Yesterday we got our first big snowstorm of the year (about two months late for Denver). I was walking the dog through ten foot high drifts of snow, bitter wind slicing through me like a hot (cold?) knife through warm (frozen?) butter, as several layers of frost formulated on my exposed skin when all of a sudden I was beset by memories. Delicious, delicious memories. Back in my capricious youth — when I could spend all my time fixated on video games — I formed some associations of particular games with this time of the year. The evil storm brought these memories back (also, frostbite). So let’s trip the light nostalgic and take a look at winters past.
Final Fantasy II (IV)
I didn’t play Final Fantasy II for years after its release. RPGs just weren’t my thing (heck, they weren’t hardly a thing at all until FFVII came along) back in 1994 when I got my SNES, and by then the game was two years old. I just couldn’t be bothered. So I missed the nostalgia boat and these days regard the game with less than affection. I understand its importance in RPG history but it just doesn’t hold my interest like every other Final Fantasy. Anyway, I guess in some otherwise forgotten December I got my hands on Nintendo Power Volume 30 ’cause the coverage speaks more to me than the game ever did.
Man, look at that cover. Some hooded warrior on the back of a giant crow, saluting the moon as he passes over a misty dragon. I don’t know what game that is, but it’s not Final Fantasy II. Sure, there are elements from the game all hodgepodged together, but the image in no way resembles the product it’s trying to describe. Objectively, this is a terrible cover. I can’t help but love it. There’s this feeling of loneliness and majesty that the game doesn’t share. I look at this magazine and see snow-covered forests and feel the cold snap of a winter morning on my face.
It’s even better inside.
Back then Nintendo Power had in-house artists provide art for their coverage. Why they didn’t use the official art is a mystery. Licensing problems probably. The art spanned the whole range from awesome to awful. Most people agree the new art for FFII falls squarely on the awful side, but it says “Final Fantasy II” to me more than the real stuff does.
These representations don’t look anything like their in-game counterparts, let alone the official art. They’re much more westernized and buffed-up. Yet they’re not standard Swords-and-Sorcery fantasy art. There’s something profoundly “off” about that makes them very attractive. Like Rosa’s mohawk there. They’re like Amano meets Moebius; refined in a way the official art isn’t. This is what I picture when I think of Final Fantasy II. Palom and Porom will always be pig faced chubins to me, not the spastic anime kidz Square insists they are.
Final Fantasy III (VI)
Likewise, my emotional attachment to Final Fantasy III is much more involved with Nintendo Power’s coverage than the game itself. On the run-up to its release NP had a massive three-part extravaganza that basically spoiled the entire game… and of which there are absolutely no scans on the internet. You’ll just have to be satisfied with the cover from one of the issues. And here it is.
It’s so weird that Illusion of Gaia got billing over Final Fantasy. In any case, the FFIII stuff was massive. Part 1 was extensive character profiles (with the official Amano art this time!) and Parts 2 and 3 walked through the worlds of Ballance and Ruin respectively. It’s crazy that they spoiled the entire game, but I guess they were really trying to sell it. Well it worked. Those articles hooked me like nothing else. I read them over and over. I obsessed over the game. The scope, the refinement, that it wasn’t FantasyLand™ but this crazy magic and technology and operas and octopuses and Moogles and flying casinos and desert castles and chainsaws captured my imagination like nothing before. And when the game was waiting beneath the tree it was the. Best. Christmas. EVER.
Then something happened. The game was great fun and all. It started a love for JRPGs that continues to this day. But… it was something of a disappointment. A big disappointment. See, I had read those articles all through the lead-up to Christmas, and I was just the right age to really be pulled into the magic of the season for the last time. Late in December I had to stay at my Aunt’s house for a few days and spent the time reading about Final Fantasy III and watching The Muppet Christmas Carol over and over (on TV with “The Love is Gone” restored and the full emotional impact intact the first time). So FFIII and muppets and cold winter nights and Christmas and the anticipation for Christmas got all tied up together into this specific time/place/feeling. I had profound dreams about my Final Fantasy III. The real game had no chance. These days a cold snowy night will still bring back this complex feeling of anticipation for my FFIII and not the one the world got.
The Zork Anthology
The same Christmas I got Final Fantasy III my parents also gave me Return to Zork. I had played my dad’s Apple IIe copy of Zork obsessively when I was younger but never had access to the rest of Infocom’s library. For the next few weeks I pretty much spent all my time bouncing from the SNES to the computer either putting in the hours with Final Fantasy or Zork. But as fun as Return’s comedy clubs and bra boxes were I found myself spending just as much time with The Zork Anthology, packed in with Return (I guess The Anthology was supposed to give context to new players. Which is dumb because Return has bumpkis to do with the classic games). I was trilled to finally play Zork II (that ending to Zork had teased me for so long), but I was putting in equal time with all six games (I, II, III, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, and Planetfall). Especially Beyond Zork. That post-Christmas glow still means Giant Onions and Dust Bunnies to me. Even better, Return also came with the original Encyclopedia Frobozzica.
I spent hours studying the little details of Zork’s stupid world. It was all the more mysterious and compelling since I had no experience with the Enchanter Trilogy. Many of the entries were completely foreign and spoke of a history larger than it was. It’s thanks to both The Anthology and The Encyclopedia that I’m such a Zork Dork today. I lost my copy of The Encyclopedia long ago (so devastating at the time), but thankfully some kind people have archived it online. Return to Zork might have been a crap game, but it had amazing pack-ins.
Secret of Evermore
By the time the next Christmas rolled around I was firmly in Square’s pocket. Over the year I had gotten my hands on whatever RPG I could. Illusion of Gaia, Robotrek, Earthbound, etc. But Chrono Trigger was the real prize. There was no doubt in my mind that Square games were the pinnacle of the genre. So of course the number one item on my Christmas list was Secret of Evermore. I had spent some time with a rental of Secret of Mana when it first came out, but quickly got frustrated at the difficult bosses (I got to the Fire Gigas before I had to return it), and I never played with any friends so I didn’t have any multiplayer experiences creating preconceptions of what Evermore should be. I enjoyed Evermore at the time and my affection for it has only grown. I’ve gotten other games as Christmas gifts, and certainly played a lot of stuff in the winter, but they don’t hold my memory like Evermore does. I think the reason Evermore is so indicative of the season is that it’s such an empty game. Compared to something like Final Fantasy the plot is sparse as a children’s book is to War and Peace. Exploration is limited, NPCs number far less, and nothing as garish as the world is at stake. It’s a quiet, lonely game and this gave it the space to pour in all the feelings I associate with winter. In Evermore you don’t trudge over snowy drifts on a day captured in frozen sunlight but that’s what comes to mind when I think of it.
And that’s what it’s all about. Games are really such stupid things, you know? These four (nine?) games stand out so vividly in my memory because they aren’t just video games to me. They’re collections of my memories and feelings, of specific times and places that don’t exist anymore, of a life if not well spent then at least reasonably so. These games are more to me because of the specific experiences I brought to them, and the complex distinct feelings of those times are preserved thanks to the game’s ability to recall them. I can’t simply say “Secret of Evermore was fun. I enjoyed playing it. I’ll probably play it again,” because, while yes those things are correct, it’s also true that Secret of Evermore is the crunch of snow underfoot… the wet cold on my palms… breath hanging in the air… the blue of the sky and the sun reflecting off the lake… the smell of geese… the possibilities of a fresh year… sounds of cars on the highway, driving to oblivion… strangers, walking… by trees… the snow… sky… sun… snow.