The Origin of a Species: HMXers’ First Video Games (Part 1)

Carolyn VanEseltine is a web QA tester at Harmonix.  When not searching for ways to break the website, she often plays and writes interactive fiction.  For this, she thanks her father, who introduced her to Colossal Cave Adventure at a young and impressionable age, and also Will Crowther and Don Woods, who wrote the darn thing in the first place.

There was a day before I played my first computer game.

...I don’t remember it.  I’m fairly sure it existed, though.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by people who do remember their first video games.  Not only that, but I’m surrounded by people who get a weird, misty light in their eyes as they think back to their first fond memories of Mario, Zelda, or Pong.   This is not a criticism; I get that weird, misty light in my eyes, too.  It’s either due to nostalgia or possession, and, considering how many people are playing Ghostbusters at Harmonix, I’m betting against a supernatural cause.

Why do our first video games inspire such nostalgia?  For many Harmonixers, those games were the first step on a long road that defined our hopes, dreams, and careers.  Consider these experiences:

  • “I was around 6 years old playing Pong on my brother's Telstar console. Double paddles, whoa!  Then, there was a spell in the early ‘80s where I played a lot of Tempest, Pac-Man, Galaga, Defender and Leisure Suit Larry.  I wasn't really into games that much until the late ‘90s.  The on-ramp to serious gaming for me was Quake and 007 Goldeneye, which lead me to the games that literally changed my life... Half Life and Unreal.  Man, I was so addicted to the original Unreal & Unreal Tournament.  It was that time I got into the gaming industry.  Games today are just out of control compared to what I grew up with.” - Jeff Carroll, Senior Artist
  • “The first game I had was Super Mario Bros. At the time, I thought of it as though it were an interactive cartoon. My dreams of entering fantasy worlds and saving the day were given form. At first, every jump would end in the red-capped plumber meeting his end, but as I grew accustomed to the controls, Mario became an unstoppable force. World after world, castle after castle, I was filled with a sense of wonder at what was next.

    The more I played Super Mario Bros. and the games that followed, the more I fell in love with video games. I wanted to know more about why these worlds were created and who created them. I poured over countless interviews, news and previews through the years until I decided that I wanted to work in the industry that had given me so much. Years of failed interviews and attempts ended one day when I got the call that I would be working at Harmonix. Finally, I would get to work on games that would give others the same sort of joy that Mario gave to me.”
    - Steven Bailey, Senior QA Tester

Admittedly, others are less uplifted by early gaming memories.  When asked about his first game, another Harmonixer was quite terse.

  • “F***ing Oregon Trail.” - Aaron DeMuth, Artist

Some less-terse respondents also had frustrating experiences.

  • “The year was 1980-something. The system was the COLECOVISION.  The game was THE SMURFS - to this day, the worst gameplaying experience I've ever had. As I recall, you play a smurf, and you've gotta find Gargamel's castle and get Smurfette back.  The first obstacle you are faced with is a tuft of grass over which you, the smurf, need to jump. About 3 times out of 10 I'd make it over that tuft (the other 7 I would die an unrelatable grassy death) then be faced with a fence which you are tasked with jumping over.  Again, incredibly hard to jump over, and I don't think I ever actually made it past this second obstacle.

    Soon I moved on to more exciting things like Zaxxon and the Strawberry Shortcake game, but the Smurfs remains my first, and most frustrating, foray into the world of gaming.” - Eric Pope, Community Moderator
  • “My first games were on a Mac Plus:
    - Dungeon of Doom
    - Scarab of Ra
    - Dark Castle
    I beat none of them.”- Devon Newsom, Composer / Sound Designer

These were our first games.  If they were frustrating, it may be (as with the Smurfs) because the game was very hard... or it may be because we were very young.

  • “A lot of games frightened me as a kid.  I remember thinking that The New Zealand Story was TERRIFYING, as was Barbarian for the Commodore 64.  Even the games we played in school together would scare me. A witch would appear if you made a wrong move and I was so scared that I had to go play by myself in the little fake kitchen that we had set up in the classroom. But the first games I could actually get through were Alex Kidd in Miracle World for Sega Master System or Batman for the Commodore 64.  That system was SO awesome.”- Phillip Hunt, Operations Associate
  • “The first game that I remember fondly from my father's giant stack of floppy disks was Police Quest 1.  I have no idea how old I was when I started playing, probably about 6 or 7, and I had no idea that you were able to actually save the game and load it up later. Due to this oversight on my part, most of my game sessions consisted of me completing the boring tasks in the beginning of the game, getting in my car (making sure to completely inspect it beforehand!), and driving away from the police station. The world was mine!  I could freely roam around the city for about 2 seconds until I ran a red light or smashed head first into another car.

    Also, I typed a lot of naughty words like ‘poop’ and ‘fart’ into the console, only to be returned a confused ‘Huh?’ or ‘You can't do that here.’  I was quite the rapscallion when I played Police Quest.” - Tom Peterson, QA Tester
  • “Scarab of Ra on the family Mac Plus in my basement.  For hours and hours.  The noise that they used to indicate you'd been ‘booby trapped’ used to make me jump.  (I was a jumpy child.)” - Rachel Johnson, Administrative Assistant

For many of us, these first games were not only first steps toward a future career, but moments strongly associated with family members.  When we think back, we’re not just thinking back to Mario, but to the parent, sibling, or grandparent who first showed us how it all worked.

  • “I had an older brother who was already a huge gamer, and at that time, my dad was a gamer, too, so I started playing games before I was toilet trained.  At the time, the Atari 2600 was the system of choice and... well, I'm trying so hard to convince myself that this isn't true, but I'm pretty sure the first game I played on it was E.T.  Thankfully, Nintendo wasn't far away from entering my household, and then all was fixed by then.”- Tom Brown, QA Tester
  • “When I was very young my Dad would take me to arcades and stand me up on a milk crate in front of my game of choice.  The first one I remember was Dig Dug.  From there, I moved on to Marble Madness and Moon Patrol.

    It was at that point we got a ColecoVision. This was how I was introduced to the isometric world of Q*bert and the chartreuse & vermilion world of Mr. Do! Can I blame that little clown for being at least partially to blame for my lifelong addiction to tiny worlds on glowing screens?”
    - Joshua Dieckmann, QA Tester
  • “The first one that I can really remember was Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom for the ColecoVision Adam, back when games came on audio cassettes (that's right, audio cassettes).  Other early games included Smurfs (also on the ColecoVision), Super Mario Bros. (when my grandparents gave me an NES at the ripe old age of five), and Legend of Zelda.  My mom was the neighborhood expert on this one, buying an NES Advantage for herself to play it and prompting more than a few of my friends to call her for help with certain parts. - Chuck Alessi, Senior QA Tester
  • “My father was a programmer for IBM and a hobbyist game programmer on the side.  By the time I could hold my own head up, I was already rooted at a keyboard.  The first game he introduced me to was an ASCII game where you flew a spaceship from left to right and attempted to save users while dropping bombs on IBM.  I think my father had aggression issues.

    That game was a little too complicated for me, so we switched to Donkey.  Donkey was a game where you were a little car on a two-lane road, flipping lanes to avoid a massive plague of asphalt-loving Equus Asinuses.  Years later, this would turn out to be a pretty good metaphor for driving in Boston.” - Chris Canfield, Playtest Analyst
  • “This is difficult to answer when I always remember having video games in my life.  The most memorable first is me playing Circus Atari with my father (it's the most awesome paddle game ever released for the Atari).” - Roger Hanna, Software Developer
  • “My first video game was Tetris for the NES. To this day, I have yet to beat my Grandma at it....”- Alex Gold, QA Tester
  •  “My brother had this badass handheld Dungeons & Dragons game, and it was the closest I came to a console until I earned, though hard labor, the Sega Master System seven years later (Space Harrier!).” - Matt Derby, Senior User Experience Designer
  • “When my family got its first PC, I must have been like 7 or 8.  My dad taught me how to use the command prompt and open a video game with two gorillas on top of buildings throwing bananas at each other.  You controlled the angle of the throw and the force used to propel it at your enemy. Those were the good days.” - Estevan ‘Milo’ Martinez, Web QA Tester
  •  “I think I was six when my family got the Atari 2600. My dad and I would play Pac-Man for hours and hours. The sound effects from that version of the game - the strange touchtone notes that begin each level, the various abstract bleeps and bloops accompanying the consumption of dots, power pellets, and ghosts - carry a very specific nostalgia for me.

    We built up a pretty good library of Atari games, and the Activision titles tended to be my favorites, especially Pitfall and River Raid. They laid the foundation for what would eventually be a bona fide love affair with the NES.” - Rob Weychert, Artist
  • “My mother played and beat the original Legend of Zelda while I was in the womb.” - Tim Cook, QA Lead

In part 2 of this article, you’ll get to hear a “my first video game” story with malaria in it.  (Bloodborne parasites!  What could be better?)  Until then, why not tell us about someone who first introduced you to video games?  Leave your tales in the comments or the forums.  We’ll look forward to reading them!

Happy gaming!