The Origin of a Species: HMXers’ First Video Games (Part 3)

Carolyn VanEseltine is a web QA tester at Harmonix. When not searching for ways to break the website, she often reminisces about arcade games encountered on family vacations. For this, she thanks her brother, who was always willing to sneak off and play Bubble Bobble or dump a few more quarters in Street Fighter II.

Many Harmonixers, as mentioned in Part 1 of this series, were lucky enough to have parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles who encouraged them in discovering video games. Others were less fortunate, as mentioned in Part 2, and had family members who discouraged them or just failed to understand the core concepts involved.

For those HMXers, discovering video games was not as easy. But somewhere in the neighborhood, there was usually That One Kid who had the PC before anyone else, or the NES, or the Atari....

  • “The first game I can recall playing is Rogue for the IBM PC. My friend had it and I'd go over his house to play it all the time. Who would have thought that mashing the space bar while looking at colored letters moving on a screen could be so much fun!” - Tim Dwyer, Community Moderator
  • “Though we had the Atari 2600, and most of my friends had the NES, the first video game that really mattered to me was Quest For Glory for the PC. You had to type in the commands to your character (who YOU were able to create!) to get him to do anything, but me and my friends were blown away by the free-form (for the time) adventure style. I've been totally hooked on adventure RPGs ever since.” - Damian Boyar, Operations Associate
  • “The unfortunately named Jet Set Willy on my friend's ZX Spectrum, which seemed like an amazing thing back in the ‘80s. Pixel perfect platform hell, but totally addictive.” - Kelly Scott, Senior Artist
  • “I first played Kung Fu for the NES at a friend's house, and if I remember correctly, it was about mid-September. My birthday was that December, and I got my very own NES. I didn't get Kung Fu when I got the system, but once I'd played Super Mario Bros., I never looked back.”- Brian Imhausen, Senior QA Tester

There are some interesting variants on That One Kid, too. In one case, That One Kid had... the MIT Server?

  • “My neighbor's dad was an MIT professor, so we would dial into the MIT server and play Rogue, and later Angband, these amazing ASCII dungeon crawl games. These are seriously geeky, I know. But the truth hurts sometimes....” - Caleb Epps, Composer / Sound Designer

And at least one of us got to be That One Kid.

  • “We got a Pong console in the late ‘70s. I think it played 4 games. Man, we were the coolest kids in the neighborhood.” - Kurt Davis, Office Manager

Not everyone discovered video games so close to home. Some Harmonixers discovered them further afield.

  • “My first video game was probably the original, text-based Star Trek game that used to be played on big, bulky mainframe computers. They had a mainframe computer and a bunch of terminals set up at the Boston Children's Museum so kids could try out Hunt the Wumpus and Tic Tac Toe in thrilling white-letters-on-black-screen-o-vision. Pretending to command the Enterprise in a little 8-by-8 grid was all it took to get me hooked. I hear that these days, you can even make video games about things that AREN'T Star Trek! (But why would you?)” - Chris Foster, Project Director
  • “The first video games I played were in the arcade, and if you count them, those LED based handhelds they had that played football, juggling, etc. I spent a ton of time in the arcade, so much so that the attendants gave me my own key to tune up the Track and Field machine when the buttons were going faulty. My first console was the Atari 2600, and my first computer was the TI-99/4A; good times. I moved up to an Apple IIc next, then to an Amiga, and finally to the PC. Owned most of the major consoles as well.
    Some of the really early but influential games for me included Rescue Raiders (IIc), the Proving Grounds (early BBS), Pitfall (made it to the end), Munch Man (better than Pac-Man game for the TI-99/4a), Wizardry (IIc) and Archon (IIc).” - Jason Booth, Technical Designer

But wherever we discovered video games, they stuck with us. They were, in a word, addictive.

  • “Like many young gamers of the time, I played Mario and a couple educational computer games, but these were hardly precursors to addiction. Ladies and gentlemen, the NES Double Dragon port was a menace. Not in the charming, well-meaning but short-sighted Dennis fashion; it was more like a serial killer who gruesomely butchered and devoured your free time. If the game had been a person, the person would have belonged in a prison made entirely of hot glass so the general public could watch him simmer. After a well-paced and challenging hour-long game, complete with all manner of foes (many of them wielding whips, pipes and even sticks of dynamite), you enter the final battle room and defeat thug after thug after thug with your bare hands. Not a single one is equipped with a firearm. You haven't seen as much as a rubber band gun in the past hour. Then Machine Gun Willy walks in and shoots you dead. Guess what kind of gun HE has. Of course you didn't save. You can't save. This is the NES, and you're playing a game that isn't Zelda. No, you can't continue. You're already back to the title screen. You can start a new game, would you like to do that? No, you don't. But you're going to anyway. THAT'S addiction.” - Jonathan Rubinger, Composer / Sound Designer
  • “Although I think the first game I ever owned was Super Mario/Duck Hunt when it came with my NES, the first Nintendo game that I ever really got into was Fester's Quest. The game was really addictive, had plenty of sweet weapons, upgrades, bad guys, and had interesting puzzle-type situations to figure out through the game.” - Ben Currier, Manufacturing Analyst
  • “The Legend of Zelda, with the gold cartridge. This had to be when I was around four. I believe this is when my love for shiny things (from the actual cartridge to the various cool items acquired in the game) took hold and became the lifelong obsession it is.” - Ryan Griffin, QA Tester

Addiction is one word, but another is love. As Steven Bailey noted back in part 1, there’s something truly joyous about finding a game that clicks with you, even when it steals hour after hour... or day after day... or week after week... or longer.

  • “It's tough to pick where I actually started, as I feel I had a few false starts. THE first game I ever played was Carmen Sandiego on the Mac SE, but that didn't last very long since it was pretty simple and I was chock full of trivia that has long since leaked from my brain. There was also Scarab of Ra, but I'd call that one casual at best. The first game I ever really, really got into was Zork on the 286. I was determined to show up my brothers and father, who had fallen before me (back before there were such commands as “save,” so I had an edge). Their old hand-drawn posterboard maps in hand, I set forth into the Great Underground Empire and beat the hell out of it in mere months. I should've used that save function more often, in retrospect. It took me many more years to get a perfect score. This game may be the sole reason why I prefer gameplay over graphics, because there simply weren't any. Hell, I still play Nethack to this day, and I haven't beaten it once in the ten years or so I've been playing. Not bad for a game that can fit on a floppy. And then came the Intellivision hand-me-down. Real life was dead to me at that point.” - Brian Crombie, IT Support Assistant

What exactly was that first game? As you’ve already seen, it varies wildly. There are some themes...

  • “Zork on the Atari 800XL - it’s the first one I really remember playing.” - Sean Baptiste, Manager: Community Development
  • “My first game was Space Invaders, played on my father’s Compaq Portable. Thankfully, we got an NES 2 years later!” - David Plante, QA Tester
  • “Space Invaders console. Not in an arcade. There weren't arcades then.” - Matthew Nordhaus, Senior Producer: Design
  • “My grandparents got me an Atari 2600 when I was very young. So I guess the first game I played was probably Combat. The first game I remember going crazy for was Space Invaders at this candy store in Hollywood, Florida.” - Sylvain Dubrofsky, Senior Designer

...but there are unique experiences as well.

  • “The first game I can remember playing was Gertrude's Secrets for the Apple II GS. It was an educational game where you solved basic puzzles by moving around puzzle pieces of different shapes and colors. I remember that, when you finished a puzzle, Gertrude the Puzzle Goose appeared and gave you a prize, which you could keep in your prize room. I also seem to remember that there was a noisy bird that made loud bird sounds when you clicked on it. I think I clicked on the noisy bird a lot.” - Robert Butts, QA Lead
  • “Number Munchers on the Apple 2E.” - Kathleen Burke, Administrative Assistant
  • “1982 Nintendo Donkey Kong Handheld Game - that was my first.”- Tim Zylicz, G&A Coordinator

But the truth is that everyone’s experience is unique. David Plante, Matthew Nordhaus, and Sylvain Dubrofsky all encountered Space Invaders, but each one in a different way. What matters is that click -- the moment that makes a game speak to each individual person. The gamers of Harmonix were all influenced and affected by their first games in meaningful ways.

  • “I lived in a console-less house for most of my childhood, but I definitely remember in elementary school the first game I ever really got into was Commander Keen. I started with Ep. 4: Secret of the Oracle and moved onto Ep. 5: The Armageddon Machine and Ep. 6: Aliens Ate My Babysitter! In the next few years, I hunted down the first 3 in the series as well. Humorous, challenging (for a 7 year old), and overall a great time. To this day, I still prefer platformers, probably because Keen was my first exposure.” - Matthew DiPierro, QA Tester

And as for me - well, I don’t remember my first computer game... not anything I can call the first. But, like many other people here, I get a weird, misty light in my eyes when I talk about my first encounters with various games. Although my home was console-free, my father was a computer hobbyist. I could rhapsodize for excessively long periods of time on the subject of my first games and where I encountered them (including Adventure, King’s Quest IV, Wishbringer, Super Mario Bros., a lightly buggy port of Pac-Man, a turn-based Star Trek combat homebrew, and the sound tests for our computer*, among other things....)

I could rhapsodize on these subjects for excessively long periods of time -- but I won’t. Instead, I’ll leave you with one last story from one of my colleagues.

  • “The first game I really remember playing is Combat, for the Atari 2600. Not because it was a particularly good game (it was) or because of the fantastic graphics (which didn't exist) but because of how much time my dad and I spent playing it. I have a lot of really fond memories of Saturday mornings, sitting on my beanbag chair, playing death matches with tanks and airplanes that for some reason had bullets that bounced, or bullets that you could wrap around corners. My dad would crack up every single time someone would get hit with one of those bullets and his tank started to spin around. I still have the Atari in my basement. I think I'll hook it up some time and see if my daughter wants to play some Combat with me.” - Brian Noel, Web QA Tester

Thanks for following me through this series. If you love video games and you have the opportunity to introduce someone to gaming, then I hope you’ll take the opportunity to do so.

My secret hope: at some point, there will be a kid who simultaneously discovers the Beatles and a lifelong love of gaming through The Beatles: Rock Band. I will probably never hear about it when it happens, but my father taught me the Beatles as well as computers, so it seems like it would close a karmic circle.

Hey! I’ve been really verbose. How about you? If you haven’t shared your first gaming experience yet, we’d love to hear about it in the comments or the forums.

Happy gaming!

* This would not meet most industry definitions of the word “game”, but my standards were not very high when I was four.