Dammit, I meant to pick Mullen, not Hardaway!
-Heard in the test lab, circa 1994
After last week, I figured it was time to fill in the gap in my posts about consoles I have owned.
Is It The Shoes?
Then there was the Atari 2600, which brought video games home one Christmas many years ago and probably saved me a mountain of quarters.
And then, in 1983, after much longing, I made the jump to gaming on the personal computer.
While there are no hard lines between these events… I did not throw my Atari 2600 away the day the Apple ][+ showed up, and I still went to arcades with my friends well into the mid 80s… these were points of transition. My main focus moved from one to another. And by the time I was playing online games like Stellar Emperor or Stellar Warrior in 1986, arcades were a thing of the past and I had given away my Atari 2600.
The depth and complexity of games on a personal computer surpassed what was possible in the previous two mediums and I paid little attention to them.
Time moved on, as it insists on doing. There was college and a job and then another job and then a layoff and a job in a computer store where the employee discount caused be to spend more than I actually earned, and then finally the job which, when viewed from more than 20 years down the line, begins a haphazard chain of events events, populated by unlikely set of interconnected characters, that somehow looks like a career when I put it on a resume.
And I don’t even have to fudge things, except to make them all fit on two pages in a typeface readable without a magnifying glass.
It is like I MEANT to do all that… like I sat down and planned it out in advance.
But back to 1992.
At this new company I was immediately involved with a project that ended up quite successfully, made the company a bunch of money, and put us in a new market. As a reward, everybody in engineering involved with the project was given a card. Each card had either an “N” or a “G” on it. The letter was an indication of what present you would be given at the company Holiday party. (My temptation was to title this post “Christmas 1992,” but I relented. Unlike the other two posts, the bulk of this happens after Christmas.)
Our boss, one of the key founders and an insanely dynamic and inspirational character, thought it would be great fun to keep things a mystery and taunt us with possible meanings for the two letters in the build up to the party.
Eventually it was the night of the party. There was a big pile of wrapped boxes. Each box had either an “N” or a “G” on it. And, after dragging out the announcement as long as possible, our boss finally handed out the first two boxes, one of each letter.
I had a card with a “G” on it, and I was disappointed.
I had, at that point, never really heard of Sega. Nintendo was at least a name I recognized.
I offered up mine in trade for a Nintendo, but there were no takers, which just confirmed my theory that I had gotten the lesser of two choices.
I was totally unaware of the console wars that were raging, where Nintendo was the 800 lb. gorilla and Sega was the plucky upstart.
Puts Up A Brick!
I took the unit home and set it up. It came with Sonic the Hedgehog which was a bright and colorful game. It was a huge way forward from my Atari 2600 days. But Sonic was not really my style. I pressed on with it for a while, but never really got engaged.
I purchased a few other games for the system, but of them I can only recall Desert Strike and F-15 Strike Eagle II. And even those two are only hazy memories. Sonic is more vivid in my mind, though that might be because I bought the Virtual Console version for our Wii. (And it turns out I had only gotten worse at.)
The Sega Genesis languished in the family room while I went back to my computer. The games looked good and played well. But I had Civilization to play obsessively. What did I need with shiny by shallow arcade games?
Can’t Buy A Bucket!
Meanwhile at work we kicked off a big project for an iconic fruit flavored computer maker just up the road. Our boss had used his contacts to crash a party and get us in on their upcoming laptops, one ultra-light and one ultra-cool. Basically, he talked us up while denigrating the internal team in Paris that was slated to do the project for the company. The icing on the cake was claiming we had a working prototype for the required device.
In the end, this all worked out and became one of the most lucrative projects ever for the company.
In the short term it was a scramble, starting with making a prototype. There were actually two deliverable, one critical and one slightly less critical. We worked all summer and delivered the first one on time, but we had an issue with the second.
In November, when we looked to be within striking distance of finishing the second phase, I declared I would not shave or get a haircut until we shipped. We were in serious crunch mode, with long days and weekends being the norm. We just needed to power through and finish.
Is It The Shoes?
To cut to the punch line, I shaved off my very thick beard the following May.
In the mean time, a group of us were at the office pretty much all waking hours. However, it wasn’t like there was always something to do. We would run tests trying to capture this one catastrophic failure scenario that would not allow us to ship. We would find one way to make it happen, then it would stop happening. Then another way would be found. And when it would happen, we would have to analyze what was happening on the machine, which was difficult as the “catastrophic” end of things really meant that the power manager would shut the system down. So there was a laptop hooked to a logic analyzer where, once we had a scenario, we had to repeat it. And it wouldn’t happen. Or it would happen, but the logic analyzer would fail to capture it, having reset itself to another mode or some such. How I hated that damn thing.
So there was a lot of waiting involved. At one point one of the devs said we needed a video game or something. I mention the Sega and knew that my girlfriend at the time had a 13″ TV sitting around doing nothing. I said I would bring them in.
He’s Heating Up!
I brought in the Sega and TV. We found a spot on one of the racks in the back of the lab where the TV fit in. The Sega sat on the rack below.
I only had the RF connector that came with it. Somebody noticed that the TV had an S-video port on the back and brought in a cable for it, at which point the video quality took a huge leap.
While I had two controllers, the games I had were all single player focused. Sonic would allow two players, but you had to take turns. But there wasn’t much interest in that. The Sega sat there and got occasional use, though it mostly just went through the Sonic demo mode.
And then somebody brought in the game.
At this point in time, I cannot even remember who brought it in. But one day we had NBA Jam in the lab.
And everything changed.
That game was the savior of our sanity. We were there, in the office, in the lab, every single day from January 2 through to the end of May in what became the never-ending crunch time. In at 9am, break for dinner at 6pm, back at work at 8pm, home at mightnight. Sleep and repeat.
And whenever possible, play NBA Jam.
I am not a basketball fan and rarely indulge in sports based video games. But there was something very special about NBA Jam. It was an funny, engaging, over-the-top game.
The graphics were very good for the time and the controls were simple, leading to that “minutes to learn, ages to master” magic that keeps people engaged.
We all ended up with specific “claimed” players. Mine was the Warriors player Chris Mullen whose in-game version could hit a 3-pointer from the sideline with incredible regularity. I had to fight to keep hold of him. And was I ever pained when, in a hurry or just blurry from the long days, I accidentally ended up with Tim Hardaway instead. I have no idea how he played in real life, but he was the suck in the game.
We became very good. And very competitive.
We played no other game on the system. It was NBA Jam all the time.
And the catch phrases from the game, done in a very Marv Albert voice, became the catch phrases for the project. The key ones are in bold in this post. We would shout them out all the time.
There is a picture of the team at the end of the project.
We look tired but happy. I am down front with the long hair and a thick beard. We have beers in our hands and the device itself, problem solved after all those months, front and center. One of the special, durable Sega Genesis controllers somebody bought… we had worn out the originals… and the NBA Jam cartridge appear as well, having been deemed vital to the project.
He’s On Fire!
And then we went outside, looked around at the mid-day light, and wandered home to see what was left of our personal lives.
My girlfriend had been asking pointedly about when I was going to be done with her TV. When I asked why she needed it, I was told that wasn’t the point.
The point was that she had checked out of the relationship and was seeing somebody else (which given my almost continuous absence for all those months was pretty reasonable) and was collecting things up before announcing it. I gave her back the TV and we went our separate ways. Somehow I ended up with her cat.
Meanwhile, nobody had a spare TV to replace the one now missing in the lab. We stopped playing the game.
We stopped doing almost anything.
We were slated to work on a new project almost immediately. However everybody was so burned out that project status meetings all summer were basically announcements of no progress. The lead developer took a weeks vacation after the project and didn’t show back up in the office for almost two months. He would call in every Monday and apologize, saying he just couldn’t come to work.
This is what happens when the idea of crunch time is abused. You pay for it later. I have carried that lesson with me ever since and have fought back against every project manager notion around “couldn’t we bring in the ship date if we assumed people were working Saturday?” Weekends are often the only slack time you have to make up slips, so if you schedule them, you lose that buffer. I have also categorically refused to let myself or my team ever work seven days a week again.
Back at the office, work was shuffled around. Despite our dazed lethargy, sales went so well that we were able to hire new people, so we brought in some new faces to actually get some work done that summer.
Then we moved buildings. A lot of the team moved on to other jobs. I hung around for a while. Those who remained were eventually all as productive as before. I sold the Genesis to a co-worker, having gone back to PC games. One of the new kids would bring in his new Sega Saturn so we could play Virtua Fighter on the overhead in the cafeteria. That was pretty cool. But I didn’t want to actually own one. And since the move included a network upgrade so that we had Ethernet in all the cubes (a serious upgrade from all those PhoneNet connectors strewn about the old place), we moved on to playing Marathon and Bolo at the office.
And thus ended my second video game console era. It was short, but it left an impression. For years afterwards if I ran into anybody on the project team, saying something like, “Is it the shoes?” in that right tone of voice would bring up laughs and memories of those days.