5 Retro Games that Made Us Better People
You’re having an average morning at the office, when suddenly word ripples out from the corner suite: the boss is going to visit a major potential client this afternoon, and she wants the latest version of the demo ready to show off. A wave of adrenaline sweeps the room—this is all hands on deck.
The copywriter and designers launch into vetting every scrap of text and making sure every element on the screen will be pixel-perfect. Their actions come naturally; there is no fumbling, no time to second-guess. Meanwhile the developers and project manager scramble furiously to make sure every last tweak is going to fit—if something in the code breaks now, there might not be enough time to push through a fix. An exhilarating (if unexpected) test of your team’s abilities is now underway.
A lesser version of yourself might hyperventilate in this situation, but you’re so immersed in the task at hand you hardly have time to reflect on this. If you came up for air now, you might even realize you’re thrilled—it’s as though you’ve been preparing for this kind of challenge your whole life.
In a way, maybe you have been. Do you think all those old games you grew up playing had anything to do with it?
Perhaps you have fond memories of looking over a parent’s shoulder while they played solitaire, instilling an early appreciation for sequencing and spotting patterns. Or maybe anytime you think about strategic ways to keep your project’s options open, it all comes back to those kitchen-table games of poker with your cousins.
Did you surmount your first failure to negotiate a grand bargain after a botched transaction involving Park Place and a get-out-of-jail-free card? Did you learn about admitting you need help from the time you had to wake up that one kid at the slumber party who knew how to wall-jump in Super Metroid?
Maybe you took down enough bosses in Zelda with just a single a heart remaining that you’ll forever know how to keep your cool in dicy situations. Or maybe all those late nights playing Contra at your friend’s house taught you the value of leaving a few power-ups for your teammate to grab.
Whatever your games of choice were back then, we think it all might’ve factored in over the years to help shape the collaborator you’ve since become. Here’s a look at some of the games that taught us a thing or two about teamwork in the days before gamers wore headsets.
1 Chrono Trigger
This Super Nintendo classic centers on a plucky band of six (or seven—we’ll get to that) friends who represent different epochs of human progress, all united around their modest shared goal of averting an apocalypse.
Besides their disparate strengths, the characters all showcase unique styles of communication: The cursed frog (birthname: Glenn) speaks at times like a character from Chaucer, while cavegirl Ayla’s diction is still more . . . primitive. Spikey-haired swordsman Crono hardly speaks at all throughout the game.
But despite their many dissimilarities, the team does its best work together, with three-character ensembles uniting to cast spells that combine their best traits—for instance blending Crono’s lightning magic with the fire of Lucca (the prodigious inventor) and water magic from Marle (the crossbow-toting princess).
Along the way, the time-traveling team has opportunities to help right each other’s wrongs—stopping a horrible accident from befalling Lucca’s mother, for instance, or helping Glenn lay to rest the ghost of a slain knight. In a true testament to the game’s collaborative spirit, you can even forgive and recruit Magus, the shadow wizard who earlier in the game had seemed the middle ages’ main fount of evil.
Chrono Trigger remains a beautiful gamerly encapsulation of the power of working with a team, however wonky or arcane your colleagues and their strengths may seem.
The ne plus ultra of real-time strategy, Starcraft is a game where no one unit can single-handedly win a match, but the most skilled players make certain that every humble drone they spawn or probe they assemble counts for something.
As with Chrono Trigger (albeit here on a galactic scale) the single-player campaigns in Starcraft often center on peculiar alliances of disparate forces: the scrappy human space explorers (Terrans, to use the game’s parlance) teaming with the noble but sometimes conceited Protoss aliens, for instance, to halt the advance of the prolific, bug-like Zerg.
Connecting online or via local-area networks (remember LAN parties?) also made for fun hours battling alongside friends. Such endeavors found you delegating some tasks (mine your own minerals and explore the map as you can) while intersecting on shared goals (let’s position some siege tanks and templars over the cliff above the opponent’s expansion). And in the true spirit of teamwork, a team with human medics could even heal an ally’s alien hydralisks!
For anyone whose job involves managing a complex and growing team in an uncertain and rapidly evolving environment, Starcraft might just feel familiar.
You might remember this tile-based classic from summer nights with your grandparents; it fits somewhere between gin rummy and Scrabble in the taxonomy of games.
As a pastime where you not only build numeric patterns of your own but also break apart and reassemble combinations played by others, your every incremental step toward victory in Rummikub might also provide the breakthrough someone else needs in order to win. In other words, to inch toward success, you can’t help but nudge others closer to winning, as well—how’s that for built-in collaboration?
As an occasional bonus, trying to combo your way to victory through a dramatic (if not convoluted) series of moves in a crowded late-game board occasionally just fizzles and goes awry. The solution? Other players have to help you puzzle the board back to its original state.
4 The Adventures of Lolo
The NES Lolo series proved unique in an era of games like Mario and Tetris that tend to reward sharp reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
Lolo’s gameplay revolves around recognizing patterns and devising the best sequence for the adorable blue protagonist (the third installment also features his pink counterpart, Lala) to navigate obstacles like rivers and mazes, as well as a slew of quirky enemies. As a result, quick thumbs proved a secondary asset in Lolo, next to patience and a willingness to experiment.
Consequently, a few people could easily sit around the screen, passing the controller and plotting different solutions to each level (as your humble blogger did with his mom and brother in the bygone era of brick-and-mortar video stores).
There are many doors into the thriving world of collaborative puzzle games (consider tabletop gems like Forbidden Island) but for a certain set of people whose work all hinges on planning things in the right order, the sound of a Lolo-esque treasure chest springing open will forever play in their minds as they close in on their final task each day.
5 Magic: The Gathering
As digital games grow ever more popular, paper Magic might just endure (the strategy trading-card game is nearly twenty-five years old now) partly because it can provide something of a respite for people whose careers involve looking at screens all day.
As a recruiter for a tech company in San Francisco, Kevin Ligutom weeds through massive stacks of resumes just to pluck out a small handful of winning candidates. Along the way, he sifts through a variety of metrics and has to know which numbers matter and which ones are just noise. In the end, he has to communicate these results to hiring managers, lawyers, and H.R.
While Kevin is often at the hub of a wheel with many spokes, one thing that helps is his longtime hobby: slinging cards in Legacy, Magic’s highly competitive equivalent of Formula One racing. Experienced Legacy players know hundreds of cards purely by memory, and are comfortable sifting through reams of data about everything from popular tournament-winning decks to lethal new uses for long-out-of-print cards.
In other words, Kevin says, his hobby is a lot like his job: “I need to be able to tell management how long it will take to fill a given role. Part of that is giving them both metrics and my analysis of those numbers based on my experience. Magic got me really comfortable with that kind of thinking.”
Whatever your assignment might be today, we hope you have fun—and maybe even make a game out of it.