Five Games You Just Had to Be There For

Like certain stories or parties, some games can’t be properly explained and you just had to be there for them to fully understand what they meant.

A quick disclaimer. I’m not saying these are bad games. They are just games that were hugely significant at one point, but lost whatever it was that made them special over time, and are left as something that is less than what they were.

“Conker’s Bad Fur Day”

I’ll never forget reading the April edition of Electronic Gaming Monthly (that was a video game magazine to you youngsters) and first hearing about this. You see, EGM used to run a fake article for its April edition as an April Fools Day joke. In the year 2000, there was a preview so absurd that everyone that read it groaned at how lazy the staff was getting at their pranks. It was a sneak peek of the then titled” Conker 64“, that alleged that developer Rare was going to turn the cute and colorful world of Conker into a dark and violent hell, and make Conker himself into a potty mouth, perverted anti-hero. The magazine was flooded with letters from readers saying that they had spotted the obvious gag this time, and that the editors would have to try a lot harder next year.

Of course, that preview would turn out to be the only thing about the game that wasn’t a joke.

I don’t know when it finally sank in that the game wasn’t a prank, but even while playing it I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. To this day I’ve never seen a game try to be so deliberately offensive, and succeed. Conker drank, cursed, screwed, and belittled across an adventure that saw you go to war, get drunk, pee out giant fires, rip the skin off of a bulls ass, help pollinate a horny and well endowed flower, and (most infamously) take on a giant singing pile of poo. This game had pure humor running through its veins, and every second was filled with some sort of gag or movie parody (which were actually quite excellent) that demanded that you kept playing in order to see what absurdity the game had for you in its next set piece. If you were like me and played this at the tender age of 13, it was hard not to believe it was in the sliced bread pantheon of greatest things ever.

Time reveals a different tale of course. For instance though the game was beautiful for its day, (released at the tail end of the N64, its considered one of the best looking games on the system) it still carries that murky and dull 64 look. The gameplay is also pretty atrocious as it mostly consists of making your way from context sensitive action button to context sensitive action button, and fills out its time with annoying fetch quests and segments so frustrating that they were later trimmed down or taken out entirely for the games Xbox remake. Finally that humor just doesn’t ring as true anymore. The game is still funny in its own way, but unless you carry the same sense of humor I did at the aforementioned 13, you’re going to find little incentive to keep playing.

“Conker’s Bad Fur Day” is still a noteworthy and entertaining game (its multiplayer mode especially), but unless you played it when it came out, you won’t get that same punch in the gut feeling it delivered that pretty much forced you to bow down to what you were witnessing.

Modern Equivalent: That’s tough. You almost have to look at the opposite, and imagine Kratos from “God of War” starring in a cute and cuddly platformer. Or if they made “The Human Centipede” into a game where you played a cartoon centipede trying to stop a Saturday morning mad scentist. Even then, Conker is in a league of its own.


“Donkey Kong Country”

I just now realized there are three Rare games on this list. Am I subconsciously an apologist for their downfall as a developer? No, I  think they were just a studio of their times…that have no idea what’s going on today.

Oddly enough though, “Donkey Kong Country” was a game considered ahead of its time. It’s not because of an unprecedented story (it was something about monkeys V.S. crocodiles over the matter of some bananas), or revolutionary gameplay (its as basic of a platfomer as they come). No “Donkey Kong Country” just looked really pretty. It was one of the first games to use pre-rendered 3D graphics, and was essentially a 32 bit game on a 16 bit system. Which is significant considering that the console wars were once based largely around bits, and if you had less bits than the other guys you were instantly inferior in the minds of consumers. It didn’t matter no one knew what they were, or what they did, people wanted their bits.

All of those glorious bits led to DKC having a very distinctive look. And by that I mean it was shiny. The entire game looked like it was coated in plastic, and believe it or not this was an effect that caused eyeballs to explode with pure visual joy when gamers of that era caught site of it. Nothing on the market looked like Donkey Kong did, and Rare and Nintendo went into marketing overdrive (including a very corny VHS tape that came with a Nintendo Power subscription) to push this beast into some phenomenal sales figures. DKC, and its beautiful graphics, took the gaming world by storm.

Even at the time though, critics and some consumers were catching on to the fact that the game really didn’t have much to offer in the fun category. The gameplay was abysmally simple, the animations were stiff, like most Rare titles parts of it were unreasonably difficult, and that style that made the game so popular in screenshots and staged videos, lost most of its effect as the game wore on past forty (!) repetitious levels. That’s not to say it was completely terrible (it’s actually still oddly entertaining), but it became clear to anyone that bought it that they just bought a game entirely for its looks. And just like in relationships and car buying, this is a move that leads to minutes of joy, and hours of frustration.

This is a ploy that would be nearly impossible to pull off today on the same level. As shallow as certain aspects of modern gaming are, you can’t really fool people with just shiny graphics as much anymore. And even if a game was released that looked astoundingly better than anything else on the market, if it was horribly shallow in the gameplay department, it would be ousted by mass press coverage and never cause a buying frenzy. Plus this game represents all games that were so incredible looking for their time that people were willing to overlook its flaws.

Modern Equivalent: No need to get hypothetical with this one. Though it’s not a game, the Xbox Kinect is a good example of oohs and ahhs selling something better than X’s and O’s. But that was at least semi-revolutionary hardware. This was a shiny game.


“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater”

For full nostalgic effect, please play this sample of THPS’s soundtrack while you read.

Before “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” came out in 1999, skateboarding’s popularity was a cult phenomenon. There was a lot of good things happening in the sport (start of the X-Games, underground tape market, influx of bold new talent), but it seemed like nothing was ever going to bring it into the big time. Now believe me, I didn’t want to say that THPS made skateboarding massively popular. Yet the more research I did on the subject, the more it became clear that if the game wasn’t responsible for the start of the madness, it was certainly the spark that made the whole thing just go boom.

I can say this safely. THPS’s release at least coincided with the skateboarding craze, and for a while it was everywhere. People that had no concept of the sport (like me) were eating this game alive and putting phrases like ollie and grind into the lexicon, and men like Tony Hawk and Bucky Lasek into the high levels of cool. There was no stopping the craze. Like I said, I don’t want to attribute this to one game, but you can’t deny the timing.

It’s also made more convincing by the fact that the game itself was exceptional. The mechanics and controls of THPS are some of the tightest and most satisfying I’ve ever enjoyed, and they became even better when coupled with the games perfect level design, unforgettable soundtrack, and addictive gameplay that forced you to pull out as many tricks and achieve as many goals as you could in a short two minute run through each stage. I played this game so much it made my fingers blister. One of the only games where I can say that without hyperbole. This game wasn’t just crack, it was superiorly designed crack that made even non-crack users go “Damn, that’s good crack.”

So why is it on the list? Because it has none of that impact now. You can blame part of that on the fact that the skateboarding craze has retired peacefully to the wayside, but honestly this is more of a case of sequel-itis. The next two Tony Hawk games (especially THPS 2) improved the original formula so much that even a couple years later, it was impossible to go back to the original. Every game after that took every step it could to ruin the entire franchise with half baked ideas, and rushed final products. This culminated in “Tony Hawks Ride“, the first in the series to use a skateboard peripheral and to be a  spectacular failure. There are currently no Tony Hawk games on the horizon for the first time in years.

You can play THPS now and still see it as a good game. But if you weren’t around for it originally, you can never understand how big and revolutionary it was.

Modern Equivalent: If cricket started to suddenly gather popularity steam, and a near perfect cricket video game came out that caused the whole thing to go wild.


“Mortal Kombat”

Perhaps the hardest game on here to fully appreciate from afar. See, movies had gotten their injection of mainstream acceptable violence in the 80’s, and music had been pushing moral boundries since rock and roll scared the crap out of your grandparents, but by 1992 (the year of MK’s release) video games were still strangely wholesome. There was some controversial material poping up here and there in the margins (“Wolfenstein 3D” for instance), but for the most part the worst thing that people had to say about video games was that it seemed to be a waste of precious youth.

Fully comprehend that, and you still wouldn’t be able to uderstand how much of an impact “Mortal Kombat” made overnight when it hit. There was the issue of violence of course, but there were two things that made “Mortal Kombat” really stand out. One dealt with how the game was violent. The levels of blood shed from simple attacks, and the soon to be senate hearing highlight reel collection of fatalities, put the violence at a level of cartoon worthy. But combine that with the games realistic looking digitized actors and stages, it produced an unsettling effect that caused its strongest opponents to claim that the game was glorifying actual violence.

The biggest issue with the game though was that it was popular. Go ahead and google “Most Controversial Video Games of All Time”. With few exceptions like “Grand Theft Auto“, “Doom“, and the like you will notice that most of the games on these lists were either indie projects designed just to shock, or just really crappy games. “Mortal Kombat” immediately gained a loyal fan base drawn initially by its violence, but hooked by its, admittedly watered down, “Street Fighter II“gameplay style that carried its own unique charms and innovations.

I think it would be tough for modern gamers to understand what it was like to play a truly taboo video game. People spoke of this game as if it were the end of times and polite society, and you and your friends felt like genuine rebels (yes it was sad) sneaking off to the arcade to play it. It’s impossible to imagine a modern release that could conjure that feeling on a mass level, and still revolve around a quality title.

Modern Equivalent: Hmmm… okay, you know the famous “No Russian” Airport shootout scene in “CoD Modern Warfare 2”? Imagine if that level was footage of real people, in a real airport, that you were able to shoot at. Even then, it had nothing on the “Mortal Kombat” bombshell.


“GoldenEye 007”

Ah, yes. Here’s the game discussion that made me think of this list in the first place.

You see, some philistine (look it up) made the accusation that “GoldenEye” wasn’t a good game in my presence. I naturally gave him a proper (verbal) thrashing. The truth is though I agreed with him, or at least understood where he was coming from, on some level. Because “GoldenEye” today is nearly unplayable. This is mostly due to the controls which spend half the time holding your hand in an effort to get FPS controls to work on a console, and the other half throwing you into traffic when it abandons all hope. If you grew up in a post “Halo” world, playing this now would just reveal a murky looking, auto-aiming, mess. And you would be right.

Which is why it is perfect for this list.

Because the time was 1997. And in 1997 there were no great console FPS’s, very few good movie based games, and no noteworthy James Bond titles. “GoldenEye 007” was a glorious example of all of these things, and moved N64 units in a way that even “Mario 64” couldn’t dream of. This was almost entirely due to the games sweet beautiful multiplayer mode. PC gamers had been enjoying multiplayer for some time in both FPS’s and other genres, but for console gamers the feature was still somewhat of a mystery. “GoldenEye” made up for that lost time in a big way by giving all 64 owners (and their soon to be suddenly loyal friends) a gloriously made four player split screen shootout. To this day all you have to do is say the words “Goldeneye” party and you can immediately fish out anyone who played the game and have them regale you with stories of proximity mine only matches from days gone by. The intimacy of having three close friends of equal skill in the same room with you will forever at least be unique from (if not better) than the mass anonymity of the online world.

But that’s why “GoldenEye” is the perfect end to this list. Because I could never convince someone that didn’t live through “GoldenEye” that that’s true. If truth be told I do recognize that most of my “GoldenEye” joy was aided by the fact that I was completely ignorant to the ways of multiplayer shooters that PC gamers had enjoyed for years. But at that moment, in that time, and during those multiplayer sessions I could have sworn to you that gaming would never get better than it was right then.

But really, I can’t explain it to you. You just had to be there.

Modern Equivalent: To understand the multiplayer joy of this game, imagine logging onto a random “Call of Duty” session only to find that everyone on that game happens to be every great friend you’ve ever had.


Related Posts