I want to use this post (and hopefully future posts) to talk about the games that have influenced me/defined me. Without further ado dear reader, join me, as we wander into the nostalgia-fuelled foray that was my childhood…
The Early Years
My first console was a PlayStation 1. This must have been in the late 1990s, after its initial launch in Europe. The games that I can recall from that time are Crash Bandicoot, Final Fantasy VII, CTR, Spyro, Tekken 3, amongst many others I’ve played and which reside somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind (WIPEOUT!). Although Crash Team Racing was the go-to couch co-op game whenever my friend across the road came around, one game we kept leaning towards was Chocobo Racing. Yes, this coming from the man who never got past the first level of FFVII (I can hear your guffaws and moans of disgust).
Chocobo racing, for the uninitiated, is a Final Fantasy themed kart racing game reminiscent of CTR as well as the classic Mario Kart, with similar mechanics, including skidding (drifting) and power-ups, called ‘magic stones’ in the game. Yes, there were much better racing games around, and neither of us knew a single character in the game, but it just stuck with us. We ended up calling the characters made-up names: there was Graveler for the Golem, Spyro’s dad for Behemoth, Martian (after Marvin) for Black Magician, and a few obscenities which I won’t repeat here. Chocobo racing also had the most dramatic intro scene I had ever seen up to that point – I mean, not all the characters even had karts, one had a tank, the other just flew, the titular Chocobo wore rocket powered roller skates for goodness sake. The point was, the gameplay was so addictive, the racing lines just so spot on (eat your heart out Gran Turismo Sport), that it kept us coming back for more and more. In fact, I don’t recall a time when I ever played it on my own; which is probably why I have such fond memories, because the good times were shared with someone else. This is a key point which I keep coming back to when I play video games now, when I’m much older and wiser (I’m sticking with wiser).
A few Christmas’s later and I was lucky enough to receive a brand new PlayStation 2, with Ratchet and Clank and Tekken Tag Tournament under the tree – thanks Mum and Dad, truly. I was a little bit older at this point, around 9 or 10 I think, and was starting to grok video games more (that may be a large overstatement). What I mean is, they started becoming my daily bread, the things you talked about during every single spare moment on the playground at school, the things you drew pictures of, i.e. rubbish 9-year old concept art. They were the inspiration for running around like crazy outside, pretending to be different characters in different scenarios.
I remember spending a lot of time designing funky new weapons for Ratchet: guns that sent enemies back in time until they were babies (perhaps now I would call it the ‘Benjamin Buttonator’), guns that sucked people into foliage and turned them into flowers, and guns that were just cool-looking guns.
Wait! I hear you cry. This man’s a gun-toting maniac! Video games are only about guns and violence and killing! Judge me not so soon, dear readers, perhaps you should wait to hear me wax lyrical about Journey or Abzu. Perhaps I’ll talk about games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Portal – you shall have to wait and see. Fear not, I am no one trick pony, but my history of video games must include excitement and action, because, who wants to play games about our boring lives?
Okay, where were we… Ah, yes. I’m 10 years old, playing PS2 religiously. There’s GTA: Vice city (far too young, yes), God of War, Bully, Prince of Persia, Battlefront, more Tekken, Burnout, Jak and Daxter, I could go on. I played anything I could get my hands on. Every birthday, every christmas, every bit of pocket money, was all saved up to buy a new video game (and LEGO, man I loved LEGO). I can’t think of one game in this era that defined me, rather, this was my dive into the deep end: try everything and see what sticks a few years down the line. I know now that I’m terrible at all video games, don’t like FPS, or terribly long RPGs. But back then, it was a candy story and everything was super sweet.
Intermission: We need to talk about Nintendo
The keen eyed reader recognises that nowhere has there been a mention of the Greats (with a capital G). I’m talking about the N64, Zelda, Mario, etc. etc. Even some PS1 games have been left out, like Metal Gear, Gran Turismo, GTA. Yes, yes, I know. There are many games I’ve played, probably not finished, but they didn’t stay with me through the years. Everybody’s different, okay? I never got into Zelda, couldn’t work a Gamecube controller and I can’t do stealth, period.
There is one game I haven’t mentioned, however, which may be my number one most nostalgic game of all time. Probably my first favourite game ever. Yes, you guessed it, it’s Pokémon Silver. Silver was the sequel to the original Red and Blue (in Europe) and added a bunch of new Pokémon, a day and night cycle, and an incredible post-game, insofar that you get to journey back to the Kanto region and beat all the old gym leaders again. I remember playing Pokémon Blue on my friend’s Gameboy, aching to have my own. Eventually, thanks again to my wonderful parents, I got a Gameboy Advance with a shiny new copy of Silver. Now, Pokémon may not have the greatest gameplay mechanics, nor the most forward thinking of plots (especially for animal rights activists): “So the aim of the game is to enslave creatures and have them fight for you!?”, but Pokémon was addictive. Pokémon had goals, had experience points, had collectibles (the Pokémon themselves). Pokémon brought so much of Japanese teen culture to the Western world, and it became a cultural icon. Recently, doubly nostalgic for me, Gold and Silver have become downloadable on the 3DS Virtual Console, so people who missed out can play it, or like me, play it again.
Pokémon did one thing that Nintendo as a company has at the forefront of their ethos: it promoted communication between players. See, if you wanted to get all the Pokémon, you had to trade with another player who had a different version of the game (Silver and Gold, Red and Blue, etc.). It was this reason that Pokémon stuck with me all this time. No, I never caught them all back in the day, but it was fun just to try. Pokémon continues to help me make new friends and promote social discourse: I’ve recently been helping a friend’s fiancé collect all 802 (at the time of writing) monsters.
Catching Pokémon is a team effort, and I think that’s what the people at Game Freak would have wanted.
Eventually, primary school came to a close and I started switching schools, quite frequently with my father’s job, moving around the UK like a massive erratic fly. I eventually settled down into a secondary school and thus began the lonely, but very exciting ‘next-gen’ wars. Being quite introverted, I found it difficult to make many friends, and those I did make, weren’t really friends, but bullies who were just as lonely. Some friends stayed with me, and we had great adventures on the brand new, and shockingly expensive, PlayStation 3. FYI, I have skipped a large portion of my teens where video games ceased to be ‘cool’; there were about 2 years where I maybe played one or two PlayStation games a year, seriously. I bought a Nintendo DS at this point and went handheld, but when I was 15, the big guns all came back, specifically with two games, both sequels, funnily enough: Assassin’s Creed 2 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
The opening titles of AC2 still brings tears of nostalgia to my eyes. It was the first cold open I’d ever seen in a video game. This was like a movie, it had character development, and looked very realistic (circa 2008 graphics) for the time. I mean, there were proper voice actors, and an incredible soundtrack by Jesper Kyd. AC1 was a solo outing for me, and hats off to a great game for the PS3, but AC2 added colour to the blue palette of AC1’s Holy Land, it added Leonardo da Vinci and masquerade balls, dual-wielding hidden blades and a charismatic protagonist in the form of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. I remember playing with a friend (who it turns out, wasn’t really a friend, but that’s another blog post), and being so caught up in the story, that our awe transcended anything happening in real life right then and there. Dinner? Who cares. Sleep? No need. We played AC2 for hours, and many a day afterward. Like all good video games, its burning fire cooled to a soothing ember, a warm pool for one to dip their Dualshock 3 into every once in a while, never fully drying up.
If I thought AC2 was cinematic, then Uncharted 2 blew my poorly film-educated brain to smithereens.
To everyone who has played an Uncharted game, they will surely have heard of the opening train sequence. I advise against simply watching it on YouTube, instead, find, steal, cajole, borrow, lease, whatever, somehow get a copy and play that opening scene for yourself. Whilst some games at the time were tinkering with Hollywood style storytelling, Naughty Dog had found the magic formula, and they ran with it. Nathan Drake quickly became a household name, with every outing receiving critical acclaim from fans and critics alike. You can see here what I thought of Uncharted 4, Drake’s swan-song (no that’s not the title, but man it should have been, right!?)
Again, Uncharted 2 sticks in my head because I didn’t play it on my own. There were others I could talk to it about. Other people who were as fanatical about it as I was. If you believe that video game developers are trying to get a point across, trying to tell you a story, trying to induce a very specific bag of emotion in you, then hear me out: video games are then a means of communication from the developers/creators to you. And the way to maximally enjoy that communication, in order to preserve it, is to share your experiences with others.
The way to raise those cold pixels of light and logic into a greater experience is to share video games with other people. Video games can be lonely, sure. But, let’s be lonely together.
Right, on that slightly weird, philosophical revelation, I think I’m going to stop there. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon! I shall continue my quest into the land of PS3 games, University life and maybe even, romance!?