It’s hard for me to fathom — it’s been 22 years since I flew to New York City to cover the debut of the Sega Genesis video game system.
I had just started working for a magazine publisher based in Greensboro, N.C., developing and producing an entire line of instructional videogame tapes as an addition to the company’s line of video game and computer magazine business. Back then, when you talked about home video game machines, the original Nintendo Entertainment System ruled the roost, but it wouldn’t for long. Suddenly, Japanese arcade giant Sega was now challenging Mario with its new 16-bit Genesis system. The Genesis and its 16-bit processor bested the NES in almost every way: More realistic and fluid graphics, and action that more closely emulated arcades of the day.
On Assignment in NYC
The year was 1989. Another editor and I were sent to cover the Sega press conference that would announce the Genesis Entertainment System to the world. We flew up late on a weekday afternoon—August 13th, to be exact— in order to get some sleep the night before and be on time for the media event the next morning. On the flight up, I read about the sequel to Ghostbusters in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Like the first film, this new movie would be set in New York…the very place I was heading. Before I knew it, my travel companion and I were pulling into the gates at LaGuardia and catching a cab into town.
It takes a while to get to Lower Manhattan from the airport but it’s a great cab ride. As you get closer to the metropolis, the city looms ahead on the distance at first, before consuming your entire field of vision. And suddenly, you’re there…in New York City—the most vibrant city on earth.
Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple
We were staying in Lower Manhattan for the launch event. In fact, we were staying in one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
The Towers were cities unto themselves, each full of both businesses and offices. We stayed in one of the Tower’s hotel chains (Hilton, maybe? Radisson?). After checking in, we were escorted by a bellman to rooms about 50 stories up, approximately half way up the massive Tower. The accommodations were first class.
There were a number of restaurants in the Tower; we found a spot and ate dinner. Later that night, I woke up and went to the window. I just stood there staring out at Lower Manhattan. My eyes scanned the upward reaches of the Tower and I remember feeling like I was inside of a mountain of steel and glass. I felt safe. I couldn’t envision any force strong enough to bring these Towers down. But that was 22 years ago.
Inside the Box
The next morning was like most for New York; a moderately sunny day. As I looked up I saw the huge skyscrapers partially blocking the sun’s light, giving the city a kind of a gray tint that suited it perfectly.
Following breakfast, we headed over to the press event. The event was being held at the old U.S. Customs House, a grand old building with giant columns that had stood since 1907. In 1976, the building was declared a National Historic Landmark. During our brief walk northward from the WTC, we passed the intersection with Wall Street. Up the street were various financial buildings and the famous stock exchange. You could almost smell the money. Once inside the U.S. Customs House, we were handed press kits within day-glo green folders. There were various crates placed around the enormous hall.
After a few minutes, a Sega spokesman welcomed the press to the unveiling of the Sega Genesis. Then the crates were then lifted to reveal the various gaming stations, along with a larger visual display near the front of the hall. Almost instantly, Sega staffers sat down at the various stations and started up the demos. My co-worker and I toured the exhibits, taking the random invitation to play a game as we walked around. Loud techno music was pumped through the building.
At that time, the system had not yet discovered its Mario. That would happen in 1991, with the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic would go on to become the console’s biggest franchise. Instead we played a near-perfect arcade conversion of Altered Beast and Golden Axe. The visuals looked superior to anything on the NES. The controller was more rounded and felt more ergonomic than the rectangular NES control pad. And the console and controller were manufactured of cool and edgy black plastic (instead of the gray, red and black color scheme of the NES). From the beginning, Sega was trying to distance its console from the NES.
Golden Axe was one of the first Sega Genesis games when the system debuted in 1989. It would be another two years before Sonic the Hedgehog would become the signature character identified with that game system.
The rest of the press event was fairly routine, and before long we were crazily trying to find a cab and our way out of the city.
A couple of years later, I was again sent to New York for business. While walking the streets of Manhattan, up from Time Square to my meeting, I saw a street vendor selling a black t-shirt. On the front, the famous New York City skyline. In front of the skyline was a grinning human skull. The shirt read, “New York City: Where the Weak are Killed and Eaten.” It takes a certain New York sensibility to appreciate why that shirt is so funny. I didn’t purchase the shirt at the time, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since.
New York’s always been lucky for me. Twelve years before the 1989 press event, I had made my first trip to Manhattan. As a boy I had been fascinated with New York City. I drew the famous skyline endlessly. My parents took me there in April 1977 for a long weekend of sightseeing. Within two hours of arriving at our hotel near Times Square, I had met my boyhood hero, Stan Lee, resident genius of Marvel Comics and creator of icons like the Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, and so forth. My father and I caught Stan the Man as he stepped off the elevator after returning to Marvel’s Madison Avenue offices from lunch. I’ve still got his autograph, and another from another famous celebrity.
Andy Warhol used to carry copies of his celebrity magazine Interview to give out to people he’d meet. He autographed this copy of the April 1977 issue and handed it to me on Madison Avenue in New York City. (His signature runs up the left side.)
A half hour before meeting Stan Lee, my Dad and I were walking up Madison Avenue. We passed a celebrity I recognized immediately. We flagged the guy down and spoke to him for about five minutes. It was famous pop artist and professional celebrity-watcher Andy Warhol (the guy who said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”) Andy, the ultimate celebrity insider, turned out to be a real nice guy. He asked about the weather back in North Carolina. I asked him for an autograph and started reaching for the hotel stationery I had in my pocket. But Andy beat me to the punch, taking the copy of his tabloid newspaper/magazine (called Interview) and signing it up the side. The magazine cover he handed me, now framed, still hangs on my wall.
The View of a Lifetime
On that first trip to New York, I went up to the top floor of one of the Twin Towers. The lobby inside the Tower was expansive and that’s where you bought tickets to go up to the top floor or roof. (On non-windy days, they let visitors up on the roof, but we were there on a breezy day.) The elevator ride to the top took a while, and involved one elevator change.
Once on the 110th floor, we slowly walked around the perimeter of the building, looking out from all possible angles. It’s difficult to adequately describe how lofty the view from the top of the WTC was, but this should give you some idea: It was so high up that you could see into four different states from the top floor. At one point, I got close to the edge of the glass and ventured a look straight down – more than a quarter-mile straight down into the abyss. It was so severely high up that you couldn’t look straight down more than a couple of seconds without inducing vertigo. You felt like you were in the clouds, and indeed you were. You were so high up that when hard winds blew, you could feel the Tower move a little. Being there was always an unforgettable experience. I am so lucky to have experienced that.
A dozen years later, I would spend one more night in one of the Twin Towers. A dozen years after that, the Towers would be brought down in the worst attack on the U.S. since World War II. At that time, I was editing a magazine for firefighters. One of our writer/photographers was brought into Ground Zero on the night of 9/11. He spent all night touring the destruction at the WTC. He shot 15 rolls of film – all that he had – and was scrounging film from other photographers. Every view was historic.
Now I try not to remember the destruction of the Twin Towers. For me they remain proud and tall, rising to amazing proportions out of the depths of Lower Manhattan. And if I need any help remembering the electric charge I felt just from being there, I go look at a poster I purchased in the lobby of the WTC, all those many years ago. It shows a rounded, fish-eye perspective view of the Twin Towers looming over Lower Manhattan. Beneath the photo, huge type reads, “The Observation Deck at the World Trade Center.” Above the photo, in even larger type, the poster reads: ”
IT’S HARD TO BE DOWN WHEN YOU’RE UP.
Without a doubt, it was the view of a lifetime.
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