Games of Christmas Past, Part 2

As I was saying, I’ve played a lot of great games over the years for various systems. Some were Christmas gifts, a lot weren’t. There are far too many for me to go in detail about, so I thought I’d just mention a few for the various systems I played during the late 80s and 90s. And the cool thing is a lot of these games are readily available for download on the Wii Shop Channel, Playstation Network, or XBox 360 Arcade, and they’re usually quite cheap. So if any of my very few readers are still looking for Christmas gifts for siblings, children, or themselves then these would all would be a great addition to anyone’s library. I’ll also just list a bunch worth checking out too. So, without further ado…
Nintendo Entertainment System
Super Mario Bros. 3 boxart. Image taken from Wikipedia.
Perhaps the most acclaimed video game for the NES was Super Mario Bros. 3. While the American Super Mario Bros. 2 featured drastically different gameplay and setting than the original SMB, Super Mario Bros. 3 was really the sequel fans of the original game were looking for. It took the platforming fun and colorful levels of the original and expanded on their example exponentially. There were countless new additions and gameplay mechanics to be found in SMB3, though the most popular was the addition of the new Super Leaf power up that transformed Mario and Luigi into their raccoon form pictured above on the box art. Inexplicably, the ears and tail of a raccoon allow the heros to fly for short periods of time adding a whole new world to explore amongst the clouds without the necessity of climbing on vines. Another new addition was the map screen that separated the various levels into stages that the player could go around, take shortcuts to or from, or simply skip over if they possessed the right item in their (also new addition) item inventory. When it comes down to the nitty gritty, it is hard to compare SMB3 to the original SMB. While they feature many of the same play mechanics, enemies, and a similar setting, there are so many new additions to SMB3 to make it stand on its own above perhaps all other Mario titles until the advent of three dimensional graphics in Super Mario 64. Even after 20 years and various reissues, SMB3 is still a fantastic game for its age that (if the more recent New Super Mario Bros. titles are any indication) can still be enjoyed by young and old(er) a like.
The other two, big Nintendo franchises also had their beginnings on the NES, but unlike SMB3 neither Zelda nor Metroid really hit their stride until their Super Nintendo iterations. They are both still great games, but they are difficult and have some frustrating play mechanics. If you like burning every bush in Hyrule with a candle to find the elusive dungeons in Zelda, or like falling into an unescapable lava pit in Metroid then by all means give them a play, but if not then give them a little time to appreciate their humble beginnings and move on to their more developmentally mature sequels.
Really there was only one other game series I can think of for the NES that really reached its pinnacle on that system: Mega Man.
Boxart for Mega Man 2. Image also taken from Wikipedia.
There is some debate as to what the best game in the Mega Man series is with most arguing for either Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3. In all honesty, I can’t choose which of the two I like better as they are both fantastic, but since MM3 really only builds on the foundation established by its predecessors, I’ll only talk about MM2. The first Mega Man game was interesting on its own, but there were some obstacles and enemies that seemed nearly impossible to overcome (Yellow Devil anyone?). On top of its difficulty, there was no way to save progress, so players were just S.O.L. if they had too much trouble overcoming those enemies and obstacles. The sequel retained the same gameplay style, but was nowhere near as insurmountable as the first (though it was still very difficult), and it offered a password system that allowed players to not lose their progress when they turned the power off. These changes coupled with great level design, better bosses, memorable weapons, and fantastic 2 channel music made MM2 an instant classic both in the series and in video gamedom in general.
Some other games for the NES worth checking out, but nowhere near exhaustive are: The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man 1-6, Bubble Bobble, Super Mario Bros. 1-2, Castlevania 1-3, Ghosts N’ Goblins, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior 1-4, Star Tropics, Battletoads, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1-3, Excite Bike, Blaster Master, Contra, Donkey Kong, Gargoyle’s Quest 2: The Demon Darkness, Duck Hunt, Paperboy, River City Ransom, Ninja Gaiden, Super Dodge Ball, Tecmo Bowl, and Tetris.
Game Gear

As I mentioned, I had a Sega Game Gear as a kid. I had quite a few games for that little system and most of them were Sonic games. I think all of Sonic’s Game Gear titles were not as appreciated as they should have been thanks to the fact the Game Gear didn’t perform nearly as well as the Sega Genesis even amongst Sega fans. My favorite Game Gear Sonic title was Sonic Triple Trouble.
Boxart for Sonic Triple Trouble. This image also taken from Wikipedia.
Really, STT isn’t different than any other Sonic game, but, similar to my reasons for enjoying Mega Man 2, STT retains the difficulty of the series without making the Chaos Emeralds a complete pain in the butt to obtain. Unfortunately, STT and all the other Sonic Game Gear titles are difficult to find these days. They were released as bonuses in the GameCube version of Sonic Adventure, and some saw rereleases in Sega compilations like the Coleco Sonic, and, I think, some of the Plug and Play series (I can’t find a good link explaining what the Plug and Play series are, but basically they are controllers that plug directly into a TV that contain numerous classic games. I don’t know if they’re still around or not, but Target had them when I worked there 4 or 5 years ago). If you can track any of them down, all of the Sonic Game Gear titles are worth checking out.
I never really spent much time playing the Sega Genesis outside of Sonic games at a friend’s house, so I can’t really comment on that system. Outside of the Sonic character directly competing with what would later become the the Mario franchise, the Genesis didn’t have the clout of Nintendo’s SNES when it came to iconic games. That isn’t to say the Genesis didn’t have fantastic games, because it did. I’ve come across Sega fans who’ve familiarized me with Ristar, Shining Force, Alex Kidd, Ecco the Dolphin, and Phantasy Star. I’ve played numerous of those titles now, and I can safely say they are enjoyable even if I haven’t had the time to complete them. Most of these games are available on the Wii’s Virtual Console and some may be available on XBox Live Arcade or PSN.
In my next post I’ll discuss the awesomeness that was the Super Nintendo, its successor the Nintendo 64, and Sony’s upstart Playstation.

Games of Christmas Past, Part 1

When I was six years old, my sisters forced me to sneak down the hall Christmas morning to spy out the presents under the tree. It was a dangerous mission that led past my parents’ bedroom and the threat of my dad yelling “Get back in bed!” The deal was we children had to wait until 6:00 a.m. and not a minute before to go check out the loot, but we spent a good two or three hours awake before 6:00 making attempts to get past our parents’ open door and sneak a peek at the presents. I was the smallest, so I obviously had the best chances of success.

My young mind formulated a plan. I would crawl out on my belly slowly, slithering snake-like until I made it to the stairs just before the living room where I would hide safely from the line-of-sight gaze my dad possessed of the hallway from his bedroom. I fully expected defeat on my journey. The Christmas tree lights were on, and I knew they would enable my dad to see my silhouette as I snuck toward the living room. I crawled forward as quietly as possible, and I don’t know if my dad had fallen asleep, hadn’t seen me, or allowed me to get that far and sneak a glimpse, but I made it to the stairs and had my first look at the presents waiting under the tree.
Most were wrapped, and stacked individually for me and both my sisters with our stockings placed alongside each pile denoting which presents belonged to whom. My eyes were drawn, however, to the one present that stood apart from the rest and wasn’t wrapped. It was a large black box, and though I couldn’t read at the time I recognized the Nintendo logo that I’d seen on commercials while watching cartoons (probably Ninja Turtles). The best way I can describe the elation I felt at the discovery was akin to the awe of Bilbo Baggins when he espied the Arkenstone in Smaug’s horde.
My mission accomplished, I snuck back to my sisters’ bedroom to report my findings. My return trip was much faster than the way out. I was debriefed upon my return.
“I think we got a ‘intendo,” I whispered in six year old “psghetti” talk.
There were some stifled exclamations of excitement on all of our parts. And when our clocks reached the agreed upon 6:00 a.m. we rushed out to the living room to see the loot. Sure enough, we’d been given a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas by “that bearded fellow who goes ‘Ho, ho, ho!'”
It wasn’t until a few hours later we had it set atop our television in the kitchen (from which it would take many spills over its lifetime), and we were playing Super Mario Bros. My turns came and went as I failed with consistency attempting to jump over the VERY FIRST GAP in world 1-1. When we tried Duck Hunt I had to hold the Zapper right next to the TV screen in order to hit ducks, and I was at a total loss while playing Al Unser Jr.’s Turbo Racing. So for a while, all I could do was sit and watch as my sisters played, which really was still quite enjoyable.
We had a lot of fun with the NES. Our game library increased quite a bit after we each received fifty dollars from my Grandma for that same Christmas and we made our way over to Toys “R” Us. I remember purchasing the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game, and it was my video game primer. I learned how to time jumps and familiarize myself with different game mechanics through it, and when I finally picked up the controller to play Super Mario Bros. again I jumped over that first gap with relative ease.
We rented NES games we couldn’t purchase, and through those rentals I first experienced Zelda, and probably a number of games I’ve thankfully forgotten. Outside Zelda, I discovered most of the “rad” games through playing at the houses of friends who often let me borrow their games. My friend Casey introduced me to Mega Man, Metroid, and P.O.W., and my friend Randall introduced me to the first Robocop game, and Gargoyle’s Quest 2: The Demon Darkness. I’m also pretty sure one of them let me borrow Battletoads as well. All of which were great, though I didn’t ever complete all of them (I STILL haven’t completed the first TMNT game! It’s so hard!).
The NES was only the first of a few game systems, and the included games were only the first of many games. Our family never had a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis, so I was reliant on playing SNES and Genesis games at friends houses. Yet during the Game Boy, Game Gear disputes a few years after we received our NES I sided with Sega and Sonic over Mario. During the Playstation/Nintendo 64 era I jumped back to Nintendo until I realized it was plausible for me to own both of them after getting my first job as a teenager, and I’ve usually possessed two separate systems since then. It might be sad, it might be nerdy, but in some ways I don’t remember my childhood as what year in school I was in, but what game systems and video games I was playing at that time. I played some great ones over the years! But that will be my post for tomorrow.

Metroid: Other M and the Vulnerable Female

Cover Image ganked from Wikipedia
Before I get started, I should just forewarn anyone (if anyone bothers to read it that is) who plans to play Metroid: Other M that this post is full of spoilers.

Metroid: Other M is Nintendo’s second relaunch of the Metroid series, and takes place chronologically after Super Metroid and before Metroid Fusion. Samus Aran, the protagonist of the series, has evolved a lot over the last decade since the release of Metroid Prime and Fusion, and Samus occupies an interesting position in video gamedom as being one of the few, strong female protagonists the medium offers. Unfortunately, Metroid: Other M is a step backward for Samus.
Nintendo’s decision to give fans of the series a look at Samus’s past is well intentioned as she has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. All that was really known about Samus prior to Other M is that the Space Pirates orphaned Samus as a young child and she was rescued by the Chozo. The Chozo trained her as a warrior and gave her one of their enhanced Power Suits. After leaving the Chozo, Samus became a soldier in the Galactic Federation under commanding officer Adam Malkovich, and eventually left in order to become a lone wolf bounty hunter. Other M explores Samus’s past with the Federation, her “relationship” to her former CO, and the thoughts and emotions she has regarding the events of Super Metroid. However, Nintendo’s intentions to explore Samus’s past transforms Samus from the powerful, if reserved, character she was in the early 2000s into a far more vulnerable and troubled woman.
Samus’s newfound emotional doubts and weaknesses and the presence of male characters that have remained mostly absent throughout the series, further problematizes Samus’s in-game appearance and she falls prey to Laura Mulvey’s notion of being an object of the male gaze (found within her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”). To be sure, Samus has always been objectified throughout her 24 year video game history. Ever since the first Metroid, the series rewards players for completing the various games within certain timeframes or completion percentages with a fan service shot of Samus without her armor and scantily clad.
Parting shots of Samus, from left to right: Metroid (1986), Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991), Super Metroid (1994), and Metroid Fusion (2002). Image ganked from Metroid Database
Yet Other M goes a step further thanks to the male presence within the game. Now players meet a Samus who is not only vulnerable, but also subject to male authority. Samus’s finds her former CO, Adam, shortly after the game’s onset who agrees to allow her to help him and his team of Galactic Federation troopers find survivors and solve the mystery behind a distress beacon sent out by a GF research “Bottle Ship.” However, Adam’s “condition” for allowing Samus to assist his team is that she follow all his orders unquestionably and only use her full arsenal of weapons and abilities when Adam allows her. Thus Samus, who by this point in the series timeline has saved the galaxy several times without the assistance or intercession of male authority, is disempowered by the presence of Adam who destroys the threat she imposes on the male hegemony both he and the player represent.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Samus feels as though she disappointed Adam when she left the Galactic Federation and part of the plot involves her redemption in Adam’s eyes. So Adam first disempowers Samus, then he becomes the male figure that the once fearless bounty hunter seeks to impress. Accordingly, Samus’s character develops through her relationship with the male characters. Contrary to the depiction of Samus as a traumatized, vulnerable, and indecisive woman, the male characters are steadfast, confident, and strong. Samus (re)gains her own confidence through the influence and sacrifices of the male Galactic Federation soldiers. For example, for the first time in the history of the series, Samus hesitates when facing a resurrected Ridley although by this point in the Metroid timeline she has already defeated Ridley in numerous forms in previous games. In Other M, Samus has a flashback of the Space Pirate attack on her homeworld that implies it was Ridley that murdered her parents, and this memory turns Samus from the fierce, cold hunter she was in previous games into someone paralyzed by fear and trauma of loss.
Character artwork for Ridley as he appears in Super Metroid. This image also ganked from Metroid Database.
Were it not for the actions of Samus’s friend and former comrade, Anthony Higgs, who nearly loses his life trying to protect her from Ridley’s onslaught, Samus would be unable to overcome her fears and past in order to defeat the enemy she has already conquered on multiple occasions. Therefore, Samus is not only subject to the will of male authority, but she finds strength and solidarity in the male characters that allow her to develop and progress as a “stronger” character and once again become the galactic savior she was in times past.
There are two other female roles within Other M‘s story to consider as well, Madeline and Melissa Bergman. Madeline Bergman is the scientist aboard the Bottle Ship in charge of the research and development of biological weapons modeled after and cloned from the now extinct Space Pirates. These weapons include genetically and bionically enhanced Space Pirates, the eponymous Metroids, as well as a cyborg, called Melissa Bergman by her creator, whose artificial intelligence the researchers modeled after the evil end boss of Super Metroid, Mother Brain (OMG they have the same initials!).
Samus fighting Mother Brain at the climax of Super Metroid. Image taken from this place.
As one might expect, Mother Brain’s advanced A.I. and telepathic capabilities lead the little female cyborg down a path of anger and destruction, and Melissa becomes the real threat to male hegemony in Other M through the power she wields as the telepathic controller of the various enemies aboard the Bottle Ship and the threat her powers pose to the Galactic Federation. It becomes the job of Samus and Melissa’s creator, Madeline, to put a stop to this hegemonic threat. To be fair, it is Galactic Federation soldiers who actually kill the cyborg, but it was Madeline who shot Melissa with an ice beam making her vulnerable to GF attacks. Thus Madeline and Samus, who was protecting Madeline from Melissa at the time, become complicit in ending the danger Melissa represents to the galaxy and the male hegemony within the galaxy.
The depiction of Samus and the other females places Metroid: Other M firmly within the lines of sexist representations of women that the series has always somewhat resisted. Prior to Other M, Samus was a strong, if mysterious character even if she became objectified at the conclusion of almost every game. I say “almost” because there is one exception found in 2002’s Metroid Prime. After completing Prime with a certain completion percentage, Samus removes only her helmet and not her entire Power Suit. There is no skimpy clothing or sexy pose to be seen under her armor; there is only a helmet-less and introspective Samus surveying the scene of her last battle against the game’s final boss. Longtime (and most likely male) fans of the series have a tendency to consider the ending of Prime as the worst in the series because it does not objectify Samus in the voyeuristic way that previous and subsequent games have. Furthermore, there is no male presence in Prime that forces Samus into subservience. Seen in this light, Samus’s depiction in Prime is her strongest as it presents her as an empowered female more than capable of surviving on her own and without a male presence in hostile environments. Of course, her role as a female avatar for a primarily male audience somewhat complicates Samus’s presentation in Prime, but that is perhaps another topic for another post.
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