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Gaming in Retrospect I: R-Type on the SNES
The ship ascends to the launch pad and is catapulted into the depths of space. I’m given full control of the vessel. Faced with wave after wave of alien enemies, I find that not only am I alone in this Rambo-like undertaking, but after blasting my way through the hordes with a colorful array of offensive and defensive weaponry, there’s an evil creature several times bigger and better armed than my own ship waiting for me at the end of every level. I don’t even know why I’m fighting – everything’s in Japanese.
This was in the early 1990s. I was playing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System brought home by our Aunt who worked in Japan for a while. The cartridges that came with it, unsurprisingly, were labeled in katakana (or hiragana, whatever). Regardless, I tried and finished game after game, with only half an idea of what was going on and why I was doing what the game wanted me to. This was how it was with R-Type, the side scrolling shoot-em-up game where you take command of a meagerly-armed space fighter craft and basically lay waste to what I assumed were evil alien life-forms and technology. Well, after you die the first few times, of course. In every level.
This is what defined R-Type for me: it was suicidal. The very prospect of that miniscule ship – outnumbered and outgunned – taking on entire colonies, armadas, and groups of gigantic creatures was simply suicidal. In R-Type death is your only certainty. There really is no other way. There are “correct” ways to navigate the stages and kill your enemies, and you only learn that through experience. Bad experiences. Like dying several times on a single level on every level. Other than that, R-Type was pretty basic. The plot seemed obvious enough though I was seeing Japanese characters: you and your ship seem to be the last hope of your kind in a large scale war against alien enemies. Somehow, the brightest idea at the time seemed to be to send you alone to take the battle to the enemy. Your ship is like the Master Chief of your nonexistent fleet.
The game, developed in the late 1980s and played on the SNES, wasn’t impressive pixel-wise. It was sufficient, however, in making you feel the frustration of inevitable repetition, the bitterness of repeated defeat, and finally, the sweet taste of triumph – at least until the next level. I remember what my good friend and casual games designer told me about a main difference between hardcore and casual gamers. Casual gamers needed to be “eased into” a game. Their tolerance for difficulty in something they’re supposed to casually enjoy is very limited. I can imagine R-Type (or similarly frustrating games like Final Fight) was probably the measure of the hardcore gamer back in the day when I was barely a teen. The hardcore gamer, however, isn’t a masochist. We don’t enjoy failure and cherish repeated frustration. We’re perfectionists when it comes to beating a game. We want it BEAT – regardless of what it takes. In retrospect, games like R-Type showed me the importance of the potent combination of learning (through inevitably failing), practiced skill, persistence, and patience.
As my ship faced off against the last boss, and upon defeating it had to escape in a speedy race against time as my surroundings collapsed, I could practically smell success. As I came out alive from the interstellar rubble, and as I saw that the darkness of space before me was void of the now-familiar hordes of alien enemies I’ve been fighting for innumerable levels, a wave of relief hit me. The Japanese credits rolled. It was over. I beat the game. I beat myself and my own limitations. I outplayed levels I normally couldn’t; I outmaneuvered monstrous creatures that took up more than half the screen with precise motor skills and hand-eye coordination; my patience and persistence won out as I learned and relearned and made the lessons learned count. That was a feeling reserved for victors. A feeling reserved for hardcore gamers. [by G Dino]
Gaming in Retrospect is a series of articles detailing the games that author Gino R. Dino played back in the day. Games that made an impact on his views as a gamer.