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).
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 Baseball; Ice 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).
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).
Aside from other more-than-enjoyable JRPGs (e.g., Xenogears, Suikoden, Valkyrie Profile, Azure 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).
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.