In the advent of the Mini NES announcement and the worrying trend of remakes, reboots and re-releases ever increasing, one thinks back to the games that made them who they are today. The games that define them, that brought them to the series that they love today. Every gamer has a story, rife with static-filled MIDI music and low-poly textures. By today’s standards, the games that defined us back then are highly flawed. You could never get away with such simple soundtracks and environments that require better imagination than eyesight to appreciate. Nostalgia is the main selling point for our old favorites in this day and age, but do our rose-colored glasses hide the flaws that we looked past in our childhoods? I’ll be looking at a few of the games that shaped me as a child and trying to figure that out.
The first title is likely the most unknown of these three, but it’s the one that inspired this article for me. Dragon Warrior Monsters is a Game Boy Color game that most would write off as a Pokemon clone. Released in North America in 2000, DWM follows Terry from Dragon Quest VI on a quest to save his sister. Much like in the supposedly ripped off Pokemon, one captures monsters and uses them to fight both wild monsters and those of other masters. Trading is substituted for breeding, however, and that’s where the game shines. With more monsters than the first generation of Pokemon, and a lot more being a lot harder to obtain than the few legendaries within the original 151, the system is even more exciting than wandering through tall grass and hoping for the best. Fun monsters designs (Akira Toriyama, of Dragon Ball fame), addicting progression, and challenging fights all come together to create a game deserving of more than the title of “clone.”
Upon replaying it, however, it wasn’t the similarities to Pokemon that stood out. When I showed it to a friend, he asked if I was enjoying my “grindfest.” I heard that and immediately realized that I had indeed been grinding for a few hours. Enemies popping up every few steps on my way to the next goal is a staple of games like this, but only now did I begin to think that it might not be the most entertaining system. Where I was reliving my childlike wonder at defeating the evil Durran and breeding my epic Goldslime, my friend only saw an endless grind to get blurry combinations of pixels. I wonder if my love for DWM stems only from my growing up with it, and not for all the great elements I mentioned above. This got me thinking, and now I’ll see if some other games stand up to the test of time.
Next comes a game that is near and dear to my heart to this day: Kingdom Hearts. Now you’ve probably heard of this one, so I don’t need to go crazy explaining it. Disney characters and locations + Final Fantasy characters + the power of friendship™ somehow = awesome and endearing RPG. No one knows how it works, it just does. From whacking Heartless with your Keyblade to save the universe, to whacking Nobodies, which are created when a Heartless is formed, to save the universe, to stopping Organization XIII who are Nobodies but control the Heartless, to becoming a Heartless and then reuniting with your Nobody and…you know what, I’ll just stop there, because that mess only covers two of the games in this series. Let’s focus on the first one.
December 25, 2003. 8-year-old James Mahoney is opening up another Magic Tree House book in one corner, when a shout comes across from the other corner. This Christmas’ grand prize has been discovered, a Playstation 2. My brother opens up Call of Duty: Big Red One as I tear the wrapping paper off of a stranger looking title. A spiky-haired kid, Donald Duck, and battling evil, presumably with some giant key? Of course I had no idea what to think. Once my brother finally gave me a turn, I popped in my first ever console game. Turns out my parents (the most game-illiterate people I know) had accidentally struck gold. From my first training fight on the Destiny Islands to defeating Ansem right back there at the end, and saving familiar Disney characters along the way, I was enchanted. I can remember every feeling I had in that game, and I still have such a love for it. That’s why I bought a copy of it on Amazon last summer. What could go wrong, reliving my childhood like that?
The R2 and L2 buttons, that’s what could go wrong. Who would ever think to place camera controls there? How did I even beat this game when I was young, when I wasn’t even good enough to beat the third level in Big Red One? Turns out, Kingdom Hearts does not hold up well in its gameplay. Either you play on the easy difficulty and press the X button with your eyes closed until you win, or play on hard mode and fight against yourself the entire time with those crappy controls. The story and characters are still delightful, but I’m so glad that I played this game before I knew that better control schemes existed. Now I’m really questioning, is nostalgia the only reason I think of these games fondly?
This next one I’m pretty sad to say, but even classics that defined genres, that shaped a generation of gamers, and changed the gaming world can be bad in 2016. It’s a sad truth, but very few games can stand the test of time. The one I’ll be looking at is the shooter that (along with its sequels) defined half of my gaming life, Halo. From the day I received an Xbox 360 (another Christmas, 2007 this time) to when I began my PC gaming career in college, Halo was where I spent most of my time. Becoming mesmerized in the series with Halo and Halo 2, to finally finishing the fight when Halo 3 came out, and enjoying every entry ever since has been one of the greatest pleasures in my gaming life. I feel a very strong attachment to the lore, the universe, and the gameplay of Halo, which is why it pains me to say that the first entry in the series does not work nearly as well as the more recent ones.
Landing on Installation 04 for the first time blew me, and probably everyone who did it, away back in the day. Even though I was a little late to the party (blame M ratings), I was engrossed in the world being created. The aliens, the architecture, and the sprawling landscape looked awesome. If you play it today, however, let’s just say that there’s a reason they made an HD edition a few years ago. Those aliens look (and sound) like cartoon characters, the insides of buildings give frequent déjà vu, and the outsides are basically giant green (white in snowy environments) blankets. It’s like looking at a loved one in a nursing home; you have to try really hard to remember Halo as it once was. Even some design choices are questionable, from the length of levels like “The Library” and “Two Betrayals” and the sheer size of “Halo” and “Keyes.” It’s tough to get back into one of the games that shaped my love for the medium and my thoughts on game design.
The music in Dragon Warrior Monsters still makes me smile, and I’ll be damned if I don’t know the most efficient way to breed my favorite combination of monsters. “Proud” difficulty in Kingdom Hearts forces you to use more than one button, and you can quote my former roommate and fellow exp4all contributor Jonah Wang on how hard it is after the days we spent on the Riku 2 fight. And even though Halo might not look the best, every cinematic moment is still epic and the series still has a strong place in my list of favorites. The point of this adventure was not to make myself hate the ghosts of video games past, but to understand how my tastes have evolved over my life. I don’t want you to go look at your old library and throw everything out, but understand your favorite games and love them for the elements that hold up, and appreciate your former love for those that don’t. For all games, new and old, one should think critically about why their feelings are what they are.
All of these series have HD Collections or remakes, and I highly recommend playing any of them in any form. Never judge a book by it’s (dusty) cover.