Nerdstalgia: (Grand) Mother’s Day Edition

I’ve got more Microprose and Legend of Zelda articles in the pipeline, but this Nerdstalgia installment is a little bit different. It was inspired by a post at IGN about the nostalgia of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Where that author talked about gaming with his mother, my memories of gaming as a child are with my maternal grandmother 1. She played a lot of games over the years, but there are a few that we played together that stand out in my mind.

Dr. Mario

I’m starting with Dr. Mario for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that it’s the game I remember her playing the most, but it’s also the game that caused the least amount of strife, which isn’t to say that it caused no strife at all.

Dr. Mario was a fairly simple puzzle game, originally released on NES and Gameboy in 1990.  The idea was that there were “viruses” on the play field that could be removed if they were paired with pills of the same color. It was a game that was very much in the same family as Tetris, but, unlike Tetris, there were levels and an “end” in sight: you needed to clear all the viruses to move to the next board, which would have more viruses and move faster.  Most importantly, there was one major difference for the NES version: competitive multiplayer.

Multiplayer worked with a split screen, with both players having access to their own separate board. Combos would send random pill pieces to the other player’s board, allowing you to spam them, giving you a slight advantage. That caused plenty of frustration and grumbles from both of us, but it was mostly friendly competition.

Dr. Mario is available on the Nintendo eShop as a Virtual Console title. The NES version is available on the Wii U, and the Game Boy version is available on the 3DS.

Super Mario Bros. 3

The World Map was the site of many strategic ambushes.

The third installment of the Super Mario Bros. was actually featured in a movie, The Wizard, before it was released in the United States in February of 1990. Unlike Dr. Mario, the multiplayer of Super Mario Bros. 3 was alternating and more-or-less cooperative, as players took turns clearing levels (or attempting to) while working their way through various kingdoms to track down Bowser and rescue the once-again-kidnapped Princess Peach.

Super Mario Bros. 3 featured a return to the type of platforming that was seen in the original Super Mario Bros., after a departure in Super Mario Bros. 2 (which wasn’t originally a Mario game in Japan, which explains the departure). It added some new enemies (including the Koopalings, who appear in several modern games) and some new abilities for Mario and Luigi, while removing Luigi’s ability to jump higher than his brother. At the end of each level, players were awarded a card. Collecting three cards would earn extra lives (depending on whether your cards matched or not).

I said the game’s multiplayer was mostly alternating and cooperative, and those cards play heavily into the exception. If the currently active player passed over the “on-deck” player on the map, the “on-deck” player could challenge them to an original Mario Bros.-style duel. During these duels, cards could be stolen from the other player 2. The winner of the duel became the active player, a fact that could be used to prevent your fellow player from accessing a bonus game in certain situations.

The frustration and friendly competition from Dr. Mario was somewhat amplified when playing Super Mario Bros., because the “betrayal” of an ostensibly friendly fellow player (read: grandchild) was, sometimes, considered cheating by my grandmother.

Honorable Mention: Uno

Before I get to the most divisive video game that my grandmother and I played, I’d like to give a quick mention to a classic family card game that was also pretty divisive. Uno is a fairly simple game, and I’m pretty sure every citizen of the United States over the age of 10 has played it as some point in their lives. At one point, when I was very young, I was frustrated by my inability to win consistently, and I attempted to stack the deck (literally) in my favor while shuffling for a new hand in Uno. I lost, despite my attempt at cheating, and I was caught, which caused my behavior in any game from that point forward to be viewed with more than a little suspicion, which probably contributed to some of the hostility caused by the last video game on my list.


Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to get a good picture of multiplayer Lemmings.

Lemmings is one of the first indirect-control, real-time games. It’s considered to be more of a puzzle game than a strategy game, but its gameplay inspired a lot of the gameplay of early real-time strategy games. Even more than Super Mario Bros. 3, Lemmings is primarily a single-player game. Most people who remember Lemmings remember it purely as a single-player puzzle game, and probably never played the multiplayer version much. Basically, the multiplayer game is played on a split-screen like Dr. Mario, but, unlike Dr. Mario, the players share a single map.  Usually, the players would find all their Lemmings entering the map in the center, and would have to work their way to one side or the other to find the exit. Each player had their own team of Lemmings, and the goal was to save more Lemmings than your opponent.

My grandmother saw this as something like a race, where you were competing as much against yourself as the opponent, and there wasn’t really much interaction between the two players. I saw it more as a game that had both offense and defense, and it was infinitely easier when your opponent wasn’t really playing defense. I’d take most of my Lemmings and go to solve the puzzle, but I’d manipulate one or two to travel the other way, usually after a short delay so they were mixed in among my grandmother’s Lemmings. I’d then alternate between solving the puzzles on my side of the map and subtly sabotaging my grandmother’s solutions (or not so subtly, if I could find a way to start killing Lemmings en masse).

This behavior was generally considered fair game by me (after all, you can’t cheat at a video game, outside of hacking; if the game designers allowed it, it’s within the rules), but was considered to be cheating of the worst kind by my grandmother. After a few games where I would promise not to screw with her design (and kept the promise), I would always slowly go back to my sabotaging ways. Eventually, she refused to play Lemmings with me anymore due to this fundamental difference of opinions about how the game was meant to be played.

To my knowledge, there is no place available to buy the original Lemmings for any of the systems on which it was released. All screenshots here were taken from my copy of the PC game, which I play primarily on DosBox (along with several other old Windows and Dos games that I can’t find anymore).

I know I’ve made it sound like my time playing games with my grandmother was full of fighting, but, honestly, even the “fighting” was with a friendly and loving tone (mostly). The nostalgia I get when I fire up Nintendo’s Virtual Console or my copy of DosBox is very strong, and I’ve found that I’m unable to play Dr. Mario with the music on because nostalgia starts to overwhelm me a bit. My grandmothers both contributed to my love of video games as a hobby, and I will always be grateful to them for that.

Nerdstalgia: The Legend of Zelda

If I had to guess, I’d say that the biggest thing in gaming right now is the new Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Since that game is less than a month old, it’s hardly appropriate for a Nerdstalgia or Patient Gamer review. So, let’s take a look at the game that started it all, The Legend of ZeldaThe Legend of Zelda was released in 1987. I was in third or fourth grade at that point, and I really doubt I actually had a Nintendo Entertainment System yet, so I didn’t really play it. My introduction to the series was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and even that I played only in small bits and pieces at a friend’s house. My first real experience with Link, Zelda, and Ganon was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Still, I think it’s best to start at the beginning of a series for these retrospectives, at least where I can.

I think remakes of the game probably cleaned up the translation some.

If I’m being completely honest, I really didn’t expect to like The Legend of Zelda that much, because I remember disliking The Adventure of Link. I started playing it for this post primarily because it’s a historically significant game, as not only the first entry in a classic video game series, but also possibly the first console RPG ever. I expected to play it and appreciate it for that fact, much as I can appreciate the movie Casablanca. I was actually surprised at how much fun I’ve been having.

The story is pretty simple. Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, has captured the Triforce of Power and was attempting to get his hands on the Triforce of Wisdom. Princess Zelda managed to split the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts and scattered them around the world, but she was subsequently captured by Ganon. Now, the hero, Link, must reassemble the Triforce of Wisdom, infiltrate Ganon’s castle, defeat him, and save Zelda. This entire back story is shared in a quick prologue screen before you start your journey.

This may be one of the most famous screenshots/quotes in gaming.

That’s pretty much it for explanation. Games of this era had very little in the way of tutorials (since it was assumed you had the manual, which was a pretty stupid assumption for an industry that was marketed toward kids who had a tendency to lose everything they touched, but I digress…). You’re dumped into a field next to a cave, and you’re expected to find your way from there. If you go into the cave, you’ll be given a sword, and then you’re off to figure out how to make your way in the world, find the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, and save the Princess 1.

Once the game has started, you really are given no hints about where to go. Since this is an NES-era game, the “map” is pretty woeful, consisting of a grey screen with a green square indicating which square of the map you’re in. That’s something, but it means you’re in for a lot of wandering. It’s very easy to find yourself in an area that you’re not quite ready for, and the game is pretty unforgiving about that. It’s difficult in any sense, and not quite being certain whether the next screen will bring up enemies you can’t handle makes it even more so.

I love Link to the Past, and there are lots of places in this game where the link between these games is practically screaming at you, moreso than between The Adventure of Link and Link to the Past. The dungeon doors look similar, and most of the enemies are familiar, in a way that I have to compare, again, to watching a classic movie and seeing the origin of a lot of the tropes that now seem almost cliched.

The Legend of Zelda doesn’t hold up to modern games graphically, but there’s a lot to love with its simple depiction of Link and his enemies. Especially if you’re familiar with the enemies from later games, it’s easy to fill in the gaps of the crude graphics to see what the designers were going for (and what the enemies will evolve into).

If you enjoy the later Zelda games but haven’t played this one, I absolutely recommend picking it up. You should try it just to respect the series’ roots, but I think you may be pleasantly surprised by how fun this game is, even after thirty years.

The Legend of Zelda is available on Virtual Console for both 3DS and Wii U. Screenshots all come from the 3DS.

Nerdstalgia: Master of Orion

I have been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I remember thinking Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 was probably the best game of all time (I was very young. Don’t judge me.). I remember getting our Commodore 64, and spending enough time playing Jeopardy on it that I could pretty much buzz in on every question, confident that I’d remember what the answer was (I don’t think there were many puzzles on that one). Later, Lemmings on the Super Nintendo was the ideal puzzle game, and Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in Japan and all modern incarnations) was the best RPG ever.

All of these “best games ever”, though, pale in my memory when compared to Master of Orion 1.

I remember stumbling across the Master of Orion box among the other computer games, though I couldn’t tell you what store we were in at the time. Honestly, it wasn’t that flashy compared to other games; it was a basic black box, with a generic sci-fi scene (ships above a planet) and the name printed on the side of the box without even a fancy font or logo. I must have played other strategy games and liked them, because “Strategy” is the only thing that stands out on that box to me now, but, honestly, I don’t really know what drew me to this one.

To be honest, it’s been a few years since I’ve played Master of Orion, but not nearly as many years as you might think. Over the years, I have reverently moved the Master of Orion files from one external drive to another, periodically picking it up and playing a few games of Master of Orion, helping the Silicoids or the Psilons achieve their rightful places as the rulers of the entire galaxy. When I booted it up for this review, I wasn’t really worried that the graphics would look dated, or that I wouldn’t enjoy the gameplay, because it hasn’t been that long since I’ve played it.

The graphics and game layout are obviously a product of the time in which they were created, but they don’t really seem dated to me. It wouldn’t be too long after this game’s release that video games started being rendered in 3D. In a sense, these games had taken their 2D designs to their limit, and while the resolution of the screen and certain elements may show the technical limitations of their age, there isn’t a lot of room to criticize them, in my opinion 2

Even almost a quarter century later, the graphics are fine. They’re not flashy, but they don’t need to be.

The same can’t entirely be said for the game play. Most of it is workable. I wish I could zoom in and out on the map, and it took me a while to remember that simply clicking on the map will refocus it on my cursor. I kept trying to drag, which led to unexpected behaviors when the map would simply recenter on the last point where my mouse button was down. Still, most of the management is done using sliders (see the screenshot to the right for just one set of sliders). Lots and lots and lots of sliders. Each planet’s spending priorities are controlled by slider. Research priorities are controlled by sliders. Espionage and infiltration? Slider.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since I prefer it to the way Master of Orion 2 did things (expect a review of that classic at a later date), but I suspect it would give the game kind of a clunky feel if one wasn’t compelled by nostalgia to love it as much as I do.

The game itself is one of the models on which most future 4X games would be based. The term itself was coined for this game. You start off controlling a single planet, and you slowly explore and expand your empire, exploiting resources as you find them. Eventually, you’ll find other races among the stars, and, as a would-be galactic emperor is compelled to do, you will have to exterminate them. Where other games in the genre would eventually allow you to win through diplomacy and alliances (and those aspects are at play during any given playthrough of Master of Orion), the only winning condition for this game is to be the last empire standing.

I hated this stupid GNN reporter. I’m pretty sure the inhabitants of Endoria that I haven’t evacuated yet probably hated him more, though.

Because of that, Master of Orion is actually pretty simple, comparatively speaking. You build up the infrastructure on each planet, making sure to balance that with protecting the environment (unless you play as the Silicoids, who don’t really care about things like breathing or radiation). Eventually, those planets can earn research points, save money, or build ships. Researching can improve any aspect of this. Early on, increasing your ability to explore, expand and exploit is going to be your main focus, but there comes a time when any young emperor’s fancy turns to love extermination.

When that time comes, you’re going to start building a fleet of ships intended for something more than defense. Ship design is pretty basic – you pick a size for the ship, pick one of the ship images, and decide what items to put in there. Available ship styles are dictated by the color of your flag and the size of the ship you’ve chosen. Engine, Armor, Weapons, Computers, and “special” items (like the colony ship unit that turns a ship into a colony ship) all fit inside. As your technology increases, you’ll have access to better and better items, and the existing items will get smaller and smaller.

Space combat is strategic and turn-based, but pretty basic.

All space battles will take place in orbit around a star system, usually in orbit of the star’s primary planet (stars in Master of Orion have no more than one planet shown), or in empty space if the star has no planets. The attacking fleet will be stacked on the left, with the defending fleet stacked on the right. Since you can have six ship designs at a time, that means you have at most six icons on your side (unless it’s your planet, in which case you get to control the planet’s ground-based missiles as well.

Battles are generally pretty quick; your ships can move one space for each “level” of engine they have, and the entire stack of ships fires at once. If your design includes a single set of missiles, but you’ve got a stack of 10 ships, then you’ll fire 10 missiles at a time from that stack. Beam weapons and missiles can be fired at separate targets, and, if you’re fighting against a planet, you may also use bombs to attack the planet. In addition to the playing through the strategic battle, you can click “AUTO” to simply watch the battle play out.


Planetary invasions are even more basic than space combat.

Once you’ve gotten rid of a planet’s defenders, you have to deal with any alien colonies that are in place. You could simply bomb them out of existence, but why not take advantage of the infrastructure your enemies have so kindly built up for you? You can simply transfer “colonists” straight to an enemy colony (even a single ship in orbit can send all your “colonists” to their doom, so you’ll want to leave a small fleet in orbit long enough to get your colonists delivered. Your colonists come equipped with the best weapons your technology can handle, and they’ll systematically clean up the planet of any pesky aliens before settling in (or, in the case of my screenshot to the left, they’ll die trying…).

In addition to diplomacy and warmongering, you’ll have to face random events. These events aren’t quite as varied as in the next game in the series, but they do occasionally put some of your people at risk, with the all-too-cheerful GNN robot informing you that your people on a given planet are all going to die if you don’t do something. There are also good events (a random planetary realignment might boost a planet’s ecosystem, or you may find ancient ruins that will boost your research), but those seem to mostly be reserved for AI players. I’m pretty sure GNN is biased toward players of the computer variety.
Also, somewhere, out there in the galaxy is Orion. Orion is the homeworld of an ancient advanced race, patiently waiting for the first player to find it and plunder it for some of the best technology in the game, like the aptly-named Death Ray. The only thing between the player and the riches of Orion is the Guardian. You’ll have to build up a decent fleet with some good weaponry to take out the very well equipped Guardian. There are tricks to maximize your chances (it doesn’t do quite as well against swarms of smaller ships), but that’s not to say it’s easy.

Master of Orion is now available on Steam for just a few dollars (I picked up Master of Orion and Master of Orion 2 for $5.99.). I can’t recommend either of the other two bundles, as they both include Master of Orion 3, which was a huge disappointment (I haven’t tried the remake yet, so I can’t speak to that). If you’ve any interest in 4X games and haven’t tried it, it’s definitely worth trying the game for which the term was coined.