CHAPTER 14: PLAYSTATION

For my brother and I growing up, video games consoles were produced by two companies: Nintendo and Sega. There was a RadioShack in the T.C Square that had a demo unit for the Turbografx 16 and another in The Village that showcased Panasonic’s 3DO, one of the first CD based systems that impressively played an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but neither were machines that anyone owned, at least locally anyway. When Sony’s first PlayStation started showing up in stores, I dismissed it thinking it would be just like the others who would come after the kings only to fail. That and I frequently confused the console with an arcade I saw commercials for on TV called the Playdium for quite some time.

My loyalty to Nintendo and their franchises like Mario and Zelda meant there was no question as to what my first 3-D capable console would be, but it was within the first 3-D generation that I started to question my faithfulness to the company that got my into the hobby of video games to begin with. These breaks in the foundation started to show not long after I got my Nintendo 64 and thought that I perhaps should’ve put some more thought into my choice of 3-D console.

The first few days and weeks after I got my Nintendo 64 in the summer of 1997 were filled with many bike rides down to the rental store, trying out all the games that I had missed in the few months since the Nintendo 64’s late 1996 launch and pouring hours into the games I had already tried during my few brief rental periods with the console. It wasn’t long until I realized however that the Nintendo 64 didn’t have the most robust software line-up. After rescuing the princess in Super Mario 64 and rolling credits in games like Star Fox 64 as well as Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, there were long periods of waiting for something, anything new to play. That summer capped off with the release of the beloved GoldenEye 007, a game I thought was completely fine, but never loved like many did back then nor have that much nostalgia for it today.

The PlayStation on the other hand didn’t seem to have this problem. Electronic Gaming Monthly would color coordinate the previews and reviews sections in the magazines for the three consoles on the market: green represented Nintendo 64; the PlayStation was red and finally Sega’s Saturn was blue. There would be pages upon pages of red labeled pages, but hardly any green ones. There were games on the horizon to look forward to on the Nintendo 64, but it seemed that with the PlayStation the wait was much easier.

New franchises like Tomb Raider from publisher Eidos Interactive, a game I was introduced to through the PC version, and Capcom’s Resident Evil caught my eye, and I began to notice that series I loved were no longer debuting on Nintendo’s new hardware, but Sony’s. Most important of them all to me was Mega Man, who would get his big 3-D debut on the PlayStation with Mega Man Legends, a game that wouldn’t come to the Nintendo 64 until 2001 after a sequel and spin-off come to PlayStation, not to mention two new 2-D games in Mega Man 8 and Mega Man X4.

There were also cases of games that would come to multiple platforms showing up on PlayStation months before they would get a release on the Nintendo 64. As it was with the release of Mortal Kombat 3, I was taunted by many copies of Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero for the PlayStation throughout the months of October and November while I impatiently awaited for the game to come out for the Nintendo 64. In order to secure that game for Christmas in 1997, it came down to the wire to my finding a copy before the December 25th deadline and it was at least double the price too. The PlayStation used CD for its software which were far cheaper to produce than the cartridges that Nintendo decided to using it, allowing Sony to pass along value to customers while simultaneously giving game makers lots of storage space to work with to make things like beautiful, rendered cut-scenes.

A genre of games that I never really played that much growing up was the RPG, or role-playing games. I was much more into side-scrolling action games and saw little appeal in games where you stood on opposite sides of the screen taking turns attacking. At a sleepover I watched a friend play Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, a North American friendly version of the venerable series, and watched as his character moved to one side of the screen, swung his sword right in front of an enemies face only to see the message come up “miss.” Not really understanding the mechanics of how these games worked, I thought it was incredibly stupid that you could miss when you were face-to-face with the person you were attacking.

My indifference to the RPG allowed one of the biggest releases on the PlayStation to fly under my radar, a game that perhaps cemented the systems first place dominance over the Nintendo 64 for years: Final Fantasy VII. A tactic that many companies would use to sell their games in the PlayStation era was to craft commercials that primarily showed off their highly produced cut-scenes, disguising that the actual visuals of the game didn’t even come close to what was shown in those brief sections. Final Fantasy VII employed this tactic to great effect as I would constantly see commercials on TV for the game that got even me, someone who had no interest in the RPG genre or previous Final Fantasy games, excited to play Final Fantasy VII. In them you would hear epic music accompanying shots of spiky-haired protagonist, Cloud, in a high-speed motorcycle chase or escaping an explosion, all the while a narrator sold the game like a Hollywood blockbuster. The game itself was nothing like this of course, but as a teenager who was still easily influenced by slick marketing, this was something that visually speaking was leaps and bounds what I was playing on my Nintendo 64.

For years I held a lot of Nintendo 64 games up to the unrealistic expectations set by PlayStation TV ads, even The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time which I was mildly disappointed with at first because I expected it to have visuals that would blow those of Final Fantasy VII out of the water. In hindsight, I enjoy a lot of games on the Nintendo 64 now more than what I did when they were new, mostly because I appreciate the bright, colorful worlds in games like Banjo-Kazooie which stand in stark contrast to many modern games today that have a dark, muted color palette. Back then though the Nintendo 64’s library of games didn’t hook me like I thought they would because I was seeking titles that were a little more mature. One of my favorite games on the Nintendo 64 is a game called Diddy Kong Racing, a hybrid adventure go-kart title, but I will admit being a little embarrassed enjoying it so much around my older brother who was playing Tomb Raider on our PC.

I always looked forward to buying issues of Nintendo Power each and every month, but there were two times a year I looked forward to the most: the fall when the reviews for the big games would hit and the summer when all of the news from E3 would get reported. E3 – an abbreviation for the Electronics Entertainment Expo – is a magical time for video game lovers as its when all the companies put all of their cards on the table, introducing new hardware to the world, sharing release dates for highly anticipated games and surprising people with announcements for new games.

Nintendo had a big year in 1998, having finally released the highly anticipated and award-winning The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. That game was never going to be an easy act to follow, so there was a lot of nervous excitement going into E3 of 1999. What was Nintendo going to put out to top what is arguably one of the best pieces of software they ever made?

A lot of people looked towards Rare, a developer located in the UK who had become as important the success of the Nintendo 64 as Nintendo themselves. Rare’s output, especially during the days of the Nintendo 64, was always of the highest quality, so normally they would only release around one game a year, but during the fall of 1999, they were set to drop two: Jet Force Gemini, a third-person sci-fi action shooter and Donkey Kong 64, a game in the style of Super Mario 64 that grabbed headlines as it was Rare’s return to the Donkey Kong franchise that helped put the studio on the map. Neither had me excited though as the return of my beloved Capcom to the Nintendo camp.

Capcom had been supporting the PlayStation with their classic series like Street Fighter and Mega Man while introducing the world to a new genre, survival horror, with their new best-selling property, Resident Evil. In the meantime the Nintendo faithful had only one game from the publisher on the Nintendo 64, a variation on Tetris starring Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters. In the fall of 1999, Capcom rewarded patient Nintendo 64 owners with one of the most ambitious games ever released on the console: a port of Resident Evil 2, a game that for all intents and purposes was my gateway into the PlayStation ecosystem.

The Nintendo 64 and PlayStation would share many games from third-party game developers, but when it came to porting games to the Nintendo 64, corners always had to be cut in the area of recorded voice dialogue and cinematic cut-scenes due to having to fit a game’s data onto a cartridge. In the case of Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, deliciously over-the-top live-action cinematics were replaced by still images accompanied by some text when it eventually came to the Nintendo 64 for example.

The main selling point for the Nintendo 64 release of Resident Evil 2 was that very few compromises were going to be made with its conversion. An impressive feat considering that when it arrived on PlayStation in early 1998, Resident Evil 2 was stretched across two CD’s. This had my intrigued to get my hands on the game because I could finally experience what a PlayStation game was like without actually having to own one. It certainly wasn’t the subject matter that’s for sure as I was never a horror person growing up. Our family would visit a relative whose son had a giant A Nightmare on Elm Street wall hang featuring slasher icon Freddy Kruger that was parallel to the entrance of their bathroom. To prevent me from getting nightmares, Freddy’s charred vestige had to be concealed by any means necessary when I was present.

Around the time it was released, Resident Evil 2 was a hard game to find locally, but during one of my trips to Bay Roberts, I was lucky enough to find an available copy. It didn’t take long from the time I put the game in my system’s cartridge slot and slid the power button on that I fell in love with it. Having never seen the PlayStation original, I was awestruck by what was put forth in front of me. You’re thrust into the game with a narrated summary of the first game followed by a cinematic introducing you to protagonists Leon and Claire, two unfortunate souls who would become trapped in a police station overrun by zombies and monsters.

Some serious work had to go into compressing Resident Evil 2 to fit onto a cartridge, and the quality of the video and audio simply couldn’t compete with what was available on the PlayStation. As someone who didn’t know any better though, this was unlike anything I had ever seen or felt before. I didn’t know that a video games had the capacity to generate fear, but here I was, both excited and terrified to push forward as I wanted to progress the story but was equally afraid to  see what horrifying monstrosity awaited me. At one point I jumped out of my chair when a zombified dog unexpectedly leapt at a cell door, leading to a laugh from my dad who witnessed the event. If this was a sample of the types of experiences that PlayStation games could offer, what else was I missing out on?

That Christmas I would get some real hands on time with a PlayStation when my brother asked for one that year, and I was more than up to the task of paying a visit to Microplay to look for games on his wish list. For those who were alive at the time, the end of 1999 was an incredibly exciting as everyone was counting down the days until the new millennium, deciding what party to go to and who they were going to watch the clock countdown to Y2K with. I could not have been bothered with that though as I was I was home, right where I wanted to be, eagerly awaiting when my brother would go out to meet his friends so I could get some alone time with the PlayStation, discovering classics like the espionage thriller, Metal Gear Solid, and getting chased around by a terrifying creature known as the Nemesis in the third chapter in the Resident Evil saga that released that year.

My early PlayStation memories weren’t just playing games in isolation by myself though. When my brother came home after the completion of his first year in university, I couldn’t wait to finish school to watch him play Final Fantasy VII or face off in the fighting game X-Men vs. Street Fighter. For his birthday in 2000, my brother got one of the last copies of Final Fantasy VIII that we could find around our area. I was just as excited to watch as he was to play as I sat with a calculator in my hand, adding up damage points that he would inflict on tough bosses in an attempt to quickly record how much damage he had dealt. It was probably one of my favorites summers as it produced cherished memories that I hope I never lose, and all because of a video game.

The PlayStation helped me bond with my brother over a summer, and I also owe it a debt of gratitude for helping my find my tribe in high school. My junior high years were not ones I look back upon fondly, but high school was another story. I attended junior high in Harbour Grace, and it was going to be that way for high school too, that is until a change in the school district mad it mandatory for students to finish up in Carbonear. It was scary to go to new school, but it also meant that I could reinvent myself and potentially meet new friends who hopefully shared my interests.

In high school I would meet the individual who had stole precious hours away from my The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time rental period. In his high school years, my brother would take part in weekend retreats and they helped him meet new friends. I had hoped that this formula for success would apply to myself, so I signed up the first opportunity I got. I packed my Game Boy just in case things didn’t go as planned, but this had a different result as it helped me to make a new friend over a mutual love of  Pokémon. As this person and I became more familiar with one another, he bragged about how he was the first person to rent out Ocarina of Time in Carbonear. Replying with some expletives I can’t quite remember, I informed him that I was the second.

But, they more than paid me back by introducing me to his group of friends who I found common ground with as a lot of them were PlayStation lovers. They would meet up at the T.C Square on weekends, and that soon became my routine too. Suddenly I had people to browse the games at Wal-Mart’s electronics department or have heated discussions over articles written in video game magazines. This is all I had wanted for years.

The fall of 2000 was a big year for Sony’s PlayStation division as they were set to release their second console, the aptly titled PlayStation 2. Due to its high price point – it was well over $500 in Canada – and a fairly unexciting launch line-up of games, no one I knew was taking the bait that Sony was dangling in front of us. The PlayStation console that everyone was picking up instead was a shrunken down redesign of the original PlayStation, rechristened as the PSOne, which was the box that was sitting under our Christmas tree that year, waiting to be opened by me.

As a passionate video game lover, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of each new release and divert whatever available funds you have towards making sure you’re able to be part of the conversation the second a game launches. What made getting my very own PlayStation that I didn’t have to share with anyone else is getting to catch up on five years of incredible games, something that I haven’t really gotten to experience since the 2000 holiday season. I probably got more PlayStation games that Christmas than in the whole first year I owned my Nintendo 64, and it was easy to grow my collection even more as many of the systems best games were incredibly cheap.

One time when visiting Wal-Mart with my friend, we found two excellent games: an RPG called Grandia and the classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, each for just ten dollars. I’m fairly certain a verbal contract was drawn up to decide which one of us get to buy what game and we immediately had to lend whatever one we took home after we rolled credits. For a little over twenty dollars, someone could’ve walked home with two games you could easily sink dozens of hours into. That same amount would’ve probably got you half of the cheapest Nintendo 64 game sat behind the glass display case I worshipped. As much as I loved and coveted my PSOne, it wasn’t my first choice of new hardware to get that year. What I initially wanted was what would be the last console from a once mighty hardware manufacturer that was a thing of dreams.

High school graduation party, spent with actual people instead of by myself.

One thought on “CHAPTER 14: PLAYSTATION

  1. Pingback: SMALL TOWN VIDEO GAME STORIES: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION | Comic Gamers Assemble

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