May 7, 2015

Eulogy for a Console, Part 1: Sega Saturn

This is the first in a series of three stories about parting ways with my first three consoles.

I will be moving abroad soon (more on that later) and that means an opportunity to clear out the closets and rid myself of stuff I don't foresee using much anymore. As a result I've recently sold my three oldest consoles. Now this was a pretty big deal as I've had them all since I was in school, however even I had to admit to myself that if I hadn't played with any of them in, at least, eight years, I wasn't likely to pull them out and play with them again in the foreseeable future.

The First Console I Owned

It is only appropriate to begin this little journey into my gaming past with the first console I ever truly owned, the Sega Saturn. Now, we had had other means of gaming in the house for years: Atari 2600, Mac Plus and my prized Sega Game Gear, but that box you see in the picture contained the first console I ever bought myself. After much saving, restraint at the arcade and likely a bit of an advance from my Maman, I was finally able to plunk down the $300 or so needed to bring this bad boy home. 

I would have been in early high school at the time and Sony's PlayStation was proving to be a formidable new contender in the face of the old giants but that meant nothing to us. We were into fighting games, and if you loved Street Fighter, then you loved the arrangement of the Saturn controller's six face buttons and if you loved Virtua Fighter, then there was no question which console sat underneath your old tube TV.

The Game That Sold Me

Let's face it, none of us buy consoles because we love staring at plastic boxes, right? Of course not, it is for the games, games so awesome they push us over the edge and get us to part ways with hundreds of dollars in hardware just to get to play them. Often it's really just one game. And for me, with the Saturn, that game was Virtua Fighter 2. 

I had a friend growing up. We were inseparable. I had found someone, in fifth grade, who shared my obsessive love of drawing Ninja Turtles and that was that, buds for life. We still hang out. We've worked together and have done multiple Game Jams together and will likely do many more. But at the time, when we were fourteen or so, we fought. We fought daily, if we could. Our arena of choice was, of course, the local arcade where we played Virtua Fighter 2. We both loved what a departure the game was from all the Street Fighter imitators out there. Such a methodical game, so tactical. And we were good! We thought so, anyway. We would mop the floor with older kids who would line their quarters up on the cabinet face for a turn. I remember one afternoon when these two guys, probably sixteen or seventeen tried endlessly to dethrone us. First, they took turns taking me on. I was all about Lion Rafale , the blond haired kid in the mantis stance. I destroyed one, they switched, I blew away the other, switch and so on. Eventually they did best me, my double low kicks probably got too predictable, so my buddy stepped in. They were no match for his mastery of Sarah Bryant's lighting fast legs. We must have drained their pool of quarters. They were gone within the hour, frustrated. For a while there it looked like we were going to get our lights punched out. We found out weeks later what real expert players looked like, though. One of the Mr. Arcade employees had noticed us playing and suggested we participate in a small local tournament, only eight or ten participants. By the end of it the rankings were: me in last place, the arcade employee who invited us ahead of me and then my friend. A true Dunning-Kruger moment when we realized that what we knew of playing Virtua Fighter 2 was nothing compared to what we had yet to learn. It was this obsession with the game that made me want to get a Saturn. Once I had the system, I was able to play Virtua Fighter 2 every day and refine my skills. I got proficient with every character and studied strategy guides and FAQs on the burgeoning World Wide Web. Even after all that, I was only ever okay at the game, which was totally fine. As it turned out, there was plenty more fun to be had with the Saturn.

More Standout Games

Though Virtua Fighter 2 was the main reason I bought the Saturn, I got to play a bunch of really great games on that big black box. Many forms of Street Fighter were enjoyed with, or should I say against, friends. Brilliant strategy games like Shinning Force III and Dragon Force. Shinning the Holy Arc was the first JRPG I played to completion. Also the first game I ever stayed home "sick" to play. Nights: Into Dreams was another amazing one that made great use of the Saturn 3D Analogue controller, arguably the ancestor of the all XBox controllers. And other great 3D fighting games such as Fighters Megamix and Dead or Alive.

Switching On

Speaking of Dead or Alive, it was the first and only pirated game I got for the Saturn after having it modified to allow non-retail disks to be read by the machine.

After reading a tutorial online I decided to try modding the console myself. I opened it up and quickly realized that I hadn't the skill or experience for such a delicate soldering job. Thankfully, I had a contact at the Ottawa U. Anime Club who "knew a guy" in Toronto who could mod it for me for a decent price. As I mentioned above, though, the only pirated game this guy ever came through with was Dead or Alive, so the modification wouldn't have gotten much use if it hadn't been for the region switch. See, the modder not only rigged my system to be able to play burnt disks, but also installed a switch that allowed the system to play games released for both the North American and Japanese markets. This was great as I was able to bring several games back from my trip to Japan in mid 2000. These included a copy of Fighters Megamix, Puyo Puyo Sun and a game that became the center of week-end evenings spent with friends, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. I believe that Puzzle Fighter remains, to the day, the only console game my wife has played on her own. It was a collective obsession.

Saying Goodbye

They say you never forget your first. Indeed, the Sega Saturn, my Sega Saturn was a integral part of my development both as a gamer and a game designer. Be it in trying to dissect the balance of head-to-head games like Dead or Alive, Virtua Fighter and Puzzle Fighter or looking to understand and emulate the complex systems found in games like Shinning Force or Dragon Force, the Saturn came into my life at a crucial time, forever leaving its mark on me and on my creativity. Goodbye old friend and may your new owner replace your save game memory chip battery more regularly than I did.

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