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Growing up 8-bit

by Caleb Baumgardner | February 11, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.

Last week I wrote about people making money buying up stock in a video game store, so this week I think I’ll write about video games.

Stay with me, Faithful Reader. This is probably going in a different direction than you think.

I’ve been playing video games since I was around five years old. Now I’m 37. You do the math. They were a big part of my childhood and are still part of my adulthood. Many of us who grew up playing them still do so as a hobby.

There is a subset of gamers (that’s what we call ourselves) who are into “vintage gaming,” — that is, finding video games that are 20-35 years old and playing them. I call myself a vintage gamer, but I also foray into the new stuff. At home in my living room you will find a Nintendo Entertainment System, a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (It was the first thing I ever saved up money for and bought myself, at Wal-Mart for around $150. I bought it when I was nine and it still works!), a Nintendo 64, and a Play Station 2, 3 and 4. Haven’t upgraded to a PS5 yet.

I’ve been thinking lately that as my generation, the first one to play video games, has grown up, so have the video games we play.

Here’s what I mean. Even people who don’t play video games, even people from two or three generations back, have heard of the Mario games. They started with the Donkey Kong arcade game, which began eating quarters in 1981. The player plays Mario, the Italian plumber protagonist from Brooklyn, who climbs up construction sites in an attempt to rescue Pauline, a damsel in distress, from a barrel-throwing ape named Donkey Kong. Since then, Mario has appeared in scores of games. It really is that many. I Googled to find out how many Mario games there are and the list was way longer than I felt like counting.

The most iconic of these is probably Super Mario Brothers, which was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985 and came in the box with the system when you brought it home. It may be the first video game I ever played. It was either that or The Legend of Zelda. I can’t remember.

Anyway, the object of Super Mario Brothers is pretty straightforward. You have to go through eight levels, each consisting of four stages, in order to save Princess Toadstool from a giant, evil, fire-breathing turtle named Bowser at the end of the game. In the game, you jump over bottomless pits, defeat enemies by jumping on them or shooting fireballs at them, collect coins, ride moving platforms and try to get through each stage before the timer runs out.

All told, it’s pretty simple stuff. Definitely a game for children. Don’t let that fool you, though. I totally played it two weekends ago.

Another game, Illusion of Gaia, was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System close to my 11th birthday. I was a little older, and the plot was way more complicated.

The setting of the game is a version of Earth that is somewhat historical but mostly rooted in fantasy. You play Will, who, along with his friends, is pulled into a globe-trotting quest to keep civilization from being wiped out by a comet hurtling towards the planet. You learn that the comet struck once before, thousands of years ago, and wiped out ancient civilizations. The keys to stopping the comet are found in the ruins of these civilizations, so you work your way through Incan ruins and the Nazca Lines in Peru, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat (an ancient temple complex located in present day Cambodia) and the Egyptian pyramids. The game also has part of it dedicated to the myths of Atlantis, Mu and Lemuria.

The game ends when Will ascends the Tower of Babel to stop the comet. During the course of the game, characters fall in love and talk about loving children they won’t live to see, a man is killed when he drinks a cup of poison in a game of Russian Glass and Will liberates slaves from an African diamond mine and watches one of his best friends die.

A bit more mature and complex than Super Mario Brothers, eh? But then, I was older when I played it.

It’s a version of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, only it’s a video game for pre-teens and teenagers.

In college, I played Grand Theft Auto 3 for Play Station 2. It was extremely popular in its day, and it turned conventional video games on their heads. See, in video games, you typically play the good guy and your mission is to beat some kind of bad guy.

Not so in GTA3. You play a professional criminal who is recruited by the mafia to do the Family’s dirty work. As you ascend the ranks of the criminal underworld, you wind up double-crossing the mob, working for the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia, which is a real organization), going to war with a Central American cartel and having a fling with the Don’s daughter, who falls in love with you.

You play a bad guy, and you get through the game by doing bad things for bad people so that you can make money doing it. You steal cars, rob banks, blow things up, bribe cops and carry out hits for crime lords. Definitely adult material.

All of this brings me to a new game I haven’t played yet, but I will when my friend who has it is out of COVID quarantine: Red Dead Redemption 2 for Play Station 4. It’s set in the wild West and you play an outlaw, but depending on the choices you make throughout the game, you can wind up being a halfway decent human being or a complete scoundrel.

I’m told that your character can wind up having a conversation with a nun wherein the sister talks with you about the existence of God, the human condition and how it’s our choices that make us who we are. She can even tell your character that there is yet hope for redemption for him and that she’ll be praying for him. If you make the choices that lead to that outcome, that is. I really can’t wait to play it.

I say all of that to say this: when we were kids, the rules were simple. We just had to avoid the really obvious bottomless pits, get through the day and maybe pick up a few coins along the way if we were lucky. Then we got older and we started to see just how big the world really was, but like Will in Illusion of Gaia, we had friends who were close at hand. Even if something horrible happened, it was easier to believe that things would probably turn out okay in the end.

Then we grew up, and when that happened some of us went the wrong way. And even if we didn’t go all the way wrong, like Grand Theft Auto 3, it’s still Red Dead Redemption, really. It’s muddy and dirty out here, even when it’s good. If we’re honest, we have all done things we regret, things we can’t take back, and things we’re not proud of. We have all failed, either by what we did or what we didn’t do. And sometimes those choices have consequences that can’t be undone despite our most heartfelt wishes to the contrary. No resetting the game. No do-overs. We just have to live with it. And through all this, friends may be hard to find. Not like when we were younger. Things are no longer so simple or easy, and those days will never come again.

But maybe we have a nun praying for us, telling us that we’re better than we think we are. And even if we don’t, the choices that will make us better, or at least give us a better ending than the one we’ll get if we make other choices, are before us. None of us knows how it will turn out. It’s kind of a crap shoot, but we’re hopefully doing the best we can and hoping it will be alright. Sort of like that outlaw who can choose to be more than an outlaw.

Like I said, our video games have grown up with us.

Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]

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