Almost as far back as I can remember, I've been a gamer. At the age of four, my family got an original Nintendo with the Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt and the World Class Track Meet combo game — light gun and power pad included. Until I was in high school, that Nintendo (and the ageing Atari 2600 that lived forgotten in my closet) was all I personally owned in the way of gaming.
As often as possible I'd rent games for it — but even more often, I'd go to my neighbours' house and play whatever they had. Because of this I played a wide range of games, from fighters and racers, to adventure games and sports titles.
But somehow, for all those years, I never once played (or watched) a single RPG.
That all changed when I was in the sixth grade. It was then that I got my first job (as a paper boy). It only netted me about $US120 a month, but as a kid, that might as well have been a fortune. And so with my second paycheck in hand (the first was spent on my own TV), I went down to the local used game store to buy a Super Nintendo.
It should be noted that, at this point, the Sega Saturn, PlayStation, and Nintendo 64 were all already on the market. To me, this meant I could get a used SNES and several games for a fraction of the price it would cost me for one of those new systems — and given the enormous SNES library, there were heaps of games I hadn't yet played. So many, in fact, that I had no idea where to start.
So, using my mum's (now ancient) flip phone, I called a friend who had a Super Nintendo to ask him what games I should buy with my remaining $50. His answer was direct and simple: Final Fantasy III (which is now more commonly known by the Japanese numbering as Final Fantasy VI). It was a game I had never even heard of. I searched through the glass case filled with SNES games looking for it. For each shelf in the case, the games got more and more expensive, with $5 games jammed together on the very bottom, $10 games on the shelf above that, and so on. After about a minute, I found Final Fantasy III on the top-most shelf with a price tag of $35.
I was stunned. I had planned to walk out of the store with a handful of games — at least five or more. But if I bought this game, I would have two games — maybe three at max. The game store owner was no help. He hadn't played it, though he had heard it was good — hence the price.
I must have spent 30 minutes wandering around the store, asking about this game and that one, looking at all the different ways I could spend my $50. But when it came down to it, my friend had recommended one game and one game only. He called it the best game he had ever played and said that it was the one game I had to buy. Still, I was hesitant to give in to the peer pressure. Finally though, I made my choice and made my way out of the store, with my used Super Nintendo and two games: Illusion of Gaia… and Final Fantasy III.
When I got home, I eagerly hooked up the SNES to my little TV and began to play …Illusion of Gaia. I played it for several hours and enjoyed it — it was good enough for what it was. But eventually I got stuck near the end and gave up. After lunch I put in Final Fantasy III, not with any kind of excitement but because it was the only other game I had.
I played for an hour, then another, and then another. Little by little, I was struck by a realisation that I had never even considered before: Video games could tell a complex story.
A little context. As a young kid, I was very much into science fiction and fantasy — especially Star Trek and Star Wars. I watched as much as I could on TV and rented whatever I could from video stores. But for me, the most constant frustration of that time was walking through the library and seeing all the Star Trek and Star Wars books on the shelves that I didn't have the ability to read yet. It was torture knowing that there were more adventures out there that I was unable to experience. I did a lot of audiobooks, but at the time they were all abridged — which was more than a bit disappointing when I found out what that meant.
My father helped as best he could. I remember him reading me Star Wars: The Last Command and Jurassic Park as bedtime stories. But even that way, it would take months to get through a book. So you could say I was driven to read, and by the time I hit fourth grade I was making my way through the Lord of the Rings.
So for me, Final Fantasy III combined two things I loved: games and stories. But RPGs were far more than just reading a novel with animated sprites as visual aids. Instead of passively experiencing the adventure like I would in a book, I was now at the centre of it all. While I didn't shape the detailed, complex story, it was through my efforts that the characters won or lost. I was part of the adventure. This was the one thing that books, films and TV shows could never hope to do.
So when I look back now, I see that without buying Final Fantasy III that day, I might have never discovered JRPGs. Without JRPGs, my interest in Japan and Japanese games may have never blossomed into a passion. And without that passion, there's a good chance I wouldn't be in Japan right now writing this.
So in a very real sense, the single most pivotal decision of my entire life was made as a twelve-year-old kid, debating whether to buy a Super Nintendo game or not.
That is a terrifying thought.