A Link to My Past

The Legend of Zelda was the first video game I ever truly loved. Don’t get me wrong, I also “loved” Super Mario Bros. and I played that long before I ever tried to tackle the daunting, open world of Hyrule. I liked Mega Man. I had a good time with Double Dragon. Contra and I were simpatico. But I loved Zelda.

Through the years, Zelda has grown up with me. The series has increased in complexity and richness, not unlike my own life, so when I first played through Skyward Sword, it was something of an emotional experience. It happened to come out in a week where I was due out of town for work, so I obviously had no choice but to pack it and the Wii in my bag and rig the hotel TV to be able to play it. Before and after office hours I indulged in sweet, uninterrupted Zelda time.

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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.

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..

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.

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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…

 

 

 

A Long Time Ago, On Far, Far and Away the Best Console…

A terrifying, vindictive government; a determined group of rebels and rabble rousers; a resistance built on hope. No, we’re not talking about the last ten days, we’re talking about Star Wars!

As a cultural phenomenon in the midst of a modern renaissance, Star Wars is everywhere today, but such wasn’t the case in 1992. And since my parents weren’t big fans at the time, the probability of me being able to watch the full trilogy was slim to none. How could a ten year old with mild interest keep track of the happenings in a galaxy long ago and far, far away? Enter Super Star Wars.

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Retribution, Revenge, and Red Dead Redemption

I spawned at the edge of a cliff. Was it too high? Would I survive the fall? I looked around quickly, trying to suss out an alternative, but before I could even formulate a plan shots rang out and my character crumpled to the ground.

“This sucks,” said Ben.

“I know.”

It was two versus three and the guys we were playing with (against?) had been griefing us for the last fifteen minutes or so, not even allowing us enough time to call our horses or get better weapons before unceremoniously gunning us down. It did suck, but we weren’t going to quit and we weren’t going to switch games. This was our game. This was Red Dead Redemption.

“Look,” I said, “Cory will be here soon and we’ll turn the tables on these guys.”

“Alright,” Ben replied. “I’m just saying, it was more fun yesterday when we were punching horses off a cliff.”

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Horse physics!

Yeah, we did that … for four hours. We also loaded our horses and ourselves into a wagon and drove it off the highest cliff we could find, just to see what would happen, holed up against the federalis at Torquemada, completed the gang hideout missions, and rushed what must have been all the gold in the West. The world was our playground, and while we completed team missions and also participated in the other multiplayer modes, most of our time was just messing around, doing the dumbest things we could think to do. Including getting griefed for large swaths of time, apparently.

I spawned again, certain I was about to be blown away, and heard a voice that was as welcome to me as Han’s was to Luke in the Death Star’s trench.

“You boys need a hand?”

Cory was here. With the tables even we made quick work of our attackers. Then Brian showed up. And Matt. Pretty soon the griefers turned into the griefees as we mercilessly gunned them down, taunting them all the while. Payback’s a bitch.

After a few minutes of this, they quit the game. Fair enough but we weren’t done.

Hold on a sec,” I said, opening the Xbox Live menu.

I scrolled through the recently-played-with list until I found their names.

“Alright guys, y’all ready?”

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Vengeance was ours and we did repay.

We warped into their new game. Ben mapped their position and we saddled up. It was sunset and I’ll never forget our group of seven, galloping across the plains, armed to the teeth, destruction in our hearts. We stormed down the hill into Blackwater and laid waste to our foes. They only made it a minute or two before they quit and blocked us but we had our vengeance and it was sweet. In the immortal words of Dipper Pines, “Revenge is underrated.”

 

Mega Man Monday

One year my parents happened to win a trip for two to Quebec via some kind of radio contest. They went, it was fun, end of story. Or was it the end of the story? You see, after spending the weekend with the radio hosts, my parents became fast friends with them, and continued the relationship to this day. What does that have to do with Mega Man 2? For me, everything. Because after that day, when the station was having a contest, very occasionally (I think twice ever) I was able to call up and be bumped to the head of the line and, if I remember correctly, I was even supplied with the right answer. It was a regular Quiz Show situation and I was a ten year old Ralph Fiennes.

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