First, and apology to the Wife With One F because her gift this year was awesome as it is always. With her about to be in school full-time money's tight, but she managed to track down a Doctor Who Cybermen Factory Character Building set on the cheap. They're basically LEGO, and I spent a happy evening constructing it with a bottle of wine on hand, a fez on my head, and "A Good Man Goes to War" on the TV. Thank you, sweetie.
But like most of you I'm sure there was one gift you got when you were a child that simply topped everything else before or since. It's the gift that if you hadn't gotten it Hollywood would probably have cast you into a bitter old person trying to ruin everyone's holidays forever. Your Rosebud, get it? For me, it was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
Nothing else I have ever gotten on Christmas has ever really come close. Here's why.
My parents didn't really have a lot of money when I was growing up. Oh, we never went hungry or anything, but they both worked middle of the road gigs with not a lot of hope for upward mobility. The SNES was the first time I can remember wondering if I'd asked for too much from them.
It launched for $199 in 1990, which is about $340 in today's dollars. That's near what the good version of the Wii U sells for, but look at what you can do with a Wii U. It comes with a browser, you can get Netflix on it for free, it has a social network, it's backwards compatible with the Wii and uses the same controllers, and God knows what else. The SNES came with two controllers and Super Mario World.
That's to say nothing of the games. When Final Fantasy IV (II) came out in America in 1992 it was $69.99. For comparison, Final Fantasy XIII-2 came out this year for $10 less. Add in inflation, and the first 16-bit RPG was $113 to own! The SNES was a high-dollar purchase, so much so that they shipped them at night because of worries that gangs would hijack systems to resale.
So when I opened that box and saw not only the system, but Super Castlevania IV staring at me, I knew that mom and dad had definitely gone without something to provide this for me. And I knew that it would keep on being that way for a while to come because those games didn't get any cheaper. There was always at least one game under the tree for the rest of the life of that system.
The SNES is the last system I can remember not believing was possible. Look, I am as impressed as anyone by the power of my PS3, but when I put Final Fantasy XIII up against Final Fantasy XII on the PS2, it's not exactly like I can't believe the difference. The same can be said for The Legacy of Kain games on the PS2 and Soul Reaver on PS1.
Even when you look at the move from 16-bit to 32-bit, or the Super Nintendo to the N64, there's a distinctly unfinished quality to the games. As cool and fun as Resident Evil or Pilotwings 64 or any other great game from that era that isn't Ocarina of Time, you can feel the fact that the people who were making them knew something better was coming along soon. The games they made were good, but they were good the way a homemade burger is better than McDonald's. They weren't good like how a gourmet steak is better than a McDonald's burger.
By comparison, look at The Legend of Zelda compared to A Link to the Past. Five minutes into it you say, "Oh, this is what they were going for." It's one of the reasons there were so many Super titles. It's because every new entry in a franchise made its NES predecessor look like a rough sketch. These looked like final finished comic book pages, and played in ways that were never possible before.
I'm also going to go out on a limb here and say that SNES perfected storytelling on console systems. I've never been particularly aware of why people complained about the lack of endings in NES games. Why did it matter? Even something epic like Crystalis or engaging as Shadowgate never really rose above the level of a pulp novel. The memory restrictions were just too great.
Then we got Illusion of Gaia, Chrono Trigger, and even simple sidescrollers like Super Metroid or Earthworm Jim became able to engage an audience because they could infuse characters with enough physical personality to make you care about them despite a lack of real overall story. For the first time playing a game could actually be as immersing as reading a good novel.
The system also gave gamer's the first chance to really become embroiled in controversy. Yeah, the NES had Chiller, but I'm willing to bet that fewer than 1 percent of all gamers have ever heard of it, and even less have played it. No, we had Mortal Kombat, and the launch of an entire social movement on how much damage ripping off a man's head in a game would do to our fragile psyches. This is going on even today, and it all started on my Christmas present.
Then again, maybe the system is so large in my heart because it was the last time I could really sit down and play a game or five for hours on end. These days, every minute spent gaming is a minute not spent writing, and thus is a minute not making money to buy my own family whatever would make them happy. There's no recapturing the magic of the perfect Christmas gift from when you were a child. Instead, you get a different magic as an adult, that of trying to do for your own kids what your parents did for you.
So I'll take the paycheck from this piece and I'll tuck it away until next year when I listen close to my daughter as she tells me what she would really like, and I'll try to do as well as my mom and dad. I may never love a present as much as that SNES again, but I'll never do anything better than recreating that moment for the kid.