The Laser Guide to Video Games - Introduction









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Introduction: The Autumn Circuit

It wasn't something that I expected to feel, but the strong gust of cool wind brought me back home, facing against a reality I wasn't entirely prepared for. The preceding summer unfolded in a strange series of unlikely paths, some seemed actually real with others felt like they'd been a feverish dream. It was constantly going off on strange adventures where exploration led to unlikely paths. These seemed to collide into each other after several encounters. The wind seemed to blow the haze surrounding me, but the dreams that remained in memory still felt strangely connected, in ways I couldn't explain. After taking those odd journeys outside, circling the parks and forests, it seemed to emerge that something had changed. Rapidly diminishing warmth, the subsiding sunlight and darkening days seemed to slip away. Autumn had definitely made its presence known, the layers of leaves seemed to cover the tracks, the deserted trees no longer offered shadow to hide beneath. A clandestine summer never materialized in other sections. I was hesitant to try and recreate those explorations, it was unclear whether I'd be able to find their location again.

Aside from the imprecise locations, the atmosphere itself felt different. Everything looked felt strangely altered, it was like some type of dream that had never happened. I wanted to find something more permanent, the colder air seemingly awakening a different set of requirements. There wasn't much I could use to prove the events really happened, but there was an unmistakable energy that permeated through the forests. Even in retrospect, there seemed to be a strange sensation that overcame me. Attempting to retrace my steps, felt like a futile gesture. Much of the encounters felt ethereal in the first place, there were no paths to follow or places to go. Most of it would, for the most part, reside in memory. The memories became a little confusing after awhile, overwhelming in their resilience, yet remaining deceptively elusive. Before I knew what was happening, autumn arrived. Its unmistakable scent arriving with the falling leaves and cool rains, marking the change with an inevitably transformed environment.

The cooler, crisper air brought a welcome clarity. I was finally able to focus on important tasks, no longer wandering through unknown partitions of my surroundings aimlessly. I took the time to get acclimated to my new 800 XL computer that had arrived just in time for school. The longer nights were welcome and helpful, providing me with ample time to explore and make progress in its more complicated games. Star Raiders seemed to take temporary precedence over the other, simpler arcade games in the library. I found myself transfixed at first by its hypnotic starfields, brilliantly detailed space ships and most of all the intense battles. There were some really cool effects when you launched a pair of photon torpedoes, destroying the enemy with a single massive shot. Coolest of all was the hyper-warp animation when your ship would go into lightspeed and land at, what I first thought, was a completely random section. When you emerged, you could check the galactic map and see where you landed. However, there were aspects of the game that mystified me. Guiding my ship in the warp sections, where you had to keep your target within the radar had proven particularly difficult for me to get my head around. I'd usually do pretty well within the main game, but warping around to different sectors was confusing and I'd usually find myself lost in an empty section, using a lot of energy. I tried hitting it at random and I could sometimes stumble into something but this was erratic and frustrating. I wasn't giving up and instead determined to figure out the mysterious formula.

It took me several nights of trial and error before I was able to figure out how the tracking system worked. At first, it wasn't exactly clear what was happening, then I noticed something interesting, the second cross-hairs in the center of the screen would veer off the side of the screen, going in directions. When you went on the map, it seemed that there was no relation to where the ship landed when you placed them. The warp screen would appear shooting the ship off-course when you entered the warp screen. After thinking about it for awhile, I finally figured out why this was happening. When the ship was warping, I needed to hold the aiming reticle steady in the center of the screen, to stay on course. If I did this right, my ship would end up in the right section when it emerged from hyper-warp. It wasn't as easy as it sound, and getting the hang of this particularly tricky technique took some effort. I was able to get it working effectively and consistently after several attempts. It took me awhile before I managed to master this aspect, the rest of the game fell into place. Before I knew it, I was clearing out sections, docking with the supply ship and moving up the rankings, quickly gaining enough skill to play on the harder difficulty levels. The hardest part was managing the keyboard commands and joystick action sequences, going back and forth was a matter of timing that I wasn't used to. In some strange way, I appreciated that these quick pivots added to the challenge, since the simpler games on previous systems felt a bit too simple.

It felt like I was still exploring, but the results felt more conclusive. I could measure my progress, using my progress in the game as a guidepost, instead of relying on murky, uneven progress and intrinsically transient encounters that evaporated beneath the sun. I planned my sessions to take advantage of my added skills, deciding in advance how difficult and how long I would be able to play. I tried to focus on specific skills and techniques, managing to make them as productive as possible without wasting time. I didn't always stick to my plan, there were times when I would just let myself blast away somewhat mindlessly and I even took breaks and played simpler games to break up the danger. Occasionally, I'd even skip playing on the computer altogether and just watch television, but these divergences wouldn't last. I'd always return to conquering the increasingly difficult missions of Star Raiders. It took me a couple of weeks but I had the basic mechanics and techniques mastered after much practice and slowly worked my up towards the hardest levels, where there was no room for error.

The smallest mistakes were harshly penalized. Taking on even a few shots would degrade the ship's power dramatically and the more aggressive opponents moved much quicker and fired faster. It could be frustrating at these points, because even minor mistakes made the mission a lost cause before it began. I needed to keep going and prove to myself that I could actually get through it. I had gotten far into the game and wasn't about to give up. It took me a few more nights, and the increasingly cold air seemed to work in my favor, reducing potential distractions and the need to go outside. It took a lot of effort, but I was finaly able to reach the top-level and defeat it largely based on skill and persistence. It had taken a bit longer and been more dificult than I imagined it would be, but it had been worth it. The legendary, hard and complicated game had finally given me the victory I had worked so hard for, and I took a moment to reflect on my minor triumph, allowing myself a moment of satisfaction.

It was a different sensation than the strange encounters from the previous summer had provided. I had achieved something in a realistic sense, persevering and discovering things that didn't seem possible. I found a renewed confidence and relief, I hadn't completely lost my knack and was actually improving in some measurable sense. The game had provided an intense series of challenges but I'd managed to conquer them systematically, without giving up in during the rough patches. This sense of satisfaction didn't last as long as I had expected it to, repeated playthroughs offered diminishing levels of challenge. Soon, I felt like I was only playing out of habit, not excitement. It took me awhile to realize it, but I hadn't made much additional progress, despite my efforts. There was very little left for me to accomplish. After a few days, the nights grew increasingly dark and Star Raiders was no longer the constant companion it had been. I took on more runs, but the appeal gradually diminished as time went on. A few weeks in, I decided not to worry about it and finally took the game cartridge out of its slot. I knew I'd go back to it, but there was little more for me to accomplish. I hadn't lost my desire for challenge, but instead decided that I needed to save my energy. I knew there would be many other games ahead.

- Michael Palisano