The Tale of a TurboGrafx

What was the first thing you bought on eBay?

It’s an inane question, but I expect it’ll come up more and more often as the decades lurch onward and turn us nostalgic about every microscopic detail we recall from our younger years, whether it’s the first Star Wars figure you got or the LeMenu microwave dinner plate that your family reused almost every night for fifteen years. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you remember it.

In that light, it’s not hard to find some appeal for the early years of eBay. The website’s still around and will be as long as the Internet exists, but it was a different creature in the late 1990s, when just about everything online was more suspicious. Auctions didn’t need images, sellers and buyers were on even ground when it came to feedback, and PayPal was largely unknown. You might find yourself wondering if that Gundam model or old Arby’s kids-meal toy was really worth the trouble of getting a money order and mailing it off.

I first heard of eBay in 1998, but it was through a coworker who would interrupt conversations in the most awkward manner imaginable. He once accosted me in the store's video-game aisle just so he could point at Dead or Alive for the PlayStation and announce “this is the bounciest fighter.” When he mentioned eBay, I decided to stay away from it.

I didn’t stay away for long, and the next year I jumped into eBay. The first things I bought were not memorable: two Final Fantasy VII posters and an unopened Chun-Li figure from the G.I. Joe/Street Fighter cross-up of the early 1990s. The posters, which I now realize were bootlegs, stayed on my wall for only a month or so, and Chun-Li sat in a closet for a good decade until I sold her, still unopened, for about the same amount I’d paid.

My third purchase was the first important thing I bought on eBay: a TurboGrafx-16.

Fun with Mariner's Run and Loppy

Many canceled NES games exist only on paper, whether it’s a sheaf of old design documents, a press release, a magazine’s rumors section, or a bar napkin with DONKEY KONG FIGHTS GUNDAM scrawled on it. In some cases, having only a title makes a game all the more enticing, as we’re free to imagine what Vic Tokai’s Baby Gangster, LJN’s World War III, or Activision’s The Abyss might have been like had they shown up behind the glass at Kay-Bee. 

Yes, some unreleased NES games left behind only their titles and vague descriptions. Until last month, I thought Mariner’s Run was among them.

Mariner’s Run is the work of Vic Tokai, a company that’s fascinated me for a while—and not just because of my unabiding fondness for Trouble Shooter. Vic Tokai crafted intriguing games throughout the NES era, whether it was the early (and unreleased in the U.S.) action-RPG Chester Field, the complex adventure of Clash at Demonhead, the charming The Krion Conquest, or the Golgo 13 games, which might not be great but remain marvels of sneaking gruesome violence and bleak spy-pulp stories onto a game system where alcohol and crucifixes were verboten.

We find little information about Mariner’s Run, known as Sea Dog in Japan. It appeared in magazines early in 1991, and the manual for Magical Kids Doropie (aka The Krion Conquest) describes it as a "battle RPG" with a March 1991 release date. 

That was all I knew about the game, and it was all I needed to imagine the best possible NES treatment. I pictured a naval warfare epic in a post-apocalyptic or high-tech future, where you might roam the seas from an overhead perspective and fight intense battles from a first-person viewpoint. Kinda like SubRoc 3D crossed with a fun version of Silent Service.

I somehow neglected to notice that Mariner’s Run survived online in at least three screenshots, plus a Game Players blurb that describes it as “a game in the style of Ultima or Dragon Warrior” that “takes place in a land of seafaring towns.” And that’s enough to destroy my vision of the game.

Yet Mariner’s Run is more interesting now that I’ve seen it. The first screenshot shows the overhead RPG portion, and it's downright primitive for an NES game from 1991. Still, it’s enough to speculate as to which sprite is the main character (my bet is the blue-gray one) and what time period it wants to evoke.

The Cap'n Crunch Reef Raider

If your life and its myriad tiny embarrassments are anything like mine, you went through a time where you weren’t just too old for toys—you were too cool for toys. That was me in the early 1990s, neck-deep in posturing, oversensitive nascent-teenage nonsense. I was having a miserable time in middle school, and I knew it would be even more miserable if anyone thought I played with toys. It’d be worse than getting caught watching the Disney Afternoon without any younger siblings in the room.

What’s more, 1993 was a barren year for toys as far as I was concerned. Ninja Turtles had grown really desperate, Transformers went through an awkward and recycled second generation, and old favorites like Battle Beasts and Starriors were long gone. I had given up on toys, but they had given up on me first.

Yet I noticed something on a Cap’n Crunch box one morning: a mail-away promo for a toy vehicle playset called the Reef Raider. It made a convincing pitch by being free with several box tops and a few bucks for shipping. I didn’t care that the Reef Raider looked like a Fisher-Price submarine or that playing with it would be considerably more childish than messing with Pirates of Dark Water figures or spending a Saturday morning engrossed from Toxic Crusaders to Taz-Mania. I wanted that sub.

The Reef Raider arrived soon, and I had some fun with it for an evening or two, unfolding it in my room with all the awkward secrecy I’d show a dirty magazine. Then I set it aside so that it could disappear into whatever strange vortex swallows up toys that inspire small yet persistent jabs of shame.

The Reef Raider’s unique spot in my uncomfortable years and its subsequent vanishing might explain why I remembered it so readily, though it probably doesn’t excuse my buying it again. As with anything remotely collectible, eBay sellers want more for a Cap’n Crunch promotion than anyone in their right mind would pay, but I managed to find one, still new in the bag, for only a little more than its postage cost all those years ago.

Little Things: The King of Fighters XI

Picking a favorite game from The King of Fighters is a daunting task, considering how damn much there is of the series. It saw yearly iterations from 1994 through 2003, undeterred even by SNK’s collapse, and that’s not even counting the various spin-offs and odd experiments. Most devoted fighting-game fans lean toward The King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match and The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match, as both are very polished and cover the broadest range of characters, but you could pick just about any piece of the series and find a convincing personal reason to praise it above the pack. Except for The King of Fighters ’94. Nobody seems to like that.

I don’t know if The King of Fighters XI is my favorite, but it has my favorite character-selection screen. That’s because almost everyone there is grinning like an idiot.

Most of the characters on the roster wear big, goofy smiles in their portraits. Some of them look a little off, especially when the headshots are flipped for the two-player side, but that only adds to the impact. They’re not happy despite looking stupid, they’re happy because they look stupid.