Retrogamer: Monster Game
Michael B. Tager
Three years ago, Leigh and I were watching the season finale of How I Met Your Mother. To be more specific, Leigh watched it while I played Sudoku on the DS. I stopped really watching HIMYM around season 4.
“Hey,” Leigh said, poking me. “Is that Legend of Zelda on the screen?” I looked up in time to see a drunken Jason Segel hallucinate scenes from the original NES game whilst jabbing at buttons on an ATM.
“So it is.” I put down the DS to watch, only for the episode to not revisit video games again. This is why I don’t like HIMYM, I thought. Nothing but bait-and-switch. The episode ended shortly thereafter and Leigh glanced at the N64 console I’d hooked up to a few weeks earlier in anticipation of a Goldeneye tournament that never materialized.
“You want to play video games?” Leigh asked. I raised an eyebrow. Leigh never wanted me to play video games. Not when she was around, anyway. She didn’t care what I did when she wasn’t there.
“That’s a tremendous thought. Any ideas?”
She pursed her lips and hummed. “How about Zelda?”
I grinned and gave a thumbs-up. I poked around the little entertainment system, opening drawers and cabinets until I located the stack of N64 cartridges: Ogre Battle 64, Star Fox 64, Goldeneye, Mario. Finally, I found Ocarina of Time way in the back, stuck it in the console and turned it on. Grabbing the controller, I sat next to her. When it booted, I handed it to her and settled back to watch.
A minute ticked by. “Oh.” She was staring at me, the oversize controller limp in her hand. “I wanted you to play. I’ll just watch.”
I scratched my head. “I hate playing Ocarina. I didn’t like it when it came out, I can’t imagine I’ll like it now. But I liked watching my brother play.”
She frowned. “I hate playing Ocarina. When I was younger, I used to watch my brother play.”
“This is like two tops going home together,” I muttered, standing and shutting the N64 off again.
“We’re both fucked.”
I don’t miss being younger. I don’t miss the boredom, the insecurity, being broke, the endless tedium of minimum wage jobs, the lack of dates. I don’t miss the constant switching-over of life and starting anew in high school, college, crappy part-time jobs and making new friends over and over. I don’t miss being blackout drunk or envying my friends when they succeed and I remained stagnant. I miss none of that.
I miss two things. I miss consequence-free diets (a single carrot is not a satisfying snack and I resent the implication that it is) and I miss friends coming over and playing hours of video games. Tekken 3 tournaments. Goldeneye rampages. Taking turns at Duck Tales and Sonic the Hedgehog. Smoking blunts and listening to Jay-Z while playing DOA 3 in my friends’ living room. Talking trash at Ken Griffey Jr. baseball every time pitchers hit homers. Purposefully scrolling in Contra so my brother died on those cliffs.
Not long ago, my friend Greg called me. His wife and newborn son were staying at his mother-in-law’s for the weekend and he had some free time. “Why don’t we play some video games?” he asked. My wife was already asleep when he arrived an hour later. After drinking a beer and sneaking a couple cigarettes, we adjourned to my semi-finished basement.
Wood-paneled walls from the 70s, a linoleum floor, popcorn ceiling. A treadmill in one corner and in the other, a futon for guests and a 40-inch tube television. Hooked up to it is a hacked Xbox with every SNES and NES game—best $15 Craigslist purchase I ever made, even if I play only rarely. We turned it on and scrolled through the hundreds of games, looking for just the right one. We skip Contra, play some Street Fighter 2, then some racing games. He asked, “Have you played Dr. Mario?”
I had not. We turn it on and within moments, despite a significant handicap in settings, I’m dead. “Nevermind,” he said. Instead, I pulled out my old PS2 and we played Tekken 3 until the wee hours. Our thumbs had forgotten nothing. My skills with Hwoarang, Nina and Yoshimitsu were solid as ever. Within minutes, he 10-hit combo-ed me with Heihachi. I called him a “dirty motherfucking cheapass sonofabitch.” He cursed me out a round later when I killed him without being touched, courtesy of Nina. It was a flashback to my youth and when he left at 3 in the morning, I was a little sad to see him go.
I kept my PS2 out for a couple days, hoping against hope to play some more Tekken. But life is a bit different now that I’m in my 30s. I still see friends regularly, but there’s often an agenda or a timeline. A coffee in-between errands or meeting up for a happy hour drink, a group date to a new restaurant. Often there are children involved and little time to waste.
One night, when both Leigh and I were home early, I booted it up and asked, “Want to play?”
She scrunched her nose and said, “Ugh. Is that a fighting game? No.” She flopped down on our couch while our new kitten, Monster, jumped on her lap and started to purr, then bite, then purr. “I’ll watch you play, though.”
I smiled and shook my head. “No, that’s ok. I’ll make us some dinner.” Stuffed green peppers take time. Then dishes. Then housework. Then bed. There wasn’t really time for games, anyway. In my early twenties, I would have just neglected responsibilities. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Three months ago, after I finished my Fallout kick, in the middle of my thesis semester of grad school, I’m sick and take a day off from work and from school and from everything. Leigh goes to work in the morning and I sleep in until noon. Then, feeling better, I putz around the house and waste all the time I want. After lunch, I adjourn to the basement to play all of the video games.
I play a few minutes of Chrono Trigger. But, I need something new, something I missed. I try Wizard of Oz (awful), and Gargoyle’s Quest (quality, but not now), Bubble Bobble (um), and half-a-dozen others. Then, I see Tetris. “Yes,” I say. “That’ll do” Tetris isn’t exactly new, but I haven’t played it in twenty years, so, close enough. I start to click on it when I see that there are no less than three different versions listed. I pause and chew my lip. I scroll down and click on the one that also has Dr. Mario as a package. I remember playing with Greg for a few minutes. It had seemed kind of fun.
Dr. Mario is a Tetris clone for the Nintendo where, instead of geometric shapes falling down into an empty box, little colored pills do the same task. And instead of trying to fill lines, the goal is to instead line up the pills with little colored “viruses” that look like the aliens from Space Invaders. Kind of. It’s more intuitive than that.
It’s an NES game, so the artwork is sketchy, not that graphics are a prerequisite for puzzle games. And, of course, Mario is there, tossing the pills from off to the side. Back in ‘90s, Mario was attached to everything, no matter how inappropriate. He judged boxing games and apparently was a licensed medical practitioner. Who knew!
Dr. Mario sounds like a boring game. If the idea is to play Tetris, then just play Tetris. Why bother with imitations? When it came out, I was a kid and had “better” things to do with my time than play a cheap copy. As an adult, I probably had better things to do than play Dr. Mario, but by this point, my sick day more than half done and what did I have to lose?
I press play.
Hours later, I hear Leigh opening the door. “Honey? Where are you?”
I yell over the Dr. Mario theme. “I’m downstairs. I ordered pizza. C’mere.”
She clomps down the stairs and peeks over the banister, Monster (now a cat) and her sister Saucepan prowling around her ankles. “Did you feed the girls? They’re acting starved.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah. I forgot.” I pause and hand her the half-eaten pizza. “I’ve been busy.”
She laughs and says, “You enjoying your day off?” She squints. “Why is Mario throwing pills at floating monsters?” Her fingers begin tapping along with the music. It’s infectious. (Have you heard the theme song?)
“It’s Dr. Mario. You ever play it?” I shuffle over and she sits next to me, a slice of pizza already in her hands.
“Never heard of it.” She watches while I un-pause and play for a few minutes. “That looks fun.”
I glance at her sidelong. “No one gets shot, there are no creepy sewer-ghouls, no one punches each other. You want to play?”
She picks up a controller and sighs. “I know you want me to try. But I promise nothing.”
“That’s all I ask,” I say. “Standard twenty minute rule?”
(We established our twenty minute rule years back, whenever we want each other to try something outside comfort zones. After twenty minutes, there’s a pause in the action to gauge our partner’s enjoyment. If there is some, it continues, otherwise, kaput. This is how I watched “The Notebook” and she watched “My Neighbor Totoro.” This is also how I didn’t finish “Grey’s Anatomy” and she didn’t finish “Louie.”)
Tetris, to the best of my knowledge, is a solo game. What really sets Dr. Mario apart is that there’s a co-op mode. I played the computer during my 2-hour spree. I saw the potential. But it’s not satisfying playing against a static enemy. Not for this.
For our first round, I play on level 5 and she plays on 1. I take it easy on her but still win the first round. She clears one of the viruses. “Yay! Die monster,” she says.
“It’s a virus.”
“Looks like a monster,” she says.
The second round is close as she gets the hang of the controls. Press A to rotate the pills and get the colors to line up. Use the directional pad to move the pills around. Get four colors to match one virus and it’s cured! There are a few different color combinations: red/blue, red/yellow, yellow/blue, blue/blue, red/red, yellow/yellow. That’s it. It’s a simple game.
She wins the first game. “Want to play again?”
There’s one last twist. When a player clears more than one virus at a time, there’s a penalty on the other player. Random blocks appear at the top of their screen and slowly drop to the bottom. If they drop on a virus, well, that’s the point, and the virus is blocked. I do this for the first time in the rematch.
Leigh stops and looks at me. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“Take that sucker.” I wink and make little guns with my fingers.
She reddens and her eyes narrow. “It’s on.”
The pizza slowly disappears. I get up once to feed the cats and go to the bathroom. She stamps her feet while I’m gone and we resume in silence. After an hour I say, “Your twenty minutes is up.”
“Shut up and play.” She’s on level 3 by now, rapidly improving. We split often. By the end of the night, she’s playing at level 5 and I play at 7. The music won’t get out of our heads. Our cats are asleep on our futon. Her fingers are chafed raw, she tells me.
“Honey,” I say. “Maybe it’s bed time?”
“You just don’t want me to beat you. Again.”
“Fine. One last.”
Since that night, I haven’t been able to get together with friends to play games. They’ve seen each other, but only by accident. I missed an impromptu Tekken tournament at Greg’s house because I was at Home Depot, buying shelves. This is what happens. But all is not lost. I have played Dr. Mario a dozen times. Normally, Leigh says, “Do you want to play Monster Game?”
“Yes, let’s play Monster Game.” I corrected her once and she gave me the I know what the hell it’s called, let me be cute, Mr. Pedantic face.
It’s not like how it used to be, when I’d play marathon sessions with friends until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes, Leigh and I play for a scant ten minutes. Besides that first time, we’ve never played for longer than an hour and a half. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m playing with someone else. I have enough of playing games solo. Most of my video game experiences are introspective, role-playing experiences, to be someone else and somewhere else.
But sometimes, I want to look over at someone else and say, “Holy shit, you are such an asshole,” and I want them to look back at me and say, “Suck a bag of dicks.” And it makes me feel like I’m not old and that I can still touch the good parts of the past. The icing is that my wife is the one telling me to suck it.