Gaming Memories: Faxanadu and the Filthy Sword

“Daggers and wingboots, mantras and monsters await you,” the cover to Hudson Soft’s 1989 NES game Faxanadu claims. Since it’s Father’s Day here in the US, I figured I would share a dad-related gaming memory. I haven’t spoken with my father in about 18 years. I’m not upset about it and this blog is not meant to be a confessional, but it’s difficult to separate such facts from stories like this one.

Source: http://rarity.club/games/NES/Faxanadu

It was probably 1990 when we got the game. I had finally convinced my parents to buy me an NES after raving about it for months. It was the Super Mario Bros. 3 bundle that came out, I believe, not long after the launch of that game. Given these dates, I was probably just turning 8. I had spent many days over at my neighbor’s house playing on his NES, so it felt so amazing and exciting to finally have my own console. I could play single player games! I could replay some of my favorites, like Jaws and Contra! I could die over and over and over (and over and over and over) in games like Friday the 13th and Castlevania! I could almost shit my pants before quitting A Nightmare on Elm Street!

I loved the original Zelda games on the NES but I found the turn-based combat of Final Fantasy to be too slow and confusing, so when we looked at Faxanadu’s box in some store one day, it seemed like the perfect marriage of the two games to my young mind. There were swords and magic, yes, but you could also run around and slash at creatures to your heart’s content. I have a very specific memory of staring at the back of the box and thinking “yes. This is a good one. I want this.” That thought didn’t always lead to a good game – sometimes you’d buy or rent a game that had great box art and was a total dud. But this game sounded mature, epic, and the graphics were great, which was a big deal to me. I was pleasantly shocked when my dad read the back of the box and carried it to the front for purchase. How did I get so lucky? I so rarely got games and was well acquainted with “no. Put it back.” We rented games, sure, but a game purchase was a big deal. I was so excited to get those wingboots, whatever the hell they were.

When we got home, my dad called Eddie and Jerry, two of his friends, over to the house. They were pretty high energy and usually friendly to me. My dad had told them all about the game and wanted to play it with them. I was a little confused because this wasn’t exactly a normal occurrence. I asked if I could play and my dad said that I could watch. It was “their turn to play games.” So I watched them play, taking in all of the exciting things I had imagined when I’d read the box. The music in particular was amazing. The graphics were great. I loved the concept of starting at the bottom of a great, expansive tree and climbing your way to the top. It felt torturous having to just watch. Even when I played on my neighbor’s console, we shared play time, handing off the controller when one of us died. They handed the controller off to each other, but when I did the annoying kid thing and asked to play a second time, I was told “no” more firmly. “This is a game for grown-ups. If we let you play you’ll just die and mess up our progress. Just be happy watching.”

Source: https://www.thevintagegamers.com/2017/06/faxanadu-for-the-nes/

I’d felt particularly wounded at that. I was eight years old, so maybe I was being childish, but I remember feeling that the situation was supremely unfair. “It’s my console,” I recall pouting. “And who paid for it? Who paid for the game? You want me to take it back? You have to learn to share,” he said. Maybe he realized that commandeering someone’s things and then claiming that “they need to learn to share” is a wholly masculine, very American sentiment. Probably not, though. He was a bit of an idiot.

So I sulked and pouted as I watched them fumble their way from screen to screen. Eventually they got to a fountain, and when they later returned to it the water had stopped flowing. There was a door nearby, blocked by something that looked like it needed to be unlocked. The fountain seemed key in some way, but they couldn’t figure it out. They left, came back, went and spoke with some NPCs, came back, traveled almost all the way back to the beginning of the game, came back. They just couldn’t figure it out. They weren’t making any progress so I asked again if I could play. My dad used his annoyed voice and shut me down again, so I sat back and stewed while they kept wasting time, running back and forth, wondering if they had missed an item or the game was broken. Eventually they took a smoke break and were talking about giving up. One of my dad’s friends said “why not let the kid try?” And, of course, when someone else suggested it, he relented and acted like he was doing me a great honor, letting me play my own console. I sat down and picked up the controller.

Source: https://www.mobygames.com/game/nes/faxanadu/screenshots/gameShotId,559167/

Okay, look, this isn’t some story about how much of a wiz I was at video games. I didn’t wrinkle my brow, push up my non-existent nerd glasses, and puzzle the hell out of the game until I found the secret and won the day. I just wanted to wash my sword. Most of the details of this memory are fuzzy and pieced together, but I very clearly remember saying that I wanted to wash my sword. So after jumping around and killing a few enemies to get the hang of things, I declared that my sword was dirty and I needed to clean it. I went back to the fountain and started jumping around it, stabbing at it with my sword. “Hey, look, I’m washing my sword,” I said to them. Yes, I understand this story makes me out to look like a bit of a dense, slightly moronic child, but I’m just speaking the truth here. They could care less about my sword cleaning endeavor. “Okay, wow, cool,” my dad said without looking at the screen. I was annoyed for a brief moment, but then I remembered I had the game all to myself and regained some slight semblance of joy. This is exactly what I’d wanted, after all. Then, as I jumped around the fountain like a mindless idiot, I pushed a block on the top of the fountain and bright blue water came gushing out, triggering a ladder to release under the door. I did it. I did it! “He did it!” Eddie said! “Good job, kid!” “I was just washing my sword!” I said, grinning like I was half the age I truly was.

“Move over,” my dad said, and reached for the controller. “I thought I could play?” I said, visibly confused. “You had your turn. It’s our turn again.” “But I just –” “Come on, move. You can play this later all you want. Go.” And I went, taking a valuable lesson about family and respect with me.

Source: http://rarity.club/games/NES/Faxanadu

Featured image source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/esports/10-under-the-radar-nes-gems-that-should-be-remade-now

Whispers from a Forgotten Past: Final Fantasy VII Remake

There probably isn’t much that hasn’t been said about Final Fantasy VII Remake, but that’s okay. I’m not here to make some grand, unique contribution to the conversation. I have a lot of thoughts, though (and even more screenshots), and I want to start sharing as I often do – with a bit of personal history. This game, more than almost any other, requires it, I think. I should, of course, give a pretty explicit [SPOILER WARNING] for those who haven’t played it yet.

The original Final Fantasy VII came out in January of 1997 to much pre-release marketing and post-release fanfare. I wouldn’t get my PlayStation console until the end of that year, mainly for Resident Evil 2, so I was in a bit of a rough spot. In the year or two prior to FFVII’s release, I had fallen deeply in love with JRPGs. After Chrono Trigger sucked me in, I sought similar games, and Final Fantasy III (VI) had a similar art style (in my young mind, with not much to compare them to, anyway) and was made by the same company, so it was a logical follow-up for me. Like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound before it, it entranced me. I loved the characters, the story, the systems, and, of course, the music. The title sequence and opening scene is still one of my favorites of all time, and its score is a big part of that. I played all of these on the SNES, of course, and like a devoted Nintendo fan I dutifully pre-ordered and picked up an N64 on day one.

So when the hype for FFVII began to spread like wildfire, I was a little sad. A little bitter. A little without the ability to adequately convince my parents that I needed a second video game console (until later that year, as mentioned). I had to suffer through hearing how incredible and amazing and groundbreaking and massive this fantastic JRPG and follow-up to my beloved FFIII was. I wouldn’t play it until the following year, and to this day I have to wonder if playing it at launch would have allowed me to appreciate it more. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It really was massive, the cinematic cutscenes were rad, and the music, again, was top notch. I found such joy in seeing callbacks to previous games, like the moogles and chocobos. But I absolutely hated the character models, especially because the environments were so much more realistic and not bizarrely proportioned. Overall, I didn’t love it like so many others had, and since then it has occupied the middle of my list of favorite Final Fantasy titles.

How could I not be excited for a remake, though? Since playing VII I have played every mainline FF game, plus a few of the spinoffs and one of the MMOs, and I have loved most of them. Some of the elements shared between games – summons and chocobos and moogles and airships and such – have become woven tightly into the fabric of my gaming identity (and, in the case of moogles, inked right into my skin). So any new FF game is cause for celebration in my mind. But people have been asking for a FFVII remake for years, and I was always curious about how Square would pull off such a feat, so I did end up getting more hyped than expected for this game.

I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you’re thinking something like “uh, okay, can you just get to the point?” or “why do we need all of this context? Just show me the pretty screenshots,” or “oatmeal raisin cookies are better than chocolate chip cookies,” and with that last thought you are absolutely out of line and have ruined any semblance of credibility you might have had so I will be dismissing any further criticism from you.

The reason I wanted to share so much of my backstory is that it mattered more to me and my experience with this game than I would have imagined. I’ve had strong emotional ties to FF games and characters and stories, but I wouldn’t have claimed the same for my time with the original FFVII. But as the game booted up and “The Prelude” played, I felt strange stirrings of nostalgia. With every familiar shot – Aerith on the street, a high view of Midgar, Cloud looking up at a Mako Reactor – I felt my eyes tingle with the threat of tears. The moment it really dawned on me that I was nearly choking on nostalgia was when I heard “Mako Reactor 1” play out as I made my way through the game’s first chapter. The previous cues, visual and audio, had prompted some nostalgic whispers, but this track really made everything swell forth. I remembered the small apartment in Chicago that my family lived in at the time. Just off Belmont and Laramie, right behind Jade Dragon Tattoo, where I told myself I’d get my first tattoo. It was the end of my freshman year at Lane Tech High School. An unusually warm spring. We didn’t have an air conditioner so we had the windows open and box fans puttering along. I played on one of those big, old, floor TVs. My family was falling apart. I was depressed but excited for summer. I thought I might get to go to summer camp and maybe, just maybe, have my first kiss with my first “real” girlfriend. I made nachos with too much cheap cheese and Kool-Aid with way too much sugar. We had an infestation of giant ants with wings near a window in our living room, so occasionally one would smack me in the face when I was playing late into the night. I had dreams of becoming a rock star.

It might seem dramatic, and maybe I’m expanding on what were much briefer flashes of memory and emotion, but all of this sprang from just the opening scenes of the game. These characters, this music, this story that I had once felt was just pretty okay and not nearly my favorite, suddenly they meant everything. They are and were a part of my life. A more important part than I’d realized, I guess. I’m not trying to overstate anything. I understand that this is just one of many, many games I’ve played, and it does mean less to me than, say, Final Fantasy III or VIII. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a strong nostalgic reaction to a game before. It might be because I haven’t played the original in, what, 22 years? Whereas with games like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound, I play them every so often so the nostalgia is tempered. One core reason for starting this blog was to chronicle some of my gaming memories, so I wanted to share this as well.

After all of that, you might be sleeping. Or you’re still fuming over my justified criticism of your taste in cookies, you absolute monster. So let’s get to the game itself. In short, nostalgic kick in the feels aside, I loved it. This is not a review so I won’t go through all of the systems and every facet of the story, but the combat was fun and pleasantly reminiscent of FFXV. And like FFXV, I wish there were more summons. The six that I have (and I think there might be one more?) are pretty great, but I miss the days of having a healthy number of dazzling magical beings to call to my side (yes, this is just the first installment, I know). I also wish there was a dedicated photo mode, but I was able to capture some decent shots. Like this little gem:

I mean look…

…at that face.

Speaking of faces: damn. The characters in this version look so good. It seems like they may have cut some corners on some other visual assets, because there were some less-than-crisp textures here and there, but the faces, eyes, hair, clothes, skin textures… all looked stellar. I was also impressed by the work they put into mouth movement, to make them match the English voices. I appreciated that even more after watching Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (for the first time, despite owning the special edition DVD since the day it was released *nervously sweating emoji*), where a lack of regionalized facial animation meant some truly awkward looking and sounding lines.

One of my absolute favorite things about this version is how much they expand on the characters and really round them out. I haven’t played the original in a very long time, true, but I feel like I know these characters more and have a deeper connection with them after this game, compared with how I felt after the entirety of the original game. The writing, voice acting, and animation brought so much life and energy to the smallest of interactions. FFVIIR’s writer, Kazushige Nojima, recently said that he wanted to make Cloud a more complex character in this version, not so “lame.” I think they pulled that off. In the original, Cloud felt a little like a brat. He comes off as cold in this version, but not exactly bratty. More distant, jaded, hesitant to trust, maybe. I also love how they built out Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and even Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. They are not only cool, full characters on their own, but their interactions with Cloud and the rest of the party are important and help to further develop those characters, too.

I probably won’t write much about this game in my dissertation because it takes place in a fantasy setting (and I’m looking at Japanese depictions of real places), but I did think there was a lot of cultural stuff ripe for analysis. This is already running long so I will just briefly discuss one: the controversial Honeybee Inn scene, where in the original, Cloud is dressed like a woman and some insensitive, homophobic remarks/suggestions are made. Japanese games have a complicated history with queer representation. They have, for a long time, been more willing than big Western developers to include women and queer characters in prominent roles in games, but this increase in inclusion has meant an increase in problematic representation as well. I think it’s important to note that much of the criticism of Japanese games and their portrayals of queer characters comes from a Western perspective, with a Western sense of what is “right and wrong,” or “good and bad.” Having said that, I am not defending every warped depiction of queerness in Japanese games. There are plenty of examples of (usually) gay male characters that are used to create fear in straight characters, or are made to be over-the-top, clownish caricatures that are problematic in any culture, I would argue, because regardless of audience they remove or lessen the humanity of these characters and create an unrealistic trope which real queer people are then unfairly expected to mirror.

That said, I have noticed a trend in Japanese games where queerness and queer characters are treated with increasing respect and realism. From the explicit statement of LGBTQ+ support in AI: The Somnium Files, to Atlus’s inclusion of a new, datable trans character in Catherine: Full Body, their acknowledgment of the issues with queer representation in Persona 5 and their edits in Persona 5 Royal to correct such issues, to overt discussions of gender and identity in Punch Line, to, well, the new Honeybee Inn scene in FFVIIR. In this scene, I was waiting for signs of Cloud’s refusal to participate in the dance or makeover, but he is all in and the entire scene is big, exciting, and fun. Cloud expresses a desire to not talk about it afterward, but given his stoic, guarded nature, they seem to have made it more about his discomfort with being in the spotlight and not his dressing as a woman. Andrea, a queer-appearing character, even makes a comment that “True beauty is an expression of the heart. A thing without shame, to which notions of gender don’t apply.” This echoes some of the remarks made about gender in Punch Line, and seem to align with a Japanese sense that gender is something that is, for lack of a better word at this point in my studies, spiritual, rather than cultural, psychological, or scientific. None of this is to say that any of the examples I’ve given are perfect in their representation of LGBTQ+ characters, and of course this is coming from the perspective of a straight man who is still learning much about queer representation in media, but I was happily surprised by how well they pulled this scene off.

Speaking of true beauty, however, you know I have to comment on the classic debate among old school FFVII fans: Tifa or Aerith? Who is more worthy of Cloud’s romantic attention (or the player’s, for that matter)? I never really had much of a horse in that race. I never really developed a crush on either when I played the original game, in part because their character models looked like plastic dolls that had been mostly melted and then put back together by a near-sighted Popeye fanatic. With the new character models and expanded personalities, though? A much more difficult choice.

I chose Aerith as my date in the Gold Saucer segment of the original game, and I figured I would probably go with her in this one as well, to stick with the choice the narrative seems to want me to make. But in the scene where I could choose to help either of them up after a fall, fully knowing that this choice was significant and would probably affect the story down the line, my gut instinct was to help Tifa. Don’t get me wrong, I love this version of Aerith. She is funny, kind, optimistic, powerful, and quite beautiful. I would 100% offer to be her bodyguard (even when she clearly doesn’t need it).

But Tifa… I don’t know. I guess I really connected with the indecision and sense of powerlessness that she so often seems to struggle with. She is clearly a badass and has some really kickass scenes where she’s, well, kicking ass. But from the beginning she’s dealing with the mixed emotions that come with seeing her childhood best friend (and crush) back from war, but seemingly different and with some pretty clear memory issues. Yet she doesn’t express this to Cloud. She represses it to focus on her role in this revolution against Shinra. Maybe not the healthiest approach, but I can relate. And, like Aerith, she too is gorgeous.

And so it seems in the next installment(s) Cloud will be forced to choose between the safe comfort of his childhood friend or the exuberant warmth of this bright new girl. As for me, I have a new crush: Jessie Rasberry.

I mean, no question. As with the other characters, she is fully developed with an interesting backstory, in which she came to the big city to be an actress but ended up joining a militant group trying to take down Shinra in order to enact justice for her father. So we see that, like Aerith, she has this cheerful, flirty persona that hides a serious side that fights for justice and is willing to sacrifice everything to help others. And, again, like everyone in this damn game, she is breathtakingly beautiful. Not to mention, she throws herself at Cloud! How was he able to resist! I mean, look:

Where is the “yes, absolutely, 100%, what time should I be there, I will do anything, please” option!? Look at how she’s looking at him! Sorry, I’m yelling. I just can’t understand how Cloud could so casually cast her aside. “But she’s so desperate!” I hear you shriek between disgusting mouthfuls of oatmeal raisin cookies. Well so am I! Even if I weren’t, though, come on. She is a catch. She’s cute. She’s tough. She’s talented. She’s dressed like a knight ninja. And:

I will hear no further arguments. Jessie for life. That headband in the ending cinematic better fucking mean she’s coming back in the next game.

Okay, this is approaching the length of a bad fantasy novel, so I need to end this. I have many more thoughts, but I just want to comment on one final thing: the Whispers, of which Barret says:

I took the Whispers to be symbolic of the struggle that must have come with remaking such an iconic game. Video game development is part business, part art, and I’ve heard many creative-minded developers (including some from Square) express no desire to revisit old ideas. They want to create new worlds, characters, and stories. So for them to return to such a venerable game, they must have faced immense pressure from within and without to both stick to the old formula and shake things up. These Whispers seem to represent that struggle. They, and maybe fans, want something new and exciting to happen in this familiar world, but they also kind of want what they know they already love. So, for most of FFVIIR, we get the safe, the recognizable. Prettied up, expanded, bulked out… but mostly the same. But when you defeat the Whispers at the end of the game, that would suggest that these safety nets, these shackles of the past, are no more, right? If so, and we’re looking forward to games that deviate in some ways from the original game (like Aerith surviving? Or Sepheroth joining your team to face a greater foe, à la Magus from Chrono Trigger? Or Cloud ending up with Jessie because she’s clearly the best choice, no more arguments?), I am so excited for what the future of this series might bring. I guess you can call me a FFVII convert.

Gaming Memories: Mortal Monday (II)

Summer, 1994. I was eleven years old and just starting sixth grade. I, like many kids at the time, was obsessed with fighting games. Well, the two fighting games that really mattered: Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. The former was such a massive hit in both arcades and on consoles that if you pick up a gaming magazine published between 1991 and 1993, there is more than a fair chance that there is some kind of Street Fighter II art on the cover. The latter reached similar heights, due in no small part to its controversial violence. I lived in Chicago at the time, near the Brickyard Mall, and as often as I could I would haul a handful of quarters to the mall’s arcade, or to a corner store near me that replaced its sole arcade cabinet, Mortal Kombat, with its sequel shortly after its release.

You have to understand, these games were huge at the time. Their reach was similar to Minecraft or Fortnite in that many people who did not consider themselves regular gamers played them. My classmates and many others shared tips, talked favorite fighters, and obsessed over what we wanted from sequels. When Mortal Kombat II was released in 1993, we were enthralled with the new characters, like Baraka and Kitana, the elaborate new levels, and the many new fatalities, babalities, and friendships. We would huddle around the cabinet, trying our best to master new characters and moves, and, when we’d win, nervously try (and often fail) to perform a finishing move. Unlike most of my other gaming experiences, it was an incredibly active social event. I was regularly playing with friends from school, from around my neighborhood, and even strangers, despite not usually spending much time with most of them otherwise.

MKIIb

This engaging social aspect of the game aside, myself and most of the people I knew could not wait for the home release, and the closer the release got, the more excited we became. Can you imagine? We wouldn’t have to scrounge together quarters, or walk to the mall, or wait in line to play! We could practice as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted, and finally see all of the finishing moves. We were counting down the days.

My family, like many in the area, was lower middle-class, so my parents rarely bought me new video games, particularly at full price, and especially when we could rent them from the local Blockbuster Video. Of course newly released games were more expensive to rent and you could only keep them for two days, but I took what I could get. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even sure I could get a copy of Mortal Kombat II. The anticipation for this game was immense and my local Blockbuster said they were expecting copies to fly off the shelves as soon as they hit.

And they did. I convinced my dad to drive me to Blockbuster as soon as he got home from work that release day, and the entire way over I was saying “what if they ran out? What if we’re too late?” He assured me that with such a popular game they would doubtless have plenty. They did not. They had four full shelves of display boxes, but the guy at the counter said they didn’t last long. On the way home, I felt sick. My dad noticed and felt bad, thinking I must be (perhaps unreasonably) upset by not getting the game, so he agreed to drive me to the Blockbuster that was farther away. I had very low hopes. If one Blockbuster had run out so quickly, any other in a densely packed urban area was sure to be out as well.

We arrived and as sickly as I felt, I zoomed over to the video game section. They also had four shelves of Mortal Kombat II display cases, and, again, there were no games behind them. I was devastated. My friends would probably have gotten a copy and I was going to be stuck at home (probably sick, given how I was starting to feel) with no way to get a copy for at least a few days, when people started returning them – if I was lucky. On the way out, with no expectation, I asked the guy at the counter how quickly they ran out of copies. “We never even got them on the shelves. People were asking for them before we finished putting them out.” Just as I’d thought. Sigh. “We still have one copy left, if you want it.” W-what? A single copy? Of the most sought-after game in the world? How? How could I have gotten so lucky? I accepted his offer, but even as we were checking out I was convinced something was going to go wrong and he was going to say “on second thought…” He did not have second thoughts, however, and as we drove home I took the game cartridge out of the plastic case and just looked at the label… and I was feeling more nauseous than ever.

When I got home I ran inside and excitedly told my mom the whole story. As I explained how significant, monumental, and historic this event was, she interrupted me. “You feel okay? You don’t look so good.” I did not, and I said as much. She took my temperature and as luck would have it, I had a fever of 101. I wasn’t too surprised. I felt like a pile of burning human garbage. “Can I still have friends over?” I asked. She advised against it, but if I was feeling up to it and if they wanted to, I could, she said.

I began calling all of my friends. “Matthew? Did you get it?” “Robert, I got it!” “Marcin, wanna come over? I’m sick but we can still play.” Not a single friend of mine had gotten a copy, and they were all eager to come over and get some turns in. You know how when you’re that age and you have friend groups that never hang out together, even though you spend time with each of them separately? Those divisions didn’t matter. I had friends that hated each other coming over, willing to ignore social insecurities and elementary school politics for the opportunity to play this long-awaited game.

As I waited for this eclectic group of friends to arrive, I decided to pop the game in and get a few practice rounds in before I would surely demolish my fri- *grrp* My, uh, fri- *grrrrp* My frien- *violent vomiting* Many aspects of this story are stitched together from hazy memories, but I can very, very clearly remember thinking “oh no. This can’t be. Not now. Why?” with my face thrust in the toilet bowl, spewing up my school lunch. When it felt over, I splashed my face, brushed my teeth, and went back to my SNES. I started a match and… I played, I guess. But it wasn’t fun or exhilarating, like it should have been. I felt like I was going to puke again, and my head was throbbing. I lost the match and ran for the bathroom again.

My friends began trickling in, abuzz with excitement to take as many turns as they wanted without pumping quarters into a slot. I played a match against one of them and then passed the controller to another. After one of them lost, they offered the controller to me. “No, thanks. I don’t feel so good.” They shrugged and went back to virtually pummeling each other, and as more friends piled in, I retreated to a green, plastic-feeling couch we had in that room. My mom had brought me a bucket at some point, in case I needed it, and some ginger ale and crackers. I did need it. As my friends got more and more intensely competitive, I grew more and more distant. I watched them at first, but they kept offering me the controller and I had to keep refusing. “Are you sure? I feel bad. It’s your game and you’re not even playing it,” one of them said. “I know. It’s fine. I’ll play later,” I replied. I got tired of them asking, so I eventually curled up on the couch and rolled away from them, turning back only to occasionally throw up bile, ginger ale, and crackers into the bucket next to the couch.

And that’s how I spent the day of Mortal Kombat II’s console release. Feverish, shivering, and vomiting into a paint bucket just feet behind the largest group of mismatched friends I’d ever had over as they tried every level, character, and fatality that they could.

MKII

Gaming Memories: Saving Up for Super Mario RPG

It’s the beginning of fall, 1995. I’m twelve. My lifelong love of video games will increase exponentially in a couple of months, when I receive Chrono Trigger for my thirteenth birthday, but before then I am quietly becoming obsessed with a game called Super Mario RPG, for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Cover

It didn’t yet have it’s subtitle, Legend of the Seven Stars, and I didn’t know much about it outside of what Nintendo Power had teased in recent issues. But I loved Nintendo and Mario games, and this one seemed more mature than Super Mario World. I had no money for games, though, and I couldn’t get the game for either my birthday or Christmas. Nintendo Power originally had it listed as a winter release on their release forecast, and at some point I’d read that it had an official release date in March of 1996. On New Year’s Eve I made a resolution to save up enough money to buy the game on my own. I’d never had very much luck with saving money for anything. Prior to this, after collecting a tidy sum of wrinkled dollars and loose change, I would inevitably succumb to the impure and ancient urges of middle school boys everywhere:  Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Sprite. You might be surprised by how much junk food you could buy for $5 in the mid-90s.

But this time was different, I told myself. This was not some dumb pair of shoes that I wanted so that I could fit in at school, or a cheap toy that I’d eventually break or get tired of. This was a video game. A treasured, revered piece of technology that was worth far more than the plastic and metal that housed it. And I wouldn’t have to beg for it, hope that my begging worked, and then wait weeks or months for a birthday or Christmas. If I could save up the money I’d need, I could buy it on day one and have it to play all spring and into summer. The thought of it made me very serious about saving up the money, and I felt that it was something I should be able to do as a newly minted teenager. I had three months from New Year’s Eve to save up $50 plus $5 for sales tax. Let’s do this, I might have thought, if I was thirteen in 2015. But it was 1995 so I probably thought something like Totally tubular, dude, let’s do this, cowabunga, or something dumb like that.

I was off to a good start, considering I had a fresh, crisp five dollar bill, a Christmas gift from a relative. Where would I keep this glorious stockpile of cash, though? I knew it would grow to be a big pile of coins and small bills, and I didn’t have a wallet (too young) or a piggy bank (too old). Well, like any self-respecting kid in 1994/95, I was obsessed with Jurassic Park. I saw the movie seven times in the theater that year, and I had as many toys as I could convince my parents to buy me. One of these was a velociraptor egg with baby raptor inside. A part of the egg could snap on and off, allowing you to vaguely simulate that scene in the movie  where a baby raptor is born in front of our very eyes. More importantly, I could toss the baby raptor in a corner and fill the egg with my sweet, sweet stash.

301413-resident-evil-revelations-2-complete-season-playstation-3-front-cover
Source: https://www.therpf.com/showthread.php?t=63123

And so I did. For weeks, I did favors for family members for a few bucks whenever I could (we didn’t really get allowance money for chores or anything), I literally pulled apart our couch looking for stray silver change, and when I wasn’t hungry at school I’d save the three quarters I was given for a school lunch and toss them in my velociraptor egg. It was tempting to spend it all on Ring Pops and Fun Dip at first, but after a few weeks I was proud of the small fortune I’d saved (probably about $15) and became more determined than ever to see this through and get the game.

My obsession heated up, too, because I knew I was going to get it and was more determined than ever to love it. Nintendo Power had gone quiet about it. It was there, on their release forecast every month, but there was no new news or previews to satiate my hunger for the game. I imagined how it might play. Like Chrono Trigger, maybe, but with Mario. Would we learn more about Mario characters like Princess Toadstool and Luigi? Who were some of the other odd characters in the screenshots? I waited, and I dreamed, and I saved up dimes and dollars.

Release Forecast
Source: https://archive.org/stream/Nintendo_Power_Issue001-Issue127/Nintendo%20Power%20Issue%20079%20December%201995#page/n117/mode/2up

As unbelievable as cloning dinosaurs for a theme park might be, I might not have believed I’d be capable of saving up enough for a brand new video game at the age of thirteen. But like John Hammond, somehow I pulled it off. By the beginning of March I’d saved up almost $60. Half of it was loose change, but my mom agreed to buy it from me so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself at the local Toys “R” Us by dumping a velociraptor’s egg worth of change onto the counter for payment. I counted the money again and again, making sure I had enough, and calculating for unforeseen emergencies like a sudden increase in sales tax. But everything was right and I was ready. I brought my not-so-fresh stack of wrinkled bills to Toys “R” Us and, not seeing a hanging tag for the game on their wall-o-games, proceeded to the video game area to ask if they had that hip new game called Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars in stock so I could purchase it with my very hard-earned money. “Uh, what game,” a young female cashier asked. I repeated myself. “Hold on a sec,” the girl said, and disappeared into the cavernous backroom (you bought games and electronics from a separate area than the registers, with a little window that opened to a stock area). She came back after a minute or two and said they didn’t have it. Can I pre-order it, like other games? “If you could, there would be a tag for it on the wall. Did you see one?” Uh, no. “Sorry. I don’t know when we’ll get it, then.” On the car ride home, I was confused but not dejected. I mean, I had saved up this long, and maybe it was just a week or two from release. I could sit on this egg for a little longer. It would all be more than worth it. But soon after this failure, I received this in the mail:

super_mario_rpg_vol82_cover

When I first saw the cover my pulse quickened. It was as if Nintendo had heard my nerdy prayers and sent its printed messenger to soothe my nerves. Except, well, for one little word.

Preview

But, how? The game was supposed to be released this month! Previews were normally printed two or three months before a game came out! This should be a review! Wait, maybe that was it. Maybe this was a review, but the cover was a mistake. I quickly flipped to the feature and-

May

No. How could this be? What astronomical alignment had cursed me with such a fate? May? That was two whole months away. That was almost as long as it had taken for me to sacrifice every shred of dignity and self-restraint I had to scrape together the money for this game. Do you know how many Flamin’ Hot Cheetos I could have eaten? How much Sprite I could have guzzled down? I could live in a castle made of the Laffy Taffy wrappers I could have gone through with all of that money. Two months. Now, at the ripe old age of too-damn-old, two months is nothing. I forget and remember people’s names in the span of two months. I might buy four or five games in that span. But at the age of thirteen, two months is an epic, stretching eternity. Two months is 1/78 of a thirteen year-old’s whole life. Two months would be 1.3% of my whole life that I’d already lived up to that point. At my age now, it would .5%. Do you see the difference? Two months might as well have been two forevers. I had a stupid egg filled with stupid, useless money that took way too long to save up.

So I bought a Dennis Rodman jersey with it, and used the rest on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Sprite. Yep. Not worth it.

 

This Magic Moment

When I was writing my top 20 list for this site, I was constantly wavering between games that I thought were objectively great and games that I had a special, personal experience with. I struggle with that every time I make a list or share my favorite video game/movie/book with people, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I make my way through Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

Syndicate

So far, Syndicate is as good as I’ve come to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game. The graphics and dedication to environmental detail is superb, the controls are fluid and intuitive, and the combat feels like a well-choreographed dance (when I get in the groove, anyway). With two years and as many AC games between it and Black Flag, it should be a better game. It is, arguably. The graphics are a bit better, the interface is slightly improved, there are some new features. It’s not hitting me as hard as Black Flag, though. I can play Syndicate for a couple of hours and be satisfied with putting the controller down. With Black Flag, I didn’t want to stop playing. Like, ever. I would play for hours, convincing myself I needed to sleep and maybe shower before jumping right back to my swashbuckling adventures. I thought about playing it when I wasn’t playing it. I dreamed about it. I was legitimately sad when I approached 100% completion.

So what is it that’s so different? Black Flag does have the advantage when it comes to setting. As gorgeously rendered as Syndicate’s Victorian London is, it’s, well, Victorian London. Dim, dirty, and drearily urban. Black Flag had some urban areas, but it was the vast, bright, sparkling Caribbean seas and islands that I most vividly remember. I could do all of the same building hopping and street stalking I can do in Syndicate, but then I could hop on my very own pirate ship and sail into the eye of a vicious tropical storm.

AC Black Flag

But can setting really impact my experience with a game that much? It could also have been when I played Black Flag, which was the winter break just after buying my PS4 at launch. So it was an exciting time, because I had time to devote to games and Black Flag was one of my first of the new generation of consoles. Sometimes I can feel pressure to rush through as many games as I can during the breaks between semesters, but I only had a few PS4 games so I gave myself plenty of time to dedicate to playing them. How much does this ‘right place, right time’ factor affect my reception of games? A lot, I would venture to guess. When I reflect on games that I’ve had a strong reaction to (Dragon Quest VIIIFallout 3Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), I remember the actual act of playing them in addition to the games themselves. The time surrounding their playing seems special in some way. There was a sense of freedom and excitement, despite what my life was like surrounding the game. If I had played any of them, or Black Flag, at a different time, with different expectations/priorities/distractions, would I have become as invested? It seems impossible to know, but the logical part of my brain says that I probably wouldn’t have been ‘pulled in’ or immersed as deeply in some situations. I probably would have liked them, sure, but if I hadn’t had hours to spend playing Dragon Quest VIII while I was on leave, or Fallout 3 when I was job hunting, or Black Flag when I was on break, I probably would not have become as obsessed and overwhelmed by the worlds they presented me with.

Much of this is pointless, I understand that. Who really cares what makes a game a favorite? But it’s interesting to think about, and I do so pretty often, especially as I age and talk with younger gamers about experiences they might not be able to fully appreciate (the transition from 2D to 3D games, for instance). Someone could play Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash back to back and make the obvious judgement that Double Dash is a better game. It’s a much smoother experience, thanks to improved frame rate, the graphics are much improved, there is more diversity in the gameplay, etc. And I would agree with them. Double Dash is a better game. But there is too much magic surrounding the time I spent with Mario Kart 64 for it to be that simple. I liked Mario Kart 64 more in the moment. If I hadn’t played it when it came out and played it just before I tried Double Dash, I’m sure I would had a completely different opinion of it.

Mario Kart 64

I don’t have a point that I’m working toward here, I’m just sort of talking (or, uh, typing) to myself. The question that often spawns these types of thoughts for me is “what is your favorite game of all time?” Will any game ever unseat my current favorite, Chrono Trigger? I have played better games, probably. I will play better games. But time and nostalgia and that nameless sense of timeless magic will likely prevent me from ever ‘liking’ a game more.