In yesterday's episode of Retronauts Micro, I contemplated the mental disconnect between my first proper experience with divisive RPG Dragon Quest VII and the secondhand reputation it had accumulated over the past 15 years as everyone (from friends to coworkers to critics to internet strangers) slagged it and its glacial pacing.
Now that I've finally properly played the game on 3DS, though, the pacing turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the game, to the point that I deliberately took my time and advanced the story far more slowly than necessary so that I could soak up the atmosphere and charm of the game world. I had to bow out of my playthrough after about 15 hours, at least for the time being. Another RPG fan defeated by the game's dullness? Nothing could be further from the truth; it's just that I needed to focus on reviewing a different massive 3DS RPG for this week. If I didn't work in the games press, a job choice that effectively precludes my ever playing anything for pleasure rather than for the sacred act of Content Creation, I'd currently be powering my way through the latter portions of DQVII.
Still, my time with the game has been much different than I expected from all the badmouthing I've heard directed at it over the years. DQVII certainly has its fans, but even among my internet social media circles (which is disproportionately high on Dragon Quest enthusiasts versus the rest of the English-speaking world) those supporters constitute a decided minority. And I realize the 3DS remake of the game takes out some of the more unpopular elements of the original, such as early puzzle dungeons, while adding in some much-needed features to minimize the need to hunt blindly for essential key items. Even so, I loved the game's leisurely beginning and felt no real impatience to rush to combat. Series lead Yuji Horii has said DQVII was inspired by Myst and that he wanted to push against the convention that fighting alone should be the key to advancement in an RPG. I am all in favor of that philosophy.
Anyway, this has hardly been the first time I've ever found myself surprised by how much I've enjoyed a game that conventional gamer wisdom tells me I should hate. In fact, I was put in mind of what may well have been my first time to experience that disconnect just last week, when game historian Frank Cifaldi put together a post compiling every professional EarthBound review published in the U.S. media back in 1995.
EarthBound launched right as my interest in RPGs had shifted from casual curiosity to insatiable thirst, so I was there right at day one to buy it. This, despite the fact that (as you can see from Cifaldi's roundup) every magazine review I read said it was a shameful, terrible game. Ugly, childish, stupid. That its "8-bit" graphics were a disgrace, especially coming so closely on the heels of the sublime Donkey Kong Country!
Yet I found myself enjoying EarthBound despite the fact that every professional said I shouldn't. The graphics were a little retro, but in an interesting and creative way. "Had these people ever actually played 8-bit games?" I wondered, entranced by the trippy combat background graphics and surreal sampled audio that in no way could have worked on any 8-bit console. I found the game's world — full of real-world locations like department stores and hospitals — a refreshing change of pace from typical RPG fantasy fare. But I couldn't shake the sensation that I was somehow wrong about EarthBound, that it was in fact terrible and I was just being ridiculous for enjoying. I carried that perception for a decade, until I finally came around to appreciate the game on its own merits.
I experienced a similar sense of self-doubt when I played SaGa Frontier for PlayStation a few years later. After Final Fantasy VII, I (like everyone else) was eager to see what Squaresoft would turn out as its next traditional RPG. What I found was... an RPG that adhered only to its own innate conventions, the rules of the SaGa series, which I lacked the proper context to fully understand thanks to Square's failure to localize any of its 16-bit predecessors. Still, I really enjoyed the game, despite its opacity, and I played through one of its storylines (a 20-hour endeavor) only to get hung up on the final boss due to my failure to completely understand some of the game's fundamental mechanics. Rather than taking the time to educate myself and have another go, though, I gave up. Because, after all, every review I read of SaGa Frontier said it was terrible, a disgrace to Square's name, a confusing and nonsensical and ugly game absent anything resembling "fun." So clearly the problem was that the game wasn't good, not that I simply needed to learn its inner workings.
Of course, it works the other way, too. I remember watching IRC conversations in which people gushed enthusiastically about Xenogears and its incredible plot twists. Meanwhile, I continued playing the game in my own time, waiting patiently for something interesting and unexpected to happen. Watching the credits roll after 70 hours on the game clock, I regretfully accepted that the game had nothing particularly interesting to offer and that everyone else was terribly mistaken. (And I was kind of a jerk about it, too, posting in forums full of Xenogears fans about how it was a terrible fighting game as well as a dumb Neon Genesis Evangelion ripoff, and using a message board signature with a drawing of the main character's severed head tucked away inside a bowling ball bag.) I had a similar reaction to Banjo-Kazooie, which enjoyed no end of effusion in reviews... but which I found to be a tedious, overly complicated slog afflicted with an utterly godawful visual aesthetic.
You'll note that all of these examples date from the '90s, and there's a reason for that: Not too long after Dragon Quest VII launched here as Dragon Warrior VII, I became a member of the games press myself. Suddenly, I was the person whose opinion on a game became a matter of public record. The so-called tastemaker, whose scores would double as confirmation for those whose opinions lined up with mine and a target for those who disagreed. (Just today, someone on the NeoGAF forums responded to me with a good-natured barb about a review I wrote in 2006. 2006! That's a full decade ago, in case you were wondering about the hell-like fury of a gamer whose opinion has been scorned.)
While I enjoy hearing from people who typically agree with my opinions and who look to my reviews for advice on picking up new game releases, I'm always less sanguine when I see people complain about how my writing has turned public sentiment against this game or the other. That's giving me way too much credit for influence, for one thing, but it also means I've probably been responsible at some point or another for making a potential fan of a game second-guess their tastes. Which is, needless to say, the absolute last thing I want to do. Sure, I get paid to publish my opinion about games, but no one should ever take my word over the evidence of their own experience. I've made that mistake, and it's precisely that: A mistake.
Fortunately, today's game enthusiasts have a much wider array of opinions to draw on. Rather than having a few perspectives funneled through a handful of magazines (and maybe USENET, if you were lucky enough to be on the Internet 20 years ago), we have hundreds of websites on Metacritic, dozens of huge forums, YouTube, game-specific communities, and more. Sites like USgamer aren't a booming megaphone screaming at you in an empty room, but rather a tiny voice in an auditorium full of people shouting (generally they're shouting, "Hey guys, what's up!").
Although, speaking of USENET, what you'll ultimately find if you trace video game-related conversations there back to the early ’80s is that the discourse around the medium hasn't really changed all that much. The only thing gamers love more than games is arguing with each other about games.