Where Have I Been?

Well, good question; mostly at work, I think. And I’ll get back to the other 90 entries in my Top 100 Video Games of All Time sequence before long, really!*

But I’ve also been working on another project: SteveSpex!

SteveSpex is a system for watching my favorite movies and TV shows right in the comfort of my own home! Find out more when we officially roll this out at my house in the months and years to come. Watching my TV has never felt like this before!

And all the cord-cutting and stream shutdowns in my future? Let’s just say that money will go toward expanding my library in SteveSpex!

What is Steve Spectating today? Find out, only on SteveSpex!

*”before long” is open to interpretation

My Top 10 Games: Minecraft

This is the second game of my top 10 to feature the word “craft” and it really lives up to that status. If StarCraft II is about the craft of skill, tactics, strategy—Minecraft is about building, or crafting, a whole world.

A Whole New World!

I knew this game existed a long time before I ever checked it out. In fairness, I was in grad school, and I didn’t really have a lot of time for any games (besides StarCraft II). But when I graduated in 2014, I treated myself to an Xbox One (my first new console since the GameCube in 2002) and started getting into modern gaming again.

But what caught my eye was not Madden 15 or Grand Theft Auto V (although I got a lot of play out of these fine games) but this other $20 download—Minecraft—that looked so different from those modern games. It was a nostalgia trip built into a new world: a whole new universe of possibilities built on simplistic, old-school graphics.

Minecraft was built to build, to craft—and so I did, trying my hand at giant, blocky statues and structures. But what really was fun in those days was getting to play alongside Chrissi. We had played some video games in the past together, but not consistently. She was a The Sims aficionado, and I was largely a solo gamer myself. But Minecraft intrigued us both and we started building worlds together.

The best feature Minecraft offers arrived late in its development process, and that was the choice between playing “Creative” mode—where you have every block and tool and object at your disposal to paint a world as you want it—and “Survival” mode where you make your own way through the world, stone by stone. We preferred Survival mode, and those first few times we were dumped unceremoniously upon a completely new world were terrific adventures for us. Hiding out on the edge of a jungle waiting for morning and monsters to clear, fishing for sustenance and valuables, mining (not straight down) to find ores and the vast quantities of stone I would need for my massive road projects, taming ocelots and wolves, all while that calming, alien soundtrack lulled us into a false sense of safety. It was tons of fun.

Over the years we’d dream and build bigger. My utilitarian home bases and Chrissi’s extensive farms would be obsolete eventually. My railroads through the woods and over the rivers would be replaced by elytra wings and nether portals. But growth was slow: it took years for me to fully explore the game, and I still haven’t killed the Ender Dragon in survival.

But I don’t need to: we’ve gotten our money’s worth. Minecraft was the first modern game I played with my kid, as well. When he was little, he’d watch me mine stone and build bridges to nowhere. In one of my worlds, I wanted my home base connected to a badlands region so I could mine more gold for railroads and other fancy infrastructure. The only problem was the nearest badlands was a million miles away. So, I built a railroad from my home to the rocky waste that takes you 40 minutes of real-time riding to get there! I quarried all the stone and iron and Redstone to build the entire length, myself, too, and the twenty or so stations and stops along way. And yes, this was in Survival mode—no cheats! If you don’t think video games can be relaxing, just take that 40-minute tour of the world and try to stay awake.

It’s those kinds of odd (and often pointless) challenges that keep Minecraft fresh. Folks have famously built computers within Minecraft and all manner of other incredible engineering feats. Minecraft is a florid mix of so many things that make video games great: it’s an artistic, imaginative, and even a scientific tool (my kiddo and I have learned some about basic electronic circuits from messing around with Redstone analogues). It’s also a thrilling survival adventure where you pray to make it through your first night safely in a wild world. It’s a massively open-ended game—initially it doesn’t even tell you how to do much of anything, you have to teach yourself how the whole thing works. It’s a meditative, puzzle game, too: when I was laying down those 100 miles of rails and building massive, cliff-spanning bridges with no scaffolding (bamboo only came into the game in recent years) I was thinking about all sorts of things beyond the game. There’s no clock in the game beyond the day/night cycle, and the journey never has to end.

For me it was ultimately a cooperative game, first with my wife, then with my brother (RIP to those servers) and then with my son. Building giant sports stadiums while my kiddo built aquariums and forts were some of my favorite memories of video gaming. We still play this game nearly every day—now he’s into mods and things, and so Minecraft has become a tool as well as a game.

You can learn a lot about programming by digging into Minecraft modding as well: the game is built to be rebuilt in ways that many modern games are not. I’m hoping my kid uses this as a starting-point to build all kinds of other things he’d like to see exist.

Minecraft is the game I’ve put probably the second-most hours of play into (my most-played game was the top one on this list), and I’m not even totally sick of it yet after nearly 10 years of play. There’s always a new adventure, a new build battle, a new modpack to try. And as long as it makes my son happy, well, it’s making me happy, too.

It’s mining time!

So, here’s to my Top 10 Video Games, and Minecraft could have lived anywhere on this list: it’s a terrific game combining past and future, young and old, single- and multiplayer, creating and crafting. It’s endlessly inventive and expansive, and they still add some cool new things from time to time, too. Now get out there and mine some diamonds in the rough!

My Top Games: 9. Mario Kart 64

All right, buckle up—oh wait, there’s no seatbelts in Mario Kart, you just have to hang onto the wheel and pray Lakitu gets you back on track in a hurry in the event of an accident.

What a game. For a title from the Nintendo 64, this one still looks pretty good, too, which is a rarity; one smart choice the designers made was rendering the character and kart animations with 2D sprites, while building 3D courses around them. Angular dirt and grass won’t bother you as much as a box-shaped Wario might—although at the time the game arrived, I think people didn’t appreciate this stylistic choice as much.

Just looking at this box art makes me want to play

But who even cares what the game looks like, it’s still as fun to play as it ever was. Just a soaring, peppy, terrific ride across the lands that Super Mario World (and the original Super Mario Kart) made famous. That’s one of the interesting items to note, that the game makers could have based all the racetracks on Super Mario 64 levels (seeing as the Nintendo 64 launched with Super Mario 64 just a few months beforehand). But no, they stuck to the original for inspiration on most of the levels: Choco Mountain, Frappe Snowland, and Bowser’s Castle all harken back to the Super Nintendo days of Super Mario World and Super Mario Kart. The penguins from Super Mario 64 made it into Sherbet Land, as did the Princess’s shiny new 3D castle in Royal Raceway—not to mention there was no Wario or Wario Stadium in the original kart game—but you could tell this sequel was inspired by the Super Nintendo much more than the company’s newest hardware.

That old-and-new sense was perfect for 12-year-old me, because this was a transitional game. My brothers and I had grown out of our Super Nintendo by now and were absolutely begging for a Nintendo 64 by Christmas 1998. On Christmas Day we spent the morning eating breakfast, opening presents, reading the Christmas story, and pretending that it was no big deal at all that none of the presents came in a box big enough to fit a Nintendo 64. No video-game sized boxes, either, that we could find.

But my brothers and I were reasonably good kids. We buried our disappointment reasonably well when the stack of presents dwindled down to nothing. At that point, we were probably counting days until our birthdays, and estimating how much cash it would take for the three of us to come up with a new console on our own.

Suddenly, my dad pulls out a notecard and does a whole, “Wait, what’s this thing?” routine and we start to smile before we even read it. This card leads to another card, and another, and through this treasure hunt we’re heading from one end of the house to the other and getting more and more hyped while guessing what the treasure at the end would be. The last card sends us under my bed, and in an unassuming black garbage bag we find the greatest Christmas present of them all (or one of them anyway): A new Nintendo 64 system with 2 controllers and 1 game—Mario Kart 64.

It was fitting: one of our two first cartridges for the Super Nintendo had been Super Mario Kart, and my brothers and I had played it endlessly. But we soon discovered that this new game improved on it in every way: the graphics looked great (while keeping enough 2D sprites to not fully blow my mind with the 3D), the musical scores were soaring, orchestral feats when compared to its low-key predecessor, the tracks were longer, more complex, full of shortcuts (most of which we never discovered), and you could play with 3 or 4 players now, not just 2! That was perfect for my brothers and me, who had plenty of experience living in a family of 5 within a world built for families of 4.

The game is timeless, and as good as the original Super Mario Kart was, Super Mario 64 was so good that we couldn’t ever really go back and play the original. Once you taste that fruit, it’s over. It wasn’t even the levels or racers or music or new battle mode levels, or whatever—it was literally the sense of speed you got from the game that blew away the original. Super Mario Kart was an uber-cute, surprisingly-fun little racing game and you could challenge yourself with higher CC cups and time trials and all that. But the sense of real movement, the feeling you were driving something with actual weight, the power you felt in these karts in Mario Kart 64, simply replaced all interest we’d had in its forebear.

The multiplayer items were still fun, chasing down your bros in battle mode was terrific, and just trying to get better on your own was cool, too. Mario Kart 64 was really built on two things: multiplayer and immersion. It got couch multiplayer gaming pretty much perfect (and spawned another 6 or 7 editions of the game that thrive on that quality), but somehow this cartoonish, 2D-3D mixture game set amongst the Moo Moo Farms and Kalmari Deserts and Koopa Troopa Beaches ended up creating an immersive world for us to inhabit both in those early days when it was the only world we had on the Nintendo 64 and for years afterward. There was something real in the midst of the cartoony tracks.

Over the years, we picked up plenty of other racing games for the Nintendo 64. Will any of those make this list? Doubtful, because most of them were terrible. Lego Racers was okay in a goofy sense, F-Zero X was a very fun game (and should make my top 100) but the most “realistic” racers we had, like Monaco Grand Prix, somehow just couldn’t keep you in the game. No matter the realism built in, the mechanics of driving felt way off, and they just ended up seeming so strange and clunky. You could never forget that you were trying to push buttons—something Mario Kart 64 did surprisingly well. In fairness, F-Zero X is great, too, but there’s nothing “real” about it, either. And Diddy Kong Racing, I mean, knock yourself out if that’s your bag, it just felt like a real cheap kiddy knockoff to me.

Driving Past the Sunset

But when you fire up Mario Kart 64 and park your kart at the start of Rainbow Road, there’s nothing like it on the 64. Three beeps, the light goes green, and then every color flashes before you as you soar through the most beautiful video game racing landscape ever, with the perfect gliding, hoping, soundtrack to match. That’s what Mario Kart 64 did best: it took you out of your world but into a world that was just as recognizable, almost as real, as you sped on through the unreality and the beauty of the infinite drive, the unfettered speed, the dream of the kart. It was the perfect ride from old to new, past to future, and your bros were right there with you. Hold that A button, close your eyes, and drift away.

My Top Games: 8. (The New) Tetris

Okay, I have to clear up some things immediately with this pick, as some of you will be scratching your heads. Why not just pick Tetris for this spot and call it good? Tetris is the perfect puzzle game, reincarnated many times over, so good it tore up the Cold War curtains and whatnot. It made gamers out of a whole bunch of non-gamers. It even broke the law a few times: I have a copy of the Tengen-published, two-player NES version of Tetris that’s probably still illegal in Japan (it was legal in the dorms, though, right, Josh and Ben?). Okay, maybe not illegal, but Nintendo would probably like it buried in the E.T. landfill.

It played way better than the official NES version!

The point is, Tetris isn’t really a game, it’s a cultural phenomenon from the 80s that captured a zeitgeist and didn’t have the courtesy to disappear afterward. No, it actually improved in another form—The New Tetris. Now, many of you have probably never heard of The New Tetris, and I would assume that if you had heard of it you might have relegated it to the tawdry world of New Coke (which appeared in 1985, alongside the old Tetris) or New Math (another Soviet-driven novelty).

And, in fact, The New Tetris could have used way better marketing. Branding anything “new” is a curse, they probably teach that in Marketing 101. Nothing new stays new, and new things become old things much faster if they say “new.” Nothing gold can stay! Anyway, another big miss was putting a game old and simple enough to have driven sales on the original Game Boy in 1989 on the flashy new Nintendo 64 console. How could something so familiar be worth $60 (in 1999 bucks–that’s about $110 as of this writing)?

Well, all that bad stuff out of the way, here’s what The New Tetris did right: it took advantage of the Nintendo 64’s four controllers to allow you to really play an action-packed game of Tetris. Before, Tetris was largely a solo jaunt, something to do in the car until it was too dark to see the Game Boy screen. Now it was a party game.

Nothing says party like Tetris!

The other thing they did right was give you a reason to keep on playing: the more you played, the bigger you built these “world wonders” or whatever they were; it gave you something to work toward, which is a great when you’re dealing with an endless puzzle game that can get a little tedious at times. Also, the ethereal EDM soundtrack layered into the background is really the perfect Tetris chill mix.

But the best thing they did? Unlike Pepsi Max or the Nintendo Virtual Boy or Windows ME or other “new” installments, The New Tetris actually did make the original game much better. I could play this one for hours and hours and hours, whereas the original I could never lose myself in completely. The big difference was the control: in the old Tetris the physics were sterner and you couldn’t spin a block once you ran out of physical space to turn it. In The New Tetris, you could spin for a long, long time, right through other blocks, without any physical resistance–at least for a second or so. That meant you left behind a game that boxed you in very quickly and felt creatively claustrophobic in favor of a New game where you could hit the button 100 times a second and spin that shape into its perfect place. The addition of a little bit of video game physics didn’t hurt the experience—I mean, this was a video game, after all. This tiny change, the ability to spin the block for just that extra moment or two, turned Tetris from a game of frustration into a real test of skill; it rewarded the player for doing the impossible, for waiting for the last possible minute, just before combustion, and BOOM, spinning that piece like your life depended on it. One tiny change completely opened up the classic puzzle formula and made you ask why it hadn’t been in the original.

Do these original basic pieces feel ashamed of themselves? They should!

The other big change? Silver and gold blocks. Join four different pieces together into a four-by-four square and you would turn that block silver. When you cleared each line of it, you’d get mega points. Even better, combine four blocks of the same type into a four-by-four square and it turned gold, and you’d really make the points rain down when you cleared it. Again, this was a relatively minor improvement on the old formula, but it added value to certain kinds of drops and positions, rather than mushing every falling block into the same bowl of soup.

And, finally, you could keep one piece in storage and choose when to swap it in for another piece coming down the assembly line. This mechanic was not as new as the previous two, and it shows up in other Tetris games from time to time (though not the original), but this fundamentally improves the strategy you can use here. Likewise, instead of only seeing one block into the future (as the NES version managed), The New Tetris showed you three blocks ahead, practically turning your N64 into an oracle.

That’s the secret to what made this game timelessly great: three big changes that give the player more tactics, strategy, and control. If you want to feel like a helpless bystander watching the wrong blocks fall in old Tetris with nothing you can do about it, hey, stick with the classic. But if you want to take charge, turn garbage into gold and silver, and build not just walls but pyramids and statues, well, my friend, you’d better go hustle up a copy of The New Tetris! Looks like you can get it for about $30 on eBay, and it’s definitely worth it.

It shouldn’t have worked as well as it does: the backgrounds and cut scenes could have felt gimmicky, the nontraditional control additions could have felt cheap, and in no way can an N64 knock-off of Tetris live in my Top 10 Games, can it? Somehow, it reaches these stratified heights by just being a whole lot of fun, and one of the most meditative experiences in all of video gaming. Come meet The New Tetris! Even better than the old Tetris!

My Top Games: 7. SimCity (SNES)

Well, I’m running out of days to put this writing stuff off, so here we go! SimCity! Oh yeah!

Video Game Box Design Never Surpassed This Level

SimCity was a launch title on the Super Nintendo, which is kind of weird to think about because it was one of those games that was so perfectly suited to mouse-and-keyboard control that it really didn’t belong here at all. Now, looking back, it seems bizarre to have built most of my Maxis-based metropolises with a D-pad and 4 round buttons (sure, shoulder buttons, too, but don’t ruin the metaphor). Apparently, there was also an NES version of SimCity that never saw release, so imagine playing with four buttons, tops!

Anyway, enough about buttons. Yet, honestly, there was a Super Nintendo mouse for Mario Paint, so why didn’t they make it work for SimCity? Well, technically, I suppose, the mouse didn’t arrive until 1992 when Mario Paint was published, and it likely wasn’t ready at the time of the SNES/SimCity launch. But then, they could have at least made the mouse backwards-compatible, right? Wrong, I guess. I have no idea. Anyway, I guess you can use the SNES mouse for a lot more games than I thought—including SimAnt (see this handy Wikipedia list), another Will Wright/Maxis classic—and Sid Meier’s Civilization, which also made its way to SNES (like SimCity, it was pretty much ported to anything with a motherboard in the early 90s). At least as recently as July 2019, however, there was a patch on GitHub allowing you to kind of use the SNES mouse with SimCity. However, notably, the “mouse buttons don’t work” and it’s a “purely visual” effect, so there goes that dream.

She’s a Beaut!

Wow, enough about those mouse buttons! I’m so sorry. I guess I’m obsessed with mice and keyboards versus d-pads and control sticks because so much of the software from my formative years is tangibly linked to the hardware we’d play it on. Playing Marathon 2 (don’t worry, we’ll get to that one later) on a big, chonky trackball was quite memorable.

The Beast

Despite the whole controller thing, I never had any major issues handling Super Nintendo’s SimCity. Part of it was because there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure built into the game. You weren’t racing against the clock, like, ever. Even if you had disasters on, you could be pretty leisurely about putting out fires or rebuilding after floods. I mean, this neighborhood needed a facelift anyway, right? And if you were ever running of money, there was an easy cheat to refill the city coffers (or you could just check out and leave the system running for a while and collect three decades worth of taxes with no infrastructure payments—just like the real bureaucrats). When you moved from one city size to a larger one, tiny, animated Mayor Wright with his green-cotton-candy coiffure would wish you well and then vanish for another few days. He was the perfect politician! SimCity was self-paced, and like all great Maxis games, it was one of what Will Wright dubbed his “software toys,” programs with no real end goal or external pressure.

Somehow, though, SimCity was one of the first games to teach me a bit about min-maxing. Whether from browsing Nintendo Power magazine or checking out some off-brand player’s guide borrowed from the library, somewhere I found there was a strategy to how you built these simulated cities. So, one fateful day, my winding roads and quaint townships transformed into donut blocks divided by rigid black rail lines. The 8-building blocks, separating residential, commercial, and industrial zones, grew most efficiently, the magazines all said, and you could dump a region’s entire pollution problem by offering citizens railroads instead of automobiles. Somehow, none of the Sims minded my brutalist dystopias.

There was something of a goal in this purportedly objective-free game: try to achieve a population of 500,000 Sims in one city. So, I tried. Time and again, I cleared 100,000 citizens to create a metropolis, no problem. I started trying for efficiency, min-maxing even though we didn’t call it that back in the day. I picked the map with the least water coverage, the most usable land for building. I packed that place with more donuts than Springfield. And yet I could never quite get to the max. At about 470,000 or 480,000 people, growth would end, I’d run out of construction space, and the dream ended (I can still picture that ideal map, Map 61).

We Meet Again, Old Nemesis!

Before long, I was bored. The fun of city-building was kind of lost in the quest for efficiency, I had other SNES games calling for my time. The leisurely sense of a game without overt directions or responsibilities was gone, killed off by my need to win. And yet I never “beat” that challenge—it just kind of killed the game for me.

But at its peak, SimCity meant a lot to me, at the time a serious kid trying to make my way in a rigid world. Being able to control and plan an entire city or region offered a lot of power and joy to a middle kid in elementary school who never even had his own room, much less his own mayorship.

I loved the Sim games in general, at least the ones Will Wright put together. Because he knew that a video game was better if it wasn’t a game at all, but a toy, one you could play with in all kinds of ways. A real game is not a task to be completed or a path to a single goal. I wonder, if he would have known how frustrated I was at trying to min-max that stupid map, if Mr. Wright might have simply taken the Megalopolis designation out of the game to make it just a little more fun for me.

Even so, SimCity always offered something more to strive for, something more to tweak and perfect, and it promised that things tomorrow would be just a little better than today. And best of all, the goals you made were nobody’s but yours. Just, you know, make it work with a mouse next time, please!

This Was One of Probably 40,000 Dreamcast Peripherals