Monday, July 2, 2012

Top 50: Video Game and Video Game Moment #1

Platform: PC (though I also purchased - and beat - the Playstation version. That one was murder on the fingers.)

Absurdly Specific Genre: Weaponized Vertigo

Difficulty: 5

Beaten: Yes, literally dozens of times (I usually play through and beat it once or twice a year)

I've gone on record (if this meager blog counts as 'on record')  as saying that the N64 era represents the awkward adolescence of video games - both overly nostalgic and of questionable lasting quality. It stands to reason, then, that my favorite game of all time is a blocky, nearly plotless shooter most well known for its vertigo inducing controls and confusing level layouts.

You are....somewhere.
As far as I can tell, though, this isn't pointless nostalgia. I've played through this game many, many times, and I'm reasonably sure I know every secret the game possesses, and it still feels as fresh nearly twenty years later as it did that day that I sat down at my uncle's computer and chose to click on the icon with the little spaceship instead of the one with the guy in the crew cut and sunglasses (it's okay, I gave Duke Nukem a few days later). The level design is wonderful - if a little nausea inducing at times. If Doom had really committed to the 3D concept, I'm still not sure it could've sold it half as well as Descent did. The robot's AIs were years ahead of their time. At a time when enemies were generally meant to be bullet sponges that ran straight at you, you had silent, deadly enemies that stalked you, avoided your missile fire, and generally attempted to not get dead.

Yeah. Silent but deadly. I get it. This dude will still haunt your nightmares.
 The Descent series never seemed particularly popular. Every friend I ever showed it to played it for a while and said "yeah, that's cool, I guess, let's play Doom" (though one or two friends and I did have some epic games held via dial-up). I vaguely remember a couple of commercials for it, but anyone who was playing shooter in the mid-90s was playing Doom or Duke Nukem. Descent ended up becoming a bit of a matter of pride for my brother and I. Here was a game that forced you to use tactics, to plan your assault on a room before you ran in. The fact that no one else seemed to recognize that only made it sweeter.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to segue directly to the number one video game moment...

No spoilers. Don't worry.

My brother and I played Descent hungrily, gradually learning the controls, and learning how to navigate the web of tunnels that made up the mines the player traveled in. Level 6 turned out to be the first actual challenge - robots that shot homing missiles, and those awful robots that shot the Vulcan cannon - but level 7 seemed a lot easier. In no time I had gotten the red key, and made my way to the reactor room.

The sheer size of the room was my first clue that something was amiss. Whereas all of the rooms in the game to this point had been fairly claustrophobic, this one was absolutely massive - and it was filled to the brim with missile shooters and machine gunners. I first became aware of the persistent hum about a tenth of a second before my ship was blown to smithereens. The next run met a similar fate, but at least that time, I was able to see what had caused my doom - a giant yellow robot that fired some completely new kind of weapon at me. Even if I dodged the missile itself, it exploded on contact into a group of green blobs which hunted my ship with extremely fatal precision. I tried to find a reactor, to no avail. This yellow robot stood between me and any chance I had to keep playing this game, and I simply could not overcome it with the equipment I had. If I was going to beat him, I was going to have to scrounge up every possible advantage.

The next two weeks became a frantic scavenging expedition where my brother and I pored over each of the first six levels, trying to find any and all powerups. We learned everything about every nook and cranny, gaining points and extra lives and powerups. Then we began the boss fight.

Which went just about as well as the first time...

We got so used to flying from the beginning spawn point of the level to the boss room that my brother was able to fly backward from front to finish without bumping a wall. We dissected the final room - the strategy it was going to take to take the boss out. Every night for the next couple of days the entire family would gather around to watch the two of us try to beat this thing (I have mentioned in the past that my parents have never really cared for video games as a hobby, but they got invested in our attempts to overcome this one obstacle).

Then it happened. I was able to pummel the big guy just enough to where the telltale '5000' popped up on my score counter. He gave a massive groan and exploded into shrapnel. I had done it.

A split second later, the missile he shot as he died slammed into my side, and to my  horror, it killed me. It was my last life. Mission NOT accomplished.

The next day my brother beat him - this time making it out alive. The day after, I did - both times were accompanied by a literal cheer from everyone in the room. We had prepared for literally weeks for this. We were terrified of what the rest of the game could offer if level 7 brought it that hard. It turned out we had gotten good enough through the repetition of the first six levels that the rest of the game was able to be conquered with comparatively little fuss.

Them my dad got into it. He had never gotten into video games at all, and he had no idea what he was doing, so we set him up with all kinds of powerups and extra lives and set him loose. It took him a good number of days, but he finally beat it. Other than that night of Halo, this is the only time he's ever played any variety of video game. We thought he might catch the video game bug from it, but no, he had just seen the excitement that my brother and I had and wanted to be able to share in just that little bit.

Eventually, beating the boss became fairly easy. I've lost count of the number of times I've played through his room. I generally beat him on the highest difficulty without breaking a sweat now. This spot is purely nostalgia (though I still do love the mechanics of the fight, and the whole thing is actually pretty great level design), but still, it's the high water mark, with the perfect combination of fun gameplay, insurmountable challenge, and collaborative effort. Most of all, though, it represents the joy that this hobby is capable of. At this point, it seems like this one can never be topped (technically, I suppose having kids could change that). It represents everything that video games could ever possibly be to me.


  1. Wow...I don't think I even remember the existence of this game. My brother only had a handful of N64 games, and this wasn't one of them. I had a PlayStation from early on but never knew about this game (or it didn't register, which is possible. It doesn't look like my thing at a glance, particularly at the time).

    Of course, now I'm interested. I wonder if it's available for download on my PS3.

  2. Also have never heard of this one.

    Can we get your total list in summary form?

  3. Descent update: NOT on the PlayStation Network. BAH

    Hmm...I suppose it could be on the Wii Virtual Console, though...

  4. You did. I knew you would. I KNEW this would be #1. I was sitting at my house going over the games in my head trying to figure out, and this is the one I had pegged. Go me. Lol