Salvatore Pane

Month: May, 2012

Retro Video Game Finds III

I had an epiphany last month. I’ve been collecting Nintendo Entertainment System games for eight years now–longer than the amount of time I actually owned the NES as a kid–and what do I have to show for it? A little over 200 NES games plus an assortment of random SNES, N64, Atari 2600, Sega Saturn, and Intellivision titles. No more! I am rededicating myself to collecting all 700+ NES games in existence! I will transform myself into the greatest NES collector of all time!

This was one of my all time cheapest finds. I picked up Hydlide, Othello, Shadowgate, Slalom, and City Connection for $1 a piece and Rampart for $2.50. Hydlide and Slalom are virtually unplayable, but Shadowgate is a fun, if archaic, point and click adventure. City Connection is completely worth it for the absurdity alone–you drive around on a construction site in front of the World Trade Center killing cops; if you run over a cat you die instantly. And Rampart, of course, is an adequate port of the arcade classic. I found these all at the Ross Park Exchange, and the true gem of the haul was the Sega Saturn Stunner gun for $2.50! I paid $15 for my first Saturn gun–but what’s the fun in playing Virtua Cop with only one player–and was ecstatic to find this one for so cheap. They actually thought it was a Sega Genesis gun! What a bunch of maroons! However, when I got this bad boy home, it wouldn’t work at all. I tried it in both controller ports and was almost ready to add it to my two other recently purchased Saturn pads that didn’t work, but luckily, my pal Kevin Tassini came to the rescue.

We discovered some strange things when Kevin opened the gun. Someone had tried to use electrical tape to reconnect the circuit board, and weirder still, they taped a bunch of Japanese batteries inside that leaked acid all over the plastic casing. Kevin took the gun home and using some sort of Olde Timey Math Magic was able to repair the Saturn Stunner. Our reward was seven unfulfilling minutes playing Virtua Cop.

This holy grail of a video game is one of the rarest titles in the NES library, The Miracle Piano System. I was really shocked to discover this in the Dormont Exchange retailing for only $8. For some reason, they separated the game from the peripheral you need to play it, a full-sized keyboard that connects to your NES. The game teaches you how to play piano–basically it was a trick some parents pulled to make kids think they were getting a Nintendo game, but really it was edutainment. They were selling the piano for $100, but I was more than happy to take the game off their hands. I’m not going for a complete NES accessory collection. I just want all the games loose. I have no clue why they would separate the game and piano, however, as the only people who would buy it now are resellers or people who already own the cart loose.

I haven’t found much in flea markets or thrift stores in the past few months, but I’ve been killing it in the retail stores. Let’s talk about my baby, Rockin’ Kats, first. Rockin’ Kats is the last game that I fondly remembered from childhood that I hadn’t managed to track down. I’m 233 deep into my collection. I have the games I loved as a kid, and now I’m down to finding rare titles, which are most often brutally terrible. I played Rockin’ Kats for the first time in 1990 at my friend Joseph’s house. He rented it for a sleepover, and I was blown away. You play as a rockabilly kat who goes around shooting puppies with a gun that fires boxing gloves. WHAT ELSE DO YOU PEOPLE NEED? I normally NEVER spend this much on a Nintendo game, but I’ve been collecting for eight years, and I’d never even seen a copy of Rockin’ Kats in the wild. I gladly paid $12 at the Monroeville Exchange along with $2.50 each for Caesar’s Palace–pretty self-explanatory–and Short Order/Eggsplode, a highly uncommon Power Pad game. I paid $7 for Clash at Demonhead, an underrated NES classic, at the Century III Cash In Culture.

Oh, boy. Two weekends ago I visited my buddy Mark in Danville, and he took me to this very respectable retro game store in Lewisburg. When I saw this, I almost spazzed. A SEALED NES GAME! Do you know how rare these are? Sealed NES games–even the common ones–can fetch upwards of a hundred dollars on eBay. More important than that, they’re premium trade bait–more on that in a bit. The way to tell an original seal from a reseal is relatively simple. You see that plastic line on the back of the box toward the bottom of the pic? That’s called an H Seam. If your sealed NES game has an H Seam, you’re probably in the clear. I paid $10 for this, and it wasn’t until I was outside that I realized someone had used an exacto knife to cut open the top of the box. It was open. They just kept the majority of the seal on. In my excitement over seeing my first ever sealed NES game, I forgot to check the top of the box. An obvious blunder, but it’s still a neat item to have in the collection.

I also purchased the wonderful Kickle Cubicle for $9. That was a little high, but it’s fairly uncommon and I’d wanted to play it for a long time.

It’s time to get to brass tacks, folks. One of the reasons I’ve been so hyped up on NES games as of late is because I discovered this forum about NES collecting called Nintendo Age. In 2004, when I first began collecting, I joined a few forums, but the conversations were always about what game you found at the flea market or on ebay, and I lost interest quickly. In the meantime, the NES collecting scene online has completely and utterly changed. Because of online shows like Angry Video Game Nerd, Pat the NES Punk, and The Game Chasers, demand for these old games has skyrocketed. Games that I recall being worth a few hundred are now fetching a few thousand. There’s even a a site that accurately tracks how much NES games are worth using an algorithm that takes current ebay, Half.com, and Amazon prices into account. Best of all, Nintendo Age has a trading forum. It took me awhile to piece together the ramifications of this, but eventually I realized I could trade the rare games I’d acquired for other systems and nab a bunch of hard to find NES titles. This was the first deal I made. I traded Pocky and Rocky 2 for the SNES, one of system’s rarest titles, for this lot of Mario’s Time Machine, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Impossible Mission II, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Galaga. All are uncommon, Mario is rare, and Indy and Impossible Mission are bordering on rare. And all it cost me was the price of shipping Pocky and Rocky, a game I almost never played.

The Impossible Mission II cart had seen better days. The board was so loose inside the cart, that whenever I put it into the NES it slid up inside the plastic. This was an easier fix than I anticipated. Most NES games can only be opened with a special 3.8mm Security Tool, but IMII is an unlicensed game. Nintendo of America never approved it, so the company released the game to the few stores that would carry it in their own shoddy plastic shells. Luckily, American Video Entertainment used standard screws. I was able to pop the game open and clean the board using Windex. Then I used electrical tape to make two weights with a handful of pennies. I secured the board in place and taped a balance under it, placing the pennies just above the board. Now, when I push the game into the NES, the pennies stop the board from getting stuck inside the plastic. If you’re wondering if this game is fun or worth the trouble, the answer is absolutely not. Collecting NES games isn’t about having fun.

This past weekend, I hit Trader Jack’s but came up empty. I luckily found some decent games afterward. I bought this copy of Cruisn’ World for $1 at the Dormont Exchange and Snake Rattle N Roll for $5 at Groovy, a retro toy store, on the Southside. Snake Rattle N Roll is almost too bizarre to describe. You play as a snake head and have to eat all these balls to become bigger while toilet seats and alligators try and eat you. It’s pretty great, guys.

Earlier today, I made a trade on Nintendo Age to give up Xenogears–a rare PSX RPG–for a working Power Pad, Star Fox 64, Yoshi’s Story 64, and 1942 on NES. I shipped it out and then checked out the Squirrel Hill Exchange to see if they’d gotten anything new. I’m glad I did. I picked up two classic N64 titles, Shadows of the Empire and Turok 2, for $2.50 each and then two horrific NES games, Super Glove Ball–which only works with the infamous Power Glove–for $2.50 and Metal Gear 2: Snake’s Revenge for $5. I love the Metal Gear series and have always wanted to play this weird bastard child iteration. You ever notice that so many NES sequels–Adventure of Link, Super Mario 2, Castlevania 2–are universally considered the worst entries in the series? What’s up with that?

What’s up with old video games, you guys?

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American Short Fiction May Web Exclusive

Bros! My story “John Starks” is American Short Fiction‘s web exclusive for the month of May. Check it out. Read the interview here.

What It’s Like to TA a Fiction Workshop

This past semester was my first opportunity to use a TA in one of my classes. It’s not common knowledge that any instructor can use a TA at Pitt, and I really had no idea until one of the senior faculty members pointed it out. I needed someone to manage the discussion boards–in my Intro to Fiction class there are literally thousands of posts–and cover classes when I needed to be out of town for campus interviews. Joellyn Powers was a student of mine in Advanced Fiction Workshop last spring, and I asked her to be my TA for Intro to Fiction because I knew she was applying to MFA programs and wanted to get experience teaching. In addition to coming to class, offering up suggestions, running the boards, and teaching the occasional workshop, I also asked her to read a few essays about workshop pedagogy–Madison Smartt Bell’s “Unconscious Mind” and Peter Turchi’s “Making the Most of a Workshop” both of which you can find PDFs of online with a small bit of searching–and a collection of MFA lectures by Charles Baxter entitled Burning Down the House. At the end of the course, I asked Joellyn to write a brief paper discussing her experience teaching a college class for the first time and her response to the reading materials above. After reading the essay, I thought others might find it interesting, and Joellyn agreed to let me run it on the blog. It’s a peculiar vantage point that many of us can relate to: that space between college and an MFA program. How do you analyze and effectively run a class you would have been in only a few semesters earlier? Let me know what you think, and check out Joellyn’s writing. She has work in Metazen, Bluestem, Big Lucks, and others.

I can honestly say this has been the most rewarding experience of my college career. I’ve always wanted to be a writer – it is the only career I have ever conceivably been able to imagine myself doing – but I was always told to think of the ‘practical’ side of things. In my senior year of high school, I was a teaching assistant for one of my English teachers. It was horrible. The kids were disrespectful and loud, the curriculum was outdated, and the tasks I was assigned to do were menial, at best. High school teaching was out, as far as I was concerned, and it seemed even more impossible for me to have a job that would allow me to function in society. When I got to college, though, the people in the classes seemed so much more involved – the students actually wanted to be there and the majority of the professors were so passionate about their subjects they could turn something as dull as American history into a topic I wanted to learn more about and excel in. College became a bubble of academia, where one subject could be looked at so closely it became the entire world of the classroom.

So in my last semester of college – a semester that was already emotionally taxing for more reasons than one – I did not think twice about jumping into the world of college teaching. And I can sincerely state that this position helped me in receiving a fantastic scholarship to a fantastic MFA program. It also helped me to realize that I am on the right track in my life and that this is something I am good at – this is a job I can actually do and be successful at.

It was strange at first, being on the other side of the class. Being in a position of even some type of higher understanding makes me nervous; I didn’t really want to be the one students turned to when they did not understand something. I realized just how much responsibility a teacher has to his or her students, but I also realized how this line of work is a constant cycle of education on both sides. Let me try and explain a bit. When I first began as a teaching assistant for Introduction to Fiction, I was just finishing up applying to MFA programs. I was creatively and emotionally exhausted by my own writing and drained from filling out applications. I did not know what I had to add to the classroom setting – what did I really know about anything? The first eye-opening experience I had was during the first lesson I taught. In the last ten or fifteen minutes, I asked the class if they had any questions about the English major at Pitt, about Pitt in general, or about applying to graduate school. I was shocked and flattered by how many people had thoughtful, legitimate questions. Even though the majority of the class consisted of freshmen, they were all eager to know what they could do with this major in the future. As I answered their questions to the best of my ability, I began to realize that I was providing them with knowledge I had only learned a few years, or months, or even weeks, before. As I learned more I would also know less, yes, but during that process I would also become more knowledgeable for someone else. It was a very humbling realization.

I’ve also realized how immensely satisfying it is to talk about short stories I myself draw great inspiration from. I got to have a discussion about Andre Dubus’s ‘The Fat Girl’ with the class, arguably one of the most influential short stories for myself as a writer, as well as Deborah Eisenberg’s ‘Twilight of the Superheroes,’ a story that, with a second read-through, I grew to appreciate on an entirely new level. I was also introduced to new stories in my lessons: Don Lee’s ‘The Price of Eggs in China’ and James Alan McPherson’s ‘Gold Coast.’ It was interesting for me to study these stories on a pedagogical level, rather than an academic, or even a writing, one. What do these students need to get out of these pieces of writing? How can I get them to see the techniques these writers use? I also got to recommend Aimee Bender to a student, which was satisfying on an entirely different level.

Running a workshop was also a rewarding experience. I enjoyed listening to the students’ insights into their peers’ work, while directing the conversation rather than merely inserting my own opinions. I did voice my thoughts on the writing up for workshop, but it was in a more directive way; I tried to be critical while also giving the writer another story to look at or a different technique to try. Looking back on this workshop experience after reading two essays on the subject of writing pedagogy, I can see how some people would think running a creative writing class is easy. From a distanced perspective it looks like a group of people talking about what they liked and what they didn’t like about a piece of writing; but when this group of people is thought about in a different light, it becomes something more complicated. The essay by Peter Turchi really opened this up for me. I was especially drawn to the line, ‘Your goal in a workshop, then, should be to help the writer understand what a thoughtful reader sees on the page.’ This line reminded me of the countless writing workshops I have sat through in my educational career, where the majority of the time was spent making comments and suggestions the writer would probably not even use in the first place. I see Turchi’s suggestion as a way in which to run an undergraduate – and even a graduate – writing workshop. I want the students to be able to see the writer’s intent, rather than merely the work’s merits and shortcomings. The intent should be the most important aspect – without a strong foundation, the story will not succeed.

The second essay by Madison Smartt Bell really spoke to me in its presentation of the unconscious mind. When I was enrolled in Introduction to Fiction and Intermediate Fiction here at Pitt, my instructors spent a lot of the time assigning us on-the-spot writing exercises. I’m the type of person who can never write on cue; the urge to write or the burgeoning of an idea always occurs when I’m least expecting it, so to be told to sit down and write from the perspective of a child, say, was more aggravating than inspiring. Watching from the sidelines of this Intro Fiction course, I have begun to imagine ways in which this ‘unconscious’ way of writing can be taught, without using those irritating in-class prompts. I think it would be important for the teacher to provide the class with his or her own struggles with writing. Seeing the instructor as a fellow writer is more helpful than viewing them as some unreachable, superior being. I liked feeling on equal footing with the students during workshop; it felt more like a discussion, rather than a lecture. Don’t get me wrong, I think some form of formal instruction is necessary in order to teach technique and to introduce students to important stories and writers, but, as Bell says, writing is such a solitary act in the first place that when the class comes together, it should be a collaborative forum, rather than one person taking the lead.

Then there is Charles Baxter’s collection of essays. These were strange, inspiring, irritating, and pretentious, all at once. I enjoyed reading the book, though, and I think that says something – that writing pedagogy can be read  without cringing. It doesn’t have to be something so academic it makes you gag. My favorite essay was ‘Against Epiphanies.’ I love that Baxter is arguing against the one, huge epiphany in literature, and that, ‘…sometimes the epiphanic insight is not so radiant. You discover that you are going to spend your life in Laundromats, fighting other people to get access to the dryers.’ That’s an awesome sentence in its own right, but from a pedagogical standpoint, I think it shows that teachers can fight against one way of instructing students in creative writing; there does not have to be one right way.

Basically, what I’m trying to get at is this has been an incredibly eye-opening, satisfying, and humbling experience. I have been able to see ways to combine my own writing with teaching, as well as ways in which to show students how to look at their writing differently. I am so grateful that I was given this opportunity, and that I will be able to use this new-found knowledge as I move into a graduate program.