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.
As 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.
While 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!
As 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.
The 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!
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!
I 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.
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.
However, 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!