Sit down, shut up

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It doesn’t take a great amount of effort to have at least some surface-level information about a wide range of games these days: Trailers are highly polished, social media accounts tease upcoming releases with laser-guided precision, and while playable demos aren’t quite ubiquitous there’s still a real chance anything from the biggest blockbuster to the smallest indie game will have one available somewhere if you’d like to try before you buy. It’s a great time to be a consumer; anyone can get a good look at official footage, read all about a game’s features, budget for season passes, and ask a dozen or more different people – or even message developers directly before deciding if it’s their cup of tea – and they can do all of this before the game’s even finished.

But it’s all a bit… safe, isn’t it? It’s sensible forward planning, like a pair of mittens kept together with string. It’s the gaming equivalent of asking for a new toaster for Christmas (not a fancy one, of course), picking it out yourself based on a selection of reviews, and then getting a relative to symbolically wrap it up for you. It’s exactly what you wanted and you’ll definitely make good use of it, but all that lies ahead are month after month of your well-researched and publicly-approved product reliably meeting your preconceived expectations. It’s a sound purchase – but it’s not a very exciting one.

We these thoughts rattling around my head I decided I wanted to bring back some sense of “danger” to at least one game purchase, to start something up and not know whether I was about to be delighted, disappointed, or surprised by the mysterious contents within. But I wanted it to be more than some random purchase – clicking away until money’s left your bank account and an order confirmation email hits your inbox is very easy and ultimately a hollow, pointless, experience. That’s not a purchase, that’s just stuff – there’s no story or feeling behind it, just currency exchanged for goods – and it was important to me that my haphazard decision to have some thought and reasoning to it. So I decided I’d trust my old self with an old acquisition – I was going to select and then play a game the way I would have as a child, back when you’d get a new game and know no matter how good or bad it was the next one was months away if you were lucky, the formalised trade-ins and second-hand sections found in game stores to alleviate buyer’s remorse still years and years away, because dedicated game stores themselves were still years and years away (good heavens that makes me sound old). I hoped my instinct-driven purchase would capture that wide-eyed sense of adventure, of being utterly lost with no FAQs or guides to help you, feeling like the digital world extends forever on all sides just waiting for you to go and find your heroic journey within it. A place where strange bosses wait to tear through your remaining lives at the end of previously unseen levels, powerful secret items are potentially (and unfairly) hidden behind every wall or suspicious spot in the scenery, and all the rumours you half-remember about how to see the second special ending are never quite true but never so ridiculous as to not be worth investigating. I wanted note-taking, bizarre game logic and to be surprised all over again. The problem is I’m an old nerd, which means amongst other things that I’ve seen an awful lot of games in my lifetime and even the ones I’ve not directly had my hands on are usually mentioned often enough in passing online for me to be broadly aware of what happens in them: Between all the “Top ten games you’ve never heard of” lists and even plain old eBay suggestions throwing random games in my face (and FIFA, eBay seems convinced I’d like to play FIFA) it’s hard to find a game that’s truly unknown.

Hard, but not impossible. Being a long-term Sega fan means my knowledge of Famicom games outside of the usual suspects and a few notable titles of personal interest (Megami Tensei, Salamander‘s beautiful translucent cart, the eye-wateringly expensive Moon Crystal) is shamefully weak, which made it the perfect format to focus on as I browsed various online storefronts searching for something that both caught my eye and didn’t cost the earth. The only research I allowed myself to do was a quick check to make sure I wasn’t buying some dirt-common English title I’d passed over a million times already that had been given an unfamiliar Japanese rebranding and that was it – no reviews, no videos, and no screenshots that weren’t shown on the back of the box.

And this is how I ended up with a copy of Minelvaton Saga: Ragon no Fukkatsu, a 1987 Taito game with beautiful cover art by Hitoshi Yoneda (you might recognise their wonderful style if you’ve seen the Japanese box art for Sorcerian or Phantasy Star II/IV). What’s the game like? How does it play? Is it any good? Well… normally I’d do a lot of playing followed up with a lot of research before passing all of that information on to you – but not today. This is supposed to be about me capturing that feeling of heading off into the unknown, remember? If you really do need a little more than that: From what I’ve played the game is a relatively pretty but by-the-numbers Famicom RPG, looking and playing a lot like the sort of thing you’d see as a generic parody RPG running in the background of a TV show. I haven’t uncovered a hidden gem with this one or have any wonderful tales to tell you about how it tears up the rulebook after the first half hour and that’s fine – perfect, even, for what I was hoping to experience.

One week later: The game had arrived, I’m ready to go – so let’s play!

Ah, not quite: The next thing was to make sure I didn’t accidentally spoil it for myself with my fancy always-on internet across a range of devices. I didn’t need to live in a cave for the week with nothing but a Famicom and a tube TV for company or anything as drastic as that (sounds nice though, doesn’t it?) but I did promise myself I’d abide by a couple of rules:

  • To not mention the game to anyone until I’d posted this article. This was to avoid well-meaning comments that may influence how I view or play the game like “Oh that! Hey, it’s a lot easier if you…” or “Oof, bad choice there Kimimi! I heard that bit with [some boss] is really rough” and so on. Normally getting a range of opinions can be really useful but I wanted this to be a new (old) adventure, just for me.
  • To not do any research on it (beyond that initial name check) or look at a FAQ, ever. If it’s not spoken by an NPC, written in the manual, or shown on the included fold-out map, then I don’t know about it. If that meant I had to spend all of my time with it wandering around in circles, then that’s what the game would be to me.

Those were the basics that would keep this story mine and mine alone but there was something else I was concerned about too: It’s not even close to a full day’s “work” to acquire a complete set of ROMs for an entire generation’s worth of consoles these days, and then fit all those years of gaming blood, sweat, and tears on a storage device so small you could swallow it without needing a glass of water. It’s brilliant and I wouldn’t wish to deny anyone the pleasures of a deep dive through MAME or a fast-forwarding through a fan-translated game they’d never otherwise get the chance to play, but it can sometimes make it difficult to really engage with an older game because anything that doesn’t immediately grab you can be replaced in mere seconds with every other title that ever existed. It’s easy to get distracted, it’s easy to skip past the bits that bore you, it’s easy to keep one eye on a game running in a window while a playlist blares out your favourite tunes and your mind wanders elsewhere while your fingers do the work.

So I knew I needed to give Minelvaton Saga a chance to work its magic on its own terms, that I needed to approach it in the sort of environment it was designed to be played in – with me sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, phone off, in-game music only (and never muted), and with no other distractions. This all might sound like I’m playing “Eighties Kid in her Bedroom” than evaluating a game and you’re probably wondering when I’ll start chewing on a watch made out of sweets while listening to an EMF tape for the sake of “creating the mood”, but it stands to reason that the game could never be absorbing if I didn’t give it the space to occupy the entirety of my attention in the way a game would have done as a child, back when TVs weren’t necessarily in colour, homes had one phone and it was attached to the kitchen wall, and a reverse-play tape deck was the hallmark of a high-end portable music player.

OK, now I was ready to play.

The game starts, as many brave quests do, with a loved one revealing a great secret on their deathbed. A unique event graphic and sombre music set the tone just as quickly as the chirpy town theme and the cute ever-walking main character sprite shatter it, and from there I’m off to talk to the king, because this is the natural order of things when you’re in an 8-bit world. As you’d expect he sends me off on a fetch quest to an abandoned castle in the east – and this is where things get interesting. Minelvaton Saga comes with a map. A proper fold-out thing made of (coloured!) paper showing the scope of your epic journey, and the location of this castle. From there it was simply a case of walking on over while getting used to the battle system along the way, but even so my little bit of navigation meant the trek wasn’t just a means to an end, but a personal success in its own right too – I’d uncovered my next target, found it on the map, then got there entirely under my own steam. As soon as I arrived I was utterly destroyed by an all-new enemy (which was a good time to check the manual so I could see what they “really” looked like) and am reminded that any progress in an eighties RPG is largely governed by the amount of grinding I’m prepared to do.

Normally the answer to “How much grinding is Kimimi prepared to do?” is “None at all.” (and perhaps part of the reason why I enjoy dashing through certain games so much) but when it’s the sole focus of your attention and the only thing that’s going to move things forward it becomes an almost pleasantly meditative activity – you stop trying to make the game catch up with you when it’s so much more relaxing for you to slow down, to stop wondering when the next thing worth noticing will show up. And when that happens you start to see things that were right in front of you the whole time: The unremarkable overworld graphics are filled with pleasantly plump trees, bright tiled paths between major locations spare you from the harsh encounter rate, and water that “animates” to give the impression of sunlight playing across the surface on a clear day. It’s all very basic stuff and not anything special even when measured against other console games of the era (this unfortunately came out in the same year as the debut games for both the Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy series) but here, as the only Famicom game I’m currently playing and as the only object in the entire house that’s currently vying for my attention, Minelvaton Saga is my own secret world of monsters and magic. Venturing out and whacking enemies before heading back to the safety of the local inn becomes a pleasant loop even if I’ve achieved “nothing” for all the time I’ve invested in the game so far. Daring to venture a little further into that castle before scurrying back to town becomes more important than whatever grand plot I’m supposed to be a part of, and my eventual reward is to see – really see – out there on the map in a way that screams “I am a boss and I am going to ruin your day” (encounters are normally completely invisible and random) a giant golem standing in the doorway to a room – a room with a special chest inside! This is clearly where I needed to go, and so I rush into battle and get myself thoroughly beaten in a manner that suggests I’ve still got a lot of grinding to go. So it’s back to the safe arms of the overworld, although the regular monsters aren’t really cutting the mustard when it comes to XP gains any more. I decide to throw caution to the wind and head north of the starting town for a change, just to see what’s up there. I find a few desert tiles in a forest clearing – it’s a nice enough visual bonus but I get really excited when walking around on them triggers an encounter with a group of scorpions – this has got to be my new grinding spot! Ah. Those scorpions are kind of… lethal. Really super deadly scorpions that are saying “Maybe leave this bit for later” with every back-to-your-last-save critical hit.

I don’t go back up that way again.

I turn back to my paper map and spot a village to the south – close enough that I might be able to reach it so long as the forest between there and me isn’t filled with things that’ll eat me alive. Thanks to a mixture of my previous grinding and a little luck, I make it to the forest village of Moruto, and find it’s not just another place for NPCs to roam but filled with helpful equipment shops! Several thousand G later and my little blue hero is now one serious sword-fighting teenager, ready to take on those golems and possibly win. But before I head out I discover a tantalising little village mystery – a chest tucked away behind a locked door in a spot you can only reach by going down a hidden ladder… where do I find keys? The manual doesn’t mention anything…

All of this intrigue and excitement comes in part from the simplicity: When item chests are normally blue and you spot a red one then you know in your bones that’s something worth investigating. When you engage in battle with an all-new enemy you’ve got no idea if you’re about to earn a few pieces of gold, get unceremoniously sent back to your last save, or just manage to escape with your life. A tile-wide bridge across a river would normally make no difference to anything but when you’re caught in that little bubble it becomes a new sight on an epic, endless, adventure.

I did wonder before I started if that feeling of being completely absorbed by a game: Not just “Playing it a lot” or “Having a really good time” but having it occupy my whole consciousness, even if only for a little while, had gone because I’d grown up, or because my tastes had changed, or if games themselves had evolved beyond that sort of thing. I’d say nothing’s changed apart from how we choose to interact with them, and for me giving myself some quiet time to sit and allow myself to do nothing but play a game – one game to the exclusion of all else, even if only for an hour a day – was a revelation. I found myself thinking about it when it wasn’t on – looking through the manual, taking notes, and checking the map not just for clues but to imagine what I’d be getting up to on those named seas and remote mountains, wondering what brief sentences would drive me to distant towns and towers. The modern way of doing things, where everything you need to know is contained within the game itself, is a great feature and something we all benefit from but being able to prepare for your next adventure over breakfast with a pen and paper in hand allows the game to seep into reality, your manual becoming more than a set of reference materials to something that might just contain the answer to your latest problem if you check it just one more time. This is not to say that eighties-style RPGing is by any stretch of the imagination how games “should” be, but it is a way of playing I’d forgotten, and forgotten how to appreciate.

There’s a very good chance I’ll never see the end of Minelvaton Saga, or even accomplish anything of real significance in my time with it – I am very happy with that. The game’s become my private little quest, walled off from all notifications, firmware updates, and unexpected messages. When I’m playing it’s just me and my little guy, wandering around in the a perfect green forever and the game neither knows nor cares that I’m over thirty years too late for this nonexistent hype train – and I don’t either. Because when I’m playing this, I have all the time in the world.

[This post wouldn’t exist without the generous support I received via Ko-fi! Thank you so much for making this possible!]

12 thoughts on “Sit down, shut up

  1. Gaming “attention deficit” is real, particularly because, as you say, we have so many options these days — both in terms of retro games (downloading ROMs) and easily accessible digital libraries. I make a point of trying to focus on the game that is occupying my attention as much as possible — that’s partly why I adopted the format I do on my site. And I’ve found I’ve been enjoying stuff a great deal since I started doing that; I also refuse to use things like fast-forward functions, even when they’re incorporated into more modern ports of things — to me it always feels fundamentally disrespectful to skip through “the boring bits”. Well, that and I think I’ve developed a much greater tolerance for “boring bits” than most over the years, too.

    Also, I’m glad I’m not the only person whose primary objection to microSD cards is the fact that you could accidentally swallow one without even realising. I keep them well away from my cats!

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    1. That’s it! I’m not saying that bad games automatically become good ones if only you bothered to play them long enough, but more that there is value to be had in approaching a game at its own pace.

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      1. This is what my buddy Chris and I talk about a lot on our podcast. It’s always worth judging a game on its own merits rather than comparing it to other stuff — even within the same series. That way you can figure out the things the game does well, rather than mourning the things you perhaps *want* it to be that it actually isn’t.

        I’ve become a lot more open to that in the last 10 years or so. I’ve got quite a few things from past generations that I’m keen to go back to with this new mindset. I can think of a number of titles that I bounced off quite hard first time around that I’m now very, very interested in exploring.

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  2. My system for picking up retro games these days is either “oh, it got a fan translation recently I should look for that” or looking around eBay what’s cheap and then looking at 20 seconds of gameplay on YouTube before I decide.
    Which in fact did lead me to pick up Minelvaton Saga as well a while ago. To my shame I have to admit I haven’t played it beyond checking if the cartridge actually works yet. And now that I read about the map that comes with the game I’m a bit sad I only got the cartridge, but I’m sure I’ll manage.

    But yeah, these days there’s always the temptation to look up a guide online the moment something takes longer than 5 minutes to figure out. And old games can be tough to figure out, especially if you don’t have the manual (or can’t read it because Japanese and all). But then again, even back in the day, there were magazines telling you all about your games, so it’s not like I went into games blindly, even during the NES/SNES era. Well, mostly. Not everything was featured in magazines.

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    1. Old games really can be tough to figure out at times – there will always be that one moment where logic leaves the room and you’re left bumping into every wall or talking to every NPC over and over just in case! That’s not fun or fair, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that those times are worth battling through FAQ-less for the sake of “the experience”, more that sometimes (~sometimes~) the adventure is what you allow yourself to make of it.

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  3. For me, the first (and maybe last?) game I really enjoyed naturally this way was Final Fantasy Legend (or SaGa to those who import). A small game with a popular title attached and a curiously thick manual… I spent years being surprised by the game’s many layers, which today I could probably conquer in a few afternoons.

    Unfortunately as a small child (much less a DENSE small child, who had never played anything resembling an RPG), I couldn’t make sense of the game’s slightly obtuse systems, and would have been doomed even if I had had any idea of what to do or where to go.

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  4. Ahh, reading this took me back to those good old days~<3

    It's actually that seemingly basic thing – becoming absorbed into the game's world and becoming a part of it, at least for a little while – that drew me to RPGs in the first place, I think. Hanging out near the beach while level grinding because the sand and water looked cool, that sort of thing. Just the notion of having to stick around in one area long enough to notice that kind of detail, enjoying where you are but working hard to see the next area, too.

    It's really tough for me to recapture that nowadays, with all the gizmos and distractions we have. That being said, I was on the couch with my Gameboy while Star Trek TNG reruns were on in the background, so I've always been allowing myself to be distracted with technology XD But I do admit to just not being able to concentrate like I used to, most of the time. I think that's probably what I miss most, letting a game take over my brain and thinking about it even when I'm not playing it, eager to get back and drop everything to play.

    I really appreciated your "experiment" here! It's good to know the old ways still hold up. I think I want to try this myself sometime soon…

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    1. I used to make sure I fought in every area in Shining Force games just so I could see those beautiful backgrounds and imagine myself there!

      Oh, same here! Game Boy or a magazine in one hand, TV doing something else in the same room – it’s a tale as old a time (possibly not a song as old as rhyme though)! Even so there was still that “pause for breath” when you’d get stuck in a game and just have to hope next month’s magazine had the solution or a cheat, or the simple fact that TV+one other thing was as “noisy” as life got back then. Ah…. I sound so old…

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  5. That’s a really neat idea to approach a game again. I remember many years ago there was something similar happening for a while on the HG101 message boards, where they would play games like it was the 90s again. No internet ressources or anything, but approaching them cold and only helping each other out on the subforum for it as if it was sharing tips with your friends in the school yard. I was always intrigued and read along but somehow still never participated xD

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