Pokémon Gold and Silver, and my brother, were first released into the world on the same day: November 21st, 1999. They are 20 years old now. The existence of both is intrinsic to my development as a person, and in some ways the experience with each is intertwined, so on their mutual birthday, I’d like to reflect on why they are special entities—one to the history of games, one to the history of my family, and both important to me.
Like many other millions of people, I became a fan of Pokémon in 1998 as it hit the West. I also wanted a brother that year; it upset me that Father Christmas hadn’t delivered one and put him under the tree on Christmas Day. I was enthralled by the idea of having a sibling, because raising a brother who would enjoy the same things as me—especially Pokémon—would be ideal. I wanted a brother as a pet, essentially. In the same way that Professor Elm gives you a starter Pokémon as a pet to take care of at the beginning of Gold and Silver.
“The ascension from pet to genuine partner is a core tenet of Pokémon Gold and Silver“
Taking care of that pet is the crux of the Pokémon Gold and Silver. Absent is the world-ending story involving Legendary Pokémon that would thematically drive the next few games in the series—Team Rocket is here to bring former boss Giovanni back into the fold, making money along the way, while Lugia and Ho-Oh are essentially optional dungeons. Therefore, what really defines Gold and Silver’s playing experience is the relationship between you and your Pokémon, particularly your starter Pokémon.
Together you traverse two entire regions, and that extended period of time in each other’s company forges an indelible bond. You would never get anywhere at all without your Pokémon beside you, let alone become champion. That’s true of all Pokémon games, but in Gold and Silver, that feeling is accentuated, because you are genuinely lonesome without your Pokémon. Sure, you get the odd phone-call from your mum telling you that “she’s rooting for you” or a certain child who wants to brag about their top quality Rattata, but even in victory or thwarting Team Rocket, there is anonymity to your achievements. All the non-playable characters have their own lives, hardly any of the dialogue and interactions change. There is a lack of recognition (this has since changed in the series, the latest games, Sword and Shield, have crowds cheering you on like you’re Gary Oak).
Travelling over from Johto to Kanto in the post-game is done incognito. Even fewer people know who you are, and the most minor of plotting to provide momentum (recovering a stolen generator part for the power station), means that Kanto is a wilderness where you are free to do as you please. This may be the truest expression of Pokémon’s exploration, but it is quiet and virtually friendless. It’s fitting that the final test is to ascend Mount Silver and be met with the silence of the preceding game’s protagonist, Red, as he challenges you to battle, and then says nothing when you win. Pokémon Gold and Silver’s solitude could easily be a disconsolate affair. Or it would be, were it not for the knowledge that you have your Pokémon partners beside you. Your reliance and trust in one another become paramount to both your enjoyment of the expedition and your general survival. Moreover, the knowledge that you are together weathers you through the rough.
Thus I don’t believe it was coincidental that Gold and Silver’s remakes were the first games in the main series to let your partner Pokémon follow you. The ascension from pet to genuine partner is a core tenet of Pokémon Gold and Silver, one that has been carried through the franchise to today: in Pokémon Sword and Shield, a character remarks that the final evolution of Pokémon is to find its place amongst a group of friends. Of course Blue and Red had partner Pokémon, but the colour palettes and the refinement of designs gave the Pokémon in Gold and Silver greater personality. In doing so, it allowed for greater ascribing of feeling to pixels and data; forming the emotional link is the essence and draw of Pokémon. And with the addition of eggs and breeding, the games really captured the idea of mutual growth.
That is also true of my brother and me. He crawled and then walked, following me everywhere, and while I initially operated under the assumption that he would be the Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote, he soon asserted his own person, and thus we became partners in brotherhood (he still does kindly go along with some of my more madcap ideas, though with the same incredulity and commentary as Panza does in Cervantes’ novels). To draw more parallels, we’ve lived across many continents, often with few other people to depend on. In the most emotionally and physically gruelling times, the only thing that kept me going was coming home and listening to his stories and fervent excitement about school. Even now, a phone-call immeasurably brightens my day or brings me out of an emotional fugue state.
I’d like to claim I’ve done the same for him, but truthfully, in the same way a trainer can’t fight in his Pokémon’s stead, our relationship was never quite equal in childhood. This is not to say that my parents played favourites or that I mistreated him. Our relationship could never be entirely symbiotic, because I am disabled.
I have Cerebral Palsy and it physically affects my balance, fine motor skills, and coordination, which only deteriorate with fatigue. Playing video games can be tricky. However, as a child, it also affected my pattern recognition and spatial awareness. I could speak from a very young age and knew my letters and numbers, but I was unable to read. I’d obfuscate it by oral eloquence, but I had no sequencing capability for word combinations. Instead, I’d just memorise everything my parents read to me, remembering the shape of whole words, rather than building the ability to construct them from letters and syllables in unfamiliar situations.
That is where Pokémon Gold and Silver, specifically Silver, played an extremely formative role in my development. I was keen on the anime and my friends at the time often played Blue and Red, so when Silver was released in English, I was desperate to play it. My parents thought the Gameboy Color’s simplified controls, particularly the D-Pad, would help with practicing my coordination, while still forgiving inaccuracies.
In this, they were right. However, there was a second benefit: it forced me to construct words from syllables, because the portmanteaus that make up Pokémon names are unique.
Learning to read for myself through Pokémon was a trial, however. I didn’t know that you were meant to give proper nicknames to Pokémon, so my Cyndaquil was called “HQ” because I liked the letters. Worse, I couldn’t read the word “Save”, so I spent months replaying the same parts over and over, sometimes picking Totodile, occasionally Chikorita, but always coming back to Cyndaquil as my partner.
The most important aspect of Gold and Silver in those nascent stages of reading comprehension was that the colours of each Pokémon roughly corresponded to their elemental type. So even as I struggled to read, I was able to roughly deduce their advantages and weaknesses, like a colour wheel, because this franchise is the world’s best-selling edition of “rock-paper-scissors”. In this way, with the help of the television series, I aggregated connections and associations between the monsters and their names. Perhaps this is partly why I feel such affinity for them beyond the aforementioned personalities expressed in their sprites, although I only can appreciate this with hindsight.
The physical side of my Cerebral Palsy still had to be addressed though. I was diagnosed late, so during the early years of my brother’s life, a lot of attention that would have been given to him necessarily had to be given over to me. My parents still spent a significant time with him individually, paying attention to him as they had done with me, but it was integrated into the routines of my physiotherapy sessions or the sports I did to keep my muscles supple. For his part, my brother never minded, following me once again and joining in, taking to the various fields of sports with gusto.
Consequently, he developed a significant level of athleticism and capability across a broad range of sports. The net benefit is there, but I can never truly repay him for the acceptance he showed at that young age. Not to diminish my parents’ sacrifices or their role in navigating us not feeling neglected, but sibling relationships can be complicated, and had he resented me then, we’d probably have a fractious relationship now, rather than firm brotherhood.
That binding love was partly nurtured playing Pokémon Silver together. Nearly two years and seven gyms later, I could read, but my pattern recognition was still debilitated. After restarting the game in frustration over not being able to figure out the puzzle navigating the Ice Path, I named the player character after my brother instead, deciding that this would be his play-through. He’d spent time patiently and curiously watching me play up to now, and I thought it was time he had a go.
Well, in theory. What ostensibly was his turn didn’t deter me from “guiding” him through by playing for him, because he couldn’t read either (thankfully just because he was still a toddler). Eventually, like a traded Pokémon refusing to obey its trainer beyond a certain level, he decided that my domination was enough, and he would play alone. That was a turning point in our brotherhood. We had always played peacefully together and shared all our toys (he’d commandeered most of my cars and I’d given him the soft toy rabbit he loved sleeping with), but we had been inseparable.
The issue is that my role as the older brother had always imposed a de facto leadership. While he certainly had controlled the games we played (I would always defer to his suggestions of how games would be played), it wasn’t a truly equal dynamic. That pivotal moment of declaring his ownership of his Pokémon run-through engendered me to respect the freedom he needed to be his own person. And honestly, if I’m permitted to be publicly sentimental, what an amazing person he has since become.
My parents wisely decided to not test the limits of my magnanimity however, and with the release of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, I got upgraded to Sapphire and my brother inherited Pokémon Silver. So we played our respective games alone, but together. In later years we’d play through FireRed and LeafGreen simultaneously, then Emerald, the Ranger and Mystery Dungeon games, Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, and finally Black and White. By the time Black and White 2 came around, I was off to university, and so that is when our days of playing Pokémon together trailed off.
We’re both at university now in completely different fields, but when I think back to the experience of him playing Pokémon Silver and me playing Pokémon Sapphire, that notion of doing things alone, but emotionally being together embodies a lot of our relationship now. It allows us to be hundreds of kilometres apart, but still want to pick up the phone and chat. When we’re both home during the holidays, we’ll often potter around by ourselves. At this stage of life, there is supreme comfort in just knowing that the other person is present. I am obviously biased, but it’s the mark of a genuinely supportive relationship.
I came across the game-cart of Pokémon Silver during the summer break. It’s probably the single-most influential part of my gaming history. But it would ultimately mean far less—as would all aspects of my life—without having had my brother alongside me to share it with. When I look back at Pokémon Silver, my memories are tied, in-game and out, to ones of communal experiences, of partnership, of brotherhood.
To Pokémon Gold and Silver, and my brother, I love you both and wouldn’t be who I am without you. Happy Birthday.
20 Years Later: ‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’ Revolutionized Gaming in 1999
Games that Changed Our Lives
A month before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released in August of 1999, Tony Hawk had become the first skateboarder to land a “900”, pulling off the completion of two-and-a-half mid-air revolutions. It took the skateboarding legend 11 tries, but he finally landed the “impossible”. It was a monumental moment that stunned everyone watching and launched the sport into popular consciousness. After this personal victory, Tony Hawk retired from competition.
By the time he retired Tony Hawk had pretty much done it all as a professional skateboarder, winning over 70 tournaments, launching his own company and appearing in several movies including Thrashin and Gleaming the Cube (both of which found a dedicated cult following on home video). Now fresh into his retirement, Hawk was about to find new fame in the form of a video game.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was a Phenomenon
In 1999 Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released at the perfect time. Sure he was no longer competing in professional tournaments but skateboarding was reaching new heights in popularity thanks to skateboarding wizards like Rodney Mullen and Bucky Lasek and homemade DIY VHS tapes that were passed around in the underground scene, reaching thousands of skaters across the county who could learn the dangerous tricks their peers were pulling off. And just as skateboarding was undergoing a resurgence worldwide, the original Playstation was dominating the video game market.
If you were young enough to witness that historic moment at the 1999 Summer X Games, you’ll understand why Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was such a huge deal at the time. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater wasn’t just a game when it was released twenty years ago – it was a worldwide phenomenon— and for my friends and I who spent the majority of their free time playing video games and skateboarding after school, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was something we just needed to own. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater pushed Sony’s console even further into the mainstream and thinking back, I can easily count at least ten of my friends who went out of their way to buy a Playstation just so they could get their hands on the game.
A Brief History
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater wasn’t the first of its kind. Prior to its release, several skateboarding games could be found both in the arcades and on home consoles, but Tony Hawks Pro Skater was different — dare I say, it was ahead of its time. Atari may have kicked off the genre with the now legendary 720 Degrees and Electronic Arts may have developed one of the best early skateboarding games Skate or Die, but regardless of their success, it was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that would take the genre into the realm of 3D, cementing itself as a pioneer of modern sports video games while popularizing skateboarding amongst a new generation.
Skateboarding may have grown out of California’s surf scene in the 1970s but as skateboarding tricks became increasingly challenging, the sport’s popularity exploded in the late ‘90s. Activision wanted to cash in on the action and so they contracted the studio Neversoft and asked if they were interested in making a skate game. Although Neversoft had never developed a sports video game before, the development team was confident they could accomplish the task before its given deadline by recycling assets from Apocalypse, a 3D multidirectional third-person shooter starring Bruce Willis. Instead of making a skateboarding game with linear level design and a racing mentality, Neversoft opted for a more open-ended approach with a focus on performing tricks and stunts, and to help sell the game Activision contacted the biggest name in the sport.
Looking back twenty years later, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is fairly rudimentary and lacks the polish and features of later instalments but it’s clear that the reason for its success is that the development team clearly knew a thing or two about skateboarding culture – and having the world’s most popular skateboard by your side didn’t hurt either. Hawk was impressed by the design team’s devotion to skateboarding and the fact that some of the members were actual skateboarders themselves – and those who weren’t helped build a backyard skatepark to learn how to skate. Hawk would spend countless hours with at Neversoft studios playing through the game’s builds and providing feedback. Eventually, he would select a group of other professional skaters to include as playable characters and each skater agreed of course since they received a cut of the royalties and could select their own attire and special trick for the game.
Setting a New Bar
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater set a pretty high standard for the genre, and sports games in general. The game features ten real-life pro skaters (including my personal favourite Bucky Lasek), Officer Dick, a bonus character for players who %100 completed the game with a single character— and Private Carrera who is unlockable only with a cheat code. Beyond that, each skater has eight grabs, eight slides, and eight flips and three special tricks that can only be performed while your special meter is full. There are plenty of special tricks too including the 540 Board Varial, the 360 Shove It Rewind, Christ Air, the Judo Madonna and even the 900 was added at the eleventh hour drawing from footage of Hawk’s famed performance of the feat a month earlier. The fluid control scheme and level design are pretty impressive for the time — as is the game’s graphics which made all other skateboarding games look archaic. And, like future installments, the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater is packed with different modes, a total of nine levels, and tapes (objectives) that unlock more levels, equipment, and competition invites. There’s so much crammed into the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater that it is arguably one the games of that generation I sunk the most hours into.
And let’s not forget the soundtrack…
I can’t think of a game before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to utilize licensed songs by bands for its soundtrack— and not just any bands, we’re talking Dead Kennedys, Goldfinger, Primus and The Vandals— the sort of music my friends and I listened to. And because music has always been a gateway to skateboarding, it was important to select the right tracks in order to amplify the game’s authenticity. Twenty years later, the ten-song soundtrack is still revered by many as one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time with Goldfinger’s “Superman” often referred to as the game’s unofficial theme song. Even more impressive is how they managed to put together the entire soundtrack for roughly $30,000, an absolute steal since usually, just one song will cost you more.
There’s a reason we named Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater the best game of 1999. As my colleague, Alex Aldridge wrote, “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is as much a time capsule as it is a video game. It’s a remnant of an era when the millennium was young, life was rad, the future was irrelevant, and goofing off was life.” It made Tony Hawk a household name and set in stone a franchise that would last longer than it should – and while Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater hasn’t aged particularly well, it’s an important game for an entire generation and for guys like me who hoped that with practice, we might be able to replicate the on-screen daredevil tricks in real life.
Neversoft hit the ball out of the park with the very first Tony Hawk Pro Skater. It made gaming “cool” and it bridged the gap between my skater friends and gamer friends. Much like Street Fighter II (something I wrote about), Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater changed my life in many ways. It reignited a passion for gaming and reunited me with friends as it became an after school go-to for almost everyone my age. And for someone who was mostly known as a Nintendo nerd, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater sparked my love for the Playstation brand in general.
Does anyone remember the commercial?
‘Earthbound’ is one of the Weirdest, Most Surreal Video Games
25 Years later…
Games that Changed Our Lives
The SNES is arguably home to some of the best Japanese role-playing games ever made, but even among such revered company, Earthbound (known as Mother 2 in Japan) stands out as a brilliant satire about growing up and our fears of conformity. It’s anarchy versus conformity, only conformity doesn’t stand a chance.
EarthBound has been often compared to Catcher in the Rye with its complex issues of identity, belonging, loss, connection, and alienation. Blistering, hallucinatory, often brilliant, Earthbound is a one-two punch of social satire and a hilarious ride into the twisted recesses of a boy’s psyche. This often funny, always poignant coming of age tale, deeply embedded in suburban mores, centers around four kids, off to save the planet by collecting melodies while en route to defeating the evil alien force known as Giygas.
Earthbound didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it sure had fun twisting the usual JRPG tropes. There’s a princess you must rescue, not once, but twice, who’s really just a child prodigy, and there’s an arch nemesis who turns out to be your next-door neighbour. The game puts you in the shoes of a young boy named Ness as he investigates a nearby meteorite crash. There, he learns that Giygas, has enveloped the world in hatred and consequently turned animals, humans, and inanimate objects into dangerous creatures. A bee from the future instructs Ness to collect melodies in a Sound Stone to preemptively stop Giygas from destroying the planet. While visiting eight Sanctuaries, Ness partners with three other kids, a psychic girl (Paula), an eccentric inventor (Jeff), and the prince of the kingdom of Dalaam (Poo). Along the way are underlining themes of corrupt politicians, post-traumatic stress, corporate greed, depression, capitalism, police violence, terrorist attacks, homosexuality, religious cults, and xenophobia. Your adventures take you through modern cities, prehistoric villages, cold winter climates, a desert wasteland, monkey caves, swamps, dinosaur museums, and even a yellow submarine.
“Ness, you’ve stood on the eight power spots of the earth. From these, you created Magicant, the realm of your mind.”
A pivotal moment in the game comes after collecting all eight melodies with the Sound Stone. After Ness has taken control of his Sanctuaries, Ness visits, Magicant, a surreal location that exists only in his mind and contains his warmest memories and his worst fears – an allegory perhaps, for how the entire game allows us to see into the mind of the creator. There, Ness must face his dark side. A man tells him, “Magicant is a place where you must cleanse yourself of the evil hidden within your mind. Take the time to look around, it is your mind after all.”
EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game.
The tone of Earthbound is perhaps its most fascinating attribute, best exemplified by its most famous quote: “There are many difficult times ahead, but you must keep your sense of humor.” Earthbound skillfully surprises you with a reservoir of emotion and sentiment that happily counters the game’s trendy ironic veneer. Along the way, Ness visits the cultists of Happy Happy Village (based on a real-life Japanese doomsday cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984); their mission statement is to paint the town red by literally painting it blue. You’ll fight a watchful puddle of vomit and battle through the zombie-infested town of Threed. You’ll use a peculiar device called the Pencil Eraser to remove statues of pencils that block you from advancing through specific areas, and you’ll suffer through terrifying hallucinations of your family and friends, and be asked to dismember your arms and legs, or otherwise, lose your mind. In one of the game’s most memorable moments, Paula is kidnapped by the Department Store Spook, an unseen entity that resides in the town’s shopping mall. And after defeating Frank Fly and his evil creation Frankystein Mark II, you’ll be escorted to the back of a police precinct, only to be assaulted by four officers and Captain Strong, the chief of the Onett police force. Defeat the corrupt cops and you’ll gain access to the second town you’ll visit (named TWOson, so as not to be confused with Onett, Threed, and Fourside). And when entering a cave, you’ll battle five moles made up of members who each believe themselves to be the third-most powerful of their group. Then there is backwards city Moonside, a warped mirror image of Fourside, that hides a secret more terrifying than the town itself. Just walking around feels like something between an out-of-body experience and a nightmarish trance, in which abstract art attacks you and the psychedelic imagery, lit by gaudy fluorescent neon-lights which contrasts the entire look and feel of what came before. It’s a city where yes means no and no means yes; a place where blond-haired business men teleport you across the city blocks and where an invisible man with a unibrow and a gold tooth gets you past the sketchy sailor hiding out in the back alley.
Throughout the game, Ness is repeatedly antagonized by his neighbor, Pokey, who resurfaces several times, and countless other enemies including Titanic Ant, professional thief Mr. Everdred, and a glorious evil statue Mani, Mani. But the real big bad of the game is the aforementioned Giygas, a.k.a. The “Embodiment of Evil” and the “Universal Cosmic Destroyer”, who intends to sentence all of reality to the horror of infinite darkness. Giygas borrows heavily from Stephen King’s It and was inspired by a murder scene from the black-and-white Japanese horror film The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty – a sequence which scarred creator Shigesato Itoi, when he accidentally watched the film as a child. Giygas is without question, the most disturbing, and strangest end-boss villain of any Super NES game – a character so deranged, there’s been hundreds of fan theories about what he really is.
While EarthBound’s overall gameplay feels like a traditional Japanese RPG of the era, the game is full of ingenious ideas that buck genre trends. EarthBound also makes no apologies for being very difficult to complete. It takes days to finish and is most challenging at the beginning when Ness travels alone and hasn’t yet powered-up. Inventory space remains incredibly limited since each character can only carry a certain amount of items and you can’t drop many of the items since they will come in handy later in the game. Boosting your XP is a must, otherwise, you won’t stand a chance in defeating any boss; and currency is also important when buying new weapons or visiting the hospital to attend to fatal injuries. Money must be withdrawn from the nearest ATM, deposited by your estranged father, and a bedtime snack from your loving mother sends you off to bed to recharge your stats. There are other refreshing deviations from RPG tropes, and every one of the four characters has a specific skill-set.
Earthbound is a strange game, themed around an idiosyncratic portrayal of American culture from a Japanese point of view. The game subverted popular role-playing game traditions by featuring a real-world setting while playing with various staples of the genre and adding a number of pop-culture references throughout. The Japanese title was inspired by the song of the same name by John Lennon – a song about growing up without a father for most of his life, and unsurprising, Ness’ dad is never once seen, and only communicates with his son via telephone. And that’s not the only Beatles reference you’ll see: EarthBound makes two additional nods to the world’s greatest band, along with allusions to Bugs Bunny, comedian Benny Hill, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, the Blues Brothers, Monopoly (Monotoli), Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Rambo, Mr. T, and The Who, to name a few. Written, directed, and created by famous Japanese personality Shigesato Itoi; this is surely his love letter to 20th-century Americana.
Localizing Earthbound was a massive undertaking. Under directives from Nintendo, Marcus Lindblom worked with the Japanese artists and programmers to remove references to intellectual property, religion, and alcohol from the American release, such as the Coca-Cola logo and the red crosses on hospitals (due to issues with the Red Cross). Alcohol became coffee, Ness was no longer walking around nude in the Magicant area and the Happy Happyist blue cultists sprites were altered to look less like Ku Klux Klansmen. The Runaway Five members’ outfits were changed to make them look less like the Blues Brothers, and the “Sky Walker” was changed to the “Sky Runner” to avoid the Star Wars reference. Apollo Theater was changed to Topolla Theater, presumably to avoid issues with the real-life venue and the use of the word drug, seen on the various town maps was removed or changed. The list goes on and on…
Chock full of odd charm and humour in a genre that usually takes itself a little too serious, Earthbound is one of the weirdest, most surreal video games you’ll ever have fun playing.
The game had a lengthy development spanning five years and involved a number of Japanese luminaries, including writer Shigesato Itoi, songwriter Keiichi Suzuki, sound designer Hirokazu Tanaka, and future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Released in a huge box-set that contained a strategy guide with scratch-and-sniff stickers, Earthbound came with a $2 million marketing campaign derived from the game’s unusual brand of humor. As part of Nintendo’s “Play It Loud” campaign, EarthBound’s tagline read, “this game stinks.” Earthbound was proud to one of the most bizarre RPGs – and it didn’t shy away from its offbeat premise. Unfortunately, the game was met with poor critical response and sales in the United States, but as the years went by, the game received wide acclaim and was deemed by many a timeless classic. It has since become one of the most sought-after games in the second-hand market, selling for upwards of $80 for the cartridge alone. Holding onto an incredibly dedicated cult following, the main character Ness became a featured character in the Super Smash Bros. series and in 2013, EarthBound was reissued and given a worldwide release for the Wii U Virtual Console following many years of fan lobbying.
EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game. There are two extremely popular fan-made sites dedicated to the game (Starmen.net, EarthboundCentral), and dozens of other sites have devoted countless hours in translating the sequel for English-speaking audiences. Earthbound was ahead of its time when released and its influence continues to be felt, inspiring the likes of Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Majora’s Mask, Chibi Robo, Retro City Rampage, and South Park: The Stick of Truth.
While Earthbound’s game mechanics stick to the traditional JRPG template, its surreal world, imaginative locals, and experimental soundtrack created a truly unique experience. Nothing stands out quite like its visual style – an 8-bit presentation powered by a 16-bit processor. The graphics might not be as advanced as some of the other 16-bit titles available on the SNES, but it is certainly among the most memorable. The SNES was home to some amazing soundtracks, but EarthBound’s soundtrack remains the best. Created by four composers, there’s enough music here to fill 8 of the 24 megabits on the cartridge – with direct musical quotations of classical tune and folk music, and a few samples culled from commercial pop and rock. It also contains one of the very best endings in any video game, a touching climax that captures the vulnerability and beauty of adolescence and the power of friendship. And the punctuation mark comes during the credits. Throughout the game, you’ll cross paths several times with a photographer who descends from the sky and snaps a photograph of your most recent achievement. These pictures will roll throughout the credits, serving as a makeshift montage of your time spent playing the game. And be sure to stay until the very end. To say more would be giving away the surprise.
I can’t think of another game as irreverently comic and deeply touching as Earthbound. Here is a game that resonates long after completion, and oozes originality in just about every frame. Ness may rock his sweet ball cap, handy backpack, telekinetic powers, and a trusty baseball bat, but even this hero needs to call his mom regularly, otherwise, he may suddenly find himself useless in battle. Earthbound stands, sweet and strong, outrageous and quirky, like its heroes — it’s about the loss of innocence as well as gaining wisdom – and is one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed. While it suffers from a slow start and stretched premise, the charm of its cast debunking an intergalactic conspiracy goes a long way. Of all the games I own on the Super NES, Earthbound is the game I treasure the most and the game that made me fall in love with the medium.
– Ricky D
Exploring the Grieving Process in ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’
Games that Changed Our Lives
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 11, 2018.
When someone says, “that game changed my life,” the first thing some people think of is that it changed their life in a grandiose way—in a way that stuck with them well into adulthood. Or maybe in a way that changed their perception of a certain kind of game or games as a whole. I wonder how many people people think of that statement on a smaller scale, a scale that registers for only a brief moment on someone’s timeline, but powerful enough to have a lasting, cathartic effect.
What Remains of Edith Finch is that kind of game for me: my catharsis. It came out at just the right time when I needed a gateway into the grieving process. On May 4, my grandmother, my last living grandparent, died. I’d experienced loss before, but not that of a close family member.
We knew it was coming. Ever since her bowel obstruction operation in March she refused to eat. To drink. To do anything. My mom was able to get her outside once, and I was lucky to get her to take a bite of orange sorbet. But, then she started getting irritable. Not in the usual way that was part of her personality thanks to her Brooklyn upbringing by two “old-country” Italian immigrants. She started swatting at the nurses, their arms, their faces, at any part of their body within reach. She started to cry hysterically without prompting. After a day or two of that, the nurses started my grandmother on a regiment of morphine and Ativan.
The last time I saw my grandmother, the robotic whirs and hisses of the breathing machine did little to mute the rattle that escaped her lungs when she exhaled. Her eyes were unfocused, drifting off to some point in the room, her mind focused on breathing. I held her hand while it was still warm. I told her I loved her. Her hearing aids were on her nightstand.
A few days later she was gone.
I cried a little bit during the 48 hours we were in Santa Barbara for her rosary and funeral, but it was mostly reactionary crying: when I looked over at my mom. I didn’t really start grieving until I played What Remains of Edith Finch about a month later. When you play a game that’s all about death and you’ve just lost someone close to you, I imagine it would hit anyone hard. But, What Remains of Edith Finch paralleled my life in a few unexpected ways: how Edith knew stories about family she never met, and her family cemetery. I can visit my relatives and ancestors in a similar way that Edith could walk into the backyard of her childhood home and see it sectioned off with headstones. This is how I learned stories about the family I never met. My first memory is in the cemetery where my grandmother is now buried, in the same plot as her husband, my grandfather; I was a two-year-old in the middle of a frolicking euphoria, not paying attention to where I was skipping, and I stepped right into my grandfather’s in-ground, plastic vase that my mom just filled with water.
Twice a year since then, my grandmother, mother, brother, and I made what my mom called “The Graveyard Shift” to Santa Barbara to put flowers on his grave, stopping in Glendale first to visit my grandmother’s sister, who died six months prior to my grandfather. Every trip my grandmother had the same things to say to them. To her sister, she’d say, “Lu, I hope you’re watching over us,” and to her husband, “You better save some room for me.” Or point out that my great Aunt is the reason I was able to go to college, and how she convinced my mother to put that inheritance away so I could go to college. My mother would generally bring up how she remembered the two sisters fighting all the time while growing up. Va fungool-this and stunado-that; the first foreign language I learned was Italian.
I didn’t get to know much about my great Aunt, aside from how she loved gold, gaudy jewelry and that my grandmother never liked either of her husbands. I got to know my grandfather well, though: how he and my grandmother compromised on getting dogs if they stayed outside in the yard; how my mother developed her love of jet skiing because he took her out on the lake as a kid; how he loved to spend a bit of time at a local cafe after work, drinking and smoking with the men he worked with from the newspaper press—a classic, mid-century man.
Because of these bi-yearly trips, I grew up thinking everyone went to the cemetery to visit their dead relatives and ancestors. Turns out, they don’t. Most people think it’s weird. Most people would do what Edith Finch did for their kids: write everything down in a journal—a written record of the Finch family history instead of passing stories down orally. Not my family. We tell stories around gravestones like they’re campfires. Although, it would have been cool to have a house like Edith’s, even if I were to find it more unsettling than the cemetery.
When I first played What Remains of Edith Finch, the most striking thing to me about the game was how connected Edith was with her family history; I had, for a few years up until my grandmother died, been getting more and more into genealogical research. My grandmother was my main source of information, and as she got older it became more important to me to hear about her life: growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression; how a cup of coffee used to cost ten cents; how her mother, an Italian immigrant, hated to cook. My grandma was to me in the same way that Grandma Edie was to Edith. And, like Grandma Edie, my own grandmother outlived every single member of her family.
I don’t have a family cemetery in the same sense as Edith, but a good chunk of my relatives and ancestors from my mom’s side of the family are buried in the same cemetery in Santa Barbara. There are a lot of them, and I learned some of their stories from my grandmother while we searched the cemetery for their burial plots. Yep—What Remains of Edith Finch sure did draw some uncanny parallels to my own life.
I don’t know if I would have had as a visceral reaction to the game had my grandmother not recently passed away when I played it. I definitely would have still seen the parallels, though—kind of hard to miss when you grow up visiting a cemetery filled with your ancestors. But, if I could only take one message away from What Remains of Edith Finch it’s that stories, photographs, and maybe a gravestone are all we’ll have left after our loved ones pass away. And when we do leave this mortal coil, the stories that are told about us will more or less be a reflection on how we lived our lives. Here are a few of my ancestors’:
My Family Tree
Great grandpa and grandma
Aniello, my grandfather’s father, was an Italian immigrant who owned his own furniture and upholstery business, but that wasn’t his claim to fame. His wife, Maria, was odd. There was something mentally wrong with her. She would do odd things and had to be watched over all the time. She was incapable of doing basic things like cleaning. It got to a point where she needed to spend some time in a sanitarium, but whether she was there or at home, that didn’t stop my great grandfather from having an affair with a woman who worked for him… who also lived in the garage of their home. The mistress helped cook and do laundry, things my great grandmother couldn’t do. But, Maria was so far gone that she had no idea her husband was having an affair with this woman. All the kids knew, and my grandmother hated Aniello. According to my grandmother, her father-in-law married Maria to get out of registering for the WW1 draft, so seems like he never loved her.
Great-great grandpa and grandma
Raffaele and Gabriella were Maria’s parents, and my great-great grandparents. My grandmother wasn’t entirely sure what their story was, but if you look at the days they died, they died within two days of one another. Were they in an accident? Did Gabriella die of a broken heart? Was is some weird coincidence? I’m not sure. I’m still looking for their death certificates. If I could create a What Remains of Edith Finch-style game out of their story, I’d tell it on the ship that carried them to America and their first days in New York. Raffaele was a bootblack, or a shoe-shiner in today’s terms, and I imagine he would have immediately started looking for work upon his family’s arrival.
Grandma and Grandpa
Grandpa came from a long line of carpenters and upholsterers, but he went to work for the local newspaper. His grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, Joseph, brought his trade from Italy to America, where it eventually blossomed into a family-owned business that has been around for 100 years. My grandma moved out to the West Coast with her sister and met my grandpa in Santa Barbara. When her sister was about to move to Los Angeles with her husband, instead of going with her my grandmother married my grandpa and stayed.
I’m not sure what What Remains of Edith Finch-style game I’d make out of their story. Perhaps, for my grandfather, the last night of his life, which was Christmas. He had a fatal heart attack in the first house I grew up in, in the extra room that later became mine when my brother was born. My grandmother would have a story more like Edie: resilient, stubborn, a woman who was determined let go from life on her own terms.
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