It’s been almost 19 years since that fateful birthday for which I received my very first video game console, a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The pack-in game, of course, was the devastatingly great Super Mario World. But my grandmother had also sweetened the pot with the addition of Hudson’s Super Adventure Island. I’m absolutely certain she had no idea what Super Adventure Island was (or what a Super Nintendo was, as evidenced years later when she rented a copy of Double Dragon and attempted to stick it into the VCR, bless her heart). But through her gift, she inadvertently gave me an education.
Lesson One: The Rules
Looking back on Super Adventure Island, it’s amazing how well the game serves as a perfect primer for platform gaming. The first few stages introduce the mechanics. The difficulty ramps up. There’s an underwater level. There’s a mine cart level. There’s a level where the ground is slippery. The final boss has two forms. This game taught me, in effect, how to play games.
But there’s a bigger lesson here too. The way video games share these common elements extends to other forms of media (or, dare I say, art). Films generally have a three-act structure. Popular music uses chord progression in a way to which our ears and brains respond positively. By attuning ourselves to these common elements, we learn how to more closely discern when someone’s using them particularly well. Moreover, once we learn the rules well enough, we seek out things that dare to break them.
Lesson Two: Nostalgia
Nostalgia’s an odd thing. You find an old book, watch a favorite TV show, load up a classic game, and you get that feeling, that compulsion to exclaim, “Oh man, I remember this!” Taking Master Higgins through the old stages once more, I’ve done it so many times, it’s almost mechanical. I remember where to find the hidden stars and fruits. Where certain enemies will appear. Feels nice. When I was a kid, I thought the seaweed in the underwater stage looked like swiss cheese, and the floating platforms somehow reminded me of teeth, chomping on some invisible foodstuff as they moved up and down.
Those are the connections a young mind makes when it stares at these things for hours on end. And hours on end stare I did, because when you’re a kid it’s so hard, you know? I got through the game in 30 minutes just now and it’s a little mind-blowing, because I spent months back then just getting through a few stages. And then you think, well, yeah, at that age it can be hard not to pee your pants, let alone display the fine motor control required to finesse Higgins all the way through his super adventure. But somehow I never tired of playing it.
I still think this game is pretty fun, but I’ll never enjoy it like I did when I was a kid. This is the danger of nostalgia, and the lesson: you can’t go home again. Both inside the games industry and out, we’ve seen over the last few years the recycling of our youth. But all the remakes, reboots and virtual consoles (and moreover, class reunions, Facebook albums, and college-town pilgrimages) won’t bring back the thrill of last week, last year or last decade. Memories are important, but it’s easy to get caught in reverie in expense of the present.
Lesson Three: It Doesn’t Need to be Art to be Art
If there’s one part of Super Adventure Island that stands out far beyond the rest, it’s the music. God, the music. Yuzo Koshiro. Ys! Streets of Rage! ActRaiser! This is a man who can bend a sound chip to his will.
I was hanging out in a video game-themed bar in Tokyo, desperately trying to describe this game in my piss-poor Japanese (it has another title in Japan, natch). In a moment of desperation, I hummed the first stage’s theme music, and everyone’s face lit up simultaneously in recognition. Koshiro, within the limits of the Super Nintendo’s technology, had created a piece of music we all remembered 19 years later.
I had a high school English teacher that chucked the classics and had the students decide by vote what to read. We were a decently bright group, and I don’t think we ever stooped to Harry Potter or anything like that. But even if we had, his grand thesis was that would be okay too. The important thing was to have a serious discussion about how whatever we were reading was written and about whether it was effective. It was to seek out those moments of brilliance in works that no one had ever labeled “art.”
This is the lesson that I think we, as game fans, know better than most: it doesn’t have to be “art” to be art. There are moments of brilliance to be found in the most unlikely of media. Parsing out these moments and taking a good look at them, I think, is the mission. The official label, whether it’s “art” or something else, will come with time.