I picked up Fire Emblem Fates (I went for the Birthright version of the game, though I picked up the Conquest story as well and am currently sitting on at least chapter 10 for both) a couple of days ago and I have to say that it is already sitting as one of my favourite games of the year so far. Yet I’m well aware that I’m biased towards the game because I absolutely adored its predecessor, Fire Emblem Awakening, and have made it my goal to play every Fire Emblem game that has been officially released in Europe (which, yes, means I will be getting a Wii U purely for the Fire Emblem games available on the eStore and checking out games that characters in the franchise have appeared in, like the upcoming crossover with Shin Megami Tensei).
So why am I spending a bit of time talking about the franchise? Well, I have to be honest: it’s because Awakening and Fates made me fall in love with gaming again and even make me feel the same joy that I do every time I boot up a Dawn of War game. When I previously used to just boot up a game and not care too much about the franchise it was part of and whatnot, Fates made me so excited for it that I was actively trying to get a copy of the game as early as I could and actively excited to learn more about it. I’ll freely admit it: I adore this franchise and my only regret is that I didn’t start playing it sooner!
That, really, is all that I really need to say, but I feel like an opportunity to reflect on how I got into gaming the first time is quite appropriate. So forgive a potentially boring trip down memory lane for this article, as I want to try to recapture some of my first memories about being a gamer for you guys and some of my strongest memories of it to showcase just what memories define gaming for me growing up.
Some of my oldest memories with gaming are hard for me to place in any sort of chronology, but I remember one very faint memory that I think was from when I was four or five where I was walking through a house (it wasn’t my house, so I think it might have been a neighbour’s house) that had wooden floors, cream walls and a few other things which don’t seem clear to me now I try to focus on them. My memory of that is brief, but I remember walking through the room, sitting in an old straw chair and booting up my Game Boy Color to play a game (I don’t know which one it was, unfortunately). A few other memories I have are sitting in an Italian restaurant playing Sabrina: The Animated Series: Zapped! while waiting to be served and hanging around and playing a bit of Abe’s Exoddus at the house of a friend of my sister (I also faintly remember playing a board game based on The Wind in the Willows at the same place). I do have a very faint memory of playing Rayman on Game Boy Color at a place that I think I was at to be celebrating one of my birthdays, but I can’t remember for definite whether that is the case or not.
Obviously, back then, gaming was a very different medium from what it is today. Most older readers will know what I’m talking about, but, for younger readers, I feel I should explain a few things to showcase just how much gaming has changed over the years. Back when I was growing up, you didn’t have backlights for handheld systems, so, if you wanted to play games at night, you needed to turn your light on and play the game like that. Obviously, when you’re a kid, you got into trouble for doing that, so what some kids used to do (which I think I did: can’t remember for sure) was to take a small torch with you up to bed and angle it so you could see the screen while still having both hands able to use the controls, much like you did with books. Obviously, with backlights built into game systems nowadays, this isn’t quite the same as it was, though it is certainly a welcome addition in most cases! Games also tended to be much more simple back in those days: while the late 90s was when most video game consoles started to finally do 3D properly, handheld systems were very much akin to cartridges from the NES era of gaming in terms of graphical quality and sound quality. So when I say that this generation (in terms of the hardware and whatnot that goes into games) has some truly impressive technology that goes into games compared to what was available when I was growing up, I mean that with genuine sincerity: when I was a child, the idea of playing a game more complicated than Snakes on your phone was something we’d never have believed possible.
Part of me wonders, though, whether this insane amount of resources is to the detriment of gaming as a whole, for the triple-A sector of gaming is spending millions on making games look as pretty as they can be and, as a result, the runtime of games has been cut down, often quite drastically, to accommodate these graphics, which leaves less room for story and whatnot. True, when I was growing up, there was no story to speak of with most of the games I played, but the gaming itself was top notch and stood up on its own merits because all that could be really focused on WAS the gameplay (and, admittedly, the graphics, but there were limits to what you could do which you couldn’t work around very easily, like the size of the cartridge). I say this not because I think modern gaming is bad (heck, some of the games being designed nowadays would blow my mind if you showed them to my 5 year old self and it’s hard to deny that the effort that goes into making games today is going to waste!), but because it makes me wonder whether the demand for higher quality graphics has caused more problems for gaming than it should have done.
Bear with me for a second and hear me out: when the PS3 was released, games also made the step up to being available on Blu-Ray discs rather than DVDs. At the time, this was a step up from the PS2, which had been available on DVD discs and was itself a step up from the original PlayStation (which I’m just going to refer to as the PS1 from now on because that’s easier to remember), which had been based on CDs, and games developed in far more impressive directions right from the start. Yet the PS4 is still based on Blu-Ray discs, for there has been no new development on that front yet, and is trying to contain the same amount of content as a PS3 game did, despite the far increased graphical quality. The demand for higher quality graphics isn’t an automatic problem, but it means that you either need some truly impressive tech skills to make everything fit into tiny files to make games that are as long as PS3 games or you’re going to have to bite the bullet and accept that games are going to be far shorter than they were to contain these increased graphics. A move to purely download titles would fix this problem, admittedly, but it would completely kill gaming in the eyes of the mainstream, for it would mean gaming shops would have to close because there would be no need to sell games to people and it would make it even harder to get into game. So that’s not going to happen!
As a brief aside, this is why I love handheld systems over consoles and PC gaming (yeah, I said it!): you can still see this old philosophy of keeping graphics as good as they need to be without it coming to the detriment of the game itself because that part of gaming is still working with absolutely tiny amounts of space compared to consoles and PC titles and developers adjust their games to account for that rather than going “Screw it, we want the prettiest graphics!” and finding that all they can fit on a cartridge after doing that is one character model (OK, I’m exaggerating a tad there, but still!). I also prefer the convenience, since you can just put a handheld system in a jacket or coat pocket and have it ready whenever you need to kill some time, but that’s just me!
Anyway, moving back to the original point of this article, another early memory I have of gaming is around the time I got a PS2 for Christmas. I had been given two games with it: Surfing H3O (a pretty crappy game, if I’m honest) and Robot Warlords (a REALLY difficult Turn-Based Strategy game that was…actually also kind of crappy, but had some interesting ideas behind it which could have salvaged it) and I remember sitting down and playing Surfing H3O…and doing awfully at it (soundtrack was pretty cool, though!). I didn’t have too problem playing them, though, so I stuck with them and, while I never nailed Surfing H3O (in my defense, I’m not into sports at all!), I started to get decent at Robot Warlords. I never completed it, but I got a fair amount of the way through it. I still have both games sitting around my house somewhere, so maybe I might dig them out for reviews sometime in the future…
Surprisingly, the next console I got was actually a PS1. I picked it up to allow me to play Rayman and a few games for it that had caught my eye. I’m sure most people who know Rayman can guess how well I did when I played it as a kid, but I also enjoyed some other games available for it, like Lego Rock Raiders (which I don’t think is as bad as it is made out to be, though it certainly isn’t one of the console’s strongest games at all) and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (which I surprisingly really enjoyed: great soundtrack, great challenge, decent controls, decent graphics…just an all around great game, really!). Probably the strongest gaming moment I remember, though, was when my family were hosting some Norwegian people as part of the Alnwick International Music Festival and they found my Sega Mega Drive (which I’d been given by a friend of the family) and an old TV in my room and decided to set them up together and start playing Sonic The Hedgehog 2. It was a really cool move of them to do so and we ended up playing the game a decent amount together whenever we were at the house in between their stuff. I particularly enjoyed the Sega Mega Drive growing up and some of the games that I grew up playing on it (Comix Zone, Streets of Rage, The Revenge of Shinobi, Golden Axe, Hurricanes and Ecco: The Tides of Time) are still among my favourite games of all time.
My handheld console journey while growing up continued onto the Game Boy Advance SP. As part of a school trip, I went to the Isle of Wight and, when I returned, it wasn’t too long after my birthday (might even have actually been on my birthday, I don’t remember for sure), so, for my birthday, I got a Game Boy Advance SP and a copy of Spyro 2: Season of Flame. While my copy of Season of Flame has long since disappeared to the mists of time, I did remember beating it and even had the final minigame unlocked. I ended up basically only using it for the third generation of Pokemon games (which I always really liked, so I was quite surprised to learn that they had a fairly negative reception among fans!) and a few other games like Lego Knights’ Kingdom (which I found interesting, if a bit flawed), but it was a great system.
The final system I had growing up was the PSP. I got it for Christmas one year (likely 2005, as I got Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for the system on the same day) and it was basically my go-to system for a good while whenever I was on the move. I mostly used it for playing Monster Hunter Freedom, Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command, but it was a fun system and I do appreciate what it offered at the time. I do have one memory related to this system, but it’s not one I want to talk about here, as it’s quite a painful memory for me.
Some people might assume from this that I never played PC games at all. You’d be wrong: while most of the games I did play were the PC versions of the Harry Potter games, I did also play the PC version of Lego Rock Raiders and I played a few online games (though it was only really Runescape that I stuck with). I also got introduced to Dawn of War thanks to a person who was staying at the farm a family friend ran (I was bored at a barbecue and they decided to show me the demo of the game) and, to this day, I hold the whole franchise in high regard (as I’m sure people who have read my retrospective on the franchise will know). Sadly, I didn’t get into PC gaming until I left college and that means that I can’t really say how PC gaming impacted upon my gaming history growing up because, well…it didn’t.
There is one final system which was in my family, but was not my system: my sister had a Nintendo DS when she was growing up and used it to play Nintendogs. I occasionally borrowed the system and I was actually better at the game than she was (though I’m sure she’d never admit it!), but I never really got the appeal behind the game.
Where does all of this connect back to me loving the Fire Emblem series? Well, in truth, it doesn’t, but playing Fire Emblem Fates and Project X Zone 2 made me realise just how far gaming has come since I was a child and that I have some great memories of gaming in the nearly two decades plus that I’ve been playing video games. Though I took a break from it to go to college and I regard myself as a music critic more than a gamer nowadays, I cannot deny that gaming has been a part of my life for a long time and, though I’ve spent large amounts of time without anyone to play games with (no one else in my family is a gamer and most of my friends growing up didn’t have systems which allowed me to game with them much), I think that the memories I have of my time with gaming are their own reward.
Things are different now for me on so many levels. I’m older, for a start (I know, obvious response!), but I also have some great friends with whom I can play games now (HVN, T-Buster, Andy, Taylor, Tayler, Chunk and, occasionally, Abby) and, while I do still have some issues from my past, I do recognise that I’ve been gaming for a long time and some of the memories I have will last with me forever. I’m more of a PC gamer and handheld gamer than a console gamer nowadays (mostly because I don’t have my own TV and pinching my mum’s one isn’t going to end well!), but I had always been way behind the times with gaming because I wasn’t all that eager to keep up to date with stuff and was happy waiting for games to go down in price…until a few days ago, when I decided that I couldn’t wait to see what Fire Emblem Fates had in store for me and went to pick up a copy of it. While browsing, I spotted another game that looked interesting and, after a look at the back of it and seeing that characters from Fire Emblem, Streets of Rage, Shinobi and Xenoblade would be appearing in the game, I decided to pick it up.
And that’s where my journey with gaming comes to the present day. What will the future hold? Who knows? But I think I can say one thing with certainty: after so many years of not feeling like I can be a gamer, the last few months have been among the best months I’ve had as one and have reignited a passion that I had long felt was on life support, with those two games just being the tipping point back towards finally feeling like I can be a gamer properly. True, we still have stuff like GamerGate running around in the background and the wars between systems aren’t ever going to die…but, at the end of the day, it’s not what you game on or how you play games that’s important (unless you’re being a dick to people!): it’s the games themselves.