My Undying Love for Less Than Jake

In the last ten years, my tastes in music have rapidly changed. I’ve expanded and gone off on weird genre tangents, ranging from Japanese post-rock to the greatest offerings east coast hip-hop had to give me. Every day I’m finding new bands to dig into. I’m always looking for something new to keep me going, and most of all, keep me interested. In high school, this really wasn’t the case.

Around 2000, I finally started developing what I considered a taste in music, or at least something that I could associate myself with. I fell into punk rock, and it really defined a lot of my high school experience. I found myself interested in all of these bands that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 introduced me to, and as I’ve said before, that game really lit a fire under my ass. Music finally meant something to me. I digested all I could find, and to be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of those bands all that much anymore. Less Than Jake has never been one of those bands. I love them more today than I ever did when I was a teenager. I think this is due to a lot of the songs making a lot more sense to me now than they did back then.

The first time I even heard this band, I didn’t know what to expect. Ska-punk was a new genre to me, something I didn’t yet understand. Their most recent album at the time was 2000’s Borders and Boundaries, an album somewhat removed from the sound they are typically associated with. I was wasting time on the internet, looking up bands, and I knew people on IRC who were into this “ska band,” so I decided to give them a look. The first song I heard was a track from Borders and Boundaries called “Kehoe,” and I think I fell in love in an instant.

I was initially thrown off by the horn section, but I quickly got over it. It was that first verse that said everything I really need to know about life at the time.

Ideals are like opinions, beliefs just like tradition 
Sometimes both are not enough.
Faded stickers and crumpled flyers, 
They’ve become the reminder that there’s an anthem in us
That fits the flag we’ve flown for years.

Now, over years I’ve learned that Less Than Jake really don’t sing about a lot of different topics. The majority of their songs are about living in a shitty situation and making the claim to better yourself and get out of that terrible hole you’ve sunk into. It never mattered to me. I’m 26 years old, and I still feel this way every day of my life. I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I’m doing all I can to survive from day to day. Their songs still mean the world to me, and instilled the belief within me to just be myself. It’s exactly what I needed to hear.

I can still recall going to the mall one evening and picking up their Losing Streak and Hello Rockview albums. I would pick up Borders and Boundaries a few weeks later, and would eventually pick up the rest of their primary discography. I was hooked, and I needed to hear everything I could. I finally got to see them live in 2003, and since then I’ve seen them about ten times. This is a band that helped me become who I am, and helped give me hope during the worst days of my life. I wrote their lyrics in my school notebooks and quoted them frequently in my old Livejournal.

I found out fairly early on that the lyrics were all written by drummer, Vinnie Fiorello. He never struck me as a very impressive drummer, but I found solace in his words. Even as their songs treaded over similar themes, they always seemed to find a way to keep it sounding fresh. I read interviews with him where he was asked about how he wrote his lyrics, and he mentioned that he would write individual lines on everything from napkins to post-it notes, and he kept them in a shoebox. He would assemble similar lines together into stanzas, and hand them off to guitarist Chris Demakes and bassist Roger Manganelli. This method always seemed to work for them, but as they’ve grown as a band I can see Vinnie’s lyrics take a slightly more straightforward, less fractured structure to them.

They are set to release their next album tomorrow (or January for a physical copy), which is comprised of a pair of EPs released earlier this year and late 2011, along with a pair of unreleased tracks to top it off. The songs have been arranged into an album, and having heard ten of the twelve tracks, I really feel like this is some of the strongest material they’ve released in years. For a band that’s been around for twenty years, they keep on doing what they do, and they are still very good at it. Not only are they releasing this album, but they are also planning on releasing a full length album of new material next year! I’m really excited about this, and despite missing their show nearly a month ago, I’m making it a point not to miss them the next time they come around.

I may have gotten into a lot of odd music over the last few years, dabbling in noise rock and bizarre ambient experiments, but I will always love this band.

Basement Skating and Bad Religion: A Story About Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

Skateboarding is a sport built around falling on your ass, followed by getting back up and figuring out why you fell on your ass, and then almost immediately falling on your ass all over again. Some people can do this and get pretty good at it. Some even get to do it professionally, and have corporate sponsors that help pay for them to fall on their ass. Others, well, they just fall on their ass. I fall into the latter category, and during my skateboarding peak, I was an expert at falling on my ass. This is largely the fault of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

The game came out in September of 2000, which is right around when I started high school. Of course I had dropped plenty of hours into its predecessor, but it was nothing compared to the sequel. I started skateboarding a little bit before I started the ninth grade, but it was just a hobby. I was never very good at it, and my balance left a lot to be desired. Falling on my ass became a regular pastime. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 came out, and at the time it was a big deal. The game featured amazing new levels, a few more playable characters, and even a level creator. This game was going to be something really special.

Since I had yet to own a Playstation, I wasn’t able to play the game on a regular basis until the Nintendo 64 version came out the next year. Of course, that version was gimped due to cartridge space limitations, but by the time it had come out, the game was already burned in my brain. Friends and neighbors owned, and it quickly took over a lot of the time we spent together.

The reward for finishing the game with each character was a skate video set to one of the pieces of licensed music from its soundtrack. Each one featured clips of the playable skaters showing off their moves. Even the hidden characters had videos, so unlocking everything became a real treat. My friends and I worked at it to unlock a specific video, and it was at this moment that everything changed.

Within those 45 seconds, something happened. Rodney Mullen quickly became my favorite skateboarder of all time, and a whole new world of majestic flatland trickery was opened to me. As a skater, I never got into riding ramps or jumping off of insane ledges. Not only was I afraid of getting seriously hurt, but it just never appealed to me. I quickly learned that most of these crazy tricks and maneuvers Rodney Mullen did were actually invented by him. As insane as the skateboarding was within the game, Rodney Mullen was chaining it all together in real life. He was the real deal.

Because of that, I got a lot more into the sport. It consumed my life as I started trying to imitate and recreate some of the unbelievable things I watched this man do. I knew how to perform a kickflip, but that wasn’t enough. I had to learn new variations. I had to do whatever it took to try and chain these maneuvers together the way that Rodney did. It was truly inspirational. The way he did it made it into a creative art, one I hoped I could somehow replicate.

My friends and I really took to learning some of these crazy tricks, and for a while we built our own ramps and grind rails to play with. Sure it was dangerous, but it didn’t matter. We just wanted to skate. One time in particular, we stole a couple shipping crate bases from a grocery store and used those to build a box. We ended up connecting it with a ramp and we could chain together our own runs. It was much better than going to the junior high school and getting kicked out by the cops, something which happened every time I went there.

Another time we were stuck indoors due to a foot of snow on the ground. School ended up getting cancelled for a couple days because of it, and we came up with a plan. One of us had an unfinished basement that was fairly large. His parents were at work for the day and wouldn’t be back until later that evening. With this in mind, we set our plan in motion.

We managed to move all of our ramps and boxes down the stairs and into this basement. I don’t remember the layout of the house, but I remember that the entrance to the garage was close to the basement stairwell. Suburbia was kind to us in this regard. The basement itself was mostly empty as is, and it made for an excellent, impromptu skate park. It had a hard concrete floor, and for a basement, the ceilings were unusually high. It was perfect to set up our own little skate course. The rest of the day was spent skating around this makeshift basement skate park and listening to terrible CKY records. I remember the excitement that came when we started jumping between the boxes as we grew comfortable with our basement haven. Tony Hawk had put all kinds of crazy ideas in our heads, and we were out to live the dream.

It wasn’t just the skateboarding. It was also the music. The Tony Hawk games were known for their licensed soundtracks, which by the time Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 came out, featured a mix of punk rock, hip hop and a smattering of metal. I was mildly aware of punk rock at this time. I had listened to Green Day and the Offspring and I’d heard a couple of Blink 182 albums. Tony Hawk 2 helped introduce me to the real thing, with songs from bands like Bad Religion, Lagwagon, and Millencolin. I grew to love them all.

Having recently gotten a broadband internet connection, I got on Napster and started downloading all I could find. It really led me to a musical renaissance. Throughout high school I got more and more into ska and punk rock, and even started playing guitar. By the end of my high school career, my tastes were starting to drift more towards indie rock, but punk and ska were still close to my heart. I grew out of a lot of it for a while, thinking it to be juvenile noise, but in the last few years I’ve really fallen in love again. It makes up a big part of who I am and it helped open me up to a whole other world outside of the radio’s brand of corporate butt rock. It isn’t unusual for video games to have licensed soundtracks, but I feel like it is rare for one to fit the setting as well as the early Tony Hawk games did.

I don’t actually skateboard anymore. I’m 26 and I’m kind of afraid to get back on the board. I do still have the last skateboard I bought, though if I ever decide to get back on it, I may as well just replace everything. The wheels are worn, the bearings are shot. The deck itself is a bit tore up, and I’m not sure how sturdy it still is. I’m worried to ever go back to it because of the amazing experiences I had when I was younger, and I’ll admit, I am terrified of seriously injuring myself. I also don’t know if skateboarding at 26 will give me that same excitement. Rodney Mullen is 45 and still pulls it off, so maybe I’m just over-thinking it.

The game just set a real fire under me. I’ve been playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 again lately, trying to discern if it really was as fun as I remember. Not only do I have most of the game committed to muscle memory, but it is just as good as it was over ten years ago. Few games can ever pull that off, and for everything it did for me, I’m proud that this one made the cut.

The Legend of Zelda, and Why I Write About Video Games

A few days ago I got an e-mail from my 82 year old grandfather proclaiming that with my background in History, I should write something related to that and get away from writing about games, saying that it could really help my writing. I haven’t replied to him, but it got me thinking about why I’m writing about video games. I never really have declared a mission statement for why I waste my time writing about them.

I think about the episodes of 1UP’s Retronauts podcast where Jenn Frank, the former community manager of the site, would come on and enlighten the gang with anecdotes about her family and the way she associated her memories of video games as a child with her father, who passed away when she was ten years old. One of the specific stories was about how she grew up not knowing if she imagined a specific memory she associated with a game that might not even exist. A friend of hers gave her a pile of Atari 2600 games to try and help her find the game, which turned out to be Haunted House. Her memories weren’t deceiving her, and her memories of her father were true.

That story really struck a chord with me the first time I heard it. I have plenty of memories of my childhood, some of which I’m not completely sure actually happened. I hate the possibility that some memories of my own life might not even be real. I’ve found myself using video games as a way to verify that some of these moments really happened, and that my childhood was how I remember it. I have various associations of specific video games that I attribute to certain moments in my own life.

I’m writing to remember, and I’m writing to keep my own thoughts straight.

My friends know I’m not the happiest person all the time. To be quite honest, I’m actually pretty upset on a regular basis. I have mild freakouts from time to time, but I don’t know if I’d go as far as calling them panic attacks. I get really uncomfortable around new people and I generally don’t sleep well. To put it lightly, I’m a mess. I grew up playing video games and now I find myself using them not only as a way to authenticate my own memories, but as a form of escapism to keep me from completely falling apart.

Though I had been playing video games for a little while, my first real memory of it that I remember was playing The Legend of Zelda with my dad when I was about seven years old. It was the last time I remember him getting really into a video game. I mostly just sat there and watched him play over the course of a few weeks as we tried to navigate the game’s dungeons and puzzles in hope of saving Princess Zelda and retrieving the rest of the Triforce. This was before the mass proliferation of the internet, so when there were problems, we just had to go by trial and error, or find someone who know what we were supposed to do. One of the members of the family was also playing the game, so we were able to talk to them and solve a few puzzles. In retrospect it was interesting to see that level of schoolyard puzzle solving portrayed through adults.

We had taken to extremes to figure out this game. My dad actually graphed out maps on paper, noting every false wall, boss room, and treasure to be found. No stone was being left unturned. Every little riddle from every crazy old man in a cave was written down and deciphered. We were thoroughly tearing the game apart.

Finally, the eight dungeons had been defeated, and we had found the entrance to the final, ninth dungeon. It took a few days to actually get through it. Like the earlier ones, this dungeon was mapped, and everything about it was written down. After a while of pushing through it, we made it. We had found Ganon. It was time to save Hyrule and Princess Zelda from his terrible rule. Nothing was going to stop us.

And then we were slaughtered.

We could never figure out exactly how to defeat Ganon. No matter what we did, we never stumbled upon using the silver arrow to make him vulnerable. We just walked in every time and were killed almost immediately. One summer afternoon, my dad had come home early, and picked me up from my grandparents house. It was going to be a day full of Zelda. Today we were going to finish what we had started. I go to load up the game, and all of our save data is gone.

All of the save files had been wiped out. It wasn’t uncommon. It could happen to anyone. NES cartridges weren’t exactly the most durable video game medium when it came to battery backups. For a split second, I’m sure he blamed me, but he quickly got over that and realized that it just happened. I hadn’t touched it. Because of this, our Zelda adventure was over. I tried to start my own, but it wasn’t the same. Aside from a couple of games here and there, my dad never really tried to seriously play a video game ever again.

I know I’ve told part of this story before, but I felt the whole thing warranted telling. Him and I have never been very close, and the older I get, the more him and I change. I’m not an outdoors-y sort of person, while both of my parents have become such. I still get blamed from time to time if there are computer or internet troubles at home. Of course, over the years we both tried to find some sort of common interest. I myself remember trying to get him to play Link to the Past, though he never took to it.

I know that the only reason I still remember these moments is because of the video game attachment to them. Most of what I remember about the Legend of Zelda is from when I was just a little kid, even though I’ve played the game numerous times since then. I wish I still had some of those original maps that my dad made. They were actually pretty impressive, and I love that long gone age of having to figure things out without the internet to save the day.

That game is what got me into the Legend of Zelda series, and it was one of the only times my dad and I ever really did anything together. Any time I think about it, that’s what my brain goes to, and no Zelda game since then gives me the same feeling that the original gave me, all because of these memory associations. I’m not upset that my dad and I aren’t that close. We just aren’t. We’re different people, and it definitely shows. We just don’t have that sort of connection, and I understand it.

This is why I write about video games, and this is why they mean so much to me. I want to share these feelings with people, and I want to tell these stories in hopes that they’ll help keep my own memory straight. The power of context with memories is truly magical, and it is what keeps me writing.

1992: My 16-bit Christmas

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1991. I hadn’t started subscribing to Nintendo Power yet, so I didn’t know this. At this point in time I was still loving my NES and my young mind couldn’t imagine anything greater. By Christmas of 1992, my family was living in a duplex in Derby, KS. My parents were saving up to buy a house, and I was all of six years old. I don’t think we lived in that duplex for more than a year, but I know that on Tax Day, 1993, we moved into the home where my family resides to this day.

I only remember ever spending one Christmas holiday in that duplex. I honestly don’t remember all that much about living there, but I seem to have a couple random memories involving me either injuring myself or learning how to ride a bike. All those memories aside, the only one that truly mattered was Christmas of 1992.

I couldn’t tell you any of the toys I got, but I can tell you nearly everything that happened on Christmas morning. Santa brought me something I didn’t know I wanted. He brought me my Super Nintendo Entertainment System that I still own to this day. I couldn’t wait to play the game that I got with it. I’ve got this new system that outputs these beautiful, colorful 16-bit sprite graphics, and I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of my holiday playing… Mario Paint?

What the fuck is Mario Paint?? Where’s my new Super Mario Bros game?

I wasn’t wise to the whole “Santa is a lie” thing yet, but for a brief moment I felt betrayed. Santa, that asshole, brought me a system and a game that of all things used a mouse. It wasn’t even really a game as much as it was a creative tool. Of course, being a Nintendo title, there were all these interesting game elements to it, but I was upset. I was really hoping for a new Super Mario Bros game to go with it, or even one of these other beautiful, colorful games advertised to me on the back of the box. I wasn’t a very grateful child when it came to this, but later that day, my dad went to Blockbuster Video to rent a couple other games. No Super Mario World, as I had learned it was called, but he did return with a golf game for him to play, and for me, Super Mario Kart. Now we’re playing with power.

I played with Mario Paint, but I didn’t get truly sucked in until later. Super Mario Kart had become my game of choice, and I spent most of Christmas day playing it. This was the last time until the Wii that my parents ever really played video games with me. My dad was so impressed with the system that we actually took it to my grandparents’ house to show it off, and it was a great experience all around. I think that may have been the last time a video game console other than a handheld ever made it to my grandparents’ house.

We came back that night and I finally started digging into Mario Paint. My mother had shown a level of proficiency at the fly swatting game, and my young mind was having fun just playing with the coloring book pages. When I stopped playing for the night, my dad ended up moving the console into their room so he could play his golf game and mess around with Super Mario Kart while I slept. I know now why they bought me Mario Paint, and the effect that it had on me was profound.

I pride myself on being a writer, but I’m in school for electronic media, which is kind of a blanket term for graphic design, audio production and to an extent, journalism. Mario Paint was my first real exposure to that world. It had rudimentary capabilities, but I could build songs using the sounds provided. I could draw whatever came to my mind. If I had the patience, I could even crudely animate something like the examples that were in the Mario Paint official guide. The possibilities were endless.

I never took to drawing on paper, and I never picked up a musical instrument until I was in high school, so those things were still a ways off, but it planted ideas into my brain. It helped my developing brain find a creative outlet, and to me that was a big deal. I played a lot of games on my SNES, some I played and never really touched again, but I kept coming back to Mario Paint. I later found out some of my friends had similar experiences with the game, and I guess I was kind of shocked to find I wasn’t the only one who really got something out of it. It really has shaped my love of Nintendo and why their games are still magical to me. The worst part of Mario Paint to me is that since we never got the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive in America, we never got the “sequel” to Mario Paint, Mario Artist. Perhaps had that been released here, I may have gotten into game development, or even dabbled in 3D modeling!

I actually don’t know if I’d be where I was now if it weren’t for that bizarre tool wrapped in the shell of a video game. Of course, I did get Super Mario World a few weeks later, but Mario Paint would forever be what introduced me to 16-bit video gaming, and later an interest in audio and design.

Zelda II and its Link to my Past

A lot of my best gaming memories are associated with events that happened to me as a young child, growing up in the early 1990s. When I was about six years old, I went to my first sleepover birthday party for my then best friend. The fact that this happened nearly 20 years ago is staggering to me and for the first time I see how quickly time passes. I’ll be 26 in less than a month now. I don’t want to mourn over my lost adolescence right now, as I’ll save that for another day.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you’re six years old, everything is a wonderful, new experience. My living arrangement was finally starting to level out and in first grade, I was friends with everyone. My then best friend was having his birthday party, and I was invited. How could I say no? It would be a night full of pizza, video games, and all of the chicanery that comes with a group of caffeinated first graders. I showed up, ready for my first real sleepover with friends, and things went the way they should. We all ate our weight in Pizza Hut pizza and settled in to play some video games. We spent a lot of the night playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES. I don’t really remember a lot of that in particular, but I remember us getting stuck.

In all actuality, I’m not sure if we ever actually made it beyond the second level. I know I wasn’t very good at video games back then, and my friends weren’t much better. It’s likely that we got stuck trying to defuse the bombs in the Hudson River. I still can’t make it past that level, even to this day. I’ve never been very good at that game and I doubt I ever will be. Eventually, we ran out of energy and went to bed, exhausted from running around the house and suffering from our sugar crash.

The next morning came, and Faron’s mom made us breakfast. It was still fairly early, and we started trying to play Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. This was my first experience with this game, and it blew my mind to see Link running around from left to right like it was a Mario game. My only real experience with The Legend of Zelda at this point was the time I spent with my dad playing through it. To me, Zelda was a top-down adventure game. Zelda II introduced me to all of these bizarre role playing game elements that I wouldn’t really recognize for a few more years.

More than anything, Zelda II confused me. I don’t remember there being towns in Hyrule! What happened to Zelda? Who is Error and what is he really trying to tell me? The side scrolling element of the game was just icing on the cake. My friends and I all had problems understanding the idea that the villagers had things to say. I didn’t understand why there was an overworld map, or why the perspective switched to side scrolling whenever something attacked me. The whole game was this mess of questions and confusion. We spent the morning stumbling around this odd, mostly unrecognizable version of Hyrule, and if I knew the horrors that existed in the latter chunk of the game, I would have given up immediately. To me, Zelda II was this odd new creature that none of us understood. Considering the history that game has, we weren’t the only ones that felt that way.

As I remember, we didn’t get very far, and I know that I didn’t play the game again for another decade at least, but that memory sticks inside of my brain. After enough frustration, we finally gave up and decide to spend the remainder of our party time together riding bikes around the neighborhood. I eventually went home and went back to my normal life, satisfied with my first sleepover experience.

In retrospect, there are moments from that night that I recall now that I never noticed the first time around. Faron’s parents had been fighting a lot, and they actually got divorced soon after. Despite this, they managed to try and put it all aside give their oldest son a fun birthday party. It’s kind of worrisome that that event is what I associate with Zelda II, but it was one of the happier early memories that I still have to this day.