Games Geek / Technical

Becoming an Accidental Fan

When I was a child, I had an allowance.

I had an interest in Archie comics, so sometimes my $2 per week would go towards an Archie Double Digest, but other times I would save up until I had enough money to buy myself a Nintendo game.

At the time, for you young ones who didn’t know, the games would go for about $50. If you do the math, that’s a long time to wait, but there was always birthday money, some of which I got to spend on what I wanted before the rest was thrown into savings for me, so it wasn’t always interminable until I could get my next game.

But as a child, and probably before I had Nintendo Power to tell me what games were being released, I didn’t always have a game in mind to buy. I just knew that by the time I saved up the money, I would go into the store with my parents and look at the walls of the video game aisle until I found something that looked like what I wanted.

I recall one time seeing a blue box with pock-marked fighter plane shooting through a hole in the sky with a space background behind it, guns blazing and everything. I thought it was an F-15 flight simulator that I had seen an ad for in a really old issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

I was a kid. I didn’t know what an F-15 was. I just knew it was a plane that shoots other planes, and that I wasn’t playing Top Gun at my friend’s house with its incredibly difficult carrier landing sequences. So I thought I was getting another cool shooty-plane game.

It turned out to be Thunderbirds.

I had never heard of Thunderbirds, but I remember really enjoying the game with its various ships in different environments. You only had so many in-game days to fight your way through your choice of different areas to defeat Hood’s plan to rain destruction on the world, and that extra layer of mechanics made an impression on me.

Then I discovered that the game was based off of a television show from the 60s involving marionettes who spoke and made their emotions clear on their faces using “SUPERMARIONATION!” Not to be confused with Super Mario Nation.

It was exciting for me to know that I can enjoy this world in another way, especially when I was in college and TechTV aired the series with a pop-up-video-esque bits of trivia about how the scenes were made or how the characters interacted.

When the Thunderbirds live-action movie was released, starring Bill Paxton and Ben Kingsley, in the summer of 2004, close to my birthday, I tried to arrange an outing to go see it. Unfortunately, when my birthday arrived, I found it was no longer in theaters, due to how terrible it was performing. I still haven’t seen it, although even knowing it is supposed to be bad and that the creator of Thunderbirds hated it, I still would watch it.

What’s even more disappointing was that at the time, Team America: World Police was being advertised, and when I first saw the trailer for it, I immediately thought, “Oh! They’re making a Thunderbirds movie!” And then it revealed it wasn’t Thunderbirds at all. I haven’t seen it, either.

But the point was that buying a game without any idea of what I was getting into was a gateway into a world I didn’t know existed. Every so often the theme music gets stuck in my head, despite the fact that it has been years since I played game or watched an episode of the show, and my favorite ship is still the Thunderbird 2.

I accidentally became a fan because of a somewhat misleading piece of box art.

Another game I bought with my allowance money without knowing what I was getting into was Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. I saw the skeletons with swords and the very cool looking dragon on the cover, and I thought, “Yep, I’ll get that.”

And then found that I didn’t understand how to play. At the time, I might have been 9 or 10 years old, and I was used to games in which you played them and tried over and over to get through. I had no concept of the idea of building up experience and exploring a maze, mapping it out manually as you went because it was too much to try to memorize.

It was years later when I gained a new appreciation for the game, and it became one of my favorite RPGs. At some point, I discovered used copies of NES and Super NES games in the series, and when I discovered Interplay had published The Ultimate Wizardry Archives, which includes the DOS versions of Wizardry I, II, III, IV (in which you play as the villain Werdna from the first game), V, VI, and VII. It also had Wizardry Gold, which was basically Wizardry VII prettied up for Windows.

What’s funny is that despite liking Wizardry and owning every game in the main series, most of these games I only played a little bit. I never finished the first one, and I thought I should do so before moving on to the next. So aside from trying them out, and being somewhat disappointed that the music and graphics from the NES version were missing from the DOS versions, I’ve made these games wait for me.

And then there was Wizardry 8. I remember reading that it was being made, and that Sir-Tech was looking for a publisher.

And then I remember reading that they couldn’t find a publisher.

And then it was years of periodically learning that they still hadn’t found a publisher. I remember one article claiming that while the game would be highly polished due to the extra time the developers have, the graphics engine was going to look dated by the time it found a way to be released.

And then it was released! And I got my copy!

And then I learned that Japan has a huge fanbase for Wizardry, partly because the original developers had the technical foresight to make it easy to translate the text of Proving Grounds. What it means is that the Japanese periodically continued to get new games related to that world, including an MMO, which lasted all of a month when it was available in the US.

Even today, I periodically look up Wizardry in case I learn any new bits of trivia. I enjoyed The Digital Antiquarian’s history of the Making of Wizardry and Jay Barnson’s Wizardry 8 playthrough complete with developer interviews. I remember finding out that there’s a We Love Wizardry album which recreates the NES music with an orchestra, which I am of course listening to right now.

Let’s be clear. I’m a fan of Wizardry, but I feel like I don’t have enough playtime with the series to be a huge fan.

But still. Because I thought swords and skeletons looked neat as a child, I got to become a fan ready to explore entire worlds. And get the theme music stuck in my head out of nowhere.

It’s funny, because today I would be afraid to admit that I bought and played a game sight unseen. With so many games, and so many reviewers, it seems strange to not at least ask someone about a game or to look it up before handing over my money on an unknown.

On the other hand, sometimes it is great to discover a gem on your own, and then to discover that there’s an entire collection of jewels to enjoy that come along with it.