Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MEMORIES: Sega Genesis

Video games are huge business these days and I do not care. The most recent game system I own is an X-Box 360, which I bought exclusively to play “Marvel vs. Capcom III.” I haven’t turned on the system in probably over a year, to the point I unplugged it from my TV, wrapped it up in its cords, and hid it away somewhere. But it wasn’t always that way. As a kid in the early nineties, I saw video game systems as the ultimate status symbol. When I was very young, there was an NES in the house. However, it was designated as belonging to the family and was mostly played by my older sister. (That is until a pet cat chew through one of the cords, rendering the system unplayable.) A friend of mine owned a Super Nintendo, which I coveted greatly. However, there was one game system which I desired more then any other: The Sega Genesis, known overseas as the Megadrive.

The reasons why I lusted after the Genesis so much are easy to determine. Sega’s advertisements positioned the Genesis as a hipper, edgier console over its competition. In truth, the Super Nintendo had a stronger graphics card, more memory, better sound, and a library of games filled with genuine classics. That didn’t matter to five year old Zack Clopton back in 1993. I totally bought every line about Blast Processing, every promise that Sega does what Nintendon’t. The goal of these commercials was to make the Genesis seem like the badass of the home console world. Nintendo, meanwhile, was for babies. It worked, at least on me.

Yet even that wasn’t the real reason why I desired a Genesis. Last week, the internet celebrated the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog. As a kid, I was obsessed with Sega’s blue mascot with ‘tube. The comic book and cartoon shows fostered such a love for the character and his world, one that shamefully continues to this day, that I had to start a whole other blog to figure out why. I happily consumed the comics and loved the Saturday morning series but knew Sonic began his life as a video game character. For years, I only played the games at a friend's home or in store display room. Finally, in 1995 at the age of seven, I received a Genesis for Christmas. Afterwards, I spent hours playing many of the “Sonic” games, with the second one quickly emerging as my favorite.

You’ll notice that this blog isn’t called “Video Game Thoughts.” Back in the mid-nineties, I didn’t read reviews. Magazines and probably even some early websites existed devoted to parsing out which video games were good and which were crap. Nowadays, I know that video games based off of movies or television shows are not traditionally well regarded. When I was a kid, I was drawn to games inspired by film. What young cinema fan wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t love a chance to play through their favorite movies or shows?  Naturally, I wound up with quite a few digital adaptations of cinematic creations. Some of these games, I would later realize, weren’t very good. Back then, I would play them over and over again, mining hours of entertainment from products of sometimes questionable quality.

Such as, for example, the video game based off “The Pagemaster.” The film, which I’m a fan of, was a box office flop in its day. I don’t think the video game was much more widely seen. As a kid, I liked the opening level, which took place in a spooky castle, featuring lots of ghosts and skulls. Playing the game as an adult, I realize the controls are slippery, the game mechanics are sometimes confusing, and the level designs are non-intuitive. Not everything you enjoyed as a kid will stand up to scrutiny as an adult. This is the sort of lesson you have to learn when you’re a nostalgia addict.

Some of those Sega games, on the other hand, hold up alright. The Disney Animated Features of the day were often accompanied by video game adaptations. While these rarely stand as crowning achievements for the art form, a few of them weren’t too bad. “Aladdin” is actually one of the best selling games for the Genesis. The game play is often repetitive but the artwork is vibrant and the action is exciting enough. Mostly, I just loved revisiting the film’s world and being able to see more of it. The same could be said of “The Lion King” game, also developed by Virgin Interactive. By switching between Simba as a cab and an adult, the game provided some variety. The stages, which included the elephant graveyard and the wildebeest stampede, could become very intense. Even the weaker levels did their best to recreate the film’s gorgeous artwork.

Of course, not all of the Sega games with the Disney brand were that good. “The Jungle Book” is a solid enough platformer. It’s also has colorful, faithful graphics. However, the difficulty level was a bit too steep for me as a kid. There are so many enemies that your health meter is quickly drained. At least Mogwli’s 16 bit adventure was more memorable then “The Little Mermaid” game. I mostly recall the confusingly laid out stage and lack of weapons in that game. “The Beauty and the Beast” game, meanwhile, only sticks with me because I could never make it pass the first level. I’ve never had especially admirable gaming skills but I don’t feel the need to revisit these cartridges too often.

When “Toy Story” came out in 1995, it naturally was accompanied by a video game adaptation. The Sega port did an okay job of copying the film’s computer graphics, to the best of the Genesis’ ability. The game often changed format, including a first person perspective on one level and a driving level with terrible controls. Despite that, I still wanted the “Toy Story” video game so much. That December, it was on all the Christmas wish lists sent out to each family member. On the 25th, my dear grandmother happily handed me a wrapped gift shaped like a Genesis box. I unwrapped the package to find… The Sega Genesis game “Toys,” based off the Robin Williams’ movie of the same name. As debatable as the film’s merits are, the game is far worst. That Christmas represents one of the earliest times I can recall being forced to swallow my disappointment and smile at a gift I didn't want.

I frequently played two Sega Genesis games that were based off at-the-time popular cartoon shows that were, nevertheless, built around film references. This made perfect sense for “Animaniacs,” as the show usually parodied both new and classic movies. That video game, by the way, is alright. Being able to switch between the three Warner siblings, each one with a different ability, is mildly innovative. The artwork, meanwhile, is colorful and memorable. I especially loved the horror movie inspired stage. “Garfield: Caught in the Act” also featured a horror stage. The graphics weren’t as bold but they still featured a handful of amusing sights. That game wasn’t nearly as interesting, being a far more standard platformer. I was never able to beat it due to a glitch in the third stage, where the boss just leaves the game.

As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes just browsing the video game section at a video rental place was an experience unto itself. I usually stuck to titles I was familiar with. My local video store had a fairly small Sega Genesis selection and rarely got in new games. This meant I would often rent the same titles over and over again. This was how I was able to master “Dynamite Headdy” before I even owned a couple. Occasionally, my hand would hover over a movie-related game repeatedly without ever renting it. “Moonwalker” intrigued me but I wasn’t a big enough Michael Jackson fan to ever take that plunge. “Toxic Crusaders,” meanwhile, mildly interested me. Even as a kid though, I kind of suspected that video game sucked. When I played the game years later, that assumption was proven correct. “Moonwalker,” meanwhile, is a mildly entertaining game, worth playing if only for its bizarre novelty value.

I still have my original Sega Genesis, by the way. It’s a model two that still functions perfectly. Today, you can take a brand new video game system out of the box and it’ll die immediately. Back in the nineties, you could throw one down the stairs and you’d still be able to plug it in and play it. Occasionally, I even acquire a game I never had as a kid. “Splatterhouse 2” was probably too explicitly gory and creepy for my childhood eyes. As an adult, I love the way it mashes up different eighties horror flicks, essentially creating a video game where Jason Voorhees fights the Evil Dead. “RoboCop vs. Terminator,” meanwhile, I didn’t even knew existed back then. That game is fun too, though far from perfect. Again, there’s something to be said about getting to see RoboCop blast away legions of T-800s. It’s certainly something you’ll never see in a movie.

I know this wasn’t the most insightful Memories essay. Much like playing them, writing about video games is a tricky art form. The truth is, outside of the titles I mentioned here, I didn’t play that many other Genesis games. I didn’t play classics of the system like “Gunstar Heroes” or “Castlevania: Bloodlines” until I was much older. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a way to connect childhood favorites like “Battletoads & Double Dragon” or “Eternal Champions” to this blog’s theme.) The quality of the games wasn’t always sterling but the Genesis and its many titles remain a source of nostalgia for me. While many people love “Dark Souls” or “Overwatch,” I wouldn’t even know what to do with those. A bit of the ol’ Blast Processing and that simple black box were always enough for me.

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