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The Ones Who Walk Away From Faxanadu (Variations on a Theme By Ursula K. Le Guin)

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few weeks, you might’ve noticed my little emotional explosion over Tim Shaffer’s Psychonauts, a game which I have officially given up on and returned to the shelf of my collection. It’s not the first game that I’ve abandoned like this, however, and now that I’ve been settling into another game, whose Dispatches I’ll begin posting within the next few days, my thoughts have turned to all the games I’ve played and thrown to the wayside. Some of them were pieces of crap I never should’ve played in the first place, some of them were gems whose worth I couldn’t see until it was too late, and others still are titles I’ve still got hanging about, my ambivalence keeping them squarely within reach, but not quite within will.

As much of a confession as it is a catalog, here is a list of those games I’ve walked away from, starting with the namesake of this post:

NES

You can almost hear the Gregorian chants, can't you?

Faxanadu

This is the one I’m pretty ashamed of. When I was 8, my aunt got me this game out of the blue, certain that it was one I’d enjoy, and I didn’t even play it for an entire afternoon before I gave up. Eventually, I was able to exchange it for a copy of Battle Chess, which seemed a decent trade back then and turned out to be one of my favorite NES titles (mostly because nobody else in my house knew how or cared to play chess with me). Today, the fact that I dismissed what is now generally regarded as one of the more artful action RPG’s of the 8-bit era in such an offhanded gesture is one of my biggest gaming regrets, and one that I wish I could take back.

Air Fortress

Yay! I get to play as the Sphynx!

At first, I found this basic shoot-em-up/action-adventure game to be pretty enjoyable, approaching space stations in Gradius mode and switching to a Metroid style once reaching the interior, to blow it up from the inside. All in all, it really should’ve been an elementary school kid’s dream game. Not long after playing a few levels of it, though, the cartridge mysteriously fell between the television set and the bookshelf where my NES was kept when I was younger. Instead of reaching to get it, or asking one of my parents, I just popped another game in and pretty much forgot about it for a solid decade. In high school, however, I remembered where it was and scooped it up once more, believing it might’ve been worth revisiting. I didn’t much care for it all those years later, though. As it stands now, I have absolutely no idea where the cartridge is.

Star Wars

Can we all agree, at least, that the prequels were better than THIS?

You’d think a die-hard Lucas devotee like me would’ve eaten this game up, right? While I really fell for the SNES Super Star Wars series, impressed by their addictive side-scrolling action, this earlier action-RPG game was just way too demanding for me as a 9 year old. The consequences were so high for your performance that I felt way too cautious to make any mistakes– if one of your party died, they were gone for good, unless you had Obi-Wan to revive them. Seeing as I could never find Kenobi, however, I played living in fear that Han, Chewie, Leia or even Luke would get killed before I even got to bomb the Death Star. There’s a problem for how to adapt stories we all know in a linear format for a non-linear medium like games, or at least the more non-linear genres, anyway.

GAME BOY

Bart Simpson: Escape From Camp Deadly

When playing this in 1991, I didn’t even watch The Simpsons, so as far as I cared Bart was just some obnoxious yellow character with a meat-grinder for a head whose face emblazoned countless bootleg t-shirts everywhere. I played it on and off during grade school, though never once really enjoyed it. It was probably one of the first games I dedicated myself to play to completion, not out of fun but out of spite. With its ugly graphics, wonky controls and punishing platforming, this is one of the worst games I’d ever played, and even back then I knew the only reason it got released is because people needed crap for the Game Boy. Oddly enough, I remember getting as far as the Electric Plant level on either the day of the first World Trade Center bombing or Oklahoma City. After that, subpar tie-in games don’t amount to much importance.

Pocket Bomberman

I greatly enjoyed the N64 game’s multiplayer deathmatch, so I thought it’d be a kick to own a portable version. Boy, was I wrong. Very few people I knew back then actually owned a Game Boy, and the few that did had never even heard of this series to begin with. Therefore, I was basically stuck with the game’s single-player mode, and no matter how good any given Bomberman‘s death matches are, the solo campaigns all pretty much blow. I don’t even remember if I took this game to be traded in someplace or whether it just got lost somewhere between mattresses. Neither would surprise me.

SNES

Here's the World War One Flying Ace in his Sopwith Camel...No, wait, is that the Red Baron?

Pilotwings

Here’s a game that really shows how big a difference graphics can make. On the SNES, this game was unconvincing, uninvolving crap to my eyes. Sorry, but Mode 7 paralaxizication (or however you’re supposed to spell it) just doesn’t convince me of flight. On the Nintendo 64, however, the same concept was an absolute joy. A big part of that was probably its smooth-jazz soundtrack during the birdman sequences, but altogether that game was as deeply relaxing as its 16-bit predecessor was ingratiating and annoying.

All Wikipedia had was an image from the NES version. That should tell you a lot.

Mario’s Time Machine

Wow, an educational game that wasn’t fun– who knew? What’s worse is that this also managed to be an educational game that wasn’t educational. I only made it as far as the Thomas Edison and Joan of Arc levels, but by age 10 I already knew more about St. Joan than this game did (though maybe growing up Catholic gave me a head start). This is the problem of educational games– they force you to learn rote information, but can’t easily challenge your creativity, imagination and lateral thinking when it comes to historical facts. Sure, you can put kids in an experience that gives them the feeling of being at Gettysburg, let’s say, but lord help you if all you’re interested in is making them memorize dates and statistics. The only fun part of this game was when you got to surf Mario on his Mode 7 time machine. Other than that, this didn’t even hold a candle to Number Munchers.

Cowabunga!

Biker Mice From Mars

If Faxanadu was the gift-game I shouldn’t have traded in, this was the game I should’ve. I played this game more often than I would’ve liked in the period between the end of grade school in 1995 and when the N64 debuted in the fall of ’96, thanks to the fact that it was the only simultaneous two-player game my little sister could get a grasp of (until Extreme G, anyway, which made me happy if for no other reason than she recognized that the vehicles were based on the Light Cycles from Tron). BMFM was actually something of an interesting experiment at times, since it was a racing game done from an isometric perspective, rather than directly behind the racer, which Mario Kart wowed players with. Parts of me were charmed by this game’s post-apocalyptic design, but as soon as I got a Nintendo 64, this cartridge went straight to the front of the line of our family’s next available garage sale. If I’m not mistaken I believe it garnered less money than an old tape of Mrs. Doubtfire.

NINTENDO 64

Diddy Kong Racing

Obviously I didn’t have the best of luck when it came to racing games. I don’t even know what the hell was going through my head when I wanted to play this game. Everything about it seemed ugly and wrong to me– the clumsy polygons, the wretched controls, the insulting Indian Elephant accent– such that I felt embarrassed about owning it almost as soon as I turned it on, especially seeing how good Mario Kart 64 was. Again, this is a game that got more play from my sister than myself, but once we got the Light Cycle-remix game it kinda dropped from our N64′s radar. Junior High was pretty depressing for me, and the fact that I went out of my way to own this just goes to show how much it was.

Yoshi’s Story

Actually, I just rented this game once, and didn’t even bother playing it for more than an hour. I really enjoyed the SNES Yoshi’s Island, especially its airy muzak and Crayola style landscapes. Shigeru Miyamoto famously created the hand drawn aesthetics of the game as a response to the CG graphics of Donkey Kong Country, a game he saw as all flash and no platforming. In this N64 game, that’s pretty much exactly what you got, only with annoyingly babyish Yoshis instead of gorillas. Might as well have gone straight to the bargain bin, far as I’m concerned.

GAMECUBE

Yeah, I know it's not from the game itself, but trust me, this is close enough.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

This game didn’t impress me much, though I admit it deserves another chance. It’s still on my bookshelf, so maybe someday it’ll get some more play, but it’s not likely. I’m not fond of the horror-survival genre to begin with, and have only really been interested when games use the genre’s limitations as an asset. Here, there’s some creative attempts to use some of the game’s technological aspects itself to provoke the player psychologically, but a lot of this has already been done before. I quit when I recognized a few of the “madness” effects from Metal Gear Solid‘s Psycho Mantis battle, particular the “VIDEO” screen-cut. It’s appropriate that the guys who did this game later were tasked to port MGS to the Gamecube. Of all the games I’ve got waiting to be revisited this might be the one I’ll get to the soonest, though I might want to play it with a friend. I’m not afraid I’ll get scared, mind you; just bored.

PLAYSTATION 2

There's a friendly fellow!

Killer 7

If Eternal Darkness deserves a second chance, this game pretty much demands one. I found the aesthetic style and atmosphere to be really striking, and the schizophrenic storyline had much in the way of promise. What killed this for me, at least for now, has been its control scheme. Now that Goicha Suda’s got his next opus, No More Heroes, coming out on the Wii, it almost seems inevitable that this game will join others like Resident Evil 4 as an eventual motion-sensitive port, which very well might solve a lot of the aiming problems I experienced. Playing Killer 7 felt a lot like how the Sega-CD Snatcher played on a laptop– amputated. At their hearts, they’re both basically light-gun games, and demand to be played with a peripheral, not a gamepad. In the case of Killer 7, it would’ve been nice if it had been designed with that in mind, instead of just playing that way.

Haunting Ground

The only game I’ve played and traded back in the past few years. I understand this was originally meant to be a part of the seminal Clock Tower series, and the fact that it didn’t make it in is kinda indicative of how it feels. It’s a very thin game. I read the concept, and having absolutely no experience in survival horror games, thought it sounded interesting– alone in a castle, chased by a Quasimodo type lout, with only a dog by your side. I played for a few hours before I realized that just because it shared the similar loneliness of Ico didn’t mean it was going to be as good, especially as the game cluttered itself up of “fear moments,” though without any of the amusing, though disarming wit I glanced at in Eternal Darkness. This game was so utterly ordinary and frustrating in its design I never even reached the point where you find the fucking dog. It it weren’t for the stilted controls and the over reliance of puzzle solving this genre stands on, the experience of being locked in a maze with a single, all powerful enemy to evade could be truly terrifying. Until then, there’s just too many distractions here to keep the fear alive. You can’t be scared if you never knew what hit you.

Now, those aren’t the only games I’ve turned by back on. I’m sure in the future there will be more, as well, but for the time being I’ll leave it at that, for now. I’m really more interested in hearing from everybody else here– regular contributors and readers alike, whoever you are– what games you’ve given up in the past. It doesn’t matter how long you kept or played them, only that you never finished them and that it was in the end a conscious decision not to return to them. The games we pick as scapegoats can often be just as important as our most positive experiences. Just as there are those who must see the terrible secret of Olemas in order to appreciate its otherwise utopia, there are those who must play through utter crap in order to appreciate the truly great games out there, and sometimes to realize which games were never crap at all in the first place.

On that invitation, I’ll say good night. Until next time, pleasant dreamers, don’t mind the nightmares as long as you allow them to remain as prologue to what dreams may come…

One Comment

  1. Ben Gemmel wrote:

    Have you ever gone back and tried to finish Faxanadu? It’s such a good game! It’s the first game I ever played (my brother and I received it with the NES), and it’s the reason I’m a gamer today. I still go back and replay it with my brother every couple of years or so.

    Friday, February 22, 2008 at 1:26 am | Permalink

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