Xbox Game Pass has once again proven its worth by allowing me to confront a bully of my past: the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca.
Yes, I’m serious.
Every night for the last two weeks, when normal people would wind down for bed with a nice hot mug of tea and their favorite background noise show, I would log into Age of Empires: Definitive Edition and do my damndest to finally defeat that menace to Roman society. Seventeen years and an accumulation of video game experience later, I still can’t beat that sunnovabitch.
Most of the PC games people grew up on back in the aughts—the Starcrafts, Warcrafts, Mysts, and Diablos of the world—I had no knowledge of. I didn’t have friends or family who played PC games, either. Like many Black children in the early aughts, if we gamed at all, it was on console (an anecdote reflected in the larger population of people of color in the console-based fighting game community vs the PC-oriented esports community).
Though I felt lucky to have a computer, I didn’t have much to use it for. It didn’t have a dedicated internet connection. Instead, whenever any of us wanted to connect to the internet, we had to first ask for permission, then stretch a very long phone cable from my bedroom, through the adjoining master bathroom, and into my mother’s room where the modem and more importantly, the phone jack lived. Suffice it to say, because of the inconvenience, I wasn’t on the internet much and most of my non-online time was spent whiling away hours playing spider solitaire and pinball.
Since I didn’t play PC games and my mom certainly would never buy a game for a device that was strictly for work, I have no idea how I got my hands on 1997’s Age of Empires: Rise of Rome expansion. I think my mother’s boyfriend at the time gave her a spindle of blank CDs and somehow his copy got mixed in. It wasn’t even a retail copy of the game, but a blank CD that had “Age of Empires” written on it in black Sharpie. I found the disc on the spindle, popped it in the drive, and—by sheer cosmic happenstance—discovered my first ever PC game.
Since I’d secured my copy of Age of Empires: Rise of Rome through dubious means, I had no guide booklet to refer to. I had no idea what the hell was going on, but to Age of Empire’s credit, its introductory campaigns were pretty good tutorials. Having never seen a real-time strategy game, AoE’s starting missions taught me the ropes pretty quickly.
Pretty soon, instead of playing my 900th game of spider solitaire, I was building empires in my bedroom. Most of the time I simply created my own game, content to command a legion of blue loinclothed farmers and warriors against a horde of bots. But I soon learned how the campaign missions worked and tried my hand in them. That’s how I met Hannibal.
Rise of Rome is an expansion to the first Age of Empires in which its single-player campaign takes the player through the various eras of the Roman Empire. You fight against Macedonians, Egyptians, and even other Romans in battles that have been constructed to simulate the real history behind those conflicts. Though I was still learning how RTS games work, I was able to clear the first few stages pretty quickly.
Once I got to the Metaurus campaign where you encounter the Carthaginian general for the first time, Hannibal destroyed me. And no matter how much I learned, I could never defeat him. I had a tendency to turtle when I played, building defenses and hoarding resources such that if any enemy attacked me en force, I would get overrun and swiftly defeated. It got to the point where I would have nightmares about the horn noise that sounds whenever one of your units is attacked, as though Hannibal had come to my very own door.
Rise of Rome also had a pretty lengthy section that went into detail about the real history of whatever conflict the campaign simulated. I was obsessed, scrolling through that history section and wanting to know more about Hannibal, his brother Hasdrubal, Scipio Africanus, Cleopatra and Antony, and my favorite, Octavian—better known as Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.
I didn’t bring the game with me when I went to college, but it inspired a fascination with the past that is partly responsible for my bachelor’s in history. I remember writing a paper about the game during, you guessed it, my Roman history course about how I would recreate the Battle of Actium campaign in the custom game mode and set myself as Egypt instead of Rome so I could win the battle that Antony and Cleopatra famously lost. I learned more about Hannibal and the absolute havoc he wreaked on Rome before finally being beaten.
Years later, and after rediscovering Age of Empires on PC Game Pass, I, unlike Rome, still can’t beat the bastard. I still turtle, I still get run over, and even when I change up my strategies in favor of a swift initial attack, his armies are so big and his resources so vast that my own forces get swallowed whole.
Fuck you, Hannibal. I can’t believe that, after 17 years and finally learning how to play RTS games, he’s still kicking my ass. Pride precludes me from lowering the difficulty, and all the online strategy guides (something my 16-year-old self did not have access to but would have killed for) essentially say “lol fight harder.”
I’m going to beat him, though. It’s only a matter of time. Or I won’t, and it’ll be another 17 years before I finally defeat the asshole.