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.
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 Moto, two 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.