Armagideon Time

The retrogaming hobby — particularly for those of us who played source material long before the “retro” prefix was applied — involves an existential struggle between rosy nostalgia and harsh reality. For every game which has managed to withstand the test of time, pilule there are scores of fondly-remembered titles which make our present-day selves question the taste and/or sanity of our younger incarnations.

Though the same can be said of other cherished darlings of one’s youth, clinic the problem is especially acute when it comes to videogames. Videogames are a medium that requires active engagement from the end user, and accommodating the infuritating quirks and technical limitations of a tatty old Master System title is far more labor (and patience) intensive than accepting the creaky quaintness of the flying effects in the first Superman movie.

Some things are best left as fond and hazy memories, though there are a handful of titles where fascination tends to trump my better judgement…as is the curious case of Shining in the Darkness.

Released in 1991, it was the first installment in Climax/Sega’s “Shining” franchise of games spanning multiple consoles and role-playing subgenres.  The game married the turn-based combat and first-person view of computer RPG hits like Wizardry and Bard’s Tale with a Disney-meets-anime visual aesthetic, and helped establish — along with Phantasy Star II and Sword of Vermillion — the Genesis console’s next gen RPG credentials.

It’s easy to explain why I have a difficult time putting Shining in the Darkness behind me.  It’s pretty to look at and has a nifty, streamlined icon-based interface.  The dungeon crawl premise keeps the focus of the game tight and sets it apart from the confusing sprawl of more traditional JRPGs of the era.  It isn’t until I actually attempt to play the game that the dysfunctional aspects of the relationship re-emerge.

From the release of the original Phantasy Star in 1988 up until the mid-life of the Playstation 2, the Japanese variety of console RPG was my genre of choice.  My game archive is lousy with JRPGs (and in the case of Ghost Lion and Beyond the Beyond, “lousy” is indeed the operative word).   I couldn’t get enough of the stuff and racked up long hours navigating whiny emo-kids with oversized swords though countless random encounters…

…until I graduated from college, started a full time job, and got married.

It wasn’t an overnight transition from JRPG devotion to apathy, but it did happen over a fairy brief period of time.  Having gone from a surfiet of idle time to a shortage, the prospect of watching infinite variations of the same cliches play out over long stretches of level grinding lost most of its previous luster.  Even though the genre attempted to evolve away from those conventions, the results more often than not tended to exacerbate the tedium.  (Yeah, Final Fantasy XIII, I’m looking at you.)

Shining in the Darkness may be straightforward and streamlined as far as JRPGs go, but it is still a product of its era’s conventions and technical limitations — a long slow grind of diminishing returns set in a confusing labyrinth with no automap and few distinguishing landmarks.  That may be “hardcore” and “old school,” but the so-called “challenge” (and work involved) is entirely out of proportion with sense of reward.   It’s not a question of difficulty, but one concerning my relationship with videogames as a hobby. 

“Why am I doing this?”  The answer is not “to burn away a week of free time whomping hundreds of slimes in order to have enough XP to beat a mid-boss.” 

If that makes me a wuss, so be it…but no one is going to give a shit whether or not I beat Ultima Weapon at my funeral.

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