Above the map

I was an impressionable age when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1991. I’d spent hours and hours playing the Dragon Warrior (now Dragon Quest) games on my family’s NES, but the Super Nintendo was something that only friends or geographically distant relatives owned, and so it remained an object of awe and wonder, containing new, unimaginable worlds. No game, for me, embodied this wonder more than Final Fantasy II.

I was enraptured by the way everything seemed to be in sharper focus than the 8-bit RPGs I was used to, and the way that soundtrack seemed orchestral next to the NES’s sharp, rigid beeps and tones. I loved that the characters had actual faces and personalities, and that they came and went as the story demanded. But it was the airship that threw the whole world open.

While airships were foreign to the Dragon Warrior games, I’d seen the first Final Fantasy game, and the way that its cross between a helicopter and a boat rose a few pixels on the screen and let you move across the map at a substantially increased speed. Final Fantasy II includes airships from the very beginning of the game, but I still wasn’t prepared for the first time the game allowed me to lift off the ground and travel in a ship of my own. Instead of shifting a few pixels on the screen, the entire world seemed to pull back and expand.

This wasn’t just a game with brighter colors and more detail, this was a world that changed from a map to a globe. Instead of there being a new bridge to cross, a new key to find, or a new boss to fight, suddenly there was a horizon. In the context of iterative RPG grinding and slow leveling up, it felt like stepping outside for the first time. In later games, this space would be deemed to be so big that it needed to be filled with side-quests and optional item collection, but in Final Fantasy II there was just the sheer pleasure of flying across the world, exploring the corners not (yet) touched by the story for no more reason than the joy of doing so. It was more than enough.

Compared to the massive 3D worlds we’ve come to expect from contemporary games, the way that the SNES’s mode 7 graphics mapped a 2D world onto a scrolling framework may not be quite as impressive as it was in 1991. Now we not only have larger, persistent worlds that seem to go on even if we’re not around to play in them, but we have games like Minecraft that allow us to shape our worlds as they grow. But it’s not really the level of detail that makes the difference. It’s the unique combination of participation and perspective. It’s the way that every so often a game can shift the very ground under our feet.

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