Fathers’ Day is something of a double-edged sword these days.
On the one hand I’ve discovered the inexpressible joy of being an almost-two-year-old’s favourite thing in the world. The way he enthuses “Daddy home!” and demands “Daddy uddle [cuddle]” with such satisfaction, expectation and frequency can’t help but buoy your spirits. Which is good because when I allow myself to stop and consider it – and Father’s Day provides a most suitable opportunity to do so – the gradual disappearance of my own Dad at the hands of progressing dementia is a well of plentiful sorrow and occasionally terrifying reflection.
My Dad was for me what I try to be for my little boy: loving, kind, gentle and wise. He was always interested in my thoughts and ready to be involved in my doings; be they building and flying kites, kicking a ball, riding bikes and skateboards or going in search of second hand bargains to add to our growing SNES game collection. Sadly for me, though perhaps more so for my three younger siblings who don’t remember the caring Dad of my childhood, mental illness started to lead him away as I became a teenager. Many subsequent years of depression rooted in the bitter inability to cope with work and home life cast a pall over the rest of the family, and it is to Mum’s eternal credit that almost two decades on we’re all pretty functional individuals and have remained a tight-knit unit. Dad’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis might have come a decade or so too late, but at least there’s a bit more smiling going on now that the treatments are targeting the cause and not just the effects of his illness. Hopefully that manages to continue in the tough times that still lie ahead.
As a bit of reminder that things weren’t always this way, this period around Fathers’ Day seemed like a good chance to reminisce over some of the SNES games that have long resided on our shelves and that brought Dad and I a great deal of shared joy back in the day.
Activision’s Super Strike Gunner was an early favourite of the SNES generation. Much in the vein of the arcade classic Raiden and similar high adrenaline aerial shooters, ‘Strike Gunner’ saw you battling innumerable hordes of high-tech enemies over a series of vertically scrolling backdrops. You and your partner start the game controlling something resembling futuristic F-16s, and likely inspired by the Middle Eastern conflicts of the time there were the desert, jungle and ocean levels to navigate (read: destroy everything that blinks). As evidenced by their ability to magnetically combine at the click of a button (useful for annoying your partner at moments of high stress) ours were no standard fighter planes and the battle soon proceeded into the stratosphere and beyond. From memory the final showdown involved more deadly-laser-beams-per-inch and a greater risk of epileptic fit than anything I’d ever seen on a home console, and overcoming it with your Dad as wingman (never the other way around) was the second most satisfying outcome possible. The only thing capable of surpassing that glorious, victorious moment was pressing the magical summoning button that yanked Dad’s fighter across the screen, laughing madly in anticipation, then releasing him helplessly into the surrounding flood of enemy missiles. But what kind of son would do that to their dear father… repeatedly…
Another co-op shooter in which our father-son partnership expended many an ammo crate was Konami’s Super Probotector: Alien Rebels (released in the US as Contra III: The Alien Wars). ‘Probotector’ is a futuristic, side-scrolling affair with things to dodge, things to shoot and big bosses to dodge then shoot. Not surprisingly the explosions and flashing lights factor is set to STUN from the very outset, though it was the unexpected and innovative top-down levels that really impressed. As with Super Strike Gunner before it, subtlety and character development don’t feature particularly strongly in the Probotector universe, but anyone who looks at the cover art then continues with inserting the cartridge and turning on the power switch has to have accepted this fact at some basic level of consciousness.
I had a few minutes to kill recently and sought out Super Probotector for old times’ sake. I’d like to blame the game for somehow diminishing in stature over the last 18 years, but perhaps I should have known that tackling this on single player wouldn’t, and couldn’t, conjure the familiar old magic.
Some of the games in our SNES library evolved from being favourites of Dad and myself to holding a special place for all us kids. Sunset Riders is yet another arcade port shoot-em-up from Konami, but one with a liberal dose of character, courtesy of its gaudy take on the Wild West. The vibe is very much Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but with more horses and ponchos, and less sewers. Come to think of it, Konami’s TMNT: Turtles In Time release could almost be the same game with a few new sprites. Now that’s efficient game development! You also have to commend Sunset Riders’ sound designers for their use of recorded speech at key moments such as boss fights, even if the technical limitations of the era meant that the subtitles were a necessary backup for unintelligibly distorted voice samples. I guess the arcade machines had a bit more audio processing grunt than the fun-sized SNES console. What all of this quality game design meant for our family was the introduction of a lighthearted, accessible, generation bridging game to have a laugh with, which is entirely the opposite of Super Bomberman.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that there has never been another series of games that has caused as much explosively entertaining conflict within our family as that of the Bomberman. If you are unfamiliar with these old school (they harnessed the Super Multi-Tap peripheral for revolutionary four player action, pre-N64!) Nintendo party games, Bomberman’s complexity is roughly on par with Tetris* or eating toast. Your goal is to blow up the blocks barring you from your opponents’ corners of the map and try to trap them with your bombs before they trap you. The action is fast-paced, often culminating in you meeting your untimely end in entirely unexpected and hilarious fashion. That must be how our youngest sibling won so many of her games. Sorry Em, you just got lucky.
Whilst these precious days of blasting away at things with some combination of Dad and my brother or sisters may be locked in the past, new opportunities around the other end of life’s spectrum are opening up daily. Last week I was blown away to see that my almost-two-year-old can identify which folder on the iPad contains his games and knows to wait while his selection loads. What the!?!
On the back of this revelation I put a good deal of consideration into the following facts:
- He now demonstrates a surprising level of technical literacy,
- He loves animals, and
- He loves bright colours.
Our course of action was obvious, and I’m pleased to report that my little man’s training in the fine tradition of Donkey Kong Country has officially begun. After a couple of short sessions he’s mastered jumping, rolling and making DK and Diddy high five each other. One day soon he’ll work out the whole D-pad for movement thing and that’s when the L-plates are really off. He’s growing up so quickly!
Good thing he’s got me to help him attain these important life skills…