There’s a scene in Futurama where the main character is asked why his work locker contains a cap full of yogurt, to which his response is: “I can explain that. Uh, see it used to be milk, and well, time makes fools of us all.” So yeah, the 32-bit era, if you will, does not contain my favourite gaming memories, but I can still recall several remarkable moments from those experimental years.
It may have just been one giant marketing angle, but the referencing to “bits” as a mark of a home console’s graphical power was actually quite useful and I can vividly recall my first exposure to anything “32-bit” being a magazine picture depicting a Tyrannosaurus rex seemingly ready to tear its way off of the page and into reality itself.
I assume that this was a screenshot for the mediocre Lost World: Jurassic Park tie-in, but at the time I had not seen anything as fantastic as this claiming to be in a video game before.
One of my personal problems with the introduction of the 32-bit gaming systems was in the timing. Quite simply; I wasn’t yet ready to leave the previous round of home consoles behind. The 16-bit market, if you want to call it that, was still really strong at this time and I’ve always thought that many companies (Sega especially) were far too hasty in leaving it behind.
Whilst I didn’t adopt a 32-bit system during their respective release dates, my inauguration to this new brotherhood would inevitably still come about after seeing my friend’s Sony PlayStation in action.
Titles such as Soul Blade and Mortal Kombat Trilogy quickly won me over as did an odd little offering called Time Commando; a basic 3D action game where the main character would exclaim: “Shit!” when lifting a heavy club. I remember thinking that was funny!
Surprisingly though, the PlayStation games that left the biggest impression on me were Twisted Metal: World Tour and Resident Evil.
As I said back in my article on video game surprises: the Twisted Metal series is notable as the progenitor of the 3D car-combat subgenre. It features an array of over-the-top levels and drivers, and combines high-octane thrills, mindless violence and fast cars.
Twisted Metal: World Tour is a 32-bit game with a very noticeable milk-yogurt factor; your typical player today would be horrified by its lo-res visuals and triangular polygons that make up the graphics, but back in 1996 this game looked amazing and I found it to be fiendishly good fun too.
What really awed me about it was the level of interactivity the player has over the environment. World Tour has all sorts of features packed into its expansive stages including a working subway system, ramps, power ups, icebergs and my personal favourite; a destructible Eiffel Tower!
I can remember requesting to play this game all the time just so I could see the Tower explode and fall on its side; it was definitely one the most spectacular moments I had witnessed in gaming up to that point.
Resident Evil is another notable game from the period, but I saw decidedly little of it due to the fear factor involved with playing the damn thing.
I’m not ashamed to admit that this game absolutely terrified me when I first saw it in motion. Horror titles rarely have such effect on me today of course – such is the curse of one who has been jaded to the point of absolute numbness – but as a ten-year-old kid the action was genuinely frightening.
The famous scene where you first witness a zombie eating its victim’s flesh and then it slowly turns around to face you… It might look hilarious by today’s standards of zombie-obsessed media, but what a moment it was.
I don’t think console games had ever truly nailed that cinematic feeling before the 32-bit era and this scene in particular is a good example of how it could be accomplished.
As terrifying as Resident Evil was to simply watch however, playing it for yourself proved to be almost unbearable. I’d previously watched my friend walk up to a prone zombie dozens of times and casually kick its head clean off, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of one of those things ever getting near to my character.
“Just bash the buttons when it grabs your ankle” was the instruction, but I just couldn’t stomach it. I’d end up wasting half of Jill’s pistol ammunition trying to shoot a crawling zombie thus leaving no bullets for the harder sections to come.
It didn’t help that my friend – who I should mention was much older, crueler and less gullible than I was at the time – played up the game’s horror factor for all it was worth when demoing it to his friends.
“Do not go through that door…” he might say, or “Trust me, this next bit is shit-scary!”; anything just to screw with people even more.
These were fun times I suppose, but something was definitely missing. I was amazed by some of the sights I was seeing on PlayStation, but for some reason it still didn’t prompt me to request one for Christmas. Much like Nintendo would end up doing, I remained content to simply ride out much of the 32-bit period with my existing 16-bit library.
Another reason for this stems from Sega’s ineffectual job of advertising its own wave of 32-bit hardware. As a dedicated Mega Drive user, I could easily have been persuaded to upgrade to their new Sega Saturn console if the accompanying marketing campaign had been in anyway decent, but alas it was not.
The European launch was especially lacking and it’s easy to tell because by the time the console released in the middle of 1995, I myself knew next to nothing about it despite being an avid fan of Sega’s previous works.
When I finally did acquire a Sega Saturn one Christmas it was already long into its terminable days on the market and the writing was well and truly on the wall at that point.
For instance, on one of GamesMaster Magazine’s yearly ‘top games of all time’ lists, I can remember there being virtually no Sega Saturn titles featured whatsoever except for Sega Rally which somehow managed to secure the coveted number 3 spot due to it being an office favourite at lunchtimes.
Sega just didn’t have the look of a professional outfit anymore and their manhandling of the Saturn only got worse as time went on.
I did manage to eek some enjoyment out of the console, but its weak 3D graphics capability and anemic line up of games could be felt in every way that mattered.
The official Sega Saturn magazine did its best to hype things up with its teen-orientated writing style and unrealistically high review scores, but even they grew dissatisfied with the console’s performance, especially when it was revealed that the Japanese exclusive mega-hit Grandia wouldn’t be getting translated for a wider release.
Today, the Saturn’s infamously complex architecture makes it resistant to emulation and so a few essential exclusives such as Panzer Dragoon Saga, Burning Rangers and Dragon Force necessitate having the native hardware at your disposal.
It is also often cited by retro collectors as an “import darling” and whilst I agree the NTSC-J game library is more accessible for English speakers than the Sega Mega-CD ever was, you really need a modified console to get the most out of it because region-swapping cartridges and 60hz concerns can become a real headache for Western users.
Many of the best titles for the Saturn happen to be the victims of short print runs too and so you can expect many of them to fetch an extremely high price on the secondhand market.
I’m slowly starting to move away from retro game collecting as I feel like I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns with the titles I keep around. Sometimes this eventuality is for the better – as a maligned 50hz-locked copy of Alien Soldier will clearly illustrate – and sometimes it isn’t, but running antiquated video game hardware on a modern television is another challenge that I seldom enjoy dealing with.
The single best piece of advice I can give to potential collectors is this:
Always have a target in mind and know your limits.
In terms of video game collecting, unless you are possessed with a very deep and natural passion for the activity, it’s simply not realistic to assume that you’ll be able to find every title ever made for a particular format, so try to set a goal.
Do you want to collect games that you can still play or boxes and discs that you’ll hoard in a giant closet? Maybe you want to own all the RPGs for a particular format, all the titles that support more than 2 players or perhaps everything released for a console’s PAL or NTSC markets.
Nowadays I try to keep my personal collection down to a few quality titles that I can’t see myself without; usually these are games that I still enjoy playing, but wouldn’t be able to replicate on more advanced hardware due to the lack of a good re-release or emulation option.
In terms of the 32-bit era specifically, if I had to name one game in my collection that prompts the fondest memories of that time then it would have to be Tomb Raider.
Still a marvelous game after all this time, Tomb Raider holds the distinction of being the first game I ever played for Sega Saturn and as I said previously on CelJaded: it’s a game that perhaps single-handedly brought the 32-bit era to the attention of the masses with its raw quality and the broad appeal of the Lara Croft character. Although I must attest this success is really due to the superior PlayStation and PC versions that I didn’t actually play!
I talk about the topic of nostalgia quite regularly on this blog; how I’ve distanced myself from it in recent years, but let’s be clear: I can still be susceptible to it.
Unlike the modern interpretation though; where feeling nostalgic is seen as a good thing, I ascribe to the more classical definition where nostalgia is a painful emotion.
I respect the past and try my best to learn from it, but I don’t remain a slave to such memories. Like most things, the 32-bit era and even retro games in general aren’t always the fresh glass of milk that we remember, but rather the sort of stale yogurty mess that’s never as good as it used to be.
That’s why you always leave a note.