There are few things more intoxicating to the American man than the siren song of the video game.
Over the course of my lifetime, video games have morphed from a niche interest for nerds into a $43 billion industry. It’s no longer a hobby for basement-dwelling teens, but a potentially lucrative profession for basement-dwelling adults. When I ask freshmen boys what they want to be when they grow up, the most common response is professional gamer.
I’ve never been much of a gamer; the glazed-eye feeling I got after emerging from a six-hour video game worm hole scared me. I’d turn the console off and try to re-enter the real world, only to feel the warm little hand of the PlayStation trying to tug me back, whispering in my ear to forget about my term paper and give mission 4 another shot.
I’d love to say I refused the addiction of video games due to some inner moral strength, but it was mostly because I have never been very good at them. I spent most of my childhood watching my friends play because I’d died 30 seconds into my turn.
I’ve since moved on to hobbies that are more self-fulfilling and socially-appropriate — you know, like obsessing over sports or talking shit on a blog — but I still reminisce about the moments of my childhood when video games were my primary source of dopamine release.
I’ve only owned two consoles in my life: the NES and the PS2. My brother had an original PlayStation, so I did play that during high school, but that was a time when I was way more interested in girls and guitars than Metal Gear Solid. Not surprisingly, the majority of my Top 5 favorite video games are of the 8-bit Nintendo variety. Here they are.
5 – Mario Brothers 3
My short-lived video game obsession was kickstarted in 1989 when my parents got me a Nintendo Entertainment System for my 5th birthday. The console was bundled with an orange zapper (more on that later) and two games: Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt.
Mario was the bane of my 5-year-old existence. This was back when game designers didn’t give a shit about your in-game experience. There were no difficulty levels; you either had the chops to beat the game or you didn’t.
I never got much past World 4, even with Game Genie, which wasn’t any help at all.
But then Super Mario 3 came out, and it made me feel like Fred Savage in The Wizard. Something about grabbing that orange leaf and transforming into a floating, fireball-shooting fox hooked me.
Mario 3 was the first game I ever beat without cheat codes, though I admittedly augmented my skills with a tattered copy of a Nintendo Power walkthrough guide that showed me all the tricks and tips.
4 – SOCOM: Navy Seals
This is the only game on the list that’s not on the NES platform. When SOCOM came out for the PS2 in 2002, I felt like it was custom made for me. I had spent the majority of my youth running around the backyard and pretending I was Charlie Sheen in Navy Seals, and SOCOM gave me the chance to extend my childhood fantasies.
The game came with a USB headset you could use to give verbal commands to your computer-controlled teammates, which was a mind-blowing technological advance. Sure, it only worked half the time and usually resulted in my squad of androids lobbing grenades at the enemy when I instructed them to belly crawl, but pre-Siri, this was an impressive feature.
SOCOM was also my first and last foray into online multiplayer gaming. I bought an Ethernet router and wired my dorm room to play other gamers via the World Wide Web. I stopped that shit pretty quickly once I realized how much better the rest of the world was at video games and got tired of dying instantly at the beginning of each round and having 12-year-olds talk shit to me on their headsets.
3 – Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!
The joke about people from Philly is that their entire existence is based around worshipping a fictional, mentally-disabled boxer.
I’ve got no beef with that assessment. Rocky Balboa is just as much a pillar of my being as cheesesteaks and Reggie White, and I wear it proudly. My love of the Rocky movies probably fueled my passion for this game, which stole hours of my childhood.
As 8-bit games go, this one is pitch perfect. I love the simplicity of the game play, the caricature of the pseudo-racist villains, the pleading tinkle of Morse Code when Little Mac asked his cornerman Doc for advice. In between levels, I’d jog along with Mac while he ran behind Doc’s bicycle along the river in his little pink sweatsuit.
Those elements are imbedded in my brain. I can still remember the pass code for Piston Honda — 005 737 5423. It took me a full year to figure out how to beat the Great Tiger’s tiger punch, and I still have nightmares of Soda Popinski’s drunk ass laughing at me while I slammed the A and B buttons trying to revive Mac.
I never beat Tyson, though I did later KO Mr. Dream, the boxer that replaced Tyson as the final foe after Tyson went to jail for, er…
2 – Duck Hunt
King Koopa was a tough bastard, and if that prick Toad told 5-year-old me the Princess was in another castle one more time, I was going to put my controller through the family Zenith.
Fortunately for me, NES came with TWO games, and I was much better at Duck Hunt.
Much like my SOCOM headset, the NES Zapper was an awe-inspiring piece of technology. Mine was orange — my friends had the more realistic gray ones — and I wore the paint on that thing down from gripping it so tightly.
Duck Hunt is so dear to me because it was one of the only games I was good at. My friends would kick my ass at Paper Boy or Double Dragon, but Duck Hunt was in my wheelhouse. After awhile, my friends would refuse to play it with me because they’d never get a turn.
I never beat Duck Hunt. Frankly, I’m not sure Duck Hunt can be beaten; I wouldn’t be surprised if the speed of the birds just increased until they flew straight out of the television.
1 – Tecmo Bowl
It’s often difficult to express your favorite anything with certainty. My favorite movie changes year-to-year, so does my favorite band and my favorite book. But Tecmo Bowl has been my favorite video game since I first bought it at the Berlin Flea Market and popped it into my console. I was good at Duck Hunt, but I dominated Tecmo Bowl.
The game only features 12 teams, and it bothered me the Eagles weren’t among them, but I made do. The only team I’ve ever used in Tecmo Bowl is the 1988 Chicago Bears, which I selected because their quarterback was my favorite player, Jim McMahon. There were a couple of other good players on that team too. Ever heard of Walter Payton? Mike Singletary? I took the Bears to the Tecmo Bowl twice before I retired.
The ironic part of having a football video game at the top of my list is that while I love Tecmo Bowl, I can’t stand playing Madden. I’m terrible at it. There’s just too much to keep track of; formations, zone coverage, pass patterns.
Tecmo Bowl pandered to no such nonsense. On offense, you had four plays to choose from: Run 1, Run 2, Pass 1, Pass 2. On defense? Run 1, Run 2, Pass 1, Pass 2. Unless you were playing Miami or San Francisco, who had three pass plays and one run play, but Joe Montana sucked in that game anyway.
I’m so confident in my prowess as a Tecmo Bowl champion, that I will challenge anyone who thinks they can beat me to a contest. I’ll bury you by halftime.
As long as you don’t choose the Raiders. Bo Jackson is so superhuman in that game, it’s not even fair.