Review: Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (Digital, 2012)


First, a bit of history and context: 1985 was the year skateboarding became something I wanted to try, and my guess is most kids in the ’80s felt the same way too. Seeing Michael J. Fox ride his Valterra deck in Back to the Future — at least to an 11-year-old — was amazingly cool. While that particular skateboard was mass-produced and sold complete at big department stores for cheap, it didn’t matter. Kids who had one were the targets of jealousy. Mine in particular.

Earlier that same year, my dad had tried to get me into surfing. It was his favorite pastime, and it was something he had done most of his life growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii. I had a few good rides, but I never did fall in love with it. Most of my resistance had to do with the fact that I didn’t like getting up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of the best conditions. Still don’t. I’ve never been a morning person. Oh, and those best conditions tend to occur in the winter, which in Southern California means the Pacific is more or less freezing.

Additionally, surf shops didn’t interest me all that much outside of the stickers and t-shirts, but I was always drawn to the skateboard walls and counters, particularly the awesome and slightly scary Powell Peralta decals. The first ones my dad ever bought me were for Mike McGill, Tony Hawk, and Steve Caballero. The art was amazing, and even though I really had no idea who they were, I treated them like gold.

Around the same time, and likely due to me still talking about Back to the Future a lot, my dad thought it would be a good idea to buy me a skateboard to practice surfing moves like bottom turns and off-the-lips at home in our driveway:


I don’t remember who made that board, but I do distinctly remember the giant red, white, and blue “Kilroy Was Here” graphics on it, which didn’t mean anything to my pre-teen brain. After we got home, I gave it a try on our backyard patio. Almost instantly, it went flying out from under me, I fell on my ass, hurt my wrists, and it slammed right into the concrete wall. Needless to say, I didn’t ride it again for a while.

Over the next two years, my skateboard was little more than a mode of transportation to my friends’ houses, parks, and sneaking to the liquor store to play videogames. It wasn’t until junior high that my friends and I started hearing about things like some “Animal Chin” video and stylish skaters like Christian Hosoi and a name that came back from my then recent past: Steve Caballero.


Thrasher Magazine started circulating around classrooms instead of Mad Magazine, and almost overnight, everyone I knew had the latest skateboards, with the ones from Powell, Vision, and Santa Cruz really standing out, like the Mark Gonzales, Keith Meek “Slasher”, and Psycho Stick. I was obsessed with the art, and would do my best to copy them in pencil during class. Especially that Slasher. There are elements from that which still sneak their way into my art today.

When it came to actual skate equipment, though, I was still rockin’ my old Kilroy deck, which had a blue noseguard and speedbump-like skidplate on the back. By 1988, I had swap meet-sourced copers on the trucks — you know, for protection — and a lapper on the back to supposedly make climbing curbs easier. Plus, those socks and that haircut. Needless to say, the girls weren’t exactly knocking down our front door.

Even when I got my first real skateboard for 8th grade graduation (a Vision Psycho Stick, coincidentally), I protected that thing like it was a new Ferrari. Maybe no lapper this time, but my small circle of friends and I all had Tracker trucks with those massive wraparound copers and plastic baseplates. Skidplates, rails, and noseguards too. Funny looking back, but I think we were all of the same mindset that we had to make these things last.


Then one day, along came the Powell Peralta video that changed everything for me: 1988’s Public Domain. I’d never seen anything like it, with names I’d never heard of before, like Ray Barbee (misspelled as “Barbie” in the video), whose clean, technical style I immediately latched onto and of course was never quite able to replicate.

Also, unlike a lot of other skateboarding videos at the time, Public Domain had a very polished, professional feel to it, like you weren’t just spending money on a cheap home video, but something that folks had put a lot of time, money, and effort into. I credit this video for inspiring me to become a better skater.

For the next couple years, up until about mid-1990, skateboarding was my life. But as we all began to get our driver’s licenses, started dating, or became more involved in clubs and sports in preparation for college, it wasn’t long before the vast majority of us stopped skating altogether. Thinking back on this actually gets me a little choked up, since it was such a glorious time of freedom, individuality, creativity, and adventure.

And that right there is at the heart of what makes Bones Brigade: An Autobiography such a special documentary.


Everyone is here: Stacy Peralta, George Powell, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Tommy Guerrero, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, and Lance Mountain. Plus a lot of other big names like Christian Hosoi, Mike Vallely, and Tony Alva. Even Fred Durst and Spike Jonze make appearances.

The interviews throughout are thoughtful, funny, personal, and at times painful. From its very beginning, even though I was smiling throughout, there is an undercurrent of nostalgic sadness here that permeates all of the interviews.

20141007_bb_tgThat’s not to say that this film is a downer. It’s the furthest thing from it, and is as wonderful a history lesson in Powell Peralta the company and its riders as you’re likely to find. It’s not just a look back on the historic rise, fall, and rise again of skateboarding, but an intimate look at its principal players and how they each responded to their meteoric rise to worldwide stardom.

It’s absolutely mind-blowing to look back on the early days of the skateboarding industry, its advertising, and how things we take for granted like “street skating” weren’t even things yet until the likes of Tommy Guerrero made it so.

In many ways, it reflects that of the videogame industry, how it started small, but that even then there were innovators shooting for the stars (like Electronic Arts and Broderbund at the time) who set their own paths, gave their designers top billing, killed it in terms of presentation, and put out the very best games, giving everyone else something to aim for. I remember the Bones Brigade team doing exactly that, raising the bar for everyone else.

20141007_bb_10One thing that really stood out for me here was Lance Mountain. As a young teenager who was always looking up to the best of the best, Mountain seemed like an anomaly. I thought he was OK, but nowhere near the level of the Hawks, Caballeros, and Mullens of the world.

I remember the silly clip from Public Domain where an English Bulldog steals his skateboard, but I don’t remember any of his actual skating. Bones Brigade spends some time on this very topic, and I came out of it with a much deeper respect and understanding of why he was on the team, what effect he had on other skaters, and him as a human being. These sequences that focus on Mountain are wonderfully done and some of my favorites in the film.

20141007_bb_11I was very happy to see that equal time was spent on the other members of the original Brigade. I was half-expecting most of the coverage to be on Tony Hawk, just because he is the Mario and Mickey Mouse of skateboarding: everyone recognizes him, and deservedly so due to his skills, drive, and business acumen.

Watching the old clips of him brought back some of my fondest memories of the sport, and even though I was a street skater and never did skate halfpipes, when guys like Tony Hawk skated, I stopped and watched. I liked him because he was such a technical wizard. He rarely messed up, and his innovations in bringing so many street-based techniques to ramps was amazing to see.

20141007_bb_6One of the things in Bones Brigade that really got the nostalgia juices flowing was its focus on the stylistic dichotomy between Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi. I was always drawn to Hawk’s quieter, more technical approach to skating, while my best friend’s favorite was Hosoi.

Their real-life rivalry, as it was portrayed in magazines and contests at the time, perhaps seeped into our own approach to skating and friendship. These guys really were huge influences on us all, and many of us projected the pros’ personalities and styles on ourselves. I think there was also a quiet voice in the back of our minds that told us we would be doing this for many years to come, if not forever.

20141007_bb_13That sentiment is echoed throughout this documentary, bookended by fascinating bits of history, including the creation of two of skateboarding’s most iconic moves: the McTwist and ollie. I was engrossed hearing firsthand accounts about their development and how they — particularly the ollie — became the foundation for just about everything that has followed in the sport since.

It’s also during these looks back that we see who did well for themselves and who didn’t, whether it was due to bad choices, grudges, or other negative influences. These moments are sobering, and are a good reminder of how quickly things can change, for better or for worse.

20141007_bb_5Besides Lance Mountain, the most revealing and interesting person in this film is Rodney Mullen, who was one of those guys whose skating just blew me away. He was on a whole different level, captivating me with his flawless runs full of gravity-defying tricks. I also remember how I used to make fun of the way he talked, with his high-pitched voice and odd, stream-0f-consciousness way that he described things.

Here, we see someone who looks like he’s been through the wringer of life; someone looking back on his years in the Bones Brigade with razor-sharp clarity and wisdom. He provides some of the most insightful and crushing interview footage, with a candid and unfiltered look into his personal life and his struggles with success… and himself.

20141007_bb_3Steve Caballero, even with his thick, graying beard, still looks like the skater I and so many others emulated back in the day. The guy had this smooth but goofy-shy style, but he also exuded pure power when he skated. It was no surprise that he was a favorite of mine and so many of my friends, and everyone liked to do his little head-cocked-to-the-side thing.

The Half-cab, derived from his own Caballerial/Full-cab was always one of my favorite tricks, and I loved doing them up and down curbs, stairs, benches, and anything else in front of me. It’s interesting that when I look back, the original Bones Brigade skaters that influenced me the most — namely Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero — were vert skaters. It wasn’t what they were skating so much as it was how they were skating them.

20141007_bb_16Skateboarding was an important a part of my life from 1987-1990, just as videogames were. In retrospect, I would say perhaps even more so. While I was enjoying gaming at home on my Sega consoles and Apple II, it was skateboarding that provided not just a creatively challenging outlet, but a bonding, social, free-spirited activity that both spoke directly to me and reflected who I was and still am as a person today.

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography is a fascinating watch for anyone into skateboarding, and particularly essential for anyone who was part of that culture throughout the ’80s.

Overall: A



Gaming with my sister Cheryl (1978-2002)


I’ll never forget the night my dad called to say that my younger sister had passed away. I had just returned to Los Angeles from a business trip to Outrage Games in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Actually, I don’t remember most of the details of that night, as I was simply in a state of shock, sadness, and helplessness.

I remember telling myself that I had to stay strong for my family’s sake, especially my mom, who had just the year prior lost her mother. So much of the days and weeks that followed were a blur, and before I knew it, I was back at work, doing my best to, as they say, pick up the pieces and move on. It’s always easier to give this advice than to take it.

The year prior in 2001, Cheryl had gotten really sick with encephalitis, and was in a coma for about two days. When she came out of it, it seemed like everything was OK, but then she began suffering from major seizures several times a day. Although she would eventually recover to the point where she was able to go home, she would continue to struggle with occasional seizures and other day-to-day limitations.

It changed her personality as well, where she would lose her patience and get frustrated with things almost instantly, and after experiencing it several times, I would make sure to approach things with her more carefully from then on. After hosting a holiday party for her friends in December of 2002, she passed away in her sleep that night. It was concluded that she suffered another seizure.

A lot of people knew my sister Cheryl, her love for the Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Broncos, teaching, and anything that had to do with monkeys, but few of them likely knew that she also loved videogames, or that she was better than me at many of them. Maybe it was because we were only 4 years apart, and games were such an integral part of my own life, that it became a shared hobby — and source of competition — between us.

20140818_digdugAs early as 1983, when our family was living in Spring, Texas, and Cheryl was still in kindergarten, I remember the Atari 2600 being central to our home life when the weather didn’t permit us to be outside riding our bikes, swimming, and hurting ourselves in every which way as kids do.

Even back then, she was good at games like Dig Dug and Ms. Pac-Man, which when you think about it, require you to pay attention to multiple enemies on the screen and plan out a good strategy to beat them. That’s pretty advanced stuff for a 5-year-old that everyone expected to be playing with Barbie dolls. For the record, she never liked ’em.

20140818_mastertypeWhile we were still living in Texas, my dad bought the family an Apple IIe. He loved the business applications such as the precursor to today’s ubiquitous Microsoft Excel: VisiCalc, but my sister and I were all about the games.

Although she was getting cool software like Spinnaker’s Kindercomp — which is still very good for its age and target audience — she was always more interested in what I was playing. MasterType was one of those educational titles wrapped up in a game, and it taught both of us to type well at an early age. In fact, it wasn’t long before she was a better typist than me!

20140818_safarihuntAs the 8-bit console era came around and we got our Sega Master System, her favorite games on it were the Light Phaser gun games, such as Safari Hunt, Marksman Shooting, and Trap Shooting.

At one point she was so good at Trap Shooting that she would essentially “break” the game. As you would progress through it, the hit box on the traps would get smaller and smaller. She would get so far into it that the hit boxes would cease to even exist. A bug on Sega’s part, perhaps, but she would always be proud of her achievement.

20140818_sf2tThe 16-bit era is when everything came to a head. All those years of playing on the Atari, Apple, and Master System had honed her hand-eye coordination to needle-like levels of sharpness. No other game proved just how terrible at fighting games I was — or rather, how good she was — than Street Fighter II Turbo for the Super Nintendo.

I thought I was pretty good at it. I mean, I had lots of practice from arcades and the regular Street Fighter II SNES cartridge, but Cheryl was a natural. In fact, she was so adept at it that she would regularly perform a “round-robin” in V.S. Battle mode where she would fight me using each character once — beat me with all of them — and after doing so, look at me, say “You suck!”, drop the controller on the floor, and leave the room. Oh, how that made my blood boil!

20140818_bamIt didn’t stop there. In college, I bought Taito’s Bust-a-Move (aka Puzzle Bobble), which I also thought I was good at after having played a ton of the Neo Geo game in arcades.

Oh, no. Once again, after playing it for just a few short days, Cheryl was like Bobby Fischer with it, hitting impossible shots and rarely making mistakes bouncing the bubbles off the side walls. I would go on to hear her trademark “You suck!” more than I’d care to admit. It was a lot.

The thing is, even though she kicked my butt six ways from Sunday competitively, those remain some of my best memories. Her taunting would evolve from simple verbal jabs to her strategically eating dried squid before a game and then burping it in my face at the most opportune times to mess me up. It worked. A little too well. I can still smell it!

20140818_sbbI think her absolute favorite game, though, was Super Buster Bros. on the Super Nintendo. She even bought her own system so that she could play it after she moved to San Diego for college. Her favorite mode was Panic, where you’d just work your way through progressively more difficult waves of bouncing bubbles and hexagons, and watching her play this was amazing.

Again, all those years of gaming made it easy for her to focus on so many on-screen objects at once. It was actually pretty inspiring to watch, so this also went on to became a favorite game of mine, and I’ll still dust it off from time to time to see how far I can get. Never as far as her, of course.

Unsurprisingly, she was really good at another game that had spherical objects in it as well: pinball.

20140818_pfPorted from the Amiga to the PC in the early ’90s, Digital Illusions’ Pinball Fantasies was one of the best arcade pinball simulators at the time, and the both of us played it nonstop.

Cheryl got really good at saving the ball via the game’s nudge feature. With good timing, you can bounce it out of the bottom at the last second and bring it back into play. It wasn’t very realistic, but it was always impressive when you could get it to happen regularly.

She was also the first one to get over a billion points on the Billion Dollar Gameshow table, and to this day, I haven’t been able to catch and beat her score. I still have her MS-DOS high score files from this game on 3.5″ floppy disk in storage.

The 32-bit generation arrived in the mid-’90s, and by then I was seeing less and less of my sister as not only was I beginning my full-time career at Interplay, but she was nearing the end of high school, working part-time at the Sanrio store, and was highly involved in sports, clubs, and other activities.

20140818_ridgeracerHowever, we would always find time to get in a game or two here and there, and her favorite on the PlayStation was Namco’s Ridge Racer. While we were at the point in our lives where we weren’t all that competitive anymore, it was still a lot of fun to take turns and play.

Her favorite music track in the game was “Rotterdam Nation”, and she would bob her head to it with a serious look on her face as she gracefully drifted around all of the game’s sweeping curves and hairpins.

She would yell at the A.I. cars if they bumped into her, affectionately referring to the Dig Dug car as the “multicolored piece of crap” or the pink 31 flavors-like Mappy car as the “Bastard Robbins”. Seems silly now, but we used to crack each other up with our cheesy jokes.

And that’s what life is all about, right? Making memories that can bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye, no matter how insignificant they might seem to everyone else. That’s why I get very defensive when people dismissively talk about this hobby with me, saying things like, “Videogames are for kids,” or “You play too many games,” etc.

What these folks don’t understand is that games have the power to not only challenge us on an individual level, but they can bring people together, creating lifelong memories that shape who we are.

Perhaps I haven’t said this until now, but a big reason why I still play games is that they remind me of exactly what I wrote about above: my sister and all the great experiences we shared with controllers in our hands, sitting in front of a TV, yelling, laughing, and bonding.

Happy Birthday, Cheryl. I miss you, and sorry about bringing up the dried squid burps. I couldn’t help myself!


The NES & Master System: Inevitable Comparisons

Back in May, I talked a little bit about my first exposure to the NES. As someone who didn’t have one, and who was instead gaming on the rival Sega Master System, the NES was not only something I had limited access to, but it was a console I greatly desired. I would try to fool myself into thinking that I didn’t really want one, and that my Master System was better, but absurdity has its limits.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the Master System. As evidenced by my post about the classic RPG Phantasy Star, it played host to a good number of excellent 8-bit titles. It just couldn’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s marketing, third-party policies, and resulting massive library of games. Even the console-specific print magazines were hilariously mismatched: Nintendo Power was this thick, robust magazine full of features, maps, letters, art, hints, reviews, and cool game advertisements. Meanwhile, Sega Challenge was a tiny, low-budget pamphlet that was maybe 16 pages long. I thought it was cool, but you wouldn’t want to bring it to school. You’d get laughed at, and get laughed at I did.

And so, for the three years that I had my Master System, I quietly enjoyed its games while playing a lot of NES games at my friends’ houses. However, even when I was there playing those games, I’d wind up comparing what I was playing to what I had on the Master System. Usually, what I was seeing on the NES was better.

One that really stands out in my mind is Sega’s Pro Wrestling vs. Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling.


In screenshots, you could argue that in some ways, the Master System version above looks a little better. It’s more colorful, its gameplay is tag-team style, players have energy meters, and the ring itself has some 3D perspective. However, that’s where its so-called advantages end.


The NES version, on the other hand, was just a revelation when I first played it. It not only had a really catchy title screen tune, but it was followed by large, beautiful portraits of each of the game’s wrestlers, with stats and other bits of information that made them feel much more human than the generic cast of the Master System game. It was all the little touches that elevated it as well: The ringside commentators, the cameraman filming the action, the fact that you could go outside the ring, the more realistic wrestler animations and interactions, etc. The list goes on and on.

After playing the NES game, I was embarrassed to even show anyone the Master System title! It had its charms with its super-deformed and very Japanese graphics, but it would never appeal to western audiences the way Nintendo’s game would. It truly was a night and day difference, and it remains one of my all-time favorite wrestling games.

Another pair of titles that showed the stark difference between the consoles was Sega’s own arcade conversion of Out Run and little-known (at the time) Square’s Rad Racer.


Again, upon first glance, the Sega game looks pretty good. The Ferrari Testarossa, the track layouts, and the visuals are a decent approximation of the arcade version, which is still a looker to this day. I remember being quite impressed with the screenshots, and when it finally came out as a 2 megabit (256 KB) cartridge in 1987, I couldn’t wait to play it.

And when I did? Man, was I let down. The graphics were so choppy, and even though I knew it wasn’t going to be as smooth as the arcade due to lack of hardware sprite scaling, it just felt way under-cooked. Most disappointingly, the music barely did the arcade soundtrack justice, which is one of its highlights.


Released the same year on the NES, Rad Racer is basically an Out Run clone right down to the Ferrari and opening beach setting, but without the branching paths. I tried to write it off in my mind as just a cheap copy until I actually played it. Wow, I was blown away yet again! Rad Racer moves along at a brisk 60 frames-per-second compared to the choppy mess that is Out Run on the Master System.

Roadside obstacles and scenery scroll past your vehicle smoothly, and while the graphics themselves aren’t as detailed as they are in Out Run, the smooth framerate, convincingly undulating roadways, and responsive gameplay give it a polished, high-quality feel.

Rad Racer also one-ups its competition by letting the player change the music station from within the game instead of being stuck with one song the entire time. Additionally, it has on-the-fly anaglyph 3D mode, which lets you use the included blue & red 3D glasses for a gaming experience that was very cool and unique at the time.

Being such a popular game, Space Harrier wasn’t immune to this either, with Square once again “paying homage” to it that same year with their own run & gunner, The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner.

Although vastly inferior to the arcade original, I loved the Master System version of Space Harrier. For the hardware it’s on, it looks great, has gigantic, screen-filling bosses, bonus content, and good versions of the game’s iconic music.

It’s somewhat choppy, though, and the techniques used to create such large visuals means there are flat, square-like edges around everything, and that detracts from the overall effect.


By contrast, 3-D WorldRunner is cartoon-like and not very interesting to look at in screenshots, but much like Rad Racer, it’s something entirely different in motion, moving smoothly at a near-constant 60 FPS. It has fun backgrounds like Sega’s own Fantasy Zone, and a similarly lighthearted tone.

While I remember it being criticized for just being a Space Harrier clone, I thought it was unique enough. Sure, it’s set in a very similar world with creatures and obstacles that bear more than a passing resemblance to Sega’s creations, but the run & jump gameplay sets it apart, as does the 3D feature, similar to that found in Rad Racer.

It’s one of those examples where I would say they are as unique as they are alike. I enjoy both games for different reasons, even though one was obviously influenced by the other. As they said in 1996’s Swingers, “Everybody steals from everybody; that’s Hollywood.”

Similarly, we see this — and will continue to see this — all the time in the videogame industry. How many “match three” games are there on Google Play and the Apple App Store? By today’s standards, Space Harrier and 3-D World Runner are very different games.

As an aside, I wish Square would go back and make more games like this again, or at least work with the Japanese developer M2 to make good 3D conversions of them for systems like the Nintendo 3DS.

These are just a few of the many examples of genre and style crossover between the competing consoles. Sega would also bring out games that were déjà vu familiar to what was already on the NES, like Compile’s Golvellius: Valley of Doom. This is what Sega owners got instead of The Legend of Zelda.


Golvellius had great music, and side and vertically scrolling action sequences replaced the dungeons found in Zelda, but the bulk of the game was spent in a very similar overworld, complete with hidden caves, vague hints, shopkeepers, and other near-homologous design elements.

It’s hard to deny that both of the opening landscapes had quite a lot in common, but as a Master System owner used to a slow trickle of quality games, Golvellius went down as one of my favorites back in 1988.


The Legend of Zelda would, of course, go on to become one of the most memorable and timeless classics on any console.

Content is king, as they say, and the NES — despite the many stinkers that called it their home — had so many more great games that victory was a foregone conclusion.

Then there were those times where neither game was all that good. Rambo: First Blood Part II (SMS) and Ikari Warriors (NES) come to mind, which were both part of the popular vertically scrolling military shooters at the time.


Rambo had decent visuals, and the gameplay was rather smooth, but it was slow. Painfully slow.

The thing about both of these games is that they are based on controls that were impossible at home at the time: a joystick that could simultaneously control the on-screen character and independently aim their gun in any of 8 different directions. This meant that at home, whichever way you were facing, that’s where you were firing, making strafing impossible. That was a huge part of Ikari Warriors‘ appeal, and would thankfully be addressed in its follow-up, Victory Road.


And speaking of Ikari Warriors, what a mess. Choppy, simplistic graphics and a pace that felt even slower and more punishing than Rambo. I played this around the same time as Capcom’s 1942 on the NES and remember thinking, “Man, this console absolutely sucks for arcade ports!”, but as I discussed back in May, Rush’n Attack changed my opinion on that completely.

As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there were a lot of games that seemed strikingly similar to one another.  It’s interesting to think back on the fact that it was pretty rare for the same game to be on competing consoles, even through the 16-bit era. A few come to mind, like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Earthworm Jim, but it seemed like the exception, rather than the norm.

Each individual system played host to a slew of exclusives you couldn’t play anywhere else, despite their similarities. It’s a very different landscape today, and while it is apples and oranges to this discussion, it’s not so much about having the exclusive title anymore, but more about who has the exclusive content or lead release window.

I wouldn’t mind a return to the basics. Speaking of which, I think I’ll play a little Rad Racer right now.


My influences: Phantasy Star

I was only in 8th grade when I first heard about this new role-playing game called Phantasy Star for Sega’s fledgling 8-bit console. While I already had great experiences with the Master System, playing an RPG that I truly loved on one was something I hadn’t done up to that point.

20140630_miracle_warriorsYes, I had both Ys: The Vanished Omens and Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord, but neither of those really clicked with me, so I figured I’d always be playing the best the genre had to offer on the Apple side of things, with classic series like Ultima, Wizardry, and The Bard’s Tale.

The more I read about Phantasy Star, though, the more excited I got about playing it. When the day came that it finally hit stores, I would be in for one heck of a case of sticker shock: its price at Toys R Us was $69.99!  Seventy bucks back in 1988, when most games were around $39.99 or less. There was no way my mom would go for it. I didn’t do any chores, which meant no allowance, and thus no disposable income for “important” purchases like this. I was at an impasse, and wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to play it.

20140630_ysAs fate would have it, though, our family was set to take one of our annual trips to Las Vegas. My dad loved playing craps, and my mom loved the slot machines, so Vegas was always high on their vacation destination list, and it was a relatively quick and convenient drive from Southern California where I grew up.

Although I was still way too young to gamble and hated cigarette smoke, I always loved walking through casinos, especially hearing the satisfying sound of quarters and silver dollars clunking down loudly into those metal coin trays. This was back when you still had to put coins in them and physically pull a handle!


Mr. Do! (1982)

My destination of choice was, unsurprisingly, the midway arcade at Circus Circus. While other casinos had a few videogames to amuse the youngsters, nobody brought it like this place. It’s funny to think back on how my parents would just leave me and my sister — who was only 9 or 10 at the time — alone there. She would go off and play the carnival games, which she was very good at, while I hung out in their giant arcade.

The first machine I would go to was always Mr. Do!, even though it was an older game. I loved the graphics, music, and gameplay, which owed a lot to Namco’s Dig Dug, but I preferred its pacing. As a Robotech fanatic, I also loved Capcom’s Hyper Dyne Side Arms, but I was rather terrible at it. I remember the copyright screen saying something about it being illegal to play Side Arms outside of Japan, so that added to its allure.

It was during that trip to Vegas that I devised a plan to buy Phantasy Star on my own. I would try to spend as little money as possible playing arcade games and stockpile the quarters I got from my mom throughout the trip, and hopefully have enough by the time we went home to make the purchase.

I’m not entirely sure how I did it, but by the time we left for California, I had about $90 in quarters! I must have done a lot of game-watching that trip, which probably explains why when I start up games at home for the first time, I’ll sit there and patiently wait to see if anything happens after the title screen appears. You never know if there’s a second intro sequence behind it.

Anyway, it was a matter of a day or two of returning home that I wanted to make my way back to Toys R Us, but how was I going to buy it without my mom finding out how expensive it was? There was a mall close by, and on one of the days she had to go, I went along with her. When we got there, I said I wanted to walk over to Toys R Us to buy a game with my leftover money from Vegas. She thankfully agreed and off I went! The entire time, I thought I was going to get caught, but I made it, bought the game, and threw the receipt away as soon as I stepped outside. I hightailed it back to the mall, found my mom, and I’m sure I annoyed her with my impatience to get back home.

I think I read the manual twice in the 2 miles that separated the mall and home, and I’m fairly certain I sprinted inside before she even shut off the ignition to start playing.


From the moment I turned on my Master System, I knew this was going to be something different. What immediately stood out for me was Alis, Phantasy Star‘s main protagonist. Her design was distinct, strong, and attractive. The title screen music was also instantly memorable, conveying a spirited sense of adventure. I couldn’t wait to start.

20140630_phantasy_star_alisFor its time, Phantasy Star begins rather violently and tragically, with the execution of Alis’ brother Nero at the hands of the local tyrant Lassic. The graphics during this intro sequence are beautifully drawn, and it does a really good job of quickly establishing motives and goals. I’ve never been the biggest fan of overly long intro sequences, and although by today’s standards this intro is very brief, it leaves the player clearly knowing what needs to be done next.

The overworld graphics are decent, but I think they’re slightly disappointing and a bit too simplistic, even back when the game was new. However, it became obvious quickly where most of the art budget went for this game: dungeons and battles.


Anxiety in a box.

First of all, the dungeons. My jaw hit the floor the first time I entered one! Not only are they done in a first-person perspective similar to the classic Apple RPGs mentioned earlier, but they are rendered in vibrant colors and animate smoothly as you walk through them. Even turning corners are fully animated. This was a big deal back in 1988, when most dungeon-crawling games had no walking animation except for The Bard’s Tale, and even then, it was limited to towns and weren’t full-screen like these. HERE is an example of what they look like, accompanied by the game’s equally ominous music.

The dungeons remain one of my favorite aspects of Phantasy Star, and I had a lot of fun mapping all of them on graph paper. Opening chests was stressful since many of them are laced with explosive traps that startled me the first time it happened. With these first-person dungeons being such a good memory of mine, you’d think I’d be all over the Etrian Odyssey games from Atlus, but as of this writing, I have yet to play one. Someday, I’m sure.


Then there are the battles, which are another graphical highlight. Enemies are large, have animated attacks, and are set against colorful backdrops that reflect the environment you’re currently in, whether that be a grassy field, dark forest, or a sandy beach. Some even have background animations, such as the coast where water laps up against the shore.

I remember the battles having excellent, gravelly sound effects, hit and spell animations brought these conflicts to life, and enemies were not easy to defeat. In fact, your first battle can easily end you if you’re not careful, which is in stark contrast to the easier RPGs of today.


Phantasy Star II (1990)

Again, having detailed features like these in an ’80s RPG was unheard of at the time, and even the Genesis sequel that followed in 1990 had arguably worse dungeon and battle graphics than its Master System predecessor. I know I was shocked in a bad way when the meticulously drawn battles of Phantasy Star were replaced with a boring grid.

I mean, honestly, looking at those, you’d think the Master System screenshot was from the newer game. In that sense, I always felt like Phantasy Star II was a rushed sequel. I didn’t think the soundtrack was as good, and even though it was now on the 16-bit Genesis console, it didn’t feel like a substantial upgrade to its 8-bit older sibling. This made the original game feel even more special to me.

Even though I was one of the very few kids at school who had a Master System, games like Phantasy Star made it worth every penny. It’s a game that not only got me completely hooked on console RPGs, but stands as one of the best early examples of a development team putting their all into making sure their game made an unforgettable impression on players. It’s rough around the edges by today’s standards, but it will always remain one of my all-time favorites from the 8-bit era.


My influences: Space Harrier

20140602_space_harrierI’ll never forget the first time I saw Space Harrier. It was at Disneyland’s Starcade in the mid-’80s. They were fortunate enough to have the deluxe sit-down version, too. The entire cabinet would tilt as you moved the flight stick around, a popular feature in a number of arcade games at the time, like Sega’s own Out Run and After Burner. I never would see that version in any other arcade after that, so looking back, I feel fortunate that I was able to play and experience it. More so than the cabinet, however, was the game itself.

The title screen alone was enough to capture my imagination with its huge spinning logo, one-eyed woolly mammoth, and beautiful-looking mecha. I was a huge Robotech nut as a kid, so how could I resist? I couldn’t. Even the sound the game made when you inserted a quarter or token was cool. That’s a small, but important detail that I really miss from modern gaming.

And then I pressed Start. Oh my goodness, those graphics! It absolutely blew my mind. Hardware sprite scaling wasn’t something we would see in home consoles until the Super Nintendo and Neo Geo in the early ’90s, and it was still a relatively new technology in arcade games. Using Sega’s Super Scaler technology, they took the concept of 3D gaming using 2D sprites to a whole new level. It represented a paradigm shift for me, establishing a very clear graphics capability line between arcade and home consoles, and altering my expectations from then on.

That was one of those moments where I figured playing an arcade-perfect port at home would never be possible. And I would be mostly correct for the better part of the next decade, until 32X and Saturn ports would finally make the impossible possible. It really shows just how advanced Sega’s arcade technology was back then.

However, that didn’t stop me from wanting the home Space Harrier experience ASAP. Back in junior high, several of my friends all generously chipped in and bought me the Sega Master System version for my birthday. I knew there was no way it would be as good as the arcade, but then again, I’m the one who thought Cobra Command was possible on it, so my hopes were still unrealistically high. After containing my excitement, I opened it up and turned it on…

20140602_shI was actually quite impressed with the title screen! It approximated the look of the arcade version, right down to the light glinting off the mecha’s gun, which was always one of my favorite details. It also had a new, majestic-sounding title screen song, which the arcade game lacked. So far, so good.

Then I started playing it, and that’s when disappointment set in. I mean, it wasn’t bad and I still played it endlessly for weeks on end, but when so much of Space Harrier‘s appeal is in its visuals, it’s easy to be let down. When you stop and think about what they achieved, however, on hardware that was never designed to do this, Sega pulled off a small miracle. It might not be as fast or pretty as the arcade original, but it still plays, looks, and sounds good in its own right.

One of the things that made the Master System version stand out was the exclusive final boss, Haya Oh. The first time I got to it, I was so surprised, because I was expecting the lackluster “The End” from the arcade game. In addition to it having an intense and memorable music track, it provided a good challenge and was a nice example of developers adding extras to the home versions. It also had a surprisingly lengthy epilogue hinting at a sequel, so that obviously got my attention. That sequel came in the form of 1988’s Space Harrier 3-D, but I never did play it because I didn’t have the SegaScope 3-D Glasses. I remember wanting them bad — real bad — but I think it was the limited game library for it that never made me ask for them.

As the Sega Genesis’ release date drew near in late-’89, so did that of Space Harrier II. With the Genesis being a 16-bit videogame console, and early signs looking terrific with strong entries like Ghouls’n Ghosts and Thunder Force II, I wondered if this would be the era for my beloved Space Harrier to come home in all its glory. Even though the review of it in EGM was very average, I still wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt.

20140602_sh2_titleOh, how wrong I was. Not only did it have an absolutely awful and generic title screen — seriously, what is that? — but the music was a complete downgrade except for the main theme, which was OK, but hardly came close to the classic original. Most disappointingly, the visuals seemed even choppier than the Master System version. The sprites were nice and big, and the scrolling playfield now shifted perspective, but the objects scaled poorly, and the artwork overall was very generic.

This was not what I was expecting out of Sega’s brand-new console, and it goes down as one of the most disappointing games on the Genesis for me. It would be another 6 years before I would reunite with the series, this time on the infamous Genesis 32X add-on.

20140602_sh_32xDespite its lackluster software lineup and hideous design, I bought a used 32X in late-’95, and it came with the only two games I would ever play on it: Space Harrier and After Burner.

Although the 32X version of Space Harrier suffers from some frame drops when there’s a lot going on, it’s one of the better ports. It controls well, and for all intents and purposes, looks and sounds exactly like the arcade version. I just couldn’t stand the 32X itself, and after only a few weeks with it, I sold it.

As I mentioned earlier, an even better version of Space Harrier would be released shortly thereafter in ’96 for the Sega Saturn under their Sega Ages label, and that’s the one I still have. At long last, what I consider to be an arcade-perfect version of one of my favorite arcade games now exists, looking and playing beautifully at home. I would spend additional money to buy the Saturn Mission Stick for an even closer approximation of the arcade experience. It was glorious, taking me back to that fateful day at Disneyland.

When I think about it, the reasons why Space Harrier was such a big influence on me seem superficial. It first and foremost came down to the graphics. For a game that’s pushing nearly 30 years in age, it still looks fantastic to me. It was really unique at the time to be playing a shooting game where you were flying forward, with enemies and obstacles coming at you at breakneck speeds. It has a terrific sense of style, with bright colors, individual stage names, amazing sound, a wide variety of enemies and bosses, and rewarding twitch gameplay. Successfully navigating one of its accelerated stages is still a tremendous rush.

It might be a one-trick pony, but it does that one trick exceptionally well. Perhaps one day I will own that elusive sit-down cabinet, too.