Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rediscovering Games -or- The Surprising Joys of Unemployment

As some of you may know, I was until recently part of the mass of people that found themselves unemployed, and then damn well near unemployable, as a result of 2008's little financial fiasco. I didn't really like my old job, but I sure loved the steady income it provided me. I was laid off in summer of 2008 for what I thought would only be a very brief period--no more than 3 months or so. How wrong I was. Unfortunately, it seemed everyone was laid off at the same time I was. Result? Whereas before you had, say, 10 or 20 people applying for a low level position, now you had literally hundreds of applicants fighting tooth and nail for the honor and prestige of being shift leader at the local Church's Chicken. Living in a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in America and plagued with an ineffectual and incompetent EDD didn't help either.

Fortunately, I was eventually able to find a job that, mirabile dictu, was far better than my old one. Offering me not only a fancy title, but a very healthy salary and far more reasonable hours to boot, I had actually been able to find something better than what I had previously. Not all of us are so fortunate.

Still, every cloud has its silver lining. The silver lining here was that I now had a lot more free time to catch up on the vidya. EDD checks may not have come in on time and I wasn't sure how I'd make the rent. But at least I could play the shit out of Kid Dracula. It's no exaggeration to say that I beat more games the past year and a half than I had in the entire preceding decade. Below, in no particular order, are all the games I beat between July 2008 and January 2010--the fruits of my jobless despair [insert laugh track here]. I had never beaten any of the games below until the past 1 1/2 year.

  1. Bio Miracle Bokkute Upa (Famicom)
  2. Kid Dracula (Famicom)
  3. Kid Dracula (Game Boy)
  4. Metroid II: The Return of Samus (Game Boy)
  5. Gargoyle's Quest II (NES)
  6. Destiny of an Emperor (NES)
  7. Dragon Quest V (Super Famicom)
  8. Paladin's Quest (SNES)
  9. Lufia II: The Rise of the Sinistrals (SNES)
  10. Lagoon (SNES)
  11. New Super Mario Bros. (DS)
  12. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (Game Boy Advance)
  13. Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (DS)
  14. Mega Man (NES)
  15. Castlevania (NES)
  16. Castlevania III (NES)
  17. Parodius (Super Famicom)
  18. Neutopia (TG-16)
  19. Ganbare Goemon (Famicom)
  20. Earthbound Zero (NES)
  21. Earthbound (SNES)
  22. Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance)
  23. Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu (NES)
  24. Kirby: Squeak Squad (DS)
  25. Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis)
  26. Sword of Hope (Game Boy)
  27. Kirby's Dream Land 3 (SNES)
  28. 7th Saga (SNES)
  29. Super Mario Bros.2 (Famicom Disc [I had beaten the SMB All-Stars version years ago though.])
  30. Earthworm Jim (Genesis)
  31. The Legend of Zelda: Satellavision (Super Famicom)
  32. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance)
  33. Wario World (Game Cube)
  34. Wario Land (Game Boy)
  35. Wario Land II (Game Boy Color)
  36. Wario Land III (Game Boy Color)
  37. Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)
  38. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis)
  39. Sonic the Hedgehog (Master System)
  40. Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Master System)
  41. Widget (NES)
  42. Adventure Island III (NES)
  43. Valkyrie no Densetsu (PC Engine)
  44. Ghosts n' Goblins (NES)
  45. Bubble Bobble 2 (NES)
  46. Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)
  47. The Lone Ranger (NES)
  48. Radical Dreamers (Super Famicom)
  49. Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom)
  50. Secret of Evermore (SNES)
  51. Yume Penguin Monogatari (Famicom)

Some of these games are better than others. Ghosts n' Goblins and the Castlevanias were the result of the last three days before I got final word that I was hired. A nervous trainwreck over an unexpected bump on the road to employment, I sublimated my anxiety by beating these games. Well, now I'm employed and I can tell people I beat these sadistically difficult games. Not too shabby.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Final Fantasy VI: A window to the sun

Earlier this morning, I came across this article at Hardcore Gaming's blog. Written by Sergei Servianov, the article made the interesting argument that for some kids, Final Fantasy VI represented their first glimpse into a world beyond the one they knew. I thought it was an admirable point, but the article's purple prose wore thin really fast on this reader. Somebody get this guy Strunk & White's The Elements of Style! I posted a comment to the article. Posting that comment inspired me to open this blog. This article will essentially be an augmented version of my previous comment.

Now some of you may think it silly to think that a video game could actually help expand the mind of youth. Wars over the validity and ultimate usefulness of video games are old news and are likely to continue long after we're gone. To be sure, the pretensions of some games to higher culture are just that. But some games, without self consciously striving to do so, can at least point the way to where a receptive young mind may go.

I was 12 years old when Final Fantasy VI came out. It would be no exaggeration to say that I never before, and never again, would so anxiously wait for the arrival of a game as I had with that one. Bitterly disappointed with the cancellation of an American release of Final Fantasy V, I was floored when I saw the first pics of FFVI in an EGM issue long ago. I would soon learn that FFVI would not merely be one of the greatest gaming experiences I would ever enjoy. It would also become my first glimpse of a window to the sun.

In junior high, I was hardly a sophisticate. Well, who is in junior high? Though I excelled at most subjects in school, I could hardly be thought of as erudite. I rarely read for leisure; was clueless when it came to the arts. Moreover, growing up in what is colloquially referred to as "da hood" by the hordes of hipsters that have moved into the area where I grew up, there weren't many opportunities for kids like me to experience something beyond the here and now. Nobody to expose me to Mahler's symphonies or to the painful honesty of Boethius. But life unfolds in its curious way. Final Fantasy VI--a video game--inspired me to go beyond the everyday and to seek the eternal.

The game's plot and mechanics obviously drew me in initially. Who can forget when the game's first act ends with, of all things, the end of the world? It took quite a video game to challenge the convention of the "happy ending". Even when the game does finally close, it's not quite an optimistic stride into the sunset. Lives have been lost; the world irrevocably changed. Victory has been achieved, but at what a cost. Even the victory is of an ambiguous sort. Not a blinding victory with sabers flashing. Victory is simply being allowed to continue living with the hope of a better day in wait. No ticker tape parade awaits. Life hardly ever really does throw you those.

Most of all it was Nobuo Uematsu's haunting music that lingered most in my memory. The impression of hearing the melancholy tones of the synthesized English horn as the Magitek soldiers marched onto Narshe was something of a water shed moment for your's truly. The game itself, needless to say, won me over completely. It is to this day my favorite FF game. But it was the music that suddenly lit upon this somewhat feckless youth that served a beacon from a better world. The music obsessed me. I remember taping the music off my TV onto a portable cassette player just so I could have the pleasure of being able to listen to it again and again. But it wasn't enough. Not living in Japan where game soundtracks are plentiful and readily available, my mind suddenly began to seek out music; a music that could give expression to desires and thoughts that remained wordless and unknown in this 12 year old. I got lucky. Around this time, my father happened to play for me a CD with Ravel's Bolero on it. I was hooked. 15 years and some 5000 CD's later, I have become an avid lover and enthusiast of classical music. But not just that. Through music doors to other vistas opened before me: poetry, fiction, religion, philosophy, history, sociology, etc. All these I devoured greedily. My cramped apartment with 3000+ books stands as proof.

Now rapidly approaching my 30's, I read anywhere from 4 - 12 books a week, am well versed in the arts, well informed politically and culturally, successful in my career... all in all, I've turned out to be a rather solid citizen. Some may doubt that a video game could do all this. Let them. But I can attest with honesty of the great benefit that a work of art--be it music, film, literature, or (in this case) video game--can work on a kid with an open mind and heart. I wouldn't be the man I am today if it weren't for FFVI. I suppose I was onto something as a 12 year old. The child truly is the father of the man.

Introduction: Super Mario is 25 or How I'm that much closer to collecting social security

Has it been so long? The other day I was talking the vidya with my brother when we hit upon a startling fact--Super Mario Bros. is going to be 25 years old this year. Yet another startling fact dawned on me. I'm only 2 years older than the Mario Bros. and out out of those 27 years, at least 24 were spent gaming in one way or another. It's all nearly overwhelming to consider. I feel as if those days spent with my neighbor trying to get the infinite 1-ups in world 3-1, chasing after the minus world, and whatever other schoolyard rumors circulated (does anybody else remember the rumor that there was a chocolate factory level somewhere?) were only yesterday. That chubby 7 year old sitting in front of the TV with bag of Doritos™ and a can of soda (no wonder I was fat!) staying up all night in hot pursuit of the princess is nothing but a hazy, if potent, memory.

So here I am now. A chasm of years and experience separating me from that butterball who eagerly looked forward to going to the neighbor's after school to play Pole Position and Super Mario Bros.

As I've aged and matured, so have video games. An interesting phenomena has occurred in the process. Games like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Sonic, etc. thought to be nothing more than toys at best; purveyors of moral decay at worst are now being recognized in a new light. We now see that many of these games weren't just pieces of merchandise to be hawked on the open market for all they were worth, doubtless though they were. We can now appreciate the fine work and craftsmanship that went into the creation of these games. The best even have a sense of soul to them; an ability to move us just as any music, or literature, or film can.

Some may think we're looking too much into these games. After all, who among us would want to concede as we enter our thirties and forties that our reluctance to let go of gaming is a sign not of a reevaluation of the worth of gaming, but merely a sign of immaturity? But I think that those who view video games as an emerging art form, among whose numbers I count myself, will be vindicated in the end.

I've been thinking about starting this blog for a few years now. There were aborted attempts. As with everything, sometimes we have to mature further until we're ready to move to that next step.

In this blog, I'll mostly be discussing my thoughts on gaming and reminiscing on my past experiences with games. I'll also talk much about the older games that were the sound and color of my formative years.

I do hope you enjoy this blog. Your comments are always appreciated. Thank you!