My history, adventures, experience, and observations as a gamer
Ever since the very first day I saw a Nintendo, video games and computers have fascinated me. Video itself had already been an important part of my life, and I greatly preferred video tapes, rented or recorded, to watching broadcast TV, because it put me in control over what I watched and when I watched it. But Nintendo was something truly magical; the images on the screen weren’t the immutable recordings of VHS tapes, but an extension of my own will. When I pushed on the plus sign on the corded remote in my hand, the little cartoon man on the screen walked! When I pushed one of the round buttons, he jumped! In my naiveté, I wondered how the Nintendo could have possibly animated every possible outcome of the game ahead of time. The possibilities were immense beyond imagination; every minute was an experience nobody had seen before, and that nobody would ever see again. I didn’t care that I hadn’t the skills to beat the first level, nor did I even understand the concept of levels, and my friend who owned the Nintendo was too impatient to allow me any real time practicing. All of that would come in time.
And in time, I would possess my own Nintendo, and soon an IBM clone personal computer. Learning how to program the computer took out a lot of the mystique of video games, but led me to much better appreciate the logic, design, and sheer amount of work that went into making even the most barely functional of them. I would rent a new Nintendo game almost weekly, read books and magazines about Nintendo, computer games, and programming, and whenever possible, I would find places where there were computers around, and virtually turn them inside out looking for new games and software to play around with.
Eventually I learned of and previewed a new video game system called the Sega Genesis. Sonic the Hedgehog was the pack-in game, and I knew I had to have it. No Nintendo game looked this good, sounded this good, had so much energy. Even the controller was a marvel – three face buttons instead of two? And so I got one, and gradually amassed a collection of cartridges over the years. I kept the NES for a while, as there were still good games to be played, and it wasn’t hard to persuade friends who had moved on from it to let me borrow their cartridges indefinitely. But constantly disconnecting one system to set up the other got tedious, NES cartridges got scarcer every year, and the many titles I had read about and never located or played became distant dreams. Eventually I sold my NES and my games for it, certain they would not be missed. During this time the NES’s replacement, the SNES, had come out, and tantalized me with a huge library of games that I had essentially locked myself out of playing. Being able to play SNES or Game Boy when visiting friends who owned them was an infrequent treat, and I was vaguely aware of the existence of systems called the TurboGrafx-16 and Neo-Geo, but I wasn’t sorry that I owned a Genesis over its competitors.
Also during this time, I upgraded my PC to a 486 DX, and eventually upgraded it further with a Sound Blaster and a CD-ROM drive, and tremendously enjoyed the rich multimedia experience that it offered over my Genesis games. I couldn’t have every game I wanted; they were expensive, there was no way to rent them, and only a small number of titles circulated between me and my friends who even had PCs. But there was virtually no library lock-out either. By then nearly every game that was made for computers had a PC version, and the old PC games didn’t stop working just because you got a new PC. Games as old as 1984, older than the NES’s stateside release, were still available on shelves, and they worked fine on machines a dozen times faster than what was available in their day. One day the Playstation and Nintendo 64 would astound me with 3D graphics and gameplay well beyond anything I had seen in a PC game, but in a few years PC games would catch up and then far surpass them. And the SNES’s library, only barely known to me, faded into the dark corners of obsolete history.
Then, in the summer of 1998, an annus mirabilis for gaming, I discovered something wonderful in the file system of a university computer. I discovered a program which allowed the computer to play SNES games! There was no sound, and the keyboard controls were awkward, but I didn’t care. This was a lost history to me, an entire volume of classic literature that I had purposefully passed over in favor of a hedgehog so many years ago. I spent a week playing ActRaiser at every opportunity, and soon figured out how to get ZSNES and a sizable ROM collection on my PC at home.
With this renewed interest in old SNES games also came a renewed interest in checking out the NES games that I read about in those distant years but never had a chance to play, from mainstream classics like Mega Man to oddities like Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. I sought out emulators for plenty of other systems, and discovered abandonware sites like Home of the Underdogs which offered plenty of DOS classics that I had missed out on, which for the most part still ran fine on my Windows 98 machine. I discovered MAME, which was intimidating at first, but eventually got to grips with it and even built an MDF control panel with real arcade parts for an authentic arcade game experience. I discovered the libraries of older computer systems such as the Commodore 64, Apple II, Amiga, and Atari 800/400, which offered unique titles, but were also the birthplace of many titles that I had only played before in DOS. I went through my own collection of games and formed it into a backlog, and with websites such as GameFAQs and later Mobygames and Wikipedia, continued to add to it, and without any boundaries defined by system exclusivity. I endeavored to play all game series in order of release, and have spent countless rewarding hours playing through forgotten gems such as the early Elder Scrolls and Might and Magic, and have dug up semi-obscure developer juvenilia such as Cyan’s Cosmic Osmo. I had become a general video game historian, familiar with a dozen system libraries, and unburdened by any need to own a dozen obsolete systems.
As I write this, it’s been just over 20 years since I discovered retrogaming. The emulators are better than ever, with most systems from the SNES era and before emulated with cycle accuracy, and systems from the 3D era emulated with 4K widescreen support and a steady framerate even in the games that genuine hardware struggled to maintain. PS2 & Wii emulation are good enough to replace the real things, newer systems including the Switch are on the bleeding edge of emulation, and even the long troubled Xbox is starting to appear on the emulation horizon. DOSBox and ScummVM are godsends to preserving PC games, making it far easier to play classics than it ever was on real DOS machines, and capable of emulating expensive game-enhancing hardware such as the MT-32. Websites such as GOG are cashing in on this niche. Nintendo reluctantly embraces emulator culture with forays like the SNES classic and Switch Online, but on their own iron-fisted terms. Meanwhile, my own backlog of games past and present seems to grow faster than I can finish them.
My data driven project
And so, that leads me to this project. The idea of ever finishing my own backlog in a lifetime seems hopeless, but I’ve enjoyed the journey for the past 20 years, and see no reason to stop. Much of what has driven my backlog has been data, using metrics and year-by-year lists of games, playing the best rated and most enduringly popular games from history. Why not make the backlog even bigger? Why not document it, much in the manner of CRPG Addict? In ironic deference to Mobygames, which has been my most valuable game information resource since its inception, I go by the pseudonym Ahab, on an obsessive and relentless quest to hunt down and conquer the white whale that is all of the games.
Unlike CRPG Addict, who focuses on computer RPGs with a singular tenacity, but to the exclusion of consoles and all other genres, my project has no limits defined by system or genre. But limits must exist; as I write this there are nearly 90,000 games on Mobygames alone, a number sure to keep growing at an unfathomable rate. There are 444 mainframe and terminal games going as far back as 1950, and I doubt it would be a terribly interesting exercise to track down and play every single one of them. A metric that I’ve always found interesting on Mobygames is the number of votes any given game has, rather than the average of all votes. Myst, for instance, has 356 votes at the time of this writing, a rather large number for Mobygames, and the average rating is a middle-of-the-road 3.3/5. But it is among the most important computer games of its era, and the number of votes reflects this. Several of the games that I selected to play were chosen because they had many votes, and many others because of ties to other games that I had already played. Therefore, my focus will be on games with many votes, and on the threads of history that connect them to each other and their predecessors.
In mid 2018, I used the Mobygames API to download all of its game records, which I filtered down to all titles with a minimum of 25 votes. I then sorted this list chronologically. This list, which I have not published in its entirety, consists of close to 3000 games, and is henceforth referred to as my “whaling log.” Each of these games, except for the ones I’ve already played, is now on my backlog, along with any notable ancestors. My methodology is as follows:
- Identify the next game on the whaling log.
- Identify any notable ancestors to that game. They may include previous games by the same company, or by key developers, or titles that were direct inspirations. Notability is up to me to define, but is generally driven by data.
- For each ancestor that I have not yet played, identify any of its notable ancestors. Repeat until no further notable ancestors are identified.
- Build a tree graph “roadmap” of the initial game and its ancestors, to show how they lead up to it.
- Play each of the games in the roadmap and write about the experience of playing them and my thoughts, ending with the whale identified from the first step.
- Look up the initial game on Mobygames, and check the votes breakdown by platform.
- If the platform with the most votes has at least 25 votes, and it isn’t the platform of original release, and if there is something interesting about that version over the original release, then add that version to my whaling log, listed with the release date of the port, to be replayed later.
- Go back to step 1.
To illustrate, let’s look at the earliest game with whale status, Breakout, which was released by Atari in 1976 as an arcade game. There were several Atari arcade games before this. I selected several of them as “notable.” Pong was an obvious candidate, but as for others, I selected on various criteria. Did they gross well? Did they have any Mobygames votes? Do they even have Wikipedia pages? Did they directly inspire or influence later games? With these criteria, I identified these pre-Breakout Atari games as notable:
- Computer Space
- Space Race
- Gran Trak 10
- Crash ‘N Score
- Indy 800
- Jet Fighter
Then I took a look at each of these games to identify notable predecessors to them. Computer Space is known to be a derivative of SpaceWar, a computer game developed at MIT in 1962. The idea behind Pong came from the Magnavox Odyssey console. Breakout itself seems to have been influenced by a non-Atari game called Clean Sweep. From these lines of succession, I constructed a tree graph:
From there, I played each of these games and wrote my first pages on the experience, starting with SpaceWar, and ending with an Atari marathon from Pong to Breakout, using the emulator DICE. When games weren’t available, I sometimes substituted approximations, such as Indy 4 instead of the unemulated Indy 800.
Finally, after reaching Breakout, and trying but failing to “beat” it, I checked it on Mobygames. The most voted on platform is the Atari 2600, and that version does offer some interesting gameplay options which aren’t available in the arcade version. But it only had 23 votes at the time, just short of the 25 vote threshold. Had it 25 votes, I would add the Atari 2600 version to my whaling log as a 1978 title.
And so with Breakout crossed off the whaling log, I restarted the process with the next whale on the list, which was Combat for the Atari 2600.
My guidelines on selecting versions, using emulators, playing thoroughly, and savescumming
When a game has multiple versions available, there are two schools of thought I subscribe to on deciding which to play. The first school of thought is to go with the original, the version that came out or was developed first, from which all other versions are derived. The second school of thought is to play the latest and most enhanced version which isn’t too far removed from the original in terms of content. I tend to favor the first school of thought, but it’s really a case by case basis, and in some cases it may be worth playing through multiple versions of the same game. What I won’t do is automatically pick the version that runs on DOS or whichever platform I’m most familiar with, except in cases where the DOS version is the original and/or the most optimized.
Whenever I do not already own a copy of a game that I intend to play, I will purchase one if it is possible to do so first hand. I won't necessarily play the game in the form that I purchased it - often the current official release isn't the best - but if I can buy the game and support the developers (and/or the company who invested in the developers), and I haven't already done that, I will.
Emulator enhancements are good, for the most part. For instance, I really enjoy the fact that old computer emulators can skip lengthy disk load times, or that ScummVM can render Sierra’s EGA games in 256 colors, or any number of widescreen hacks that expand a game’s normal field of view to fill a widescreen monitor. I am not too keen on content enhancement or replacement – for instance ScummVM has “enhanced soundtrack” support which replaces the old MIDI music with external audio files. I tend to avoid things like that.
I will try to play the game somewhat blind. I will read the manual, and I will read whatever information I need to decide which version to play, and which ancestors are notable. I will avoid spoilers as much as possible to that extent. If I’m truly stuck in a game, then I’ll turn to the Internet for hints or solutions, but I’ll try to do this sparingly.
When a game can be beaten in a conventional sense, I do not have to beat it, but I will try. I will play such games for a minimum of five hours, or until I am satisfied that I have exhausted it of meaningful gameplay content. If a game has a worthwhile two-player mode, then I will make an effort to play it with a friend, but this will be at both of our conveniences, and our thoroughness will depend on that.
I may skip a game under any of these conditions:
- That I have already played it to death before starting this project, and can’t think of any way to make replaying it interesting or worthwhile
- That the game simply isn’t available, as is sometimes the case with the very oldest arcade games which have never been emulated or ported
- That the game isn’t available in English, and I don’t feel I could wing it in its native language
- That the game is only available on a system which is not emulated and which I don’t own, or that I just can’t figure out how to get working
I will use save states in some games where saving normally isn’t permitted, but to avoid abuse I will limit myself to one save per 30 minutes of gameplay. This will allow me some leeway in undoing outcomes that I don’t like, but will also encourage me to find ways to play out bad scenarios instead of just always undoing every negative outcome. For instance, if I have played for 25 minutes without saving and then I drink a mystery potion that makes me go down a level, then I’ll have to decide whether I want to accept the consequences or to undo 25 minutes of progress. In games with built-in quick saving, this rule is flexible. Some of them, after all, expressly encouraged saving frequently. In others, I can break this rule, but will view it as cheating, and try to do it (or cheat in other ways) sparingly.