I live on the sort of street that has a house like this at the top of it, in an apartment where the rent is too high, in the part of town where the cleaners and the groundskeepers that the rich people of Newtown pay under the table live. I write blog posts about video games and claim that they are magic, and enough people appreciate the trick to keep the lights on. I am typing this with a plate of microwaved leftovers from the Chinese restaurant I talked about in this entry of TARDIS Eruditorum. It’s next to a Gamestop now.
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Video games came from Toy Works. At least, in the Super Nintendo era they did. It moved around; the Nintendo era was mostly Toys ‘R Us, at least in practical experience, which was down by the mall, and is still there. (That’s also the area where the Funcoland that fueled my late high school/early college retrogaming phase, a second childhood of NES and SNES.) But in the summer of 1990, we moved to Newtown when my mother left the corporate world to return to academia. That was the high summer of my Nintendo days – a gap between when we could occupy the two houses meant that my mother and I spent a month or two living with my maternal grandparents in Mahopac while my father did a road trip to attend a math conference in Wyoming. My mother, appreciating that I was going to be bored to tears living there, went on a NES game buying binge, and I basically spent the summer in my grandparents’ basement playing Nintendo.
Toy Works was in Sand Hill Plaza, in the south of Newtown, which I remember the construction of, and which must have, based on other memories, been in late 1990/early 1991. The store is long since closed, and there’s a store for baby stuff there now. Originally, the video game section was over in this corner of the store, with a demo NES where I got some of my only tastes of games like Punch-Out (my father disapproved of boxing as a sport, so this was never a game I was allowed). The demo unit is what I now know to be a Nintendo M82, although that wasn’t terminology that existed in my vocabulary or worldview of the time. At the time the floor was an industrial carpet in that section only, giving it the same black/red/grey livery of the NES itself.
By the Super Nintendo, though, the video game section had moved to about over here, although by this time there was plenty of competition in the mall as well, where stores like Software Etc., Electronique Boutique, and Babbages sold both computer games and console games. (Indeed, the historical reality may well be that I got most of my actual games from those stores and not Toy Works, but the Super Nintendo Project is not about historical reality nearly as much as it is about memory.) They’re all Gamestops now, though mostly in the same locations, as is the Funcoland by Toys R’ Us. There’s a Gamestop in Sand Hill Plaza too now, actually. I assume the white and pastel linoleum of Toy Works is still there under that wood floor; it was still there when Simply Baby and Kids moved in, a jarring fossil of my childhood.
This would have been where people bought Final Fantasy II. It wasn’t for me, though, as I never bought this game, although I did rent it. That would have happened in Stop & Shop, two doors down from Toy Works, and still there. The video rental section, however, which contained the video games, is not, having long since been replaced by an in-supermarket bank, although its underlying function remains in the form of a Redbox machine.
(A secret history here, its trail running through the self checkout lanes that have replaced the working class jobs Stop & Shop used to provide, a gradual economic shift whose consequences eventually flow into Gamergate’s toxic blend of white male impotence and anger.)
The path of a Nintendo Project, however, always pushes towards the secret history. Let us imagine instead, then, this group of people who are not me, who stand at the counter at Toy Works and peer up at the games and, their eyes alighting on Final Fantasy II, turn and begin, “Mom, can we…” And so bring this home as one of their games.
There is more power in that phrasing than is necessarily obvious. “Their games.” It is important to understand the Super Nintendo for what it was, after all. Peruse the circular for KayBee Toys below. We are a few months in the future – this is Easter of 1992 – but it gives a general sense of the video game console landscape of the time. I’ve included the entire circular, and those of a certain age will no doubt have reminiscences about the items on display.
It is important to look at the prices of these things. A new video game, at around $50, was nothing to sneeze at. And the downward curve of prices was slow – nothing for the Super Nintendo had a price cut yet. Super Maro Bros. 3 was still going for nearly full price (which suggests the value of the NES itself at roughly $45 at this point), and a new NES release like Mega Man 4, the game I was playing when my parents told me I had a sibling on the way, was still the same price as a new SNES game.
There were cheaper games, it’s true, but you largely got what you paid for. The cheapest game on offer, Deja Vu for the NES, is not an appealing choice, to say the least. For the most part, games were the price they were. This meant that getting one was a big deal, and what games you had was a significant aspect of your life. Visiting friends’ houses, and, more importantly, pseudo-friends’ houses, video games were the great equalizer. You compared collections. Either you had a game in common that would be fun to play together, or they had a game you didn’t have that you could try. Our childhood identities are often translated into collections of things for adult purposes, and video games were an obvious choice.
But there is an aspect of this that is, perhaps, invisible when your eyes can’t quite see over the counter, which is that video games were sufficiently universal that you could safely assume almost any friend’s house had them. This was because they were a perfect product for the working poor.
Childcare is, one way or another, a cost, both in time and money. And just like the pressures of poverty make the balance of speed and cost that McDonalds offers an oft-appealing option, they make the balance of duration and cost that video games offered appealing. The $169 of a Super Nintendo is not a small purchase, to be sure, but it is also not an astronomically large one. It is within the scope of a small windfall – a thing you can splurge for on a good day (It’s about $293 in today’s dollar). In terms important to the 1990s in America, they were the sorts of purchases that credit cards made seductive. And they could keep the kids busy for so long. Christ, you could even leave your kid with them for half an hour and go to the grocery store alone for the first time in months.
This is not to say that video games were above class issues. Quite the contrary – the ritual of comparing game libraries was always in part about figuring out who was bigger, which, as with so many childhood analogues for dick measuring, was in reality a measurement of your parents’ socioeconomic class, a fact largely invisible to those who didn’t come up short (and the reality is that in this regard, at least, I rarely did). And correspondingly, the games you did have mattered and carried weight.
So a good game was in some fashion long, the better to keep you entertained long after it was no longer new. Some games did this by being open-ended – SimCity is perhaps the purest version of this, although in its own way F-Zero qualifies as well. Others did it by being difficult – Sonic the Hedgehog being the purest example of this to be discussed to date. But some simply did it by being long, and none, perhaps, as much as Final Fantasy II. The game takes approximately twenty hours in-game to beat, plus any time spent replaying sections because you died. And there will be some of that, not least because the game is at times outright sadistic with save points. (The final one comes some considerable distance prior to the final boss, although even if it didn’t, the seven minute unskippable sequence of cut scenes that you have to sit through every time you fail to beat the final boss will eat up plenty of time.)
This made it, in some regards, a poor game for rental. A game rental runs for seventy-two hours. Realistically, at the age of nine, twenty-four or more of those hours are going to be spent sleeping. If you’ve rented during the week, another twenty on school. Even if you didn’t, though, the odds of having nearly seven hours a day for three days to devote to a game are slim to none. Certainly my free time budget was not generally allowed to stretch to cover this.
But even aside from the fundamental unsuitability of the game to how I was trying to play it, I just never much liked the JRPG, for many of the same reasons that made it Final Fantasy an excellent game to own: it’s a timesink. The basic mechanism is the random monster encounter, which never really poses a challenge on its own merits, but which instead creates a resource-management problem as you attempt not to run out of magic points or healing items before the dungeon’s boss. (Notably, random encounters are even presented as punishment, with an angry buzzer sound effect as they start.) Similarly, the battle system is effectively timed menu management, with large amounts of time spent waiting for small animations to play out. Inasmuch as a game is a system of rules that it is pleasurable to subject yourself to, Final Fantasy II represents its worst instincts – a system of rules that is not so much about the delivery of any satisfaction as the careful rationing of it, demanding the endurance of lengthy periods of tedium in exchange for small rewards that are magnified by the deprivation.
Final Fantasy II is certainly not alone among games in working that way, nor is the JRPG subgenre in general. It’s true that this style of gameplay rubs me particularly the wrong way, which is why Anna is mostly covering the JRPGs from here on out, but to blame the video-game-as-abuse model of gameplay entirely on the JRPG would be like blaming Gamergate entirely on the Sega Genesis or something.
Perhaps the more interesting thing to observe is that the sort of abuse that Final Fantasy II provides is that it is a form of abuse that is intrinsic to the experience of being poor. Bread and circuses are an old concept, after all. The sort of capricious use of gaming labor as a means of earning the fun you already paid $50 for borders on important training about the nature of the world. This does not, to my mind, excuse Final Fantasy II, which remains a game I am at best openly hostile towards. But it does contextualize it.
Let us return, then, to our hypothetical owner of Final Fantasy II. In particular, let us assume that Final Fantasy II is one of a relative handful of Super Nintendo games they own. That they beat it is thus essentially guaranteed. A consequence of the game’s deeply grind-based nature is that it is another example of a game that is designed to be beaten. Sure, there are plenty of boss fights that are basically leaps of faith where you have to discover the nasty trick that the boss has by dying to it and then steadily refine your tactics into a set that work, and often those fights will require an additional 15 minutes each time of getting from the save point back to the fight, but there’s not actually very much that’s hard in the game.
But beating it is unlikely to be the extent of their engagement. That’s what a lack of games means, really – that you don’t get the luxury of stopping playing one just because you’ve happened to beat it. And the RPG, as a genre, is curiously suitable to this. For all the simplicity of the game itself, the underlying system is both complex and capable of considerable depth. The game’s relatively peaceful difficulty curve runs slightly aground in the endgame, essentially so as to force the player to stop strictly following the plot and instead to investigate some side quests. Even beyond that, the endgame features opportunities for a couple of extremely high difficulty fights that, while optional, tacitly encourage the player to consider leveling up their party a bit further. The result is that even if you’ve beaten the game, it encourages returning to finish off those last few challenges.
And even once those challenges are completed, there’s always the possibility of replaying the game. It’s not a game with much depth in terms of its leveling mechanics – there’s nothing to customize – but there’s still plenty to discover, including deliberate easter eggs like the fact that Edward, the cowardly bard party member with crap stats, actually becomes the best character in the game if you level him to 99, which is nearly impossible to do in the part of the game he’s actually in.
And there is an elegance to the mechanics. Final Fantasy II has a total of twelve playable characters, but they’re swapped in and out as the game goes on. Its general pattern is to let you get used to a particular party lineup and way of approaching things and then to introduce a mandatory change that forces different tactics. And there’s a rhythm to combat that’s satisfying. Many video games, especially in this era, are tacitly rhythm games, structured around muscle memory falling into place. Especially in the endgame, where battles begin to appear in which, effectively, you have to beat a boss before it unleashes an insta-kill attack on your entire party, it becomes about small refinements in technique and timing – realizing the importance of using a minor damage dealer to cast “Fast” (does what it says on the tin) on a bigger damage dealer so that she can get a second attack underway in time, for instance.
But the mechanics are not the only way to create a deep engagement with Final Fantasy II. A video game is a fusion between mechanic and narrative iconography, after all, and Final Fantasy II makes much of it plot. To some extent, in fact, what is interesting about the plot is motivated largely by the mechanics. The fact that the game focuses on constantly changing the party means that it has to contrive to get rid of characters regularly. Accordingly, all but a handful of characters die at some point in the narrative. In turn all but one are eventually restored, but the game has an aggressively unrelenting sense of doom and tragedy throughout it, to an extent that’s slightly shocking even in 2015.
The plot is also slightly vague. Storage limits on SNES cartridges meant that the game’s original script was trimmed to just a quarter of its initial size, which was followed by an English translation that, while not bad by any measure, certainly introduced another layer of distance between the plot and player. (Particularly memorable is the point in which an enraged wizard shouts “you spoony bard!” at the object of his frustration.)
This distance was in many ways what made the plot interesting. Back in the predecessor to this project, I suggested that Japan did not exist – that is, that our notion of the “Japanese video game” was not based on any actual real place, but simply on video games as something that emerged from a cultural Other. Which is true enough. And yet equally, there was a material history in both the United States and Japan that influenced gaming culture. And Final Fantasy II is particularly interesting in how it highlights the dual nature of this influence. Yes, there is the generation of American children who grew up playing Japanese games. But in this case, at least, the underlying game style, the RPG, was an American creation that took off in Japan amongst hobbyists who imported D&D books. The two major Japanese console RPG series, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, were essentially developed independently, with the first Final Fantasy being greenlit after Dragon Quest succeeded, both the products of specific people who had happened to be influenced by an American style.
But equally, there are aspects of Final Fantasy II that are unmistakably Japanese, or, at least, tangible breaks from the default American approach. There is no trace of the Hero’s Journey plot here. Cecil is an accomplished warrior and military commander when the story starts, and the story is not so much his becoming a hero as his awakening to the moral implications of his actions and the realization that he’s supporting and committing crimes against humanity, his transformation from a dark knight to a paladin, and his eventual redemption of his long lost (in both a practical and spiritual sense) brother. It’s a story of redemption and self-improvement. It is a story of becoming a king instead of becoming anything so banal as a “hero.” It is, of course, easy to situate this plot in terms of Japanese history or culture if we want to, but it seems presumptuous to. What is more important is simply that this isn’t something that comes out of the culture that we’re analyzing it in the context of. That it’s not the story we usually tell. That it’s an alternative.
There is an inherent power to this worth considering. It is not that Japan is some utopian alternative. That’s clearly nonsense, although it’s not hard to understand why some people who delved deep into Final Fantasy II as a game eventually settled on trying to understand where it came from (a process that seems inexorably related to its eventual reversion to its Japanese numbering as Final Fantasy IV in the wake of the two NES Final Fantasy titles that didn’t get ported in the 80s/90s eventually becoming known). Rather, it is simply that Japan is not the United States, and that it presents things that come from a context and world view that is not ours.
Within this, there are multiple obvious appeals. The vision of heroism portrayed in Final Fantasy II is more civic than the normative western one. Inasmuch as it is militaristic, the military is a form of service, as opposed to a path towards glory and heroism. The idea of fighting alone is discouraged, both in the plot and in the mechanics (which are, of course, about successfully finding a rhythm to the battle as a team). There are various lessons here worth learning.
None of which, of course, a cure-all. (To be clear, that’s not a metaphor: there’s no spell in Final Fantasy II that both removes status ailments and heals.) It’s not as though anime fandom lacks its horrors, or any other culture. There’s no magical combination of media consumption that can make us good people or bad people.
And yet all we are is meat and water vessels for an accumulation of memories understandable only in terms of the control machines that accumulate within them like amyloid plaques.
There is a world where my brother lives, and where he got Final Fantasy II at Toy Works and not at Stop & Shop, and I am terrified it is the only world in which salvation exists.