Most people remember Phalanx for its cover: an old man playing a banjo next to his dog while a spaceship flies by in the night sky overhead. What the banjo player and his hound had to do with a fairly typical space shooter has left laymen and scholars alike arguing for the past fourteen years. The hypothesis that most people work under: it was a clever ad campaign to get people talking about an otherwise unremarkable game. We’re still talking about it almost a decade and a half later, aren’t we?
Playing Final Fantasy VI some eighteen years after it was released is akin to reading Don Quixote in English: you can tell both that it’s a masterpiece and that something is missing in the context. The rapid development of video game tech hasn’t tarnished any of FFVI’s shining narrative, of course. It is still a tale of horror, wonder, wit, and hope. Yet even as I played through it for the first time—ever—I could see that I was going to have to dig deep to really get at the importance of the title. Something was speaking to me, I just didn’t know what.
What was it that kept me away from it for all these years? Why buy it now (aside from the fact that it is going for eight bucks on the Wii Store)? Why am I so enraged by its random battles yet so drawn to the game? Is it just the narrative or is it something more?
When you take one of the most beloved and informative games of all time, jack up the difficulty somewhere just past sane, and hold it back from an adoring public for the better part of a decade, you can cause an ostensible adult to go airborne.
I swear that will make more sense in a minute.
People were decrying the influence of video games on popular culture way before Mortal Kombat came onto the scene. Arcades were time-(and money-)wasters. Tetris rotted your brain. Portable gaming systems destroyed kids’ patience (or tried that of their parents, really). If you’re a gamer who grew up in the ’80s, you know what I’m talking about.
These were just the typical portents of the doom of civilization through technology that proved to be almost entirely without base, and most people knew it. How dangerous could dumping block after block on top of one another really be? Were Mario Mario and his brother, Luigi Mario, really that much worse than the A-Team? Hadn’t people heard the same kind of arguments about film, television, and rock n’ roll? Despite a couple busts, video games got more and more popular every year with little-to-no outside intervention regarding their content.
… that is, until 1992, when a gamer could finally rip the still-beating heart out of an opponent’s chest. At that point, everything changed.
I have written extensively about music in my life, although for the most part it has been about what I listened to after I began to grow up. Most people have a point where they start to make choices for themselves as far as what art they want to consume. For me, that time was right around age 12, and I did it harder than a lot of people do. I sort of unilaterally decided that my parents’ music sucked and started making choices for myself. The first music I bought for myself? Pearl Jam’s Ten. On cassette.
Sometimes I feel kind of old.
Before the age of the internet, it was much more difficult for a gamer to get information on what he or she wanted to play. Once a month you got your game magazine, more often if you read a couple. Other than that, you had your friends and their opinions. As we all eventually learn, sometimes your friends are wrong.
This is why controls are so important to a title. Good controls remove one more barrier between a player and the gaming world. Bad controls take a player out of a game, like seeing a boom shadow in a film. The illusion is shattered. Frustration replaces aspiration. It takes time to learn the controls of a game, of course, but if the design sensibility matches the learning curve, the transition becomes seamless.
I was as late to the party on the Super NES as I really ever have been on a video game system. It came out in the US in 1991, and while we’d rented one several times and played a fair share of Super Mario World and F-Zero, it was not until my brother got one for his birthday in the summer of 1994 that it became ours. (For a point of reference, we got a Sega CD before we got the SNES. That was, for lack of a better word, a blunder.)
That lateness on the SNES meant that I was also late to the party on one of the greatest games ever: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.