Confusing memories of load times, dangerous polygons, demo discs and Croc

ps1 logo

PlayStation 1 (1996)

For almost the entire duration of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan in Europe, from the not-so-lengthy 1997 to 2001, I was all over the weekly Nintendo magazines. I had made the conscious decision to get a Nintendo 64 over a PlayStation 1, see. And it was entirely my decision, because I was 6 years old and bratty, so my older brother had to do as I said and ask for the correct console from Santa for Christmas. Never mind that every single one of his friends was getting the much-vaunted PS1, little Burkey wanted the N64 for its Nintendo franchises and he was about ready to befoul his pants if Father Christmas didn’t do the biz.

The magazines though, God almighty. It was mostly the monthly Nintendo Official Magazine I got, the UK equivalent of Nintendo Power. As a kid, it doesn’t even occur to you that organs like this are a propaganda tool of Nintendo themselves and nothing more. But the most delightfully childish aspect of NOM was its insistence on coming up with silly names for its competitors.

Hence, you had the Sega Dreampants, and better than that, the Phony GreyStation. Can you believe that? We are talking about grown men and women editing this magazine here. I could see that one causing a Twitter outrage these days, which I believe is officially defined as no less than four angry tweets from strangers.

The problems with the Slowny PantsStation, opined NOM, were that it wasn’t 64-bit, it had colossally slow loading times, it didn’t have the right games and the discs and cases were fragile and rubbish. Well, I’m not gonna lie. It worked a treat on my impressionable little mind. Honestly, I had to take pity on those CackStation owners.

Never mind the fact that Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider and Gran Turismo 2 in particular all looked amazing at the time, and never mind the fact that the PS1 was hockeying my beloved N64 in terms of sales. You’ll say I should probably mention the Sega Saturn as well here, except it was a console for losers so no, I probably shouldn’t.

My jealousy towards those Sony owners only grew exponentially as belter after belter began to be released for the PS1, and this rich vein of form seemed set to continue with their upcoming PS2 console. I don’t know if this was the case in the UK, but here in Ireland this biumverate of Sony knocked the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube off the store shelves so mercilessly that it seemed to me that Nintendo was on the verge of being smacked down into obscurity.

Increasingly, I was being drawn to Sony, like a vegetarian inevitably falls for the allure of drunken Chicken Nuggets or a hangover breakfast roll (actually, the Nuggets are probably fine). After a few years of tearing my palms open on Mario Party and crying like a little wetty after losing the Donkey Kong arcade game for the 900th time on Donkey Kong 64, I was casting leering glances at Gran Turismo and Metal Gear Solid.

MGS was one in particular that seemed like an impossible piece of work at the time, a game beyond all reasonable expectations one could have from a game in 1998. It’s still a vastly impressive work now, even if the characters have no faces. Speaking of no faces, have you ever played The Granstream Saga?

When I played Final Fantasy VIII for the first time in my best pal’s house, I thought the sword fight in the opening FMV was real life. That’s the God’s honest. At the sequence where you run from the robo-spider, it still looked amazing to me, and the whole thing with its four entire discs seemed like an adventure so vast, I could hardly get my little head around it.

But it wasn’t just the crown jewels of the console that begged my attention. The system stood strong when it came to roping in pals for local multiplayer too – I’ve got plenty of fond memories with multiplayer PS1 games from the next tier down, ones like Risk, Bomberman World, Tekken 3, and Worms.

And the demo discs! If anything had me green with envy, it was the demos. Available with all manner of PS1 magazines, and right there on the cover and in your Nintendo-having face, were all different kinds of wonderful and inexpensively-made, playable sneakpeeks at upcoming games, be they great or putrid.

There were demo discs included with certain games as well, and some people even bought games specifically to get at their demos, ones for the likes of FF7. The Winter Releases ‘98 disc, featuring Spyro, Kula World, Tomba and Gran Turismo was almost worth 20 quid by itself. The disc format worked a treat, you’d have to give Sony ten out of ten for making that stick where the Sega CD failed (and the Jaguar CD never got going).

Now, it had two potential drawbacks, or three if the fragile EU jewel cases are considered. Seriously, those things are so fragile that you’re left having to hold them as if they were a dodo’s egg. They’re arguably worse than the N64 cardboard boxes in that regard. Leaving that aside, firstly, the load times were said to be ghastly. And secondly, discs had a propensity to get scratched and stop working at vital parts of the game.

Well, I have to say that the NOM propaganda worked on me once again. It’s probably the case that some of the badly made rubbish games have horrendous load times, and it’s true that Tomb Raider could be a real offender here. But I have to be honest – the loading is a complete non-issue.

Games do their best to mask the loading times of course – a classic example being the slow whooshing swirly intro to the Final Fantasy battles, followed by a rather slow camera pan from the sky, eventually down to your characters and enemy monsters who have finally had the good grace to load. That said, if you decide to summon a monster during the battle, probably best to go stick the kettle on.

In late 2018 we received news that Sony were once again going to shamelessly ape Nintendo and come out with their own classic console, a miniature PS1. OK, Nintendo don’t have the monopoly on classic consoles. And Sega whored themselves out for that purpose years ago when all kinds of market-trader approved Mega Drives began cropping up. Still, bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?

The classic system was released to little fanfare, being too expensive, too light on good games, with only one (non-Dualshock) controller, and apparently poor emulation. It was never going to have the Crash or Spyro games, given their popular remake trilogies on current-gen consoles. And the Gran Turismo games weren’t likely due to licensing issues. But you’re still missing Final Fantasies 8 and 9, Tomba, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 2, R-Type Delta, PaRappa the Rapper… and the worst omission of all, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Well, I always seem to find myself in two minds when it comes to assessing PS1 games these days. On one hand, I just dismiss them immediately as being ugly, polygonated messes that shot for early 3D and missed terribly, landing with about as much grace as a stuck pig being fired from a cannon into strong headwinds.

Even the must-play games, you wonder if you’re indulging the mutilating polygons that are nearly taking your eye out only because you’ve heard so many good things about that game. You know, by and large, the FF7 graphics are fine. Good for the system, even. And the FMVs were incredible at the time. But have you seen the janky, ridiculous proportions of your overworld characters? They look like rejects from the Action Man factory, limbs barely connected and unmovingly stern faces.

On the other hand, there are plenty of games that made fine use of colours to mask how decidedly un-lifelike it all looked. Hence, Tomb Raider and Medal of Honour look like gack today whereas Spyro, Crash and Croc became fondly remembered and are still passable today. And that’s before even drilling down to PaRappa, Suikoden, Final Fantasy Tactics and the rest of the Squaresoft RPGs that we never saw over here. And yes, I’m afraid I must mention Spice World here too.

But who could have known that the best game on the system would be fully 2D? And this in a gaming world that aggressively demanded 3D at the time, too. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is part of a series that I never had huge love for, and there certainly didn’t seem to be much fanfare when 6 retail copies of the game were almost apologetically released in the UK.

But its incredible spritework, atmosphere, longevity, and most of all the music (actually who am I kidding, most of all the ridiculous voice-acting) made the game into a lesser-known tour de force, one of the greatest games ever made. Far better than either of the hopeless 3D Castlevania efforts the N64 threw up. And you better believe me when I say they never mentioned that fact to me in the magazines.

I struggle to think of many other incredible 2D PS1 games, more’s the pity, and that’s on a system of 1,000 games. Straight away you’ll say Megaman 8, or Megaman X4, X5 and… probably not X6. But picking these games up in PAL territories? Forget it, although the same holds true for Castlevania if we’re being honest.

The PS1 Classic doesn’t appear to have gained much traction. And lamentably, you still can’t play the games on your PS4, whether you have a hankering for disc or digital. That’s as good a reason as any to not let your PS3 become finally dead and buried. It’s never too late to go back to straining your eyes playing Twisted Metal and Die Hard Trilogy. Just make sure your discs aren’t mucked up too badly.

15 November 2019

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