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I feel like Jerry Maguire today. After many years chasing my tail reviewing whatever game I could lay my hands on I have decided to take a break from the rat race. In the words of the man himself "Let us work less hard to [play] the [games] that we know won’t matter in the long run, and work twice as hard to [play] the ones who will." So I started these Family Gamer articles, trying to get down in words the things that matter to me as a family gamer.
They say start with what you know, for me this is easy to define: my kids, my wife and my friends. Most (not all mind) games come and go, whereas these people are around for the long haul, putting up with my various idiosyncrasies along the way. It’s not too surprising then, that much of my gaming is done in their company whilst the rest is sneaked in late at night after they are tucked up in bed.
Looking back on the last few years, I realise the brutal truth of the transition from young gamer to family man is that I no longer finish many games. Some are simply too long to warrant the time with so much else to do, whilst others just don’t manage to grab my imagination. This might sound like I am leaving my old hobby behind. But don’t take this slide into gaming lowlands as a lack of care or devotion to these masterpieces of digital agency. Quite the reverse, I’m still as inspired and committed to games as ever. It’s just the reality of life that means I now play in the gaps around the main event of friends and family.
However, as I look a little longer at days gone by I realise that even before family life I was still pretty pressured and short on time. Even in those carefree younger years, if I’m honest there weren’t many games I finished. Super Mario World, Rainbow Islands, Bubble Bobble, Double Dragon and The Adams Family pinball machine are almost a full list.
In hindsight though, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to leave some games uncompleted. Maybe we need to lose some of that pressure to perform and complete every game we play. I’ve found that playing fewer games has substantially re-invigorated my love of the medium. Previously, I always felt guilty for my lack of commitment, thinking gaming was all about completion, high scores and breaking records. These things are in the mix for sure, but when you take time to enjoy a game – when you actually play – you realise it’s the momentary experiences of agency that engage us most powerfully.
It’s almost a relief to admit there are many games I won’t be finishing. Instead I want to resolve to linger in the moments I most enjoy, and take time to soak up the excitement and emotion they evoke before charging on to get that ‘oh so important’ high score or achievement. Now, I can (re)discover a small circle of games that have really impacted me. These range from the somber therapeutic progression of Shadow of the Colossus on PS2, to Tetris DS’s addictive online leader boards, to Elite Beat Agents’ foot tapping rhythms or even Wii Sports’ spine tingling gesture controls.
So as the torrent of new games continues, I can more easily pick my way through to those that connect with me. I realise I am learning to play the games I like, rather than those I am told are groundbreaking. The bottom line here is that I am enjoying playing now more than ever. I’m probably more evangelical about these experiences than ever before, and because they genuinely move me rather than for their technical prowess. The games I play now capture my imagination and create meaningful experiences, I hope that yours do too.
When they want to, families have a surprisingly long memory. The strong response to a recent Family Gamer column made me realise that we all have a myriad of skeletons in the closet and claims to fame that are told and retold over the years. Christmases, summer camps, weddings and funerals offer opportunities for us to get together and tell those old stories again. They are what define us; they are a big part of our heritage.
Video gaming however often seems to be almost the opposite. Such is the clamour for new, bigger and better experiences that many defining gaming moments are lost in the past. Bringing my family and my handheld gaming together has made me rethink all this. As I introduce my kids to their first handheld and mobile games, I instinctively want to share the experiences I remember from my younger years.
So, rather than starting my kids (and other half) off on the PSP, DS or high end Nokia N series phones, I handed them a grey and maroon Gameboy from the early 90′s. The great thing about this was that with no frame of reference they happily played the games on their own merit, rather than worrying about the 4 grey-scale graphics or basic synth soundtracks.
Weekends and evenings were spent trawling through my old Gameboy cartridges. They marvelled at each new discovery and I had my memory jogged as I reacquainted myself with my old games. I had forgotten how much enjoyment had been squeezed out of these 64 and 128k carts. No saving, no loading, no customisation, no multiplayer – just pure unadulterated fun. The jewel in the crown for me was laying my hands on Top Rank Tennis, a game I had all but forgotten. Just five minutes later I had again become addicted to this surprisingly flexible tennis game.
Top Rank Tennis from Nintendo doesn’t look like anything special. In fact it trots out that well worn forced isometric rendering of tennis court and players that has graced many handheld systems. I was soon reminded why I loved it so much.
Firstly, it accurately simulated the connection between player and ball. The trajectory of your shot depended on your shot selection combined with your relative position to the ball and button timing. These factors combined in miniature pixel precision to produce true nuanced ball control. I often found myself running round a back hand so I could drive a dipping forehand down the line, or backing up to smash away a dipping lob.
Secondly, it squeezed every last drop of control out of the old Gameboy. Not only did you have the standard top spin and flat shot on the A and B buttons, but it also used the Start and Select buttons in game to provide slices and lobs. (To pause the game you had to tap up twice before your serve). This flexibility combined with the believable physics to encourage real imaginative play. It sounds slightly absurd to say it, but I genuinely felt as in control of my game here as ever I did in Virtua Tennis on the 360.
Finally, although not impressive these days, back in the 90′s Top Rank Tennis wowed gamers with real voice synthesized umpire commentary. The score and break/match points were enunciated for all to hear. All this from such a small cartridge, and less memory than my washing machine, still impresses me today.
I’ve been in the element over the last few weeks as the family vied for position, seeing who could climb highest up the Top Rank Tennis ladder. Breakfast conversations often turned to the merits of serve/volley versus a back court game, or the success of using chip and charge against different computer opponents. Admittedly some of the younger members of the family still prefer the simpler Gameboy games, but there is also plenty for them to play there as well.
In the weeks to come it will be interesting to see what they make of the newer handheld machines, and whether improved graphics and controls really make the games better. Top Rank Tennis on the Gameboy has certainly set the bar high.