Aug 11, 2015

Eulogy for a Console, Part 3: XBox

This is the final entry in this three part series about parting ways with my first consoles.

I have moved away from my home town (more on that later) and that meant taking the opportunity to clear out the closets and rid myself of stuff I didn't foresee using much anymore. As a result I've recently sold my three oldest consoles. Now this was a pretty big deal as I've had them all since I was in school, however even I had to admit to myself that if I hadn't played with any of them in, at least, eight years, I wasn't likely to pull them out and play with them again in the foreseeable future.

A Rough Start

So, as a Sega kid and lifelong Mac user, how did I react to the announcement of the Xbox? "With poise and dignity?" you ask? Why no, of course not! When I found out that the house that build Windows was going to be releasing a console of its own, I had a full on nerd-rage flip out. I mean out of my chair, screaming at the computer, full on flip out. I was, thankfully, home alone when it happened.  

There was a lot of talk at the time. Gamers wondered how a company like Microsoft could compete in a market based on fun. I tried to remind the doubters amongst my friends that we all thought the same thing when Sony through its hat in the ring and that seemed to be going pretty well for them. So what changed my mind? Well, it wasn't a day one purchase that's for sure. The big green-black box had to win me over and the Sega fan still living in me actually had a lot to do with it. You see, by the time the Xbox was released, Sega had canceled the Dreamcast and pulled out of the console business and I knew I would have to throw my bucks behind another horse. What swayed me to look at the Xbox was how many beloved Sega franchises seemed to have migrated over the the big X. Heck, even the original Xbox controller kind of looked like it had swallowed a Dreamcast gamepad whole.
For whatever reason, the popular nickname for the beast of a controller, "The Duke", never reached us back when we were actually playing games using the behemoth, so we had taken to calling it "Shamu". Thankfully, Microsoft had released a smaller redesign of the controller by the time I bought my Xbox, so rarely have I had to suffer the forearm pain of using one of the beastly things.

My House or Yours?

I'm not going to win any originality awards by saying this but, yes, getting to play Halo: Combat Evolved at home was the major deciding factor when it came to which console was going to succeed by beloved Dreamcast. The truth is that I had, as a Mac gamer, been a huge fan of Bungie games for years but playing Halo for the first time, cooperatively, at a friend's place, on a rented Xbox was the moment I knew the Xbox had to be mine. Admittedly, given how much they cost at launch, that wouldn't be for another year or so.

As much fun as I've had playing and replaying the game on my own, all my fondest memories of Halo involve playing with friends. My introduction to the game was to play it cooperatively, my friend and I barking orders at each other to watch the other's "six". By college, we were throwing parties with the sole intention being to system-link as many Xboxes (Xboxen?) together and to as many TV sets as we could get into one house to have epic, day long, sixteen player LAN parties. This tradition continued with the release of Halo 2 with one house in particular becoming the epicentre for Halo parties. That dude's parents were saints to put up with our shouting and jeering until the wee hours of the morning. 

Slice and Dice

I've said many times before that one game on the Xbox granted me some of the most satisfaction I've ever had surmounting challenges in a video game while simultaneously filling me with the most frustration ever inflicted upon me while holding a game controller. That game was none other than the 2004 reboot of Ninja Gaiden. Now, don't get me wrong, I think there is plenty of, what I would consider, bad design in Ninja Gaiden but the action was awesome enough, the cut scenes impressive enough that I suffered through the stingy save points and infuriatingly cheap enemy ninjas with exploding shuriken just to get to the next awesome bit of action. Though some parts of the game really are too frustrating for their own good, the fun bits helped me learn the value of a challenging game. Like I mentioned above, surmounting those challenges, the ones that felt fair, the ones that felt like they were testing my skill and not my patience, well, surmounting those lead to some of the most high five worthy wins I've ever felt playing a video game. The fact that the game looked amazing and made all my PlayStation owning friends jealous certainly didn't hurt either.

Creative Expression

If I'm reminiscing about the good times I've had with my Xbox, I would be remised if I overlooked two games that I enjoyed for dozens of hours if not more, not simply as a player but as a creator as well. Those games were Far Cry Instincts and Time Splitters: Future Perfect. Both were first person shooters, but more importantly, both included robust map editing tools. I worked at Artech Studios at the time and the sound engineer and myself really got into making maps for these games and sharing them with each other to play when we had friends over. Both games were fun, totally competent shooters that each managed to excel in their own way, but it was the ability to create our own maps that made them obsessions. And it was more than just fun, it allowed me to apply the sort of level design lessons I had been learning about from developer documentaries and Gamasutra articles for years. Invaluable experience I was finally able to apply professionally when it came to contributing multiplayer maps to Madball in Babo Invasion with the PlayBrains team years later.

You Never Forget Your First

The Xbox holds a special place in my heart, not only as a gamer but as a professional as well. My second job in gaming after college was for a long standing fixture of the, admittedly small, Ottawa games industry: Artech Studios. I started there as an animator a little less that a year after graduating from college. The game I was to work on was called Raze's Hell which was originally being developed for the PlayStation 2 but had switched platforms to, you guessed it, the Xbox by the time I came on board. So, in fact, the first home console on which I ever worked professionally was the Xbox. Good times too! For a shooter fan like myself to get to work on a shooter, participate in multiplayer play tests and hover around a crew of talented and experienced animators, modellers, programmers and sound engineers (or engineer, as it were) felt like having finally "made it". I learned so much on that project and I like to think we came out of it with a pretty darn fun and unique game too.

Like Father Like Son

I don't know if my dad would self-identify as a gamer. Really, it's beside the point. Even before my brother and I started bringing home video game consoles, my father was buying us, or sometimes himself, games to play on the family Mac. Tetris and Flight Simulator were big ones, Marathon, Wolfenstein 3D and Duke Nukem 3D after that. He still holds a fondness for the Tomb Raider games. Or is that a fondness for Lara Croft? 

Computer gaming is such a solitary affair though, we didn't really get much opportunity to play together. We played together a bit on the Dreamcast, but it's the Xbox over which we really bonded, Halo in particular. One day, after months, never having touched my Xbox, he decided he wanted to try this Halo game I was always playing and saw in it what I did, I suppose. I still remember how he would warn me of upcoming danger as we played cooperatively, seemingly unaware that I had completed the game at least twice as many times as he had, and probably on a harder difficulty level. I still remember when he came home with an impromptu gift of Return to Castle Wolfenstein for me. We would both end up enjoying the game greatly, of course. Must of us probably remember having to fight our siblings for TV time with the game console, not our dads. It gave us something over which to bond, some common ground for conversation. You know, it still does. And it has with my cousins as well, and as my niece and nephew get older, it's becoming one more reason for them to be enamoured with their grandpa.

Onwards and Upwards

Well, that about wraps up this little three parter. I know it may seem silly to get so emotional over what amount to hunks of plastic and wires but it's not really about that is it? No, as I've sat here eulogizing these machines, what I've really been eulogizing are the moments I've had enjoying them and the moments I've shared around them with friends and family. I've got newer consoles now and other devices on which I play games. I continue to have and share great new moments and memories. That being said, I think a part of me will always feel a pang of nostalgia as I think back to the first three consoles I bought.

Controller image from

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