Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, at the beginning of 2016:
As a kid, I frequented video arcades regularly. As a parent, my son and I spent a good decade playing games together on his various systems. When he graduated and moved away to college, he took all his systems with him, leaving me with only my old Nintendo that won’t play cartridges unless you keep the Game Genie firmly inserted, and an Atari Plug-‘n’-Play Controller I got for Christmas a few years ago that interested me for about two weeks. On Black Friday 2014, I decided I wanted back in the 21st century gaming mode and picked up a used PS3.
Naturally I started off a generation behind the rest of the civilized world, but I didn’t care. After fifteen months without, holding a controller felt abnormal and rusty for the first few weeks. Once I got used to it again and figured out how to disable the “Digital Clear Motion Plus” feature on my TV, I could shake the dust off my trigger fingers, choose the games I wanted to play, sprint or meander through them at whatever pace I saw fit, and try some different universes beyond Final Fantasy and our other longtime mainstays. The following is a rundown of my first year’s worth of solo PS3 adventures…
…and it’s been a minor MCC annual tradition ever since. Last year’s entry covered how I spent literally all my gaming time in 2017 on Borderlands 2, which fascinated me on all the right guilty-pleasure levels. 2018 was a bit more varied, though not vastly so. I found myself skipping more gaming sessions than usual as other hobbies, responsibilities, and conventions overtook my schedule and kept the ol’ PS3 waiting. The following is a rundown of my retro gaming in that busy year, in two or three short sessions per week, in the order played and with my trophy percentages included to reinforce the fact that I’m neither a gaming wizard nor a helpless grandpa:
* Borderlands 2 (68%): 12/7/2016 – 2/23/2018. Okay, fine so I obsessed on this game for more than a year. I’m sure the medical community has diagnosed worse cases out there. When last we left our hero Salvador, he/I was working on the final DLC mission, “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep”. In my checking my trophy records, apparently that took me a month before I was satisfied with my accomplishments and had drained every last drop of entertainment out of that quest’s faux-Dungeons-&-Dragons environs and Tiny Tina’s surprisingly heartfelt narration as its bratty Dungeon Master with a secret motive. Nice job on that package, all told.
* Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (66%): 3/9/2018 – 6/3/2018. The celebrated fox thief and his Leverage-esque animal buddies Bentley and The Murray return! My son was a huge fan of the first three PS2 games and let me borrow his copy of its lone PS3 sequel, even though I never said I was a big fan. Honestly, at least two of those games used to give me motion sickness, which used to be a more frequent problem for me with PS2 games. (Maybe it was a camera design with too many spinning axes to it, but the entire Spyro series were like roller coasters to my stomach. I don’t get it.)
Regardless, it didn’t take long for me to find myself entranced by its series of international settings — some more stereotyped than others — and to get hooked (pun intended for the Sly fans out there) on the lengthy checklists of treasures and extras to track down, which were largely a good excuse to explore every intricately designed level to its fullest, even if it meant walking past some of the same bridges and rooftops a dozen times each till my quarry was in hand and I’d beaten the heck out of this all-ages cartoon animal jumping game.
* Red Dead Redemption (1%): 6/3/2018. It was my understanding that this grim Western is actually one of the absolute greatest games of the eon throughout all the known universe. I played three sessions in all but only won a single trophy — “That Government Boy”, a.k.a. the tutorial mission, the equivalent of a pat on the head for figuring out which side of the disc was up and then defeating the nefarious “on” switch.
On my first session, absolutely nothing in-game taught me how saving was supposed to work, so when I really needed to walk away and do non-game things, I mistakenly lost a good 40+ minutes of accomplishments. Gone were the rewards from a deadly shootout at a cabin, a dust-up at a box canyon, and an oddly engaging stagecoach ride with a kindly Western lady. All of that was cruelly vaporized.
Next session, not a single one of those missions ever came up again, replaced instead by some hours wandering a small town and loitering in its shops with zero dollars to spend, followed by a horse chase after an evil bandit which ended twenty minutes later when I finally got bored with wandering through random American countryside for incalculable miles after my quarry had probably teleported away and left me totally lost and far away from that stupid boring town.
Session #3 hit rock bottom when I learned the town’s sheriff badges, which were roughly the size of glitter granules, were nearly impossible to discern on the 26-inch TV I use for gaming. I couldn’t tell whether I was fist-fighting with outlaws or lawmen till I suddenly woke up in jail and took a hit to my precious hero-guy stats. I grew instantly disenchanted with a game that allows me to accidentally become the bad guy, to say nothing of the total FOMO anxiety attack I had at losing all those hard-working minutes I’d wasted on actually fun missions in my first session. All these months later I’m still bitter and want to punch the game in the mouth several times. Maybe I can come back to it someday after I’ve played all the other games on my shelf. And I mean all of them, up to and including Bionic Commando.
* XCOM: Enemy Unknown (45%): 7/18/2018 – 10/3/2018. After taking most of July off to recover from vacation and catch up with other personal goings-on, I finally cracked open the third and final game in The 2K Essentials Collection, a boxed set I bought in 2015 that also came with Bioshock and the first Borderlands. I’d never heard of it but soon took a shine to its clever approach to turn-based RPGs, with added tactical decisions to make and movement rules that mattered.
The seemingly simple plot of Earth’s military versus alien invaders was set dressing for a series of fun puzzles pretending to be a team-building exercise and decorated with frequent explosions, all the more satisfying whenever the gameplay switched to a brief cutscene of the enemy’s killing blow. They co-opted the best parts of the old Final Fantasy games, except the battles don’t simply occur on a blank background with one or more monsters floating in limbo on the other side of the screen.
Two minor drawbacks: traversing the same small handful of maps over and over again got tedious once I’d memorized the terrain; and the main cutscenes could be glitchy at times. But I was happen that I eventually saved Earth and the lynchpin of our final mission was a bald woman named Jackson. Did I mention I love the character-generating system, too? I pretended all my soldiers had their own personalities, so that was nice.
* XCOM: Enemy Within (48%): 10/7/2018 – 1/6/2019. Every bit of online literature described this as an “expansion pack”. I thought that meant “new missions in, around or connected to the original game”. What they actually meant was “complete photocopy of the first game, and we don’t mean that metaphorically, but with new missions stuffed inside it and you have to claw through the reruns to reach them”, which in my mind is not the same thing, but perhaps “expansion pack” means something entirely different to millennials?
Normally I’d refuse on principle to submit to a second play-through of a games I just played while so many unplayed PS3 games are still on my shelf or out there in the wild. I went with it anyway just to see how far the differences would go. Eventually I found the new missions, plus the major additions grated on to this that allow you to turn your soldiers into giant, unwieldy cyborgs, like if Ripley were trapped in her yellow Aliens loader and could never get out and somehow she learned to live that way without crying or tearing off Gorman’s head in rage. Some of the new weapons didn’t do much for me (I never, ever cared about the “SHIV” automated helper-gun-bots), but I appreciated the updated and repaired cutscene graphics, plus the fact that I alienated fewer countries this time and oversaw our operations to full funding much more quickly than I had in the original game.
For whatever reason, I also got a real thrill out of the newly added mission in which the bad guys infiltrate your home base and you have to defend yourself with a skeleton crew of your most experienced soldiers, but some of them didn’t have time to grab weapons or armor so they’re fighting with whatever items they could grab when they leaped out of their imaginary offscreen bunks, but on the upside they’re accompanied by a bunch of security NPCs who have names and stats only for that one mission. I spent an entire afternoon on that shocking interlude, but gladly so because it was genius. And a few of my NPCs even made it out alive. I was an excellent imaginary military leader.
…and that’s my 2018 in gaming, such as it was. Until next year, then, assuming other hobbies (reading, streaming services, that raking I was supposed to do last fall) don’t get in the way yet again. I’m already working on another sequel right now, so there’s at least one game I’ll get to wax eloquent about in 2020, even more years after it no longer matters. Yay retro gaming!