This lovely bit of writing by /u/OneYearSteakDay over at reddit really resonated with me, because I lived through it from the other side of the age barrier. I have reposted it here with the author’s permission, and with the same gracious license I have bowdlerized it just a bit to make it suitable for all audiences (the original can be read here). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (Turn on the fire while you read it for some nice atmosphere.)
A glorious fire crackles¹ in TrueAudio nearby, blazing with 16.78 million shades of red and orange; the PhysX logs pop and break, falling apart to reveal the beautifully tessellated embers casting real time reflections against the mip mapped stone walls.
This story doesn’t start in 1984, that’s just when my part of the story begins. President Ronald Regan was in a vicious battle for the soul of planet Earth, When Doves Cry by Prince was at the top of the Billboard hit list, great films like Terminator left lines reaching around the street, and the home PC; the Macintosh 128k, was selling for the low, low price of just $2,495.00.
It was the most glorious of times, it was the bleakest of times. The foundations on which our great PCMR Empire is built were being formed, our first allies in the fight were the wealthy and the strong, those who could afford a home computer of their own. This is not their story, I cannot tell their story because I was not wealthy, I was not strong, I was a peasant and I loved it.
On my sixth Christmas in 1990 my parents got me my first gaming console: The Nintendo Entertainment System. I eagerly unwrapped the beautiful box and unpacked all the items. I pulled out the console and set it aside, I pulled out a mass of wires and confusion and handed them to my father, I pulled out a slim square with a picture of a man jumping over fireballs and a a duck, I pulled out a neon orange gun, finally I pulled out the last piece: A shiny gray block with four buttons and a cross on it. I had used a keyboard at school, but this strange gray block was much smaller, it was easier to hold, my six year old fingers could reach all the buttons and I was in love.
My father spent an hour that Christmas day trying to connect the Nintendo to the TV. (You youngins don’t know how good you’ve got it with HDMI and DPP! Try getting a semi corroded RF connector to communicate well with a TV that lost it’s set screws and then we’ll talk.) Once finally installed and connected I inserted the cartridge and pressed the power button.
GLORIOUS! The massive 24″ television screen displayed a beautiful image in 64 vibrant colors, speakers blazed amazing mono sound and I was enraptured. I pressed the button designated “Start” and the speakers let out a chime as I was thrown head first into World 1-1. I had played games the computer at school, but this was completely different! The school computers were slow, they didn’t play sound, and their screens had 62 fewer colors than this amazing NES. [Ed. Green or Amber and off. Off functioned as black.] It was obvious to me that Christmas morning that Computers were vastly inferior to this amazing piece of engineering attached to my TV screen.
The whole house came together to play. Mom and dad were as likely to get killed by a rebounding koopa shell as I was, dad was much better at shooting ducks than myself, but I was still better than mom. Much laughter was had as we tried to get used to this four button and a cross rectangle, when I ran right my entire body would lean with it, my hands jumped when Mario jumped, my heart raced when Mario fell, truly this rectangle was vastly superior to the keyboards I was used to at school!
As the years passed I acquired more games and more consoles and they were all adopted as members of the family. The Sega Genesis came next, and it was edgy, new, fast, a quantum leap beyond anything that the NES or school computers could offer. Sonic the Hedgehog could run over 700 miles per hourand my dad’s Chevette could only do 50 miles per hour down hill. Vectorman could shoot 3D blasts in any direction, Megaman on the NES could only shoot forward. Comix Zone had branching story paths and spectacular art, where as on the Nintendo there was only one path: Forward. The obvious technological improvements over the past were obvious. I was hooked.
Next came the stately SNES, my heart and soul, my bread and butter, my breath and blood. The SNES wasn’t more powerful than the Genesis exactly, but it has something the Sega didn’t: JRPGs. To this day I still have the Chrono Trigger cartridge with a New Game+ starting 120 hours in. To this day I still relish playing the opening level of Mega Man X3 when I got to play as Zero for the first time. To this day I still fawn over the beauty that is Yoshi’s Island.
Seriously, game developers, a good art style will always trump good graphics. To this day I still regard Kirby Super Star as the quintessential Kirby game. To this day I love the SNES and all that came with it.
It was in 1999 that my family got our first computer. Check these specs:
- 3gb hard drive
- 32mb of ram
- 28.8kbs modem
- 550mhz Intel Pentium Processor
- Integrated floppy disk drive
- Integrated CD reader
- Stereo sound
This computer was dope. The hard drive had more storage than anyone could ever need, the ram was excessive and never completely filled, the processor was blazing fast and thanks to the CD rom drive I was able to install the bundled games quickly and permanently. Truly it was glorious my brothers!
When I finally got the opportunity to try this new piece of technology the first thing I did was load up the included copy of Mechwarrior 2. (Someone remake this game please. Please. Please.) True 3-D, yo! No longer was I constrained to go forward or right, now I could go left, or backwards, or use my jump jets or….
“Wait, what’s this bluescreen with all the numbers? How do I get back to the game?”
I had played a lot of hard video games in my time, games that would mercilessly defeat me, games like Bucky O’hare, Mega Man 2, and Mega Man X2, but I’d never encountered a mechanic that would cause the entire screen to turn blue! I died so hard that I couldn’t even get back to Windows. I restarted the computer and tried again. This time I didn’t get a bluescreen, this time I got a popup window informing me that I had performed an “Illegal Operation” and then the computer shut down. Then an enemy used some attack on me that slowed down my whole computer and prevented my Mech from receiving input from my joystick. Then a crowd of enemies ambushed me and froze my screen while they killed me. Seriously, Mechwarrior 2 was harder than anything I had ever played before. I had never been hit so hard in Mega Man or Mario that I had to restart my NES! I played Mechwarrior 2 on and off for years, but I was never able to “win” the game because the enemies played so many dirty tricks on me.
Clearly PC gaming was not for me. I went back to my consoles and remember experiencing to many memorable experiences. I got a PSX and fell in love with games like FFVII, FFT, Mega Man X4, Vagrant Story and so many others, none of which had enemies that would force me to restart the console and all of which were extremely fun to play. I got an N64, which had the first controller I ever held with an analog joystick. This was revolutionary! A 3D controller for a 3D console, brilliant! Super Mario 64, no bluescreens, no slow downs, 3D, fast game play, no need for a PC. Then came Star Fox 64 and the invention of the rumble pack, a true killer app for home consoles! This was an amazing time to be a gamer, and I do feel a tinge of regret that many of our younger brethren didn’t have an opportunity to experience it first hand.
With the PS2 and Xbox things began to change. All of the sudden the perfect game play I had experienced on my perfect consoles began to slip. Sometimes the console would slow down, sometimes it would stop all together, sometimes it wouldn’t even start up the game I had put in. They both offered DVD playback, but that could damage the PS2 and the Xbox required a special adapter. They both offered connection to the internet, but the PS2 didn’t do it very well and the Xbox required a subscription. They both had save features, but the PS2 used an expensive 8mb memory card and the Xbox used it’s built in 10gb mechanical hard drive.
The Xbox was the last console I ever bought (except for the Wii, which I regard more as a toy than a gaming console) because the Xbox was the end of a generation for gamers. Because the Xbox came with a hard drive and an internet connection now publishers and developers could upload patches and new content on the fly. Because publishers and developers could fix games retroactively there was no longer the need to ship finished, quality checked games. More and more broken games began coming to the market and many gamers began to leave their consoles behind.
The increased complexity of the consoles themselves also caused problems. I feel bad for anyone who owned a first generation PS2 because the DVD readers broke constantly. I feel bad for anyone who had to get a replacement HDD for their Xbox because they had to pay money to lose their saves. (I don’t feel bad for anyone who owned a GameCube because you could fire that sucker out of a cannon into a volcano filled with angry flaming lava bees and it would still play any GC game you threw at it.)
Thus the Xbox killed the console as we old-timers knew it.
What you have to understand is that there was a time when consoles just worked; they were single purpose units, dedicated solely to playing video games without suffering from the overhead of an Operating System running complex hardware. The NES just played games, the SNES just played games, the Sega Genesis just played games, the N64 just played games, the PSX just played games, (and audio CDs, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment) and my friends, they were glorious! Because these games couldn’t be updated, fixed, patched, enhanced, rebroken, repatched, then forgotten they had to be released in working order with good game play. The idea of buying a broken game because Ubisoft will be fixing it soon anyway would be frightening and confusing to gamers of this era. And I am a gamer of this era.
Not long ago; only two generations past now, the console and the PC could coexist peacefully in the same home, each serving it’s respective purpose, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Today “consoles” are nothing more than weak mini computers, and that is unfortunate because they could be so much more. Having seen both the zenith and the nadir of console gaming I can assure you that consoles have so much potential, but they’ll never realize that potential so long as they’re trying to be something they’re not. Like a feather weight fighter boxing the heavy weight champion, modern consoles have reached too far for their own good, and while strong in their own right they cannot win against this opponent.
And that children is why so many elders of the PC Master Race have gigabits worth of roms on their hard drives, burned ISO files of old PSX games sitting on the shelf, and choose to play Pokemon Red on their cell phones. There were good times, and there were great times, and that you may not get to experience them saddens me. The roots of the console tree are strong, the trunk is thick and sturdy, but the branches creak and crack under their own weight. You may live to see the day when this tree is nursed back to health, but first we must look back at what made the tree so strong in the first place.
The last of the logs pop as the hearth darkens, real time shadows dance about the stones, now defined by feathery ambient occlusion and the cooling shades of of 256RGB reds and yellows. I warm my hands over the few remaining embers and remember the days when Final Fantasy VII had the best graphics the world had ever seen and sigh.
TL;DR: Consoles used to be gaming machines, made for gamers to play video games. They were accessible, they were stable, they were affordable, they were powerful and they were fun. Then Xbox and everything bad now.
I can’t describe adequately how much this bit of writing pleased me, because I was one of those dads who struggled with rusty RF connectors as my oldest son got his first NES in around 1985. He could whup my honus at Mario 1 – I kept falling down those never-sufficiently-to-be-accursed pits, and rarely made it past 1.1 – but I was a better duck hunter.
This period of gaming indelibly affected me. My current phone ring is the Peloponessus segment from “Battle of Olympus.” I have a customized ring in case my ex ever calls me: “Still Alive,” from Portal. And sometimes I find myself whistling the theme song from “Bubsy.” As the author intimated, these were times never to be forgotten.
My thanks to /u/OneYearSteakDay for the wander through the mists of memory.