Tuesday, November 04, 2008
That old-time rock 'n' roll
I often suspect, but don't want to admit, that many of my fondest gaming memories have less to do with the games themselves, and more to do with the circumstances in which I played them. Our neighbors down the street had an NES long before we did, and my first memories of playing Super Mario Bros. are at their house on a summer day, after splashing around in their pool all afternoon. I spent every day of February vacation in sixth grade trying to beat Sonic the Hedgehog 2 with two other kids in my neighborhood, and I was the first to succeed. Playing Quake 2 for hundreds of hours in high school wouldn't have mattered nearly as much if I hadn't formed a clan with some of my best friends.
It's hard to evalute old games fairly. Have you ever gotten your hands on a decades-old classic for the first time and wondered what all the fuss was about? Maybe you have warm and fuzzy feelings toward an 8-bit game nobody else liked, simply because it was the only one you owned and you had mastered it. Old games stir up all kinds of associations, prejudices, and emotions that we just can't separate from the gameplay as it is.
I had a chance to relive the childhood experience recently, at my friend Mike's bachelor party. We hooked up a Wii in one room and an NES in the other.* We had loads of classic games, including Mega Man 2, River City Ransom, a couple of Double Dragons, and so on. But for some reason, as the night wore on, a group of us found ourselves committed to playing Bucky O'Hare. Apparently, it was based on a short-lived cartoon show from the early 1990s, of which I have no memory. But this was probably around the time that any hope of high-quality licensed games was starting to die.
It's not that Bucky O'Hare was bereft of good ideas. Although you start the game playing only as the title character, as you progress you gain the ability to switch between Bucky and his crew members on the fly. Each one has a unique power that comes in handy at different times. One of them can hover, one can climb walls, one has a super-powered weapon, and so on. It's a neat mechanic, and the levels -- particularly near the end -- are designed to force you to switch characters often.
The problem, though, was that the game was brutally difficult in the classic 8-bit sense. Every boss battle was based on identifying fast-moving and constantly shifting attack patterns. Levels involving moving mine carts and shifting platforms required memorization in addition to quick reflexes. One-hit deaths were everywhere. The saving grace was that Bucky granted infinite continues, not just from the start of each world, but from the beginning of each substage. That's the only thing that kept us going.
So we pressed on, through the night and into the early morning. We traded off continues. Those not holding the controller looked for patterns and advised the player what hazards were coming next. At boss encounters, we analyzed attacks and suggested possible weaknessse. When things got really rough, my long-ago childhood friend Ryan -- the gaming savant whom I've mentioned before -- came into to slam the door. He bailed us out of so many seemingly impossible boss battles that we started referring to him as our closer.
We didn't beat Bucky O'Hare that night. Fortunately, the game had a password system, so we brought it to Mike's house the night before the wedding and got right back to work. Our group was smaller now, but no less dedicated. Only the groomsmen remained. Two days before, we had been strangers. Now, we worked together like a commando unit. We penetrated ever deeper into the endless final castle. We ascended shifting blocks tipped with insta-kill spikes. We swerved through speeder bike levels, and and dueled a massive airship. Ryan took pity on us and obliterated a Mother Brain-like boss. We kept going past midnight. Eventually, I could take no more, and fell asleep on the couch.
When I woke up shortly thereafter, no one was playing anymore, and I saw the screen that graces the top of this post. "Did we do it?" I asked, although the answer was clear. "We did it," they said. Victory.
Bucky O'Hare is not a great game. I would not recommend that anybody download the ROM, or petition Nintendo to release it on Virtual Console. But it's worth remembering, as we binge on one fall release after another, what pleasures can be found in playing one game, any game, in the right circumstances. It's satisfying to beat a game. It's fun to play with others. And it's gratifying to meet people who care about the same silly things you do. This is why I started playing video games.
*Isn't this what you do at a bachelor party?