What shall I render? Part 2 Post-Nintendo

Nintendo has been around since the late 1800s. Back then, they made playing cards. They moved into the electronic gaming industry in the 1980s. I was a Nintendo loyalist until shortly after the second Zelda game was released for the N64 (Majora’s Mask) in 1999. My final, salient memories of that erstwhile system took place in the last level of Majora’s Mask. It was called the Stone Tower Temple and in it, you play through this oddly-yet well-designed labyrinthine series of outdoor rooms. Upon entering, you’re sure to notice the walkways and door frames set into the ceilings and upper walls. What the? After defeating the weak ninja-like boss, you receive the “light arrows” then proceed to return to the entrance and shoot one of your new arrows into a similarly colored switch and then…! It all makes sense now. The world (literally) turns upside down. And you have to fight your way again through the same area you just conquered but this time, it’s upside-down–a fitting metaphor for the coming upheaval. One false step and Link will fall into the sky.

When my brother Ian saw that, he freaked out and started crying. Then again, he was six. Bless his heart.

The second thing that stands head and shoulders above most of my good Nintendo memories came from a game called “Paper Mario”. I began to sense an inherent loneliness in a certain level. At the time, I couldn’t have put this into words but as we would play back through other games (James Bond: Goldeneye 007, for instance; I bought the system for that game), we felt it. A lifeless loneliness that permeated the level design. While this atmosphere is not endemic to all games, I think (personally) that it reflects on both the designers and the players. To each their own. I didn’t game much at home during the divorce. Too much misery there. But we’ll always have Zelda.

Powering up and moving on, I will share with you my post-Nintendo days.

I’ve since moved on to Xbox. It’s all Halo’s fault. I suppose I needed a broader (virtual) context with which to explore and lay down new imaginative roots. I remember my dad’s only word of warning with reference to Halo: “just make sure you don’t put it above God”. Simple enough.

How can I succinctly synopsize the plot of the Halo games? I suppose I’d have to begin with the Flood. The Flood is a terrifying, monstrously parasitic organism (the Zombie element) linked via a central-intelligence called the Gravemind: a giant, grotesque, multi-tentacled thing. Sentient but for one purpose–to infect and subsume and conquer. They threaten all life within the universe (*gasp!*). Any planet unfortunate enough to host the Flood would find itself taken over within days. The Forerunners knew this, so hundreds of thousands of years ago, they decided to create the Halos. Self-contained, planet-sized rings–with ecosystems all their own–stationed throughout the universe at strategic points. Oh, and they also double as planet-sized particle beam cannons. One blast from an activated Halo and you could wipe out a (Flood-infested) planet. Each Halo boasts a network of intricate and sophisticated, futuristic machinery connected by a warren of tunnels and concrete-grey control rooms all set beneath the tundra and desert above. Ah…Science fiction! The Forerunners apparently strip-mined moons and planets in order to build these megalithic, fully-habitable structures. Blasphemous! Must. Suspend. Disbelief. Fast-forward to present-day, to the year 2552. Humanity has colonized the stars and also discovered the rings. Well, sorry to say, so has “the Covenant” a group of seven different alien races, banded-together and hell-bent on the complete annihilation of humanity. And whoever controls the rings, wins. Simple as that, right? You fill the shoes of Spartan-117–John, by name. The “Master Chief”, he’s the last of the augmented super-soldiers created by Dr. Catherine Halsey to stem the tide of alien domination. And off we go, all across the universe. So much fun. Incredibly appealing to the adventurous, adolescent male psyche. We’ll always have Halo.

My brother and I, while very close, bonded even more through this game. It provided much needed distraction and respite through our parents’ divorce and will always hold a special place in our hearts. We discovered it around Christmastime 2004. The second Halo game had been released a month prior. Like Zelda, we were latecomers to the movement. We spent an inordinate amount of time at a small local coffee shop called (appropriately enough) “Creature Coffee” playing to our hearts’ content. Unlike many Nintendo games (not including Zelda) Halo never felt lonely. It didn’t matter if you were exploring the ruins of “Old Mombasa” in Kenya while on earth (you get to fully explore “New Mombasa” in the excellent pseudo-sequel Halo 3 ODST) or searching out the “sacred icon” to activate the ring on Delta Halo (spoiler alert: the Gravemind is resident deep within the bowels of Delta Halo) many light years away, there was always a better atmosphere than many other games we’d tried. And it’s something we routinely comment on with reference to new “Sandbox” (exploratory, open-world) games. There was something special about Halo. The original game is set for re-release in a month. Much like Ocarina of Time for Nintendo’s 3DS, Microsoft is revamping the graphics and publishing a tenth-anniversary edition just in time for Christmas. We’re stoked. The other thing about Halo that blows me away is the expansive atmosphere to the series. It’s as if the universe itself has come within your influence and no limit is imposed on your mobility. Within reason, of course. And with God, that is true in actuality. All Heaven will (eventually) be open to our exploration. My appetite, in no small way, has been whetted through the stories of Zelda and Halo. And as long as I don’t put them above God, as is true of any creative output and endeavor, I think it’s fine as is.

“What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116:12-13, emphasis mine)

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What shall I render?

Video games are a given with my generation. I got my NES when I was six or seven. I remember going to school in the weeks between the third of December–my birthday–and Christmas, mindless with giddiness that I had gotten one. Of course, I couldn’t use it as a status symbol because all my friends already had one. (Yes, even at that age, I was concerned about that kind of stuff) But at least we had something in common to talk about. It wasn’t long before the 8-bit sprites began infiltrating my dreams and weaving themselves into the fabric of my being. Super Mario took his place alongside Transformers and Ninja Turtles and Voltron (and others) as vanguards of my childhood.

Games may be fun (they are). At a certain level, they’re almost a necessity. They’re an art form all their own. Anymore, they’re akin to a cross between a many-hours-long interactive movie and a completely controllable lucid dream (is that a good thing). All this aside, I’m going to try and make the case for video games as good things. Because, and this should go without saying, even good things have a way of leading us from God to nowhere.

When I was a kid, I’d play Game-Boy while sitting in my dad’s high-backed red leather armchair. With brass rivets along the front of the arm rests, it’d creak with age each time I’d curl up into it. It was the perfect place to get lost in an imaginary quest. One that, outside of the three-by-three inch screen, had little or no bearing on the reality of life. Or did it? How many hours I’d spend yearning for that next level, that achievement, that rush of victory that signaled that I had what it took to meet a goal, however fleeting and ethereal? That’s a good thing right? I was learning the fine art of goal-setting and time management. Well, not necessarily time-management. Whenever I’d forget to do some chore or task because I was lost in my game, they were always excoriated as time-wasters. I wonder how often my dad thought twice about getting me these systems. Granted, he was a gamer as well, playing Berserk in the arcade before I even came along. Apparently, he was pretty good at it too. But it takes time to get good at something and as I ended up seriously beating (nearly) every game he bought me (not wasting his money) video games we’re a good investment. Do you follow my logic or is that too shallow and narrow? Consider this: how can it be that a little square screen, only slightly larger than a saltine cracker, hold my attention for hours on end? Yes there were things going on within the screen but the real adventure was being played out in my imagination. And that’s what expanded. My appetite and capacity for imaginative adventure. And when that’s hooked up to God (as was always my dad’s number-one priority), you’re unstoppable. Cultivate that however you can. I could make mention of the Medical profession and how they’re seeing a correlation between the hand-eye coordination needed for surgery and the same needed for gaming. It’s a good thing to them. And what about the Navy? According to my brother Ian (himself, a stellar gamer), the Navy is developing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) where they pit gamers of certain ages and abilities against each other to see wartime strategy in action. And presumably, to cull therefrom. There’s a running joke among MMORPGers, that, were North Korea ever to invade South Korea, South Korea would win the war hands down as that country is chock-full of young twenty-somethings who are already tactical geniuses from having played Starcraft to the hilt. They have huge tournaments and national champions over there.

Powering up and moving on. I got my Super Nintendo for my tenth birthday and my Nintendo 64 when I was fifteen. And it was in 1998 that Mario took a backseat to Link (both created by game-designer par excellence, Shigeru Miyamoto). Granted, the Legend of Zelda franchise was twenty years old when Ocarina of Time came out, but it had never once spoken to me. My friend Alex from my NES days was a Zelda fan but could never convince me to come aboard. It was only when Ian and I had exhausted all of the games-for-rent at a local grocery store that we decided to break down and try out Ocarina. And the rest is history. We went out the next day and with our dad’s blessing, bought our own copy. We had two copies in our house for about three days. This time it was real, this time it was serious. When our dad realized what an intricate game we were dealing with, he forbade me to use the player’s guide (I even got lectured for sneaking a peek in order to beat Phantom-Ganon, the boss of the Forest Temple). Maybe some more lessons could be learned? This was new to me as we had always used guides for previous games. Link (the main character) helped teach me puzzle-solving as the game is replete with dungeons that have no readily-discernible means of completion except by trial-and-error exploration. Sure the game seems dated by today’s standards but that hasn’t stopped it from not only being remade for Nintendo’s 3DS system, but also topping every single best-of chart in the industry. It’s a true classic that deserves every accolade it gets. Miyamoto was inspired to create Link and the series, based on his own adventures growing up in Japan and exploring the forest near his house. He said in an interview I read at the time that he wanted people to feel the atmosphere–the heat in Death Mountain for instance (with no music–just the hiss and pop of the magma, the air shimmers around you in that level; it feels hot). The forest temple with its crumbling, ivy-covered stone and cool walkways. The madness and claustrophobia of the Water Temple. The flow and the pace and the mechanics of the controls. Everything works in that game and if I seem overly enthusiastic about it, it’s because I am. My appetite and capacity for “imaginative adventure”, as I mentioned earlier, were sated and expanded–and exploded with this game. It was a watershed in my life. It effectively–as outrageous as this sounds–prepared me for the emotional overhaul I’d receive not four years later when my parents began their long slide toward divorce.

“What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” (Psalm 116:12)

A shout-out to my friend Dylan! He’s alphabetically reviewing every single NES game ever released in America. The memories! You can find his blog and his work here.