The year was 1991. My dad had gone to now-defunct UK electronics retailer Dixons and purchased a Sega Mega Drive with Castle of Illusion for the princely sum of £144.99; I know this because I still have the receipt stapled in the console's manual. Beyond a dusty Atari 2600 which resided at my grandparents' house, the Mega Drive was our first console and Mickey Mouse’s adventure was a fine introduction to video games. With SEGA dominating the UK market at the time, there were plenty of other games I had my eye on. Sonic was an obvious choice, and Golden Axe looked amazing to my impressionable childish eyes. I laid out my proposals for our next potential purchase and one day dad came home with a brand new game tucked under his arm. Could it possibly be? Would I be cutting my way through the evil hordes with a heroic weapon, sharp and true?…
Not exactly. Unfortunately, my old man had bought Sword of Vermilion and my disappointment was impossible to hide. He'd apparently been impressed by the label on the box advertising ‘5 MEGA MEMORY with battery backup’ and ‘106 PAGE HINT BOOK INCLUDED’. Yes, the game boasted three save slots! That was impressive at the time, but hardly enough to excite a kid eager to hack and slash with a golden axe.
I played it, of course – any video game is better than no video game – but an RPG wasn’t what I was after and I was a bit too young for it. The comparative complexity of the game coupled with my apathy meant I never got far, and over the years it grew in my mind as a mountain; forever there, taunting me with its stupid save slots, primitive first-person dungeon sections and random encounters.
So, feeling I had a score to settle, a few years ago I decided to go back and conquer it. Traditionally I would have bristled at the idea of using a guide, but this one came with the game itself and that somehow legitimised it. In my head I had to beat this game ‘properly’ or not at all and for a long time I’d seen save states as a easy way to cheat your way to victory. No, I was going to summit this peak without any of those 'cheap' aids!
The problem was that Sword of Vermilion is filled with random enemy encounters and the reality facing me was stark: either use save states or never find the time to finish the game. Faced with that choice, I ultimately decided to use them, and I was very glad I did. While not a classic, Sword of Vermilion has some great writing, atmosphere and music which I'd have missed completely had I been too stubborn to use the mod cons retro gaming benefits from these days.
This got me thinking about my instinctual reaction that save states are somehow a form of ‘cheating’. The obvious convenience of them still rubs up against my old-school sensibilities now and then, although it’s odd that I didn’t consider the guidebook or the save slots in the game itself to be ‘cheap’.
No developer would dream of rereleasing a classic title now without some concession to convenience. All the NES games included with Nintendo Switch Online or the Classic Mini consoles have up to four 'suspend points' to use, and so they should. We're seeing time-saving systems coming to more and more games, both old and new. Rewind features can be found in games as diverse as Forza Horizon 4 and the Mega Man Legacy Collection, and they're a godsend in modern times with so many games and so little time. They're especially helpful in titles we’re playing for ‘historical’ value. You might be playing through one of those Mega Man games simply to ‘complete the set’, so to speak, even if you’d maybe prefer to be playing another one in the collection. There’s often a strange allure to certain games; significant artefacts that we feel we ‘should’ play, even if we’re not naturally drawn to them.
Ticking off the last few Zelda games I'd missed is one example that comes to mind. I’d never have had the patience to go through The Adventure of Link without save states but, again, I’m happy I did so. The Oracle games dragged a bit and I probably should have taken a breather after the first one, but carving out time to play them on original hardware is tough these days – save states on 3DS meant I could play and enjoy them in a much shorter period.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was something else I felt 'obliged' to play. Natural curiosity aside, I often felt a certain ‘duty’ to expand my knowledge of the medium even before I wrote about games for a living. It’s the same with any artistic medium – literature, music, cinema – and I wanted to gain a more rounded sense of the Castlevania series. Like visiting a museum, there's a wealth of information and context to help you understand modern mechanics, not to mention old games are often fun!
Simon’s Quest is notoriously obtuse, though, with some villagers providing false information and localisation errors compounding the confusion. Back in the day these liars helped make sure you got ‘value for money’ by not completing the game in one sitting, but nowadays when time can often be more valuable than money, the game’s convoluted design is a huge barrier to entry. Simply put, I reached breaking point and would never have stuck with the game without save states. They enabled me to spend enough time in the world for the game (and its incredible music) to work its magic. I now look back very fondly on Simon's Quest – all thanks to save states.
And walkthroughs too! Another self-imposed taboo I’ve learned to overcome, the ability to save snapshots would have been little help if I didn’t know that I had to kneel in front of the cliff with a crystal to proceed. Again, it’s strange that I never considered the 'hint book' that came with Sword of Vermilion a ‘walkthough’, simply because it was included in the box, but it’s absolutely a comprehensive guide. No, no, that wasn’t cheating, I told myself. Totally legit. I'm a gamer, me!
Looking back, my mental gymnastics are laughable now, but I’m sure some readers will find those thoughts familiar. It’s not something we have to contend with much nowadays; walkthroughs are often entirely unnecessary with modern games. There are certainly games that buck the trend, but typical AAA releases now are paranoid about losing you to some other game or form of media. If you have to consult your phone to find out what you should be doing, there’s a risk you’ll get distracted and not return, thus newer games have become very ‘hand-holdy’. Old games had your undivided attention, often for hours, days or weeks on end. Unfortunately, I don’t have an entire summer to devote to Final Fantasy anymore. For shame!
It’s also important to remember that all these modern conveniences are optional; the original challenge is there for those who want it. They're also unique to video games. Want to tick Tolstoy's War and Peace off the ol' bucket list? There are very few shortcuts for that one, I’m afraid – perhaps a different translation might shave some pages off, or you could listen to the audiobook in the car. It’s still a hefty investment, though, and the Cliffsnotes version won't cut it. Save states, rewinds, walkthroughs – these are different. They aren’t abridgements, they simply make the game more accessible to those who need a hand, in a way only interactive media can.
Despite ‘evolving’ to accept and appreciate these modern conveniences, there’s still a remnant of that boy in me that won’t let go of my preconceptions. I’ve found exactly 742 Korok seeds in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I’d find two or three every time I played the game until recently. Discovering these meaningless trinkets on my own has been an absolute joy as I’ve explored Hyrule, but my last few sessions have been fruitless (or seedless). I’m loath to resort to a guide because I just need a nudge in the right direction, and where’s the fun in simply ticking boxes?
What I really want is for Nintendo to release the rest of the Korok suit 'set'. Some Korok trousers and a top would combine with the mask and give me the power to identify zones on the map where Koroks are still hiding. Not the exact spot, mind – I’ve got the mask to help me there – I just want to rule out areas on the map, to be pointed in the general direction. I’d much prefer to do it in-game, not sit there comparing my map to an online guide.
Rather than lapsing into my old way of thinking, I actually see this as simply wanting to wring every last bit of enjoyment out of the game. I know the reward for finding all 900 is rubbish – that’s not really the reason I’m searching for them. I just want to play the game more and the stupid gamer in me needs a tiny reason to do so. Plus, I don't want the hassle of scrubbing through videos or navigating through umpteen pages on my phone or laptop to compare my map to theirs. Still, I'll probably resort to an app or something if I have to.
It took me an embarrassingly long time, but I’ve ultimately come round to seeing these aids as simple tools to help climb retro peaks. They're not conveyor belts to the top of the mountain, but rather ropes and oxygen tanks and decent gloves to help the ascent. We can look back and admire those who went before us, scaling those heights with nothing but a pair of long johns, a hip flask and a lustrous moustache, but using the modern conveniences at our disposal shouldn't diminish our achievement or, more importantly, our enjoyment nowadays. The view from the top is the same however you get there.
Overall it’s much better to play with a walkthrough or save states than to never play a game. I’d have missed out on some brilliant stuff, otherwise. With age it’s gotten easier to extract the good bits from any media and not worry about the parts that didn’t work, so if these ‘cheats’ help me do that, fantastic. Fun is the goal, whether that involves dipping into a game for 10 minutes or methodically working through the backlog – whatever makes you happy. For me, it takes discipline and constant reminders that my mountainous backlog is a self-made mountain, just as defeating Sword of Vermilion was. With all the resources and tools at our disposal, it’s never been easier to conquer them.
Have you ever suffered from the same affliction? Are there any personal demons in your back catalogue you've taken on in recent times? Share your thoughts on save states, walkthroughs and rewind mechanics below...