So I mentioned taking delivery of an arcade cabinet, and that day has come and gone!
Where “taking delivery” ended up being more like “hiring a U-Haul and transporting it across a number of freeways and windy mountain paths, cringing every time we passed under a bridge”. But what can I say? It was an experience.
I know the opinion, among people who are skilled at fighting games, is that Primal Rage is terrible, and I’m willing to believe there’s objective truth to this. Yet while – as I’ve mentioned before on this blog – I wasn’t heavily into arcade games, I was into this one. Besides, I’m terrible at fighting games, and when you’re terrible at fighting games one is more or less the same as any other, with the exception of ones that allow you to play as giant Claymation dinosaurs, which are clearly superior.
Actually, that’s not quite the whole truth. The truth lies somewhere between “to a pre-teen me, this was Cool”, and something deeper, more nebulous, that formed from that. But I don’t know if I can really articulate what that was – even on a blog about Video Game Feelings – so I’m not going to try. Suffice to say, in ways completely orthogonal to its actual content or playability, this game Mattered to me, and if you’ve ever before had a game that Mattered to you like that – that just managed to click, somehow, with something in your wider sphere of understanding, to catalyse something just by being there, even if the content itself was lacklustre – then you probably don’t need any further description.
Anyway, good or bad, it’s nostalgia for me – and when it comes down to it, nostalgia is the main reason you’d go out of your way to own an arcade cabinet, unless you were interested in restoration and archival. Which, as it happens, a friend of a friend apparently is, so while the outside of this baby has seen some not-so-tender loving care (the inside is fine, with nice, clear sound and no burn-in on the monitor), it’ll hopefully be looking pretty awesome in the near future!
I was hoping this post would involve me taking delivery of my first ever arcade cabinet, but sadly that was not to be. Hopefully, however, come the weekend: arcade goodness!
So, last post I mentioned the blog Alpha Signal Five. Well, what brought me to that blog in the first place was a post talking about a particular “vital” VHS tape from 1997: one that, in fact, I’ve also long held beloved, for much the same reasons as Vincent gives. And, as it happens, one I’ve been wanting to write about for a while myself.
The tape in question was Gamesmaster’s Christmas 1997 promo tape for the PlayStation: a trippy montage of game footage (much of it mindblowing at the time, in that these were some of the first games to utilise FMV cutscenes that actually looked good, relying on CG models that blended with the game worlds rather than the grainy, poorly-acted live-action video of past attempts), spliced with scenes of forgotten ruins, tribal dancers and elderly mystics. Overlaid onto all of this was a soundtrack that’s stuck in the minds of many viewers, including me, for decades after – particularly the first song, with its ethereal female vocals and lyrics that seem uncannily self-aware when it comes to the experience of gaming itself. Ignore the horribly mangled preview image: this is worth watching.
Give me the freedom to destroy
Everything I see
(Seeing inside a strange new world
Where nothing is as it seems
As long as I am someone else
I can do whatever I please)
Fantastic illusions fill my mind
Places I’ve never seen
Time is eternal
Life is a lie
Death is just a state of mind
I mean, who wouldn’t be captivated by that? Even if you don’t agree, it certainly makes you think: about gaming, about the roles and avatars we take on when we play, about fiction’s ability to transport us to another realm entirely – even about life and death. That last line, “death is just a state of mind”, has stuck in my head for years, always accompanied by the image in the video of a woman, looking contemplative, standing beneath a cherry blossom tree. (An awfully astute pairing of music and visuals, given that cherry blossoms in Japan are symbolic of reflections on mortality, and the transience of things.)
But, as I discovered recently, this isn’t the only promotional video of the era that ventured into the surreal. Sony was notorious for their mind-bending advertising in general, even going as far as to commission David Lynch to produce one of their TV spots. Likewise, Sega put out a promo tape that, while perhaps less inspiring, goes from intimidation by soft-spoken, androgynous alien overlords to gourmet food commercial and back again within the space of about five minutes.
Sega’s earlier ads weren’t exactly ordinary either, at least in the UK. The stuff starting around 9:15 on that tape – the “dead hedgehog” and laughing robot dog – creeped the everloving fuck out of me as a kid, even if it seems tame now. As a lifelong Nintendo kid up to that point, clearly I wasn’t as good as it took Sega to be, or at least as sadistic as it took to flash dead animal props before impressionable young souls in the ad breaks before Woof!. Sonic, I love you, but your PR department are dicks.
So why gaming’s long history of trippy ads? I hadn’t thought about it before, but maybe Vincent hit the nail on the head in his post when he said they were full of all the things games were about.
Games certainly attempt to transport you to another world, even moreso than other forms of fiction; Sony’s ads make it clear that this is their goal, from their “fantastic illusions” and “strange new worlds” to the concept of The Third Place. (On why they hired David Lynch for the latter commercial, Sony said quite explicitly: “He’s been living in The Third Place for quite a few years. If there was one person that was gonna to understand what we needed to communicate […] it was gonna be David Lynch”.)
But going further than that – games, I think, are incredibly impenetrable, or at least they were when we were kids. We know how movies work: you point a light-capturing device at some people acting. We know how animation works: you point a light-capturing device at hundreds of thousands of sequential drawings. We know how video games work: uh, there are long strings of instructions written in an arcane language? And somehow this creates an environment that you, or I, or anyone can influence? Help? Bueller?
Likewise, when you see a glitch in an old hand-drawn animation, it’s easy to work out what went wrong. Oh, someone forgot to paint in Donald’s eyes in that frame; oh, someone accidentally painted that hat green and not blue. No big. When video games glitch, the results, and what caused them, are often unfathomable to the layperson. Why do the 1-Ups gained from repeatedly bouncing on Wigglers turn into gibberish symbols after a while? What the hell is up with the Minus World? Or Missingno.? Or any of this Nightmare Fuel?
Okay, so a lot of us these days are programmers, and for those who aren’t, there are plenty of sites devoted to deconstructing the most famous of these glitches. (The Pokémon community, built as it is around games that are mostly glitch with some incidental code, has done a particularly good job of cataloguing theirs.) We know how the Minus World works, or if we don’t we can find out. But when we were kids, glitches were mysterious, even scary. They reminded us that these fantastic worlds that we visited were truly alien to us, and didn’t play by any rules we could make sense of. Things outside our familiar expectations, things that we knew were somehow just not meant to occur, would manifest and vanish again without a trace. Glitches are to game worlds what a car crash is to this reality: jarringly violent, turning familiar figures into scrambled parodies of themselves, guts exposed to the light.
So perhaps these ads are trippy because games themselves are trippy. They give us endless new worlds and all the possibilities they bring: awe and wonder, the thrill of discovery, bold adventures under brilliant blue skies. But those worlds are also inherently fragile, with darkness and dissolution just a tilted cartridge or dirty connector away. Kill screens lie in wait for people who venture too far; attempt the impossible, or even the merely improbable, and reality comes crashing down around you. The punishment for daring to say “there must be more than this” is madness. Which is not so very different from occultism, really, which in turn is not so very separate from the dark psychedelia of these videos. Whether in games, drug trips, or through occult rituals, we’ve always sought to push the boundaries of the reality around us – and also feared the consequences.
Then again, I notice a distinct trend with all of these ads: they were made in the UK. Maybe we Brits are just bonkers. But I like to think there’s something more to it than that.
After all, as a lifelong gamer, occasional tripper, and sometimes-occultist, it feels like I’ve always been searching for The Third Place. Maybe I’ll meet you there someday, too.
Good grief, my first follower. (Welcome, Alpha Signal Five!) I suppose I’d better actually post something now, eh?
I remember my first video game. This is surprising, because my chronological memory is terrible: I don’t remember the first movie I saw in the cinema, or the first time I made a friend, or even my first kiss. I remember that various instances of these happened; I just can’t tell which came first.
But I remember my first video game. It wasn’t even that impressive: I didn’t spend the weeks and months afterwards thinking about it, as I would with many later games, or even seek it out much to play it again. I just remember it, for some reason, a bright silver button of a memory against a backdrop of noise.
I was eight years old, and I didn’t know anything about video games, but I loved pinball. I wasn’t especially good at it, though in the manner of an eight-year-old I thought myself a master; I just thought it was neat, all those flashing lights and little secrets that would show themselves if you could just get the ball to go in the right direction. I would go to the local pub to play their pinball machine, because I grew up in a village that even now consists of just over a thousand people, and so no one cared about eight-year-olds in their pub.
Then one day – I don’t know if it had always been there, and had just never caught my attention before – I turned from the pinball machine and saw that, on the opposite side of the room, there was a strange cabinet. It looked sort of like a fruit machine (what the US calls slot machines), but instead of reels it had a television screen, which clearly displayed some kind of electronic game.
I did have a computer (an Amstrad PCW 8256), but I didn’t really have games for it. It was a two-colour machine, black and green, mostly designed for word processing; you could type in games in BASIC, but I didn’t learn how until much later. And even if I could’ve, the games it would have played were nothing like this. This had full colour, sound, a joystick (or possibly two, I don’t remember), and a word-salad title that was, in fact, so strange to my eight-year-old mind that several years later, after I’d played a bunch of other games and forgotten and re-remembered this one, I found myself wondering if I’d made it up.
After all, what kind of game was called Gals Panic?
Well, as it turns out, an eroge. Yes, that game I was playing in my innocence had naked, or at least scantily-clad (cursory research suggests the English-language versions were censored), ladies as its reward for victory. This likely would have freaked out tiny!me, but I managed to avoid having my own Itoi moment with the game simply by virtue of being too bad at it to get very far. As far as I remembered, it was just that weird little game with an eerily realistic spider boss – I had some vague impression that maybe the spider was what was making the gals panic – and a strange title.
So Gals Panic, for those who don’t know, is basically Qix with naked ladies. For those who don’t know Qix, it’s a simple game involving a cursor, a playfield and various roaming enemies; the goal being to encircle as much of the playfield with your cursor as you can, thus “claiming” the encircled parts, without getting hit by the enemies. Like many Qix clones, Gals Panic features an extra mechanic to make the basic Qix gameplay more interesting: the playfield hides a picture, and once you claim an area with your cursor, the portion of the picture underneath it is revealed.
Gals Panic, of course, has pictures of women. According to Wikipedia, the first time you clear a stage you simply see the girl in her normal outfit, while raunchier clothes are reserved for subsequent clears. Alternatively, if you do badly enough, the picture underneath changes to something ugly or frightening instead. Since I don’t actually remember many girls in this game at all, I suspect I frequently got the latter.
All in all, it’s a simple game that really has no business being described in as much detail as I have, except for one thing: it was my first video game. And as silly and objectifying as it may seem to my older eyes, my eight-year-old self only saw in it a puzzle, and possibility: the possibility that this thing called “video games” could be much more than just green characters on a black screen.
Like I said, I didn’t really play Gals Panic that much. After the initial thrill of discovery, I moved on to more interesting, fantastical pastures; mostly on a friend’s Amiga 500, which deserves its own post, if not several. From there it was the NES and Game Boy, then the SNES, and from there – well, many things, but there was no eclipsing the SNES, which would be forever after the centre of my gaming world, a trove of seemingly (still) inexhaustible riches. Still, though I never really went back to my inaugural experience, the set of games that I came to know as “the arcade” were always in the background, little slivers of half-understood worlds that peppered my home-gaming knowledge with promises of the future.
Until, of course, they weren’t.
Plenty of people have written about the demise of the arcade. Its impact on me must have been significantly lesser than for those who lived, breathed and slept every Street Fighter version tweak and custom mod; but I still feel the void, occasionally, when I come across a place that in the old days would have had an arcade machine standing there, or nowadays only has one for ironic, nostalgic purposes.
My arcade games, by and large, were more like Gals Panic than Street Fighter: single machines tucked away in the corners of beachside diners, old even for their time but not yet aged enough to be collector’s items. Pac-Man, mostly, or Space Invaders; cigarette-stained cabinets, burnt-in screens. There was something slightly forlorn about them even then, a sense of an era already in its dying throes, these cabinets the last little hold-out of a scene that would soon fade completely. They’d lost their power to excite and enthrall: they were diversions. You didn’t play Space Invaders because you’d had a burning desire to seek out and play Space Invaders. You played Space Invaders because you were there, and it was there, and you were bored – and, if you were me, because it was kind of interesting to note the slight variants and version differences.
I remember clearly one version that, instead of a spaceship, put the player in the role of the little bird from New Zealand Story. It was startling to find, a little surreal: it was probably my first exposure to the idea that a mascot from one series could cross over to another, that that one character from that one game you liked could turn up outside of his appointed role, surprising you. He wasn’t even a particularly huge mascot, not like Mario or Sonic; I was surprised, pleased, to find that anyone else still remembered him, that anybody cared.
I looked forward to going to the one place where I could play that version, even though I didn’t much care for Space Invaders otherwise. It felt more special to play as the bird. It was as if video games – previously, I thought, these isolated stories told by people far away, who handed them down from on high and never would have considered the preferences of a mere player – had reached out and said, “Hey. You. That thing you liked? Have a reference to it, just to make you smile. We notice. We’re listening.” Like the Creation of Adam, but with Taito, and a wide-eyed, ungainly little kid in a backwater English pub, reaching back to a hand redolent of cigarette smoke and stale beer and luminous, digitised dreams.
I played other arcade games, too, more “modern” ones, at actual arcades rather than pubs and beachfront cafes. I was never very good at most of them, but they fascinated me by virtue of always being far bigger, brighter, better than anything the home machines could produce, making me long for the days when we’d have experiences like that in our own homes. Now we do, and to be honest, it’s kind of a let-down. No longer do we need to take special trips to to play a blockbuster game on a souped-up machine, with movie-like visuals and motion controls; we can play them in our homes, and as such they feel a little less special. The arcade is dead, by and large, because home consoles and PCs can do everything it could do and more, just like cinemas are pretty much dead now that DVDs are ubiquitous and having a cinema-grade setup in your own home is no longer out of reach of the middle class.
The arcade was gaming’s attempt at being larger than life. But now that home gaming is pretty much as close to life as you can get, where do we go from here, in order to keep blowing people away?
Flashy graphics and surround sound won’t cut it any more, and the child in me misses that, regrets that we’ve reached an era where lifelike CG is no longer dazzling but simply expected. But on the other hand, if you can no longer keep going up, you start having to branch out in some other direction. The question of what that direction might be, now that we’ve hit the realism ceiling: there’s a thought that dazzles.
After all, as a species, we’ll never stop playing, or inventing new ways to play. That’s my one bright hope for the future of gaming: the fact that, as much as people like to protest that we’ve stopped innovating – as much as I protest it myself, sometimes – we’ll never really stop. And that alone is all we need.
So goodbye, arcades, and farewell. You took us as far as you could in one direction; you did a good job, and you are beloved for it. Now let’s see what the future brings.
Aeris’ death. It’s probably the most talked about scene in the history of video games. Still, I just played through it again recently, so it’s been on my mind.
While I was playing, my wife – also an avid gamer and Final Fantasy nerd, perhaps moreso than me – brought up an amusing yet true point. Due to the somewhat fiddly controls of this early 3D outing, I was hopping back and forth on the stepping stones that lead to Aeris, unable to make Cloud move in the right direction to get all the way to the top. As Aeris prayed upon the dais and Cloud hopped ineffectually around, my wife said, “It’s like he wants to postpone the inevitable. As long as he doesn’t get all the way up to the top, she’ll still be alive.”
It’s true. Cloud can stay on the steps forever, watching Aeris pray, and she’ll never die. In fact, it requires a deliberate action by the player (and wrestling with the poor implementation of 3D) to trigger the scene.
This is true of all games, of course. Mario doesn’t have to save the princess: he can bop around between Yoshi’s Island 1 and Yoshi’s Island 2 forever, kicking Koopas and collecting 1-Ups. That’s what makes it a game and not a movie. Yet most times, the events we trigger in games are ones we wanted to happen – such as saving the princess – or ones we didn’t know were coming. Being veteran Final Fantasy fans well aware of the precise moments that lead up to Aeris’ death, we had a rare glimpse into what it feels like when your agency is co-opted: when you know what you want to do and what you intend to do (save the girl), but you also know that the only direction in which you can advance the plot is towards her death. Do nothing – turn the game off, leave it in limbo – or cause her to die.
(Wouldn’t it be interesting if that were the trick? You wait, purposely not advancing, and as a result Sephiroth never attacks, Aeris finishes her prayer, and all is well. If I’d been inventing Aeris-lives rumours back in the days when those were a thing, I think that’s the one I would have chosen, because it says something neat about the mechanics of the whole thing. We experience games as relentless barrages of action, in which we are constantly doing something; but you can choose not to act. This too is a valid choice. It’s a mechanic that was used to excellent effect in Final Fantasy IV; I’d like to see it in more games.)
Actually, this scene does play with choice and inaction a little more deliberately, after you make it up to the dais. There’s a fascinating, and rather less talked about, part just before Aeris’ death, in which you’re controlling Cloud, who in turn is being controlled by Sephiroth. Any button you press makes Cloud struggle against the control, except the confirm button, which moves him to the next stage of his action: first walking towards Aeris, then unsheathing his sword, then raising it, then raising it higher. After a while of messing around with this, it becomes clear that you can’t break Cloud of Sephiroth’s influence completely: you can only struggle in vain, again postponing the inevitable, or you can press the confirm button repeatedly, bringing Cloud one step closer to doing exactly what you don’t want him to do. And yet you will press the confirm button, inevitably, even when it seems obvious that doing so will kill Aeris. Because it’s the only way to advance. You want to advance more than you want not to kill her, and so you are complicit.
At the last moment, though, Cloud is stopped, giving Sephiroth time to swoop in and commit the deed himself, and take the responsibility out of your (the player’s) hands. And it had to be that way, I think, because for all that the moments leading up to Aeris’ death play with agency, the true power of the scene lies elsewhere.
Simply put, I realised while analysing this scene that Aeris’ death is a true tragedy, in the classical sense, which is to say that it isn’t very tragic (in the modern sense) at all; it’s cathartic. It’s a heroic tragedy, a righteous tragedy, in which the game cleverly builds up a relationship between you and Aeris (with Cloud as a proxy, frequently, for the player), then has cruel fate snatch it away. “What about my pain?” Cloud cries as he holds Aeris’ limp body in his arms, because that’s what this is really all about. Aeris’ death isn’t about Aeris: it’s about Cloud’s pain, the players’ pain, a noble and motivating pain that gives you something to rage against. Wrong was done, you lost something you loved, and it wasn’t your fault.
The point of catharsis is to weep, to wail and gnash your teeth, but in a way that feels… almost good. You didn’t want Aeris to die, but it feels good hating that she died; better than it might have to love her, imperfectly, until the end.
That’s why Cloud, even under the control of Sephiroth, couldn’t do the deed. It brings the player too close to the blame; it makes them uncomfortable. For Aeris’ death to be the success it was, in a literary sense, it couldn’t make the players uncomfortable. It’s hard to feel outrage about something you were complicit in.
And that’s why, I think, so many players idealise Aeris in retrospect. It’s obvious throughout the game that’s she’s far from the one-dimensional angel people paint her as: she’s street-smart, worldly, mischievous, clearly knowing things about sex and death and suffering that a “perfect angel” never would. She’s a real person. But in her dying, she becomes the focus of a heroic tragedy, in which there are only three parts: unblemished hero, unblemished victim, and cruel villain.
Quite simply, she becomes an “angel” after her death because that’s what we do to people who have died. It feels better than imagining how their lives with you really would have played out, flawed, full of both good times and bad.
So that’s Aeris; or rather her death, which overshadows her so much that there isn’t really an Aeris at all, in popular conception, but only a mute angel in her place. And I think that’s why, when I first played the game (you all know the game I’m talking about, and I’ve never had to mention it, even once), I didn’t feel much when it happened. It seemed like a heroic fantasy meant for someone who wasn’t me, someone who romanticised things and absolved themselves of blame more than I did. It wasn’t complex or messy, and in its happening everything that was complex and messy about Aeris was wiped away.
I like complex, messy tragedies. I like imperfect tragedies, ones that make you think about how you, and everyone else, might be complicit.
To that end, here are five that have stuck with me: five very different tragedies from Aeris’, unsettling and incomplete.
When I got the idea to put this blog together, one of the first things I planned to write about was my childhood experience of buying video games, and how it feels different from buying games today.
I stalled on that for a while. But then I came across this post on Tiny Girl, Tiny Games, and it brought the topic back up for me. I didn’t have the same experience of buying games at Toys ‘R’ Us – we had the store in the UK, but it was never my go-to place for games buying – but in many ways I think we felt similarly about our early game purchases (or acts of wheedling parents into game purchases, as was usually more the case). They were events, little shining slivers of memory that persist into the now. And no, the current downloadable era really doesn’t feel the same – even if the fact that I can see a post on Final Fantasy Record Keeper and have it on my Android, a minute later, for free, is a little bit amazing.
I think what stands out for me about game buying as a child was how much it felt like treasure hunting. We had our maps: video game magazines, themselves bought for a goodly sum out of a youngster’s coin purse, that imperfectly covered the territory at the rate of a few games per issue. So much of the rest was uncharted land, new gems waiting to be discovered every time you stepped into a store. Finding the game you wanted in a magazine and tracking it down “in the wild” was a thrill; but almost better was rifling through the shelves and stumbling across something you’d never heard of before, but whose box art and back-cover blurb was full of promise. That was a gamble: the trip home spent leafing through the manual if there was one, excited and nervous in the hope that this game would be one of The Ones, the special games within a sea of averages that would stick with you forever.
I say “if there was a manual” because, as childhood blended into early adolescence, I increasingly bought my games used, and from other places than the local Electronics Boutique. If you bought a games mag every month, you pretty much knew what would be on the shelves of EB; if you’d exhausted that selection, or nothing out lately looked promising, you had to branch out. I didn’t have a credit card, so all those oh-so-tempting ads in the back pages of Super Play weren’t an option: wonders unimaginable for a UK gamer were found there, all those Japanese and US import RPGs that never reached our shores. I’d just read through the ads, salivating at the names: Final Fantasy III. (VI, nowadays.) Super Mario RPG.Chrono Trigger. I knew this was the good stuff, the stuff that almost seemed held back from us deliberately so we’d appreciate its worth, but it would still be some time before I could get my hands on it.
In the meantime, I scoured the markets.
The market, I’ve learned, is not really a US tradition – which surprises me, since most other countries have some equivalent. Essentially, it’s a collection of stalls, often with little tarps over them, selling everything from clothes and perfumes to used DVDs, books, and, yes, video games. It’s a low-cost, low-commitment way to run a business, so the traders you’ll find there aren’t always the most scrupulous: this is the home of piracy and knockoffs as well as honest used goods, and video game are no exception. I remember the first time I ran into a “4-in-1 multicart” for the Game Boy, with its poorly Photoshopped box art and copyright-dodging “Game Color” logo: I was scandalised and vaguely upset, knowing something wasn’t right, and some part of me still feels that frisson of not right whenever I see a bootleg video game.
But if you could tell the fake from the real, something I was always good at (that Uncanny Valley feeling I always got, looking at a slightly distorted logo or off-model version of a famous character, got me far), there were treasures to be found indeed. Browsing used game stalls, you got whatever people were getting rid of right now, not this month’s hottest release: that could mean old games long-vanished from EB shelves, or obscure titles that had never made it there to begin with. If you were extremely lucky, you might even find something in Japanese – something the big game stores would never buy from you, since they could only afford to sell what would work on local consoles. But used game stalls didn’t care. No receipt, no refund if things don’t work: just you and your street savvy, and the knowledge that back home you’ve got a Universal Adapter – a cumbersome and frankly ugly-looking piece of plastic that sits between the SNES and your game, bypassing the various regional lockouts and making the whole setup really, really wobbly. Seriously, those things were precarious. But they let you play games from anywhere in the world, almost, and that was worth sticking a dodgy third-party brick of plastic between your precious SNES and your £60 copy of, ahem, “Final Fantasy III” for, even if you never felt quite comfortable with it.
(Your feeling of discomfort would be borne out when the blasted thing made all your saved games disappear. It was only a matter of time. These treasures were never quite meant to be yours: holy artifacts that would eventually curse those who dared to uproot them from their native lands. But you got away with it, for a while.)
Plus, there was the sense of history you got from buying used. It sounds silly, but I remember the smell of my Secret of Mana manual: nothing I could put a finger on, just the scent of someone else’s home, someone’s past ownership and love. I’ll probably never smell that exact scent again, but I can conjure it in my mind, and it will always smell like Secret of Mana to me. Being able to have a game smell like something – that’s something you wouldn’t get any other way, outside of Earthbound‘s scratch-‘n’-sniff cards.
I always hoped to find other remnants of history in those games: other people’s saves (and the things they named their characters), marginalia in the “Notes” page of the manual. I never did find the latter, or any really interesting save names, though I do remember the hero in my scented copy of Secret of Mana was named PIT. I always thought that was a bit odd: nowadays, I wonder if it was a Kid Icarus reference. But even though I never found anything that spectacular, I always aspired to be that person for other people, the person who left behind some little tidbit of history with their games – so I wrote in the back of my games’ manuals before I sold them. High scores, cheats, but also my observations on the game, random thoughts, things I wanted to communicate to the next person who came along. A little shout out into the universe: hey, we are connected by space and time. You’re not alone.
Nowadays, between downloads, online vendors and emulation, we have pretty much every game ever released at our fingertips, and the collective wisdom of the internet immediately on hand to tell us whether or not that long-coveted title is actually worth playing. With emulation the way it is today, I could dig out any SNES game I wanted at any time, after a few minutes of Googling to see if it’s worth the effort.
But somehow, I find myself not actually doing it. I don’t value the games the same way I did when they were hard-scavenged prizes, and cracking open a new one no longer feels as momentous. And though I know there are tons of free downloadable games out there for PC and Android, the sheer number of them is overwhelming. For the most part, when it comes to downloads, I stick to the games I already know and love: the ones I first found as treasures, as lucky discoveries that shaped the course of my life and the landscape of my imagination.
I’m still going to play Record Keeper. But then it’s hard to say whether that’s evidence against the general trend, or for it.
So there I was, kicking back, browsing around The Cutting Room Floor, because that is a thing I do. I was looking through the page on the original Final Fantasy, which I’ve almost certanly looked at before, but this time, something new stood out to me. Maybe it was a new edit; maybe I just hadn’t noticed it before.
There is a checksum on the “PROGRAMMED BY NASIR” text, and the game will crash if this text is altered.
Programmed by NASIR.
That phrase struck a chord. I’ll admit it now: I’ve never actually played the first Final Fantasy. I first discovered the series in the SNES days, and though I’ve been meaning to work my way back, as of this writing I haven’t got around to it. But I knew that text from somewhere, and where I knew it from was a game that was beloved to me in the day and remains so now: Secret of Mana.
Funny, how in all the times I’d played that game – lingered on the title screen, even, where the name NASIR hangs so prominently, while the legend of the Holy Sword scrolls by and paradisiacal birds soar against the backdrop of Hiroo Isono’s sublime forest art – I’d never once wondered about that statement. By that time in my life, I knew enough about Japan and its place in the game industry (largely thanks to the inimitable Super Play magazine, which, unlike other publications of the time, wasn’t shy about the connection) to know that Squaresoft was a Japanese company, and Nasir – I knew from growing up in England, a country with a significant population of Arabic descent – was not a Japanese name. I just never thought about it.
But now I wanted to know about this Nasir, who had clearly exerted some significant influence over not just one of my favourite games, Secret of Mana, but the title that had begun one of the world’s most powerful video game franchises. I typed “PROGRAMMED BY NASIR”, with quotes, into Google.
And felt my world expand a little.
Turns out, NASIR is no more and no less than the first name of Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian-American programmer who got his start on the Apple ][. It was nice to put a face to the name, but I never had an Apple ][, and so there was no personal emotion to tie to his (apparently quite illustrious) history. Yet reading on, I still found reasons to be impressed. Apparently he coded every line of his games on the fly, holding the entire code in his memory. Mana was made in the same Apple ][ mini-assembler he used for all his games, and programmed in the same way. Line by line, with nothing to reference, no source code. I literally can’t comprehend what that would take.
But here’s the kicker. The history I feel like I should know, that’s been written out of everything I’ve read up until this point. Nasir wasn’t just a genius programmer: he was in part responsible for the foundation of Square qua Square. He was there at the beginning. He programmed the first three Final Fantasy games essentially singlehandedly. Yes, the games tell you this, in their laconic way, but there’s a difference between seeing a programmer credit (which, like most kid gamers, I glossed over, unless they contained some sort of funny pseudonym) and having a name incorporated into The Legend. Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshitaka Amano, Nobuo Uematsu: they’re not just names in the credits. They’ve transcended one-line acknowledgements. They’re part of The Legend, celebrities in their own right, this trifecta of people who came together to craft one of the most enduring and beloved series in gaming.
But they weren’t just a trifecta. There was also Nasir Gebelli, who was to Final Fantasy‘s coding what Uematsu was to its music and Amano to its art: a uniquely talented, imaginative, and basically solo influence. And I never knew.
I guess it’s not really an illustrious job. I can name you plenty of video game producers, plenty of designers, graphic artists and and composers – but off the top of my head, I can’t think of any programmers. (All right: Alexey Pajitnov and Yuji Naka. But they were both designers as well.) They just don’t become household names. But it’s a shame, because video games – well, RPGs less than other genres, I guess, but still, they have to be fun. They have to be playable; a game that’s laggy, or full of bugs, or way too grindy (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XII), won’t hold most people’s attention long enough for them to see the story. And while I can’t say turn-based battle is my favourite way of meting out video game combat, Secret of Mana, at least, is fun. The way the characters move, dodge, swipe, sometimes strike only a glancing blow – it all feels intuitive. Even if I didn’t care for the game’s quite haunting plot, even if the environments weren’t gorgeous and the music wasn’t just short of spiritual, I’d have fun playing it.
So – I want to give credit where credit’s due. To NASIR, whose name rightly belongs on the stone tablet of legend alongside his teammates’; who deserves no less recognition for his work than Uematsu, Amano, Sakaguchi.
And to all programmers: those heroes of gaming that so often go unsung. I realised, writing this post, that I didn’t even know the name of the person responsible for one of the most mechanically fun games in history, Super Mario Bros. Actually, it turns out it’s two people: Toshihiko Nakago and Kazuaki Morita. So there you go.
I think it’s worth taking the time to know, if you’ve got a minute. Go look up the people who programmed your favourite games, and commit them to memory, if you can. They deserve it, too.