I’ve Seen It All


Golden Sun And Its Sequel Are Finally Coming To Switch (aol.com)

When I first launched my Twitch channel, Games and Stuff with Professor Sean, on Twitch over four years ago, one of the opportunities I was hoping to fulfill with the channel was the chance to go back and play a lot of older JRPGs that I’d either never played, or never beaten. Throughout the nineties and early aughts, I picked up a lot of JRPGs that I was hoping to play through (since renting video games that take dozens of hours to complete is kind of pointless), but various life circumstances prevented me from going through them. Some of them I only tried out for about half an hour before deciding to do a full playthrough “later” (which never came), and some I bought and just never touched again. Worse yet, as some of them were reissued on later consoles, I bought the reissues and then never played them again. After I’d been living here in Wisconsin a few months, and it was clear that I needed to give myself a daily break from teaching and writing to keep my mental health intact, my Twitch channel came into being, and the idea of using my streaming time to go through those older games was one of the biggest principles of my programming from the start of the channel.

I’ve managed to finish more than a handful of those JRPGs over the past few years, and at first, this felt like a worthwhile exercise. Even if none of those older games particularly impressed me, the opportunity to go back and get a better feeling for the evolution of JRPGs in their earlier years was certainly worth it, especially when it came to early Final Fantasy titles that I never got to play decades ago because they weren’t brought over to America all that quickly. As I thought about trying to make my way through more recent JRPGs, I hoped that having a broader depth of experience with older JRPGs would benefit me, and that was the driving force that finally got me to buy a Switch this past holiday season, to play all the older JRPGs available on that console.

Since then, though, it feels like everything has kind of been going south. I was in the middle of playing Final Fantasy XIII for the first time when I got my Switch, and that wound up being a profoundly disappointing experience for me, as the game’s dazzling visuals did little to keep its sub-standard storytelling and How To Write Action Movies 101-level dialogue from from dragging me down. I’d had enough experience with newer JRPGs to know that the genre had already moved in directions I didn’t like (switching from more literature-based methods of storytelling to more film-based methods, playing on viewers’ wish-fulfillment fantasies in ways that render the storytelling almost juvenile), and the more I see what JRPGs have become, the more I’ve wished that I could play the older games and find in them the things that make so many JRPGs from the nineties so special tome.

Maybe more importantly, though, as I’ve been going back through some of those older JRPGs, I just haven’t found much to like about them. The earliest JRPGs were primitive almost by necessity, but then Final Fantasy IV proved that JRPGs could tell deep storylines with compelling characters — it was the first game I ever played that made me cry, and the first to make me realize that video games are art — and then Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII evolved the genre even further to make it the most compelling entertainment experience of my teens and twenties. Many of these older JRPGs I’ve been playing lately, despite coming out years after Final Fantasy IV, are still as basic as what was seen in the years before, or they miss the mark on what made those games so iconic. I’ve been playing Golden Sun on my Twitch channel for the past couple of weeks, and despite coming out in 2001 — the same year that Final Fantasy X came out — it feels like the developers looked at the success of nineties JRPGs and thought Golden Sun needed lots of cutscenes, without realizing that cutscenes are actually supposed to do things, like advance the story or provide character beats. The game has become more and more of a slog for me the deeper I get into it, and if this is the kind of experience I’m going to have with all those other older JRPGs on my Switch, then I’m probably going to be rethinking my investment in that system a lot over the coming months.

What really makes me sad, though — and yes, I know I’ve been beating this drum a lot over the past year — is that in the midst of going through all these older JRPGs, I also played a newer indie JRPG called Super Lesbian Animal RPG that got pretty much everything right. I’m neither lying nor exaggerating when I say it’s one of the ten best video games I’ve ever played, and it reminds me in all the best ways of those JRPGs that absorbed my earlier years. Despite that fact, and the great reviews it got from people who actually bothered to play through it, the game has been largely forgotten about, it was completely ignored in this past year-end awards cycle, and I have a feeling that JRPGs in the future aren’t going to learn any lessons from it, and will instead hew to the triteness and mediocrity that seem to be endemic in the genre in recent years.

I was hoping that playing through these new-to-me older JRPGs on my Switch this year might help me find some titles that would remind me of the genre’s better days, but the exact opposite seems to be happening. The more I play anything that isn’t one of my favourite games, the more I find myself wishing that I could just play those beloved games instead, but I know that playing all my favourite games on a loop wouldn’t be good for me, and it certainly wouldn’t make anyone want to watch my Twitch channel. I’d like to think that I’ll find something to do here that will make streaming on Twitch more enjoyable for me again, but the longer I suffer through these other games, the more likely it feels that I’m just never going to have that experience again.