At 32 years old, I am technically too young to experience a midlife crisis, since the average life expectancy is 78.8 years old. Due to my love affair with mozzarella and my spherical shape, however, 78.8 seems as if it might be a little far-fetched.
Because of this, it is entirely possible that I may have missed my chance to acceptably learn to freak dance, taste human flesh, embrace face tattoo culture, buy a red car, and do all of the other things that I had planned to do when I hit the big 39.4, now that I am likely past my middle age. This also means that I need to put a rush job on the existential crisis that I had on layaway.
I suppose I can't ride on the back of the flying dog-dragon of impulsive behavior until my heart explodes. I need to accept that I am now embroiled in the half of my life where I'm supposed to abandon foolish things. This is the part where I dedicate myself to becoming more enwisened, more mature, and less likely to be the kind of guy who thinks that Viagra ads are for other people.
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They're laughing about boners. I refuse.
The gifts of old age are not bestowed by the tick of the clock alone, though. To become this allegedly better version of myself, I have to commit to the bit and I have to look back to understand my bad habits so that I might move forward and away from them. I guess. These are no longer character-building moments; they are cracks in the foundation of my exquisite marble headstone, and they must be identified and remedied.
As an American child of the '80s and early-'90s -- a period so culturally rich that its aftershocks are still being felt today to the chagrin of a lot of people on both sides -- I was tongue-kissed by the angels along with a little over-the-pants action and given access to the finest technological advances in history and also pogs. Because of this, my battlefield existed in two dimensions on a Nintendo Entertainment System where no blood was shed but many scars were left. By Captain Skyhawk. By Battletoads. By Punch-Out.
Back then, I spent hours and days trying to best those games, but I never could, and I often quit a session quickly out of frustration. A not uncommon trait, but one that I suppose I should push past if I'm going to be replaced by this better version of myself in the near future.
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Ever-haunting disappointment be damned.
It seems like a worthy endeavor, a good way to discover my malfunctions, and not at all something that would act as one last fun and worthless day-waster. No, sir; Peter Pan is dead. This is a research mission. So I put on my lab goggles, blew into the cartridge, and fired up my first game ...
We begin with the heroes of the sky. Not the Captain, but those brave souls who guided him to glory. I'm talking about the high-score list. I'm talking about Brendan, Trevor, and proud Carole, who is 10th on the list but No. 1 in my heart. I wonder what ever happened to them. I wonder if they forgot about Captain Skyhawk when they got too old for fun, but I know that the game never forgets.
Captain Skyhawk is seemingly a simple game. The first level plays out on a green grid with stubby pyramids and turns that are deceptively sharp when fleeing the onslaught of missile-firing ground installations, helicopters, cars, and what looks like a bevy of heavily armed kiddie pools.
"Build your pool in a war zone, you're bound to get Skyhawked." -grandma
To fight off these Communists (to honor the era, all villains in this article will be referred to as Communists and all heroes will be called Patrick Swayze) you are given a seemingly endless supply of sky bullets and a powerful cache of rockets. In my first flight in over 20 years, I lean heavily on my rockets before I hear the voice of my 10-year-old self warning me that the rockets will run out and that I might need them later.
I trust him as my invisible co-pilot. He's like Jesus or Obi-Wan, but he knows all of my secrets and he has both a vested interest in my victory and surprisingly strong memories of this game.
At the end of the first level, there is an enemy base with four connected orbs and a central hub. It looks like Hungry Hungry Hippos. Both Captain Skyhawk and Hungry Hungry Hippos are Milton Bradley products. Insidious.
This one's for all the marbles. I refuse to apologize for that joke.
When I blow up the enemy base, a multicolored celebration is unleashed and the reason for epilepsy warnings on video games is made obvious.
The second level is completely different from the first. I have moved to the blue sky, and I am now tasked with shooting down enemy fighter jets as they fly by. Because they are flying in the same direction as I am, though, it sort of feels like I have been asked to take down a bunch of Swayze jets; you would think that the Communists would be coming from the opposite direction. It seems best to leave complex moral questions to the side, though.
I am admittedly not great at shooting down Communists, but I advance in my first try. I can't help but think that this is a social promotion, but I'm not going to quibble because I know what's next, and I know that I'll need all the lives that I can get to make it to the other side.
We all have those levels from our past: the nightmare makers. For me, with Captain Skyhawk, it is the third level, with its simple-seeming demand that I dock with a space station as it hurtles through space, spinning round and round with a rectangular port that is never where I need it to be. Notice the lack of a "nighttime lover" joke here. #PersonalGrowth
The level that would have made Freud's head explode.
As a child, I was never able to get past this level. As an adult, I try an aggressive approach at first, firing off my missiles in a vain hope that I can stop the turning port, but it just puts me off course, and when I inevitably press the B button to head in for a landing, I am punished for my insolence with a horrific crash.
These deaths happen over and over until, eventually, I die my final death and sit on my floor, eyes gazing up at a screen that tells me that my effort has earned me sixth place on the leaderboard. I pushed Carole off the screen. "Everything is a lie," I say to myself before joylessly typing in my name. There is no glory here. I am being patronized by something that was made to mildly challenge children almost 25 years ago.
Damn you, Carole, and your will to try.
Though I could go back for more, it feels right to go only until I naturally run out of lives. #Metaphors
While Captain Skyhawk isn't regarded as a terribly complex experience, Battletoads certainly is, and that's my next game.
The objectives here are simple: I have to thwart the sorta-hot evil Communist Queen. To do this, I must get through Ragnarok's Canyon, the Queen's Psycho-Pigs, and a golden robot that does this move that sorta looks like a reverse Michael Jackson lean.
No one wants to be defeated.
The Golden Robot's legs can be used to beat the ever-loving shit out of the pigs. I learned that from the voice of 10-year-old me. He's dope. We high-five. No one knows how.
Unrelated to anything: the pause music in Battletoads is amazing. This is what I'd choose to dance to if I was ever on Soul Train. How has no one sampled this yet? Waka Flocka, hear my call!
Back to the game. At the end of Ragnarok's Canyon, there is a monstrous robot that fires lasers and the orb-shaped elements of its own destruction at me.
Or breakfast cereal. Don't put anything past Battletoads.
Clearly, the big-assed robot wants to die, so I hurdle the orbs at its RoboCop-esque HUD and crack its glass, freeing it from the surly bonds of this world and bringing the first level to a close. This is a mercy killing; I am not a murderer.
The second level is called Wookie Hole. Uh oh! I think George Lucas is gonna su- you've heard the joke.
I never beat this level as a child. I don't know if it was the electrified cameras that burst out of the walls like a Kool-Aid Man paparazzo with a taser (feasible!) or the countless birds that try to snip at my line as I repel down toward the third level. Whatever it was, though, it no longer slows me down once I get my bearings and begin ramming the birds and swiping at their falling carcasses with one of the severed beaks that I took from another one of the birds in an exercise that would make for a horrifying and disgusting visual if it wasn't limited by 8-bit technology.
Now we're just straight-up taunting Freud.
After reading all of this, I know that you're pulling for me to tell you that I continued my march toward Valhalla (or wherever), but that would be a lie. Instead, I merely reached the third part of the first level, which, incidentally, looks like the surface of a brain that was infiltrated by rats.
The rats were not the cause of my death in Battletoads, though. I literally hit a wall. Several times while attempting to make an intricate set of jumps on a motorcycle. Why did I hit the wall? Good question. I DIDN'T HAVE A FUCKING CHOICE! That motorcycle path and those jumps require fast twitch muscles and reflexes that do not exist naturally in humans. I didn't lose; I simply met the fated result. At least I got further along this time than I did before.
Also known as the "Explain to Mom Why the TV Is Broken" level.