Tag Archive | N64

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.

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Portrait of the Gamer as a Young Man: An N64 Story

I think that a big part of my desire to be “well played” (that is, to have played many historically and culturally important games on many different systems) comes from the fact that my console allegiances shifted a number of times when I was young. I began gaming on a Nintendo Game Boy when I was six, but as I’ve previously mentioned, this was a gift from my extended family–I didn’t really choose it. So too with the Sega Genesis I received when I was nine.

At this point I didn’t have a preference between the two companies, 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): I might have the inferior TMNT game, but I had the better version of Aladdin, after all.

Something happened when it came time to move on to the 32/64-bit generation, however, and it’s worth recounting here as an anecdote, because a 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 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 effect that he was about to have on my life as a gamer.

The dude calculated how much trade in value I would get for my old gear, and as he reported the number to me I remember smiling to myself. 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 tiny gamer dreams?

And it was at this point that the man leaned over the counter and beckoned me closer with a crooked finger. Desperate for any glimmer of hope, I approached once more, 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 boy 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 Gamer 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? I did. 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 couldn’t explain why, but I knew 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. I couldn’t deal with the notion of leaving that store without a new system in hand, and so I, I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Actually, strictly speaking, the PlayStation ended up selling about three times as many units as the N64, so I really took the road more frequently traveled by. 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 this business, which, seriously, what the hell. Somehow I wasn’t deterred or disillusioned by my purchase, despite– well, despite the fact that Aquanaut’s Holiday was really boring. The system came with a demo disc that had some excellent suggestions, and pretty soon I was jamming out with Jumping Flash 2 and Jet Mototwo games which have aged really well 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 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.

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. He’d been genuinely concerned with my well-being as a gamer.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have had a curious relationship with most of Nintendo’s flagship series. A lot of this comes from the systems that I owned: First a Game Boy, then a Sega Genesis, then a Sony Playstation. As a result, I tended to play Nintendo games either at my friends’ houses or in their weird, off-beat, portable incarnations. I had the opportunity to spend time with and appreciate games that nobody else seemed to–but I never really played many of the classics when they first came out.

The common wisdom is that Ocarina of Time is the pinnacle of the Legend of Zelda series, and it has been on my list of “games I ought to play” longer than perhaps any other entry. I knew that, of all of the gaps in my gaming education, Ocarina represented maybe the biggest.

Now, however, having played it, I’m in a heated debate with myself over whether I think that it represents a “must-play” game.

One thing I want to make clear: Ocarina of Time is a brilliantly crafted game, thoroughly engrossing, and difficult to put down. I have never been in doubt that if you decide to sit down and explore this particular version of Hyrule, you’ll have a great time. And really, that’s probably enough–if you want to have fun, play Ocarina.

Contrary to this image, stopping is not as easy as a push of a button.

Part of my consideration for this blog, however, is an examination of what it means to be “well-played,” and what constitutes a sort of baseline knowledge for gaming history. In this respect, the Legend of Zelda series is an interesting case, because the entire series is essentially a variation on one of two templates.

If you have never played a Zelda title, then I would posit that in order to really understand the series you ought to play two games: the original Legend of Zelda for NES and Ocarina of Time. The first is the origin of the formula and the second is the first entry to take that formula and rework it for use in a three-dimensional space (a feat which it accomplishes brilliantly). These two games are the archetypal Legend of Zeldas (“Legends of Zelda?”). They offer the purest, most distilled version of the series.

Unfortunately, they’re also sort of the least interesting. This might be a little heretical, but as someone who doesn’t have an enormous amount of nostalgia wrapped up in the games, the entries that have grabbed me the most are the ones that take the basic theme and do some riffing on it.

Link’s Awakening, Link to the Past, and the Oracle titles (not to mention Four Swords and Minish Cap) are all basically playing around with the same idea: Large, grid-based, open world divided into single screens and filled with several discrete dungeons in which you acquire an ever-increasing set of tools with which to defeat Ganon/Other.  In order to separate themselves from the original, they take a new aesthetic and/or gameplay lens and apply it to the formula: Link’s Awakening gives us an actual plot; Link to the Past stuffs itself to the gills with sidequests and adds an entire second world map; Minish Cap… had a hat that made you small? I don’t really know, I never played that one.

I guess the hat was a bird? The game was weird.

When Ocarina came along, it was almost like a reboot of the series, taking all of the essential elements and applying them to an entirely new play space. As I mentioned, it does this very, very well–in fact, between this and Super Mario 64, Nintendo’s record for translating their series into the third dimension flawlessly on the first try is pretty spectacular. It took Konami ten years to give us a 3D Castlevania that wasn’t abominable.

And yet–Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword are all riffs on the exact same tune (In this one he’s a wolf! In this one he’s a Powerpuff Girl!), and because these successors all have to do something with themselves stylistically to distinguish themselves from Ocarina, they’re all far more interesting than the original template. (Full disclosure: I haven’t played Skyward Sword yet. I hear it’s pretty neat!) What’s more, the formula at the heart of Zelda doesn’t change as drastically from incarnation to incarnation as, say, the gameplay in each iteration of the Mario franchise (In this one he has a water cannon! In this one he’s in space! …You know what, on second thought…).

I know that being a wolf and sailing the seven seas seem pretty different from hoofing it across Hyrule Field for the eighty millionth time, but you’re still going to elemental dungeons, solving environmental puzzles, collecting keys, and Z-targeting to smack enemies in the face with your Master Sword. I’m not suggesting that Zelda is stale! Not really, anyway. I’m only saying that in order to understand the way the Zelda series works, you don’t have to play every incarnation.

You really don’t.

And so, when the time comes to educate yourself as a gamer, when you sit down and try to fill in the gaps in your “gaming education,” you have a question to ask yourself: when it comes to the Legend of Zelda series, what’s important for you to know? If you want The Legend of Zelda at its most basic, then you should play the games that set the tone and offer up the template.

If that’s not important to you, I would suggest that you can come to know and understand Zelda by playing just about any game from each of its two formulae. If all you’ve played is Link’s Awakening and The Wind Waker, then you already know what The Legend of Zelda is all about and you can talk about it intelligently. You can sit down with any game in the series and find a creative, compelling adventure on which to embark–but if you don’t, you’re not missing as much conceptually as you might imagine.