The Super NES
The SNES launched in the U.S. in the fall of 1991, and it was kind of a big deal. Everyone I knew owned an NES (unless they hated videogames altogether), and suddenly the end of the line was in sight for our beloved grey boxes that had provided us with so many hours of sedentary bliss. We shrugged off the TG-16 launch, and most of us ignored the Genesis' debut; but now the end of 8-bit gaming loomed large, for obsolescence had arrived in the form of a cheap-looking plastic console with tacky purple switches. Still, lurking beneath that hideous exterior was a soul that made Mario look pretty dang sweet and even let him ride a damn dinosaur. You don't argue with that sort of technological progress.
Or then, maybe you do. The arrival of the Super NES coincided with my entering the final stretch of high school, and most of my NES-owning friends were starting to find games a little boring and childish. Thus, I was one of the few to take the plunge and go 16-bit.
(Of course, the same people were more than happy to forget their sneers about the childishness of gaming long enough to come freeload on my console once Street Fighter II arrived. Jerks.)
For my part, the Super NES was the first thing I bought with the money from my first summer job; cleaning cotton roots for the USDA turned out to be such lucrative work that I could put back half of my first biweekly paycheck into savings and use the rest for a system. And good thing, too, because cleaning cotton was some seriously boring work and I needed all the entertainment I could muster in my spare time to compensate.
Even so, I felt the push-and-pull sensation of outgrowing games all throughout the 16-bit era. As much as I enjoyed gaming, it seemed awfully frivolous at times, and half of what I played for SNES made me wonder if I couldn't be spending my time more productively. So when I look back the the system, I always think of the seven games below -- the ones that kept my attention and made me realize that gaming can be a rewarding pastime. They sustained my interest until the PS1 came along and developers started to cater toward people my age, who had grown up with the NES and wanted something maybe a little less cutesy from time to time.
So yeah, basically if not for these seven games I'd have given up gaming altogether. Someday on my deathbed I'll look back at my life and wonder whatever ever became of all my ambitions, and I'll need look no further than this post to see where it all went wrong.
Thanks for nothing, games. If you weren't so annoyingly enjoyable I'd have done something with my life.
The Killer Seven
Shockingly, the game that prompted me to get a Super NES in the first place was none other than Castlevania IV. Or... maybe not so shocking, since I've pretty much been a complete slave to the series since the summer I spent searching across the country for the original NES game. Later, Simon's Quest became a months-long addiction, and I earned every stinking ending in Dracula's Curse (even going so far as to beat the game on the vastly more difficult second playthrough to see if the endings were any different). So I guess it stood to reason that I'd be powerless in the face of the series' 16-bit debut. (Hell, I almost bought a Game Boy for the portable titles until I had a chance to play The Castlevania Adventure and realized it sucked, which let me off the hook.)
Castlevania IV was pretty incredible -- it was very similar to its predecessors, but offered more variety and flexibility in the gameplay department, including some completely brilliant boss encounters. And that's to say nothing of the game's atmosphere, which more or less oozed from the detailed backgrounds and the jazzy, downtempo soundtrack. The original Castlevania has been remade quite a few times, but this is definitely the best of them. Even if Simon desperately needs a chiropractor.
The third Zelda game was a little too long in coming for my tastes, but ultimately it didn't matter because Enix kindly gave us SoulBlazer with which to fill the time. More RPG-ish than a standard Zelda game, SoulBlazer also had more of a story to go along with it -- and there was even subtext to the plot. Namely, a strong underlying moral theme, somewhere between Taoism and Animism, the message being that all life has value even for creatures that live differently than humans. Even, shall we say, non-traditional forms of life. Like furniture.
It's all fairly silly in retrospect, with lonely dolls and metaphysical snail races, but at the time it was heady stuff -- the sort of thing that console games simply didn't tackle. Where the likes of Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy IV featured unambiguous melodrama in place of story, SoulBlazer's was smaller, slower and more contemplative.
And the gameplay was great, too, which certainly didn't hurt.
Also in the Zelda vein was Secret of Mana, which one-upped Link's adventures by featuring the same epic story-based progression as FFIV along with highly-involved stat-based character building. Three characters, eight weapons and a crapload of magic made for much more depth of combat than action RPGs normally featured. It kind of felt like Square was ripping off Crystalis, but since they did it so well it was difficult to complain.
Secret of Mana actually arrived at the end of my first semester in college -- a semester in which I didn't play a single videogame. Compared to Learning and Building a Future, fluff like Star Fox just didn't seem to matter. As far as I was concerned, I was done with gaming. But I decided to rent Mana for an evening during the Christmas break, just because I'd enjoyed the Square games I'd played before... and ended up turning the game in with five days of late fees, because I couldn't get enough of it and kept it until I finished it.
Then I got back to school and mentioned to my girlfriend that I'd spent a week of my vacation playing a videogame, which prompted her to respond with a look that said, "Did you just lose your mind?" Which sort of quashed my enthusiasm...
...until we broke up the following summer and I realized that I loved Samus Aran more than her anyway. Handily, Metroid III arrived at exactly that moment.
Not that I need to go on about this particular game any more than I already have. So I'll keep it short: it's quite simply one of the most perfect games ever crafted, and playing it reminded me why I got into gaming in the first place. I apologized to my SNES for having left it at home during my first year of college and took both the system and game along with me to school for my sophomore session. And thus my fate was set.
Yes, shut up, Final Fantasy III. We didn't know it was actually VI back then, and in any case it doesn't really matter because it was just as good either way. FFIII isn't my favorite of the series, but it's nevertheless the game that turned me into an RPG junkie for much longer than I probably should have been. Sure, the story was a bit superficial and the character customization basically makes it possible to overwhelm the game with a party of tiny god-like beings -- someone with a Gem Box, an Economizer and the Quick spell can single-handedly destroy Kefka before he can make a second move -- but it was possibly the first-ever RPG to barrage players with a perfect storm of accessible gameplay, epic scope, interesting plot twists and sexy hot graphics.
I mean, come on. Even if you think FFIII is seriously overrated, you have to admit the bit where the world pretty much ends and Celes tries to off herself in despair was pretty shocking. (Unless you're some sort of master fisherman, in which case you got the lame story part where Cid survives.) It was the most engrossing RPG I'd played to that point.
But then Chrono Trigger came along a year later and swiped that title with its mix of combo-centric gameplay, small but interesting world, time-hopping brilliance and, best of all, no frickin' random battles. Amen.
How good was Chrono Trigger? So good that I quit a job so I could play it. That's pretty good!
Well, OK, I was probably going to give up the job once the fall semester began anyway, and it was a stupid job, and I didn't actually quit so much as I just sort of stopped showing up. But anyway. It was a perfect circle: I got a job so I could buy a Super NES, then the Super NES got such good games I ended up losing a job. And now my job is writing about Super NES games. OK, that's a little too recursive. I quit.
Which just leaves Yoshi's Island, the perfect little post-script for both the system and this interminable post. By 1995, Mario had seemingly run his course, as had the Super NES. And then this came along, almost without warning. It bucked the trends of its time with deliberate non-3D graphics and deliberate, slow-paced platforming. It was a Mario game in which Mario was a secondary feature, a nuisance even, and head-stomping was far less important than good aim. It was pretty much the antithesis of where the games industry was heading, and it was all the better for its non-conformity.
(Although the fact that its sequel is completely conforming to its design suggests that someone somewhere sort of missed the point. OH WAIT ARTOON NEVER MIND)