A Time to Destroy: I Cast Thee Out

[Editor’s note: BulletMagnet tells a wonderful tale about Capcom’s Demon’s Crest and how it messed with his religious beliefs for his A Time to Destroy Monthly Musing. — CTZ]

This might be a bit too personal of a story to be appropriate for a blog like this, but I’ll try to avoid going too deeply into the stuff no one else would be interested in. Regardless, just be advised of what’s on offer here – if you don’t mind a bit of exposition, read on.

To briefly set the stage, I’ll mention that I was raised in a pretty religious household (I won’t bother saying which religion specifically) – granted, we weren’t the type of totally nutty faith that tells everyone who disagrees with them to their face that they’re all worthless sinners who deserve to be treated like garbage by true believers, but more to the point I was the recipient of a pretty strict upbringing in terms of morals, and the code of conduct that I was required to abide by. It was a fair amount of guidelines to keep in the back of your head, but I managed to keep myself mostly on the straight and narrow without much trouble. Some years down the road, though, some of the nitty-gritty stuff of my religious upbringing started making less sense to me as I looked more deeply into it, and suffice it to say that eventually I left its confines, and to date have not taken up similar spiritual residence elsewhere.

Now before you assume anything, I want to make it clear that I do not consider my upbringing a “deprived” or “wasted” one – while I don’t adhere to my former faith’s dogmas anymore, by my own choice I’ve determined to keep many of its basic lifestyle teachings in mind even now, as I can look back on quite a number of them and realize that they kept me out of a lot of potential trouble. To a large extent I could truthfully say that, aside from the absence of rituals in my schedule, as a person I haven’t changed a heck of a lot. In short, despite my differences with it, I really can’t say that my years of living in a religious environment really “cost” me anything.

Well, except one particular SNES cartridge.

It was the early-to-mid Playstation era, and I couldn’t have been much past age eleven or twelve. I had always enjoyed video games, and my first and still-favorite system was the Super Nintendo, which I played with relish, despite all the shiny new 3-D stuff coming out for “next-gen” systems. My folks didn’t mind my gaming in general (though like any parent they’d cut me off if I was glued to the screen too long for their liking), but any title I wanted to play had to go through them, and especially when it came to my father, “immoral” games were out of the question. For the most part this, too, was no problem for me – the SNES was one of the most “family-friendly” systems of the time, and there were plenty of quality games with no objectionable content for me to play as it was. I did occasionally sneak a few games of Mortal Kombat 2 and a handful of other “forbidden” games at a friend’s house now and then, but I honestly wasn’t nuts about any of them, and was perfectly willing to go back to my usual stuff when I got home, without a second thought. Gaming and God, for the most part, got along pretty well.

Then came that fateful trip to Blockbuster – granted, it was one of many, since I didn’t have enough money to afford my own games then, and much of what I played was rented but never bought. By this time the store’s SNES section was all but gone, replaced by rows of games that might as well have had their boxes printed in Martian – while I’d yet to acquire a PS1, I had recently received an N64 as a gift, but disappointingly few of its releases appealed to me very much. In fact, before the system’s lifespan had ended I would cancel my long-running subscription to Nintendo Power, as each successive issue, it would seem, featured less and less that I’d want to bother reading about, let alone play. However, thanks to said magazine I was at least up on Nintendo releases in general, and thus my eyes suddenly became affixed on a ten-dollar used bare SNES cartridge buried inside the bargain bin, a title that I could remember reading about, with some trepidation, down to the last detail –

Capcom’s Demon’s Crest.

Based on what you’ve read so far, you could probably guess that “occult themes” were a big no-no for me – in most cases, as with a gory or lewd title, I almost certainly could have just told myself to pass it by and continue my search elsewhere. This moment in time, however, was a perfect storm of temptation – not only was there little else on the shelves that remotely interested me, but this game had been generally well-received by reviewers (if not consumers, as I’d eventually learn), and most of all possessed that certain something, that little extra spark of quirky, abnormal ambience and personality, a little bit of deviation from the norm, that would in time come to define my taste in games in general (as has, again, likely become evident to most readers of this blog). Almost unconsciously I reached into the bin, and slowly took the cartridge into my hands – as my fingers curled around its edges, I simultaneously began to attempt to convince myself why I should ask for it, even as so many of my long-established instincts were setting off moral alarms like there was no tomorrow.

“…well,” I eventually managed to muster, “you’ve read enough about the game, you know what it’s really about – the cover image and the title are just there to make it seem edgier to everyone else, the companies always do that. After all, Firebrand’s not really a “demon,” he’s a gargoyle – same guy as was in Gargoyle’s Quest, right? No “demon” in that one! And even the setting – it’s not Hell, it’s the Ghoul Realm.

Nintendo’s euphemism-slinging PR team of the era never had a stronger hold on a gamer as it had on me at that moment, but I wasn’t done – after all, I had previously managed to find gray areas within the Castlevania titles (“you’re fighting evil!”), and was determined to do so again here. Heck, there was no real blood or gore, no sex, no bad language, just the “thematic elements” – the former three were hard to gloss over, but the latter was just chock full of juicy loopholes. It was very possible for me to successfully repackage the “demons” as “monsters” or “creatures,” and the “fight for control of the underworld” as a non-specific “adventure” – not to mention that on this particular day my father was not out with us, and my mother, who was far less religious than he was (and eventually left the faith herself, years before I did), would be far more likely to go for it, and would probably not bother to tell Dad either, if I stated my case with enough conviction. It was settled – now was the best opportunity I was likely to get, and I determined to take it for all it was worth. I started off to find Mom somewhere amidst the maze of shelves and empty VHS boxes.

Somewhere in the recesses of my conscience, a voice whispered to me, “Satan is just loving you right now.” I ignored it. 

Up to her I marched, and to make a long story short everything went pretty much exactly as I’d hoped – her brows predictably rose when she got a load of the game’s title, but following my “explanation” she rolled her eyes and plunked down the ten bucks for it, eager to get on with her day. Before long we, along with my new acquisition, were back home, and my father wouldn’t be returning himself for several hours – as Mom went about her business, I went about mine, and jammed the cartridge into the beckoning slot of my beloved SNES. Within the same moment the TV was switched on, and the system’s power button was clicked forward. I sat, rapt, controller in hand, and waited.

Following the predictable Capcom logo, the first thing I glimpsed was a single crimson ember, floating slowly up from the bottom of the screen – a few more like it followed, and a muffled rumbling sound gradually built within the television’s speakers. As I watched and waited, I blinked, but didn’t do so twice – the next moment, a wall of pixellated flames roared into view, consuming the entire screen in moments, and an ominous organ fugue was piped over the proceedings. Moreover, this forbidden ritual had yet to reach its climax – now, emerging from the blazing digital inferno came forth a sinister, shadowy figure. Once it was free from its fiery bonds, it spread a decrepit pair of wings, displayed the glowing Demon’s Crest logo, and flashed me a knowing, diabolical grin.

Oh, man… I thought. I’ve really done it, haven’t I? This is the real deal.

But I couldn’t go back now. The game told me to Press Start, and I did as I was commanded.

And I played.

On a basic, purely “technical” level, I was satisfied with my decision – the presentation was high-quality, the controls worked well, and the mix of platforming and exploration was engaging. Basically, it was cool to fly around shooting fire, breaking things, and finding stuff that would allow you to shoot more fire and break more things. The game was fun, and I should have been enjoying myself – but I wasn’t. I doubt that if anyone had been watching me play they could have guessed what was going on within, but I sure as anything felt it – every mangled skeleton in the background that I walked by, every piece of decaying Gothic architecture that I glimpsed, every guttural projectile that my character spewed at some other unholy creature made it worse.

I’d managed to procure the game for myself; I knew that I could keep it hidden when needed and play it to my heart’s content; I’d pulled the mother of all semantic Jiu-jitsu maneuvers to convince myself that what I’d done was justifiable. But, it gradually dawned on me, none of it had really worked – yes, I was there, pressing the buttons and watching the screen, but my heart just plain wasn’t in it. Even after the mighty struggle I’d put forth to get to precisely where I was at that moment, I still felt absolutely awful, far worse than I did when I didn’t have a new game to play. Somewhere deep down I still knew I’d been dishonest, selfish, impulsive, shamelessly, unrelentingly carnal – in short, that what I’d done was Wrong with a capital W.

Smack dab in the middle of whichever level I was on, I shut my eyes tight, reached forward, and clicked the system’s power off. And just like that the blaring sights and sounds of my transgression were gone, save one – the cartridge, and the merciless stare of the red-skinned corruptor on its label, persisted, and my air of shameful wrongdoing still surrounded me, as thick and constricting as ever. I shut my eyes again – a moment later, the eject button had done its work, and as I lurched, cart in hand, out my front door, I knew, once again, that there was no turning back.

Within moments, I was around the side of the house – there, on top of a low, loosely assembled rock wall bordering the path to the backyard, I gently laid that fateful copy of Demon’s Crest. I then proceeded to pick up a mid-sized rock from the wall, and hefted it overhead with both hands – then, to the sound of clattering plastic, I brought it down. And again I lifted it, and again struck without mercy – with each attack on the former object of my desire I grew angrier, at both the game and myself, for having so recklessly brought it and its foul influence into our very home. Each successive crushing blow was crammed farther past capacity with righteous fury than the last. For several agonizing minutes the reckoning wore on, until my zeal had abated – without a word I returned the rock I’d been using to its place, swept up the remnants of the cartridge and its shattered, shiny guts, walked back inside and dumped them into the trash. With time to spare before Dad got home, it was all over.*

I found my mother in the kitchen and told her what I’d done – again, she raised an eyebrow and looked at me funny, but said that if that’s how I felt about it then I’d done the right thing…and that I owed her ten dollars. To this day, however, I’ve never told my dad about any of what happened that day while he was out, and to the best of my knowledge he’s still unaware of it. I doubt that he’d make a big deal out of it if I related this story to him now, but I’m content to leave things as they are.

As someone who, at present, is not only non-religious, but has become a bona fide fan of the Shin Megami Tensei games, of all things (had Persona 4 on reserve since September), looking back at this unusual episode of my life always makes me feel a bit weird – not necessarily disturbed, or frightened at what I used to be or what I did, but mostly wondering how I could have ever viewed a video game (and a relatively mild one at that) as such a big deal. Granted, some of my tendencies from back then are still very much with me – to this day I have little taste for most ultra-violent or sexually explicit entertainment (games and otherwise), and to a large extent I’m still satisfied with this, and can still enjoy playing a wide variety of stuff without worrying much about “what I’m missing.” It is still a bit unsettling, though, to look back at some of the strange things that have transpired as I’ve grown and changed, both as a gamer and as a person.

Even after all that’s happened I doubt that my basic state of affairs in this area will ever change much – though I do like to think that I’m more likely to just return or sell off a game that rubs me the wrong way by now. Still, you never know.

* Just to clarify, it wasn’t until much later that I realized the parallels that could be drawn between what I was doing and the Biblical act of stoning – at that point in time I wasn’t at all concerned with “poetic justice” or anything of that sort, I just needed something to smash the bugger with and the rock was what was on hand. Believe me, I wasn’t THAT far off my rocker.

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