Recently I had the pleasure of taking to comic artist, musician and self-proclaimed superstar James Kochalka (WikiPedia entry) about old video games.
Most well known for his work on American Elf, the sketchbook diaries of his life, James is also a musician and has recently released a greatest hits of his works called ‘Our Most Beloved‘. He’s currently making inroads into television with one of his comic books Pinky & Stinky currently being developed for Nickelodeon by Klasky-Csupo (Rugrats, Wild Thornberries). He lives with wife Amy, his son Eli and his cat called Spandy.
In his famous sketchbook diaries on his website (which you should go and read) James has often mentioned video games, in particular his love of Gameboy Advance and now the Nintendo DS. When I first considered interviewing people on Re:Retro the first person I thought of was James.
I fired some questions at James regarding video games of old and here is what he had to say:
When did you first fall in love with games, and what was the title that got you hooked?
I’ve been playing games for a long, long time. I think the first video game I ever encountered was something on the big mainframe computer at the Dartmouth hospital. A couple kids from my boy scout troop got to go check it out. They also let us freeze stuff with liquid nitrogen. I can’t remember what the game was… but the experience was awesome, I know that. This was back in the 1970′s. I remember that we could draw pictures on the screen using a touch sensitive pad somehow, and the computer controlled a robotic arm with a pen attached, and it would copy whatever we drew and re-draw it on a sheet of paper. Oh, and I think we played tic-tac-toe against the computer too. And some other game that I can’t remember.
Soon after that, I got a home version of pong. It was all kind of mind blowing… The idea that you could manipulate images on a screen, rather than just watching passively like normal television. It draws you into the world in the screen and makes you part of it… It’s really a very powerful art form.
My favorite early game is definitely ‘Adventure’ for the Atari 2600. I think that game is still wicked fun to play even now. I wish someone would make a Gameboy Advance compilation of Atari’s game like they did with Activision’s.
Readers of American Elf know you’re a fan of Mario, but what about his old rival Sonic? Where did you stand on the Sonic/Mario fence when the 16bit wars were going on? Did you even see the point in arguing after seeing just how damn cool Sonic really is?
Well, I was a really really poor starving artist back then. I think I was only making about $107 a week, before taxes. So, I couldn’t get both a SNES and a GENESIS. It was torture trying to decide. I ended up getting a SNES from Amy for my birthday one year, and then I traded a collage I made for an old color television set. I didn’t even get to try any of the Sonic games until many years later, because none of my friends were gamers. But since none of my friends were gamers, there was no one to argue with about it. But I was aware that an argument existed, out there in the world. I chose Mario.
It was years before I got a chance to play those classic Genesis sonics. I played all the Sonic games a couple years ago on my iMac, using emulators and roms. They are GREAT! Then I bought the Sonic Mega Collection for Xbox, but I really preferred playing the roms on my computer to playing on the TV. The screen is so crisp and clean on the computer. Maybe I’ll have to get a HD-TV for gaming… Although that might be insane because I don’t even have cable TV. Can you even use a HD-TV for broadcast television?
Having played your fair share of Gameboy Advance in the past, were you disappointed (as many people were) that most of the early games released for the system were ports of older games?
Yes and no. I really like playing games on a tiny tiny screen. There’s something magical and jewel-like about it.
What really bummed me out was how dark the original Gameboy Advance screen was. Even playing in direct light, holding it right under a desk lamp, that thing was just too dark. Thank goodness the Nintendo DS screens are so beautifully backlit.
Getting towards more current generation gaming for a moment, what are you currently playing, and on what platform?
The Nintendo DS is my favorite system right now. It’s also cool, because even my little 2-year-old can play with me on that. He doesn’t have the coordination yet to really play normal console games… They’ve got way too many buttons, and the analog stick confuses him too. But the stylus and the touch screen? He’s all over that.
We really like Nintendogs. I also just ordered Electroplankton today. It should arrive tomorrow. (Note: It did, hurry over to his site at www.americanelf.com to here some of his creations and one by his son!)
What do you think of the Nintendo Revolution’s planned retro game downloads service?
I think it’s awesome, but it reminds me that I’ve got to get a wireless Internet router so that I’m ready for that. I need it for my Nintendo DS too.
Recent news has seen the announcements of new games for both the Dreamcast and the Genesis, which systems do you wish were enjoying the same treatment?
Well, new games still come out for the Atari 2600 all the time. I think that’s pretty cool.
Do you keep old games and systems, and if so which ones do you drag out most frequently? What games make you want to do so?
I play my old Atari games using emulators usually. My original Atari 2600 has a loose power connection and will shut off in the middle of a game when you try to play. I think I probably play old Atari games more often than those of any other old system, but Gameboy comes in second. Nintendo makes it easy when they make most of their new handhelds backwards compatible with the old games. I’m a little bummed that the DS isn’t compatible with Gameboy and Gameboy Color games, but at least it’s compatible with Gameboy Advance.
Were you down with Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat, and why?
Well, back then I couldn’t afford to buy both, and I chose Street Fighter II. Amy and I were pretty into Street Fighter II on the SNES, and we’d play that together. It was one of the few games she ever got interested in. She’ll only become interested in a game like once or twice a decade. The most recent one that caught her interest was Animal Crossing.
This will be a tough question, but if you could name your five favorite video games of all time what would they be?
It’s really too hard to pick just five! On another day, my list might be different. But today I’m going to say:
- Donkey Kong (Arcade)
- Adventure (Atari 2600)
- Quake 2 (PC)
- Breakdown (Xbox)
- Smedley of the Swamp*
*I programmed this one myself, in BASIC on my Commodore Vic-20, when I was a kid. It was a Q-bert type game.
Thanks for your time James.
There you have it . My first interview here. I think I did quite well, but then again I had a great interviewee to work with. My thanks again to James for taking the time to answer my questions. Now if you haven’t already be sure to check out his website at www.americanelf.com for his sketchbook diaries and Electroplankton creations among many other songs he has on his site.
And who knows, maybe one day I’ll be reviewing ‘Smedley of the Swamp’ here!