Playing With Power

There’s something about a new console launch that gets me every time. The anticipation starts months before, of course, with vague PR whispers and dubious spec leaks. But before long we get that typical, enticing trickle of details. Tech specs, software in development, what the box looks like and, most fascinating to me as a Nintendo fan, what the controller looks like. And there’s a small window of time after we know the necessary details but before the thing is actually out where our brains are salivating at the pure potential of it all. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is how it makes you feel, and if you don’t believe me, go back and talk to the kids who bought a Jaguar or a Virtual Boy or a 3DO at launch. They were riding high right up until they weren’t. But man, those heights.

With Switchmas™ fast approaching, I can’t help but he reminded of all the other console launches in my life. And of all of them, maybe none was so memorable to me as the Super Nintendo.

“We’re not buying you another Nintendo,” my dad said.

My parents had called an informal meeting after my 1991 Christmas list contained one item and one item alone. You guessed it, a Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

I was almost 10, and I tried not to cry.

“Okay.”

My dad must have sensed my obvious distress because his tone softened.

“It’s a lot of money, buddy, more than we spend on almost all the kids combined.”

I swallowed hard.

“But how can I get one?”

“Well,” my dad replied, “You can work and save your money and once you’ve saved enough we can go get one.”

The object of my affection. Still got it.

 

There was more to it, but that was the gist. I had walked into that meeting a boy but I walked out of it a … well, still a boy but more mature or something, and determined to save enough for a Super Nintendo or die trying. And before you scoff at the idea that this was less than a Herculean task for a ten year old, keep in mind that this was $200 in 1991 money, which put it closer to $400 today and the truly lucrative jobs were just not available to me. In a few years I would be babysitting and mowing lawns at $10 a yard but for now I was relegated to washing cars at $2 a pop and selling trinkets for commission through some scam out of Boy’s Life magazine. That’s a lot of cars and a lot of baubles.

But the thing was, I didn’t have another option. I could wait four years for a price cut or I could get to work now. So I got to work. Every Saturday I was out knocking doors, either to solicit car washes or pitch expensive chocolates and novelty mugs to my neighbors. Did I mention I grew up on a military base and most of these people didn’t have extra money to spend on junk like that? Nevertheless, with an optimism born of desperation, I persisted.

Slowly, painfully so to my ten and then eleven year old mind, the dollars began to add up. And then, one Saturday, we saw an ad in the paper. Kmart was having a sale on Super Nintendos for $179.99. I had $180.

“Mom, can we go?”

“Yes!”

I don’t think my parents were more excited than I was, but they were obviously proud. Hell, my dad tells people the story to this day.

The SNES was like a greatest hits machine. So much quality.

 

In any event, my mom and I piled into the car and sped down to Kmart. After speaking with the cashier in the electronics section, he let us in on a Super Nintendo that was an open box item, and for this purpose was marked down an additional 10%. I could cover almost all of it, including tax. It was the sweetest single purchase I’ve made before or since. I had toiled, and sweated, and sacrificed and later that day, playing Super Mario World, or even years down the line experiencing the magic of Final Fantasy VI, or Chrono Trigger, or Mega Man X, or Super Metroid, or a Link to the Past, or any number of games, I can look back and tie it all to the work  culminating in that moment.

Best. Console. Ever.

The Ties That Grind

Gaming as a kid is different than gaming as an adult. I know that sounds self-evident, but hear me out. First, as a kid I got maybe three games per year. I mean, yes, we traded around and rented games, but games that I owned that were mine were few and far between. Second, that meant that I considered my purchases carefully and I wanted the most bang for my buck. A game that was over in two hours or a game that lasted for forty hours? Talk about a no-brainer. And third, I didn’t have that many competing interests, i.e., work and wife and children. I didn’t have to worry about teaching a two year old to speak while helping an eight year old with his homework and simultaneously jumping on the trampoline with a four year old. It’s just a question of time.

And all of these things, the scarcity, the value proposition, and the time meant that when I finally did settle on a game, I went deep. All the items, all the secrets, maxed out levels, every side quest. I’ve forgotten more about Final Fantasy IV than most people will ever remember. You ever get the Imp summon? I did. Did you ever call the Nintendo Hotline to inquire about the handaxe weapon listed in the manual but found nowhere in the game? I did. Did you ever, by hand, map the levels at which Rydia learned every black magic spell? I did. Did you ever get the Adamant armor? I did … not. But not for lack of trying! Damn you, pink puffs!

RPGs in general were a natural fit for my game-buying equation. Also, my brother had no real interest in playing them, which meant he would bug me less often about sharing them. Bonus! However, starting in my mid-twenties, I began to cool on the genre. Thirty hours was a great length. But sixty? Ninety? I just couldn’t be bothered to learn all the crazy new fantasy names and words, job systems and magic rules. It just felt like a … grind.

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The hero, the innocent, the pro, and the knave. Classic.

And then, somehow, that love was rekindled by none other than the weirdest-named game of them all: Bravely Default. This title makes no sense whatsoever. The plot includes multiple realities and a world-devouring Ouroboros. A job system is heavily featured as the way to build up your party and it has all kinds of new terms and rules. But, man, it sucked me in. In 2012 I put every eighty hours into Bravely Default. And I wasn’t bored for a second. Why? Because Bravely Default made some radical changes to the way you leveled up your team. Not only could you increase the literal speed of battles, you could basically put them on auto-pilot. You could pre-program your characters to follow a certain pattern, and with the 4x speed, this made learning abilities and leveling up a breeze. I could grind while watching a movie or reading a book, and then spend my attention on combining the new abilities and having fun with the story and the combat. It’s a game-changing mechanic that should be in every similar RPG going forward. It made me fall in love with the genre again.

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Every town was unique and beautifully realized.

Aside from that main difference, Bravely Default is a special cocktail of things I love. For example, the world of Luxendarc revolves around the power of elemental crystal that have begun to darken and must be restored to light. Get it? “Luxendarc”? The staple RPG character who loses his memory is named Ringabel. That trope ring a bell? Aside from puns, the costumes and abilities tied to different jobs are fun and varied, the dialogue is lighthearted (mostly) and fun, the story is epic and crazy but not crazily obtuse. I had lost that lovin’ feeling, but Bravely Default assured me that it’s far from gone.

The World Ends With You (DS)

“This is a Square game… It looks weird, but I need a new RPG to play” rang through my head as I looked oddly at the stylized Tokyo box art. Clearly going for an edgy approach of teen punk with it’s anime characters. Some overzealous skater delinquent with a skull beanie, posh Harajuku queenie, dopey girl with a hot topic deal waiting to happen, and square in the middle some pointy haired DB with eyes closed and headphones on. “What an odd collection of characters…” I was working at Best Buy at the time and constantly looking for excuses to use my discount so I ended up grabbing this game on a whim. Most of my RPGs were “safe” up to this point. Generic fantasy setting of swords and sorcery, or saving the world from a purely malevolent force with no motives other than the ruin of all. Good is good, bad is bad. RPG-by-numbers if you will.

Enter the wild world of weird of The World Ends With You. Continue reading “The World Ends With You (DS)”

You Never Forget Your First Mario RPG

The SNES was a beast of a system that delivered hit after hit and improved almost every genre and franchise it touched. The addition of four new buttons to the controller and updated graphics and sound gave devs the ability to take their previous ideas and expand them. Mega Man became Mega Man X, Final Fantasy evolved to Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, and Nintendo gave us new and revamped IP like Star Fox and Donkey Kong Country. It was an amazing time to be a gamer, and in this virtual renaissance even Mario got a makeover.

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Still. So. Beautiful.

After cutting my teeth on offerings like FFIV, FFVI, Chrono Trigger, and Earthbound, Super Mario RPG had me drooling. A Squaresoft/Nintendo mashup RPG? It was too good to be true. I scoured gaming mags for news and updates, freaking out over the 3D, almost clay-like aesthetic. It looked amazing and just beat Mario 64 as the title that first showed us the Mushroom Kingdom in 3D. In that time and place, it was truly mind-blowing.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to play it right at launch, but one month later it was quite the way to kick off my summer vacation. Since both of my parents worked, we were basically given the lay of the land, and many late nights and early mornings were dedicated to helping Mario, Geno, Peach, Bowser, and Mallow on their quest to unite the star pieces and save the world from Smithy.

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I’ll always love you, Geno.

Like Earthbound before it, Super Mario RPG was not only epic but infused with Nintendo’s patented gentle humor and warmth. Classic Nintendo characters spoke and had motivations that went beyond anything we had seen before. It was like learning something new and surprising about an old friend. Since that time, Mario RPGs have become a staple of Nintendo consoles. From the Mario and Luigi series to the Paper Mario franchise, Mario is a mainstay of the genre. But like most things, there’s just something special about the original.

 

This Was a Triumph

Holy shit. Just when I don’t think I can be more in love with this game the credits start to roll and it ends with … an original song?! I am, of course, talking about Portal.

When the Orange Box came out in 2007, gamers everywhere were blown away by the value. Half-Life 2, Episode 1 & 2, Team Fortress 2, and a little puzzle game called Portal were part of the deal and it was utterly mind-boggling. Portal was just kinda thrown in there, like a cherry on top of an already generously-portioned slice of cake, but man, what a cherry! Much to my gamer cred’s shame I have not, to this day, completed any Half-Lives or competed in a single match of Team Fortress. I’m sure they’re great. I have nothing against them but the olde adage: too many games, too little time.

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Portal, however, is a different story entirely. In 2007 I was going to college, I was newly married, and I was working a couple of jobs in order to pay for school and make ends meet. My gaming time was a precious commodity and early buzz was that Portal was short and very sweet. So that’s what I started first and it immediately sucked me in. The writing was sharp and funny. The puzzles were intuitive and creative. The plot was menacingly absurdist. It’s one of those things like Scott Pilgrim vs The World, or Gravity Falls, or Bulletstorm that felt perfectly made just for me.

And then the credits roll and that song! I listened in awe, controller in my lap, laughing with delight at the sheer silliness of it all. Experiences like that come along maybe once in a generation. Twice if you’re extremely lucky. I’ve found the best thing to do is sit back and just let it take you. And if you know the words, sing along.

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A lie or not a lie? That is the question..

Discworld (PS1)

Back in the early days of PlayStation there were huge game cases, tons of horrible early 3D games like Battle Arena Toshinden and Kileak: The DNA Imperative clogging up space at the local rental store. Then there was the weird looking game with magic stuff going on with the cover. There was no YouTube to look up what a game was or how it played. Even if you were big on magazines back then buying one cost the same as renting a game, plus you have no guarantee by looking at your newest GamePro magazine that the cool games you wanted would even be available if you were renting. You were at the whims of Lady Luck if the store carried the game you wanted and it was available. So what you’re left with is a toss of the dice as you judge a book by it’s cover… or in my case of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a game based on a book’s box art. A wizard riding a chest with feet and the grim reaper, flying away from a planet on a giant turtle’s back in space. Sold.

Continue reading “Discworld (PS1)”

This Game Stinks! (SPOILERS: It Didn’t!)

RPG gamers nowadays have it easy. Walk into any game store and there’s no shortage of boxes depicting dreamy, spiky-haired, androgynous protagonists on a mission to save the world. Hell, even our action games now have RPG elements. But that wasn’t true of the world of the 1990s. In 1994 we didn’t have our choice of a multitude of decent RPGs, we got a handful a year and we were thankful for them. Not only that, we paid more for them. My brand new copy of Final Fantasy III (VI) was $79.99 and it was a bargain for how fully I explored that game. Best dollar to hour ratio of my life, easy. But by 1995 I was looking for something fresh and Nintendo delivered, in the way that Nintendo often does, with something a little quirky. Enter Earthbound.

Continue reading “This Game Stinks! (SPOILERS: It Didn’t!)”

Mormons for Mon Mothma

From 2001 to 2003 I lived in Mexico as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You know, the Mormons. Aside from wearing a dark suit, white shirt, tie, and name tag and walking for miles every day in the suffocating Yucatan Peninsula heat, Mormon missionaries also abstain from video games. So for two years, I didn’t pick up a controller once and most of the time I wasn’t even sure what was going on. I didn’t really know what an Xbox was or how Grand Theft Auto 3 would change everything or the appeal of Halo. Plus, the internet was around but I had no real access to it and while my Spanish was and is impressive for a gringo who never took a class, I didn’t have much occasion to check out foreign gaming mags. It was basically a complete gaming black out.

Cut to December, 2001. My missionary companion and I were in the middle of a transfer and decided to camp out at the apartment of our area leaders. It just so happened that this coincided with a big batch of mail arriving, a lot of it for me. My parents love Christmas and tend to go all out, so I had a large package from them: books, treats, letters, new clothes, and a truly excellent inside joke from my mom. There was also another package, postmarked from Honolulu, from my best friend who was concurrently on a mission there. We had been swapping mini audio cassettes (It was 2001, okay?) but this was a large manila envelope. Puzzled, I ripped it open and dumped it out. American gaming mags came sliding out. Holy crap.

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Why would you get in the middle of this?!

I can’t remember the exact publication, maybe EGM or GamePro, but the main story was a head-to-head breakdown comparing the Xbox to the GameCube. This was the first time I had ever even seen a GameCube. It had a handle? It was purple? Whoa, what’s up with the buttons?  I gorged on gaming news for the first time in nine months and the main title that caught my attention was Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron 2.

As a GameCube launch game, Rogue Leader looked amazing. I had been obsessed with Rogue Squadron on the N64, and this looked like more of the same but bigger, bolder, more complex, and did you see those graphics?! I couldn’t wait to get home and slide back into the cockpit, shoot down some Ties, wrap up some AT-ATs, and win some gold medals. I fantasized about the game for over a year, and once I had returned home, saved up some money, and purchased a GameCube, it was the first game I played. I was not disappointed.

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Man, Rogue Leader was in good company…

Even now, whenever I pine for another Rogue Squadron game, I’ll boot up the old GameCube and pop in the Rogue Leader minidisc. My hands wrap around the GameCube controller like they were meant for it. The score swells. And without fail I’m back in Merida, Mexico, sitting on a cool concrete floor, gaming mag in hand, reading my first Nintendo news in months by the lights of a small, plastic Christmas tree and transported to what feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

 

 

 

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 (PC)

I’ve written elsewhere before, twice, about how much of an impression Jedi Knight made on me as a youth. The first link shares about how growing up when I did, I didn’t have a Star Wars trilogy for my generation and how video games brought me into that world. The second about how the online community for it was unlike anything you’d recognize today in FPS communities. Instead of rehashing on that though, I wanna go back to how I got introduced to this beauty of a game.

Back way back when (1997) my friends I loved to loiter as teenagers do. The local strip mall was filled with the normal fair of shoe stores, grocers,  women’s apparel, Target, and a coney island joint… Oh, sorry, you non-Michigan residents would call them diners. Within that dearth of personality there was one golden nugget for us in our midwest suburban sprawl for a short while though that had a bunch of computers and games set up. This was pre-GameStop as we know it. In a landscape where Babbages, GameStop, Funcoland, and EB Games were still in their infancy you used to see a lot more companies struggling to make it in the same space. For us, Egghead Software was our bastion of joy. Two friends and I would go up their and see whatever was installed on the PCs and doof around for a bit. Normally the pestering of the clerk who tired of us tying up their computers for actual paying customers would lead us out the door. Such is the life of pre-adulthood. No money, no hobby, and tons of empowered ‘tude because “you’re not a kid anymore”.

Well one visit in wasn’t like that at all. Popping in by myself as my dad was next door at a neighboring shop I opted to see what was going on today in there. They had two new games set up to play and both would win me over. Age of Empires, and Star Wars Jedi Knight. I remember it having the entire first level open for play at that point and actually spending several tries to get through it. Picking up a blaster, being chased by Rodians down halls for cover, searching for medpacks to get up enough health to face the weird alien dudes coming for me. At this point I had never seen a Star Wars film still, only familiar with the Shadows of the Empire on Nintendo 64. I thought that was cool and this was the same thing, sort of. Controlling with a mouse and keyboard was outside the norm for me and I kept dying. Over. and over. and over. I was enthralled though and wanted to keep exploring this weird space station thing.

Not… exactly as advertised on the cover art/header image.

The game was a thing of magic. It had live-action cutscenes! I realize they didn’t age well now and probably were awful back then too, having now seen YouTube fan vids with a better production value. For me then though it was just the coolest. Unfortunately I sucked bad at it. The store clerk felt pity on me and came over, chatting up and giving me tips. Then he did this weird thing where a prompt came up and he could just enter cheat codes. My mind was blown that it was that easy on PC games. Then completely sealing the deal on how much I needed this game, he entered the code “deeznuts”. I couldn’t help but think OMG, this is an actual code in the game by the people who made it?! HILARIOUS! Again, I was thirteen at the time. Between that and another code he put in called “yodajammies” it gave me a bunch of force powers and mana so I could wipe the floor with all opposition. Sold. For life.

Eventually I’d convince my dad to get me that game and I spent days of my life on both the single player and multiplayer aspects of it. Eventually I’d learn to not suck and was able to play through it without cheating, mostly from my desire to get better for multiplayer battles. Egghead Software would shut down the next year, but I’d go on to be a PC gamer for the better part of a near-decade from that point on. All because DEEZ NUTS.

What? I was thirteen. That’s comedy gold!