Time Wasting '97
If I were allowed one stopwatch related wish, I’d ask for a life-long game clock that could travel back in time and record every last minute I've spent playing video games and consoles, from the Master System 2 to the Wii U. If this dream watch were to become a reality clock, and given the gift of speech, I’m convinced its first words would be “Matt, you’ve played an awful lot of video games”. And I have played an awful lot of video games, some of which weren't Call of Duty.
A recent thread on the Play Station forum got me thinking about the highlights of my twenty plus years of button bashing and stick fiddling. The subject was favourite games by year, looking back as far as you dare. I spent some time on Wikipedia and Moby Games before committing to my yearly favourites, and found some years more difficult than others, thanks to an overabundance, or sometimes lack of worthy options (I have included my selections at the end of this post). While compiling my list, I was struck by the number of quality time wasters that were released in the West in 1997 - either in the US or Europe, whichever came first. Although I didn't play all of these games immediately after release, they would all go on to claim a significant portion of my playing time over the next few years.
I was consumed by NBA Live '97 on the Sega Saturn. I'd finish one 82 game season, plus the playoffs, only to start afresh with a new team. Simulation was anathema, as I insisted on playing every last minute of every game, with the fatigue slider on (I used eight minutes quarters, which allowed for realistic scores and statistics while avoiding forty eight minute, 181-174 score lines). Between lonesome seasons and hyper-competitive tournaments with my brother, my Saturn didn’t get a breather in a solid year of digital ball. I’d been playing and enjoying games long before NBA Live '97, but this was the first title to claim whole evenings, weekends and school holidays, and I very much doubt I'll ever pour that many hours into a game again.
Square did rather well for itself in '97. Final Fantasy took the West by storm, proving that a JRPG could succeed outside of its home territory, so long as it had 'nuff graphics and multiple discs. It took me three years and a FFVIII romance before I finally played VII, but I quickly fell in love and have seen it through to completion four or five times since. I could never refuse Gold Saucers, ultimate weapons, chocobo pimping and oversized baddies, so each of my playthroughs clocked in at well over fifty hours. In Japan, Final Fantasy Tactics was also released in 1997, but it wouldn't reach the US until the following year; it would be another decade before it arrived in Europe as War of the Lions. That’s a shame, as Tactics would've added another hundred plus hours to my '97 total.
1997 also gave us Age of Empires. By the late Nineties, my family had finally invested in a half decent PC - it could run Encarta - and I was able to pursue my love of history via the hotkeys. Owl hoots and villager gibberish became the soundtrack to my late-90s gaming, as I spent many an evening gathering wood and building ballista, with the occasional break for freezes and re-boots. But it was the custom maps that kept me coming back for months on end, as I recreated some of my favourite chapters from ancient history, most notably the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Once I’d gotten bored of historical accuracy, I'd bust out the bazooka sports car and indulge in some historically dubious slaughter. Arrian would be so very proud.
Speaking of firearms and vehicles, Grand Theft Auto was also a product of '97, at least in the UK. I never really bothered with the missions, as I rarely had any concept of what I was supposed to be doing and the massive paper maps were more trouble than they were worth. Instead, I spent my days mowing down Hare Krishna and avoiding tanks, familiarising my impressionable teenage self with the ways of mega violence.
While there is no doubting its quality, I'd hesitate to call 1997 the best ever year for video games. However, few have come close to providing so many glorious time wasters. From jacking up threes with the Phoenix Suns, to feeding Big Bird my nuts, 1997 had game to spare.
My games of the year, as posted in the Play Station thread. The years shown are the initial, western release (US or UK):
1991 - Sonic the Hedgehog (MS) / 1992 - Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (MD) / 1993 - I'm drawing a blank ....... / 1994 - Final Fantasy VI / 1995 - Road Rash 3 and Sega Rally Championship (I can't decide) / 1996 - Virtua Cop 2 / 1997 - Final Fantasy VII / 1998 - Metal Gear Solid / 1999 - Final Fantasy VIII / 2000 - Final Fantasy IX / 2001 - Metal Gear Solid 2 / 2002 - TimeSplitters 2 / 2003 - Final Fantasy XI / 2004 - Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater / 2005 - TimeSplitters: Future Perfect / 2006 - Final Fantasy XII / 2007 - Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions / 2008 - Metal Gear Solid 4 / 2009 - Uncharted 2 / 2010 - Mass Effect 2 / 2011 - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim / 2012 - Mass Effect 3