Sunday, June 28, 2009

Oh! It is harder! Or, Has anyone actually finished this damn thing?

So, as I posted a couple of weeks ago, I've been playing lots of Dragon Quest IV DS and Final Fantasy IV DS so far this summer, since portable gaming is easier to do with a new baby in the apartment than console gaming. I've branched out a bit since then, but it's still a bit more convenient to squeeze in the DS and the PSP between the other things I've been up to.

ANYWAY, I complained at some length about the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV before backtracking a bit and saying that the game wasn't "that hard." Well, I take it back. FFIV DS is hard, and it isn't just me, as I learned when I read these old 61FPS posts by Bob Mackey and Nadia Oxford. "Medieval brick shithouses" or not, Cecil and Kain, as well as their various sometime accomplices, have a crap-ton of a tough quest ahead of them in this version. Several days ago, my 40ish-level war band of Cecil, Kain, Yang, Rydia, and Rosa stomped into the Tower of Babil (sic) only to be repulsed by a rabble of high-level random monsters and one sonofabitch Flamehound. I'm still not sure why, but the Flamehound really gave my party a tough time, and they found themselves making an unplanned retreat in response.

This was just the bottom floor of the tower.

Yeah, I haven't quite made it to the moon yet, and in light of Mr. Mackey's column, I think I'm completely justified in quitting at that point, but I'm starting to think that maybe the writing's on the wall already: this FFIV is a tough bastard, and maybe I should just go back and play some FFIV Advance. I do like those old FFIV sprites, and I want to get started on FFIV: The After Years (though maybe I shouldn't). Also, FFIV used to feel like comfort gaming, and I guess that's sort of what I was in the mood for with this one, though Square Enix can hardly be blamed for changing things up and adding a bit of variety to this classic.

But I'm sort of a glutton for punishment, and it would be cool to know that I've finished the hardest possible version of this game. I mean, what else do I have to do this summer, aside from parenting and finishing my dissertation?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Join the Nintendo Fun Club Today! Mac.

My wife just bought me the new Wii Punch-Out!! for Father's Day. Let me just say at the outset that what you're hearing is true; it is brilliant. The thing is, the genius of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, which was not a particularly long game, was that it forced you to learn its secrets through frequent repetition. It didn't take long to get to any given point in the game once you knew how, so it was always easy to summon the determination to go back and repeat a section that had you stuck. And some things, like punching King Hippo in the mouth, you could learn at the playground or explain to someone fairly easily, but many things, like how exactly to dodge and block to knock out Piston Honda or when to hit Bald Bull, were lessons much better left to experience.

The beauty of the new Punch-Out!! is that it works exactly the same way, and in fact, it rewards even a veteran's experimentation, since some boxers are just a little different from their counterparts in the NES or SNES versions, just enough that you'll need to work a few things out for yourself.

At the same time, it adds a beautiful new coat of paint to the old game. As Scott Sharkey points out, those fighters from the NES game aren't nearly as large as we remember them being. True, every last one of them, even wimpy old Glass Joe, towered over the 107-pound (!) Little Mac, but even on a 4:3 display, which was the only way to play the old game, there was lots of ring space they didn't fill. That's no longer the case, as all of the fighters, particularly the big guys like King Hippo and Bear Hugger, take up a good deal more of the space on even a 16:9 display. The camera also bucks around with Little Mac's actions, making it feel like there's much more for the camera to take in. One of my favorite touches in the game is the noticeable step up in atmosphere from circuit to circuit; that Minor Circuit ring looks shabby indeed, and the gradations to Major Circuit and World Circuit arenas make the corresponding upward trajectory of Little Mac's fame much more tangible than it's been in the past.

Anyway, naturally I thought I'd check out the old strategies to see if they worked on the slightly re-tooled versions of Punch-Out!!'s characters. Glass Joe and Von Kaiser are still pretty pathetic, at least at the beginning of the game, and I didn't feel any need to deploy any well laid strategy against either of them, so I skipped straight to the details on King Hippo, who now comes a couple spaces earlier in the progression (click to see the full-size, readable version):

Yep, that checks out, though if you don't uppercut the new King Hippo when he pauses after the two hand squish-move, you're wasting a lot of crucial opportunities for those tummy-punches. In fact, he'll be a much more difficult KO if you don't.

And what about Piston Honda, or "Piston Hondo," as he's (I guess) less actionably called these days?

Okay, that works too, I suppose, though the explanation's a bit more awkward than the more straightforward advice needed to get past King Hippo. As I said, for the most part, this was not a game that benefited much from playground shop-talk the way, say, Castlevania II did.

Ah, the olden days. Going back to that old Official Nintendo Player's Guide, the source of those hint sections above, made me want to look through the whole book, and so that was what I did. It got me thinking: there was once a time when I didn't know what Mother Brain looked like, when I didn't realize that registering your name as "Zelda" in The Legend of Zelda would allow you to start a completely different game from the one that most of us were playing. But it would:


As Bob Mackey pointed out in a great column on 1UP recently (and see this post for an index to subsequent entries in this series), not all of us think too often about strategy guides anymore. Why spend fifteen or twenty bucks on a physical thing when you can just go to Gamefaqs and download someone's pride and joy, an obsessively compiled guide to anything and everything in a given game?

But there was a time when we weren't really thinking all that much about strategy guides simply because we weren't yet aware they were out there. I think that, with a few exceptions (some modern games need guides, because they really are just that hard or that vast), strategy guides had a brief floruit from the late eighties to the late nineties, a short period of time sandwiched between the dark times, when game hints were passed from master to pupil through a solely oral tradition, and the point at which the internet became the universal resource for gamers in trouble. Though it was hardly the first strategy guide published, The Official Nintendo Player's Guide nevertheless set an example that would eventually be followed by almost every console game guide published, at least in America. It may also have been one of the earliest, if not the earliest, examples of the screenshot-mosaic level map that remains such a memorable feature of classic Nintendo Power issues.

Thanks to the ONPG (as most people like to refer to it¹) and presumably the popularity of gaming magazines like Nintendo Power², the large trade paperback format, which was well suited to printing lots of screenshots and game-related art, won out over the, um, fun but somewhat less apt mass market format of such books as Jeff Rovin's How to Win at Nintendo Games or the Metal Gear and Castlevania II novelizations "created by F.X. Nine."

Anyway, this isn't an exhaustive history of the genre, though I'd love to see something like that, so enough with all that. The ONPG, which had somewhat in-depth coverage of twenty-four games and capsule summaries of fifty-six more, was, to this seven-year-old, a revelation from God. The God, yes. You see, there was obviously an omniscient being behind this Nintendo Player's Guide thing, because not only did it know how many missiles it took to beat Mother Brain and what she actually looked like (this, incidentally)

it had also apparently beaten goddamned Ghosts 'N Goblins.

The one thing the ONPG didn't have going for it was an entirely sound grasp of the Queen's English in all its idiomatic splendor. Not that there were too many real howlers, but the text was a little funny in some places. Ghosts 'N Goblins, for example, is described as "a very torcherous adventure." To be fair, there is a torch weapon in GNG, and trying to make it through the game with that piece of crap is an even more, ahem, torturous experience than usual, so maybe this was just a particularly witty turn of phrase, but I doubt it. Towards the end of the book, a capsule summary for Excitebike does a particularly good job of showing the book's flair for dipping into strange English as it grows nearly poetic in its dramatic intensity:

Your objective is revenge against your old adversary, Arch Rivale, who humiliated you at the last Excitebike race. You can still hear his taunting laughter as he rode over your foot, flattening it like a road bunny. Will you finally have your revenge? Or will Arch Rivale have the last laugh? Again.

I guess someone got bored and decided that Excitebike was in desperate need of a plot? Interesting choice.

Evidently, only the most glaring errors were cleared up in the ONPG's translation from Japanese to English, leaving quite a few oddities. The intro to the full-length review of Castlevania is pretty good (and I swear the following text, capitalization and all, is precisely copied from the book):

"You are the hero of this game! The Whip is your constant companion. Power-Up to Level Two and knock down the Monsters. Inside the castle you'll find Candles. Strike them with your Whip and important Items will appear."

For great justice! By the way, is "to knock down" a euphemism for "to murder" in Japanese? That would certainly explain that old line from Final Fantasy.

Some of the other fun bits are the frequent scare quotes in other games' capsule summaries that make it sound like the writers were choking back disdain at having to commit this stuff to paper:

"To defeat Ganon, you must find the eight pieces of the 'Triforce of Wisdom' which are scattered throughout the land."

"The cruel King Ligar and his soldier beasts have stolen Argool's 'Door to Peace' and have established an evil reign of terror."

"The pirates have hidden this 'Metroid' deep within the fortress Planet Zebes where they plan to make it multiply, and use it to destroy galactic civilization."

"Pick from three levels of play depending on your 'b-ball' skills, when playing the computer."

It's a fun book, moderately useful (if only half of the "in-depth reviews" didn't cut off halfway through their respective games!) and certainly an amusing read in places, and now it's a fun antique, pre-dating even the first issue of Nintendo Power. Wikipedia thinks it's in a direct line of continuity with those Nintendo Power Strategy Guides that came out in 1990, the ones that covered Super Mario Bros. 3 and Final Fantasy, you know, and that's kind of cool to know, considering that the more recent line of Nintendo Player's Guides, which covered almost everything and included the deservedly famous NES Atlas, ran almost twenty years, from the early 1990s to 2007. At any rate, The Official Nintendo Player's Guide is one of the really early examples of the form, and if there's such a thing as a strategy guide enthusiast, and if you happen to be one of those, the book really belongs in your library. And hey! There are fun stickers!

[While this week's pictures are mostly my own scans, I've also grabbed an image from's hilarious essay on memorable NES quotations; there's also a great article on how inferior the SNES Super Punch-Out!! is to its predecessor (and, I'd imagine, its new successor); that seems pretty topical. There are run-downs of the top 100 games on the NES and the SNES. In fact, many of Syd's articles are great, and it can be hard to stop reading the site's content once you've started, so you've been warned.]

¹Yes, I am being facetious.

²And it's worth noting that Nintendo Power published four "Nintendo Power Strategy Guides" as part of its print run in 1990, focused on SMB3, Ninja Gaiden II, Final Fantasy, and various four-player games for the old NES, with several sports games, Gauntlet II, and (ugh) Swords and Serpents.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Pair of Fours

In the breaks between diaper changes, baths, mostly baby-related housework, and entertaining a few guests over the past four weeks, I've actually managed to get in a fair amount of gaming, almost all of it portable. I've particularly been focusing my time on the Nintendo DS remakes of Dragon Quest IV (Dragon Warrior IV, as the graybeards may still know it) and Final Fantasy IV (or II to the same crowd), both of which, yes, came out last summer and both of which I'll admit to having chipped away at gradually over the past several months.

It struck me as I switched over from FFIV to DQIV, and back again, and so forth, how very different these two games are, how different are the designers' intentions and the strategies required of the player, and I thought it might be worthwhile to put together some of my thoughts on how this has shaped my experience of these two games. I will warn you that this is one of those long posts. Sorry!

I should say at the outset that the two games do bear a certain family resemblance to each other. At the most basic level, these two games are both Japanese RPGs, which is actually a sub-genre unto itself. In general, the more "Japanese" an RPG is, the most it's like driving a train: the tracks are already in place, the train's already there; it's just a matter of moving that train from point A to point B. The alternative to a Japanese RPG is a so-called Western RPG, the most extreme example of which would be a game that is largely customizable and essentially non-linear. I guess that if we stick to the transportation metaphor, a Western RPG is sort of like setting out to go somewhere on foot. You have a general idea of the destination, though that could always change, and maybe you'll decide to turn evil before you get there, though maybe not, and you always have the option to buy a car or hitch a ride or ... okay, wait. Maybe the transportation metaphor doesn't work. To put the whole thing in its proper historical context, the Western RPG model, which came first, grew out of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, where all that's set in advance is the rules, and the experience is meant to be as much a product of the players' creativity as a product of the game leader's (Dungeon Master's) imagination. Japanese RPGs were sort of a natural response to this model that took the elements of RPGs and anchored them to a pre-written story. Some freedom was sacrificed in favor of an ideally more fully realized narrative.

That's kind of a lot to take in, but I promise there's a reason for my bringing it up, and that's basically to point out how particularly Japanese, or not, DQIV and FFIV happen to be. Both games came out of franchises inaugurated in the 1980s (1986 and 1987, respectively, in Japan); both franchises were progenitors of the JRPG model, and both of these fourth iterations were released (again, in Japan) in the very early 1990s: 1990, on the Famicom/NES, in the case of DQIV, and 1991, on the Super Famicom/SNES, in the case of FFIV.

The basic difference, which is probably what gives rise to the other differences I want to talk about, is between the two games' styles of storytelling. Final Fantasy IV is more straightforward in this respect: the player controls an adventuring party of, at most, five characters at a time. Throughout the game, the focus is primarily centered on Cecil, a knight from the land of Baron, who uncovers an evil scheme to steal the world's magic crystals and, well, you can imagine what else. In his journeys, Cecil meets up with a number of other characters who are fighting for the same cause who will join him and leave the party, sometimes multiple times, for various reasons, usually fake death. All of these characters are elaborations on basic character classes that had either already appeared in prior Final Fantasy games or would appear in Final Fantasy V.

Cecil starts the game as a Dark Knight, basically a fighter with a few special powers and abilities, and he later becomes a Paladin, a fighter with healing spells and other white magic. Cecil's girlfriend Rosa eventually joins; she's a White Mage. An old man named Tellah, who is essentially a Black Mage and can cast various destructive spells and curses, also joins in.

In the original game, at least, the player has no control over what characters are in the party or what their abilities are. Really, the player's only option is what sort of equipment to give any one character. Otherwise, the story knows right where it's going, and the player gets to come along.

Dragon Quest IV is pretty similar at first glance. A good half or more of the game focuses on a nameless (well, named by the player) Hero who is involved in a quest to keep demons from ruling the world or something. Like Cecil, the Hero meets several other characters, each with her or his own skills, who can join the Hero's four-person party and assist in the quest. The difference, though, is this: Final Fantasy IV plays out entirely from Cecil's point of view, with other characters' experiences outside the party left to asides made upon their (re-)joining the party. After a brief introduction, the first big chunk of Dragon Quest IV is divided in four pieces, each piece dedicated to telling the story of characters from one of four different regions of the world and establishing their interest in seeing the Hero's quest to completion.

Here's where my opinion comes in: I think that this unique approach to the game's narrative, which was completely innovative for a console RPG in 1990, both suggests and encourages a much more individualized experience than FFIV. First of all, the idea of seeing the game from four, or really five, different perspectives in itself opens up the range of experiences the player might find in the game. Yes, the focus is on the Hero for half of the game or more, but since some of these other characters will spend most of this span of time in the Hero's party, the player may find herself more vested in the story of one of the other characters. This is all the more likely considering how colorful each of these characters is, whereas the Hero is a blank slate until quite late in the game.

Secondly, by the time the player has found the other characters and assembled a full eight-person traveling party, she will find herself faced with a choice: she must pare down this group of eight to a smaller attack group of four; only these four characters will delve into caves and castles and fight with monsters. This is where DQIV's similarities to FFIV really begin to work well. Like FFIV, DQIV offers an array of useful character types. There's a seemingly frail old man who at higher level casts devastating ice-based spells, a pair of sisters who function as a healer and a fire-flinging mage, a powerful warrior who can use nearly any suit of armor and any weapon in the game, and a few more. There's even a bizarre fellow who rarely follows the player's commands but often blunders into critical hits or steals high-level weapons from unsuspecting monsters. Unlike FFIV, DQIV allows the player to select any three of these characters (as well as the Hero, whose skills are a balance of offensive magic, healing spells, and fighting ability) at any time in the game, tailoring the entire experience to her own tastes and skills.

And this mechanic is much, much better suited to the flavor of Dragon Quest. DQ games are not necessarily easy, but then, they are also the last games anyone would think to call sadistic. In DQIV, there are some mid-level random encounters with monsters that can cast spells that cause instant death, and a group of two or more of these can whittle down even a capable party in no time. But the worst that can ever happen if a fight goes wrong is that your characters lose half the gold they were carrying at the time.

The Final Fantasy games have always, um, gone a different route. In FF, a Total Party Kill is a Total Party Kill: the game is over. Hope you saved. This can be a source of real frustration, too. Whereas I don't suppose I've lost my party more than once or twice in DQIV, FFIV has some damned devious villains in it that will never go down if the player hasn't learned exactly how to kill them. DQ seems to work differently: hard work will always pay off in time, and usually just a few levels' difference can make an impossible enemy (even one with a bag full of tricks) into one that's only moderately challenging.

I'll give a couple of examples. At the end of Chapter 4 in DQIV, the player's 3-person party encounters an eight-legged lion-demon thing called the Marquis de Léon (Keeleon, old people).
The Marquis will kill the party every time during this confrontation; the average party will probably be around level 10, but the Marquis can and will kill any group of players that shows up, I think. But DQIV is the kind of game where it makes perfect sense that, about ten (quick) levels later and a bit further in the story, the Marquis goes down with surprising ease. DQIV's system makes the whole process feel rewarding; a turnaround like this becomes an incentive, and best of all, the player has several options for building a party that will be able to handle the Marquis, which makes the experience that much more rewarding.

FFIV, though, sometimes uses the player's party too much as a set of tools for advancing the story it wants to tell—to be sure, a hallmark of the JRPG model. About halfway through FFIV, Cecil and his crew confront Golbez, the villain who by all appearances is behind the shenanigans that our heroes are trying to stop.
Golbez is too strong for the party, just like the Marquis in his first appearance. However! Tellah the old wizard casts a spell called Meteor that apparently consumes both Golbez and himself. However again! Golbez isn't dead, and he shows up sometime later. In this second appearance, Golbez is ask-your-friends-for-help-at-the-playground tough. After the heroes have inflicted a little damage, he calls up a black dragon that casts an instant-kill spell on the whole party; only Cecil is spared. And although Rydia, a character who'd apparently died earlier, shows up more powerful than ever, she turns out to be useless unless you keep another character free to check Golbez' weakness, which changes after every hit Rydia scores. Attacks that don't target Golbez' weakness will actually heal him rather than damage him!

Now, this wouldn't be so bad, it would in fact be sort of fun, if that were all there was to it, but it isn't. In the midst of all this, you see, Golbez is inflicting devastating hits with his spells, including one that sucks out hit points at a ridiculous rate and another one that steals tons of magic points, rendering Rydia powerless. So you almost need three characters, Cecil to detect Golbez' weakness, Rydia to attack him, and Rosa to keep the other two alive. Of course, Rosa's already dead from the dragon attack, and while Cecil has items on her that can resurrect her, she only comes back to life with a few measly hit points, and if Golbez hits the whole party with a damage spell (and he seems to do this more often than not), Rosa will go down before she can be pulled back up to a decent level of health.

So fighting Golbez the second time is a lot like that old commercial with the cowboys trying to herd cats: every success begins to feel like a prelude to the next failure. Of course, if the player can get this system going, Golbez turns out to be fairly easy to kill, but getting to a point where it's possible to keep the party alive while juggling those other two spells turns out to be not the least bit easy, and FFIV pulls no punches to give you a chance to get to that point.

It's typical of FFIV, too, that when the player finishes this nasty, demoralizing, soul-crushing fight, she finds out it's time to slog straight to the enemy's fortress—conveniently located on the other side of hell. And guess what? FFIV's version of hell is filled with tricksy monsters, including these chameleons that can and will turn your whole party to stone. You lose when this happens, by the way. Really, FFIV reminds me of a story my mom once told me about a guy who lived on her street when she was a kid. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him and liked him, but there was this one kind of cruel thing he used to do: when all the kids on the street were out playing, he'd call them over to his front lawn and offer each one an Atomic Fireball. He'd challenge them to hold the Fireballs in their mouths until they'd dissolved all the way; any kid who could do it would get a prize. He made this challenge several times with no successes, until one day, one plucky little guy finally pulled it off. Guess what the prize was? Another Atomic Fireball. Yeah.

To be fair, I'm overstating my point a bit. Final Fantasy IV isn't that hard, but you get the idea.

So DQIV and FFIV are both JRPGs; both have a narrative you're tied to, and both are there to tell you their story the way they want to tell it. Still, DQIV gives the player just enough freedom to work through the game's challenges the way that works best for her; FFIV wants the player to approach challenges just so, and diversion from that method is strenuously punished. In this sense, FFIV comes off feeling much more old-school, in its way: you play and replay through a section until you figure it out, and then you advance and do the same thing again.¹ Anyway, this isn't to say that one or the other is a better game or that one or the other is too hard or not hard enough. FFIV is a classic of the SNES era that many players have fond memories of, some of those stretching back almost two decades; it may in fact be the standard that really defined what a JRPG should be, which would explain a lot about how this post came about, I guess. For its part, DQIV is one of the longest, richest console RPGs of its day, an innovator at the time and today still a superlative and wonderful game. Nevertheless, speaking from personal experience: man, I break into way fewer cold sweats when I'm playing DQIV!

¹It bears pointing out here that Americans' first experience with Final Fantasy IV, which back in the day we all thought was actually Final Fantasy II, was far less challenging than a playthrough of the new DS remake. That's because "Final Fantasy II" was actually a much watered-down version of the original Japanese edition. A later edition published in Japan, called Final Fantasy IV Easytype, was easier still. The real FFIV has always been a damn hard game, as console RPGs go.

Image credits: Final Fantasy IV logo: OMG Nintendo; Golbez battle: Gamespite; Dragon Quest IV logo: posted on the Dragon's Den boards by user Woodus; Keeleon sprite from Lord Yuan Shu's Dragon Warrior IV walkthrough (; picture of FFIV party, um, stock photo from an online store.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dunt Dunt Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt Dunt

At a dramatic juncture in the almost completely missable Alien 3, Ellen Ripley tells the film's dog-like alien creature, "You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else."

I have some aliens in my life. While I certainly can remember other things—unlike Ellen Ripley, I do not suffer from suspended animation-induced selective memory, you see—it is true that there really is not a time in my life that I can remember when these particular aliens were unfamiliar to me.

The aliens I'm talking about, though, are almost the opposite of the nasty horrors from the Alien franchise, which are menacing, unpredictable, decidedly uncute engines of destruction. My aliens are—well, I guess they are little engines of destruction, after all, but the similarities extend no further. My aliens try to be menacing, and I'm sure there's no cuteness in their intentions for us earthlings, especially when you're talking about those creepy arcade cabinet versions of my aliens:

But in their real (by which I mean digital) representations, darn it, my aliens are adorable! And it's this form of my aliens that's important, because nowadays the images that live on aren't those hulking brutes from the cabinet but the little guys on the actual game screen. Rather than awful little eating machines, they look like wonderful little machines for eating. Hello, lemon juice!

And man, are they ever predictable! But they're predictable in the best possible sense. You know, methodical. Witness Threadless' brilliant "A Simple Plan" t-shirt:

I'm talking about the Space Invaders, of course, the ones from the eponymous arcade game and its many sequels and reworkings, the video game characters I came to know earliest in life. My first introduction to them was in the lovely Atari 2600 port, but their classic arcade look is the one burned indelibly into my otherwise non-eidetic memory.

And if you've read this blog at all, you can imagine that I can't wait to ramble on nostalgically about the game, but I do have an ulterior motive in bringing up Space Invaders. If you read this blog regularly, first of all, God bless you, but secondly, you've noticed that I've been away for some time. Well, the reason for that is that three weeks ago, my wife and I had a son, Alan Roberts.

Since Alan was born, my sleep has suffered quite a bit, but my gaming hasn't, really. It's not too difficult to spend some time with the DS or GBA while he's asleep, so I've been playing several times a day. Specifically, the first bit of gaming I managed to get in came on the day after Alan was born, when I finally recovered from the previous day's excitement and exhaustion enough to turn on the DS and play a new game I hadn't previously had the chance to try out. The second day I was at the hospital, while his mom took a much-needed nap and Alan did the same in his little hospital basinet, I pulled out Space Invaders Extreme 2, the excellent follow up to last year's Extreme, both of which I recommend highly. And I got to thinking about how the old Atari port of the original had been one of my first games and certainly my first favorite game (its competition was basically Combat and the misbegotten 2600 port of Pac-Man).

Space Invaders was a great game for a little kid. It's easy to pick up and play, what with its one axis of movement and its single attack button. I can remember quite clearly how befuddled I was by the controls to Combat, which are not bad at all in retrospect but also not perhaps entirely intuitive, particularly not for a three-year-old. "My" 2600 was at my grandparents' house, a thing bequeathed from necessity by my aunt to my grandparents when the former left for college the year I was born. Grandma and Papa weren't really too good at diagnosing my Atari problems, so I could only really play Combat when my mom was around to orient the controller correctly in my little hands and remind me how to make the tanks move.

That Atari joystick used to give me fits. Since my earliest video game experiences preceded my earliest reading experiences, I wasn't aware that the arcane symbol on the top of the joystick was actually the word "UP," and anyway, there were arrows on each of the other three edges of the joystick—so which way was supposed to point towards the TV?

But Space Invaders was blessedly simple: so simple, in fact, that its original arcade cabinet employed not a joystick but a pair of buttons for movement. Current iterations on the Nintendo DS can be controlled with Taito's dial-looking paddle controller, a Japan-only throwback to the old NES Arkanoid controller.

Sometimes simplicity in a video game is just the first step on the path to monotony. But simplicity is often at the heart of elegance, and I think elegant is exactly the right descriptor for Space Invaders' deceptively simple gameplay, actually. A few stages into the game, after all, the player's focus shifts from shooting any old Invaders at all and just dodging their shots to shooting particular Invaders and avoiding being crushed by the lowest row of their attack formation! This charmingly vintage how-to video illustrates my point perfectly. Space Invaders is the kind of game that shifts quickly from leisurely to frantic, forcing the player to give up the freedom she's enjoyed so far in the game and adhere really to one specific pattern of attack that presents her with her only hope for survival as the game wears on.

Oh, yes, those aliens are still with me, twenty-five years or so on now. And though no one else was aware it was happening at the time, I truly treasured the chance to share, in a way, my favorite hobby with my new son. I'm glad Space Invaders got to be there.

Space Invaders screen shot from Laura Berry's blog, musings (; Space Invaders bezel art from the Arcade Art Library at; Taito paddle controller from