, adjustable TV seen in the upper-right was concealed by cabinet doors, which was an interesting design choice. For guests, it created an air of mystery--made them feel as though they couldn't be sure what was awaiting them whenever they were opening a cabinet or a closet door. They wouldn't know that, say, there was a washing machine and a dryer hiding behind the foldout doors in the foreground.

I'll have plenty of additional pictures to share in the future. I'll be sure to bump this piece to the front page whenever it sees an update.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Blog Update #9 - Phase 1 Complete


Your recommended options for musical accompaniment to this closing-credits piece: Street Fighter II, Donkey Kong Country or Super Mario 64.

Well, here we are: After three and a half years, Phase 1 of the mission has finally been completed. The story of "My History with Video Games" has been told. And while the works highlighted in the "Memory Bank" section represent only a tiny portion of the hundreds of games I've played over the past 35 years, they, a specially formed collective, function to paint an accurate picture of how I became the video-game enthusiast you know today.

Truly it's been a worthwhile endeavor: Being able to share these stories with you has brought me great joy and has allowed me to grow as a person; in the process, I've learned so much more about video-game history, the wealth of experiences waiting to be had, and also myself. In particular, writing about games in this manner has helped me to become better at my craft--particularly when it comes to putting feelings into words, which for the greater part of my life was something with which I struggled. Really, it means the world to me that I can adequately express my feelings to the people who I know will best understand and appreciate them.

I hope you've enjoyed reading them as much as I've enjoyed putting them together.

But now it's time to move on to Phase II, in which I'm going to be focusing more on seeking out new experiences and creating new memories. Oh, but don't fret; there's still going to be plenty of memory-heavy content to come. I'll no doubt have a great deal to say about my respective histories with the games I'll be covering in the Treasure Trove--especially the "Prized Gems," whose grouping is sure to include many of the games that were originally on my "Memory Bank" list but were axed because quite simply I couldn't come up with enough material for them; it's just that there will be less of a focus on forming complex narratives. I'm not saying that the "Memory Bank" section is going to be sealed shut forever; there's always a chance that one day--maybe 5 or 10 years from now--I'll come to the realization that there's a game, series or system that needs to included if the story is to remain truly reflective of my history with the medium. The story is still ongoing, after all.

Also, I'm eventually going to go back and touch up some of the older pieces, some of which I know to be terrible (like Solomon's Key, Maniac Mansion, and those I wrote about during periods when I was feeling tired or unmotivated). None of the changes will be revisionary, of course; rather, mine will be an effort to tweak the formatting, expand upon existing thoughts, add in some more screenshots, and generally improve how the narratives flow.

And that's about it. Now it's time to get the ball rolling on the second phase. I hope that those of you who were drawn to this blog by my "Memory Bank" pieces (your numbers totaling somewhere in the hundreds, which has astonished and delighted me) decide to stick around and join me on this next mission. If not, I understand. For those who will be departing: It was good to have you aboard, even if only for a little while. Thanks for visiting.

It's the weirdest thing, yet it feels so appropriate: It's been so long since I started this blog that I'm actually nostalgic for its earliest days! You know--before I established handcuffing formulas and standards and was creatively unchained. I hope to be getting back to that place in time for the site's second launch.

"So you got anything else besides all of this boring sentimental stuff?" you ask as you clear the crust from your eyes.

Well, um, I think I should mention that my next piece is going to be a little different. It's something I've been waiting to do for a long time. Let's just say that it's intended to add a bit of flavor to the "Memory Bank" pieces.

Also, I'm going to be replacing the name "Modern Marvels" with something more suitable, since the former infers that a game has to be amazing to have any value to me. That's obviously not the case. I'll come up with a new name once my brain starts working again (who knew that sleep was so important?).

Otherwise, I've been playin' a whole lot of games recently. Back in July, I bought myself a new computer, after ten years, and finally got around to activating my Steam account. Since then I've been catching up on some older PC games, most notably Shadowgate (2014 version), Portal and the Apple IIGS versions of Shadowgate, Deja Vu and Uninvited (with a little Commander Keen mixed in). It's all been very enjoyable, and there's a strong chance that I'll be dedicating blog space to all of them in the future.

On the Nintendo side, I've been having a lot of fun bouncing between The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Namco Museum (my time spent mostly with the thought-"impossible" Rolling Thunder, which incredibly I can now beat in one life), League of Evil, Double Dragon IV, Metroid: Samus Returns (about which I provided some early impressions) and Steamworld Dig 2.

Oh, and of course I'm currently playing Super Mario Odyssey, which is everything I hoped it would be. Finally Nintendo is taking Mario to new, wondrous places. And look what happens--look at the excitement it brings to the experience. As I traveled from world to world, the word surreal kept popping into my head. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And I couldn't wait to find out where we were heading next.

The screenshots I've been taking say it all, really (for those of you who haven't yet played the game, be warned that some of these images are potentially spoilerish):


Sometimes you just gotta stop and look.


Forest with a mountain view. I'm in love.


This kingdom made my gaming life. Just amazing atmosphere all around. Also, you can see cars driving on that bridge in the background!


I'm in ... Castlevania?! What you see above is the definition of surreal.

My only disappointment is that they didn't do more with this kingdom.


What a great time to be a fan of video games.

May my upcoming odyssey be just as compelling.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Metal Gear - Slowly Sneakin' Up on Me
How a series I was apt to disregard stealthily infiltrated my world and converted me into a follower.


My relationship with the Metal Gear series is unique in that for the longest time I was an interested observer rather than a player. That's the way it had to be. For me there was no other available path to fandom. Surely I wasn't going to get there via any route that entailed actually playing the games for myself and through my experiences fostering a feeling of fondness for their radically distinct brand of action. No--that wouldn't have worked because my personal interactions with them were usually limited to minutes-long samplings whose tenor could best be described as "head-scratchingly bewildering." I just didn't understand what they were going for.

Still, I found myself drawn to the Metal Gear games--not because of how they played, no, but because of how enamored I was with the complex worlds they crafted and the fascinating ideas they conveyed. And the best part was that I could do this from a safe distance. Thanks to the invention of video-sharing websites like Youtube, I could save myself the frustration and instead comfortably experience the games by watching other people play through them.

Up until recently, that's how I consumed Metal Gear. It was true that I saw great appeal in watching skilled Metal Gear fans stealthily advance their way through intriguingly designed compounds, labyrinths and natural fortifications. More so, I was eager to invest myself in the games' grand narrative: I enjoyed thinking about the overarching storyline, however inconsistent and nonsensical it was becoming, and trying to figure out how it all pieced together. I had fun reading about the characters' histories on Metal Gear Wikis and fan sites.

But the games, themselves, with their seemingly opaque means of progression? They didn't do much for me. I simply didn't like playing them.

Or, at least, I'd convinced myself that I didn't like playing them based on those brief samplings.

Really, it all goes back to the NES days, when I was entirely bereft of adventurous spirit.


Now, you see, the original Metal Gear was one from a core group of games that every NES-owner seemed to have, the standard collection usually consisting of it, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Contra, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, Mega Man 2, Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando and one or two others, with some variance (some owners' collections would round out with, say, Karnov and Commando while for others it was Double Dragon and Blaster Master). Of course, I was the odd man out and for typically ignorant reasons: That is, I was aware of Metal Gear's existence, but I didn't care to look deeper into the subject; what I'd gleaned from magazine ads was enough for me to know that it just wasn't for me.

My thought-process was simple: I didn't need to own another one of those "top-down war-themed" shooters! I already had access to two versions of Commando and the Commodore 64 version of Rambo. And that was the limit of my tolerance for games of their type, which I assumed Metal Gear to be. So I never sought an opportunity to play it, nor did I ever request that a friend or cousin showcase it for me. Seeing Metal Gear in action wasn't necessary; I'd already made up my mind that it wasn't my kind of game.


Eventually I did some research and discovered the true nature of Metal Gear--that it was actually a new kind of stealth-based action game--but still I didn't see the appeal. "I mean, you meticulously plod your way through an enormous enemy base and go out of your way to avoid combat?" I questioned with an expression of puzzlement. "What the hell kind of game is that?!"

It all sounded so boring--like an exercise in pure tediousness. And apparently the game wasn't even that good! In fact, the only time I'd see it written about was when some person or outlet was snarkily riffing on it--mocking it for its poor localization and sloppily implemented stealth mechanics. Sure--there were also those who swore that Metal Gear was an absolute classic despite its being wracked with shortcomings, but I found their arguments to be unconvincing, and it was easy to write them off as simply having weird tastes.

It didn't matter that the facts had changed. I still wasn't interested. And that was how it was likely to remain.


Metal Gear wouldn't enter my consciousness again until the late 90s, when NES emulation was starting to take off. One random day, as driven by a sudden impulse, I decided to load up Metal Gear for the purpose of finding out which of the two previous characterizations was correct: Was it a flawed classic or an absolute mess?

It didn't take me longer than, oh, two minutes to determine that it was unquestionably the latter. I had to cut the experience short because four screens of Metal Gear were just about all I could take. Really, I found it remarkable that a developer could stuff so many unpleasant scenarios into the first 30 seconds of a game. It started with the "I feel asleep!" guy, whose expression was apparently signaling that I needed to take him out; yet any time I'd get close to him, he'd immediately wake up and begin incessantly colliding with me. And those dogs. I mean, my God, man--it was impossible to maneuver by them without getting devoured. No matter how I went about attempting to sneak around or between them, they'd always spring to life and pounce on me, killing me in seconds. You know--as if there was any chance in the world that I had the time or the health necessary to endure the onslaught and punch out all three of them (and who the hell goes around punching dogs, anyway?).


And even if I was able to outrun them, I'd be so short on health that the soldiers on the following screens would surely shoot me dead after inevitably spotting me. I simply could not figure out how to sneak past these soldiers, who seemed to spinning about in a predictable pattern right until I moved to within their vicinity, whence they'd abandon the observed pattern and randomly turn to face me. I wasn't sure how I could be expected to beat this entire game when I couldn't reliably sneak past the first soldier.

"Screw it," I said. "Trying to decipher their patterns isn't worth the effort. Why waste the time when instead I could be playing one of the 100-plus superior NES games?"


The controls were wonky, the stealth mechanics were half-baked, and the afforded health was entirely insufficient. This was a seriously flawed game, and it was all too quick to advertise as much.

Frankly, I'd seen enough to determine that Metal Gear was simply unapproachable.


But you know what? Even then, there were aspects of it I found alluring. For one, I was a fan of its jungle setting. I'd always had a love for woodsy environments in my games, and Metal Gear's, though abbreviated, was one of the most memorably presented. In particular, I was enamored with its accompanying musical theme, which was worthy of entry into that class of tunes that demanded that you halt what you're doing, place the controller down at your side, and just listen for a minute or two. Thankfully I had the first screen--with its comfy, leafy U-shaped nook and starry night sky--all to myself, so the time was ripe to take it all in. It was then that I could observe that this subdued-yet-quietly-intense theme was doing a great job of generating a "stealthily infiltrating the deadly enemy's remote, mysterious hideaway on a warm, placid evening" atmosphere.



That single aspect, alone, had such a profound influence on me that I felt encouraged to come back for successive attempts, if just to soak in the atmosphere. Each attempt proved similarly futile. There were times when I'd make a fair amount of progress, yeah, but none so encouraging that I was ever inspired enough to seriously consider trying to beat the game. Really, I didn't see that as a possibility; I saw no future in which I'd come to have a firm grasp of Metal Gear's mechanics.

Yet it was important that I persisted because I was able to get a much broader sense of the game's world, with which I was actually connecting. I might not have enjoyed the process of moving about Metal Gear's environments, no, but I was keen to observe and wonder about them. Metal Gear was rich with the type of classic video-game-only visuals that had the power to get my imagination stirring. I mean, where else but in games could I go to see trucks, jeeps and tanks lined up within enclosed rooms that clearly lack the adequately sized exit points necessary for hauling out vehicles of that size? Where else did they have on-rails cameras, electrified floors, and giant rolling pins of death?


Take a look at the two screenshots placed directly above this text. What you see in these images is everything I love about video-game worlds--everything that makes my imagination race. Whenever I survey them, I can't help but attempt to visualize a world in which their particular design features were at all practical. Oh, how I wish they were. I'd love to know that, somewhere in the world, there were rooms in which you could find inexplicably positioned partitions that seem to have been installed for the sole benefit of intruders who might not want to be seen by the soldiers who were assigned to patrol around them. Rooms whose interiors were formed by narrowly carved recesses and L-shaped nooks, their oddly stationed protectors forced to repeatedly investigate niches that have no reason to exist.


These were the kind of visuals that could stoke the imagination of any kid who ever dreamed about finding the perfect place to play a game of hide-and-seek. Well, this would have been it--a place filled with the kinds of inconspicuous alcoves and comfy corners in which the cagiest member of the group could safely hide forever. If only such a place existed. And if it did, I wonder, would it convey the same sense of atmosphere--the same wonderfully mysterious vibe--as the one projected from these images?

"Who built this place?" I'd always wonder as I moved about compounds such as Big Boss'. "Were the architects a couple of nutcases?"

Apparently they were, and for that I was grateful.


Yet Metal Gear's strong aesthetic appeal wasn't powerful enough to mask the pervasive feelings of arcanity and haphazardness. The fact remained that I had no idea what I was meant to be doing, and there were certain aspects that just didn't make any sense. "Where am I supposed to be going?" I'd repeatedly question. "And how can I be expected to 'sneak' past enemies that spot me the moment I enter the room?"

When it got to a point where I could no longer make any meaningful progress, I decided that it was best to give up and move on.

I wanted to like Metal Gear as a game--really, I did--but it wouldn't let me. My endeavoring to locate its "fun" center, which I believed to exist, turned into an exercise in attempting to infiltrate the impenetrable. I just couldn't find it.


I left Metal Gear behind, yes, but it wasn't a total abandonment, like it was in the past; no--this time it would remain in my consciousness. In the years that followed, I'd occasionally reflect back on the time I spent with it--not with resentment for the pain it inflicted but instead with some degree of appreciation. That was a testament to its rich aesthetic qualities, which rendered a world I found so very engrossing. Their resonance was significant enough to where I'd actually become excited when any of my favorite Youtubers would announce that they were going to feature Metal Gear in a Let's Play; I'd see it as an opportunity to revisit the game's alluring world without having to struggle my way through it.

I enjoyed watching other people play Metal Gear. It's how I came to develop a deeper fondness for it. It's how I learned the important lesson that you could have a strong appreciation for a game even if you didn't necessarily enjoy playing it. It's how I evolved as an enthusiast.


But over the course of time, as I continued watching Youtube personalities play through both the NES version and the MSX original, I started to gain a better understanding of stealth-based games. And suddenly it occurred to me that I'd become, well, sort of a fan of the genre. I did like this sort of game. I loved the idea of hiding behind boxes and quietly surveying the surrounding dangers--of studying enemy movements and planning a convenient path around them. "What a great idea!" I thought, the light bulb finally going off in my head.


So I decided that it was time to jump in and make a sincere effort to fully grasp the concept. And, considering the circumstances, it seemed appropriate to start with the genre's most influential title--Metal Gear for the MSX. I added it to my "Memory Bank" list with the plan of playing it in proximity to the writing of this piece.


I have to say that I'm really impressed with this version of the game. Going in, I already knew that it was superior to the NES port, but I didn't yet have a true sense of how solidly designed it was--of how smoothly its action progressed in comparison to what I experienced in the NES port. Now that I do, you can count me among the believers.

I very much enjoyed the two days I spent with it. It was engrossing from beginning to end. What helped make it so was my effort to create what I felt was the perfect environment for playing old-school Metal Gear: I'd wait until around 6 p.m., when the darkness would begin to encroach, and then I'd turn off all the lights, pop open all the windows, and push all my troubles aside. And, man--it felt just like old times; I'm glad that I was able to add some nostalgic flavor by playing it in a setting that was reminiscent of such.


You know--it's amazing how two games can look identical on the surface yet play so differently and convey such contrasting senses of atmosphere. While I have the chance, I'd like to count the ways.

It makes sense to start with the game's graphics, since they're the first to meet the senses. Right away the differences become apparent: While in reality the two versions share much in common in terms of texturing and sprite design, you probably won't realize as much because the MSX original just appears to have a visually slicker presentation. Credit that to the MSX2's much-broader palette and the designers' superior color-scheming choices. The game's use of darker hues--of mostly darker shades of green, brown and gray--creates the illusion that its objects and environments are cleaner and crisper than the NES version's. And it works. Hell--until I looked closer, I was convinced that the MSX version's had more detail. They don't; it just appears that way.


I'm partial to the MSX version's color-schemes because they provide a more earthy-feeling atmosphere, as if the enemy compound was carved from the jungle, itself. I could imagine that the compound's roof is open and its innards are taking much of their tint from the overhanging trees and foliage. The NES version uses much-brighter colors, which creates the fluorescence you'd associate more with metallic environments. The MSX version reigns supreme here. Oh, I still miss the NES version's atmosphere-setting jungle scenes, which aren't included in this version (here Snake infiltrates the compound via the surrounding moat, without player input), but I feel that the MSX version's aesthetic does well to create a sense of atmosphere by means of illusion; it gives you enough information to fill in the blanks for yourself; it invites you to look inward and conjure images of an unseen backdrop comprised of vast woodland and soil-soaked environments.

The more elegantly designed HUD, which displays both item images and an actual energy gauge (rather than a simple white line of unknown capacity), also goes a long way toward rendering this version a cut above in terms of presentation.


This version features a notably unique main theme: Theme of Tara, whose title, oddly, derives from the phonetic spelling of the tune's recurring bass notes, as Hideo Kojima interpreted them. Its slower tempo, higher pitch, sustained notes, and deeper reverberance work to generate a rather distinctive tone; where the NES version's rhythmic, energetic main theme inspires a feeling of urgency and encourages hurried movements, the MSX version's main theme conveys a more investigatory feel, its cautious vibe filling you with the sense that you should slow down and think hard about what you're doing. It has the power to evoke feelings of anxiousness and altertness, which an infiltrator should emotionally bear.

Really, this is the kind of music I expect to hear in a computer game; slower-tempoed, more-measured music has always been a hallmark of computer platforms, after all. Here it's a great fit.

Honestly, I like the music in both games, so I don't care to choose one soundtrack over the other. Theirs are different jobs in games that exhibit disparate values, and both perform well in their respective roles.


It becomes immediately apparent that this version is much more polished, particularly where designer foresight is concerned. Take, for instance, enemy positioning: In the NES version, the soldiers' starting locations are fixed, which will often lead to a scenario where you enter a room from, say, the left and are promptly spotted by a soldier whose first frame of animation has him facing that direction. And you're guaranteed to face this dilemma a handful of times because there are instances where getting spotted is absolutely unavoidable. For this version, however, we find that the designers actually take into consideration the different points of entry and the soldiers' proximity to them; here their numbers, starting locations and patrol routes change depending upon the direction from which you enter, so you're not likely to trigger an alert merely by scrolling the screen.

The polish also shows in other areas: You can open a door without immediately passing through it--pause for a moment and prepare yourself for what lies ahead. You actually have to make an effort to avoid entering cameras' sightlines; that is, you can't freely pass beneath them by sidling against the wall, thus rendering the rooms' specially crafted camera puzzles pointless. And you can't cheaply respawn items by quickly activating and deactivating your transceiver; you'll have to put in the actual legwork if you wish to procure additional rations and ammo boxes (well, honestly, I prefer to cheese it, since doing so saves time).

 

It suffers from some of the same issues, sure: You can't escape through a gas-filled room's locked door without first removing your gas mask and switching to the required card key, which guarantees that your health meter will take a hit, however minuscule. You're still constantly switching between key cards, which is a tedious exercise even if you know which cards open which doors. And you can cheaply take out most bosses by moving directly to their sides or right behind them and rapidly firing away. Still, for a myriad of reasons, none of its issues are quite as pronounced as the NES' versions.

One such reason is that you can instantly access any of your submenues without having to rely on unintuitive button input. Accessing your weapon, equipment or transceiver menus is a simple matter of tapping the specially designated keyboard keys (F2, F3 and F4). It's such a desirable alternative. I mean, you still have to constantly switch between card keys, yes, but here you can do so at a much faster rate and without the need to fumble around a controller as you desperately try to recall the correct button-combinations. This is another area in which Metal Gear greatly benefits from running on a computer platform.


There's an air of coherency to this version: Buildings connect in obvious ways, and the game's structural design does a much better job of hinting toward your next destination. The compound is somewhat labyrinthine, sure, but it's unlikely that you'll arrive at a place you're not supposed to be. And there are no instances of having to navigate a maze in a very specific pattern, Lost Woods-style, like you're required to do in the NES version. There's a natural flow to the game's progression: You clean out a section of the map, beat a boss, and then take the elevator to another floor; then you rinse and repeat. It's usually true that items and card keys are placed in proximity to the sections in which their use is necessary. Save for a few instances where backtracking or detouring (down and back up a trollishly long elevator shaft) is required, you'll never have to go far to find the item you're looking for.


And, most importantly, you actually encounter a Metal Gear, which is pretty noteworthy considering that it's, you know, the game's namesake and all! How in the world did the guys who developed the NES port forget to include one of the original's most vital elements?! You know--the giant bipedal tank around which the entire game is supposed to be based?! What made them decide to replace it with a nonthreatening "supercomputer"?! That's like if Nintendo ported Metroid from the Famicom Disk System over to the NES and replaced the Metroids with specially placed pinup notes detailing the pirates plans to clone them.

No, seriously: What possible limitation could have led to its removal? Even Google can't tell me.


It was kind of surreal to be experiencing this battle for myself after watching so many other people tackle it. Here I was, finally. Simply by entering this final chamber, I could now count myself among the brave few who were able to discover the secret of a lost world and walk upon its largely untraveled sacred ground. I always feel that way when I'm playing through a highly-regarded-but-sadly-obscure video game; it's an intangible quality that can imbue a game with an intensified, almost mystical sense of wonder.

I mean, yeah--the Metal Gear, itself, just kinda stands there while the laser-firing cameras do all of the work, but that's not what's meant to draw our attention; it's instead the nature of the battle, which requires that you bomb the machine's legs a number of times in a very specific order, that helps to shape our lasting memory of the game. It reminds us that the game's creators were eager to joyfully defy convention and let loose their creative spirit--that they were determined to use outside-the-box thinking as the means through which to deliver us a game that was all at once quirky, mischievous, and amazingly unique.

Now it all makes sense. Now I fully understand what they were going for. Really, it's such a shame that it took me this long to see it. If only this had been the "Metal Gear" I'd originally played; I might have become a fan of Metal Gear and stealth games two decades earlier! Not that it's ever too late to get on board. I mean, I was already partway there thanks to awesome Metal Gear Solid III: Snake Eater, which played a huge role in my acclimation. Now it's all a matter of seeking out the genre's other great works.

I've played many ports and conversions in my day, but I can't remember an instance where a few seemingly minor mechanical differences made for such a huge gap in quality between two versions of a game. This is a vastly superior version. It's the true form of a classic game we never should have missed. I'm happy that I got a chance to play it.

I'll definitely be returning to it in the future.

Epilogue

And yeah--I still have a measure of fondness for the NES port, toward which I occasionally gravitate. It's a certainty that both versions will continue to find a place in my life going forward. There's no reason why they wouldn't; really, they represent everything I love about 8-bit games.

I'm in love with the unforgettable world they've created--with the wondrous setting they've rendered, the imagery of which never fails to get my imagination stirring. I liken it to that of Metroid's for how it conjures thoughts of an exotic land hidden away in some unknown pocket of the globe. Whenever I think about the original Metal Gear's world, I can't help but excitedly recall my personal framing of its events: Somewhere in a well-concealed, uncharted region of Africa or South America, a secret war has been waged, and no one knows about it. The world is at stake, but the gravity of the situation will result in not a single ripple. Only the parties involved will bear the burden; for everyone else, it'll be just another typical day of birds chirping and The Price is Right. Solid Snake is out there, somewhere, facing ridiculous odds as he attempts to sneak his way into the heart of a near-impenetrable fortress, and the world around him will continue to function as if nothing is happening. In the end, the war will be fought and resolved without anyone ever finding out about it.

I'll always remember one line of dialogue in particular. For me, it neatly encapsulated everything I typed above; it, alone, provided me the fuel I needed to fervently form my framing of the game's surrounding backdrop. It's the line triggered when Snake attempts to contact Diane, a resistance fighter, for the first time. The transmission is received by her husband, Steve, who regrets to inform Snake that she's "out shopping and hasn't come back yet."

It's amazing, really, how one little bit of implication can tell you so much. But that's what Metal Gear was all about; it did so well to show the player part of the world let him or her infer the rest.


This is a far cry from the direction taken in the Metal Gear Solid series, which pushed everything right out into the open and zealously sought to purge all traces of mystique. Frankly, I believe that the series went completely off the rails with its wide-scale, all-encompassing tale of a digital Illuminati that aims to control all aspects of human life and its introduction of vampires, ghosts, supernatural beings, and the rest of the ill-suited freaks whose inclusion shifted the series' tone way too far in the direction of fanciful. I miss the simpler times, when the games were more grounded and bosses were like, "Hey--I'm Super Fast Runny Man! Please come and get me!" A character like Gray Fox, for instance, was far more interesting--far more malleable, in my mind--when he was simply a mysterious top dog in a legendary special-forces unit and not a cyborg ninja who used to be Blanka.

Kojima and his pals have effectively Lucasized the series, their obsessive-compulsive need to fill in all the gaps and connect every dot ultimately resulting in an overwrought narrative that no longer leaves anything to the imagination. They just couldn't leave it alone. They couldn't stop tampering with the series' history. And now we find ourselves in a place where Metal Gear's 30-year-old story is now forced to take on a far different meaning when the original script worked just fine; no retroactive build was required, and none of the contrivances were necessary. Quite simply, the evolution of Big Boss' character should have been left to our interpretation.

I don't want to get too deep into this right now. I'll talk more about the Metal Gear Solid series at a later date.


As for the rest: The only other game I've experimented with is the non-canonical Snake's Revenge. For the longest time, I completely ignored it. No--not because I wasn't interested in playing it but because I didn't know that it was at all related to Metal Gear. I took one look at its title and immediately assumed that it was somehow connected to Snake, Rattle 'n' Roll.

I didn't like it much. I took issue with many of its design choices, particularly with how it wouldn't give me a chance to settle in. I mean, those damn spotlights would detect me every time no matter how stealthy I was. Really, my experiences with it paralleled my earliest with the NES version of Metal Gear in that I could rarely endure the jungle sequence and reach the compound. And even when I did manage to make it there, I'd struggle to advance past the first four or five screens. That's all I needed to see of Snake's Revenge to determine that it wasn't worth my time.

It has a great soundtrack, though. I'll occasionally listen to it on Youtube via a playlist.

Otherwise, I have great interest in playing Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and Metal Gear: Ghost Babel, which look to be two of the most ambitious 8-bit games ever made. I look forward to tearing into them when they become available on Nintendo's Virtual Console service (stop laughing).


Until then, I'll continue to extract value from the original Metal Gear, which I consider to be a quintessential 8-bit creation. I sincerely hope that Konami can resist the temptation to remake it. After all: The values that make Metal Gear what it is are inextricably linked to the era in which in was released. Updating it for "modern audiences" will only serve to strip it of its unique character and render it homogeneous--make it indistinguishable from the existing 3D games. Alternatively, I'd like for Konami to alter its trajectory and look into producing new Metal Gear titles--specifically post-Metal Gear Solid 4 sequels that focus not on overly complex systems and overwrought narratives but instead back-to-basics stealth action. In doing so, Konami can at the same time ground the series and give it a fresh new start.

Is that something that's likely to happen? Probably not. But one can dream.


And you know what, folks? This is the perfect time to bring the first phase of this mission to a close. With my embracing of Metal Gear, which at one time was the personification of the types of games to which I was militantly averse, I've completed a 180-degree turn. I'm no longer that unadventurous little kid who would predictably dismiss any game that didn't fit within his extremely limited range of interest. It's quite the opposite, in fact--I'm now the passionate, open-minded video-game enthusiast who can't wait to begin expanding his horizons.

I think I'm going to start doing that right now. And I invite you, dear reader, to follow me along on this next mission.

Just don't forget to bring your cardboard box.