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September 14, 2011 / jwaxo

Stanley: the Search for Dr. Livingston (Pausing)

A backpack helicopter was standard equipment in 1871.

As has been established, some games are really hard. Like, really hard. Most of these games seemed to come with the original, hallowed NES.

It’s entirely probable that all of these games were hard just because we were little kids. The NES controller was painfully sharp and frustrating, the control pad not exactly responsive. There’s an endless list of games that we played for it that are permanently stamped into my mind as horribly difficult, most of them probably not even deserving of their own blog post beyond the reference here: Super Pitfall, Operation Wolf, Silent Service. One that stands out in particular to me, though, is Stanley: the Search for Dr. Livingston.

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” That’s what this entire game was based off of: one missing scientist (whose name is misspelled) and another scientist looking for him through darkest Africa. There were spitting cobras. There were leopards. There were giant spiders.

The spiders.

A huge problem with these games is that I hardly even remember much about them, other than they caused me headaches upon headaches trying to beat them. Without a guide, especially for these more obscure games, and without the ability to save, there was only one way to figure out how to beat them: trial and error.

Really, the idea of a “save” was a godsend. In games where a high score is your main goal, sure, that’s fine, but a game with a story, with explorable towns and jungles and caverns? Collectible artifacts, different weapons, wrong turns, all of these things would be massively improved with the idea of a save.

Plus the save screens have the best music.

So we had no save. We had to rely on something greatly taken for granted in the age of online gaming: the pause button.

Using the humorously-named Start button, we could temporarily stop the game. For whatever reason. Of course, thanks to the strange rubberiness of those two center buttons on the NES, we often had to mash it in, our characters dying in the process. But once that sacred button was pressed, some kind of chime would play, and the game would…


Time would freeze. Characters would stop. Enemies wouldn’t hurt you. You would stop dying, hitpoint by hitpoint, as the game mercilessly threw everything it had at you, one pixel at a time.

Pause screens are big fancy things these days. You can do all sorts of stuff there: save, look at game information, change settings. But in these days all you got, maybe, was the word “PAUSE” flashing across the screen as everything froze and flickered.

Of course, we soon learned how to turn this tool in our favor.

This went beyond just pausing the game when dinner came up. Imagine the pain and fury if a ball is thrown to you in RBI, you’re waiting for the perfect moment to swing… and the game pauses. You lose your timing, the internal count for that split second when it is right to mash A and hope the bat connects. All the while your brother is laughing at you, his thumb maniacally poised over the Start button.

Such things were not accepted with the tables turned.

The most powerful tool of the pause, though, was this: if a game was getting too difficult, you could just walk away. Cool down.

It wasn’t even me that taught me this. Trusty Mom, surely hearing my cries of frustration, noticing the sweat running down my brow and my clenched fingers and my aching wrists, sat me down and told me this inalienable truth: sometimes you need to walk away and come back to something before it gets easier.

And it was really true. When you’re just getting too stressed with something, coming back a few hours or days later with fresh eyes (and fingers) would give you the magical ability to at last beat Shere Khan, to navigate those passages under South America, to dodge those evil ninja’s throwing stars. Like most other lessons learned from these stupid video games, it was perfectly applicable with dozens of other applications. That one program giving you trouble? Put it on pause, come back later, magically realize that the feature you wanted is right there. Take a short break from that history of France, watch an episode or two of Get Smart, then come back and get your fingers covered in glue all over again.

Sure, there’d be some slightly lost momentum. You wouldn’t be as warmed up for the game as you first were, or maybe lose a little familiarity with the controls. But you’d ultimately be thankful for that break.

Of course, the chances of our parents letting us leave the console on unattended was aggravatingly slim.


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