Everything Retro is New Again

I’ve been saying for years that Nintendo should rerelease the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  There are plenty of game cartridges floating around, but in my experience, fewer and fewer well-functioning consoles.  Well, it’s happened.  Sort of.

Shopping yesterday at a trendy store in downtown Toronto (Urban Outfitters), I came across a display of retro-inspired items: books on the history of video games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pint glasses, and so on.  But what really caught my eye was a trio of gaming devices that are new products, but play old games.  I surreptitiously took a (blurry) photo of the display so that I could look up these items once I got home.

Retro stuff at UO

The first one I picked up to examine was almost the exact device I’ve been predicting.  It’s a console that looks like a hybrid of NES and Super NES, and plays both types of cartridges.  It comes bundled with one NES and one SNES controller, and is compatible with the decades-old controllers from the original consoles.  It’s not manufactured by Nintendo, but rather by some company called Hyperkin.  At around $70, the Retron Two-in-One Gaming System seemed like a great buy.  I already have reasonably-functional consoles of my own, so I didn’t get one, but I still felt a bit wowed by the fact that this things exists, and is being sold in a store aimed at people in their teen and early 20s.

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Next to this retro hybrid beast was a daintier offering: a Sega-branded handheld gaming device, preloaded with 37 Sega Genesis and 3 Capcom games, including heavy hitters like the Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter series.  (Also featuring an SD slot for further downloadable games). If the screen hadn’t seemed a bit small (I can’t recall the exact spec), I might have bought this delightful little jewel.  I didn’t play a lot of Sega Genesis (other than Sonic games) and would probably enjoy discovering some new old favorites.

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The third and last console was the most surprising one: an honest-to-goodness branded Atari, with 75 preloaded games, two wireless old-timey-looking joysticks, and ports for genuinely old joysticks, in case you have some kicking around.  (Personally, I have a few that are a whisper away from nonfunctional.)  Seriously?  I feel like the Venn diagram of the target audience for this item is not very promising.

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I mean, let’s be honest here.  I’m at the very top of the age range of people who might shop at UO, and I’m too young to have played Atari when it was having its moment in the sun.  Who are these potential customers?  Maybe young people buying gifts for their parents?  Furthermore, I like vintage games as much as the next person, but have you actually played an Atari game in the last decade? (Or two?)  It’s fun for about three minutes.   I’m all for nostalgia, but when it comes to gaming, I’m also all for fun.

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It was certainly interesting to see these items for sale and to consider the implications.  I wrote a while back on my vague sadness about the fact that the generation of people exposed to early video games (NES specifically) are playing these games less and less.  Maybe the people manufacturing and selling these new-retro consoles know something I don’t… maybe younger people could get into these old games, and save them from disappearing out of collective gamer awareness.

Have you bought or played any of the these new-retro systems?

Duck Hunt & My Childhood Existential Crisis

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I was a sensitive child.  As I’ve disclosed previously, I was scared of my first Nintendo Entertainment System.  Which is entirely reasonable when you consider that it was inhabited by a ghost that took control of Mario whenever I turned my attention away for a few moments.  However, that NES console provoked more than terror in me; it also precipitated what was likely my first existential crisis.  What exactly was it that deformed my previously compact and self-contained mind into a warping tunnel extending infinitely in all directions into time and space?  It was Duck Hunt.

I was five years old.  Prior to my discovery of the Mario-demo-ghost, I spent some time playing Duck Hunt.  Undoubtedly sitting a mere few feet from the screen, clutching the futuristic NES Zapper gun*, shooting green and purple pixelated ducks and relishing triumph with my co-conspirator, the hound.  Soon I had gotten good enough to zap easily through the first few levels.

As I reached whatever I considered at the time to be a high level (was it five? ten? I don’t know), it seemed to me that the game should, at some point, reach its conclusion.  That was how games worked.  They had endpoints.  In the other NES game I played, Mario Bros., every level had a clear endpoint and I confidently believed that were I skilled enough, I could reach the end of the game.  For whatever reason, I did not have this sense with Duck Hunt.  Maybe it was the repetitiveness of the levels.  So although I lacked the vocabulary and theoretical reasoning to properly articulate this thought, I began to fear that Duck Hunt was infinite.  In the clearly-delineated world of a five-year-old, the concept of infinity may exist in some vague form (the sky never ends!).  However, the idea that I could keep shooting ducks for ever and ever, and the game would keep playing that bit of jaunty music and loading a new level, brought the concept of endlessness crashing down onto me with a force that shook me to my very core.

I asked my mother when the game would end.  She said that if I turned off the Nintendo, the game would be over.  She did not understand.

I had to put my theory to the test, and find out if Duck Hunt was, in fact, infinite.  To accomplish this, I could not trust my still-developing hand-eye coordination and risk a few missed shots resulting in game over and an aborted experiment.  I moved in and put that orange muzzle right against the screen.  I zapped through level after level, struggling against a crescendo of anxiety.  I reached higher levels than ever before, and by the time the erratically-flying ducks got fast enough to end my close-up game, I felt queasy with incomprehension.  It was clearly true: the game was infinite.

I tried to understand.  I liked things that I could understand.  I knew that if I understood, I would feel more comfortable.  But I just couldn’t.  I felt tiny and insignificant in the face of this eternal game.  I closed my eyes and imagined the ducks flying, falling, held as trophies by the hound.  More ducks, more music, the hound sniffing the ground and leaping into the grass to begin a new level, ducks flying, ducks falling, over and over and over.  I tried to come to terms with the idea that this process could go on forever.  What would happen to a person who just kept playing?  Would they stop eating and starve?  Would they actually die?  I believed that they might.  Who would create such a sinister game?  What were their motives?  And I wondered most desperately… what did forever actually mean?

I did not resolve these questions.  I stopped playing Duck Hunt.  I turned my attention to Super Mario Bros… and we know how that turned out.  My video game career was off to a rocky start, but in retrospect, I think it was ultimately a positive thing for me to be so truly affected by my early gaming experiences.

By the way, a quick Wiki search has finally put my mind at ease… Duck hunt glitches out at level one hundred.  Phew.

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(*It wasn’t until a brief resurgence of interest in Duck Hunt during my high school years that I ever considered the mechanics of the gun, and realized that it works by acting as an input – registering the area on the tv screen at which it is pointed in order to determine if a shot is a hit or miss.  This realization came in a flash of clarity, and once again, Duck Hunt had succeeded in making me question everything in the world I took for granted… for example, that a gun is fundamentally an output device.)

A Vegan Trip To Argentina, Part 2: Mendoza

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During the drive from the Mendoza airport to our hotel in Luján de Cuyo, a rural division about twenty minutes outside the city, we saw that beautiful street art and murals were not limited to Buenos Aires; the industrial buildings and retaining walls along the highway were peppered with colourful scenes and strange creatures.  Dividing the twinned highway was a large canal.  Our driver explained that Mendoza is located in a natural desert, and complex irrigation of water from the Andes is required to support the trees (all planted during city planning and construction) and, of course, the wineries.

Arriving at Villa Mansa, which was more like a tiny, luxurious resort than a hotel, we were greeted by the owner Viviana and a pair of extremely friendly yellow Labradors.  Predictably, I became good friends with the mother-daughter doggie pair, both of whom were the type of dogs who want petting, lots of petting, don’t stop the petting.  They were trained never to enter the main hotel building or the guest rooms, and curiously, drank out of the pool.

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Our wine tour was booked for the next day.  We breakfasted at the hotel, and although, as is usual at breakfast, most of the offerings were not vegan-friendly, the presentation (including food arranged on large slabs of slate) and variety was impressive.  The strawberry and quince jams were delicious and the fruit salad fresh and plentiful; bowls of various dried fruits and nuts provided me with some breakfast protein.

Bodega Renacer winery was so breathtakingly gorgeous that I would have been perfectly happy to skip the wine tour and just wander around taking photos.  Far from being any kind of wine connoisseur, the truth is that I don’t even really like red wine much (but I’m working on it!).  Despite my unrefined palate, I enjoyed the tasting.   It started with a tasting and discussion of three pure component wines, then we were invited to combine the three according to our own tastes into a personal experimental blend.  After the do-it-yourself portion of the tasting, we were served some of Renacer’s commercial red blends and (yay!) a delightful Sauvignon Blanc.  The palate-cleansing snacks available included some golden grapes that were varied in size and colour, looked like pieces of amber, and were so delicious that I fear all of the raisins in my future will be lacking in comparison.

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The next winery we visited was Norton, a large-scale operation with wines familiar in Canada.  (Both Renacer and Norton wines are vegan-friendly.)  We were booked for a picnic lunch and tour.  Seated on a blanket under a tree, with a view of the vanishingly large vineyard and the Andes beyond, we unpacked the picnic basket: boards of meat and cheese, meat sandwiches, and fruit.  Not a vegetable in sight.  I asked about a vegan option, and was informed that I should have pre-ordered this.  (I actually had mentioned this to the company that booked us, but obviously there was some miscommunication.)  The tour guide said she would see what she could do for me, in a tone that did not inspire much hope.  However, as my family finished picking at the food (even the omnivores were overwhelmed by the heavy offerings), the guide returned with a meal for me: a board of grilled vegetables, an eggplant and red pepper sandwich, and a really nice little salad with walnuts.  I shared a few of the veggies with my covetous family and devoured the rest, which was delicious.  I felt both vaguely smug and a bit guilty that my vegan meal was obviously much better than the standard offering.

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I have to say a few words about the food at our hotel, Villa Mansa.  We ate quite a few meals in their cozy restaurant, and I was very excited to discover when we sat down to dinner on our first evening that the chef was both vegan-savvy and extremely accommodating.  While the menu did not list many vegan options aside from the daily chef’s salad, she came out to speak with me that first evening and offered to prepare me an off-menu vegan risotto with beans from the garden.  Between the rich risotto, studded with large green beans that I could not identify, and the warm-from-the oven bread served with spicy local olive oil and balsamic vinegar, I was in carb heaven.  The chef and staff were wonderfully friendly, and after my first evening I was always served a vegan alternative to the daily amuse-bouche without having to remind anyone of my diet.

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I ordered the daily salad to start every evening.  Each one was based on amazingly fresh and diverse greens.  Other ingredients on various nights included possibly the best tomato I’ve ever tasted (seriously), corn, green onions, edible flowers, vegan croutons, roasted beets, marinated eggplant…. I could go on.  I could also eat one of those salads every day for the rest of my life, quite happily.  For main courses, I enjoyed accidentally-vegan corn humita empanadas with pico de gallo, more wonderful risotto (which my family also started ordering), and crispy-fried polenta topped with grilled veggies.  It was all fantastic.  If you eat a plant-based diet and are planning a trip to Mendoza, you will definitely be well-fed and very happy at the Villa Mansa.

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For our last day in Argentina, we took a guided day trip into Mendoza.  Despite being home to a million people, the city felt small and almost intimate, with trees and plants everywhere and a seriously massive park occupying the west end of the city.  The canals were omnipresent, and even the sidewalks were bordered with three-foot-deep troughs, threatening to cause serious injury to any careless or inebriated tourists.  Like in Buenos Aires, we were inundated with murals, flowering purple trees, mosaic art, statues, and lovely parks.  As we said goodbye to my sister, who was to stay in Mendoza for a month-long nursing internship, I was jealous that she would have the chance to really get to know this beautiful city.

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Our ten days in Argentina were so, so wonderful.  Learning a bit about the history and social structure of the country, we commented more than once that Argentina reminded us of Canada; friendly people and lots of socialized public services.  I can definitely say this: don’t let a plant-based diet deter you from visiting Argentina.  It’s entirely possible to eat well with only a bit of planning and a few key words in Spanish.  In both Buenos Aires and Mendoza, one feels immersed in art and beauty.  I certainly hope to return again sometime for more days of grilled vegetables, surreal murals, and Argentinian hospitality.

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A Vegan Trip to Argentina, Part 1: Buenos Aires

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“A family trip to Argentina.”  Words that strike fear into the vegan heart, even while promising an exciting foray into an exquisitely beautiful country with friendly people and fascinating culture.  I packed up my vegan protein bars and boarded the 11-hour flight along with my sister, mother, and stepfather.

(Before we arrive in Argentina: a word on Air Canada.  I chose “Strict vegetarian / non-dairy” for my meal option when booking the trip.  Air Canada provides meals for intercontinental flights, and when you’ve chosen a non-standard one, it’s kind of fun because the attendants bring you your meal before everyone else with a little tag with your name on it.

Of the four meals I had (two flying down and two back), three of them were surprisingly edible.  The green curry with tofu was yucky, but the quinoa with spiced sweet potato, pasta with roasted veggies, and spinach crepe with asparagus were all perfectly edible.  The sides, including marinated veggie salads, bread with non-dairy margarine, and even a soy yogurt (!) were ok too.  Overall, I have to give Air Canada a thumbs-up for their vegan meals.)

Argentina is the land of beef; there is no way around it.  I read a lot online about the challenges for vegetarians visiting (or living) there; for vegans it seemed like an almost impossible place to navigate.  I resigned myself to ten days of bread, olive oil, and perhaps the odd green salad.  We had booked a private guide for a couple of days in Buenos Aires, and in an email exchange prior to the trip he told me that there is a vegetarian restaurant very close to our hotel.  A glimmer of hope.

After the grueling overnight travel from Toronto, through Santiago, to our boutique hotel in downtown Buenos Aires, we stumbled foggily to the restaurant-lined square a couple of blocks away.  Regrettably, I did not get the name of the restaurant on the corner of Costa Rica and Malabia that we piled into, ordering a round of local Imperial beers, which were light and very refreshing.  I steeled myself, looked down at the menu… and was delighted to see a little carrot symbol next to a number of choices.  While these vegetarian options were (unsurprisingly) mostly cheese-centric, one caught my eye: a grain burger with ‘grilled tofu cheese,’ rice, greens, and sprouts.  I had tailored my tiny Spanish vocabulary for just such an occasion, and I pointed to the menu and asked the server, “Sin queso, sin huevos, sin productos de leche?”  He went back to the kitchen and reappeared looking pleased.  I couldn’t believe it.  A full vegan-friendly meal at our first, randomly-chosen restaurant.  And it was delicious.

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It’s safe to say I got a bit lucky on that first day, but equally true that it was not as difficult as I had feared to find food in Buenos Aires that I could not only eat, but enjoy.  Our wonderful private tour guide, Pablo Piera, was very helpful in this regard.  Whenever it was time to eat, Pablo spoke to our servers in order to assure my meals would be vegan-friendly, and several times managed to order off-menu concoctions for me in places that otherwise would have presented real difficulty.  When he brought us to a beautiful café famous for pastries and sweets, he got the kitchen to make me up a pita-vegetable sandwich so that I would have something to nibble while the family sampled the desserts.  Pablo was an all-around fantastic guide, tailoring our time in Buenos Aires to suit our interests (heavy on the art!), and possessed of a seemingly-unlimited wealth of knowledge about the history and culture of Argentina.  If you are ever planning a trip to Buenos Aires, I cannot recommend him highly enough.

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The vegetarian restaurant near our hotel was called Krishna.  Starving after a long day sightseeing, my sister and I arrived promptly at 8pm, the opening time stated on the website, to locked doors (classic Canadians, coping poorly with European-style dinner times).  Thirty-five long minutes later, the doors opened into a small but beautifully decorated dining room, with Indian- and Buddhism-inspired details.  The English-translation menu featured pakoras, salads, and several seitan-based dishes, among others.  When I asked the server about vegan options, she left and returned with the chef, who smiled knowingly as he told me that he is vegan as well.  After he explained which dishes would be appropriate, I ordered sautéed setian and vegetables with rice and a large salad.  Both were delicious; the salad was enormous and fresh, and the seitan was cut into small pieces and mixed in a savoury sauce with lots of chopped veggies.  My sister said that the tomato sauce served with her vegetable balls was possibly the freshest-tasting she has ever had.  The only disappointment of the evening was that my camera battery died after snapping one blurry photo of the dimly-lit dining room.

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For our last night in Buenos Aires, Pablo had booked us tickets to La Esquina de Carlos Gardel for dinner and a tango show.  Once we were seated in a comfortable booth in the beautiful theatre, I checked the prix-fixe menu.   No appetizers or desserts that could potentially be modified to vegan; one pasta entrée that seemed like a contender if ordered without cheese.  When our stern-looking server arrived, I explained as nicely as I could about my diet and asked if there was any way a green salad could be ordered for an appetizer (there was nothing of the sort on the menu).  To my surprise, she assured me that I could get a vegan-friendly salad, and suggested the pasta as an entrée.  The salad arrived shortly afterward, consisting of mixed bitter greens atop thinly-sliced tomatoes in a vinaigrette; I was delighted.

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Unfortunately, my entrée appeared with a small mound of melted cheese on top of the pasta.  Watching our server rush around topping up wine for the tables in her section, I decided not to say anything and just scooped the cheese and affected pasta off the top (luckily, it was self-contained and had not spread around the dish).  The pasta was fine after this, and to my surprise, was followed by a lovely fruit plate for dessert.  (My family was jealous!)  The tango show started during dessert, and I can honestly say it was one of the most mesmerizing live performances I have ever seen. Despite the misstep with the pasta, I would definitely recommend La Esquina de Carlos Gardel for any vegans hoping to see an amazing tango show in Buenos Aires.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in the hotel.  I ate the same breakfast I’ve had virtually every day I’ve spent outside of North America: toast and jam, fruit, and black coffee.  We left for the domestic airport and departed for the second and final stop on our trip: Mendoza.  I wondered how I would fare in a more rural setting, as we were booked at a wine hotel in the desert about 20 minutes outside Mendoza… and I marveled at the fact that I was halfway through my Argentina vacation and had not touched the protein bars at the bottom of my carry-on bag.

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