It weirds me out a little bit when I think about just how long I've been gaming. I still like to picture myself as a young guy. I'm 24, I'm only a couple of years out of college, I'm still in that delightful stage where my current life goal is to find a life goal for myself. I still can't grow a full, proper beard yet, just a bit of patchy hipster stubble.
And yet, I can clearly remember the pre-3D era of gaming. Not the modern 'Avatar and 3DS' 3D either. I'm talking about the era of 2D sprites. There are kids currently fouling up Xbox Live matches of COD with their fruity language who have only ever known the 360/PS3 era of consoles. My first console was a Sega Master System II, a console roughly on-par with the NES in terms of graphics power. Or to translate that into modern terminology, a console with the rough graphical prowess of your basic calculator. American gamers may titter at a young gamer such as myself earning my stripes on such a laughable console, but it's worth pointing out that the Master System was one of the most successful consoles in Europe from any company, let alone Sega.
Not that it really matters. Originally, I'd wanted a Mega Drive, or a Genesis as you Americans would call it. A cousin of mine had one, and one family weekend away to see relatives was all it took to convince me that I needed a console to play the likes of Sonic and... well, more Sonic. I wasn't exactly hankering for anything other than blue hedgehog and Robotnik. My introduction to Sonic was like introducing a raver to ecstasy. I just needed more. So when my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, my answer was clear: "I want a Sega!" Of course, saying 'a Sega' is not the same thing as saying 'a Sega Mega Drive', and my parents were by no definition up-to-date with current tech trends. When they got me a Master System II for Christmas, I had no-one to blame but myself. But funnily enough, I didn't care.
Here's something important you need to know: Up until the age of around 7 or 8, I lived in the remotest, most far flung part of the UK imaginable. Go to the northernmost part of Scotland. Then go about 100 miles into the North Sea, until you're just starting to get close to Norway. Welcome. You've officially arrived at the Shetland Islands. A region that Wikipedia officially describes as 'sub-Arctic'. A region where the majority of people still make a living by going out in knackered old boats into horrifically stormy conditions to catch fish. It is as remote a place as you will ever find in Europe, and naturally that means there isn't always a huge amount of trade or large amount of supplies from the mainland. Looking back, therefore, it's a minor miracle that my parents were able to find a Master System II. I imagine there can't have been many to purchase in the first place. Finding something like a Mega Drive on that inhospitable hunk of rock would have been like trying to find an iPad in the Mines Of Moria.
Welcome to Morrowi- I mean Shetland.
But find me a Master System II they did. And come Christmas day, I was ecstatic. No, it wasn't a Mega Drive. It was better. You know why? Because the Master System II, or at least the version my parents picked up, came with a specific game ROM pre-loaded into the system. Sonic The Hedgehog. My videogame console came with Sonic built in. As a five year old growing Sonic addict, that was like being given an everlasting gobstopper. Made out of crack. And dopamine.
Looking back, the Master System II wasn't a great system, and the MS version of Sonic wasn't a particularly great entry in the series. But I was five. I didn't care. It didn't matter to me that the graphics weren't as nifty, or the side-scrolling as smooth. It was Sonic, it was mine (and my sister's) to play, and it kept me entertained and in the warm on the days when the weather decided to turn Baltic, and the wind sharp enough to shred tarmac. Soon enough, I also started playing other games (again, sourced from I can only imagine where): Ninja Gaiden, Spiderman, even Trivial Pursuit. None of them gave me the same sort of fix as Sonic, but they were entertaining nonetheless, and Ninja Gaiden would later go on to become one of my favourite games with the Xbox reboot.
So that's it? That's the story of how I came to love videogames? With Sonic The Hedgehog and the Master System II?
No. Well not quite. See, here's what you need to understand: my enjoyment of Sonic wasn't love. My need to play that game was the need of a five year old junkie. I had an addiction to flashing lights and bleepy-bleepy sounds, and that game provided me with a fix. I didn't love gaming at that point. I was too young. I wouldn't have known how to love the entire gaming medium. I was just a young addict hooked on collecting rings. It would take something very special indeed to make me fall in love with gaming as a medium.
Final Fantasy IX.
I still remember the first time I ever played FFIX. I'll need to fill you in on a little more backstory now. My family had moved down from the inhospitable wastes of Shetland to the far more pleasant climes of rural England. We still had the Master System hooked into the TV, but being a young child out in the countryside, I was blessed to be able to spend a lot of my free time playing outside in the woods and fields, as I think all young children should. I still occasionally played Sonic or Ninja Gaiden, but I wasn't hooked on them anymore like I had been a few years prior. It wasn't until I was eleven years old that gaming would finally sink its claws into me.
My dad used to be a physical labourer. At that time, he was doing lots of work on a nearby farm. And as sometimes happens with heavy physical work, one day he injured himself. A torn cartilage in his knee. It stopped him from working for a good while. Hell, it stopped him from walking for a good few months at least. And, NHS waiting times being what they were back then, it took a while for his leg to get operated on. As I recall, there was a four month or so waiting list in that area for someone to get their leg operated on for torn cartilages. Four months of not being able to walk. In order to save my dad from going nuts in the interim, my Mum decided to splash out and buy something to keep Dad occupied. She bought him a Playstation.
Technically it was for the family, but we all knew at that time that it was mainly to stop Dad going stir-crazy while waiting to get patched up by the doctors. And it did the job. The console came bundled with Gran Turismo and Spyro. My dad being something of a racing fan, Gran Turismo kept him occupied right up until his operation. Spyro actually became something rather special for my Mum, being the only videogame she ever ever really got into. It's a game I hold a lot of love and affection for myself, even to this day. But it's now what made me love gaming.
I can't remember what it was that made me buy Final Fantasy IX. All I remember is my twelfth birthday. I'd been given the princely sum of £40 from my grandparents to buy myself a present, and we'd gone for a day trip to town to go to the cinema, eat ice-cream and to find something I'd like. We were in an Asda supermarket, or superstore in American parlance. They had, at that time, quite an extensive entertainment section. I'd already picked up a Kerrang CD, because it had the new Linkin Park song I really liked, which left me with about £30 to spend on something else. And I remember going through the PS1 games on display, and for some reason pulling out FFIX.
I wasn't at all acquainted with the Final Fantasy series at that point. I had no idea that FFVII had come out a few years earlier and revolutionised the gaming industry. I had no idea that I was looking at the ninth instalment in (at that time) probably the most critically acclaimed gaming series in the entire medium. To my shame, I think the reason I ended up buying the game was for two very basic reasons: 1) I was getting into The Lord Of The Rings books, and had discovered an appetite for fantasy fiction, and 2) the back of the game box promised over 1 hour of high quality CGI cutscenes.
What can I say? As a twelve year old kid, and a fan of ReBoot, 1 hour of CGI cutscenes was one hell of a sales pitch.
The nostalgia. I can feel it flowing through you as you read this...
I won't get into the specifics of just how FFIX affected me. I'd like to save that for another blog, one where I can go into specific details of just how much genius is contained in those four discs. What I will say is that Sonic was the first game to get a physical reaction out of me, a physical need to see flashing lights and fancy lasers and robots that blow up when you jump on them. FFIX was the first game to get an emotional response out of me. It presented me with a world I truly wanted to get lost in. It gave me a story that seemed incredibly intricate, labyrinthine even. It showed me characters I truly cared about. It massaged my ears with a soundtrack that was truly incredible to behold. And, at all the right moments, it hit me with emotion. It gave me scenes of incredible comedy. It punched me in the gut with scenes of overwhelming tragedy. It gave me horror, drama, and introduced me to surrealism. Before I'd ever gotten into literary fiction, before I'd ever watched a film by Scorsese or Coppola, seen a Shakespeare play or read an F.Scott-Fitzgerald novel, FFIX showed me what could be achieved through storytelling, through drama.
That was when I fell in love with games. From there, I started playing other games like Breath Of Fire III. A friend of mine used to invite me over to play rounds of Mario Kart, and there I discovered the joys of Nintendo, of Golden Eye, of Ocarina. Ever since then I tried to keep up-to-date with the gaming medium, to stay abreast of the games that were coming out. It's a relationship that has waxed and waned, as any relationship does, but it's one that has continued to this day. And I owe it all to Final Fantasy IX, and the world Squaresoft created in a mere four discs of gaming treasure. Sega may have been my gateway, Sonic my introduction, but it was FFIX that showed me all that is possible in games. One day soon I hope to write an article explaining just how incredible that game is. For now, I'll finish by saying that while my gaming prologue began in the remotest parts of the Shetland Islands with an 8-bit version of Sonic, the first chapter resolutely begins in Alexandria, with a play being staged by a group of thieves on a theatre ship, and a young black mage trying his little best to try and see it...