Monday, September 6, 2010

Sword of Frustration, Wisdom of Kings

Although I can see this getting in the way of being a productive citizen, I have a confession to make: I hate work. I hate homework, paid work, dental work, physical labor, and pretty much anything that prevents me from doing whatever it is that I want to do. So you can imagine how happy I was one gorgeous afternoon a few summers ago to put off my grant writing job and play video games instead. As my computer’s screen saver switched on, getting tired of waiting for me to write my grant, I was wandering around Earthbound’s Stonehenge Base.

As every Earthbound player knows (or should know), there’s something very special about this part of the game. It is here that Prince Poo, who normally would be doomed to fight through the entire game barehanded, is given the chance to obtain his one and only weapon: The Sword of Kings. Just saying it sends chills down the spine of seasoned Earthbound veterans, partly due to the mythos surrounding the artifact, and party because we all know how insanely difficult The Sword of Kings is to obtain. For the uninitiated, the player has a one in 128 chance of winning the weapon after a battle with a certain gold-plated nemesis named Starman Super. This particular villain is rather common in the underground Stonehenge Base, but only for a very limited time. If the player wants to progress in the game, he or she must shut down the base and resign themselves to never finding the sword.

While expressly not doing my grant work, I stared down at my battle-worn player’s guide and read the section about The Sword of Kings for about the millionth time in my life. I had only ever found The Sword of Kings once, way back on my first save file more than a decade ago. I remembered the weapon being difficult to obtain, but really, how hard could it be? Besides, anything that kept me away from work was fine with me. “Onward!” I exclaimed, boldly trotting down the first corridor inhabited by the Starman Super.

Well, apparently the passage of time has also slowly drained the sense out of me, because had I remembered exactly what it was like finding the Sword of Kings last time, I’d have gone to Burglin Park and looked for a cannon to shoot my characters from. Hopefully, would have sailed past every Starman Super in the game and right into the depths of the Lost Underworld. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day dusting up the shattered fragments of my sanity. No, I didn’t get The Sword of Kings, but I did get a nifty headache and a keen sense of hopelessness.

What was supposed to be a nice break from work turned into a two-day long exercise in futility. At one point, I had Ness diamondized so he wouldn’t gain anymore levels and miss the massive experience boost towards the end of the game. The other three characters’ levels were so high that it didn’t matter if we had Ness’ colossal slugging power or not. By the time I finally gave up, my characters were tearing open Starmen Supers like shiny metal cereal boxes and searching through their innards for the prize. At one point, Paula leaned down to pick up a quarter as a Starman was sneaking up behind her, and the resulting tap of her bum sent the Starman whizzing through the air and bursting into flames seconds later. I realized that Poo didn’t need the extra offence that The Sword of Kings could afford him at that point; he needed to be stopped before he tried to pet a kitten and wound up skinning it with his freakishly enormous muscles.

“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed, “I thought I started playing this game to avoid doing work!” I sat there stunned for a moment as the true weight of what I had just said washed over me. Indeed, what I was doing had ceased being fun 12 hours ago. For all intents and purposes, I was doing work. And I hate work.

This brings up a good point: Why does Itoi ruin the otherwise brisk and enjoyable pace of his game with an item he knows all hardcore players will lust after, even though it’s relatively useless? Thirty offensive points are only going to help you at low levels, and by the time you’re done terrorizing the Starman Super population, you’re likely to be level 99 anyway. No, it’s not poor programming; it’s just another one of Itoi’s life lessons sneaking up on you.

See, I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to find The Sword of Kings, you can’t actually be looking for it. A quick check of the forms is rife with stories of people walking into the Stonehenge Base, just minding their own business, and suddenly winning The Sword of Kings from the first Starman Super they encounter. I’ve even read a report of someone who got two in a row. The forms also prove that if you go into the base intending to win the sword at all costs, fighting millions of Starmen in the process, by the time you find The Sword of Kings, you want to tear it out of Prince Poo’s hands and ram it through your eye.

But you know something? I bet Itoi knew this would happen. He was trying to teach us something important that, if we were able to figure out, our time spent fighting the Starmen would seem trivial in light of the amount of time we’d save everywhere else in out lives. Itoi was trying to tell us that if we spend all of our time chasing after something trivial, we lose focus on the truly enjoyable parts of our life. We can’t harp on the details of the day; we have to concentrate on the greater goals in life, least we waste our time on Earth with the inconsequential and the insignificant. That way, if the smaller things fall into place by themselves, we can enjoy them even more.

We’re not down in the Stonehenge Base fighting for a weapon in a video game, we’re fighting for wisdom that will impact the quality of out lives. If I had just done my grant work to begin with instead of playing video games, I wouldn’t have had enough time to even worry about that blasted sword. I’d have played through at a fun pace and continued the game with a smile on my mug. Instead, after two days, I wasn’t any closer to either finishing the grant or progressing in Earthbound. So while I didn’t walk away with a Sword of Kings this time around, I did receive something far greater.

The next time you start freaking out about something, try to think of The Sword of Kings. Just where did all your fussing about that nefarious sword get you?


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