Saturday, June 30, 2012

Growing Up (a) Gamer: Part 1 – In the Beginning…

by J. Adams

I was born in 1984 and, though I can’t prove it, I was probably born with a controller in my hand.  That in itself should be odd considering that 1984 was actually the year in which industry analysts – analysts of a young, struggling industry to be sure – were questioning the long term viability of any sort of home video game market in the United States.   It was a great question at the time, since the industry that had been worth around $3 billion the year before was now worth about 3% of that, netting only around $100 million and seeing the demise of nearly all the companies producing home consoles and/or games.

1983 saw a second massive crash in the home video gaming market – the first being in 
1977 – in the U.S. that very nearly destroyed the industry before it really got started.   The first and second generation of home game systems included the venerable Atari 2600, the Amiga, the Commodore 64, and the Magnavox Odyssey – most of which you will hear about from Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory - or by the occasional nostalgic gamer geek that says “they just don’t make them like that anymore.”  Personally, I’m rather glad that we’ve moved past it. 

From what I understand, I spent most of 1985 trying to eat various small, brightly colored objects which I believe should have been a clue to my parents as to what my eventual obsession would be. This is the year that, despite predictions of impending doom from Electronic Games magazine, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in the U.S.  The initial game library consisted of only a dozen games, including Super Mario BrothersDuck HuntKung Fu, and my personal favorite, Excitebike.
Behold - The machine that almost
single-handedly rescued the home
video game industry.
During the next few years, the NES had a pretty good stranglehold on the home video game market, since its only competition was the Sega Master System, which wasn’t released until 1986. We still had the Amiga and the Commodore 64, but those weren’t really ‘consoles’ any more than today’s gaming PC is a console. I played a great many of the NES games that came out, but given that I was only 4 or 5, I spent most of that time mashing the couple of buttons on the controllers.

I’m sure that industry “insiders” and people far more well-known than I will disagree, but I believe the true Golden Age of video gaming started in 1991 when the Super Nintendo was released. I was only 7, but I just 
knew that 16-bit was something magical and I absolutely had to have it – but when my parents asked me what system I wanted for my birthday, I asked for the Sega Genesis. The Genesis had been out for two years before the Super Nintendo’s release and was  advertising a much ‘cooler’ character than the old standby Mario – Sonic the Hedgehog. 
The Glorious Golden Age.   
 As soon as I played the first few levels of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, I was hooked.  The game was fast and colorful – far more than the old Super Mario Brothers on the NES – and I vividly remember being quite simply entranced by what I was seeing.  The Genesis kept my attention for a long time, putting out games like Toejam and Earl – which I used to play for hours with my father – Pirates! Gold, Phantasy Star, (my first “RPG),– General Chaos( which had great puns in it that I didn’t understand until many years later), Altered Beast (“Rise from your grave!”), and so many more that trying to talk about them all would increase my word count for this article without actually saying anything. 

It was probably 1993 when I did eventually get my Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and got reacquainted with Mario and Luigi. Following that act was difficult, but when The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released, I found myself sinking many more hours at a time into a single activity than I ever had before.  The SNES was also the home of the new (to me) Final Fantasy series – I had played the original on the NES, but I was too young to have the patience to stick with it. Now that I was getting to be a pre-teen, I was, of course, growing far more mature and sophisticated than my parents were giving me credit for. Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III introduced me to the concept of (gasp!) storytelling in a video game, and even today I remember the casts of excellent characters that I spent 60+ hours – per playthrough – working on.

A lot of new third-party developers were getting involved in the gaming market around this time, bringing out dozens of games a month. Even though I was playing video games far more often than I was doing most anything else, I just couldn’t keep up. I made it a point, though, to keep up with a couple of companies that consistently seemed to produce great games – my favorite of them was responsible for the Final Fantasy series, and probably my favorite game of all time, 
Chrono Trigger. That company was Squaresoft, and this would turn out to be fairly important for me.

Eventually, around the time I was reaching my teenage years, the Sony PlayStation was nearing release – this was going to be something entirely different than anything anyone had seen yet – the games weren’t going to be on cartridges anymore. Instead, they would be using optical discs which promised better graphics, longer games, and – this was 
hugely important back then – higher polygon counts. I pretended to know what that meant in a more specific way than ‘things will look better’ but I honestly had no clue what any of it meant.

Nintendo had decided to continue on with cartridges on its new Nintendo 64 system. I may have stuck with Nintendo except for one little thing – Squaresoft had made the decision to develop exclusively for the PlayStation and the next game in the Final Fantasy series, 
Final Fantasy VII was going to be on the PlayStation. My decision was more or less made for me.

The first PlayStation came out in 1995, and I had one before 1995 turned to 1996. Sony had gotten around not being able to save games directly onto a cartridge by having Memory Cards, and I thought it was just amazingly cool to be able to save so many different games to one device. The technical capabilities of the PlayStation allowed developers to do things that I wouldn’t have thought possible. The graphics on the 
cutscenes for Final Fantasy VIII made me wonder how anything could possibly look any better without being filmed live.
Glimpsing the Future...
My taste in video games was beginning to solidify with this new system. I didn’t care for racing games, fighting games, or too many of the first-person shooters that were available (which, in all honesty, wasn’t very many).  My gaming dollar was going to roleplaying games, strategy games, and the occasional platformer. This was also the time when I was getting to have some serious brand loyalty. As much as I hate to admit it, I was probably a Sony fanboy for whatever that really meant back then. I didn’t bother with the Nintendo 64 or the Sega Saturn, other than the couple of times I rented the hardware from Blockbuster Video when it was still a profitable company.

Next week in Part 2, I’ll get into the Sixth Generation of the consoles, which is when the “console wars” really began in earnest – and I was old enough to understand and care…at least to an extent.
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