A reflection upon the PSX turning 20

So I’ve always thought that the story of how I ended up with a Sony PlayStation instead of a Nintendo 64 was rather amusing and worth recounting. I wrote it up a couple years ago, but I thought I would clean it up a little and share it again on account of the PSOne 20th anniversary celebrations going on everywhere. And by everywhere I mean in Sony promotional materials on the internet.

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I think that a big part of my desire to be “well played” (that is, to play as many historically and culturally important games on as many different systems as I can manage) stems in part from the fact that my console allegiances shifted a number of times when I was young. I got a Game Boy for my seventh birthday (bought for me by my extended family, to my parents’ chagrin) and a Sega Genesis for my tenth birthday (bought for me by my extended family on the OTHER side, also very much to my parents’ chagrin).

I never felt particularly embroiled in the 16-bit “Console Wars” between Sega and Nintendo– I certainly was glad to have a Game Boy rather than a Game Gear, because I enjoyed being able to play my handheld for more than twenty or thirty minutes before it ran out of batteries–but I was quite content with my Sega Genesis, and didn’t feel like I was missing out by not owning an SNES (it turns out I was wrong, of course): I might have had the inferior TMNT game, but I had the better version of Aladdin, so all was well.

When it came time to move on to the 32/64-bit generation, however, another chance of fate conspired to shift my allegiances once again.

It was the holiday season of 1996, and the new consoles had been out for somewhere between a few months and a year. I felt as though it was time to move on from my Genesis and embrace the world of the new. Knowing that my parents had a firm policy against buying me systems, I understood that it was going to take not just my savings, but the sacrifice of my trusty Sega console and all of its games, plus all of the birthday money my grandmother had given me. I wistfully gathered up my gaming collection and asked my father to take me round to the mall so that I could make my purchase.

I knew what I was after. The parents of my friends had no such misgivings about the purchase of consoles for their offspring, and some of them didn’t even have to wait until Christmas to acquire their prizes. I had been to my buddy Charles’s house and played Super Mario 64. I had seen the future, the three-dimensional future, and it was glorious. The way was laid before me by the mustachioed son of Miyamoto.

So when I rolled up with my father to the CD Game Exchange with my little cardboard box containing the remnants of the hedgehog’s 16-bit kingdom, I had my sights firmly set on a January exploring the hallways of Peach’s castle. The plumber exhorted me to “let’s-a go,” and I was ready to obey.

I set my old games on the counter in front of a young man who I imagine was in his early 20s. I have no recollection of what he looked like, now, which is unfortunate, considering the profound effect he was about to have upon me.

The dude quickly calculated how much my cardboard box was worth, and it was just enough that with my additional savings, I would be able to purchase the system–and a game besides! I rubbed my hands together in naive anticipation.

“I want an N64, please,” I said, all full of hope.

The words fell like a headsman’s axe: “Can’t. We don’t have any.”

I stood looking at him in shock. What? Didn’t he understand how important it was that I have this system? When my brain finally processed the implications of his statement, I reached for the cardboard box and began to pull it back toward me across the glass display case. “Come on, Dad,” I said. “We’ve got to go to a different store.”

“It’s no good,” said the man behind the counter. “No one has them. You won’t be able to find one.”

I can’t say for sure, but it’s entirely likely that my lip trembled. Why was the universe intent on crushing my pre-adolescent dreams?

And it was at this point that the gentleman leaned over the counter and beckoned me closer with a crooked finger. Desperate for any glimmer of hope, I approached, hoping that he was about to tell me that there was just one system left, in the back, and he just wanted to make sure it went home with a young man who really wanted it.

He looked at me and the corner of his mouth bent upward in a smirk. He leaned in conspiratorially, as though he was about to impart to me some secret of the Adult World.

“You don’t want an N64,” he said. “You want a PlayStation.”

I blinked. I wanted a what? Why?

“You want a PlayStation,” he repeated. “Trust me on this one.”

And you know what? Reader, I believed him.

Looking back on it, I’m certain that he was just trying to make a sale, that he was thinking of how nice it would be to make his numbers go up on that little board in the back room, but I bought it. Hook, line, and sinker, I bought it. I couldn’t explain why, but I knew in that moment that I did want a PlayStation.

(An aside, here: Have you ever looked at the word “PlayStation?” How weird is it? We’ve had this as part of our gaming lexicon for some twenty years, and do we ever stop to examine how silly it is as a portmanteau?)

And so I handed over my Genesis and my Sonic 3D Blast and my Ristar and my Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition and a dozen other games, and I left the store with a brand new Sony PlayStation. My post-holiday need for instant gratification won the day.

The games I bought immediately were actually kind of lame: I went home with Ridge Racer Revolution, which was a decent game but only had three tracks, and Aquanaut’s Holiday, which, seriously, what the hell. ArtDink, man.

Somehow I wasn’t deterred or disillusioned by my purchases, despite– well, despite the fact that Aquanaut’s Holiday was really boring, and Ridge Racer Revolution spent more time in my Discman than in my PlayStation. The system came with a demo disc that had some excellent suggestions, and pretty soon I saved the scratch to invest in Jumping Flash 2 and Jet Mototwo games which have aged pretty well, relatively speaking, and which I would still recommend.

But it wasn’t until later that year that I truly realized how right that CD Game Exchange worker had been. I saw an ad for Final Fantasy VII in my gaming magazine (the now-defunct Next Generation), desperately begged my mom to take me to the mall after school, and came home to rush to the basement, pop in the disc, turn on the console, and see this opening. Wowzers.

When I finally managed to pick my jaw up off the floor, I said a little prayer of thanks to that guy at CD Game Exchange, because it became clear to me in that moment that he had not been just messing with me to make a sale. It seemed to me, then, that he’d been genuinely concerned with my well-being as a young player of games.

Kiwanuka review — Kill Screen

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Kiwanuka is a puzzler like its cast: simple, charming, and short”

Here’s another review for Kill Screen, this time of the iOS puzzler Kiwanuka. I enjoyed it a great deal–it’s got a lot of heart. It’s only two bucks, as well, which seems more than fair for a couple hours’ entertainment.

Probably Archery Review — Kill Screen

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Probably Archery is an exercise in tragicomic frustration”

Probably Archery is one of those games that’s a hoot to try but wears out its welcome pretty quickly. It’s an attempt at failure comedy, like QWOP or Surgeon Simulator, but the difference is that Probably Archery only derives its humor from the difficulty of the attempt, not the consequences of failure.

Nevertheless, there are at least a few good laughs therein. Why don’t you see what I thought of it?

JetMoto is the most subtly progressive hoverbike racing game of 1996

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I’m a sucker for re-purchasing the games that I loved as a youth, even if I still have physical copies of them. I’m such a sucker in this regard, in fact, that I have purchased Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Streets of Rage 2 no fewer than three times each. When I know that I love a game through and through, when I know that I’d be happy to play it any time, any place, when it goes on sale, I can’t help but splurge, because I know exactly what I’m going to get.

Except sometimes, the games surprise me, especially the games I pick up again after leaving them on the shelf for years and years at a time without thinking of them. Sometimes I pick them up again and see them in a different light than I did when I was a youth.

It’s probably been a couple years since I repurchased JetMoto, SingleTrac’s sci-fi hoverbike-motocross grappling-hook stunt-race extravaganza, originally released in 1996 on the PlayStation. It’s a goofy, over-the-top game, but it has the distinction of being the first game I purchased for my PSX that I really and truly loved. (Before it, I had to make do with the confounding Aquanaut’s Holiday and the decent-but-not-particularly-exciting Ridge Racer Revolution, which spent more time in my Discman than my PlayStation on account of its delightfully weird techno soundtrack.)

I recently got myself a PS3, figuring that we were at the end of a console generation and the time would never be better to catch up on all the Sony exclusives I’d missed out on for the last seven years (that Nathan Drake! What a card!). Not having much to play on it after I’d gorged myself on FFX/FFX-2 HD, I installed the PSOne Classics that I’d bought over the years to play on my PSP and fooled around with those. I loaded up JetMoto, played it for a while, and had a realization.

JetMoto has a more progressive stance on gender than an awful lot of games.

The game has a playable cast of twenty riders (subdivided into four different “teams,” identified by brand, in what might be the most ham-fisted case of product placement in a game from its era), and of these twenty riders, nine of them are women. It’s not complete 1:1 parity, but it’s pretty close! It’s a nice touch, too, that the default rider the “character select” screen starts on is a woman–and she also happens to be the character on the title screen.

The graphical limitations of the system mean that JetMoto doesn’t mess around with individuated character models for different riders–with some slight differences in size, all “Butterfinger” riders look alike, as do all “Mountain Dew” riders–and so all of the riders, male and female, appear the same during races, clad in their motocross-esque jackets and helmets. Fittingly, the characters on the title screen are also girded in this “X-treme sports” gear, but a second glance at the character front and center reveals it to be obviously Dakota–her long black hair and feathered accessory marking her distinctly.

The game is obviously about the vehicles and not the riders–but it’s a nice touch that the “face” of JetMoto, at least by default, is a woman.

The riders you can choose from aren’t terribly distinct from each other, and they’re only defined by a handful of assets–a portrait on the character select screen, a paragraph of backstory, and a full-body portrait which is displayed in the winner’s circle if you happen to place first–but these are enough to offer each of the riders at least a little bit of personality. And while it’s true that a couple of the ladies in the roster are partly defined by their relationship to male riders, the flavor text often seems to suggest that they’re in a better position than their counterparts.

Shannara, for example, is the ex-wife of one of the male riders–we’re told that she races on a modified bike that she won in her divorce settlement, a machine built for someone twice her weight. Her ex-husband, by contrast, is a man whose “spirit sank with his ranking, harsh bitterness [reducing] him to little more than a hired gun to run opponents off-track.” Shannara’s stats are considerably better than those of her ex.

“Quick Jessie” West is introduced as the protege of Mark “The Max” Corri, and we’re told that her biggest hurdle to an impressive debut season may be having to compete against her mentor, but The Max’s profile likewise mentions that the biggest threat he faces “this season” probably comes from Quick Jessie.

The other women in the line-up are defined by their own merits–at least, to the extent a character can be in three or four sentences. Shirow is “the first female Japanese heavy bike rider,” and it’s rumored that she has cybernetic enhancements. Irons grew up in the rodeo. Harris is a bungee-jumping, skydiving adrenaline junkie. “Bomber” is a mechanic who builds the fastest, heaviest bikes in the whole circuit.

It probably doesn’t mean a lot, in the grand scheme of things, that there are so many different female racers in a hoverbike game from 1996. But I spent an awful lot of time playing JetMoto when I was twelve, and I can’t help but think it had an effect on me.

(Caveat: Although I eventually came to favor Bomber, I spent most of my time playing as Kari Kelley, AKA “Wild Ride,” by far the best stunt racer in the line-up, whose “legendary victory parties” have been “declared illegal in some states”–so maybe the game doesn’t deserve THAT much credit in helping me to be progressive in my thinking–although I DID eventually marry a girl named Kari.)

At the very least, the uniformity of character models in-game means that JetMoto doesn’t overtly sexualize its racers. That’s a pretty low bar to set for a game, especially a sci-fi motocross game, but this is 1996 and we have to start somewhere.

There ARE girls in skimpy outfits in JetMoto, it’s true: if you come in first place in a race as a male rider, part of your reward in the winner’s circle is having the trophy presented to you by a woman in a skimpy outfit (a bikini, Daisy Dukes, etc.). Conversely, however, if you’re playing as a female rider, the trophy is handed to you by a beefcake dude in hot pants. The game has ogling, yes, but it’s equal-opportunity ogling. For whatever that’s worth.

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This “trophy babe/trophy hunk” feature of the game is also the source of one of the subtlest, most delightful twists in JetMoto‘s sneakily diverse presentation. While it’s possible to set the game to always display a male or female trophy presenter in the game’s options menu, the default setting is “Rider’s Choice.” The wording here, I think, is key, because by invoking the characters’ preferences, the game is allowed, without much fanfare, to suggest that two of its twenty riders are gay.

Yes! I was positively delighted to discover upon revisiting JetMoto that if you come in first with either Harris (the aforementioned adrenaline junkie) or “Rhino” (something of a beefcake hunk himself) and the game is set to “Rider’s Choice” of trophy presenter, both of these riders will choose someone of their own gender. Neither character’s description on the select screen offers any hint as to their sexuality (and why would it? Remember: Sci-fi motocross game), but I’m not sure there’s another way to read having a same-sex trophy presenter when the trophy presenters are eye candy and the game declares them “Rider’s Choice.”

Is this the ideal handling of a diverse and balanced approached to gender, race, and sexuality? Of course not. But for 1996, it’s almost certainly more progressive and forward-thinking than you’d expect: a nearly 50/50 split of men and women, a fair modicum of ethnic diversity (African-American, Native American, Asian, African… Australian), and a subtle acknowledgement that 10% of its rider pool is gay.

So I salute you, JetMoto. You are far and away the best game about hoverbikes, and I won’t hear any arguments against it. (Actually, if there are any arguments against it, I would like to hear them. I’d like to start a robust and thoughtful conversation… about JetMoto.)

 

Final Fantasy X / X-2 HD Remaster review — Kill Screen

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“The Final Fantasy X / X-2 HD Remaster enshrines the series’ awkward teenage years”

Going back and playing FFX and FFX-2, it’s obvious that they’re products of their era– distinctly PS2 titles.

But man. They’re great. For very different reasons, but great nonetheless. FFX is one of the best young adult fantasy stories I can think of, in any medium. I’d recommend it to young people over Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or what have you any day of the week. It was a pleasure to go back to Spira again.

Pac-Man Museum review — Kill Screen

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Pac-Man Museum has a dearth of worthwhile exhibits”

What a missed opportunity! I had a great time with my friends playing Pac-Man Battle Royale in the arcades; that’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone. This compilation, on the other hand… Bleh. They don’t even include the best version of Pac-Man Championship Edition!

2/5 Pacs, would not Pac again.

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy review — Kill Screen

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is a fitting finale for gaming’s greatest puzzle solver”

I reviewed the (supposedly) final Layton outing for Kill Screen. It’s been a busy couple of weeks!

I’m not sure what’s going to step up to fill the hole that Layton’s leaving in gaming’s landscape. I will miss these charming animated adventures tremendously. On the plus side, it’s been six years since Curious Village–maybe I’ll have forgotten the solutions to all of those puzzles by now!