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Throwback Thursday: Mega Man is a robot

It was a warm Sunday afternoon when my six-year-old nephew walked -- ran, tumbled, materialized, crash-landed -- into the family room, shattering my tranquil state of mind as I busily shot bad guys from rooftops, balconies, and bridges while piloting a jetski through a flooded section of an abandoned Spanish colony.

The boy was very much in awe of what was happening on-screen.

“What’s that you’re playing, Uncle Jed?”

“Uncharted.”

He repeated the unfamiliar name. Uncharted. He pointed to the TV. “What’s his name?”

“Nathan Drake.”

He probably thought that was a mouthful, because he fell silent and just watched. I continued my journey through the flooded city, blasting enemies out of their perches with a grenade launcher. I was also terribly concerned that the boy was picking up some unhealthy ideas from all the violence going on.

Then again, his grandmother brought him up on a healthy diet of Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and he was certainly no stranger to Hollywood violence.

Finally, I reached a spot where the heroes could disembark and continue their murder spree on dry land. The boy leaned forward, guarded but eager.

“Can I try?”

Hm. This was certainly a situation I had never found myself in at his age. I had always been the expert on video games, even as a pre-schooler. The very idea of a grown-up teaching a kid how to play a video game was alien to me, and yet here I was, about to do that very thing as I handed over the controller, all the while thinking about what a bad parent I might make.

“Hold this to aim. Press this to fire. You can take cover behind a wall by pressing this. You run with this, but if you want to walk you have to push it just a little bit. You pick things up with this. You can change your weapon by pressing this or this. And use the right stick to look around.”

He struggled for a bit with the complex instructions -- a boy of the touchscreen era trying to come to terms with yesterday’s technology. Soon, though, he was scoring headshots and timing reloads with frightful competency. I was starting to feel that he’s had enough.

“I have another game you can try,” I cut in.

“What’s that?”

“You play a blue robot. It’s called Mega Man.”

His eyes lit up. “A robot?” He was already handing over the controller to me, oblivious of highly important things like saving progress, checkpoints, and achievements.

I quit Uncharted and fired up Mega Man 9. “This is what games used to look like when I was a kid,” I told him almost wistfully.

He nodded but kept watching. He offered no comments about how ugly everything was. We sat through the cheesy intro and I started the game. We were greeted by the traditional stage select screen.

“Which robot do you want to fight?” I asked.

“That blue one!” he immediately said while pointing.

“You, uh, you can’t do that. That’s you.”

“Oh... okay, that one.”

I began to teach him the ropes. “Use this to move. This makes you jump. This makes you shoot.” And that was everything he needed to know. I was actually pleased at how elegant that all was.

So the boy embarked on his great journey... and fell into a bottomless pit right on the first screen of the level.

“Yeah, that’s a hard jump,” I commented.

The boy embarked on his great journey once again and made the leap across the bottomless pit. Seconds later, he was cowering under a ledge with two bars of life left, too afraid to jump up to face the enemy robot up there, and wondering where else he can go.

“That’s tough,” I said. “You should have known where those enemies would be so you wouldn’t take so much damage.”

He grunted in response. A moment later, he exploded in a starburst of blinking white circles. The third time he attempted it, he made it to the ladder on the very top of the screen.

“Yes!” we yelled.

He died on the next screen. Maybe some kind of robotic egg dropped on him. I don’t quite remember. What’s certain was that we were soon staring at the game over screen.

“That takes you back to the level you were playing,” I explained while pointing at the menu choices. “That lets you choose a new robot to fight.”

He chose a new robot and began exploring a new level. Minutes later, we were greeted by the game over screen once again. The cycle repeated, and I must have dozed off because the next thing I remember was my nephew shaking me awake, handing me the controller and telling me he had to go.

“Thanks,” he hurriedly added, sprinting off while humming -- was it some 8-bit tune he heard just minutes ago?

I shrugged and went back to slaughtering pirates in Uncharted.

The following week, the boy reappeared in the family room, ready for another exciting afternoon of gaming. I was much farther in Uncharted now, and I caught him up on the story as I traversed a slew of impossible jumps and crumbling ledges. Soon, another firefight exploded onto the screen.

Convinced that I really was destined to be a rotten parent, I turned to him with an offering of unbridled and uncensored movie-grade violence. “You want to play this fight?”

He shook his head. “I want to play the game with the blue robot.”

“But that looks like an old game.”

“It’s nice.”

Fine, then. I fired up Mega Man 9 and handed him the controller. “Why do you like this better? Isn’t Uncharted just like the Indiana Jones movies your lola likes so much?”

“Mega Man is a robot.”

As if that was explanation enough. I settled in on the couch, resting my eyes while I lazily answered the series of rapid-fire questions he was starting to ask. “Why does he look like a human? Why is there a gun on his arm? Why does he make that face when he jumps?”

Questions we’ve always wanted to know in our own youth. I think the boy is going to turn out just fine.

Throwback Thursday: The Greatest Generation

We are not the first generation of gamers in history, but we are the ones who made gaming great. We were the kids who whispered about secret rooms and cheat codes during recess -- the kids who turned the classroom into a fledgling piracy network, passing around floppy disks and bad photocopies of game manuals and code wheels. We were there to see games evolve from giant colored blocks shooting smaller blocks at each other to the wild and varied landscape we see today. We copied and played and bought and talked about games and suddenly, we’re thirty years old and the industry is swimming in money. Our money! And our parents’ money, of course. Copious amounts of it.

We are the generation that made gaming what it is today -- the kids who made gaming a way of life. Stop and think about that for a moment. We are the greatest generation in something.

I’m not here to lead a retro gamer circlejerk, though! We want Throwback Thursdays to be a nice, relaxing affair -- like sleeping in and staying huddled beneath the sheets during a cool rainy morning in August, or being handed a cool glass of iced tea by your mom after running around in the sun with the other kids at the height of summer.

Yeah, we used to be able to play video games and still run around and do silly things with our friends when the situation called for it. Remember that? We had fun and sheltered lives, but damn, we grew up with some character.

Here’s one good reason why we’re the greatest generation: we existed during that precarious transition period when all sorts of entertainment was at our fingertips, but nothing was instant. We never knew the pleasure of getting everything now, and we were better for it. Think of the patience it took to get a versus match of Street Fighter going. Before everything else, you had to be sitting in the same room as your opponent! That meant setting a day to get together and then finding a ride to your friend’s place. Or quite possibly, twiddling your thumbs at home waiting for your gaming visitors to arrive.

The lucky ones were the kids who had gamer siblings and neighbors.

Still, that didn’t mean those lucky kids didn’t have to wait for anything. We waited for everything that people take for granted today: gaming news in the magazines, gaming talk with our friends in school during break times, gaming time during weekends, and a new game every so often when our grades were high and our folks were in a good mood. We got to know the games we had. We loved them in and out.

I owned a Famicom for one whole week before I ever owned or even experienced any Famicom games. My mother got it for me as a surprise present -- she had of course heard of this thing called “video games” that you hooked up to the TV to play games on. What no one told her, though, was that the Famicom didn’t do anything by itself! I don’t think I understood what the Famicom really was when I got home from school that day, but I must have understood enough because I was soon bawling my eyes out after discovering that I had no games to play on it.

That week, I spent the afternoons after school sitting in front of the TV with the Famicom hooked up to it, flicking the switch on and off and watching how the noise on the screen turned into a flat, quiet black whenever the machine came to life.

A week after my mom got the Famicom for me, she brought home a game! It was Donkey Kong 3, which was all about a tiny little dude armed with a spray can of insecticide trying to keep Donkey Kong from jumping off his vines down to the ground by spraying his ass with insecticide. Also the tiny dude sprayed actual insects, too. I never found out why my mom chose specifically that game to get me. Or maybe she just picked at random, knowing that I would be happy with anything at that point. I loved this game. I played it constantly and non-stop until I got my second game, which would be Super Mario Brothers.

I couldn’t remember how long the gap between Donkey Kong 3 and Super Mario was, but I remember that one week of being a Famicom owner with no games to play on it. I remember the blank TV that stared back at me.

Those really were the days. We weren’t allowed to bring video game cartridges to school, but we all did it anyway. The gamers did, at least: most everyone already had a Famicom by that time, but you could spot a gamer from the way his eyes lit up when you brought up the topic, and by the way you instantly had that familiarity of the shared experience. Those were the same people who were always on the lookout for new games to play. We had no money, so we just loaned each other our games. That was really how it started -- swapping games and swapping war stories and offering each other sage advice.

One noisy afternoon in grade school in between classes, my classmate overheard me discussing Mega Man 3 with a friend. We weren’t really that close, but I remembered how he quietly turned around in his seat, took my notebook, opened it to the back, sketched out a grid, and populated it with circles which he marked “B” and “R”. I recognized it instantly: it was a password.

“Where does this go?” I asked.

“Just try it,” he answered. He started to turn back to his desk, but paused midway to give me one last laconic glance. “And if you hold right on player 2 when you fall into a pit, you could climb back out again.”

It was one of those stupid things that were too silly and too far-out to be true. And yet it was! I confirmed this by playing the game with the second controller on the floor with my big toe firmly stationed on top of the d-pad. The password, for the record, led to the final set of Dr. Wily levels with all E-tanks available. I had it memorized in a week. I never became friends with that guy who gave me the secrets of Mega Man 3, but I was also able to pass on that knowledge to someone else. And so it continued.

It amazes me sometimes when I think of how we lived our lives back then. We were just a bunch of privileged kids with our precious video games. But the games were no longer toys like the rest of the things our parents handed over to us during birthdays and Christmas: each new game was a new experience to uncover and learn and talk about, and we relished in doing all those things.

In between those moments of playing something new and getting together with our friends and sharing secrets and stories, we waited. And we were happy.

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