Shooting Straight: We Are Community

August 21, 2014 1 comment

There’s a whole lot of… stuff going on when it comes to the video game scene lately. It’s causing a lot of divisiveness, a lot of emotion, a lot of finger-pointing, and a lot of negativity.

I’m not writing this to discuss any of that stuff. I’m writing this for a different reason.

See, you and I, we probably have video games in common. Somehow. We may like different genres, or maybe we play on different platforms, but our mutual enjoyment of video games unites us. When we talk about video games in a public setting, when we interact with each other to share our favorite games, or favorite memories, or anything else, we often are seen by other people who also enjoy video games in some way. You, me, and these other people– we are part of a bigger thing. We’re part of a community.

The video gaming community.

I think that, at times, the community tends to forget about its common bonds. It’s easy to do when emotions run high. Disagreements become arguments, and arguments can devolve into name-calling, finger-pointing, and other actions that we don’t always consider the ramifications of. People have their feelings hurt at the minimum– and, in more severe cases, their lives can be turned upside down as a result of being judged by other members of the community to have done something unacceptable or inappropriate.

I’ve been there. I’ve said things that I’ve not been happy with saying after the fact, and I’ve walked away feeling awful about it. I know that my cynicism sometimes does get the best of me, too, and negativity often begets more negativity. I had a regrettable exchange with someone on Twitter, and am grateful for the fact that we not only overcame the interaction– but we each found a mutual level of respect for each other afterwards. He did not have to forgive me for my words and actions, as I got caught up in emotion at the time and said hurtful things… but he did.

To me, social media represents opportunity. Never before have we had the opportunity to be in contact with so many people in our community simultaneously: game developers, publisher staff, gaming press, video/written content creators, and many others who likely share the same passion for games. Social media is an open door for the sharing of thoughts, ideas, images, videos, memories, articles, and many other things that can enhance our passion and increase our enthusiasm. I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with many people whom I admire and who have inspired me, either in the last few years or over the span of my game-playing days. I’ve also had the opportunity to get to know thousands of others in our community and it’s given me a platform to share my thoughts on and memories of gaming.

If we continue to use social media as a platform for judging others, for speaking poorly of and disrespecting others when it’s not necessarily our place to do so, for threatening people who we don’t agree with or who we heard did something that we don’t think is right… we close that window of opportunity. Many of the industry people who we’d never had access to before social media may go dark, for their own safety and well-being. Many others who bring enthusiasm, interest, and excitement to the community may shrink away. As social media becomes toxic, poisoned by anger and saturated by negativity, it becomes a weapon– and a scary one at that. We’ve seen the damage such a weapon can do time and time again.

It’s not my place to say that people need to adjust their behavior. What I ask is that we all take a step back and think about our contributions to social media, as well as how our actions affect our community and its perception by others. I ask that we remember what brings us together as a community in the first place, and that people who we have arguments, disagreements, and exercise judgments of character about are genuine human beings with feelings, emotions, and lives away from the keyboard. We don’t have to like people to show civility and respect towards them, and we might do well to recall that video games– things that we have in our lives that bring us joy and entertainment– are a strange thing to go to war with someone over.

What I can do is to strive to be a better member of this community. I need to be a better listener, to be more cognizant of the content I share and how it might affect others, to be more supportive and appreciative of my fellow community members, and to try and temper/balance my cynicism with more a positive, even enthusiastic, attitude. I’m working on these things, although I have much to do to reach my goals. I can’t control what others do, but I sure can control what I do… and that’s one step towards overall progress.

Finally, I want to recognize all of you. If I’ve ever tweeted at you, shared your content, had a conversation with you, or interacted with you in any way: I thank you. Each of you has added something to my online life at the least– and my offline life at the most. I think that you’re all important. On Twitter, I’m inspired every day by learning new things and having new conversations. If you’ve ever visited this blog before, your visits have inspired me to keep writing, even when I’m not always motivated or when I’ve been ready to close up shop. Video and written content creators, including my Retroware family and the many folks who I watch on YouTube, inspire me to keep creating, too.

We may disagree, or we may argue. You may view me as a retro snob or an old curmudgeon who won’t let go of his past. You may be a fan of my work or social media activity. Or, you may be more neutral towards me and we may have only had a few interactions here and there. I appreciate each and every one of you, and I’ll always be grateful that I’m part of this expansive, passionate community of people who like video games… even if we forget that unifying factor sometimes.

Shooting Straight: Retro Unscripted Post-Mortem

August 16, 2014 2 comments

Deleting the Twitter account for Retro Unscripted this morning was one of the most difficult things that I’ve done in a long time.

I went into the project excited; I thought that I had a pretty decent idea for a web series, and I thought that it would put me kind of on the same page as the other YouTube and video personalities that I admire so much. I had a fair amount of material to talk about and even tried to expand the content to other video types, to change things up. Response was pretty positive and I felt like I was on the road to doing something special. Honestly, I had big plans. I wanted to create business cards. I wanted to build Retro Unscripted into a brand name, while becoming a personality in my own right. I had aspirations of becoming part of a network, attending conventions, being part of panels, and following in the footsteps of others. I really thought that I had reinvented myself… found my niche.

Reality began to set in after I returned from my trip to FunSpot in early June. I injured my right arm and shoulder and it became difficult to near-impossible to perform even routine daily tasks. Showering and shaving was an adventure, playing games was not fun for the first time ever, and even sitting in front of the laptop too long resulted in serious pain. Shooting videos was something that had gone from weekly to only when I felt like I could manage the pain.

Then came the heat of the summer, which also severely limited my shooting schedule. Living in an upstairs apartment, with heat and humidity rising, my jet-loud air conditioning units prevented me from filming without sounding like I was at an airport. Turning off the air conditioner meant that I instantly broke out into pools of sweat on camera, which honestly wasn’t a good look. There was no happy medium.

Lack of decent equipment, issues with lighting and sound, and other technical factors also played a role in diminished filming. I had to shoot at just the right time of the day to get the best light, and it became difficult to find just the right spot for my microphone– so as not to get feedback from my laptop while also not getting too far away from my voice to pick it up properly. I ran out of solutions to many of these issues after awhile.

Finally, the summer months have been cruel to me offline this year. I’ve been battling fatigue and severe allergies, my dog has required multiple trips to the vet and the animal hospital emergency room (which drained nearly all of my finances), and I’ve been having serious struggles with anxiety and depression. I got hit hard by Internet trolls earlier this month, too (which I wrote about in a recent blog post), and that really affected my state of mind. I had to ask myself after that if what I do online is really worth the time I spend. I do believe that it is, but I’ve been so weighted down by everything else going on around me that it only took one additional thing to disrupt that delicate balance that I’d somehow been maintaining.

So… after lots of consideration and after leaving the project abandoned for several weeks, I finally decided to end it. There were simply too many obstacles for me to overcome, and walking away gives me the opportunity to recharge my creative batteries for awhile and decide what– if anything– I might do next.

What is certain is that I’m continuing in my role as a contributing writer for Retroware; with pieces due every other week, I have flexibility that allows for personal obstacles and challenges to be cleared and still put together content that I’m proud to submit. I’m extremely grateful and proud to be part of the Retroware team, and they’ve been amazing in understanding when life has jumped in the way of my productivity. As long as a few people keep reading my work there, I’m hoping that they’ll keep me around. Honestly, being part of the Retroware family has really given me purpose and made me feel like I’m part of something special. That means the world to me.

Aside from that, I can say that I still plan on writing things here when I can. I can’t make any promises as to how much I’ll be writing– or what it is that I’ll be writing about– but I know that this blog is where I always turn when there are things to share that 140 characters on Twitter just won’t cut it. Maybe I’ll even do a video or two when the weather cools down and I can capture just the right light and find the best sound option. I certainly have plenty to write about, but it’s a matter of getting the time and focus to sit here and translate thoughts to words via this keyboard. I’m still active on social media, too, though I think I may be a bit too active at times and am working on trying to find just the right amount of activity without making too much noise. (Perhaps that should be my cue to post more here and Tweet less.)

If you managed to read this far, I’m extremely appreciative and grateful. Pouring out your personal woes is pretty risky and it’s a rather trite thing to do, but making this decision about Retro Unscripted made me feel like I needed to write this and share a bit of what’s going on. I’m hoping that, by being able to express what I’ve been going through instead of locking it internally as I’ve done, I can start turning things around and getting back to being the video game-loving person you all know me as.

SEGA Genesis Memories

 

 

SONY DSC

So, you’re turning 25 years old today, SEGA Genesis. In honor of this special occasion, I have a few memories to share. I hope you won’t mind.

See, back in 1989, I was not a console video game player. I was playing games on my Commodore 64 computer, which was three years old at that point. I had amassed a decent library of games for it; most were coin-op conversions while others were arcade-style experiences. A console wasn’t really in the cards for me at the time; I was the oldest of three in a single-parent household and we were just getting by. I was lucky to even have the computer; my paternal grandmother had given it to me as a gift “for school”… and I kind of take advantage in a different way. My C64 was a gaming machine, with the occasional BASIC programming experiment just because.

Truthfully, I did long for a console back in 1989… but it wasn’t you, Genesis. It was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Lots of friends had one at the time, and I so desperately wanted to be a part of that club. Nintendo was everywhere… and you… well… you weren’t. Not yet. You remember the SEGA console that came before you. The Master System wasn’t exactly on a lot of wishlists back then, while Nintendo had run away with console gaming for the time being.

I did read about you, though, in 1989 and 1990. My younger brother and I got video game magazines whenever we could. He was a GamePro subscriber, and I sometimes would dabble in a copy in Video Games & Computer Entertainment or Electronic Gaming Monthly. I have to admit, the graphics that you displayed at the time were mighty impressive. 16-bit gaming was a future thing that wasn’t too far away, and seeing Altered Beast playing at home much like the coin-op did get this arcade rat’s attention.

In 1991, I bypassed you for a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I know that smarts. You were arch enemies! You have to understand, though, that I was a Nintendo player at the time. I’d received an NES for Christmas in 1990 and was a firm believer that Nintendo was somehow better. I split my time between the NES and SNES for a few months. The games that I played were generally good or better, though the sports games that I loved so much on the NES felt like they were lacking on the SNES…

This leads me to later in 1992. I visited a recently-opened independent game store in Auburn, MA one afternoon, after seeing the sign in my travels home from work a few days before. I walked in and began browsing the NES and SNES games when I heard what sounded like a football game being played on television.

“Who’s playing?” I asked the owner of the store.

“The Genesis. It’s Sports Talk Football ’93. Wanna see?”

I saw. I listened. I marveled. I was blown away.

Sports games, at least the ones that I had played up to this point, didn’t have running commentary like this. It was pretty darned close to television. The graphics were pretty good, too; the camera would zoom in on the ball carrier during play and cutscenes between plays made the game feel more like a game telecast. This wasn’t Tecmo Super Bowl, in terms of accessibility and gameplay, but this was unlike anything I had seen before.

You and I became partners that day, Genesis. I took you home, along with Sports Talk Football ’93, NHL Hockey, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Streets of Rage. From then on, you became my go-to machine for sports games. My fondest memories from our time together include the hours I spent working my way through NBA Jam on that snowy day in 1993 (I walked to the mall in a snowstorm to buy it, remember?), along with intense NHL ’94 games and racing combat action from Road Rash II and Skitchin’.

Skitchin'

You helped get me through some tough times when I get laid off from AT&T in 1994. After long days of pounding the pavement looking for new jobs, or when I felt down after losing my girlfriend of two years, you were there– along with your mortal SNES enemy– to cheer me up. Both of you provided an escape, comfort, and a bit of fun for me when I so desperately needed it as my life was changing so drastically from what it had been just months earlier. I’ll never forget that.

We parted ways in 1995, remember? Yeah… I was pretty excited for the PlayStation. I needed some extra money since the new console was expensive and my weekly wages weren’t that great at the time. I had a feeling that I’d regret trading you away after almost three years… but you helped me again when I was in a tough spot. You helped me get that flashy new CD console that I really wanted. I was happy then, and I’m grateful– and a bit regretful– now. In retrospect, I wish I’d had the money to keep you instead… but I can’t change the past.

Or can I?

Genesis

That’s right. You’ve been back in my library since 2012. I searched local game stores looking for you for my 40th birthday, and was extremely excited when we met again. We’ve been able to relive many memories together since then: long NBA Jam sessions, close NHL ’94 matches (even on SEGA CD!), butt-kicking with Streets of Rage 2, and lightspeed adventures with Sonic the Hedgehog. Perhaps the best part of our reunification has been getting to experience a bunch of other games that I missed out on originally. After so many years, I finally got to play Arnold Palmer’s Tournament Golf and Tommy Lasorda Baseball, among many others. I’m happy that I’ve managed to increase your library to nearly 100 games so far. That’s more games than I ever owned when we were first a team in the mid-90s.

So today, on your 25th birthday, I salute you with truly special personal memories. Expressing my appreciation for the hours of entertainment and years of memories you’ve given to me is the most sincere gift I can offer… and we’ll be spending a lot more time together as the coming weeks, months, and years go by. You can count on it.

Shooting Straight: It’s Okay To Be Sorry

There’s been some (more?) unfortunate Internet controversy in the YouTube community.

A term was used by a prominent YouTube personality that offended some people. Upon hearing/reading the criticism, the personality decided to double down and assume a defensive position as opposed to acknowledging the concerns of those who were offended. He tried to redirect the offended persons to something else unrelated that they should perhaps be more offended about– the Gaza conflict. The end result is that even more people are upset and offended, and the personality is in a tight spot in terms of public image… at least temporarily.

I know that it’s arguable that people on the Internet can be easily offended these days. People seem as though they’re looking for the next thing to be mad about, and it sometimes can feel like you have to walk on verbal eggshells to avoid some kind of anger, wrath, or shaming. I’m not immune to either side of this; I’ve said things in the past that have upset or offended people, and I’ve been offended by things that people have said. The Internet can be a tricky course to navigate, figuring out what to talk about how to talk about it in the least offensive way possible. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it’s reality.

Participating on the Internet by posting videos, blog entries, Facebook statuses, Tweets, comments on content, and more amplifies your voice. Instead of just talking to your friends in a small room, there are literally thousands (and usually more) of people who can read and/or hear what you have to say. That wider audience has different standards and different levels of acceptable behavior and language. What might be perfectly fine to say in front of a few friends isn’t necessarily inoffensive to this larger group.

You have two choices. You can either:

A) Say whatever you want to say, unfiltered, on the condition that you acknowledge that you may offend some people and have to deal with criticism or angry reaction as a result…

OR

B) Be measured and thoughtful with your words and expressions, taking into account that it’s easy to offend an audience.

If you choose A, like it or not, you’re likely going to be doing at least some apologizing. Maybe people are too sensitive, or maybe you can argue that people on the Internet need a thicker skin, but the truth is that the atmosphere here isn’t going to change anytime soon. People are going to be offended sometimes. People can misconstrue what you say. People can interpret things differently than you intended them to mean. If you stubbornly refuse to apologize when evidence builds that you’ve made a mistake or upset some people– unless your whole schtick is to anger people, much like a shock jock or highly controversial media personality– then your public image is going to be damaged. You make it worse when you attempt to erroneously redirect that anger by engaging in logical fallacies… as this YouTube personality did.

I’m not here to tell you that choosing B is the only answer, or even the best answer. Sometimes the choice between A and B will vary, depending on the situation. Sometimes our emotions get away from us, or perhaps we feel so strongly about a particular position or a topic that choosing A is the strongest way to get our point across. Choosing B is the path of least resistance, and it’s the easy way. I’ll admit that I choose B far more than I choose A these days, primarily because I feel that I’m more successful as a writer and social media participant that way. I get fewer negative responses and attract fewer angry reactions. My mission isn’t to piss people off; it’s to engage and hopefully get others to share similar memories, thoughts, and experiences. Sure, when it comes to modern console gaming, the cynic in me does choose the A path more often… but I’m working on that.

What I am here to recommend is that apologizing for– or, at least admitting to– offending people is not a bad thing. It doesn’t make you less of a personality, or less of a person. I strongly believe that we should accept responsibility for what we say and share online. Sometimes even a clarification goes a long way to defusing a negative situation:

I’ve noticed that a few of you took issue with something I said in my last video. I didn’t really mean for ______ to be offensive. What I was trying to say was ________. To those who were upset, I apologize. I will learn from this and be better in the future. Thanks in advance for understanding.

It seems like a form letter, but taking that extra time to reach out to those who were offended can mend fences… and most (though not all) people will appreciate being in tune with your audience.

You can also elect to do nothing, and hope that the anger blows over… but exacerbating the situation with defensive defiance is the worst thing you can do. You polarize your audience and force them to choose sides… are they with you or against you? If they’re against you, are they ever going to come back? How much of your audience will you lose, based on your actions and how word of mouth spreads? Is that worth the stubbornness and defiance? In most situations, I’m confident in saying, “No. It’s not worth it.”

I guess we will see what happens with this situation. Here’s hoping for a diplomatic resolution, or, at the very least, that things blow over in the coming days and weeks.

Because Nobody Asked: So You Want To Write About Video Games For a Living?

July 31, 2014 1 comment

So there were some pretty serious layoffs at GameSpot this week. There are two members of the site’s editorial (written content) staff left. The rest– several of whom had 5+ years of experience there– were terminated.

This should be a wake-up call for those thinking about pursuing a career in gaming press. It’s not necessarily a call to stop dreaming and stop trying, but it is a call to be very aware of how difficult a field that it is to get into for those looking to do it as a career.

GameSpot’s layoffs are the most recent in a string of job losses. GameTrailers, Polygon, and Destructoid went through them in the past few months, and IGN is no stranger to saying goodbye to staff. Paid positions are dwindling, and there’s a far larger base of experienced people looking for jobs than there are jobs available. Video content is exceeding written content, in terms of demand from the audience, and it’s become routine to jump on YouTube or to read a message board than it is to visit a website. Furthermore, the use of ad-blocking programs tends to affect the amount of revenue coming in to these bigger websites, which leads to less money being available to pay staff.

When I first started “chasing the dream” back in 2001, ad revenue was higher. Websites were expanding to accommodate audiences, and there wasn’t a sense of saturation in terms of content. It really was a window of opportunity for a lot of people. If you were a talented writer, someone was going to eventually give you a shot… even if it was after paying some dues initially on smaller websites. For a short amount of time (2004-05), I actually did have a paying gig. It wasn’t a ton of money, but just getting paid to write about video games was a dream come true. Was I the next big thing? No… but I had made a name for myself and, had it not been for my personal life getting in the way of my writing (separation and divorce are tough to work through), I don’t know how far I might have gone.

It’s a much different scene today. Video content is king. If you don’t have a webcam, basic editing experience, and solid social media reach… you’re already lacking as a candidate. You can be an amazing writer and have a tremendous way with words, but there’s just not that much demand. What demand there is left for writing talent is satisfied by the growing pool of displaced, more experienced writers out there. Work experience, in most cases, trumps talent. Readers know their names, editors are aware of their work histories and oftentimes have worked with them before, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

It’s a long shot to make any kind of living this way. That doesn’t mean that freelancing is out of the question, as I believe that websites will continue to secure independent contractors (no weekly wages or benefits) to provide content as needed. It does mean that the idea of getting up, going to the office or getting on your computer to start writing 5 days a week, and getting paid on a regular basis by a gaming website is more fantasy than reality. Many are talented, some will try to take that next step, and a very small number of these candidates will succeed.

Warning against making a living at writing about games or as part of the gaming press doesn’t mean that I don’t encourage talented writers to keep at it. If it’s a passion that you have, run with it. There are many websites out there that can use writing help, or you can create your own website or blog to share your work on with others. That’s what I do now, and I’ve never been happier. I write a piece every couple of weeks, and I’m part of a website that is happy to publish my work. If I have the time and motivation to write more, that’s what this blog is for. I still get to be part of an amazing team of talent and have my work read by a significant number of people. i have no doubt that, if you’ve got the skills and the drive, you can find a similar situation.

If you do decide to chase the dream, as others have and will continue to do, I wish you all the best. In fact, I’d love for you to prove me wrong. I think that many people reach a time in their lives where they decide to go for broke and see what happens, whether it’s for a writing career, a singing career, a personal business, or other career paths… and maybe that is you right now. Just think about what I’ve said here, and what quite a few writers have already found out recently: Gaming press is a tough, competitive business, with a higher rate of displacement than placement. Swinging for the fences will often result in an out– even if it’s a fly ball that gets to the warning track– so have a backup plan ready if/when it happens.

Shooting Straight: Commentoxicity

I enjoy writing.

I’ve done it for a good number of years now. It’s the method of communication that I’m most comfortable with… and, honestly, it’s the way that I express myself the best. When I speak, I sometimes stammer or let loose with a flurry of “ummm”s and “ahhhh”s. If you watched any of my Retro Unscripted videos, you probably noticed that. When I write, though, that all goes away. I let the words flow from my brain to my hands, where I hunt and peck at a keyboard to type the series of words that come to mind.

I also enjoy leaving comments on various content across the Internet. These aren’t just one-sentence rapid reactions; they’re usually multi-paragraph comments that probably often run a bit longer than most people want to read. Brevity is not my strong suit. I’m also usually not the kind of person to comment on another’s work negatively. If I’m compelled to leave a comment on something, it’s because that content affected me in a good way. I often leave positive comments on work done by friends and Retroware colleagues; it’s one way that I show my support for the hard work necessary to create that video or to write that piece. I will occasionally leave constructive criticism if I deem it appropriate, but Internet comments are often a minefield of toxicity and anger… so I instead choose to be supportive.

Unfortunately, people don’t like positive comments on the Internet very much. For example, after leaving a positive comment for the latest episode of The Video Game Years on YouTube recently, I was greeted by this response:

Comment

I deleted my original comment after reading this.

It’s not the first time that I’ve dealt with venomous reaction. I’ve tried to ignore it in the past, and I have similarly deleted my comments in the past that received such a harsh reaction to try and head off more inappropriateness. Even on Retroware, the site that I so happily submit articles to and that has made me happy to be writing again, I’ve been forced to severely cut down my comment activity out of defensiveness. It’s sad, because I enjoyed leaving comments for the content creators and thought that the comments would be received as supportive or a small token of appreciation for their hard work, but I didn’t wish to continually make myself a target.

If I was a community manager, or if I was doing this kind of thing for a living, I’d probably swallow my disappointment and keep at it. I’m not, however; so being positive or supportive and getting blasted in the process has lost its worth. Why subject myself to the same kind of attacks? I don’t have any valid reasons. This isn’t a virtual schoolyard where I should feel as though I have to defend myself… and for what? Being nice? Being complimentary? I’m better served leaving a thumbs up, or a “like”, or a +1, than I am to keep putting myself out there to get this kind of reaction.

I’ve posited for awhile now that Internet comments, as they are now, are overdue for retirement. If people really want their voices heard, make them earn it by writing e-mails or blog posts of substance and clarity, which can be picked up and shared by the content creators that they’re aimed for. These used to be called “Letters to the Editor” a long time ago. Content creators– or a person hired or designated by said content creator– can read the reactions they get and determine which ones deserve attention versus being deleted. If the comment writer doesn’t like that he/she isn’t getting the attention that’s desired, let them take to WordPress, Tumblr, or any other free blogging site and post the discarded reaction for all to see.

Of course, the onus then falls on the content creator to judge reactions fairly and share both the bad and good… within reason. Reposting only positive comments isn’t necessarily representative of how readers or viewers feel about the creator’s work. If criticism is civil and respectful, it should garner as much consideration for sharing as gushing plaudits do. It’s basically Moderation 101, but this process occurs before anything goes live for viewers to see. What’s more, citing that an e-mail or blog post be submitted in response places some potential responsibility on the person who is reacting to at least put a little effort into his or her response. If they do, read it. If they don’t, discard it without a second thought.

Of course, this is most likely an unrealistic solution as it requires extra effort to accomplish while also potentially upsetting readers or viewers who are accustomed to leaving comments at will. Removing that level of engagement is a risk that I’m guessing very few people would want to take. Until something changes, though, I’m at the point where I have to make my own adjustments to protect myself from reactions like these. I will do my best to maintain some level of support for content that appeals to me, mostly by sharing it without comment on social networks or writing about it here, but I’m done with commentoxicity.

Retro Game on the Brain: Rad Racer

RRTitle

I didn’t really play Rad Racer too much until 2012, when I got my NES for my 40th birthday. In past years of owning an NES, during the 1990s, I had played the game sparingly. I never really got too far– maybe to the second stage, if I happened to run well– and I just cast it aside as an early NES game that really didn’t matter much. Instead, I played other racing games, such as R.C. Pro-Am or Super Sprint. As my NES personal gameplay experiences came and went over the years, Rad Racer was pretty much forgotten.

Had I attended the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, as I so desperately wanted to, perhaps my early opinion on Rad Racer might have been different. After all, the game was part of the competition. I don’t think I would have fared all that well, though; my skills at Super Mario Bros. and Tetris at the time were intermediate at best, and I didn’t have any experience playing Rad Racer at that point. None of my friends had it, and we never rented it for a weekend to play it. I probably would have crashed and burned at the competition, but I suspect that I would have been sold on Rad Racer (and the other games) at that time, just to improve.

Turning the calendar to 2001, I finally got my hands on a DVD copy of The Wizard. I had heard about it in years past, and I had never seen it in theaters. Chatter grew about it as I had begun to write NES reviews for fun in the late 1990s, but it took until 2001 for me to see it all the way through for the very first time. While watching the film, this scene stuck out to me:

 

Yes, it’s notable for one of the most iconic retrogaming-related sayings of all time, but this sequence also raised my interest in Rad Racer. I had already seen the film more times than I probably should admit to publicly, so when I got an NES on April 21, 2012, I knew that Rad Racer was going to be one of the first games that I wanted to track down. I wasn’t going to play it with a Power Glove, like Lucas did, but I was going to give the game a fair shake for the first time… and I’m happy that I did. In fact, it’s become a game that I play fairly often today.

The play controls are very simple, which is great for those just starting out. The A button is the gas and the B button is the brake. Once the car reaches 100 kilometers per hour (or just over 62 miles per hour, if you’re anti-metric), pressing up on the D-pad kicks in a turbo boost that cranks up the acceleration. Pressing down on the D-pad changes the music between one of three selections, and I find the music to be pretty good. (My favorite is this music track, but the other two are worth listening to, as well.) If you have red and blue 3D glasses, pressing the Select button toggles 3D mode, which is not really that impressive.

The objective of Rad Racer is to complete each of the eight courses in the game. These are races against time, with checkpoints scattered throughout each stage to add precious seconds to the ever-ticking clock. A new player’s first instinct would be to maintain top speed and fly to the finish, but the game punishes players who adopt this strategy. I used to do this during my first few attempts, and it wasn’t long before bad things would happen. High speeds make the car slide to the outside of a turn, which often results in colliding with an object on the side of the road. Going too fast also prevents players from having time to adjust to traffic, and colliding with another car usually leads to a crash. Crashes and collisions waste time, and too many crashes during a stretch between checkpoints will inevitably lead to a Game Over situation.

Too much speed while taking curves spells disaster.

Too much speed while taking curves spells disaster.

The key to succeeding at Rad Racer is learning when to speed up and when to slow down. There are several straightaways that lend themselves to top speeds, but there are plenty of curves that demand less speed and more steering accuracy. Road signs alert drivers to left or right curves, but these fly by quickly and can be easily missed if a player isn’t watching for them. Seeing and reacting to these signs allows for speed and steering adjustment to avoid taking the curves too fast. Traffic is also a variable that must be accounted for, when considering speed. It’s easy to pass a single vehicle, but there are times when all three lanes have vehicles occupying them in various distances from the player’s car. Slowing down a bit can open up narrow passing windows, which is all that’s needed to leave that pesky traffic behind and continue on towards the goal.

Personally, I’ve only made it to Stage 5 once in my Rad Racer experience. Getting past Stage 4, which is a challenging course that winds through the ruins of Athens, is usually my Kryptonite. The first 25% of the course is very curvy, which makes it difficult to maintain much speed early. Once the curves are left behind, the next 50% is generally straight, but traffic increases and requires some deft maneuvering to get around. The last 25% of the course is usually what takes me down. The final checkpoint comes well before the finish line, and two harrowing turns combine with heavy traffic to severely cut down the margin of error. I tell myself every time that I get here to slow down and pace myself through the course, but I feel the pressure getting towards the end and often make too many mistakes.

Despite my continued failures, I keep coming back to Rad Racer. I keep playing with the belief that it’s only a matter of time before I get through Stage 4, experiencing and conquering the remaining four courses. It’s not impossible. The crashes and failures aren’t ever “cheap”; they’re caused by my own actions, and that’s all that I can really ask for in a difficult game. If a game is fair, then I know that I have a chance to succeed with practice and experience. Aside from fair challenge, Rad Racer also creates what I call rewarding tension. Squeezing though a wall of cars without incident when a collision seemed imminent or coasting just past a checkpoint after time expires are cool resolutions to tense situations. Tension and resolution may not be fun for everyone (or even anyone else), but that thrill is a rush for me.

I’ll never be as cool as Lucas Barton, even though I own more than 97 NES games. I don’t use the Power Glove, I don’t make moves on a competitor’s female companion, and I’m about as far away from being an intimidating presence as one can get. Despite these differences between us, Lucas and I will always have Rad Racer in common. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have given this game more than a few passing tries.

RRLucas

So, here’s to you, Lucas. You may have lost to Jimmy Woods at Video Armageddon, and you may have been a bit of a jerk to your friends, but you made Rad Racer cool to me 25 years after its release.

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