Features: Things We Miss About the 8-Bit Era

It's the little things that count

Today, the virtual reality experience of the Wii is as immersive as Lawnmower Man director/writer Brett Leonard ever could have hoped, with Mario as real and in-person as an actual member of our family and special effects so vivid that we compulsively hold our breath during underwater levels.

Okay, maybe things haven't changed that much. And with such advents as the Virtual Console and its predecessor, the Classic NES Series for Game Boy Advance, as well as the return of classic gaming in such titles as New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mega Man 9 and Sonic the Hedgehog 4, it seems that either the nostalgic hopes of retro gamers have reached Nintendo executives' ears or that those gamers have begun to design games themselves.

But as reminiscent of the old days as Retro City Rampage and BIT.TRIP RUNNER are, there are some things they'll never be able to bring back. They're the little touches that, while seemingly inconvenient, make us feel at home. Here are the things to which, with a tearful eye and limp Power Glove, we've had to wave good-bye.

Blowing into the cartridge

Why is Paperboy missing a head? Is Mario supposed to be made of seemingly random numbers and letters? How long is this blue screen going to last before the game starts? In our more innocent days we asked ourselves these questions, but it wasn't long before we became familiar with the effects of dust on a disc. The solution? To forcefully blow into the cartridge, then the system, and then the cartridge again to make sure, and finish it off by clicking it into and out of the NES a few times. The scratched CDs of today just can't match the comic effects and homebrew solutions of the cruddy cart.

Many today remember this less as a preventative measure and more as an essential step of the process. It was necessary so often that it just became second nature to blow into the cartridge. It was almost as if our very breath, our inner essence, was the secret ingredient to make the magic of video games come alive. Perhaps we're waxing idealistic, but we'd like to think that this came naturally to our wonder-filled childhood minds.

The cartridge itself

Bulky. Sturdy. You could put it in your pocket, you could throw it around a room, and you never had to worry about a scratched data layer. You could stack them up and see all the names on the side – which, of course, you can still do with disc cases, but more often than not, space-conserving binders have made this a thing of the past. Nintendo would cling onto these through the Nintendo 64 era, while Sony and Sega had already switched to CDs, for their infinitesimal loading times – but we'd like to think that they were reluctant to let go of toss-the-cart a bit as well.

Holding down Reset to make sure that Zelda saves

You're done playing? You don't want to lose your file, do you? Then you'd better hold Reset down as you turn it off. Does it really work? Do you really want to find out the hard way?

Really, really bad translations

These days, one slip and the entire gaming community is laughing at you, but there was a time when this was far from the truth. Bad English was a common occurrence in video games, a fact that Nintendo arguably pays tribute to with the "Shine Get!" screen in Super Mario Sunshine. Here's some of our favourites:

"A winner is you"Pro Wrestling

"Congraturation. This story is happy end. Thank you. Being the wise and courageour kinght that you are you feel strongth welling in your body. Return to starting point. Challenge again!"Ghosts 'N Goblins

"I feel asleep!!"Metal Gear

"Conglaturation!!! You have completed a great game. And prooved the justice of our culture. Now go and rest our heroes!"Ghostbusters

"Contact missing our Grey Fox!" – Metal Gear

"On the planet 'Farmel' they had the gloriest days for two centuries, since the stardate had established."Air Fortress

"The truck have started to move!" – Metal Gear

Passwords

Done with Metroid for now? That's alright, just type in 018000 020000 04GA00 0000XG next time you start. Make sure that you can tell the difference between a zero and the letter "O". Is that a G or a 6? Is it exactly right? You got the right number of zeroes? Are you sure? You'd better quadruple-check, just in case.

Game Genie: The "Code" Part of Cheat Code

Before cheat codes were so much a normal part of a game as to appear in the pause menu, there was the Game Genie, a magical device that you'd attach to your game and plug into the console. Before it started, you were treated to a simple display of letters and three lines of blank spaces in which to put them. With your trusty Code Book at your side, as well as the supplemental issues that you could opt to have mailed to you when more codes were discovered, you'd input set combinations of characters and your game would magically become a lot easier. Infinite lives and infinite health were no brainers, but this little device could seemingly break into any area of a cart's coding and screw with it. Ever wanted to play Mario with moon gravity? Just input YAZULG. What about making it so that "Everyone can jump high!" in Friday the 13th, as the codebook put it? That'd be GAEUZIAE. Ever wanted to wear a red ring in Zelda? OSKUILTA.

Best of all, the more creative gamers could try their hand at inventing codes of their own by inputting random sequences of characters and seeing what they did. How else could you make Goombas act like weird springy Jellyfish, eliminate all of the game's moving platforms or end up in a mysterious set of levels that killed you automatically? Ok, so it doesn't sound like much, but it sure was cool when something worked.

The best part of this and of all other cheat codes was that they actually felt like codes. You weren't just unlocking a feature that the designers had intended to be in the game, you were breaking into the software itself, messing with the actual letters and numbers that lay behind the pixels. Today, everything fits together so tightly, perfectly and complexly that we simply marvel at the advanced technology rather than try to understand its ingredients, but back then, anyone could be an amateur hacker.

Tip Hotlines

"Hi, how do you beat Bowser in Mario 3? Oh, you just let him pound the ground and fall through? Ok, thanks. No, I don't mind the charge, my parents pay it. What's the difference between an 800 and a 900 number again?"

America Offline

One commonality of all the above features is that you had local knowledge, and only local knowledge, at your disposal. You heard from a friend that blowing into a cartridge was a good idea while another told you that it was actually bad for the game. You had to collect all of your custom Game Genie codes and passwords on actual, physical paper or in the standard "Notes" section of a game's instruction manual. Best of all, you would stumble on things, like the secret level select in Mickey Mousecapade or the Warp Whistle in Super Mario Bros. 3 (unless, of course, you saw The Wizard).

It's because there was no internet to rely on: no database of cheat codes, no message board of spoilers and no YouTube playthroughs. All you had was your down-home wisdom and the neighbour kid who knew about how to find the Warp Pipe. With global interconnectivity came the loss of a certain innocence and personal connection with your games, something that's sadly lost forever. How cool was it to be the only kid in your group of friends who knew how to beat a certain boss or which block contained a secret vine in Super Mario Bros. to take you up to a super-cool coin-filled area?

Some took advantage of strategy guides and gaming publications, and for these gamers, their sense of discovery lay somewhere between that of the connected Internet user of today and the adventurer described above. Between collecting bookshelves full of the stuff and waiting at the mailbox for the next issue of Ninendo Power, there was a lot more magic and joy than that of the person who knows that if they do happen upon something neat in a game, it's already been publicised a thousand times over on the web.

You just accepted it

Today, developers and publishers brag and boast about their advanced technological capabilities, so much so that any flaw, any stray pixel, inexplicable graphical effect or female GoldenEye 007 character with man-hands is immediately screen-captured and dispersed among the Internet.

Not so back in the 8-bit era. Back then, you never questioned why half of the characters in the Paperboy crowd scene were missing limbs. Or why the exact same villagers appear in every town in Zelda II. Or why all the characters in Punch-Out!! were over-the-top cultural stereotypes. Or why you were often forced to just go with no explanation at all of your objectives or a map to guide you. Or why every world in Super Mario Bros. ended with rescuing Toad, but seemed almost like Toad was playing a practical joke on you – how many times can Bowser kidnap this guy? Or why suddenly one of the characters in Double Dragon III was named Bimmy instead of Billy. Or why the characters on the box looked nothing like the characters in the game and, even when they did, they were often fighting monsters you'd never fight in locations you'd never visit. Today, the Mega Man box art is a running joke... but it wasn't back then. In retrospect we laugh, but back then, we just accepted it.

R.O.B.

We've seen some odd peripherals in our times, but R.O.B. takes the cake. This plastic disc-stacking robot would... stack pieces of plastic... in a way that kind of corresponded with what was happening on screen. We have to remember how cool it once was to even imagine that something you could do with a controller could affect what was happening on your television, but surely Nintendo could have thought of a better way to channel this. Not surprisingly, very few games took advantage of this odd little guy, and he soon faded into obscurity.

100% complete? Does not compute!

We're going to let Philip J. Reed have the floor, as he's written quite eloquently on this subject.

I wouldn't beat every game. It just wasn't possible, sometimes. You'd resign yourself to the fact that you owned (or rented) a game that you would not, under any circumstances, be able to finish.

Eventually I proved myself wrong on many of them, but that's almost beside the point. There was no question. We all owned Mega Man as a kid, but we were all impressed with anyone who could make it to Wily's Castle, let alone finish it. It was enough just to play the game, and to enjoy it.

Today there's an inordinate amount of expectation placed on being able to finish a game, to the point that gaming forums erupt in arguments when people feel cheated by a game that they can't complete. For some reason, difficulty has become a crime in the gaming world...unless, of course, there's an easy mode included. It's bizarre. Bozos spit venom if you dare to suggest that completing a game is not a necessary component of enjoying it. To some, that closure is essential in order to feel satisfied.

That's a symptom of a much easier world of gaming that's evolved, I think. In the NES days, many games still didn't HAVE endings, and those that did... well... you weren't likely to see them. But that didn't mean we didn't love the games. If anything, we loved them more. The difficulty kept us rapt, riveted, and attentive in a way that games today (on the whole) simply do not.

The Power Glove

It's so bad.

If you thought today's commercials were poor...

This pretty much sums it up.

Thanks to Mat Allen, Darren Calvert, Jacob Crites, Ron DelVillano, Andrew Donaldson, Dave Frear, Damien McFerran, Philip J. Reed, Desiree Turner, Marcel Van Duyn, and Jon Wahlgren for contributing to this article.

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