This Old Game: My Early College Years

Yes, my college years were spent at a campus that favored Macintosh computers. Yes, I am a better person because of it. I have more confidence in public speaking situations, have a healthy body image, am much more comfortable with people of different ethnic backgrounds, …

Yes, my college years were spent at a campus that favored Macintosh computers. Yes, I am a better person because of it. I have more confidence in public speaking situations, have a healthy body image, am much more comfortable with people of different ethnic backgrounds, and was able to score 50-70 points higher on all sections of the GRE.

Most of all, living on a Mac campus allowed me to experience gaming in simple and incredibly addictive forms. And it let me share this experience with like-minded individuals who, while slightly on the nerdy (read: intelligent) side, remain good friends of mine.


I’m sure an endlessly-volumed encyclopedia on the diverse and bizarre storylines contained in the Marathon universe (Durandal, BOBs, alien races bent on universal domination, Infinity) could easily be written. However, the bulk of my time with this Bungie-developed first-person shooter was spent destroying my friends — and more often being destroyed by friends — in multiplayer network games. That may sound like a normal, oh-gee-golly-yawn use of a young college boy’s time, but let me assure you, it was so much more than that.

First off, let me just tell gamers of the modern generation that they’ve been coddled — I’m talking given a full bottle of milk, a bedtime story and a glass of water after every nightmare. Any first-person shooter nowadays uses the mouse for high-precision aiming.

Bow to Marathon, sissy mouse-aiming shooters. This game used nothing but the keyboard. Sure, you still moved up and down and strafed all over the place with the W, A, S and D keys, but when it came to aiming up and down, you had to map two buttons to your keyboard. This made for a much less exact method of aiming at first, especially when being on the receiving end of flame from a napalm backpack. But once you spent an hour or so being demolished, you began to be less jumpy. And you began to learn strategies. Sure, the rocket launcher was nearly impossible to aim if you tried head on. But, tap the aim down key a little, throw that rocket into the floor, and the blast radius had a much higher chance of hitting someone.

A friend took upon himself to start building arenas for these games from the ground up. He built a stage full of tiny elevators, a different weapon waiting on top of each. He built a stage full of levels and blinking lights, places where you could hide in shadow. Places absent of gravity. He built an amphitheater, steps leading down to lava and a rocket launcher, shotguns scattered around above the steps.

This one was my personal favorite, as it allowed me to arm myself with the most badass configuration I have ever witnessed in a shooting game: two double-barreled shotguns.

Ah. Pardon my geekdom while I say it was a beautiful thing.

Granted, my propensity toward using two short-ranged weapons got me into trouble sometimes. But, man, your unnamed space-suited supersoldier fired the gun, and then flipped it in one hand to reload it. Neat.

Alas, technology had to move on. We purchased bigger and better computers, ones that ran Marathon at insane and unplayable speeds because of more powerful processors. Our RA got a Nintendo 64 and we all were promptly hooked on Super Smash Bros. But there was nothing like seeing an opponent strafing across the other end of the room and firing a rocket into the floor inches from their feet. You knew with all the variables and keys it took to make that situation happen, you deserved the smile that broke out on your face.

Now, for those of you who think me an incredibly vicious monster whose meager intelligence cannot discern between digitized two-inch tall characters and real living people, let me tell you about my other favorite game:

Bubble Trouble

As you can probably tell from the name, there are no shotguns involved in Bubble Trouble. There aren’t any rocket launchers, aliens, war-mongering supercomputers or smoldering lava pits, either. There aren’t even any other players. It’s just you, your trash-talking goldfish protagonist, a handful of undersea enemies, and an awful lot of bubbles.

The controls couldn’t be simpler: use the arrow keys to move, use the spacebar to push a bubble into an errant shark or worm. You can trundle along at this slow pace, catching random powerups like more time in the form of points, or an item that encases all enemies in tiny green bubbles, but you’ll soon see that the leader board contains impressively high scores. Then, as all great games require, you must formulate a strategy.

The trick in Bubble Trouble is to smack three or more enemies with a single bubble, earning you increasing points and the pleasure of hearing your goldfish say, “Eat seaweed, fish-breath!” in a pinched nasal voice. In the very next stage, a bubble will appear with a multiplier in it — grab it and the points left on the time meter will be multiplied accordingly. Keep hitting three or more enemies and you’ll get x3, x4, even x5. Spend a few stages on x5 and the points start rolling in.

Spend a few stages neatly dispatching fish, worms and sharks, and you’ll also come face to face with your mortal enemy: the starfish.

Don’t be fooled by its cartoon big-pupil eyes or its cute little blue bow: the starfish is one mean bastard. It’ll change speed and direction to fake you out, it’ll push bubbles back at you, and even work together with other enemies to corner you. One you can handle, but once they start showing up in packs, you won’t be holding on to that x5 for very long.

My friend Jon was obsessed with Bubble Trouble to the point of clinical diagnosis. His roommate went to bed early, around 9:00, and as soon as he did, Jon knocked on my door and commandeered my computer. He was damn good at it, too; he was able to get the x5 multiplier almost every time, and hold it until the later levels. He had scores over 500,000. He got so damn good at it that we started holding long conversations while he played, on anything from sex to politics to ice cream. The only things that set it apart from a regular coffee house or living room conversation were the frequent swear words, and the occasional desk pound.

Thank you, Ambrosia Software. I apologize for never paying the shareware fee. I was in college, after all.

I know people are prone to thinking video games are an anti-social behavior that becomes an unhealthy escape from reality. I know it can be linked to violent behavior. And though I could admit some truth to the first reason, the fact is that I remain a socially well-adjusted human being that enjoys video games. Even more than that, Marathon and Bubble Trouble actually helped me meet people in college, people I still consider friends.

Too much of anything is harmful — too much broccoli, even. As someone much more wise and famous has said, any tool can be a weapon if you hold it right.

Play these games, if you can. Any iteration of Marathon has a great story and is ridiculous amounts of fun with friends. And Bubble Trouble is just good times. Who knows. You might even meet someone.

Article © 2005 by Sean Woznicki