Major Influences #6: Post-Atari and Pre-Wii Video Games

I’ve covered a good amount of influential TV shows in my prior “major influences” posts, and it’s about time I move on to another medium: video games.

The Gateway Consoles

Growing up, my siblings and I had the privilege of owning a few video game consoles. Our first console was the Sega Master System, which I can only assume we got many years after its launch; I wasn’t born yet at its release, but definitely could talk and walk by the time it showed up in our home.

As far as I recall, my favorite titles on the Master System was Alex Kidd in Miracle World (which featured rock-paper-scissors as a primary game mechanic) and My Hero (in which the player character is KO’ed by some jerk in a mohawk two seconds after you press start, and you spend the entire game punching and kicking people to get the player character’s girlfriend back).

Ice Hockey and Bad News Baseball NES

Ice Hockey and Bad News Baseball. Guess which is which.

Later, my family also got the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Yes, I played Mario games, but my favorite games were a bit more obscure: Bad News BaseballIce Hockey; and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Three Kingdoms is a “historical simulation” by KOEI based on a Chinese historical fiction novel. Along with true sequels, KOEI also later released related titles based on the same source material, the most famous of which would be the Dynasty Wariors hack’n’slash games. Over the years, I continued to play many iterations of the Three Kingdoms series, with my favorites being VIII and X.

A less obscure NES favorite of mine is the original Final Fantasy.

All in all, I wasn’t really all that into video games during the NES era.

Golden Age of the JRPG

It wasn’t until the Super Nintendo (SNES) that my video game addiction truly began.Through the SNES, I started getting into fighting games via Capcom’s Street Fighter II (and its many reincarnations), but what I really became hooked on were Japanese role-playing games (JPRGs). I was drawn to RPGs because they had stronger narratives, stories, and dialogue than any other video game genre at the time.

In particular, I liked Final Fantasy III (with many characters developed beyond any level I’d seen previously in a game), Chrono Trigger (so much time-jumping awesomeness), Lufia II (the ending’s rather dramatic), Breath of Fire II (you play a dude who transforms into a dragon and blows people away, ’nuff said), Earthbound (hilarious and quirky), Robotrek (you’re an inventor-kid who battles monsters and other things using robots; somewhat humorous, but not quite as much as Earthbound), and Harvest Moon (you farm and milk cows—oh, and get married and have babies).

Eartbound SNES

Earthbound‘s four young heroes: three psychics and, uh, an engineer.

Earthbound might be my favorite game on the SNES due to its off-beat humor. You play as Ness, a kid who witnesses the death of an alien that looks like a fly. Before dying, the fly sends you on a quest in which you use your baseball bat and psychic powers to save the world from a bleak future. Some of the enemies you face include the New Age Retro Hippie, Annoying Old Party Man, and Insane Cultist. To compare its sense of humor to something contemporary, I’d point to Adventure Time. It’s mathematical.

The Rise of Cinematic Video Games

The Golden Age of JRPGs continued well past the time of the SNES and into an era during which Sony absolutely dominated the market with the Playstation and Playstation 2.

Still avid fans of JRPGs at the time, the sole reason my siblings and I got the Playstation instead of a competing console was because we were chasing Squaresoft and its Final Fantasy franchise. To hold us over while we waited for the next iteration of Final Fantasy, we started our Playstation experience with Battle Arena Toshinden, a clunky but lovable fighting game, and Wild Arms, another JRPG. While fairly awesome in its own right, the wild west-themed Wild Arms simply cannot hold a candle to the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII, though Wild Arms does have a ridonkulously impressive opening theme (particularly if you’re an anime nerd):

Final Fantasy VII has one of the most compelling RPG narratives of all time topped off with beautiful musical compositions by Nobuo Uematsu. Due to its popularity and general awesomeness, the game spawned several spin-offs (including my favorite PSP game, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, and an impressive feature length motion picture). Subsequent Final Fantasy games were rather hit or miss, but I’ll say I loved Final Fantasy Tactics, and liked VIII and X more than the others (likely because I didn’t have a pre-pubescent aversion to love stories).

Final Fantasy Advent Children Zack Fair Aeris Gainsborough Cloud Strife Tifa Lockheart

Aside from other more-than-enjoyable JRPGs (e.g., XenogearsSuikodenValkyrie ProfileAzure Dreams, and Kingdom Hearts), the Playstation and Playstation 2 also introduced me to the Metal Gear Solid series and Hideo Kojima’s film industry-inspired game design. Today, Kojima is rather (in)famous for packing a whole lot of narrative into his games. In doing so, he’s earned the ire of critics who say his games tend to make you feel like you’re watching a movie rather than playing a game. Naturally, as I love good narratives, Kojima’s games rank among my favorites (particularly, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater).

Kojima’s movie-esque direction of his Metal Gear games likely paved the way for the cinematic video game hits of later generations (e.g., Naughty Dog’s Uncharted titles and The Last of Us; Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, to an extent; and even some of Bungie’s Halo games, though its popularity lies in its story-light multiplayer).

Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater Art

At the least, Kojima’s Metal Gear games prepared me for the action games I wound up playing a lot of in the Xbox/PS3 era (a time in which JRPGs declined in more ways than one).

Video games before the seventh generation of consoles tended to have rather rudimentary narratives, but they still served to expose me to themes I hadn’t seen elsewhere (as young as I was), and some fairly unique forms of storytelling. Also, I think Earthbound may be one of the major roots of my tree of quirkiness.

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11 thoughts on “Major Influences #6: Post-Atari and Pre-Wii Video Games

  1. I still have my old Super Nintendo system and several games. Super Mario World was my thing though I also liked Tetris. I wasn’t much of a player, but it was a great stress-buster. It’s funny because my teen sons still occasionally play with my old system, even though they have a PS 3 and a Wii. But my oldest son got much farther in Super Mario World than I ever did!

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    • Super Mario World was pretty fun. I played the early stages a lot both because they were easier and because our save data kept getting corrupted. I think I finished the last stage maybe once or twice, if at all.

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  2. “[B]ut I’ll say I […] liked VIII and X more than the others (likely because I didn’t have a pre-pubescent aversion to love stories).”

    This is something that fucks my head something fierce. Any number of people lampooned FFVIII over the love story being the central story and, I think more not to look like heartless fuckbags, they complained about the junction system and how it inhibited the use of spells. With FFX it was complaining about the voice acting, lip syncing and Tidus’ laugh on the stairs that they used as a buffer for douchedom.

    I find it remarkable that these are likely the same people that have no issue with the premise of games like Double Dragon and Silent Hill 2, no doubt because they don’t have to actually see much of it. Hell, even the new Splatterhouse had love and regret as central themes, same with Dante’s Inferno.

    But what can you do…bros gun bro, trolololoooolll.

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    • I think it also sort of relates to how much the player feels like sympathizing.

      With a character as heavily introverted as Squall, FFVIII requires the player to be more sympathetic in order to understand his unvoiced thoughts and motives. Some people just don’t do it (it’s rather similar to why some people don’t get the protagonist of Drive (2011)).

      As for Tidus, he’s emotional and his psyche took a lot of hits. Rather than sympathize with him, Tidus-haters likely dismiss him because they prefer their protagonist be a bad ass for most of the narration, like Cloud Strife.

      You can note a difference in the narratives of VII and X in that: with VII, you spend most of the game watching Cloud be a bad ass and you’re only given a small bit of time to see that he wasn’t always quite cut out to be in SOLDIER; with X, you spend a lot of the time watching Tidus grow out of his weakness, and he’s not quite complete until you near the end of the game.

      Or, maybe not.

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      • These are very relevant points and I like to bring up Amnesia: the Dark Descent when it comes to players being able to immerse themselves in the game.

        It took me about 4 or 5 play sessions to finish that game and, in it, I died only once. (I made a terrible mistake checking to see if something wasn’t behind me instead of going forward through a door.) I died only once for two reasons: I FPS like a motherfucker and I followed the directions the developers gave me in the title screen, viz. I didn’t try to ‘win’ but simply be present in the game. This saw me play only at night, in a dark room and with headphones on and was the same way I played Fatal Frame many years ago.

        There’s a real problem, I think, with emotional maturity and players having the will (perhaps, too, ability?) to allow themselves to be immersed in a game that isn’t a visceral death-fest. Perhaps I don’t have this issue because of my particular education, because I’m a poet, because I was around primarily females my entire life or something else in my background. I’d like to think, though, that this plays a smaller role than ‘bro-culture’ and the suits genuinely opening up video games to a large body that was interested in but never really cared about video games in particular or art in general.

        Video games, as they have matured, is simply a wonderful artistic medium. Video games allow certain types of stories and interactions that can’t be told in any other way and, as a poet, I’m particularly sensitive to this fact. This doesn’t mean it’s the end-all-be-all of artistic mediums, rather it has some quite powerful tools/modes that we ought not overlook.

        There’s a lot of overlooking going on and that, I think, is because a lot of people that don’t care much are considered the target audience.

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  3. Hi A.D.! I used to play video games back in the day on an old platform from the 70s called Intellivision. I wasn’t very good at the action games (space fights and car races) like my dad and sister were, but the slower, puzzle-like games were a lot of fun. I also used to play my friends’ Gameboys and Playstations, and the game Tekken inspired me to study martial arts in real life. I don’t game at all now, although I like watching other people play. The graphics of modern games are unbelievable!

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  4. Hi! I am finally catching up with comments and such. I thank you so very much for following my blog. it is a mishmash of stuff, but I have fun with it. Very interesting blog you have here and I look forward to getting future posts from you. grins!

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  5. Hi! I have to admit that controller-based videogames kind of lost me after Super Nintendo. But I still have it at home – functioning and all. Since you mentioned Lufia II, I really have to point out “The Secret of Mana” which is also a JPRG and my absolute favourite. I still phantasize about making it into a Manga although I know I am lacking the drawing skills to match the story.

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