My first steps into the Yggdrasil Labyrinth felt like I was coming home. You see, my most vivid early gaming memories aren't of Pac-man or Mario (those came a bit later for me), but of sitting at the kitchen table with my dad, a pile of first-edition AD&D books dating from his college days open in front of us as I directed six foolhardy adventurers deep into the Keep of the Purple Baron.
We went through plenty of paper on those afternoons, as I filled up pages tracking party hit points and spells, or rolling up new would-be heroes to replace those who met their end to an unlucky die roll (or to me having them drink a mysterious liquid that turned out to be a green slime). The most important of these sheets, though, were the sheafs and sheafs of graph paper on which I mapped out the secrets of the dungeon. Every twist and turn of the catacomb passages, every potential ambush spot, every cunning trap, and every cleverly hidden secret door was painstakingly recorded on those tiny squares, with the empty spaces full of notes and reminders of the perils of each room. Characters came and went, but the hard-earned knowledge they had bought with their blood and steel was mine forever.
And so it begins.
Even when we weren't playing, those maps were never far from my mind. I taped them all together and laid them out covering my bed to see the whole sprawl of the dungeon complex. I took them to school and pored over them at lunch (and in class when the teacher wasn't looking), searching for suspicious blank areas that might indicate a well-hidden room full of treasure. Staring at a half-mapped cavern, I'd try to imagine what my party might find when they actually made it to the other side of the arched stone bridge over the lake of lava rather than having to run away from its guardian monster.
I can't imagine a better introduction to gaming or a better way to spend time with my dad than those afternoons. However, since I had a lot more free time than him, my insatiable desire for monster-slaying and dungeon-mapping soon led me to pick up Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on the side, one of the first videogames I ever played, and the one that cemented me as a life-long gamer. From there I branched out to Might & Magic, Swords & Serpents, The Bard's Tale, and many others, making copious maps of each, all carefully preserved to this day. They were the next best thing, providing a never-ending supply of dungeons to conquer.
Dammit, now I want to play Wizardry again. Look what this contest made me do.
As the RPG genre progressed, more and more games made things easy for the player with automaps, or used simple dungeons so no map was needed. The true dungeon-crawl RPG gradually went extinct, unmourned and viewed as an archaic game style whose time had passed. I enjoyed the conveniences of newer games, and some games from this era like Fallout and Planescape are among my favorites, but I always felt that something important and valuable had been discarded. And so it remained for many years.
And then came Etrian Odyssey. It returned to that abandoned subgenre and joyfully brought it into the modern era, with a deep and labyrinthine dungeon to explore, full of hidden passages, deadly creatures, and intriguing terrain features. Like those classic games of old, it was light on explicit narrative, but left space for me to imagine my own, and it truly excelled in atmosphere. Most importantly, it brought the mapping process directly into the game, making the maps convenient, easily portable, and impossible to lose or tear, and in the process making the best use of the touch screen of any DS game yet.
As my carefully hand-picked party delved into the maze, gradually making it deeper and deeper with every trip, nothing was more satisfying than putting the finishing touches on the map of a level by reaching the last unexplored corner. I wasn't just passing through this dungeon -- I was engaging with it on a deeper level; I was conquering it and making it mine. It was everything I had loved as a kid, but even better. Even when my characters had moved on to the deeper strata, the maps were permanent -- I could go back and look at the fruits of my exploration, far more powerful of a reward than simply finding a nice item. Somehow, the seemingly simple act of drawing lines on a grid came to have more import than saving the world in another game.
So there you have it. My most memorable moment from Etrian Odyssey was the instant my stylus first touched the screen to draw a wall, and all my most treasured early gaming memories -- of battling deadly foes, mapping forgotten caverns, and unforgettable gaming sessions with my dad -- came rushing back. For that experience, I thank you, Atlus.
But I can't close this post on one of my favorite games of recent years without mentioning at least a few other highlights, so let's make it a top 5, shall we?
#2: Setting the dungeon in a lush forest instead of dank caverns. The idea of carefully hunting down scary monsters in a deep forest reminded me of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky and inspired me to use his nonsense words for all my character names (Callooh, Callay, Mimsy, Momerath, Frabjous, Brillig, Jubjub, Slithy, Snark, and Boojum).
#3: Reaching the bottom of a stratum after a harrowing gauntlet of opponents, facing the boss with no safety net or intermediate save point, and scraping through by the skin of my teeth with one character left alive.
#4: The moment of setting foot in a new stratum for the first time, hearing new music and seeing a new environment, and the delicious feeling of anticipation and wondering what was around the next corner. This goes double for entering the fifth stratum, for reasons I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't played yet.