(Today’s topic has been rattling inside my skull for a few weeks now, but pal Rusty’s latest P-Swap entry moved to action with its magnificence.)
My buddy Damian was the only other kid in our junior high who owned a Sega Master System. It (alongside a shared love of Robotech and role-playing games) was the basis of our friendship. When he did finally succumb to the pressure and pick up a NES console in early 1987, I saw it an act of treason — especially since I was too cash-strapped to follow suit.
Despite the pangs of betrayal and envy, it did give a chance to see how “the other half” gamed. Very little of it impressed me. Outside Pro Wrestling and Super Mario Brothers, the games just seemed like cruddier looking and sounding versions of things you could get on Sega’s struggling little console. Arcade offerings still served as the medium’s platonic ideal in terms of graphics and gameplay. Console fare tended toward the flickering shadows cast by the coin-op realm, with imperfections offset by convenience of being to play in your rumpus room without needing to pump in another quarter every few minutes.
More ambitious and expansive diversions were talking place in the realm of computer gaming, but that world was far beyond our means to enter. Even among the handful of kids whose families owned such machines, access was under strict parental control and never involved having your greasy-fingered buddies participate in the festivities. We members of the have-not class had to get by with after-the-fact accounts of the awesome shit we were missing.
Then Metroid dropped.
Neither Damian or I knew what to make of its odd title or its “adventure pak” designation. Prior to popping the cart into the slot, we thought it was just some unlicensed spin on the Formation Z co-op at the Bowladrome — a side scrolling twitch shooter played out over dozens of identical levels. It didn’t take long, however, before we realized that this game was something entirely different and utterly mindblowing.
What we’d assumed to be just another side-scrolling shooter was something much, much more complex. Back-tracking? Permanent upgrades? Hidden rooms? A sprawling maze with distinct environments? It was everything we loved about Contra married to everything we loved about pen-and-paper RPG dungeon crawls. It was something beyond a downsampled arcade port, so huge and sprawling that it featured a password save feature for multi-session play. It offered a new paradigm for console gaming, and was soon followed by host of similarly involved offerings.
The Legend of Zelda was released around the same time as Metroid and offered a top-down take on the action-exploration theme. While it eclipsed Metroid in terms of sales and public reception, its sword-and-sorcery theme didn’t grab me the same way as Metroid‘s spooky sci-fi aesthetic did. The gameplay and graphics also felt messier even by NES standards, and that initial impression has kept me from warming me to the franchise even since.
River City Ransom spun side-scrolling beat-em-up gameplay into a wonderfully weird open-world roleplaying experience. Metal Gear used a sprawling game world, massive arsenal of equipment, and rudimentary stealth mechanics to combine James Bond, GI Joe and Eighties action flicks into an immersive interactive experience. (It was also the game that did convince me to buy a NES when finances finally permitted it.) Sega also got into the act with Zillion (an anime-inflected answer to Metroid) and Golvellius (a Legend of Zelda clone that I vastly prefer to the real deal).
While some of these attempts at innovation came across as unitutive cross genre mash-ups (see: Goonies II or SpellCaster), they collectively marked the console scene pulling away from its arcade port/clone roots and developing its own platform-optimized parameters. The trend was somewhat overshadowed by the rise of “genuine” console role-playing games which incorporated the stat-crunching and turn-based combat of their tabletop cousins into a familiar-yet-novel package that my pals and I found irresistible (and worth dropping absurd amounts of cash on).
RPGs occupied the “most favored” slot in my videogaming experience from the late Eighties through the early years of the new millennium. Yet when I look back on the games that made the most enduring impression on me, the majority fall in the action-exploration camp — Zillion, Golvellius, Metal Gear, River City Ransom, Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, the Mega-Man Legends games, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Salt & Sanctuary, even the first Destiny game. There’s something about that mix of twitchy action, explorable vistas, and grindy contemplation that hits my gaming sweet spot.