Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
May 2012

RPGs and Me

Gaming history at its core is basically a story of ambition. It's people coming up with ideas and trying translate them to a game. For the most part these ideas were simple (i.e. how do I make an electronic version of table tennis?). RPGs on the other hand were born from the desire to take the intensely complex and often personal experiences of pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and turn them into something you could play on a computer screen.

The way those were translated, often within the confines of extreme technological restrictions, are fascinating to me. Where many RPGs today have become standards of visual world building, many of the original RPGs were built on little more than text, lines and a lot of symbolism. And as massive as the efforts of modern game makers are, you really have to appreciate the dedication the developers and, to an extent, the fans of old had to the genre. After all, it's easy to look at a game like Skyrim and see a lush landscape. A game like Ultima I, not so much.

As interesting as the origins of the RPG are, my own development into a fan of the genre is, sadly, far less interesting. I was six and my family was at a yard sale. Sitting amongst the bits and pieces of overpriced junk I found an NES game cartridge that looked like it had served a sentence as a dog's chew toy. Despite its rough condition I could make out the game's title: Final Fantasy.

I knew nothing about the game but it had a sword on the front and as my favorite game (at the time) The Legend of Zelda also had a lot to do with swords I immediately conjured a mental image of Final Fantasy being a similar experience. Gripping the game tightly in my little hands I strode up to my parents who looked at the canine chomped cartridge with doubt but bought it for me anyway. The car ride home was spent imagining everything the game would be. I was wrong on most counts.

Though the two shared a predilection for pointy medieval weaponry Final Fantasy and Zelda had very little in common. At first, I couldn't fathom Final Fantasy. Why was I picking character commands to fight monsters instead of just sticking them with the sword myself? Why couldn't I see any of the monsters on the screen? I would just walk around, the screen would flash and I'd find myself in a fight. I didn't have much of a grasp back then on the concepts of turn-based combat and random encounters.

I didn't get it and by extension, I didn't like. I set it aside with a sigh and turned back to some of the other games in my possession. It was only through the intervention of my brothers that my interest in the game was rekindled. They started playing it and I, being that annoying child that won't leave the big kids alone, watched. I don't think they ever formally explained to me how the game worked, but as I watched them progress through it I began to figure things out and was soon eager for another chance to play Final Fantasy again myself.

I waited until they were gone one weekend, off to visit their father for a few days, and popped Final Fantasy into our NES. My first act as an adventurer was to accidentally erase their save file. Once the horror of that mistake washed away I found myself engrossed in the game. With a better understanding of the mechanics and a more open mind, I was able to enjoy what has since become my go-to nostalgic experience. The original Final Fantasy is not a perfect game. It's fairly simplistic and even primitive by the standards of many of the computer-based RPGs of the time, but it's still a title I can start up at any moment and enjoy from start to finish.

Despite actually loving the game to death, it'd be several more years before I'd play another RPG. The reasons for this were mostly logistical. After Final Fantasy my access to RPGs was sorely limited. I wouldn't get a Super Nintendo until the very end of its lifecycle and as the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation were coming into their prominence. Being a devoted fan of Nintendo at the time, I chose the Nintendo 64. I loved that game console, but it was a wasteland for RPGs. Whereas the PlayStation would play host to some of the most influential and popular RPGs ever made, the Nintendo 64 had less than half a dozen true RPGs in its library. I was stuck playing catch-up.

Since I already had experience with the franchise I stuck to Final Fantasy. This worked out well in some regards. Buying Final Fantasy VI for my Super Nintendo was probably the most fortuitous gaming decision of my life. It was a sublime game and is, to this day, one of my favorites. That said, by sticking with the familiar I wound up ignoring a whole score of excellent games. The list of classics I have yet to play is almost embarrassing: Secret of Mana, Earthbound, Ogre Battle, Parasite Eve, Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross, all of the Dragon Quests. And that's only counting Japanese-made RPGs.

While JRPGs were for decades the dominant force in role-playing on consoles, the computer gaming scene had its own brand that pre-dated Japanese efforts and of which I was almost completely unaware of. Up until the beginning of my college years (I became a freshman in 2005), I had barely any knowledge of the wonders of North American developed (primarily computer based) RPGs, save for a few brief snippets I'd picked up from a decade old copy of PC gamer I'd stolen from my brothers.

Oh, the wonders of high speed internet! Around the same time that I started writing about video games (for an RPG fansite, no less), I began to read up on what I'd been missing and take steps toward introducing myself to Western-RPGs. Ironically, the first one would be a Japanese developed game, The Dark Spire. A game of the "dungeon crawler" variety, it was a format entirely different from the one I was used to. The Dark Spire was more about planning, tactics and survival. The world of the game was a brutal and dangerous place as opposed to something friendly. It was brutally difficult but also wonderfully addictive and it had me hooked for quite some time.

The real kick starter though would be Dragon Age: Origins, a game I've written about at some length in this column before but of which I can't overstate the effect of on my life as a gamer. Dragon Age was one of the best games I had ever played up to that point and as the credits rolled on my first play through I was left with a very keen feeling (even more so than when I rediscovered JRPGs a few years earlier) that I had been missing out on something really special and that I needed to find more like it.

Most every game I've played since then has been an RPG. Every now and then I'll take a break to partake in something from another genre, but for the most part I am completely hooked on the dungeons, the dragons and all the other tropes, that come with role-playing. Every day it seems my to-do list piles even higher with some new game I've learned about. And despite how overwhelming the idea of playing all of these lengthy (we're talking dozens of hours per game) experience can be, I can't help but feel excited when I find another game to add to the backlog.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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