Sometimes it just takes a single frame. Some games are just designed like that. The first time I pulled off a Dragon Punch in Street Fighter II at 10 years old I knew it was something. That it meant something. I knew Street Fighter II was an important video game. I knew I’d be obsessed with it for the foreseeable future.
The Secret of Monkey Island was like that for me. Golden Axe. Mario 64: I ran in tight concentric circles for 15 minutes. I hadn’t even pushed the jump button. I knew I was in love.
But sometimes video games don’t really feel right; not to begin with at least. They have a different set of rules, they’re inaccessible. Sometimes it takes a while to understand precisely what it is that sets it apart, what the fuss is all about.
These are the five video games I totally didn’t get at first and how I learned to love them.
Why I didn’t ‘get’ it…
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first!
Unless you were a player well versed in the debased, unabashed brutality of Demons Souls, you most likely approached Dark Souls with the same level of trepidation as me. You’d heard the praise for Demons Souls, you’d read the glowing reviews for its spiritual sequel, you’d bought the game. You thought to yourself, what fresh hell is this?
Where are my different attacks? Shouldn’t a game like this have a combo system? What the hell is going on here? Why isn’t there even a semblance of a tutorial. Will somebody please, please help me.
All this before you died a dozen times on the first boss.
Dark Souls is unique, obviously. It’s unique in its pacing, unique in its controls, unique in its depth — but it’s a depth that doesn’t become apparent until hours into the experience. In fact, to begin with Dark Souls feels ludicrously shallow. There are limited attack options, limited ways in which to approach enemies, and it all feels so unfair. Not unforgiving (that realisation comes much later) just unfair.
How I ‘got’ it
The reason most of us persisted with Dark Souls was the praise of others. There’s always encouragement because we all understand there is that point, that point where the reward outweighs the overwhelming punishment. The beauty of Dark Souls is that it is a system that can be learned and mastered and, when you do, it feels glorious to navigate. You will always feel weak, you will always feel powerless, but you have the potential to move beyond that.
Every time a new player begins Dark Souls and mentions it on Twitter, or on Kotaku, I watch with interest. When they die endlessly and talk about giving up, I encourage them to keep on. There’s no real moment of clarity in Dark Souls, no moment when it all clicks into place, but there is a point where the journey becomes more important than the destination, the struggle becomes more rewarding than the actual reward. I think that’s the moment when we all ‘get’ Dark Souls.
For me that was the Taurus Demon, the first truly difficult boss battle. It was the satisfaction of defeating an enemy that initially seemed completely impossible, the process of acquiring a skill and then utilising it. That set the tone for the entirety of Dark Souls for me and there was no going back.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty
Why I didn’t ‘get’ it…
I didn’t play the first Metal Gear Solid, so I had no understanding or concept of what to expect when my brother came home from work one day with a shrink-wrapped copy of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty.
I was instantly bewildered.
The controls were stupidly complex. There were design decisions that, at that point in time, just felt unbelievably and needlessly protracted. Digit gymnastics were required to simply fire a weapon at an enemy. I remember feeling acutely shocked at how difficult it was to do anything with any semblance of grace. Raiden was about reliable as a marionette with loose strings. He simply would not do what it was I wanted him to do.
And every mistake I made was followed by an alerted guard. I was getting spotted and killed each and every time. What the hell?
I haven’t even gotten started on the endless cut-scenes and codec conversations.
How I got it…
I think the thing almost all of the games on this list have in common is depth. The second thing is a complete stubborn need to invent their own rules and not give a singular shit about your struggles in the beginning. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty is no exception to this rule.
You have to learn to play Metal Gear Solid because Metal Gear Solid doesn’t play like any other game on the market. In fact, it completely goes out of its way to do things differently, to force you to learn an entire new system of controls just for the hell of it. As frustrating as this is, I wish more games had the balls to pull the same magic trick.
Because mastering Metal Gear Solid 2 gave me access to a completely self contained world and gave me more control over my protagonist than any other game I had played up until that point. Metal Gear Solid 2, on my first playthrough, was a complete chore. On my second? And third? It was a glorious opportunity to perform, to prod and poke at this endlessly deep environment with the new set of skills I had just learned. Mastery of Metal Gear Solid allows for brilliance, it allows for subtlety. It’s a majestic thing, and I wish more people would take the time to master it.
Grand Theft Auto III
Why I didn’t get it…
In hindsight, I have no idea. I had played and loved the original Grand Theft Auto on PC. I absolutely loved it. But when my I first played Grand Theft Auto III on the PlayStation 2 I kept asking myself, ‘is this it?’
Drive around. Shoot people. Drive some more. Shoot more people. I remember thinking it all looked a bit shabby. The controls were clunky. I didn’t understand.
My brother on the other hand was losing. His. Mind. He couldn’t stop playing. He spent hours just creating as much carnage as he could and then trying to survive for as long as possible before the cops got him. I thought to myself, ‘there has to be more to it than this. Is this it? Is this what gaming is now?’
I was asking myself all these dumb questions as my brother and all his friends were passing the controller around, giggling in glee.
It just all felt a bit hollow to me at the time: I didn’t understand the purpose of the game. What was the end goal here? What was the adventure? What were my characters motivations, what made him tick? The world of Grand Theft Auto III felt absolutely dead without these things.
How I got it…
I don’t know if I ever did.
It took the more focused Grand Theft Auto: Vice City to really make me understand what Grand Theft Auto, as we now know it, could be. It was a game with a focused theme, with characters, with a sense of purpose. Grand Theft Auto III felt like a flat flavourless concoction but Vice City was the prototype: a proper entertainment extravaganza.
Grand Theft Auto felt like a prototype compared to Vice City and, in a sense, it was Vice City that made me understand the game that came before it.
Why I didn’t ‘get’ it…
Why would anyone ‘get’ Metroid Prime at first? It deliberately takes every expectation you could possibly have accumulated about how it might look, feel or play, and then subverts them in the most frustrating way possible. Metroid Prime is a genuine troll.
A Super Metroid fan? Fuck you. You’re getting a game that looks like a first person shooter.
Play first person shooters? Fuck you. You’re getting a game that looks like a first person shooter but plays nothing like a first person shooter.
Metroid Prime plays like no other game that came before it. And no other game has played or felt like Metroid Prime since. Metroid Prime is an abomination, a weird mutation that blasted forth like a glorious bottle rocket and then settled, never to be seen again.
And I thought it was so stupid. At first.
I thought it made zero sense. At first.
Why be so deliberately obtuse? Why not make some sort of concession to our expectations? Why not create a game that draws you in, instead of pushing you away. Metroid Prime just doesn’t give a single shit about your expectations, it’s as stubborn as they come. Metroid Prime is take it or leave it. I know so many people who left it, but Metroid Prime couldn’t care less.
That’s the beauty of it, but it took a while to get that fact through my thick skull.
How I ‘got’ it…
I ‘got’ Metroid Prime by playing it, exclusively, to the detriment of all other games. Since Metroid Prime feels like it was built in a cocoon, the best way to play it is in a cocoon.
I was lucky. At the time in my life when I played Metroid Prime, I had no other games to play. I had no other choice essentially. I played, I unlearned everything I had learned and slowly but surely it all began to make sense.
The scanning, the lack of a strafe, the shooting mechanics, the exploration. At one point it just all clicked. Metroid Prime had unique controls because it was a unique video game. Metroid Prime was not a first person shooter, it was something else entirely. It was a game played in the first person (sometimes) but it was a multi-faceted exploration simulator that required something a little more sophisticated than the controls we knew by heart. 10 hours in you found yourself wondering: how could I have played this any other way?
Maybe it was a magic trick. Maybe, by playing Metroid Prime exclusively, I simply convinced myself that its unique control system made sense. But, regardless, after three or four hours the clumsiness slipped away and I was able to simply enjoy what would become one of my favourite gaming experiences of all time.