(Part One: History)
At risk of sounding like a pariah on a gaming site, I really have no desire to play Call of Duty or Halo. In a video game world dominated by FPS shooters (I’m looking at you Halo players), there have always been two stalwart standbys for me. Thankfully, I had the Way of the Hedgehog (or Plumber if you lean that way) and the Way of the Die. People find themselves gravitating to both sometimes (as I do), though there are rabid fans of both gaming genres who decry the other. In this article, I’ll go over both forms in a little more detail, but first some history. I’ll put my twenty-seven years of gaming history to good use in the growth of both varieties.
Plumbers and Hedgehogs and Vampires, Oh My!
For me, growing up in the early eighties, I remember playing Pitfall. I remember the irritation felt at the clumsy interface – a single directional input and one lousy button. The lack of options wasn’t what frustrated me, it was the mechanic of the joystick, the peripheral which dogged the present generation of thirty-somethings before there was the brick-like, plastic wedge of the NES controller to introduce a whopping four buttons (don’t neglect Select and Start!). It was with this crude, molded plastic that I navigated Pitfall Harry into quicksand, scorpions, rolling logs and the occasional campfire in my quest for precious metals.
Pitfall was, at its core, one of the first side-scrollers. You kept running right until you got what was yours, which was usually death. Up until death you could grab gold and silver ingots because it was what you were supposed to do. The controls were simple: left, right, up, down, jump. Between these controls you could traverse the map left or right, swing on vines, and if you felt like wasting a lot of time you could go to the lower level and be killed by scorpions and thwarted by brick walls. Despite the myriad ways to die and the shitty controller that the Atari 2600 provided, the game was somehow enjoyable. My friend Jeff (the owner of the 2600) and I would basically sit in his basement and keep ourselves entertained for hours with Pitfall. I still play it now via Game Room on the XBLA.
But, it didn’t stop with Pitfall. With the rise of the NES, the Nintendo corporation thrust the quintessential side-scroller of all times into thousands of American homes. Bundled with every NES unit was Super Mario Bros. (or Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt if your parents sprung for the light gun package). Mario had been around for a while by that point (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros. and their collective sequels) but this really pushed him and his brother, Luigi, into the limelight. New game mechanics were introduced; bursts of speed, being able to actually touch your enemies (so long as you jumped on them from above), and being able to take a hit without necessarily dying (courtesy of ‘magic’ mushrooms) all became possible.
Mario however wasn’t the only one pushing boundaries though. Konami entered into the scene with Castlevania, Capcom added Megaman to the line-up and several other gaming houses followed suit. More innovations came up: life bars, a wide assortment of power-ups, special moves. The age of the platformer had come to its pinnacle. Though it would never really die, this was the heyday of the side-scroller. Because soon, something new would come.
In 1986 a curious thing happened though. A curious newcomer had arrived named Dragon Warrior. As with Pitfall, I did not own the console that hosted the game, but I played Dragon Warrior at a friend’s home. It was a top down game where you moved a little knight around on a map. Every so often, for no reason other than moving, the screen would flash and a fight would begin. Only this fight was turn based, focused on the use of Magic points (MP) and Hit Points (HP). Fights sucked a lot of the time – monsters seemed to kill you with ease at first. But, the more you fought, the more experience you gained, and soon enough, you found yourself getting better at fighting, unlocked new abilities and took on greater challenges… provided the maddening save system of the game on the NES didn’t immediately erase all of your progress. So long as the red screen didn’t screw you, you could keep adventuring toward the goal of defeating the game.
It was curious to me how this new gaming system worked. Since I did not own an NES, I couldn’t play first hand nor get a good grip on what exactly my neighbor, Mike was playing. This changed in 1988 with the advent of a game on the Master System called Miracle Warriors. It lacked a certain visual panache, but played almost identically. Track the map, kill bad guys, get gold to buy better equipment and heals, and complete the epic quest. I never did make it through Miracle Warriors – or the vast majority of the RPGs I played – due to two headed, blue wolves who completely ruined my shit whenever I fought them. But, much enjoyment was had despite being dismembered by wolves. My fellow brethren in the NES community got Final Fantasy while I fiddled with Miracle Warriors, but the result was the same for them I imagine.
I went on to play and love many others: Phantasy Star III, Lunar, a handful of Final Fantasy titles (VII, VIII, X, XIII) and many others in between. Phantasy Star III held a special place in my heart because of a concept that was new to me at the time: multiple endings. The game could truly branch in a couple different directions to give you one of four outcomes depending on who the characters married during the course of the game, producing different heirs to the story to complete quests.
Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star in particular set me and thousands of other kids on a path to play many, many more RPGs. This would lead to a life-long love affair with RPG games in my case.
When 16-bit hit, even more additions were made, mostly graphical as the sidescroller/platformer genre grew and grew. Most notably, a certain blue, spiky mascot by the name of Sonic entered the fray as Sega unveiled its one truly successful video game system, the Sega Genesis into the mix. Sonic simply took an old idea and put an incredible spin on it: speed. Sonic was lightning fast, vivid and addicting in terms of game play.
Sonic’s counterparts at the Nintendo Corporation were staying at sub-sonic speeds, however they were not standing still either. Super Mario Brothers 3 had introduced some amazing concepts as well, and the SNES was still pumping out Mario games (Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island) and branching him out into wholly new sub-sets (Mario Paint).
RPGs also took off graphically. Phantasy Star put out three more iterations in the 16-bit days (II, III & IV) as did Final Fantasy with three of it’s own ill-numbered sequels. Dozens of other titles also expanded in this time. The battle angles got better, the stories became more involved, technology simply boosted what was already great and good.
But, at their cores, there was not much more innovation during these years – simply more flash. Alternate endings were becoming more the norm as Phantasy Star introduced things into the mix. But both Genres would not grow further until computing capability – not graphical interface, improved. As the next generation of consoles hatched however, the landscape changed again.
To be continued in part two…