My journey with JRPG’s began in 1992, with the infinitely intolerable void of middle school upon me. My acne covered face, geeky demeanor and dandruff laced poofy hair insured that I was relegated to the bowels of the social hierarchy. Oh yes, it was miserable, like Kefka himself was hurling comical insults my way on a constant, daily basis. But when I think back to it now, there were occasions of joy mixed with that anguish. These comforting moments tended to manifest themselves at the one place in school I was accepted: the nerdy lunch table. That’s right, my first true JRPG experiences took place not enclosed in a 16-bit video game world, but in real life, surrounded on all sides by an army of tyrants, in my little ring of protection. Thankfully for me, that lunch table provided 45 minutes of relative solace in a “Lord of the Flies” like environment.
Ever wonder what Kefka did before he was a tyrant in Final Fantasy 6? He ruined my childhood. As you can see…
Back in 7th grade, I wasn’t the moderately talkative type that time has since chiseled me into. My mind was a cave of introversion and I generally preferred listening to what people had to say as opposed to blabbering myself. Fortunately for me though, I had a friend at the table named Barrett, who was a Type-A talker. Specifically, he liked to talk about JRPG’s on the Super Nintendo. You see, Barrett was a rarity of the early 1990’s. He was one of those unfathomable people whose parents actually played video games with him. Due to this, Barrett’s mom bought all the latest Super Nintendo JRPG’s. He would tell us stories of him and his mother playing through games like Final Fantasy IV, Lagoon, Lufia, Paladin’s Quest, and many others. His descriptions of the games and their high fantasy story lines made my young mind burst from the consummation of these foreign ideas. I was determined to find a way into these amazing fantasy worlds myself.
My entrance came later that year when another friend from that table, who we’ll call “John,” brought over Final Fantasy IV to my house, on my request. I had recently acquired a Super Nintendo and after hearing all of Barrett’s stories, I wanted to see one of these games for myself. At first, I wasn’t terribly impressed, RPG’s seemed a bit “simple” looking to me. There were lots of bland textures, very few character animations and battles looked disjointed due to the fact that your fighters didn’t actually connect their hits with the foes they were fighting. But once I got deeper into the adventure, the characters, story and complexity of the game mechanics began to pull me in. I was so enthralled in fact, that I asked my mother to buy me Final Fantasy IV for Christmas in 1992, which she kindly obliged. Final Fantasy IV became the first game I ever truly mastered, in any genre.
When I was 12-13 years old, I have memories of playing Final Fantasy 4 (renamed Final Fantasy 2 for us dummy North Americans) on my grandmothers wood grain, 1970’s TV set. My grandmother was one of the greatest people I have ever known and I will forever be thankful for the time I spent with her.
Who could possibly forget that opening scene? A black screen, an epic score slowly rising while a brigade of airships fade into view. You are Cecil, the dark knight! Your thankless mission: to steal a water crystal from the innocent city of Mysidia. There were battles, death and destruction in the opening minutes of Final Fantasy IV. You quickly learn that Cecil is a conflicted character that truly feels bad about the atrocities he is being forced to commit. Never before had I played a game with such a meaningful and complex premise. I was hooked from the second I started the game and my journey into JRPG’s, and in turn, RPG’s in general had begun.
Much has happened in my life since 1992. After all, it’s been over 20 years since that youthful time in my existence. So many things have changed but yet, the older I got, the more I began to think of the past and my childhood. I wondered where all my elderly games had gone, only to remember that I sold them years before (and those RPG’s are worth a fortune now!). But who needed all those bulky, tired consoles anyway? I had emulation now! Emulation was the key to my, and probably many others, reintroduction to classic gaming. Although the more I fiddled with various emulators, the more I began to realize that the experience just wasn’t quite the same as an authentic gaming console. And thus began my journey to re-collect all of the consoles and games I had sold off all those years ago. I may have mentioned the Super Nintendo earlier, but I had to start with my favorite console first, the Sega Genesis.
My wonderful Model 1 Sega Genesis, heavily modified by the console modding master, Sensato Kuro.
Once I started collecting Sega Genesis games, I became literally obsessed with bringing my ancient Model 1 Genesis into the 21st century. If you’ve ever hooked up any of the pre 2000’s consoles to a modern LCD display, using composite cables, you’ll likely discover what I did; retro consoles look like hell on contemporary screens. This hazy, unfortunate setup makes your classic games look like you are viewing them through a foggy shower stall. The magnificent pixels and glorious details of a bygone age are all wasted on modern technology. I wasn’t satisfied with this result and I knew there had to be a better way.
Some of the many mods for my Model 1 Sega Genesis. An overclock switch, halt button, as well as PAL and Japanese region switches which enable this North American Genesis to play foreign titles.
Enter the world of modding and custom display cables. For the low price of several hundred dollars, I had my Sega Genesis modded and I purchased a SCART cable custom made for the Sega Genesis. What is SCART you ask? Well, that can be the topic of another article all together, but suffice it to say it’s the only way you are going to get a truly clear picture out of your classic consoles. Combine this custom cable with a (good quality) HDMI upscaler and you have yourself a magnificently clear picture.
My Model 1 Sega Genesis was also modded for Stereo Jacks, S-Video and Component Video. Although, I prefer the best picture quality possible, so I use the combination of a Framemeister Upscaler Unit and a SCART cable which outputs an RGB signal (and the Genesis does it natively BTW, no modifications required). The combination of an RGB signal and a SCART cable gives you a lossless image from your console. The Framemeister then converts it to HDMI which produces a nearly flawless picture. It outputs at 1080p and looks nearly as good as an emulator. Although the options the Framemeister affords you are practically limitless and go far beyond what an Emulator can do in terms of image manipulation.
This was what I was looking for! Now the games on my classic console looked more like retro styled Indie games you might purchase on Steam, complete with those gloriously detailed pixels no longer lost to the perpetual haze of scan lines. Details I had never seen before in some of my favorite games were springing forth like a mass of long hidden Easter Eggs. You know, the ones you would stumble upon in your house years later. It was truly marvelous! Granted, I understand that not everyone wants their games to look this way, some even prefer the truly “retro” look of old CRT TV’s, complete with their classic, albeit flawed displays. I appreciate the sentiment, but I am not one of those people at heart. I like my classic games modern!
All of the screen shots and animations used in this article were captured on my Model 1 Sega Genesis using a Framemeister, SCART cable and HD capture card. And as you can see from the animation and comparison shots from Phantasy Star 2, the difference between RGB and Composite is undeniable. In many cases, games running on original hardware using RGB and an upscaler such as a Framemeister, will actually look better than on services such as the Wii-U Virtual Console.
Once I reached the pinnacle of bringing ancient technology into the modern era, I began exploring the actual games again. It was a joy to relive some of my favorite Genesis classics on my 65” screen in beautiful, crystal clear 1080p. Playing Earthworm Jim in this way nearly brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t think decades old hardware could look so good on a modern TV set. I wanted to try every game I possibly could and see how it would look on my alluring new setup.
Earthworm Jim on my Genesis looked so sharp the pixels were literally bursting from the screen!
After a while though, I began to wonder why exactly I had set out on this obsessive quest to relive and improve the gaming experience I’d known as a child. That’s when it hit me: There are no truly “new” games on retro consoles (although we do have ROM hacks and homebrew, which I’ll discuss later). Here I was modding my consoles and searching for Easter Eggs and basically milking as much as I could out of the experience because once I had played them all, that was it. To put it bluntly, you can’t make new retro games from your childhood. The only way to expand on your initial experience is to explore what little you have not yet explored. Sadly, this is a finite resource.
And to make matters worse, the Genesis wasn’t really known for its RPG library. It did have a handful of classics, but nothing quite within the realm of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 6. This deeply saddened me. Never again would I be able to open that black plastic box with a whiff of “new game” smell. Or have the months of anticipatory excitement in the lead up to a new 16-bit classic. I truly yearned for this feeling again. My 12 year old self cried out for something that simply did not exist anymore. Sega was long gone, relegated to bargain bins and diminishing returns on multi-ported, poorly received Sonic the Hedgehog games. And many of the classic game companies were now defunct, bought out by behemoths, or too huge to care about piles of decrepit game consoles littering eBay and the flea markets of the world. Never again would I be gifted another genuine 16-bit RPG. All I had was my modded consoles with their high def renderings and my old games. An inadequate substitute for a bygone, magical feeling that had long since past…
Or had it?