The internet's turbines are powered by "REMEMBER WHEN?" stories of '90s nostalgia, but my friend, I am not afraid to stand here and tell you the '90s sucked. Okay, the general economic stability was nice, as was the peaceful afterglow that immediately followed the end of the Cold War, but I'm not in a rush to retreat to '90s pop culture. Almost everything we consume now—movies, TV shows, cartoons, and video games—is better than it was in the past. Even the stuff that was better is usually available as a cheap download or via a stream. Why do I want to go back to the '90s? So I can rewind my shitty-sounding Guns N' Roses tapes with a pencil after my knock-off Walkman chews them up? Yeah, that was awesome.
Still, I won't deny the death of the '90s took some special rituals with it. When people my age lament the death of video stores and the video game rentals they offered, I feel genuine sadness. These days, watching a movie or buying a game is as easy as opening Netflix or Amazon. That's fine, but piling into my family's car and driving to the video store to rent a Nintendo or Super Nintendo game is a Saturday afternoon tradition that I dearly miss. It wasn't just a pleasant diversion my parents wove into their weekend shopping, though. Renting games—especially SNES RPGs—let me connect with other RPG fans through the completed playthroughs they left in the cartridge's memory.
My family didn't have a ton of money, and RPG cartridges could easily exceed $100 in Canada. I'll never forget giving my father $115 so he could buy me Final Fantasy 6 for the SNES. (The cashier said, "This must be for someone very special." My father said, "Nah.") For a long time, I rented my RPGs instead of buying them. The store we patronized offered $10 a week for a game, which afforded me enough time to get into an RPG, but rarely enough time to finish it. Luckily, heroes from rentals past loaned me their strength. I could almost always count on the first save file in a rented RPG to place me somewhere near the final boss.
These fellow enthusiasts would forever remain invisible; all I ever had was a near-complete save file assuring me that someone else out there cared about Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire 2, Final Fantasy 6, and other classic RPGs that my peers knew little about. Their names ranged from mundane "BEN's" and "JOE's" to whatever curse words were filthy enough to spell out with five or six letters. "FUCKER," wherever you are, I appreciated your Dragon Warrior 3 save file and I hope you're doing well.
Whatever my patron was named, my routine was to get as far into my rented RPG as possible before my time was up. When the deadline loomed, I'd latch onto the hero of the first save file and eliminate the Mana Beast, Dark Gaia, or whomever else I was up against. It was a good strategy that served me well. Yes, I could re-rent an RPG and try to power through it myself, but that wasn't always possible since my brothers and I took turns renting games from week to week. My older brother gravitated toward hockey and basketball games. He didn't care if I had the Mana Beast on the ropes and needed just a little more time to polish it off.
My team-ups with heroes from the past weren't without their shortcomings. Using old save files to warp to the future sometimes yielded spoilers and confusion. Take my borrowed save file for Secret of Mana as an example: I'd gained the ability to soar through happy blue skies on the back of a white dragon in my own playthrough, but when I opened the save file, I discovered a world on the verge of apocalypse. I had no idea what events had placed the world in dire straits, though at least I had enough sense to say "Well, I guess I need to fix this." And I did.
Peeking at Final Fantasy 6's end game save file was even more baffling—almost to the point of being paralyzing. My own playthrough only took me partway through the World of Balance, where a power-hungry Empire encroached on an otherwise green world. I loaded the save file and was introduced face-first to the World of Ruin, a wildly altered landscape with red skies, poisoned seas, and few familiar landmarks.
"Well," I said, "I guess I need to fix this." I didn't even come close. I had no idea where to go, or what to do, and I got the impression that "The Literal End of the World" wasn't a plot thread I could fill in without seeing Armageddon for myself. That's when I decided Final Fantasy 6 was a must-buy, price be damned. I was ready to perform wetwork to get my hands on the game.
Ultimately, nobody died for my copy of Final Fantasy 6. (That you know of.) I did odd jobs and successfully saved up, minus an incident or two when my little brother found my cash stash and "borrowed" a few bucks for cigarettes. Without exaggeration, Final Fantasy 6 wound up being one of the most important purchases of my life. It inspired me to find my way online, meet more fans, and write for them. I might not have ever made it without the intrigue that visited me after peeking at the save file of the nameless RPG fan who'd forged a path for me in the cartridge's save battery.
I think the mere existence of those near finished save files was a sign of deep solidarity between those of us who rented RPGs. No matter which RPG I rented, there was always one file, usually the first file, that served as a portal to the endgame. We only added to those files; we never erased them. We knew how important they were, even though we couldn't tell each other. We just understood.
Today, connecting with RPG fans is easy. You can high-five a stranger in an MMORPG. You can find a kindred soul on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comment section of an article. You can listen to RPG-centric podcasts. I acknowledge I'm spoiled beyond belief, and I've no desire to trade the convenience of modern fandom for the vague, scattered salutations that were the norm in the '90s. Still, I look back on those days fondly. The drives to the video store, the challenge to get through an RPG within a week, and then turning to an old save file to glimpse at what awaited me. It was reassuring to know someone out there cared about RPGs as much as I did, even if I'd never meet them.