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The Undertow                                             Home
A column dedicated to sucking you into the muck and mire of gaming.

Let the Debate Begin!
Monday, June 29, 1998

Welcome to The Undertow, a regular column devoted to anything related to gaming.  You will see NO objective material written here . . . nothing but pure, unadulterated opinion!  If I write something that pushes you closer to that aneurysm you're eventually going to have, don't go bitchin' to GamesFirst! . . . come directly to me!

Since this is round one of what I hope to be a column that goes the distance, let me use this space to spew a little about myself.   Your first question is probably:  "Who the hell is this guy?"   I'm a nobody, just like you; just like everyone else in the gaming scene.   Let's face it, 99% of all people related to gaming are no-name basket cases living on pizza, Coke, and the next chance to fire up the modem so they can connect to their ISP at half their rated speed.  But the question is:  Do you have to be a somebody to have an opinion about games or the gaming industry?  The answer is, of course:  no.   In fact, the more one is removed from the "biz" the more valuable his opinion (I would have included "her" as well, but you'll soon find out I'm far from politically correct).  You see, I'm not tainted by corporate yahoos dressed in suits; nor do I dangle at the end of the almighty strings of the payroll department controlled by public relations.

That tirade aside, let me embark on transforming from a nobody into a somebody . . . at least in your eyes.

I've been a gamer, and I'll define "gamer" in a moment, for about the last 20 years.  Notice I didn't say I was a PC gamer, that's only a portion of what a gamer really is.  A true "gamer" is someone who plays everything and anything, not just PC games.  I didn't become a true gamer until I was 13 (guess that dates me now).  Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was my first sin.  It was 1978, a year after Star Wars was released!  I was hooked.  Look Ma!  I played AD&D and I didn't end up worshiping the devil or becoming a serial killer!

Survey question #1:  So, how many of you guys play chess?  NO, No, no; with another human!?  I thought so.

Name a game since 1978 and I've either played it, tried it, or heard of it.  After awhile, my role-playing focus was primarily on AD&D.  Then I suddenly became a wargaming grognard.  I'm not talking about the tired real time strategy junk that's been inundating us lately, but games played on tables, with boards, and little cardboard counters.  What!?  Playing a game with another human face-to-face?  How novel!  I played almost everything from Avalon Hill and SPI . . . my favorite wargame being the Squad Leader series. I played all genres:   WW II, sci-fi, civil war, fantasy, and medieval to name a few.  I continued playing wargames, mostly Advanced Squad Leader, until just a few years ago.  Finding old wargaming grognards such as myself was just becoming too difficult a task.

During this time, my obsession with the arcade was second to none.  To support my inability to deny the "Insert coin" and "Continue...9...8...7...6?" syndrome, I was forced to work at an arcade.   Due to the fact that I had keys to all the games, my cashflow improved considerably, as did my gameplay.  There were numerous games that I could play all day, including:  Robotron, Defender I & II, Xevious, Q-Bert, Galaga, and Quantum.  In fact, I was a documented world record highscorer on the game Quantum (Atari) as published in Joystick magazine (circa 1983).   Anyone out there remember Joystick?  Thought so.   I'm still a Robotron freak and cannot resist hitting the classics section whenever I go to GameWorks up in Seattle.   With a couple practice games as warmup, I can still roll that puppy over!  I was playing deathmatch at the arcade before most of you were probably in kindergarten.  One of my favorite deathmatch arcade experiences was the 1-on-1 carnage filled action of Super Mario Bros!   I hated the ice levels.  Game over Mario!

Sometime between AD&D and the arcade, the almighty personal computer came along!  Games took some time to catch on due to an initial lack of graphics.  So I cut my teeth on the Infocom classics such as Zork and Wishbringer.   I think my first real obsession with computer gaming was the EA title Starflight.   Wow!  Graphics, interaction with aliens, spaceship combat, planet exploration/combat, and buying/selling of resources and equipment.  Starflight was WAY ahead of its time!  I played it on my trusty amber monitored, XT clone running at the breakneck speed of 8 MHz.  Now that's power!  I also remember playing Star Trek, poker, and a generic golf game at the local university mainframe on hacked accounts and passwords . . . using printer terminals no less.

So, personal computer games have gone from the early text parsed games of yesteryear, to the monster 3D rendered games of today, and I was along for the ride.  The history of computer games that happened during this time is probably known to all of us, so I won't fatigue you further.

Survey question #2:  Okay, an easy one for you old-timers.  How many of you owned the handheld Coleco football game back in 1979 or so?  You know, the one with the LEDs that made little beeping sounds when you got tackled.  I'm certain that one of my junior high teachers still has a drawer full of them somewhere.

In the early 1990s the intellectual crash of gaming occurred.  Collectible card games (shudder).  If only I possessed half the luck of Richard Garfield!  Okay, I played Magic for about a year, and I actually had fun.  But, as a form of gaming it was just a little too much.  I felt sorry for all the people who couldn't afford to buy boxes of cards, or missed all the power cards because they weren't in it from the beginning.  I didn't give a crap about the collecting part.   I collected cards to play!  My most valuable card was a hammered beta Black Lotus that was included in every deck!  In the end I sold all my cards and netted about $4000.  I still have a complete set of the Star Wars CCG, but that's because it's Star Wars!  My wife has sets of the Star Trek CCG, but that's because she's a geek!  Couldn't resist that one.

Enough about my gaming background, and a little more about me.  I'm a mechanical design engineer with a masters degree working in the computer industry for a major microprocessor manufacturer.  Yes, somewhere in that blackhole of gaming I managed to learn something and have a life.  Nope, I'm not a "suit", I wear jeans and sandals to work.  I'm not some unemployed slacker with nothing better to do than express his opinion about computer gaming.  If I'm going to take the time to pound on this keyboard (that I built myself, it's very cool), you better believe it must be about something I think is worth the time and HD space.

So, if you think you're a "gamer", think about what the term "gamer" means.  If you're a PC gamer exclusively, you've been living in your own private Idaho, while I've been out tearing up the whole world.

Here I end the history that is me; now we can get to the task at hand:  gaming.  I'm looking forward a ranting and raving about things both cool and lame . . . and I look forward to hearing from you guys (okay, and gals).

Ding, ding . . . round one over.  See ya next week!

~ Neal Ulen

Drop me an e-mail and let me know what you like and/or dislike about gaming, a particular title, or the industry in general.  As always, all (non-belligerent) criticism welcome!

The Undertow Copyright (c) 1998-99 Neal E. Ulen and GamesFirst!