“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.”
That soft welcoming chorus when you first boot up most Genesis games is how it all started. I had just gotten a Sega Genesis for Christmas in 1993, branching out from the SNES my family shared. My dad was always a techie. Long before I knew or understood what that was (which ultimately was passed down to me), I just reaped the benefit of constantly being surrounded with cool gadgets. I don’t remember what game(s) came with the Genesis, but I do remember getting Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as well that Christmas. What was cool about this gift was that it was the first console that was “mine”. Normally video games were a family present, a shared entertainment that none of us had claim to. Being the youngest of three though my brother and sister were over video games for the most part so they didn’t care about the cool new system I got with the super fast blue guy in red shoes. They definitely didn’t care about his little double-tailed fox buddy either. So all through that Christmas break at school I stayed indoors playing a bunch of Sonic 2 from top to bottom. I learned to hate Chemical Plant Zone and drowning. Despite that I was tickled pink from the blast processing experience that was unlike anything I had before on either of Nintendo’s systems.