Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano - Super Metroid (mix)

Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano - "Super Metroid (mix)"

Four years ago I received a distressed phone call from my father asking me for my Super Nintendo. It was stored away in a box in their basement. He wanted to give it to one of his coworkers. To say I was taken by surprise by this sudden request was an understatement. I remember my dad being a decent Donkey Kong player when we had our first game system in the early 80s, the great Colecovision, but since then he'd shown no interest in videogames at all, likely only privately acknowledging them as the reason I never grew up to be a great baseball player like he almost was and probably always hoped I would become. Still, even after buying the original NES for me one Christmas and watching with dismay as it took up a perverse amount of my childhood freetime in the years to follow, my parents ponied up the money again and again for a Super Nintendo, a Nintendo 64, a Sega Saturn and a Playstation 2. Today, I've grown up into nothing more than the most casual of gamers, to the point where even sitting down for a quick game of Katamari Damacy or Tekken 4 by myself quickly bores me to tears. I still enjoy multiplayer games, though, one of the few social activities that I can say I love with no hesitations whatsoever. Maybe I turned out just fine after all.

But then this call, just minutes after punching out at work around 9:00 on a Saturday night, shook me to my core. He didn't tell me all the details, only that one of the guys he worked with was looking for an SNES, and that he knew how mine was gathering dust in the basement. This was true; I hadn't touched it for years and had no immediate plans to change that. I suppose I'd always imagined setting up all my old systems on one TV and getting back into all the old games that I'd lived with for so many years. I'd done this to one extent or another before, but three systems on one television set is a mess no matter how many power strips and cable ties you use. It seemed like a project for another day, maybe sometime in the near future when I'd have that great new job and that great new apartment with that extra room that I could use for such endeavours, perhaps helping to bring my life full circle in the process, or something.

He never told me why he needed it, but the strange urgency in his voice sent my imagination spiralling out of control. Was he getting a generous offer for it? Did this stand to help him advance professionally? Would it simply put him in the better graces of his blue-collar colleagues? I hastily agreed, forgetting that I probably could have slept on it and given him a more carefully considered answer two days later on Sunday evening. Later that night, I realized with horror what I'd done, but knew it was too late to go back on my word. Could I really bring myself to willfully take back that which I'd only kept cloistered away in storage for so many years?

The loss of my SNES and all the games I had with it was salved by my hope that getting another used system in the future wouldn't prove to be too hard. They're cheap and plentiful in Japan. Surely finding one here can't be much harder. Right? But more importantly, I still had three cartridges from it in my dresser drawer, the three that captured my imagination from the first time I sat down to play them and still flicker through my dreams from time to time today.

Shadowrun was an isometric, top-down futuristic RPG. Set in Seattle in 205X (?), you play an amnesiac struggling to recover his memories who finds himself the target of corporate-hired assassins. The dark, grimey settings were so beautifully detailed -- trash-strewn streets, flickering streetlights, dive bars and goth clubs -- capturing the sense of scuzzy urban decay and futurism gone bad that I'd always found myself drawn toward even when I was young. Battles were fought with guns and magic. You could hire orcs, trolls, shamen, shapeshifters, or just plain old mercenaries to fight alongside you in shady alleys, underground dungeons, and highrise office buildings. Now and then you'd have to take a break to hack into some computers to steal money (nuyen) and data. What a fantastic world this was. Even during the times I was lost and confused, just wandering around in the streets and in lonely corridors of buildings was still an involving experience that filled me with a sense of freedom that I was so desperately beginning to crave. Games like these were awful subsitutes for the real thing, but at times they were all I had.

A puzzle/action game with a vaguely similar premise to Shadowrun, Flashback was a collection of cyberpunk tropes that veterans of the genre knew all too well and were likely sick of by 1993. But it was all knew and pretty mindblowing to my impressionable young mind. If Shadowrun played like a William Gibson story, Flashback was straight out of Phillip K. Dick, with interplanetary travel and bizarre alien worlds. The animation is some of the smoothest found on the SNES, with physics so realistic that every leap across a gap takes perfect timing and risk assessment. Your character runs, leaps, and rolls in ways that are pretty pathetic compared to most backflipping, 20 foot-high leaping videogame characters, but kind of impressive by realistic standards. Flashback also has some of the longest and best-looking cutscenes I've seen in a pre-Playstation world, which feel like a great payoff rather than an annoyance each time you reach one. It's a thinking-person's adventure, extremely slow-paced and quiet, translated into English but still very, very French in its very essence.

Shadowrun and Flashback were ripe with borrowed ideas. Super Metroid, on the other hand, was just a bigger, more ambitious attempt on the same ideas found in its two predecessors. But those two games --Metroid for the SNES, Metroid II for the Game Boy -- presented a backstory that felt even more rich and epic than any pileup of iterary references ever could. The lengthy introduction sets the mood perfectly, and even though the false start at the beginning is really quite easy to pass, it introduces a sense of dread and apprehension that stays with you for the rest of the game. Silence, all except for the gentle but ominous hum of the space colony hallways (I'd love to fall asleep to this if I could find a long enough recording of it) and the sound of your own footsteps, is all that you hear from the start until the sudden first battle begins. Once the game really begins, as you touch down on the planet's surface and exit your ship, it's immediately the first thing you notice. Sure, it's all very cinematic and has a rich "atmosphere" and whatnot, but beyond such observations it's really the beginning of a very immersive and personal journey.

I've uploaded a mix of several of the game's tracks. It's maybe only about a third of the music in the game, but it's in chronological order and gives a good sense of how it feels wandering the chambers and corridors of planet Zebes, descending further and further into the unknown as the map slowly constructs itself, revealing the enormity of the world below you. If you grew up in the '90s and found yourself confined to an off-limits suburban existence of fenced-off lots or overprotective parental rules, maybe this was your world to explore. It's all so timeless and still sounds wonderful today. How much more for anyone who's plumbed the depths of this game. Music, sound, and well-timed lapses in each have never been used quite as well as this. If you've played Super Metroid, then you've surely come to notice and appreciate both in ways you never expected.

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