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I was introduced to the wonderful world of gaming through the power of the original PlayStation: a console that defied expectations. Thinking back on it now, it was a rather strange-looking grey box, wasn't it? Not necessarily appealing in terms of immediate aesthetic design beyond its asymmetric buttons and large disc cover (that opened up with a satisfying click). It had a certain charm though, nonetheless. Fortunately, the console wasn't defined by its sense of style — its games solidified Sony's place in the industry.
The PS1's library was (and still is) jaw-droppingly vast. When I got my own as a Christmas present, several years after its initial launch, there was simply no going back. Gaming captured my imagination unlike anything else, but my engagement developed gradually.
For years, I'd just keep myself entertained with the likes of Tekken and Crash Bandicoot — relatively straightforward games that were a fun distraction for 15 to 30 minutes, maybe an hour if I was really in the zone
For years, I'd just keep myself entertained with the likes of Tekken and Crash Bandicoot — relatively straightforward games that were a fun distraction for 15 to 30 minutes, maybe an hour if I was really in the zone. Initially, sitting down in front of my PlayStation wasn't much different from grabbing my action figures. But as I got a bit older and started reading the Official UK PlayStation Magazine on a monthly basis, something changed.
There was a distinct desire to go deeper; I would gawk at gory screenshots of Resident Evil 2 and be left utterly mesmerised by Metal Gear Solid — a game I watched my friend play through from start to finish after school. I didn't really understand any of it, but there was a robot ninja, and Psycho Mantis knew what was on my memory card. That was more than enough to push me into broadening my horizons.
The release of the PS2 in 2000 completely passed me by, as I was still knee-deep in exploring the many PS1 games that my then-adolescent brain could comprehend. But there was one specific series that struck a chord like no other. A potent combination of teenage angst and the stark realisation that (gasp) video games could tell emotionally engaging stories, Final Fantasy altered my perspective forever.
The covers of Final Fantasy titles always intrigued me: just fancy black text on a white background. There was a pretentiousness to it — what does Final Fantasy think it is, not even slapping a character on the front of the box? And it uses Roman numerals instead of numbers? I used to look at these covers in my local games shop and dismiss them almost immediately, but once again, the Official PlayStation Magazine was responsible for opening my eyes.
Reading those old mags, you couldn't help but notice that the top 100 PlayStation games list — a consistent feature found near the back of each issue — was flush with Final Fantasy. They had to be doing something right, I thought. One day, having saved up my pocket money, I took the plunge and plucked Final Fantasy VIII from the shop shelf. I'm not exactly sure why I was drawn to VIII, but I do remember being fascinated by the fact that its cover (previously deemed pretentious) featured a man and woman sharing a loving embrace. A rarity, I suppose, when it comes to box art. In hindsight, I couldn't have chosen a more angst-ridden starting point, but the story of Squall and his stunted emotions really hit home.
Needless to say, I became enraptured by Final Fantasy VIII, and because of that, my perspective on gaming as a whole was elevated to entirely new heights
It felt like Final Fantasy VIII had everything: a near-incomprehensible plot (which, to my young teenage mind, meant that it must be cool and mature), endearing characters, and an initial school-like setting — how relatable! And perhaps most importantly, there was romance. At this point, actual love stories were alien to me, but the advent of puberty had, of course, forced an underlying interest. Needless to say, I became enraptured by Final Fantasy VIII, and because of that, my perspective on gaming as a whole was elevated to entirely new heights.
I was desperate to relive the emotional investment and thrill of Final Fantasy VIII. So naturally, my next port of call was Final Fantasy VII. This was the game that everyone gushed over, the one perched right on the peak of that all-important top 100 games list. Fortunately, I stumbled across the classic going cheap in my soon-to-be shuttered local shop (at the mercy of the impending, extremely corporate GAME), and I picked it up without a second thought.
Admittedly, it took a couple of weeks for me to come around to Final Fantasy VII. Its blocky character models looked so primitive after spending goodness knows how many hours with Final Fantasy VIII's correctly-proportioned cast, but as is often the case with a quality RPG, it was the storytelling that won me over. Another brooding protagonist with a cool sword? Check. Another whimsical love interest? Check. Another engrossing fantasy world filled to the brim with adventure? The biggest check imaginable.
I adored Final Fantasy VII. At this point, I had played through a number of RPGs and the genre was fast becoming my favourite of the bunch — but Cloud Strife and the gang went above and beyond expectations. It marked the first time that I truly came to appreciate what we now broadly refer to as gameplay. The entire experience is layered with systems and mechanics that align in harmony, from unleashing limit breaks in battle to unlocking impressive mini-games that add to the texture of the overall adventure.
The thing is, I had purposefully missed out on a lot of what its successor, Final Fantasy VIII, had to offer. I dabbled in Triple Triad — the title's collectable card game — but never felt the urge to try and master it. Likewise, I struggled to fully comprehend the highly customisable but undeniably tedious draw system, which sees you 'draw' magic from enemies in order to bolster your party's stats.
Final Fantasy VII triggered something in my brain which has been active ever since. To this day, I still see it as a benchmark for what an RPG can offer in terms of design, structure, and, indeed, storytelling
However, with Final Fantasy VII, I felt compelled to see everything, and that's almost certainly a result of its immaculate design. But in an era where the internet wasn't readily accessible to me (the horror), this thirst for in-game knowledge meant that I'd have to track down physical guides and comb the 'cheat' sections of unofficial magazines. I must have spent weeks, potentially months, putting together what was essentially an archive of Final Fantasy VII information — complete with classic GameFAQs guides — which were printed out using ink bought specifically for homework purposes.
Final Fantasy VII triggered something in my brain which has been active ever since. To this day, I still see it as a benchmark for what an RPG can offer in terms of design, structure, and, indeed, storytelling. It's no exaggeration to say that it helped shape my view of what makes a game good. And with that conclusion, I very slowly (but very surely) began to realise that I was a massive weeb.
I had watched my fair share of the Pokémon anime as a kid like everyone did, and I had gone through a serious Digimon phase back in primary school. But it wasn't until I got deeply immersed in games like Final Fantasy VII that I thought to myself, "you know, Japan might be on to something." It wasn't long before I was streaming episodes of Naruto via a dreadful dialup internet connection (the bitrate must have been unfathomable) and buying up Dragon Ball manga volumes in order to kickstart a collection that continues to this day.
I would rent Neon Genesis Evangelion DVDs from the local library's shockingly robust (and weirdly adult) Japanese animation section and purchase old Gundam Wing VHS tapes for pennies. I fully embraced all of the teen-targeted Japanese entertainment that I could get my hands on, and this newfound fascination could be traced straight back to Final Fantasy, and, by extension, PlayStation. Here we are two decades later, and all of these interests have stuck with me.
My foray into Final Fantasy wasn't just a gateway into broader Japanese entertainment; it pushed me into trying my luck with other Japanese games, RPGs especially. We're talking about niche releases here, and across the PS2 and Nintendo GameCube, I bought so many duds. Almost immediately, deep-dive research on potential purchases became a necessity. Part of the problem was that I was still using those formative Final Fantasy games as my main point of reference. I was expecting these obscure Japanese titles to stand alongside true classics. I must have been mad.
I was expecting these obscure Japanese titles to stand alongside true classics. I must have been mad
However, every now and then, I'd just stumble upon an absolute gem. By sheer chance, I was out shopping for a game on the day that Dragon Quest made its grand debut in Europe with its eighth instalment, subtitled Journey of the Cursed King. How could I resist that incredible box art (penned by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, no less) despite knowing next to nothing about the franchise? I snapped it up on the spot, and it remains one of my all-time favourites.
It was a similar story with Persona 3, although I'd been keeping tabs on that one through the magic of the internet. I have a crystal clear memory of sheepishly entering the aforementioned GAME (traitor!), walking up to the counter, and asking if they had Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 in stock on launch day — except I was so embarrassed at the prospect of speaking Japanese words that I pretended not to know the full name.
"Do you have Shin... Shin Mega... something? I think it's out today."
"Oh, Persona 3?" replied the guy behind the counter, with zero hesitation.
He revealed that they'd only been sent five copies: three of them were pre-orders and one had been sold earlier. I'm pretty sure I paid a sickening amount of money to snag that last copy (at least, by my cheapskate student standards), but Persona 3 was worth the sacrifice. It was a title that melded an effortless anime art style with tightly designed RPG gameplay. And that jazz-inspired soundtrack! I'd never heard anything like it in a video game. For a long time, I thought Persona 3 was the coolest thing on the planet.
We live in an age where a single Google search will tell you absolutely everything that you need to know about an album, book, movie, show, or game
On that note, part of me misses the days of rolling the dice on a genuinely unknown Japanese entity. We live in an age where a single Google search will tell you absolutely everything that you need to know about an album, book, movie, show, or game. It's been literal decades since I strolled into a physical shop and trawled the stands for something I haven't already heard of. In some ways, that's a positive — I don't want to think about how much money I must have wasted as a youth — but it does feel like that sense of discovery has been lost to time. Or maybe that's just the nostalgia talking.
Speaking of which, nostalgia is an incredibly powerful tool. I've probably played through the opening two hours of Final Fantasy VII about 1,000 times, and it's not just the perfect plot pacing or Midgar's iconic atmosphere that calls me back. It's that desire to feel what I felt all those years ago, even just for a moment. I don't necessarily think that's unhealthy or weird, for lack of a better word. Everyone has something they'd like to experience again for the first time.
I see the original PlayStation as much more than just a console and a means of casual entertainment. When I picked up a PS1 controller for the first time to play Tekken 2 with my older cousins, I couldn't have possibly imagined how that strange-looking grey box would impact my life. Here I am, roughly four console generations later, making a living by writing about video games. Specifically, PlayStation video games. Incredible.