There are certain elements in life that bond human beings closer together and work to greatly intensify the living experience. Examples include friendship, in its capacity to add weight to communication between two people and build trust in order to open new memorable possibilities; competition, in its inherent attribute of allowing participants to actively strive to find their highest points of skill in a given field; and hobbies, in their warm-fuzzy propensity for enveloping its members into a sub-culture based firmly on specialized enjoyment.
In some glorious cases, many of life’s more volatile ingredients are combined to form unforgettable bouts of inspiration fuel and nostalgia bombs. Video games is a perfect example for myself, and even within that category I can point to a few exceptional selections. Of all the various now-old titles I literally spent hours and hours upon, one of the first to come to mind in such times is a wonderful little beach volleyball simulator by beloved Technos called Super Spike V’Ball.
The crunchy sound effects, beautifully rendered music, and iconic visuals all come flooding back to the ol’ memory banks when I merely recall the title. Many a dry word can be spent detailing its pixel-by-pixel details of gameplay mechanics and match modes, animation sequences and spike-timing strategies. My recollections of choice, though, were forged just as much in the fires of real-life humanity as they were within the digital confines of the electronic universe.
My best friend had the NES, as did I, and we spent much of our growing up playing those gray 8-bit cartridges. While it was always fun to indulge in the sporting challenge of Ice Hockey or R.B.I. Baseball, or later throw down for some Tetris Attack or even Super Smash Bros Melee, there was definitely one particulate title that stood out among the rest of our collections, in terms of late nights spent conquering its test as a team: Super Spike V’Ball.
It became something of an insular little tradition to regularly try to beat the game. While we eventually mastered the American Circuit, the World Cup proved to be a devious opponent. Usually at his house, I would spend the night on a Friday, and into the long hours of the early morning we would stay up, match after match, trying to completely win through the entire tournament.
Sometimes, we would switch up. While Al and John, the heavy-hitting duo of the four available teams, was our usual pick, occasionally we would try out the Lee brothers. We may have tried the speedy pair once or the all-around team for a try, but anyone who plays enough Super Spike knows that neither of those options have any chance. Once the smoke clears and the basics of the game mechanics are boiled down, the truth is exposed: You are going to win by either spiking harder than the computer opponent can handle, or by being able to defend their spikes effectively. There is no middle ground, so if you cannot handle one or the other, you are inevitably screwed to the fate of a crushing defeat.
If a match was especially strenous or close, we would take a break. This meant that we took a lot of breaks. Taking breaks means grabbing a soda pop, or maybe a snack. In fact, snacking became almost as much a part of the experience as our intense focus, or the game itself. A tradition within a tradition soon emerged: Sandwiches.
That sounds simple enough; but, really, the simplistic pleasure of a good sandwich proved to be the perfect complement to the single-minded devotion to our goal. His older brother would get in on the action, or his mom would even treat us. The possibility could be the single-ingredient taste of crunchy peanut butter, or extend to elaborate culinary masterpieces of several expertly combined components. Bring on the tomato, the turkey, the mayo, the mustard, the lettuce, even some seasonings here, or a certain sauce there.
Or, if not sandwiches, we had pickles. Random, maybe, but such is the capricious nature of society’s rituals, no? Big, giant, sour pickles. We tried them with hot fries once (for “luck”?), but the resulting gastrointestinal destruction was incentive enough to never try that experiment ever again. Seriously: Do not combine pickles and hot fries. That was a night we will never get to regain. Nevertheless, we persisted.
After all, we needed the proper fuel to maintain energy to continue our arduous quest, right? Of course we did. Caffeine and carbohydrates, perhaps, have always been gamers’ best friends. But such treats could hardly dull the pain of bitter defeat: Usually, the majority of the time we attempted the World Cup, we would lose to a late-round opponent. Later matches in Super Spike V’Ball become extended exercises in patience, where a single volley can have over a dozen contested spikes, and every block must be mastefully executed to perfection. Being even a little off can result in a lost point; even blocking the spike often results in the blocker being flung backward and a teammate having to dive for it.
Back and forth, over and over, again and again. We never played by Rally Point, so sometimes ball possession would switch several times before even a single point would be scored. Several minutes could pass in scoreless, breathless anticipation, yet losing concentration would surely swing momentum in the wrong direction. Those were tense nights, fraught with anxiety.
This exercise persisted for years. One problem was the fact that we did not always opt for it: I might spend Friday night at his house for a few weeks in a row, but that did not translate into a few consecutive attempts. Since a couple months could pass between each try, we were never fully honed, always a little rusty. Gradually, maybe, we were gaining some sort of mastery through familiarity, but the challenge truly remained for what felt like a very long time.
Finally, one fateful weekend when we were both in high school and had been attempting this stupid challenge since I was in second grade or so, we were utterly determined to beat the game. Once and for all, with no screwing around, with a dedicated gameplan in mind, and without any excuses. We were rested, we were ready, we were well-versed in the ways of Super Spike V’Ball, and we were going to finally beat this stupid nemesis of ours.
And, y’know what? We did. We beat it. We won the World Cup. But it felt very anticlimactic. After all the times we had laughed at the game, yelled at each other, and exhausted ourselves, merely beating a video game seemed like such a little thing.
Oh, sure, we celebrated at the time; we whooped, we hollered, we whatevered. Yet, in hindsight, the war was more enjoyable than the resulting victory. We had become addicted to the battle, junkies of the fight. I was always the kind of guy to roll my eyes at people who said things like “The journey is more important than the destination,” but, strangely enough, I could not deny the truth of this adage, to some extent, in our experience with Super Spike V’Ball. The game had become a rich history of our teamwork, part of our maturing, a touchstone moment we could always point back to, and more of a part of our lives than it could have ever hoped to be had we simply beat it the first time we tried. For once, I was happy that it took so friggin’ long to best the NES.