What Could Have Been
Over the past year I've been slowly working my way through my pile of shame – the games I own, but have, for one reason or another, neglected. Suffice to say, it's been a very enjoyable journey as I've played through some truly great titles. And while a couple of the games in said pile were purchased as a result of my own eager anticipation, most were obtained thanks to a healthy dose of high praise by fellow gamers. But from where does this high praise emanate? Why do certain games strike a chord with a select group of people and miss the mark with others?
Sure, a gamer's preference is by far the biggest factor at play here. Their affinity towards a certain genre, franchise, character, and/or control scheme most definitely colors their perception of whatever title they interact with; that much is a given. But what about the context in which the game itself is played? Had I played a certain game ten years earlier, would I have enjoyed it any more thoroughly with less gaming history under my belt? Furthermore, would said game have made a greater impact on me overall and/or lessened my opinion of titles I would eventually play down the road?
Confused? Annoyed? Disturbed? Let me explain...
So like I was saying earlier, I've been slowly making my way through my shameful pile. A couple of the titles I chose to tackle first are, by most accounts, the definition of video game excellence: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger. Games that, by and large, not only helped set many gaming standards, but perfected them as well. Anyone I had ever talked to who played either of these two titles spoke glowingly of them (which is no surprise seeing how they're always an integral part of every media outlet's "Greatest Games of All-Time" lists). Yep, these were two supposed "can't miss" games and I was about to finally experience them for myself.
Now I'm no gaming snob when it comes to the age of a particular title – a great game is a great game no matter how old it is. But I was worried – or maybe mildly concerned is a better way of putting it – that playing A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger so far removed from their heyday would somehow minimize their impact on me. Granted, it's an assumption, but I tend to think that most people/publications/media outlets that wax poetic about titles such as these do so because they were fortunate (smart) enough to have played them back when they were truly landmark titles. But what about now? How would they stand up to the countless titles I've played in the years since their release? Would the experience be just as affecting compared to those people who originally played these gems over 15 years ago?
I was hoping for the best, but preparing for the not-so-best. For as much as I knew I had to play A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger (as any self-respecting, well-rounded gamer should, right?), I knew deep down they probably wouldn't join those select rank of games I've placed high on that ever-so-exclusive pedestal. You know those titles – the ones that leave a certain indelible mark on your psyche, forever altering the way you perceive video games as a whole. They're the titles that help define you as a gamer and, as a result, shape the manner in which you approach and consume all within this beloved medium and beyond. And for countless people, A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger are the titles that have done just that. But why not me?
I'll tell you why – context.
You see, as affecting as these two titles were for so many people, they were less so for me. Now please don't get me wrong, A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger are two very superb games – even by today's standards. But when all was said and done, they were just merely two great games in my eyes. And that's when a sobering realization started to wash over me – I had already experienced my groundbreaking, redefining masterpieces elsewhere.
Had I played A Link to the Past back when it came out in 1992, it's very likely Link's epic journey between the Light and Dark World would have been the game that completely captured my imagination in ways I had never experienced before, thus cementing my undying love for the Zelda series. Parallel worlds, multi-level dungeons, a more mature, darker storyline, a wider variety of weapons/items to utilize – all tried-and-true staples of the Zelda catalog were born from A Link to the Past. And yet because I skipped over this installment due to my insane loyalty to the Sega Genesis, I missed out entirely. A Link to the Past would not be the integral title in my gaming epoch to heavily influence my views as a gamer. No, that lofty honor would eventually go to 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And yet, if you look closely, you'll recognize that Ocarina of Time is – when all is said and done – really nothing more than a 64-bit upgrade of A Link to the Past. Most of, if not all, of the elements that made Ocarina great are present and accounted for in A Link to the Past – minus the 3rd dimension. But because I played Ocarina of Time before I ever laid a hand on A Link to the Past, Ocarina gets bestowed all of my gaming love and adoration while A Link to the Past ended up feeling like more of a 2-D retread (in the best of ways of course!). How easily, though, it could have all been all so different.
The story plays out the same with regards to Chrono Trigger as well. It could have been – and perhaps should have been – the role-playing game by which I would eventually judge all others. Yet it was 1997's juggernaut that was Final Fantasy VII that opened my eyes to the wonderful and bizarre rapture that is JRPGs. The result? To this day, despite how better or worse for wear VII may be nowadays, I still hold it of the highest regard. Cloud and Co. provided me with some of my fondest gaming memories because, at the time, I had never played or experienced anything like it. Had I popped a Chrono Trigger cartridge into an SNES back in '95, I most likely would have gotten the same type of thrill, only with a different cast of characters. But I didn't and Final Fantasy VII ended getting all of my accolades even though it shares so many of the superlative qualities found in Chrono Trigger. Ah the possibilities.
Just think, instead of Aeris gracing my desk here at work, I could be paying homage to Marle or Frog. Heck, I'll take it even further – had I played Final Fantasy VI before either of these two games came out then perhaps I'd have an affinity for Locke or Celes. And while all of these aforementioned games are truly superb, it's the context in which I played them (or in FFVI's case, not at all) that ended up influencing my gaming perception much more than I had ever realized.
Yes, Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII are great games, but they are partially so because, to me, they were also the first of their kind. An immersive, enthralling experience the likes of which I had never witnessed before. Perhaps someday down the road another stellar title will come along and finally knock Ocarina or FFVII from their lofty perch, but I'm not holding my breath. Stuff like this just gets ingrained into you. And while I don't have regrets going about my gaming the way I have over the years, I'll always stop and pause every now and then to wonder what could have been.