Tuesday, September 22, 2015

PlayStation Memories: An Epilogue

On September 9, 2015, Sony celebrated the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation’s North American release, and I shared a pair of vignettes detailing my earliest memories of the console.

Since receiving a PlayStation on Christmas Day 1995, I’ve amassed plenty of PSX stories. After all, the console would redefine who I was as a gamer and greatly influence who I am as a person today. But I’ll save that for another time.

Right now, let’s bring things full circle with my newest (and likely last) PlayStation Memory.

Crime and PlayStation Punishment

October 2009.

I had just quit my newspaper job of five years to complete a Master’s degree and was living with Mom and Dad. But no job and only a pair classes meant two things:

-          I did fantastic work that semester
-          I had a boatload of free time

But student teaching, which I knew would be only slightly less stressful than Vietnam, loomed on the horizon. So Matt, who had never been very good at growing up anyway, sought solace in the past.

"This is a PlayStation black disc."
- Alucard, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

A chill crept in through my open window, bringing with it the scents of autumn and the stillness of midnight in suburban America. My computer monitor lit up the room.

I had just discovered that I could trick my PSone, the smaller, redesigned version of the original PlayStation, into thinking that the CD tray was always closed. Now I could finally try that disc swapping trick I had heard of when I was a kid.

In other words, I could play pirated games.

That same October night, I discovered that there was a fourth Battle Arena Toshinden and a third Jumping Flash!, both unreleased in North America. Sure the Toshinden series had become a joke and Jumping Flash! hadn’t been relevant since 1996, but I was blinded by nostalgia.  

My first PlayStation came with a demo disc of awesome first-gen games. I spent hours fighting the same two characters in Battle Arena Toshinden while rocking out to the crazy soundtrack. And I think Jumping Flash! was the first truly 3D action game I had ever played.

The next day, I sat in my parent’s living room keeping our new puppy company and tinkering around with illegal backups of Toshinden Subaru and Robbit Mon Dieu, as Japan had chosen to call Jumping Flash! 3. I always get a sort of strange pleasure playing canceled games, betas, and imports, and that day I was riding high on bootlegged glee.

A knock at my door startled me back to reality. Hardly anyone but FedEx would have a reason to come to my house.

I hurried down the stairs. A man in a black suit stood before me.

“Hello?” I asked.

He greeted me and told me his name. Then, “I’m a police officer.” He flashed his badge at me. The zany, pirated Robbit Mon Dieu music bopped away upstairs. And if I could hear it, so did he.

Well, they had found me.

This was not the first time video games had gotten me in trouble. Once in second grade a girl stole my GameBoy. If I hadn’t had the sound turned all the way up, the teacher wouldn’t have heard the startup chime and I’d have played with portable power no more. And in eight grade, I was once so absorbed in an article about Street Fighter EX coming to PlayStation, I forgot to stand for the pledge of allegiance. Teachers can get really bent out of shape about that.

And now I was going to be arrested for pirating decade old Japanese software. I briefly considered blaming the puppy, but his cuteness was an impenetrable shield.

“I’d like to ask you a few questions about the day of August 19,” said the investigator.

“I didn’t download any PlayStation games that day,” I thought.

As it turns out, someone had left a folder full of official, sealed-to-the-public documents just hanging out on my neighbor’s doorstep, and our Man in Black was looking for the culprit. Thankfully, I had an airtight, verifiable alibi for my whereabouts, so he thanked me for my time and started walking to the house across the street.

Relieved, I headed upstairs and booted up Toshinden Saburu. And let me tell you, I’m really, really glad I didn’t go to jail for bootlegging that mind-blowing abomination.

It's as good as it looks.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Opinion: Was revealing SFV’s Rashid on 9-11 insensitive?

Greeting me this morning was the news of another character reveal for the upcoming Street Fighter V. A minute later, I watched as Rashid, a Middle Eastern man who fights with the power of wind, sailed around the screen kicking the hell out of Ryu and sporting eyewear shamelessly ripped from Dragon Ball Z.

Then I remembered that today is September 11, 2015, the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that destroyed both World Trade Center towers and lead to the loss of nearly 3,000 American lives. I didn’t have to look at the comment section to know what people were saying.

But I did anyway. And yeah, some people are really offended.

However, is that a reasonable reaction? Consider the following:

1. The mere existence of Middle Eastern people – and in this case, a video game character of Middle Eastern decent – is not inherently an insult to the people who lost their lives on 9-11-01;

2.    Only a very small percentage of Middle Eastern people are terrorists and associating all of them with terrorism is racist; and

3.  While the events of 9-11-01 were traumatizing for Americans and many others throughout the world, the attacks are no longer part of global consciousness. Capcom is primarily a Japanese company.

What this boils down to is some Americans were devastated (and rightfully so) by the 9-11 attacks and either don’t want to be reminded of them, or have become very sensitive to anything surrounding that day, apparently including this video game character.

And there’s another set of people who are just jerks and will use any excuse to spread bigotry. These are the same kinds of people who hide behind the sanctity of 9-11 and call others “unpatriotic” for pointing out that most Middle Easterners are not jihadists.

That being said, yes, the timing of the announcement could have been better on Capcom’s part, given that America is a major market of the new Street Fighter game. The word “insensitive” popped into my mind, but in light of the first two points on my list, I hesitate to use it.

If anything, Capcom’s marketing team should have known that some Americans would react poorly to the reveal and switched it up with another character. I’m not saying American outrage is justified. I’m saying that business is business.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

20 years of PlayStation Memories

Today, September 9, 2015, marks the 20th anniversary the original PlayStation console’s release in North America. Our Japanese counterparts had been introduced to Sony’s grey box about ten months earlier in December 1994, but that just served to elevate the hype here in the States as gaming magazines gave us a glimpse of things to come.

I was going to put together a retrospective of the console that knocked Nintendo and Sega for a loop and revolutionized the gaming industry. But when I think of the PlayStation, what comes to mind isn’t facts and figures, but excitement, promise, and redefining what a video game can be.

Two decades ago, I was on the verge of becoming a teenager. My childhood wonder and enthusiasm had all but faded away. Sony’s PlayStation is the last console that had me truly giddy. It still speaks to the kid I used to be.

I want to capture that and, if only for a few seconds, get you to feel it for yourself. So I give you a pair of vignettes – my own PlayStation memories.

Part 1: Fighting through the Night

September 1995.

About two weeks into my sixth grade year, I got a phone call from my buddy Tom.

“Hey Matt, we rented a PlayStation from Blockbuster Video,” he said. I was vaguely aware of the PSX from reading GamePro magazine.

“Oh? What’s it like?”

He described ESPN Extreme Games, a downhill, skateboard/bicycle racing sort of thing. I was trying to come off as enthusiastic, but I guess it was obvious that I wasn’t into it.

Then, out of the blue: “We also have Street Fighter The Movie: The Game.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said.

Street Fighter The Movie was a cross between classic SF gameplay and digitized characters a la Mortal Kombat. The controls sucked. The characters didn’t really look or sound much like their movie counterparts. There was only one new fighter, Capt. Sawada, and his special attack looked like he was pulling his junk out of his pants, earning him the nickname “Dick Whip” (or DW for short).

It was the greatest game I had ever played.

As the night wore on, me, Tom, and a third friend, Ryan, played the same Ryu vs. Chun-Li battle over, and over, and over again. They asked me to stay on as P2, and Tom and Ryan took turns trying be beat me. I might have lost a round here and there, but I never lost a match.

ESPN was more a Tom and Ryan game, so I sat back and watched them try to earn enough money to upgrade their “street luges,” which gets riders as close to the ground as possible before sending them sailing at 80 miles an hour into rocks, trees, and other racers.

While browsing through the options “book” in-game, Tom remarked how the page turning sound effect was super realistic. And you know what? He was right. It was nice touch.

Near the end of the night, Tom opened up the CD drive, pulled out the ESPN disc in the middle of a race, and threw in some dance music CD. Seconds later, we were skating around to a song where two guys kept screaming “Brooklyn boys! Brooklyn boys!” It was really hard to hear what they were saying over the sound effects, though.

“Touch some boys?” Tom asked.

Maybe it was when I finally got Chun-Li’s Super to work, defeating Ryu in a spectacular flash of light. Or maybe it was that silly video of a woman berating your skills when you came in last place in ESPN Extreme Games. But by the end of the night, I knew that Nintendo and Sega had a lot to live up to if they hoped to beat Sony.

And I knew I had to have a PlayStation.

Part 2: Taken with Tekken

December 1995.

Fearing a predicted snowstorm, 12-year-old Matt’s school closes early. As the bus pulls into my neighborhood and opens its doors, I leap out and trot home purposefully. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be home for a few hours.

And I knew where they were hiding the Christmas gifts.

I selected a long, rectangular gift and carefully peeled back the tape at the top corner. Holding it upside down, out slid Tekken for the original PlayStation. The back of the box touted 3D graphics unlike anything I had seen before on a home console. Not even Super Nintendo’s StarFox and the mighty SuperFX chip could render awesome characters and expansive worlds like this!

I tore off the plastic and thumbed through the manual excitedly, noting which character I’d play as first on Christmas morning: Michelle Chang, who I hoped would be like Street Fighter’s Chun-Li. I even listened to a bit of the game’s soundtrack via my Sega CD.

But I stopped short of unwrapping the PlayStation, fearing the wrath of my parents or worse yet, a ho-hum Christmas morning. Tekken slid back into the wrapping rather easily and the tape still stuck.

The rest of the afternoon went by quickly, with me staring out my window, anticipating those 3D battles and waiting for the snowstorm that never came.