The Escapist

The game I played most on the E3 show floor this year wasn’t featured in any press conference. It wasn’t promoted with gaudy, costumed booth babes or sequestered behind closed doors, to be played by a select few. In fact, it wasn’t highlighted on even one of the hundreds of demo stations publishers set up for the show. Yet I and hundreds of other attendees found themselves sampling the title in a way only a gathering like E3 could make possible.

The game in question was the Nintendo 3DS’ StreetPass Mii Plaza, a title that shows off both Nintendo’s penchant for unique ideas as well as its seemingly utter inability to provide a meaningful online experience.

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I’d always found people who love the Atari 2600 a little bewildering. Sure, I could understand the power of nostalgia, and on a purely intellectual level I could see their rose-tinted love for Atari’s first home console mirrored my equally rose-tinted love of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which I played obsessively while growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But looking at things as objectively as I could, I just couldn’t see what Atari lovers saw in their system. I recognized that genre-spawning games like Pitfall! and Adventure were revolutionary for their time, but their limited, one-button gameplay and blocky graphics seemed decidedly worse than the likes of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, not to mention the countless, fully realized 3D worlds they eventually spawned. Much as the iPhone 4 is better in every way than the original iPhone, I felt that Atari 2600 games had been rendered obsolete by subsequent titles that were strictly superior in every way.

This phenomenon was a bit troublesome to me as a supporter of the inherent, artistic value of games. After all, plenty of people still love classic novels, classic rock, and black-and-white movies made decades before they were born. Shakespeare and opera and Renaissance painting and classical music have all survived as celebrated works that can move people centuries later, so why couldn’t I appreciate the value of a console that died off just a few years before I started playing videogames? Would kids growing up today see my beloved NES as a similar anachronism that can’t hold a candle to the Wii titles they grew up with? Did the force of nostalgia make anything that came before my first videogame experience defunct by definition?

That’s what I wanted to find out. So, with as open a mindset as I could muster, I decided to track down an old Atari 2600 system and some games, hook them up to my old, unused cathode ray tube TV, and immerse myself in a generation of home gaming that I had previously given only the most cursory and dismissive of glances.

The Escapist’s Susan Arendt recently wrote about the simple, magical joy she found as a child, learning she could control what happened on her TV for the first time. I was going to find out if a 28-year-old – with a lifetime of gaming experience but without the benefit of such Atari-related childhood memories – could capture that same magic roughly three decades later.

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Everything that makes Super Mario Bros. 3 truly special is exemplified, for me, by a single image: A chain chomp breaking free of his bonds and bouncing off the screen.

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that chain chomps – the toothy, black, ball-on-a-chain cum guard dogs that first appear in level 2-5 – could actually break free from their eponymous chains. A chomp has to lunge a full 47 times for its silver chain to start flashing a distressing red, and three more lunges for the chomp to finally break free and bounce towards Mario. The entire process takes about 175 ticks of the in-game timer, depending on how much Mario goads the chomp. That’s easily seven times as long as even the slowest of players usually takes to jump past those snapping teeth and on to the next challenge, without a second thought for the poor, imprisoned enemy they’re leaving behind.

On first glance, this hidden extra seems like a relatively meaningless addition to the game, the kind of pointless Easter egg a bored programmer might have thrown together during a coffee break without anybody else noticing. But taken in the context of the game as a whole, that chain chomp’s potential for freedom is emblematic of the way Super Mario Bros. 3 subverts players’ expectations to make a game that feels truly magical.

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Today, when my colleagues see console fanboys arguing fruitlessly in comment threads, they see a group of illogically territorial misanthropes more concerned with winning an argument than enjoying games. But that’s not what I see. When I see a fanboy, I see someone eager to relive the joy of their first exposure to videogames by sticking with the company that brought it to them. I see someone who’s invested an important part of their identity into what a videogame company has come to represent to them. I see someone trying with all their might to convince themselves that they’re not missing out on anything over the rich kids whose parents can buy them all three major consoles and dozens of games every year.

When I see a fanboy, I see the person I was – someone trying to recapture a simpler time, when videogames meant only one thing and also meant everything.

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Videogame consoles have been about more than just videogames for a while now, from Nintendo’s news-downloading Famicom modem to the music-playing Sega CD. But the game console didn’t really become a multimedia hub until the PlayStation 2 and its included DVD player.

Thanks to a combination of strong brand recognition, a low, Sony-subsidized price point and impeccable timing, the PlayStation 2 became the movie player of choice for millions of consumers ready to advance past the decades-old VHS format. For a time, PS2 hardware was selling better than PS2 software in Japan, suggesting that many early buyers were ignoring the system’s game-playing functions altogether. More than any other product, the PS2 drove DVD adoption in the format’s infancy, driving down prices on hardware and software through sheer volume and force of corporate will.

Now, one console generation later, videogame makers are again trying to use their position in the gaming space to influence the home movie market. So far, the results of their efforts have been less than transformative.

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The last three months of the year tend to fit the Dickensian cliché as the best of times and the worst of times for gamers. They’re the best because a ridiculous number of high profile games come out – this year’s season saw the release of highly anticipated games like Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Super Mario Galaxy, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect and Rock Band, all in a three-week period. It’s the worst of times because, well, a ridiculous number of high profile games come out. A game aficionado has to spend a fortune and divide his attention to a ridiculous degree just to keep up.

Sure, there are worse problems for a gamer to have, but that glut certainly seems like a waste come April, when the holiday games have finally been played out and the shelves are practically empty. People play games throughout the year, yet publishers seem to think people will only buy them in a three-month period at year’s end. Why can’t publishers spread those AAA titles throughout the year a little bit more? Why can’t the videogame release calendar be a little more balanced?

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The comic book and videogame industries are pretty similar. Both rely on niche support from big-spending, highly dedicated fans. Both are slowly expanding in the mainstream market. Both have been revolutionized by the internet and are struggling to find a business model that includes digital downloads.

Yet while independently owned specialty shops dominate the brick-and-mortar comic book business, the videogame retail space has increasingly become synonymous with one name: GameStop. The slow conglomeration of mini-chains like Babbage’s, Software Etc. and FuncoLand came to its monolithic conclusion in 2005 when GameStop’s merger with EBGames gave them a full 25 percent of the videogame market (a share that’s surely increased with the chain’s nonstop expansion in the years since). The remainder is almost entirely taken up by big box retailers that sell videogames alongside unrelated products like electronics and home supplies. For most consumers, the small, mom-and-pop game shop is a thing of the past, if it was ever a thing at all.

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"Haha, I have more friends than you."

The schoolyard taunt in my instant messenger box was pretty easy to dismiss. For one, it was coming from my 12-year-old cousin, who is always trying to find some petty way to get under my skin. For another, the taunt was based not on a deep, insightful discussion of our social lives, but from a quick perusal of our competing MySpace pages.

I was a latecomer to the MySpace craze, signing up primarily to view the profiles of a few close friends and family members. My cousin, on the other hand, had quickly made MySpace the center of her middle school social life. A quick conversation confirmed that her impressive-sounding list of 180-plus friends was comprised mostly of classmates she barely knew, random strangers that spammed her with friend requests and a few "friends" that were actually her friends in real life.

But all these mitigating factors didn’t really help me shake the annoying feeling I got when comparing her massive friend count to the paltry dozen or so friends on my list. It was an unmistakable feeling at the pit of my stomach that would be familiar to any gamer with even a hint of ego – a feeling that combines the shame of failure and the shame of caring so much about something so trivial.

I felt like I was losing. At MySpace, of all things.

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The American arcade industry is dying.

Sure, there are still some signs of life in the huge, multifaceted family entertainment centers like Dave & Busters, and your local mini-golf course or bowling alley might have a few antiquated games, but the conventional wisdom today maintains that the real action in American gaming can be found inside the home.

But what if I told you there was an arcade revolution going on right under your nose? What if I told you manufacturers were putting out svelte, flatscreen machines with dozens of games, flashing LED exteriors and 3-D graphics? What if I told you the top manufacturer of these machines currently has 250,000 units on the market, rivaling the imprint of mega-selling classics like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong in their heyday, and brings in over a billion dollars a year?

What if I told you there was probably one in your neighborhood?

The arcade isn’t dying. You just have to change your idea of what an arcade is.

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When was the last time you were really distraught about seeing a game over screen?

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