From Atari to Xbox: My Gaming Life

As you may have already read in a prior post, I’ve covered my personal ‘music map’ going back to circa 1983. While I’m not entirely certain exactly which year my dad brought home out first video game console, I’m reasonably sure it was around 1982, which would predate even my earliest music memories. So without further ado, here is my gaming map.

Circa 1982: The Atari 2600

Ah yes, the faux wood styling really stands out


I wasn’t even four years old, so my memory is hazy on this, but I clearly remember the moment my dad walked through the door with this huge box, which probably set him back at least one week’s salary. Back then, Atari was this incredible invention and video gaming was still in its relative mainstream infancy. Interestingly, this is the only console on this map that was really intended for my older sisters since I was still so young at the time, but boy do I remember that single tense joystick, the single red action button, the flip switches, and the faux wood styling.

Notable Games

PacMan didn’t look this good  back then, but I wanted to include an animated GIF 🙂

Pong. In animated GIF form of course

December 1988: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

ZOMG, 8-bit gaming! (Not shown is gun controller and Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt combo…hated that stupid laughing dog in Duck Hunt)

So yeah, some quick math…that was a 6-year drought between new gaming systems. The NES debuted in 1985 in the U.S., but I honestly don’t remember feeling like I was missing out. I was too busy outside playing Chinese handball and shooting ‘skellies’ and playing with my beloved Voltron set (the cats, not the silly cars), which can almost be another post in itself. But by Christmas 1988, I was finally starting to feel the void and I badgered my dad into splurging for this next generation console. Ultimately, the original NES became the true console of my youth. I would hold on to it for another 7+ years.

Notable Games

Needs no introduction. One of the greatest games of all time, and probably my proudest moment beating a game.

Ninja Gaiden: My eldest sister gave me this for my 11th birthday (thanks, sisty!). Tough but rewarding game.

Wizards & Warriors: Not sure why, but I loved this game

Tecmo Super Bowl: Best NES sports game. Bo Jackson is still single most unstoppable video game athlete. Barry Sanders just behind him. Had a nice NY-Miami rivalry with a good friend of mine at the time.

Final Fantasy. To this day it’s the only RPG I ever cared about or was any good at. The Warmech!!!!! 

December 1989: Nintendo Game Boy

Original Game Boy

I remember it fondly. Christmas 1989 at my Uncle’s house and I unwrapped my very first Game Boy. I think a few family members pitched in (it was at least $100) and I was anchored to the couch for the rest of the night playing that thing. Looking back, it was a hulking device that took 4 AA batteries, but it was also  the first portable gaming device to enjoy true mainstream success. I kept my Game Boy for at least five years.

Notable Games

Tetris. I remember that satisfying sound when you made a “Tetris” (4 lines in one move). Personal best was Level 13 I believe.

Jordan vs Bird: One on One. This game had a Dunk Contest mode!

Super Mario Land. One of the greatest handheld titles ever.

1990-1993: Alternative Consoles

Here’s an odd thing. During this time I had two of the best gaming consoles a kid could have, NES & Game Boy, yet I still found a way to be entertained by alternative gaming experiences. Here are three notable ones:

The Vectrex

“Portable” console with monitor built-in — no TV needed. Yes, it had a groove above monitor for carrying around a la the first colorful Apple iMacs

To this day I honestly have no clue how I got my hands on this thing (garage sale?), but I remember playing it a fair amount. It stood out because even though it was B&W monochrome, it had vector graphics which gave it a 3D-like depth of field effect. Plus it was all-in-one — no cables or hookups. It was ready to play. It was one of those “it’s so old it’s new” kind of things. The one and only game I owned for it was Star Trek (Or “Starship” overseas).

Pew! Pew! Pew!

IBM PC Junior (Hand-me-down)

Hey, it was still a computer, right?

One of my male  cousins was an avid PC gamer and he was always upgrading his computer and keeping up with PC progress. As a result, we were bequeathed one of his first PCs, an IBM PC Jr., and it was kind of mind-blowing to have a whole computer in the house. The PC included some floppy disk programs, but the only one we (my older sister played too) really cared about was a game called Jumpman. This little “jumpman” had to navigate a series of levels with girders and ladders (think original Mario Brothers or Donkey Kong) and the objective was to nab all the PacMan-like pellets placed around the level before a villainous white dot (or ill-timed plunge into the abyss) got you first. These insidious white dots woulds fly in from off-screen, either horizontally or vertically, and the little ” jumpman”‘s only way to avoid was to, well, jump. Harder than it sounds, especially in later levels when the dot would scream across the level much faster and in quicker succession.

Jumpman. That white dot was pure evil!

Atari Lynx

Now this thing was ahead of its time. Maybe too ahead.

I wouldn’t say I outright owned a Lynxbut I remember playing it a bunch one summer in NYC (probably Summer ’91). The Game Boy had all the greatest games and Nintendo brand behind it, but Atari’s Lynx had a full color screen and an underrated feature: it was instantly made for lefties by simply flipping the device. Unfortunately, the games sucked and by this time Atari had long faded from relevance and devices like this one (and later the Jaguar) did little to rehabilitate Atari’s fortunes. The only game I remember playing is Slime World:

Slime World. As bad as it sounds.

December 1996: Sony PlayStation

Mine was a lemon, but it still worked…eventually

As you might have noticed, there is a sizable gaming gap here. Yes, I skipped Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy color and the such. I guess I got busy being a high school kid and I was content gaming on my older hardware.  When Sony announced the PlayStation, the prospect of CD-based gaming was exciting — would we finally play photo-realistic games? Well, some pre-rendered cutscenes (such as the intro to Tekken) seemed to show that promise, but alas gameplay was not quite that great looking. Either way, it was a huge upgrade over Genesis and SNES. One problem, though: my console was a lemon and I never got around to returning it. I was lazy. It still worked, but I sometimes had to put CDs in and out several times before they played. Maybe for that reason I never quite embraced the PS One, not all the way at least. Too much of a hassle.

Notable Games

Resident Evil. First game to truly scare the shit out of me.

NBA Shootout ’98. Graphics and gameplay were incredible for its time. Even Rodman’s blond hair was there.

NFL GameDay ’97. I loved me some sports games.

Tekken. Never much of a fighting game enthusiast, but I dug this one.

December 1997: Nintendo 64

See a pattern emerging here? Christmas was usually the occasion for console upgrades, and the N64 was no different. I think I was always a Nintendo boy at heart, and I was genuinely excited about Nintendo’s glorious return. Problem was, besides Mario 64, the games sucked at first. Then Goldeneye 007 came out, and the flood ensued.

Super Mario 64. Still holds up today. Top 15 game all-time on my personal list.

Mario Kart 64. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had while gaming, especially with 3 other people.

Star Fox 64. Both single player and multiplayer fun. Beating this game the “hard way” is one of my prouder gaming moments. “Do a barrel roll!”

Goldeneye 007. I used to camp out in this very same spot and just pop these dudes in every body part.

Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball / Ken Griffery Jr. Slugfest. I played both games and I was obsessed. I was a baseball stathead as a kid to boot.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I wasn’t quite as high on this as most, but it was still a memorable experience.

NFL Quarterback Club ’98. You could see players’ breath in cold weather!

September 1999: Sega Dreamcast

Dreamcast was a revolutionary console that delivered on the promise of next generation gaming…but it just couldn’t sustain it.

I didn’t personally own a Dreamcast until later in 2000, but I remember buying one for my little cousin on or near launch day (9/9/99 — they had a big launch campaign) and hooking it up in my house to try it out. No question this system was and remains the greatest leap forward in console gaming. When I fired up NFL 2K for the first time I was absolutely stunned. Bowled over. Speechless. I squeezed three good years out of this system — that was until Sega folded up its hardware tent and conceded defeat to the monster that was Sony’s PS2. Alas, there were some memorable titles.

Notable Games

Shenmue. A fully realized Japan. Emotional storytelling. Exquisite detail  and immersive gameplay. Underrated then and now.

Virtua Tennis. Pound for pound, the most fun I had on the Dreamcast. Arcadey pace but also realistic in spots, this game would still play well today.

NBA 2K2. The apex of the series on Dreamcast and also the final release for the flagging console. Michael Jordan was playable again after his unretirement. I was hella good at this.

Major League Baseball 2K2. Another primo Sega Sports title. Just for sports gaming alone, the Dreamcast was worth the price of admission.

November 2002: Sony PlayStation 2

When I was living in NYC in 2001, I remember it was near impossible to find a PS2 in stores. I checked every Wiz and J&R in the city and no dice. Ebay was selling them at ridiculous markups and I just wasn’t that desperate to get one. Finally, in late 2002 after the furor died down, one game’s existence was enough to make me plop down the cash: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a true system-seller.

Notable Games

GTA: Vice City. 80s decadence and love for neon colors. Miami Vice parallels. Best game soundtrack ever. Freedom to roam and kill and bludgeon. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll! What’s not to love?

Madden ’04. First Madden title on my list because it had an unstoppable Michael Vick, the best video game athlete since Bo Jackson in Tecmo Super Bowl.

GTA: San Andreas. Improved on Vice City in most every way (though I still prefer VC and its soundtrack) and added more character customization options. Setting was LA ca. Boyz in the Hood. Ton of fun.

October 2003: Microsoft Xbox

I almost bought the Xbox instead of the PS2 the previous year. I love sports games and the GameStop “experts” told me that the Xbox had a slight edge in the graphics and sports game department. But Xbox did not have GTA: Vice City, so that was the ultimate tiebreaker. Flash forward 11 months and it was a very happy birthday for me, getting an Xbox along with Halo: Combat Evolved, a seminal achievement in gaming history. And as for sports games? Yup, they were better on Xbox. By a country mile.

Notable Games

Halo: Combat Evolved. Xbox’s flagship title.

NFL 2K5. This was publisher Take-Two’s last gasp effort to beat EA’s Madden. This was released for $20 (!). One of the best bargains ever. Alas, Madden still got the exclusive NFL license.

Ninja Gaiden Black: I played the original and NES and it damn near did me in. This entry, however, ratcheted up the difficulty to another level. Unforgiving checkpoints. Brutal boss fights. Toughest, most satisfying game ‘beat,’ bar none.

Top Spin. With Dreamcast dead and Virtua Tennis along with it, Top Spin was the next best thing, and ended up being plenty of fun.

Fight Night Round 2. If first game revolutionized gameplay mechanics with analog-stick-based Total Control punching, the sequel added the fit and finish to elevate it to excellence.

Spring 2006: Microsoft Xbox 360

After almost three years subsisting with the Xbox / PS2 combo package, I was itching to get in on next-generation gaming action. My first exposure to true HD graphics was at Target kiosks playing Call of Duty 2 and Project Gotham Racing 4, and both looked stunning. I found a killer deal on Overstock.com and I jumped in. That console would die twice due to Red Ring of Death (RROD) in its lifetime and it eventually got replaced by a newer model, which I still own today.

Fight Night Round 3. I had this game bought before my Xbox 360 even arrived. The satisfying crunch of those slow-mo face-distorting punches was like no other gaming experience at the time. Graphics were quantum leap, especially if you had an HDTV. Sweat beads on fighters, progressive face damage, just a bloody good time. Career mode was addictive.

Bioshock. Opening scene set the stage for a nightmarish ride. First game I could call literary with its dystopic vision of a submerged future. Story took precedence over gameplay, yet both were superior. A landmark game.

Gears of War. Really showcased the 360’s graphical capabilties plus it ran smooth as butter. A chainsaw gun!!! A real macho bro-fest of a shoot ’em up, and loads of fun. Showed Microsoft could produce high-quality first party titles.

The Orange Box (Half Life 2 + episodes 1 & 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2). Greatest value in gaming history. I had dabbled with Half-Life 2 on PC, but it was here where I really dove in. HL2 is a top 10 all-time game for me. No argument. Portal was eventually bested by its sequel, but this ‘throw-in” ended up being brilliant in its own right.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Still the gold standard in the series because it had the most gripping story. The sniper level and ensuing Ferris Wheel standoff is a legendary game level.

Red Dead Redemption. At first I was a little dubious about the idea of “GTA in the Old West.” But as the release date neared, the positive buzz really kicked up and I pre-ordered this game (one of only a handful of games I’ve ever pre-ordered) and its sheer scope, acting, and story were engrossing.

Batman: Arkham Series (Asylum & City). The two best superhero video games ever. No discussion. Arkham Asylum was a revelation. Fluid, satisfying, bone-crunching combat. Using non-lethal force has never been more fun, especially using all those ‘wonderful toys.’. The worlds in both games are incredibly detailed and take on a life of their own. A must-play.

Rock Band Series (1 through 3 + Beatles). Ultimate party game. Spent probably $100 on songs. Even though the craze has died down, but it’s still worth keeping — music just has a way of bringing people together.

Grand Theft Auto 4. I waited in line for this game at a midnight launch. Seriously. I was with my younger female cousin and we were like 4th in line (we got there around 9 PM). Still the only time I’ve ever done that. I even took the next day off from work. This game was that exciting. And playing it? Even more so. New York comes to life and the depraved world of GTA games was never grittier or darker. A modern classic.

Assassin’s Creed Series. Memorable rides through history. Middle East. Italy, Turkey. Different eras. Rich detail and parkour fun. And I still haven’t mentioned the combat, which improved as the series progressed and became a combo-lovers delight.

NBA 2K13. The NBA 2K series had hit a bit of a lull after its heyday on the Dreamcast, but beginning with the Michael Jordan-infused NBA 2K11, the series saw a return to form and NBA 2K13 is the latest and greatest installment. Just a joy to play. Seemingly infinite variety of moves, real signature player movements, just a treasure trove of options for sports games lovers like me.

Max Payne 3: After almost a decade, I’d forgotten how much fun Max Payne was. Bullet time is still fun, but the enemies were even smarter this time around, so careful protection of flanks was key to getting through. Brazilian favelas and the New Jersey slums were lovingly represented. A raucous good time (if you just kinda ignore the heavy-handed attempt at emotional storytelling).

Late 2009: Sony PlayStation 3

Unlike with the PS2, I waited years to grab a PS3. The exclusive titles simply weren’t compelling enough in the first few years and Blu ray alone wasn’t going to make me drop ~$400. But in late 2009 I found a killer deal online for the newer 120 GB slim model and I took the plunge. Here are the best games:

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune: The most cinematic video game I’d played to that point. Part Indiana Jones, part Gears of War. Great voice acting and realistic motion capture.

Infamous: Getting around this city was just pure fun. Electrical powers was a nice change of pace from the usual pumped-with-lead 3rd person shooter. Parkour, special moves, and moral choices. A surprisingly enjoyable game.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It took Uncharted 1 and supercharged it in most every way. The graphics remain some of the best I’ve ever seen on a console and the controls were even tighter. Huge set pieces and cinematic flair to spare. Quality voice acting and mo-cap once again. Easily in my top 10 all time best games and probably the most gorgeous.

Heavy Rain: Just as the name implies, this game was grim. Dark. Dank. Wet. And a truly gripping experience. One of the few games that have ever emotionally drained me after playing. I’m glad I played this before fatherhood, because the story’s driving action is around the devastating loss of a son. Had lifelike motion capture if subpar voice acting (French people trying to sound American?). A landmark game that didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

God of War III: I also played the PS2 re-releases on PS3, and both were excellent. But GOWIII in full PS3 graphical glory ratcheted up the adventure game hack-&-slash enjoyability quotient. Rich graphics, same tight controls. Bigger, badder bosses. And of course the hammy-but-truly-fun embodiment of testosterone in gaming lore, Kratos! This was a signature PS3 game, a system seller.

Honorable Mentions from portable systems

Nintendo DS

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow – tough bosses, excellent mini-RPG elements and classic platforming fun.

Brain Age: Brought brain games to mainstream and was legitimately tough in spots.

WarioWare: Touched – Always been a fan of Wario zaniness and this game was the killer app to show off creative ways to use the DS’s touch screen controls. Loads of fun.

Mario Kart DS – Local multiplayer. Speed runs against your best ghost. Not quite playing Mario Kart 64 back in late 90s, but pretty damn good for a portable device.

Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP)

Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror & Logan’s Shadow – Two games that represented some of the most balanced shooter action on a console that frankly did not have a legitimately playable first-person shooter. Both games used the D-pad to great benefit for aiming — sounds janky, but sure beat that nub of an “analog stick.”

God of War: Chains of Olympus – A technical marvel with grand scope considering the limitations of the console Played nearly as well as its PS3 counterpart. I mean it’s God of War, so fun is a give and this one did not disappoint.

MLB ’07: The Show – Played the crap out of this puppy on my last trip to Colombia, especially the player career mode where you work your way up from Single-A Minor League spring training scrub to elite superstar in the “Show.”

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