Five Quintessential Video Games
By Damon Brown

Video games have become the primary outlet for today’s youth culture and, as a result, have stolen the crown from television viewing and sports—just as hip-hop music has dethroned rock ‘n’ roll. And similar to the way "rock" acts Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock are using rap gods such as Run-DMC in an attempt to make their hip music hipper, video games are utilizing the strength of other mediums and, in the process, turning it into some type of strange, but lovable, monster.

That's why the $20-billion video game industry continues to get larger: It's the control of the Internet, combined with the story-telling of the silver screen. Americans, particularly younger generations, have been weaned on have-it-your-way fast food, flextime at work and, of course, the World Wide Web. Americans are now used to modifying things. We want control, and video games give us the choice—or, as one game designer put it brilliantly, the
illusion of choice—of deciding how the hero lives, how the hero dies and when the show is over.

Unfortunately for both the creator and the player, creating a good game is amazingly difficult because game design requires a structural dynamism that would make the average television or movie producer fall apart. The designer needs to be aware of every possible decision the player can make in the game, while simultaneously making sure that the game is actually fun—no matter what the player's decision happens to be. Again, it is the illusion of freedom, something that few other mediums have to be concerned about. For example, imagine a jazz CD that improvises every time it is played or a home video that changes endings based on your mood.

As a result, many video games are put squarely, or should be, in the dustbin. It's not that game designers today are bad—it's more that, at a couple million dollars a pop, companies are reluctant to make a product about a frog crossing the street (Frogger) or blocks falling from the sky (Tetris). They'd rather make a lukewarm sequel to last year's hit.

However, when companies do try something new and succeed, video games can bring a beauty and completeness unmatched by other arts. It is dynamic and fluid, alive and vibrant. It makes classic mediums such as television and cinema look static and two-dimensional.

Below is an informal, incomplete list of some of the greatest video games ever made. Let's call it the "too" short list of gaming. Note that these games are on systems ranging from the high-powered Microsoft XBox to the battery-powered Hewlett-Packard calculator, showing that beautiful game design is often independent of the game system. These gems represent the best that video games have to offer, and, after playing them, perhaps you'll discover why video games are an obsession in America—and beyond.

Ms. Pac Man (Midway, 1981): Found on almost every video game system, usually via old-school game compilations such as "Greatest Arcade Hits" by Midway. This Pac-Man sequel may not have had the intellectual property following of the first—it was hard not to see the Pac- Man Saturday cartoon, eat the Pac-Man cereal or, worst, hear "Pac-Man Fever" on the radio—but Ms. Pac-Man is, in every aspect, a better game than the original.

As in almost all of the dozen Pac-Man games, the main character is a large yellow dot with an ever-chomping slice of a mouth—in fact, the designer was inspired by seeing a pizza missing one slice. The Pac character goes around a one-screen maze, eating smaller yellow dots while being pursued by multi-colored ghosts. It is chased by Inky, Blinky, Winky and Sue. They can't go through walls like "regular" ghosts, but they can easily corner our hero.

Visually, the only difference between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man is more color. The butter-yellow in the original's labyrinths was replaced with fuchsia and indigo, and the main character wasn't just a big, yellow dot anymore: she had a bright red bow on her crown to match her lipstick and a black dot for a beauty mole, two years before Madonna but decades after Marilyn.

The real beauty of Ms. Pac Man is how it keeps the original's simplicity while avoiding the boredom its predecessor could create. Like the first, it is literally a game anyone can pick up and play: move the joystick, avoid the ghosts, eat all the dots, go to the next maze. Repeat. However, the incentive is increased by smarter, more aggressive ghosts, changing mazes and cutscenes showing how Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man fell in love.

As one reviewer put it, Ms. Pac-Man is one of those games that is still fresh if you pick it up every five days or every five years. The great part is that it doesn't matter. It's still fun.

Geek trivia: Ms. Pac-Man may have been the first video game to feature implied sex. In one of the between-level animations, which shows Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man falling in love, the power couple are followed by a trail of Pac-Kids. This led to the inevitable sequel called, of course, Baby Pac-Man.

For more info:
*Pac-Man History website: <
*Official website of Buckner & Garcia, "Pac-Man Fever" singers
*Read The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven Kent (Prima Publishing, ISBN: 0761536434)

Super Mario Bros. Series (Nintendo, 1985 - Present): Found on all Nintendo home and handheld systems: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super NES, Nintendo 64, GameCube, GameBoy, GameBoy Color, GameBoy Advance

According to a public survey, sometime in the early '90s a chubby Italian plumber took the reign from Mickey Mouse as the most recognized cartoon icon by American kids. It was official—Mario beat Mickey the octogenarian. Unlike Mickey, Mario wasn't remembered because he was cute and had a high-pitched voice. What intrigued kids, as well as adults, wasn't Mario himself but what he represented—adventure.

The series, started in 1985 with Super Mario Bros. and continuing in 2002 with tentatively-titled Mario Sunshine, is a perfect example of video game excellence. Each game drops the player into a strange and unique world with seemingly unlimited secrets. There are tangible rules, however. Mario's conventional way of defeating enemies is to jump on top of them, but some enemies have spikes on their heads so the player is forced to find an alternative method.

Alternative methods and routes are what the Mario games are all about. Do an Internet search and you'll find tons of sites talking about "Mario Negative Words," "Invisible Bonuses" and "Secret Underworld Levels"—and, of note, the three mentioned items are only referring to the very first Super Mario game. There are more than a dozen Super Mario games and at least two dozen spin-offs.

The original ancient cartridge, sometimes packed with the light gun game Duck Hunt, can be found at garage sales for around a buck. However, you can feel confident playing any game in the Super Mario series. Despite the improved animation and sound found later in the series, the incredible depth of the game has been there from the beginning.

Geek trivia: Mario debuted in 1981's Donkey Kong, the first major Nintendo game released in America. In Donkey Kong, as a result of system limitations, the plumber wears overalls because it was easier to show his red arms on the contrasting color. The original Mario also wears a cap because, in game creator Shigeru Miyamoto's words, "I cannot come up with hairstyles so good." In the newest game, coming in 2002 for the high-powered GameCube system, Mario still wears a cap.

For more info:
*Mario's Mushroom Kingdom: <
*Read Game Over: Nintendo's Battle To Dominate Video Games by David Sheff
(GamePress, ISBN: 0966961706)

Tetris (Various Publishers, 1987 - Present): On virtually any system, including most graphic calculators and handheld organizers.

The main characters in Tetris are variations of five different shapes: a square, a T, an S and two Ls—one uppercase (L) and one lowercase (l). They fall from heaven (though some would argue they come from another extreme...) into a well. The player places the pieces on the ground, twisting them to his or her liking, trying to form a complete, solid line from one side of the well to the other. A completed line, once formed, is eliminated. More pieces then drop from the sky at a faster pace. The above sequence repeats until the well is full and the player fails. Otherwise, the game doesn't stop. Ever.

Tetris, perhaps right after the Tower of Hanoi, is the most addictive puzzle game in history. It started in 1986 as a pet project of Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov, with the bricks represented via text brackets. Evidently that was enough: from 1986 until—technically—now, dozens of major game companies have fought over the Tetris property, including Nintendo, Sega, Atari and Spectrum Holobyte. Luckily, no one company was able to take complete ownership so there are virtually no systems, computer or home, that don't have a version of Tetris.

The real beauty of Tetris is its Zen-like simplicity. It's so easy to be entranced: watching as the colorful shapes fall, the well filling, brick by brick. You complete lines to keep the well empty, which makes the bricks fall faster. And as the bricks drop faster than you can say your favorite explicative, going into a semi-hypnotic trance suddenly becomes a requirement. There isn't any time to think—only time for instinct.

Like other addictive games such as Ms. Pac-Man and Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Tetris is a game that is simple to start and only gets as complicated as you want it to be. Are you going to play cautious and remove every line the moment you can? Or are you going to push it and let the bricks pile up so you can score multiple lines? It's totally up to you, which is what video games are about.

Geek trivia: Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov now works for Microsoft.

For more info:
*The Tetris Taxonomy: <
*Tetris Lovers 2.0: <
*Read Game Over: Nintendo's Battle To Dominate Video Games by David Sheff
(GamePress, ISBN: 0966961706)

The Legend of Zelda Series (Nintendo, 1987 - Present): Found on all Nintendo home and handheld systems: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super NES, Nintendo 64, GameCube, GameBoy, GameBoy Color, GameBoy Advance

Zelda is one of those games that never really ends. Sure, you can "beat" it: navigate the labyrinths, fight the final boss and save Princess Zelda. But what's in that treasure chest on the other side of the village brook you could never get across? Or behind the cave door, blocked by the boulder you were too weak to move? See, you didn't really beat it.

All the Zelda games follow the same basic premise. You play Link, a cute Dungeons & Dragons-esque elf equipped with a shield and sword. Link is out to save the village princess Zelda from an uber-powerful evildoer and his weaker cohorts. Link must defeat the mini-bosses first, each dispatched in his own complex and sometimes hidden labyrinth.

This is typical video game stuff—Zelda doesn't have the most compelling storyline. The beauty of the Zelda series is in the exploration. Almost like a good mystery novel, Zelda requires the player to stretch his or her brain to solve the puzzles. The third Zelda, released in 1992, pitted Link against an invisible enemy in a dim room. The only way to defeat him was to use one of Link's bombs (found earlier in the maze) to blow a hole in one of the walls, letting light in and exposing the adversary. Many game designers have attempted this type of thinking but fumble on the line between easy puzzles and impossible challenges. Zelda never disappoints—in the above example, observant players would have noticed cracks in the back wall of the enemy's layer. The answer was there all along.

Zelda gives the player the impression that when he or she fails, it is the player’s own fault. This is a very simple video game principle in theory and an equally difficult theory in practice, but Zelda has it perfected. Every treasure chest can be opened and every door can be entered, and this has compelled millions of people to play through it just one last time.

Geek trivia: Zelda was the first home system game to have a battery inside its cartridge so players could save their game. Most games before Zelda weren't large enough to necessitate saving one's place, and the few games that were used a tedious letter-and-number password system.

For more info:
*Zelda history site: <
*Official Zelda Website: <
*Read Game Over: Nintendo's Battle To Dominate Video Games by David Sheff
(GamePress, ISBN: 0966961706)

Tony Hawk Pro Skater Series (Activision, 1999 - Present): On Sony Playstation, Sony Playstation 2, Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube, GameBoy Advance, Microsoft Xbox.

Sports games usually don't translate well to video game form, particularly those that emphasize complicated techniques. Tony Hawk Pro Skater—endorsed by the popular sports figure—has succeeded because it isn't trying to be a skateboard simulator but just an addictive video game.

THPS, like most games on this list, does not make the player have a specific, canned experience. The player carves one’s own identity within the alternate universe, going after goals only he or she wants to and getting as serious or as superficial as desired. There are literally months of play value in one THPS game, and each person may have a unique and challenging experience.

It starts simply enough: the player selects one of the ten or so ragamuffin characters, chooses an arena to ride in and just starts skating. The rest is up to you. You can go after specific level goals, which open new arenas and characters. You may opt to do skateboard tricks off the objects in the arena, showboating with complicated tricks to get a better score. Or you can wander aimlessly around the huge arena, looking for quirks and secrets, of which there are plenty.

Players can also try to outskate their friends, and beginning with the recent XBox version, they can do it over the net. Perhaps this will open the way for interactive online gaming that has nothing to do with decapitating your friends, a la violent shooters Epic Games' Unreal or id's Quake series. THPS shows that games can be fun and competitive without getting more gory than a scrapped knee.

Geek trivia: Video games and movie/sport licenses have had a horrible history, the worst case being one of the first: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Sources say that Atari, creators of the seminal Atari 2600, paid more than $20 million for the E.T. license and proceeded to make, by all accounts, a horrible game. Part of the problem was that the programmer/game designer was given five weeks, as opposed to five months, to create a game in time for
the holiday season. Result? Atari took the returned cartridges, estimated to be around five million, and buried them in a New Mexico landfill for tax purposes. Some say, on a quiet desert night, you can still hear E.T. calling...

For more info:
*Official Tony Hawk Pro Skater Video Game Website: <

*Virtually any recent video game magazine: at least four new versions of Tony Hawk are planned for the 2001 - 2002 holiday season.

Still feel out of the loop? Check out this smattering of links:
*Called "The New Yorker of video game sites," My Video Games is one of the few sites to look at the medium in a mature way. It may close soon because of financial difficulty, so enjoy the wealth of articles while you can: <

*Games have been around for 25 years—you have a lot of catching up to do! Start at Classic Gaming, which covers the early days of gaming: <

*Aren't sure which old-school video game character fits you best? Take this Myers-Briggs inspired psychological test: <