Anyone who grew up with videogames has had their world shaped by the experience of playing. This is mostly a good thing. We appreciate CoD 4, Grand Theft Auto IV or Braid trying to say something about the human condition. BUT it’s also a good thing those games are fun, because the message is often completely impractical. What exactly are the messages these games are conveying? “War is Hell (but also awesome fun)”? “Urban America sucks”? “Don't build a nuclear bomb”? No argument here, but that knowledge doesn’t really integrate easily into the average gamer’s everyday life.
No, if you want simple, universally-applicable life lessons from videogaming, you need to go to an older, wiser, chirpier-music-having source... or better yet, 18 of them. Drag out the cartridge-loaded boxes and two-button joypads: It's time for some words of wisdom from your elders.
The game: Three not-turtles named after adolescent skin maladies vanquish evil stone pigs led by a sexy dominatrix, in an adventure that made perfect sense at the time. Best known for featuring a level commonly regarded as the single most difficult thing ever devised by people, until the level after it.
The lesson: You really can do anything you set your mind to. But it'll take hours, break your brain, and mean absolutely nothing as soon as you hit reset and have to do it all over again.
The game: Sentient balls of glass roll downhill in their quest to reach the next slope. The “madness” comes from your lack of control: you can suggest to the marble that it might not want to fall off that precipice, but if that sumbitch is already rolling, there's little you can do to stop it.
The lesson: If you're expressly told, “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” believe it. That's the message that flashes onscreen at the beginning of MM's penultimate (as in, second to last) level, and it's the last time the game will make a damn lick of sense.
The games: We in the Queen's lands [ed note – Tom’s from New Zealand.] spent the 80s watching Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and renting copies of Commando that were about three minutes long after the censors' cuts. So we were never at risk of being traumatized by the Contra titles. Until the PlayStation version, our versions of the Gryzor brothers were the less-contentious Probotector robots, for which the games were named.
The lesson: In a future in which we could invent robots with all the powers of ludicrously muscular men, why would we go so far as to program them to feel our pain – even emitting human' screams? Because – as we learn from the Contra/Probotector switch – humans are infinitely cruel creatures.
The game: Billy and Jimmy Lee beat up every single person standing between – and I mean that literally – them and Billy's girlfriend. Once everyone else in town has been brutally pummeled, each man simultaneously realizes that the only thing standing between him and the girl is the other guy. Further fisticuffs ensue!
The lesson: Teamwork is just a fancy-pants way of postponing a fight. Also, “bros before hos” is only a valid philosophy if the ho in question happens to look like a gorilla in a chastity belt.
P.O.W.:Prisoners of War/Operation Wolf/Rush'n Attack
The games: 8-bit wargames didn't need your Normandy landing and your M1 Garand. There were more pressing issues at stake. For instance, the raging conflict between America and her hazily-defined enemies, who could be most easily identified by the Chairman Mao hats perched atop their swarthy faces.
The lesson: It was hard to be sure why our parents' generation busted a gut over the Noriega siege or Iranian hostage crisis. Any NES owner could tell you the complex geopolitics of the Cold War's twilight years would be solved in a day with the intervention of a lone warrior like P.O.W.'s blue jeans-clad Bart. Did nobody above 30 play videogames back then?
Ghosts 'n' Goblins/Ghouls 'n' Ghosts
Above: Level 2 of Ghosts 'n' Goblins, beloved by both of the players who reached it
The game: A knight in armor and underwear bravely faces off against every generic ghoul you’ve ever seen in a haunted house. If the legendarily difficult progression of stages in any G&G game doesn't chip away at your sanity, the revelation that recovering the princess from the adversary's clutches entails starting all over again surely will.
Above: Yep, that’s a butt. The are-games-art debate finally rests
The lesson: Besides the notion that “if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing twice for ridiculously arbitrary reasons,” the chief lesson of Ghouls 'n' Ghosts is a sartorial one. We are all naked underneath our clothes; but the guy who wears flesh-colored smalls (or heart-patterned boxers) and climbs ladders in the rain is a whole different kind of naked.