Hello again. Where are we now, January 1996? Best we start wrapping this up, I suppose.
In a sense I never left, of course. Let’s see. Summer of 1995 was the first year of CTY, the big nerd camp that was the defining social framework of late middle school/early high school for me. Place those three weeks between Civilization and Chrono Trigger. I was still playing video games, but favored the PC – I got a Playstation around the time of Final Fantasy VII, and would get a Nintendo 64 for Christmas at the end of 1996, in my first year of high school, but neither captivated me. I was starting to intellectually specialize – at CTY I’d taken what was basically a college-level intro comp course, and was beginning to think of myself as, if not “a writer,” at least “a guy who could write.” This coincided with the regression of my ability in math, previously my best subject, as the handwriting requirements of algebra and ADD-taxing nature of drilling a problem over and over again made the subject stop favoring me. Indeed, the best paper I wrote at CTY was a descriptive essay about how much I’d hated my 7th grade math teacher. (Meanwhile, I got on quite well with my 7th grade English teacher, and ran into her at the supermarket earlier this year.) From there I’d gradually deflect from aspiring towards fiction to realizing a greater strength in criticism, a bias I’ve yet to correct despite occasional efforts.
But my exile from the Super Nintendo era was short-lived. The summer of 1997 introduced me to the wonders of NESticle, and I dove happily into the suddenly opened archives of my childhood. Then, in the fall of 1998, I got my learner’s permit, and early in 1999 could drive. This being western Connecticut, the main available attraction was the same thing it had been since the 1980s evenings spent with my mother: the Danbury Fair Mall. Or, in my specific case, the Funcoland about a block further down Backus Avenue, where I dove into a more materialist phase of retrogaming by picking up a NES and, not long after, a SNES.
Which is to say that there was a period of my life these games belonged to. Both of them were admittedly on the tricky end. Mega Man X3 was late enough in the SNES lifecycle that it was a relatively rare cartridge that coust upwards of $40 – I didn’t get to it until college when I’m pretty sure I drove upwards of forty-five minutes to a Gamestop that had one. Rockman and Forte, on the other hand, was originally an emulation concern – I remember playing it on the eOne my mother had bought on a lark, which probably means in early 2000. (I remember being baffled by a bug where jumping would simply fail on occasion, which I finally, after extensive testing, traced to the cheap keyboard that shipped with the flagrant iMac knockoff, which was apparently wired so that a particular key combination that was common when playing a side-scroller with the arrow keys would lock out a handful of other keys.) Eventually, though, I got a proper console version off eBay after discovering that the region-locking for the SNES versus the Super Famicom literally consisted of two plastic tabs in the console slot that would slide into grooves cut into the back of US cartridges but block Japanese cartridges that lacked the grooves, and that these tabs could be snapped off with a few minutes and a pair of needlenose pliers.
These games weren’t just idle pastimes for those years either. I threw myself into exploring the secret history that was the late SNES period with aplomb. (This was also when I got around to Chrono Trigger and Donkey Kong Country, as well as, actually, Act Raiser.) I must have played through Rockman & Forte a good half-dozen times over a few year period, in part driven by the fact that it really is an appreciably different game with each of its two playable characters, but mostly just by the sheer novelty of their being a “secret” Mega Man game I hadn’t known about. And I was solidly invested in the Mega Man X series up through 2001 when my hope that the nostalgic allusions of X4 (actually a pretty decent Playstation game) and X5 (rather less so) finally broke upon the rocks of Mega Man X6, a game I remember nothing about save for a villain whose head looked like a roll of toilet paper and my description of it at the time as “so bad it made me want to go outside.”
But if I’m being honest, and after a frustrating couple of hours with these games this week I kind of have to be, neither of these games were that good. Mega Man X3 fooled me – I was surprised, going back to it, how drearily frustrating it was, having remembered it as a fun little sidescroller. But in truth it’s a game with literally no ambitions beyond being the tenth console Mega Man game and slotting between Mega Man X2 and X4 in its own series.As for Rockman and Forte, much as I played it to death I knew it was a bit shit even at the time. It was pretty – easily some of the best graphics the SNES ever had, but it continued the overtly cartoonish style of Mega Man 7 and 8, and as a result felt sluggish and clumsy, in sharp contrast to the crispness of the NES series or, for that matter, the X series. The bosses were at once overly difficult and irritatingly one-note. And yet of the two it actually acquits itself better in hindsight, driven as it is by a sense of earned nostalgia by dint of being a Super Famicom game released in 1998. Where X3 feels like dusting off the old warhorse for one more sales cycle, Rockman and Forte feels like a labor of love, which helps even when it gets a bit clunky. It also benefits from the oddity of playing as Forte/Bass instead of Mega Man, where the addition of rapid fire and a double jump coupled with the removal of the series-basic ability to move and fire at the same time made for a pleasantly jarring experience.
But the fact that we have to use the phrase “pleasantly jarring” speaks volumes about the state of affairs here. Recall that the thing that made Yoshi’s Island stand out, after all, was its stubborn refusal to resemble a Mario game. Its appeal, in other words, was that there hadn’t really been a platformer about throwing eggs and flutter jumping. Despite the fact that egg-throwing and flutter jumping is in most regards an inferior mechanic to a standard “run and jump on their heads” mechanic or even good old run and gun it still sparkled for the simple fact that the side-scrolling video game was tired. It had been the dominant mode of play for a decade now. And games at this point were basically just reskinning old enemy types and old level designs and hoping nobody would notice. Which was generally a lost cause, especially in the Mega Man series. I mean, Cold Man? Burner Man? Volt Catfish? At least when Castlevania is obviously out of ideas it just kind of sucks. Mega Man can’t help but announce it in as loud a voice as possible.
It’s not a surprise, then, that Mega Man X3 appealed to me in the period it did, because my interests in gaming at that point were nostalgic bordering on reactionary. I had a clear sense of not belonging to video games as they stood at that point, and retreated to the familiar territory of the past, exploring the corners of it that I had missed when they happened in lieu of the future as it unfolded. But the entire point of the appeal was that this was something that had ended.
Its end, to be clear, wasn’t some nefarious victory on the part of Nemesis. Nemesis didn’t win any more than the Nintendo era lost. They just ended, because that’s what things do when they get old. Because they ran out and time moved on. Every cartridge ends up crushed and buried in Kleio’s landfill eventually. That’s what the upgrade curve means.
But if that’s not a value judgment, than the decline of the side-scroller in its latter days can’t be taken as one either. These games are not signs of some decadent bloat – a has-been hanging on a little too long. They are merely the explorations of a vanishing continent – routes traced along an eroding shore. From here you can all but count the number of tides before it’s washed away. What is there to begrudge in one last stroll around the grounds?