Listen to me babble on the People Playing Games podcast!

Not too long ago, a Twitter survey shot through every Nazi’s favorite social network that asked a character-defining question: name the topics you can speak about for 30 minutes with zero prep time. One of my picks was video games. And I spoke about it for 35 minutes on the People Playing Games podcast. That extra five makes the world of difference.

In the pod, host Mike Andronico chats with me about fighting games and breaking into journalism. It’s a fun discussion that’s very much worth a play.

Reflecting on Street Fighter II and arcade ass-kickings

Every summer, as warm weather settles over New York City, newscasters report that violence and crime escalate as the mercury rises. One doctor is likely to state that the high heat indexes are the direct cause of the unruliness; another equally qualified physician is likely to contradict that statement by explaining that people are simply outdoors longer in the summer, thus upping the chance of a confrontation. Regardless, if you were in the New York City arcade scene between 1991 and 1999, you either witnessed, dished out, or received an ass-kicking. As a frequent visitor of nearly every major arcade in New York City during those years, I experienced all three aspects of the phenomena. And Street Fighter II was very often the cause of those ass-kickings almost every  time.

Street Fighter II‘s very premise encourages rising tensions. You control a fighter, and have to beat up the competition to keep your quarter alive.  No matter if you lasted one minute or rattled of 10+ victories in a row, there was always something to boast about. If you got served, you could always boast to your “cheeser”  opponent that your six-hit combo was better than anything that he would’ve dreamed of doing.  If you bodied your opponent, well, that speaks for itself. The typical arcade rat didn’t pose any danger during those mouth-off moments, but if you were playing one of the arcade goons (every game room had at least two), you probably got a knuckle massage against your will.

I remember my first arcade beat down—unfortunately,  I was on the receiving end. I had just finished waxing some cigarette-inhaling punk using Guile’s infamous Jumping Fierce > Standing Fierce > Sonic Boom> Backfist mega-combo in the original Street Fighter II.  The leather-clad bastard got pissed and blew smoke in my face, as he couldn’t handle such a devastating defeat. I, naturally, told the scrub to step off and awaited the next challenger.

What came next was a thunder-clap of pain so severe that I hadn’t felt anything comparable until I ripped my pec in a freak martial arts accident years later. My jaw felt as though it was struck by Mjolnir itself, and my ears rang with as one with tinnitus. It’s hard to say exactly when I recovered from the Fist from Hell, but my most immediate memory was of my homie Abe wiping blood from my lip with a handful of tissue. Was this the price to pay for kicking ass in Street Fighter II?

Yes, apparently. I still get ribbed by the boys for catching such a bad one, but I wear my beat down with pride. Not only did I whip my opponent in-game, but I mentally pushed him to the point of a physical altercation. I owned him.

Kids these day don’t risk a punch in the face with the Xbox Lives and PlayStation Networks providing safe haven for all manner of smack-talkers. But back in the 1990s, mouthing off and Street Fighter II just didn’t mix. Especially during the dog days of summer.

Image courtesy of Capcom.

How Madonna improved my Street Fighter II skills

Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection is the singer’s first greatest hits compilation. Released in November 1990, the album culled The Material Girl’s most-popular tracks from 1983-1990.

Capcom’s Street Fighter II is the game that put one-on-one versus fighting on the map and staved the arcade’s inevitable death by nearly a decade. Released months after The Immaculate Collection in March 1991, Street Fighter II forever changed the video game industry.

Oddly, I discovered both the record and the game in the same place: Coney Island’s legendary Faber’s Fascination arcade.

I grew up in the shadow of the world-famous Cyclone, as a poor kid from one of Coney Island’s dense New York City housing projects. Free time and loose change were spent in Faber’s Fascination (known among the C.I. denizens simply as “the arcade”) playing Lifeforce, Punch-Out!!, pinball machines, and other quarter-eating staples.

One particular summer, summer 1991, I entered Faber’s Fascination through its back entrance and discovered the establishment’s Street Fighter II machine–no one played it at the time. I now realize that I discovered Street Fighter II before the 2D fighting game craze descended on my area of Brooklyn.

Street Fighter II

Street Fighter II immediately caught my eye because I pumped a lot of allowance money into the original Street Fighter, an all around atrocious title. After eyeballing the attract mode, I ponied up a quarter, picked Chun-Li, and placed my fingertips on the punch and kick buttons.

The computer properly served me.

A few days later,  I returned to the arcade with a bevy of buds and pockets full of quarters. I popped coins into the machine, as did my friends, and started up. But as I exchanged fists, feet, and fireballs with friends, I noticed a series of Madonna songs blaring over Faber’s loudspeakers.

Now, I’d always been a Madonna fan; I was a child of the ’80s, after all. But hearing her pop sensibilities in the arcade–the grimy playthings of urbanites–was truly out-of-place. It felt wrong. Guile’s Jumping Fierce > Standing Fierce > Sonic Boom > Backfist shouldn’t be backed by “Lucky Star.”

I was getting my ass completely handed to me by a long-haired rocker type until Madonna’s “Live To Tell” crept into my ears. I was vaguely familiar with the song, but hadn’t actually taken time to listen to the lyrics or arrangements. It didn’t matter;  the slow, melancholy track moved something within. My hands’ frantic movements slowed to match the speed of the track as I hummed the melody–and it helped my game! Instead of attempting to rapidly fire off combos and specials, my fighting became more deliberate and timed.

I honestly don’t remember if I won that contest (chances are pretty slim), but it was the turning point in my fighting game play style. I learned that I didn’t need to mash; a more calculated approach led to me eating far less Dragon Punches and Flash Kicks.

The Madonna Effect isn’t very surprising, really. Music tinkers with something in my brain. When notes, melodies, and hooks latch in, I excel. It’s one of the reasons why I run roughshod through games like Dracula X: Rondo of Blood–its soundtrack pulls me into the game world and establishes a foe-wrecking flow.

Still, the Madge-Street Fighter II combination is a special one as it not only puts me in the zone, but carries the weight of nostalgia. ‘Til this day I fire up the Immaculate Collection, pop in Ultra Street Fighter IV, and drift away in a hazy dream of combos and counters where summertime discovery, laughs, and freedom last forever.

Baseball Stars, sports, and summer ’89

Baseball Stars NES Box ArtParents’ basements were made for safekeeping childhood memories.

I recently rediscovered a stack of Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges locked inside a storage bin in my folks’ home. The titles were part of an obviously curated collection that boasted some of my all-time NES games, including Contra, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, and River City Ransom. Honestly, I don’t remember when I purchased them. Was Contra the same cart that I picked up in ’88? Was Goonies II part of the game lot that came bundled with my top-loader NES eBay buy from a few years back? Those details are lost to time.

But when my eyes locked on the Baseball Stars cart, several major and minor dust-covered memories floated to the surface.

I remember buying Baseball Stars during the summer ’89 with money that I had saved since my mid-May birthday. I knew Baseball Stars was soon to hit retail due to write ups in various video game magazines, but in those days solid releases dates were incredibly rare. As a result, I held on to $50 for weeks, ignoring my desires to drop coin on Nerds candy and Daredevil and Uncanny X-Men comics.

That was a small miracle made possible by an overwhelming desire to own what I knew was going to be the best baseball video game ever made; a game that would enable me to create my all-time favorite players and teams and pitch, hit, and run all summer. And that’s exactly what I did after making the purchase. My friends and I devoted days to tweaking players and teams, and setting up elimination tournaments for nothing more than bragging rights. Days and nights melted away.

Rediscovering Baseball Stars also made me remember just how much I loved the sport during my teen years. I watched nearly every Mets and Yankees game that was broadcast during non-school hours, collected Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck trading cards, and obsessed over stats. I emulated Rickey Henderson’s offensive and defensive style when playing baseball with the boys. I began to casually wear batting gloves, too, a habit that continues until this day. Seriously. They help keep convention cooties at bay.

Nowadays, baseball’s plodding pace and overly long regular season don’t inspire me to do anything but turn the channel to the nearest MMA or NBA broadcast. And that’s fine.  I no longer have a desire to study box scores, or devote four hours of my day to watching men adjust their cups and spit brown sludge.

I’d rather take swings in Chelsea Piers’ batting cages or, now that it’s been reintroduced to my life, fire up Baseball Stars on a lazy weekend.

Stone Age Gamer’s BitBox NES Cases spruce up your retro collection

BitBox NES game cases are super sexy. No, really, they are. I’ve discovered—after returning to the wild and surprisingly expensive world of NES collecting—that bare bones cartridges aren’t the most-exciting items to display on a shelf.

The carts are a dull gray color, and the decades-old sticker-art that fronts them no longer pops with vibrant colors. On top of that, many (if not most!) used NES games lack dust sleeves, so there isn’t a way to prevent crud from gunking up the carts’ interiors. So what does one do when it comes time to tidy up and protect the collection? Invest in BitBox NES cases.

A BitBox is a sturdy, plastic case that recalls a Disney ’90s-era VHS case. You can purchase plain, black BitBoxes, or opt to have Stone Age Gamer—BitBox’s official retailer—print insert art scanned from NES box art supplied by The Cover Project for an additional fee. Prices start at $3.99 and $2.00 for a BitBox and printed insert, respectively, but Stone Age Gamer offers discounts for those who buy in bulk. You can also order manual-holding Document Straps, which are free for a limited time. Stone Age Gamer ships its BitBox orders via UPS or USPS.

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If you order insert art, Stone Age Gamer emails you a link where you select BitBox covers. The Cover Project had images for the 10 inserts I  ordered, and in come cases, multiple versions.  I opted for covers that were especially made for BitBox, because they carry attractive borders that keep the art in the proper aspect ratio (the borderless, default NES box art scans are stretched a bit when printed to match a BitBox’s size).

Here’s a valuable knowledge nugget that will serve you well before placing  an order: Stone Age Gamer doesn’t place the inserts into the cases. When I opened the box, I thought Stone Age Gamer botched the order, because the art was tucked away in a padded envelope beneath the BitBoxes. After breathing a sigh of relief upon discovering the inserts, I began slipping the surprisingly sturdy covers into the BitBoxes.

I was immediately impressed. The inserts wonderfully duplicate the look of ’80s- and ’90s-era video game box art. The Ninja Gaiden 2: The Dark Sword of Chaos art has a bit of color bleeding in the lower-left corner, and screenshots on the back  of all the inserts aren’t quite as sharp as the overall art—a likely a carry-over from the games’ original box images. Still, I’m more than pleased with the purchase.

So, a doff of the cap to BitBox, as well as Stone Age Gamer and The Cover Project, for giving my retro NES collection a touch of  class.

The night Wu-Tang Clan and Castlevania conquered New York City

Wu-Tang Clan dropped the seminal Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers in 1993, fusing the New York City-style underground sound with intelligent lyrics, street knowledge, Five Percent Nation teachings, and philosophies ripped straight from old school Asian martial arts flicks.

Shortly after the classic album transformed the hip hop landscape, the crew—nearly a dozen deep—announced that each member would drop a solo album. The best solo effort was Raekwon the Chef’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which quickly became a hip hop classic much like Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers. The mob-strong album saw Rae and faithful right-hand man Ghostface Killah chronicle cinematic street tales over what was then RZA’s most varied and experimental production.

But what does Wu-Tang Clan have to do with Castlevania, Konami’s monster-slaying action video game? A lot, actually. Or, maybe, nothing at all.

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx‘s lead single was “Glaciers of Ice,” a track featuring Rae, Ghost, and Masta Killa flowing over only what can be described as aural insanity. Listen.

I tuned into NYC’s Hot 97 the night that Funkmaster Flex debuted “Glaciers of Ice” over the radio airwaves. The collective hip hop populace lost it. Not only was the track absolute fire, but station callers—as well as my friends and me—were convinced that RZA sampled Castlevania to create what sounded like an organ from hell. We couldn’t remember which particular Castlevania game that the sample came from, or the specific level music, but believed that a video game was an important part of “Glaciers of Ice”‘s DNA.

The idea wasn’t too bizarre. RZA had a reputation for digging through the crates, grabbing obscure samples, chopping them up, and sometimes distorting them. This is a man who sampled an obscure cartoon, Underdog, to create “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.”

The official song samples are:

– “Bless Ya Life” by KGB (Klik Ga Bow)
– “Children, Don’t Get Weary” by Booker T. & the MG’s
– “Guillotine (Swordz)” by Raekwon

Castlevania is M.I.A. That doesn’t mean, however, that RZA didn’t sample one of the compositions. It could’ve went unlisted for a variety of reasons, such as not wanting other producers to know the sample origin, or to avoid potential lawsuits for not clearing the sample with Konami.

“Glaciers of Ice” was the hot discussion topic the next day. My boys and I analyzed the track for hours trying to discover its Castlevania origins. This led to us playing Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, and Super Castlevania IV in hunt of the sampled composition. We never found it. It doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things, really.

I can look back now and realize that it wasn’t just the sample hunt that intrigued us, it was the validation. The validation that our hobby, one frequently seen as the activity of basement-dwellers, was cool, exciting, and revolutionary.

Just like Wu-Tang Clan.

How Metal Gear Solid 2 helped me cope with 9-11

There are few video games that I’ll defend until breathless, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a game originally released on November 12, 2001, is at the top of the list. Series creator Hideo Kojima proved himself a genius/world-class troll when he delivered an exquisite piece of postmodern storytelling that simultaneously pissed off and amazed his fan base. I thought it masterful when I originally played the game over a decade ago. I still do.

Sons of Liberty is a Metal Gear Solid game through and through. It requires using expert levels of stealth and deception—dart guns, electronics scramblers, distractions— to creep through enemy-filled hallways and avoid firefights. The dialogue is charmingly long-winded, sometimes too much so, which serves to both humanize the characters and, more importantly, set up gamers for the swerve to come. “This isn’t Shadow Moses, Snake.” The ultimate truth, the ultimate lie.

It’s those elements coming together that elevates Sons of Liberty into the video game pantheon. Or should I say, upon deeper reflection, the most obvious elements. Sons of Liberty holds a place in my heart for bringing me a sense of control during a time when I desperately needed the distraction despite the fact the game eerily mirrored elements of the very event that caused me, and the nation, great stress: 9-11.

I know many people outside of my urban bubble see New York City as the home to rude, fast-talking, godless, socialists, but it’s my home. I’ve been here since age three, and really couldn’t imagine any other city in the United States as my base of operations. I love the voices, the swagger, street fairs, music, and career mobility that NYC presents. When you’re feeling down, you can walk out your home and randomly stumble upon a local, neighborhood mini-parade. NYC is dependable in that way. When you have that rock in your corner you feel invincible, barring illness, death, rising costs, or airliners plowing into two of the world’s most iconic buildings.

My insides were as ripped as my skyline on that fateful day—and for weeks afterward. Even when life began to return to normal, small things would still pull the panic trigger. I distinctively remember riding the Q train to college, an elevated subway line in Brooklyn, and freaking out when I heard something banging into the iron worm’s side. Clank. Clank. Clank. It was tree branches hitting the subway cars’ metal bodies. Not bullets. Not mini-explosions. Tree branches. I had heard the sound before, but in the new world, the new context, it was different.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty arrived in North America  just two months after the heinous attacks. Sons of Liberty built on the excellent foundation laid by the original Metal Gear Solid by adding first-person aiming and a revamped cover system, but it was the story that snared me. It began with Solid Snake yet again hunting a Metal Gear, but quickly turned into something…different. Standard video game fare transformed in a wonderfully convoluted story featuring grand deception, political conspiracy, the use of the media and digital age to control the masses, and, finally, a Manhattan disaster. A “G.W.” even played a role—two of the three initials which belonged to the American president who presided over the country during 9-11 and its immediate aftermath.

This was an amazing moment of synchronicity. Kojima could not have anticipated that world events, and the related conspiracy theories, would lineup with his fictional universe. That didn’t matter one iota; Sons of Liberty quickly became my escape from the stress of the real world disaster. 9-11 broke my world and made me feel utterly helpless. Sons of Liberty put me in an active role within a bizarro version of that world where I could save humanity from disastrous happenings. It was empowering, even though the game revolved around the goofy idea of a mech dinosaur carrying a nuclear payload.

I interviewed Kojima in March 2012, and the Metal Gear creator mentioned that he decided to cut elements from Sons of Liberty‘s ending (in which the Arsenal Gear flying base crashes into downtown Manhattan) as it too closely mirrored real world events. He tactfully avoided answering the question directly. I pressed him a bit and he seemed uncomfortable. I’ve always suspected that Arsenal Gear plowed through the Twin Towers as it descended upon Manhattan. I’ll probably never get confirmation.

No loss, really. Sons of Liberty is an excellent game–I consider it the best in the main series purely for emotional reasons. If Kojima really did cut a wrecked World Trade Center from the game, it may have been the correct move. I’m not certain that I’d want one of my favorite games to actually replicate the real world to that degree, especially when the real-world chaos happened in my backyard.

I’ll continue playing Metal Gear Solid HD Collection on my PS Vita and reflect on a time when Sons of Liberty was more than a game–it was a therapy session featuring super soldiers, clones, supernatural abilities, and soapy, soapy melodrama. Sons of Liberty may no longer hold the same importance to me in the years since its release and the 9-11 attacks, but it still holds some importance if that makes any sense.

And I’m happy about that.

Image courtesy of Konami