Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Replay Value

Edgar in a cave. (Final Fantasy III)
In most Super Nintendo RPGs (role-playing games), you infiltrated an enemy castle or investigated a cave that appeared to be devoid of life. Every few steps, however, the game triggered a random battle and you found yourself fighting monsters who had been invisible (or nonexistent, depending on how you looked at it) a second earlier. Unless you acquired a special item, like Final Fantasy III’s Moogle Charm, that nullified random battles, there was no way to avoid whatever obstacles the game threw at you. Chrono Trigger, released by Square Soft in 1995, was different. You could see, and often avoid, the monsters onscreen before going into battle against them. When you explored the mysterious Ocean Palace, for example, you could see its denizens, and prepare for their attacks, before the fight began.

Crono and co. sidestep an enemy encounter.
Another of Chrono Trigger’s RPG innovations was its replay value. Most RPGs told a linear story—you started as a young, inexperienced warrior, gained power and weapons throughout the course of the game, and defeated the final boss at the end—that remained largely the same each time you played through the game. But after destroying Lavos, Chrono Trigger’s final boss, for the first time, the game allowed you to roll over your levels and equipment and start over, beginning the game as a buffed-up übermensch. This allowed you to complete the game in a fraction of the time, but there was more. Chrono Trigger’s plot involved traveling from one time period to another, fixing problems in the past and then visiting their repercussions in the future. One of the time periods was the “Day of Lavos,” where you confronted the parasitic alien and beat the game. When you started the game over (the option was called “New Game +”), you could access this time period from the very beginning of the game onward, and depending on where you were in the storyline, you would unlock a different ending when you defeated Lavos. For example, if you went to the Day of Lavos right before you defeated the nefarious Reptites in the prehistoric time period, the ending showed your characters transformed into Reptites themselves, because your non-intervention in the distant past altered the development of life on Earth. 

Reptite Crono's mom tries to wake him up.
I defeated Lavos more time than I can count, trying as many different strategies and ideas as I could think of to unlock all of the game’s endings and maximize its replay value. I wanted to master the game, uncover all of its secrets, learn how to beat it from the inside out. I was an obsessive kid, so I also did the same thing with games like EarthBound, Final Fantasy III, and Secret of Mana, which have little replay value compared to Chrono Trigger. Those games remained the same each time I played them, allowing me to memorize lines of dialogue and the attack patterns of enemies; the games could not surprise me, and rather than swallowing me in a mire of boredom, playing a game I had already mastered was a source of comfort. I knew exactly what it could do to me, and I also knew I was strong enough to overcome it.
I continued playing and re-playing games all throughout high school and college. In grad school, though, I became too busy to do anything beyond reading, writing, and grading. I told myself this was evidence of my growth and maturation into an adult. As soon as I finished my last project, however, the itch to play a game surfaced again. I wasn’t interested in finding a new challenge, though. I wanted to re-play Secret of Mana. At the time, I thought it was a mere bout of nostalgia for one of the greatest games ever created. 

Now, I know it was more than that. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my degree, or where I was going to work, or live, or even who my friends would be. I was transitioning from having nearly every element of my life scripted in syllabi to knowing practically nothing about my future; I wanted something I knew I could handle, and Secret of Mana provided an unthreatening challenge.
Secret of Mana is a fairly long game, and beating it usually took me a week or two. In my post-grad school frenzy, though, I blitzed through it in three days. As I watched the ending sequence play out on the screen, I was sad, knowing I would have to tackle a new test now. But I had not played Chrono Trigger in years. What if I had somehow missed an ending? The internet and its libraries of walkthroughs and strategy guides wasn’t around to help me back then, after all.
I started making a list of games, both those I had played before and ones I had missed, to track down and use as a distraction. The list has grown quite long. It might be years before I exhaust it, and by then, I'm sure I’ll be itching to fire up Secret of Mana once again.

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