25 April 2016

Back when I was a kid, the only computer our family had was a Mac, first an old Performa 5200 and then an iMac G4. So, my first forays into gaming were done on consoles.

First there was the NES that my older half-brother had left behind when he had moved out of the house. And then the SNES that my brother had received as a birthday gift in a bundle that also included Donkey Kong Country. And then another bundle for my brother, this time Mario Kart 64 with the appropriate device for running it. And then we both scraped all our spare change and got a GameCube, in a bundle with Super Mario Sunshine. Come to think of it, there were a lot of bundles in my childhood.

During my studies at the University of Sherbrooke, I used a MabBook Pro as my main work computer, so, again, I was still mostly gaming on a console, this time a PS3 because I sure as hell wasn’t gonna be touching a Wii with a 10 foot pole. When I finished my studies, got a job and finally got really financially independent, I got my hands on an actual PC, and I’ve been doing most of my gaming on then since. I got a Wii U some months ago, but as it stands it’s still mostly a Netflix machine, at least until the next Zelda comes out.

As far as mobile gaming goes, I have a 3DS gathering dust somewhere, and my smartphone is mostly used for texting and the occasional browse of Facebook and Twitter. Really, I’m not much of a mobile user. I prefer to sit still when it comes to that.

A trip down memory lane

We weren’t big purchasers of games in my family, and therefore most of the games I had the chance to play during my childhood were actually rented at a local video store. Every weekend we would ask one of our parents to drive us there so we could pick one of two games to play. At the end of the weekend we would have to bring everything back, and the next week we would go back and hope our save file hadn’t been overwritten in the mean time.

Another issue was that at the time, the overwhelming majority of games sold and distributed in Quebec would be American versions. And since both me and my brother had a very shoddy grasp of English back then, we really had to blindly blunder through the games’ stories. In many cases that wasn’t an issue, as even back then game storytelling was, well, minimalistic, but sometimes it was prohibitive. It’s good that Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, like every 3D Zelda afterwards, focuses a lot on body language and cinematography to convey meaning, since it meant I could infer what was being said based on what the camera was being pointed at, and how everyone was moving in the scene. It’s actually something I’ve noticed quite a lot with Twilight Princess, and I’ll probably write about it at a later time.

But we soldiered on, animated by a mix of boredom and self-reinforcing feedback loops, consuming so many games, I lost count. A lot of them were average. Several of them were mediocre. Some of them were great. And a few of them were brilliant. And many of them had a lasting impact on me and contributed to who I am today.

Interestingly, my brother quickly lost interest in gaming as a whole as he grew up. But he never lost his competitive edge. To this day, it is somewhat of a cosmic rule that he shall be able to utterly fuck me up in any multiplayer game in which he manages to sink some amount of time. League of Legends, Smash Bros, Perfect Dark… the second he gets serious about a game, he starts wrecking my shit. But my tastes have always been in the single player story-focused adventures. Multiplayer is only a small sliver of what I spend my time in, and most of the time I really prefer to play with myself. If I do play online, it’s going to be with friends I know in real life, mostly as a pretext for saying stupid shit. But no, my enjoyment usually lies elsewhere. And that’s fine, really. To each their own.

Let’s go back to my childhood. At first I was afraid of sucking at them and I didn’t want people to judge me. My father actively pushed me towards playing Super Mario Bros. because he felt that this was something I had to get over. Back then I liked playing games, but it was just a very engrossing pastime to me, a distraction. And then we moved to the SNES, and oh boy did that change. It’s at this very moment that I decided I wanted to make games. I didn’t know how, and I sure as hell didn’t know where to look for that, but I still wanted to. A lot of great games, like Ocarina of Time or Metroid Prime, later on cemented my belief that this was my true calling. And then I started studying computer science and I realized that I like writing code quite a lot. So I started coding at a games company.

But all of that started with one particular game. One very important game, one that made me understand how games were important and how they had to be cherished as a medium. One game that came out very close to 20 years ago. Do you know what it is? There’s an hint in the very title of this article.

It’s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

Happy adventure, delightful adventure

SMRPG is, to me, the definitive role playing game of not only the SNES but also the entire fourth generation. Its graphics, sounds, story and design are all best-in-class. Now, it’s not the only JRPG I like. There’s EarthBound and its sequel, there’s Chrono Trigger, a few Final Fantasy games, and obviously the other Mario RPGs, especially the absolutely stellar Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which I probably consider to be my favorite JRPG ever. But since SMRPG came first, I have to give it bonus points, at least for its historical importance. And while I would probaly have still went in game development without that, it’s still interesting to consider that there was indeed a fairly early turning point in my personal history. Maybe it was faith.

SMRPG was an interesting case. It features quite a bit of action compared to its contemporaries, with platforming being a core part of its gameplay outside of combat and being able to carefully time button presses an essential ability to master. While it isn’t very challenging, at least compared to the teeth clenching JRPGs released near the same period, it still delivers its share of hectic moments.

But the most important part of SMRPG is how it stands as a very powerful deconstruction both of the JRPG genre and the Mario series, a tradition that has followed with every other Mario RPG since. Playing it, it’s almost as if everyone who had worked on it had something to say about what they had worked on before. It’s clear they wanted to create something unique, and they succeeded.

On May 13th is going to be the 20th anniversary of the game’s North American release. To comemorate, I’m going to be streaming it, from the opening cutscene to the end credits. It won’t be a speedrun; it’ll be a marathon. I’m going to go at my own rhythm, as I see it, with the only rule being that I’m not allowed to go to sleep until the game is complete. Shouldn’t take more than 10 hours, to be honest. I’ll try to be entertaining and interesting the whole time. However, if you want to come and watch, please keep in mind that I’ll be streaming in French, although you can still ask a question in English and I’ll answer it in that language.

The event will happen, starting at 10:00 EST (that’s UTC-5 for you European folks), on my Twitch channel.

Oh, and even if you don’t want to watch, feel free to play the game! It’s on the Wii’s Virtual Console in all regions, and on the Wii U’s VC in Europe and Japan. And you can always just play it on a PC, considering the SNES is one of the easier platforms to emulate, but you didn’t hear that from me.

Let’s all rejoice in that beautiful game, hmm?