Posted on September 2, 2014
Winner, winner! Chicken dinner!
I can think of a few game-related birthday memories, but the one that sticks out the most is my 13th, which was in 1996.
Hitting my teen years was quite the milestone for me. Being a “teenager” was so much cooler than “just being a kid”, so I wanted to do something memorable. I hadn’t had a birthday party in a few years, but a bunch of friends and I got together and went to see the Kevin Costner movie Tin Cup.
I’m not sure why we chose to see that movie, but there were only four theatres at this particular cinema at the time – the only thing I can guess is that the other three movies being shown weren’t all that much more interesting.
In any case, it was just a typical romantic comedy with some golf action thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the awesome golf movie that Happy Gilmore was (which is what I was hoping for), but there was a scene in a strip club that had me thinking seeing this movie was a good choice.
C’mon. I was 13. Gimme a break.
Anyway, after the movie, we headed down to the same Greco restaurant I drive by each night when I come home from work. Although my taste in pizza has become more refined as of late, it was a damn good greasy slice at the time. I remember thinking it was a bit dreary weather-wise, but I ended up having quite the memorable day.
There were two games I got as a present that day, and both were for PC.
I had seen this game in the bargain bin at Zellers here in Fredericton, which was quite odd – not only were Street Fighter II games still coming out at that point (which made it feel like the game was still “current”), but the fact that there was a PC port blew my mind! A Super Nintendo or Genesis version of an Arcade game made sense to me, but a PC version of a fighting game did not.
Another thing I was intrigued about was the sticker on the box (not seen above). Apparently, there was a Mega Man and Mega Man 3 game included on the same disc as a bonus. With the memory of the whole Mega Man 3 debacle fresh in my mind (the one where my NES copy got lost), I asked for the Street Fighter II PC game for my birthday.
Initially, I was thrilled about getting it… and then I played the games.
It was still in the early days of the Internet, and we didn’t have it at our house. If we had, I would have been able to look up the horrible reviews that both the Street Fighter II port and the completely new and original Mega Man games had been getting.
The SFII game was the exact same game I knew and loved, but had some pretty serious frame rate issues. My PC was a 486, which was a pretty solid machine that ran Doom and Commander Keen games without any problems. For it to struggle with a game that ran smoothly on a 16-bit console was perplexing.
I also had a Gravis Gamepad to play the game with, but even then, the game lagged so much that pulling off the special moves that made the game so fun was nearly impossible.
And then there were the Mega Man games… *sigh*
Not only was I disheartened to find out these weren’t PC ports of the NES games I loved so much, but they also didn’t look and play anything like them. The trademark music was replaced with the dulcet tones of your own breathing (I.E., there was none) and the three boss stages to be incredibly long and uninteresting.
The Mega Man 3 game doubled the total number of stages to six, but kept the same awkward look and feel. To say I was disappointed with it is an understatement, and I actually felt bad about asking for it for my birthday.
I must have been on a PC kick in those days, because the only other game I got that year was for PC as well – Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing.
We had gone on our first trip to Pocono Raceway earlier that year, and I was obsessed with all forms of auto racing. Not long before my birthday and the start of the school year, we made a trip to Calais, ME to do some cross-border shopping. In the electronics section at Wal-Mart that day, I saw a PC game with my favourite driver’s car on the cover.
My fascination with the sport was still relatively new, but the game intrigued me. The only NASCAR-related game I had played at that point was Kyle Petty’s No Fear Racing, which was very much an arcade-like racer with nitro boosts and offensive weapons à-la Super Mario Kart.
This game looked about as realistic as it could get in those days, and although I didn’t flat-out ask for it, I dropped some not-so-subtle hints it would make a great birthday gift!
I didn’t actually expect to get it however, so it was quite the surprise when I un-wrapped it that day at Greco. Not long after installing (and then promptly deleting) Street Fighter II and Mega Man, I popped in the NASCAR Racing CD and installed the game to see what it was like.
Right off the bat, my impressions were mixed. I had a console-like controller hooked up and ready to play these new games I had gotten, but it really didn’t feel right with NASCAR Racing.
Was it the game? Was it the controller? Whatever it was, it had me feeling like absolute crap – I had asked for TWO games, gotten them, and then didn’t particularly like either of them. It wasn’t so much that I should have asked for something else (why oh WHY didn’t I ask for Super Mario RPG instead??), but the idea that games were big purchases. To have my parents buy a game for me, then have it promptly forgotten about was something I was always mindful to avoid.
As I went to bed in preparation for the first day of Grade 8 (which was the next day), my mom asked me “Did you have a good birthday? Do you like your gifts?”
I am an awful liar, so I couldn’t help but hesitate when I answered.
“Yes… um, I think so? Yeaahhh? I mean, to tell the truth, I’m really not sure.”
I don’t remember her reacting negatively to that answer, but I remember feeling absolutely awful, almost nauseated, as I attempted to fall asleep.
In the coming weeks, I did my best to find something, ANYTHING redeemable about this game.
I discovered that the in-game “paint shop” was incredibly fun and intuitive for making my own schemes. There were a ton of pre-made decals and brush tools, and I would always try to make the coolest-looking car on the track. If that failed, I’d give up and try to make the tackiest car on the track.
I discovered that turning the damage off and going full-throttle around each corner was way easier – and way more fun – than trying to navigate the corner legitimately. To do that without slowing down or without spinning out wasn’t the “proper” way to play the game, but it was challenging nonetheless.
I discovered that turning the damage back on and going the wrong way around the track to cause a pileup was probably the most fun I had in playing a game in quite some time. How many cars could I take out in a single wreck? I’d invite Josh and Jean-Luc over to see how big the crashes could get, and we’d have competitions to see who could wreak the most havoc.
And then, just as my interest was in the game waning, I got the Christmas gift that changed everything.
It was essentially just a hunk of rubber and plastic latched onto a rotating controller (which you can kinda see in the centre of the wheel in the picture above). Paired with the shifter and foot pedals however, it was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced.
No longer was this just a game, it was a simulator, and it was the way NASCAR games were meant to be played.
Whenever I’d watch a race on TV and there would be an onboard video from one of the cars, I’d always pay close attention to how drivers were using the throttle through the corners, how they’d turn the wheel abruptly to get the car to rotate in the centre of the corner, and how a car’s rear-end sliding through the turns could be on the edge, but fast…
I would soak up all the small details from the real thing, just so I could gain that extra tenth of a second per lap on the not-so-real thing.
I ended up buying three of the game’s sequels, a few other racing simulators, as well a couple “new and improved” steering wheels for PC. I’ve participated in countless online races against people from around the world, and I’ve been a part of a league comprised of drivers from around the Maritime provinces. I’ve been lucky enough to win my fair share of those races, and to have an absolute blast in doing it – even in defeat.
The night of my 13th birthday, I fell asleep thinking I had gotten a dud for a birthday present.
In retrospect, I can’t help but think it was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten.