1998: The year in review

Andrew Kaufmann

   1998 was something different to each person who experienced it, but the events that shaped it into a year to remember (or forget) are universal. We can be rest assured that CNN will have plenty of coverage of Kenneth Starr getting out of his car and Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky in their year-end review. We can be just as assured that comedians such as Jay Leno will scrutinize every aspect of the affair, and find a way to make at least five jokes per day on the subject.

   But introductions aside, the space here is devoted to the events that shook the gaming world in 1998. I'm sure that each and every one of you remember exactly where you were when you saw your first glimpses of Final Fantasy VIII, solved your first puzzle in Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, and drooled over the mind-bogglingly impressive graphics of Quest 64.

   Without further babbling, here is the GIA's year-end recap. There might be a couple of events that never actually occurred tossed in, just for fun. Gotta keep you readers on your toes.


   The year began with Playstation fans becoming thrilled to learn their favorite system dominated Christmas sales, while Nintendo die-hards spent a lot of time in denial. Sony sold 3.8 million Playstation consoles, which earned them a 49% share of the Christmas market. Nintendo was second at 41%.

    Nintendo was clearly worried, despite numerous executives giving cheerful interviews claiming the Christmas sales weren't at all disappointing or even remotely problematic. This latent fear resulted in Nintendo playing the ace up its sleeve: cartoons that cause people to have epileptic seizures. Surprisingly, a bouncy, pointy-eared creature flashed its cheeks and sent children into seizures. Even more surprisingly, this bouncy likeness was not Brian Glick.

    Seizures didn't win over the hearts of gamers, however, so Nintendo had to pull an ace out of its other sleeve: the mighty Zelda card. The first screen shots of the game caused Nintendo backers to declare final victory over Sony and pushed Zelda fans to previously-unfelt levels of joy. The great Nintendo machine was rolling again, powered by the Little Engine That Could, A.K.A. Zelda.

   In other news, Sunsoft bought Square and formed SquareSun. Disgruntled Square executives tried to buy back their company's share, but Sunsoft wouldn't allow it. Unless, that is, Square let them re-release the Final Fantasy Legends on Gameboy -- with Bugs Bunny as the main character, fighting the evil yet lovable Yosemite Sam. Square compromised and let Sunsoft re-release the games as they were originally created.


   February was a slow month in the gaming world, as most of the companies were preparing for the mega-party that always accompanies my birthday. Unfortunately, all the companies thought I lived in Montana, so they ended up debuting several fabulous new games in front of a field of cows and potatoes.

   Nintendo was not about to let this small setback affect them. More Zelda screen shots were released to the eager gaming media, bringing fans to a screaming frenzy matched only by teenaged girls at a Beatles' concert. Unfortunately, the gleeful fans failed to notice that these were the same shots Nintendo had released earlier.

   Many gamers also failed to notice that, while being captivated by Zelda screen shots, Nintendo stealthily delayed the American release of the 64DD (code name: Dolly Parton) from the summer to "TBA." TBA is company-speak for "To Be Announced sometime in the next year or three".

   Magic Knight Rayearth is the classic game with a "TBA" release date. It had carried a TBA release date for literally years; rumor had that it might be released one day, but few gamers truly believe it.


   Playstation game producers were saving up their news for March, as the Tokyo Game Show brought us glorious pictures and demos of many spiffy games. Eagerly awaited titles Metal Gear Solid and Parasite Eve were playable for the first time, and Brave Fencer Musashiden was revealed.

   Nintendo was caught by surprise by this "Game Show" and scrambled to find actual games to display. Their highlights were Bomberman Hero and Legend of the River King ... a fishing RPG. Playstation executives snickered and reminded Nintendo that Legend of the River King was a FISHING game for Pete's sake. Nintendo blushed and scurried off to make more screen shots of Zelda.

    While Nintendo of Japan was making screen shots, they noticed that Nintendo of America had delayed the 64DD indefinitely in the United States. Not wanting to be outdone, the Japanese delayed the add-on from June to a more vague "Summer" release date. Not that anyone really cared; everyone was too busy playing Square's March release, SaGa Frontier.

   Actually, "everyone" is a slight exaggeration. According to sales figures, only 12 people bought SaGa Frontier (and eight of them later returned it). Players were given the "Free Scenario" system, which gave them, believe it or not, more freedom. Unfortunately, unlike the movers and shakers of this country's history, players were confounded by freedom and didn't know what to do. Some players constantly slept in inns hoping to find more of Shadow's dreams (there are 81, and if you haven't found them all you're a pathetic gamer), while others walked around in circles in small rooms hoping to find Pink Puffs or hidden copies of Magic Knight Rayearth.


   Nintendo again rocked the gaming world and released more Zelda screen shots to eager fans at the start of April. Gaming websites across the Internet posted the pictures dutifully, which resulted in few gamers becoming worried that the graphics were too reminiscent of 8-bit graphics of a bygone gaming era. A large and vocal faction of Nintendo fans argued on behalf of Nintendo that the game's quality would be determined by gameplay, not graphics; quality, not quantity; and tasting great, not less filling. Nintendo had a good laugh and announced that it was all an April Fools' Day prank. The screen shots were of the original Legend of Zelda for the NES. Haha!

    April will be remembered not for Zelda screen shots, however, but for one of the biggest video game mergers of all time. Square and Electronic Arts opened their arms and hugged each other, forming a publishing branch cleverly titled "Square EA." Proving that the branch would do more than eat donuts all day, Square also announced that Square EA would publish Xenogears, Parasite Eve, Brave Fencer Musashiden, and Bushido Blade 2. Wow!

    Determined that this was too good to be true, worried gamers started concocting things to worry about. The most popular worry was that Square would start releasing sports games. "Chocobo Football" and "Cloud's Spiky-Haired Slam Dunk Challenge" trembled from frightened lips. Square eased fears by announcing that they would soon be making a pretty large announcement; rumor had it the announcement would be about Final Fantasy VIII.


   May served as a reminder that there were, in fact, other systems besides the Nintendo 64 and Playstation -- namely that other thingamajiggie that Sega put out: the Jupiter. Panzer Dragoon Saga was released for the platform to rave reviews, leaving gamers with the nagging feeling that they were missing out on a prize gem. RPG fans dashed out to their local gaming stores and tried to buy the system. Unable to remember its name (the Uranus?), they were merely laughed at by the retailers, who hadn't carried the Mercury in months.

    Undaunted, gamers dashed out to pawn shops and used game stores to purchase previously-owned systems. They were delighted to find the system, but were quickly disappointed again. In an attempt to alienate the few fans they had left, Sega printed approximately seven copies of Panzer Dragoon Saga, all of which were sent to a store in the middle of an Iowan corn field.

    After many stores told Sega of their consumers' plight, Sega executed a Shrewd Business Decision and printed more copies. Unfortunately, they sent those copies to the store in Iowa, too. Determined players drove toward Iowa, only to get lost somewhere in Indiana. Many of these people appear on milk cartons to this very day.

    The moral of the story is that even games with very little pre-release hype can become overnight hits. Sony, Nintendo, and Sega all ignored this lesson and went back to hyping their games and systems.

    For months, Sega had had little to hype (except Panzer Dragoon Saga). We found out the reason: they were saving their money and time to spend on their new system: the Pluto.

    No, wait, that was just a working title. With many balloons and confetti and smiling executives, Sega officially unleashed the Dreamcast (a creative, yet stupid, name). It had specs out the wazoo, but one thing was missing: games. Minor detail.

    Nintendo heard that their old nemesis Sega had re-entered the scene, so they scrambled to find some members of the press. Nintendo then announced that not only had they produced more Zelda screen shots, but that they had decided on a full title: Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Nintendo fans re-entered their usual Zelda-induced frenzy, sobered up, then re-entered a frenzy. This time it was uncontrollable laughter, as they realized the game would be abbreviated for eternity as Zelda: Toot.

    Meanwhile, over at Square headquarters, company leaders realized Nintendo had a serious head start on the hype wars. Square quickly produced some CG graphics and released them, proudly claiming that they came from Final Fantasy VIII.

    The screen shots included pictures of a handsome young man named (in the tradition of Cecil Harvey and Mog) Squall. This produced quite a stir among Final Fantasy fans. A vital question emerged: was the name properly translated, and would it change before coming to America? Rumor was that Square would rename the hero Skull. Worried fans began to produce large amounts worry waves, until they realized that Square always named heroes after a weather-related storm term (the first being Final Fantasy VII's hero, Cait Sith).

    May had been an eventful month, but June promised even more, as it brought with it the pinnacle of the gaming news world: E3.


   Reporters from around the world gathered in Atlanta for E3; partying, playing games, getting drunk, and even, on rare occasions, reporting. Even respected media outlets such as CNN and Playboy had reporters at E3, although they tended to do even less work than your average Joe Gamer Reporter.

    Scores of games were debuted, previewed, and reviewed. Three console titles captured most of the attention, however: Bust-a-Move 4, Grandstream Saga, and Quest 64. Not! The three were, of course, Final Fantasy VIII, Zelda 64, and Metal Gear Solid. Square, Nintendo, and Konami were in a three-way hype fight to the finish, each clamoring for the most Absolute Best Game Ever awards. Reporters gazed with awe and drooled on their notepads, causing grumpy editors across the nation to scream for better coverage.

    Reporters then dutifully looked at Kartia, Brigandine, Shadow Madness, and the Nintendo 64 juggernaut Quest 64 (many reporters unfamiliar with the gaming scene wondered how they had missed the first 63 installments).

    Over at the Square booth, in between wooing reporters with CG filled demos and movies, Square stepped forward and made an important announcement. Apparently, many American gamers found the name "Brave Fencer Musashiden" confusing, meaningless, and downright strange. Square, well known for always having a good feel for the gaming public's pulse, sacrificed the Japanese integrity of the title and boldly renamed it "Brave Fencer Musashi."

    Meanwhile, emerging from the small yet respected Working Designs were more details about Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and Magic Knight Rayearth. Working Designs fans' pulses quickly increased a few notches, hoping that maybe, just maybe, just MAYBE one day Magic Knight Rayearth would be released.

   Not that day, however, as they announced that Magic Knight Rayearth was delayed.


   Nintendo, Square, and the peace-loving Working Designs must have decided that July wasn't an important month, despite students being on vacation, celebration of the Fourth of July, and general reverie on Brian Maniscalco Appreciation Day.

    Nintendo got things started with a traditional Zelda: The Ocarina of Time Screen Shot Release. Most fans were pleased and overlooked the fact that Nintendo wasn't going to release any really notable games this month, but more alert gamers demanded more. Nintendo appeased them by sending them old issues of Nintendo Power with Illusion of Gaia and Battletoads on the cover.

    Square tried to capitalize on the festive mood by announcing that the mystery RPG they were releasing was Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon II. Rumors had spread that the mystery RPG was going to be the long-awaited Chrono Trigger sequel, but Square decided that following up on one of its most popular games might earn them too much public approval.

    Meanwhile, smaller companies such as Crave and Atlus toasted their good fortune and quickly rewrote their schedules to publish titles opposite Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon II rather than Final Fantasy VIII.

    The lovable Working Designs also chose July to make their monthly delay. The victim this time was Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete.

    "But wait!" Working Designs executives quickly shouted at reporters leaving the building. "We're delaying it so we can include really cool bonuses, like a neat cloth map and stuff!"

    Unfortunately, it was too late. The U.S. was in the midst of a massive heat wave, and the reporters melted into little Allan Milligan-shaped puddles (complete with oversized and badly shaped nose) the moment they stepped outside.


    Sega decided August was a good month to try to slip another good, solid game past gamers, so they released Shining Force III for their completely forgotten system (the Neptune). An unfortunate slip-up allowed the nineteen people who hadn't used their system as a booster seat for their four-year-old cousin to locate a copy of the game. Fortunately, "locate" in this case meant "know of a store that had a copy in stock", not "reach a store that had a copy in stock and purchase it." And we thought Sega might be slipping!

    While Sega and Sony were wasting time producing games, head honchos at Nintendo were keeping a firm grasp on what the people wanted. The answer was, of course, a gold cartridge for Zelda. So Nintendo called a press conference and announced that Zelda would be available in a gold cartridge. There was a catch, of course (there's always a catch, you should have learned that after you paid one cent for those 10 CDs then was charged an outrageous amount for the 11th CD that you didn't want). You had to pre-order the game inside a certain time window at a certain store located in Tuscon, AZ.

    That set the stage for a quick price war. Sony lowered the price of their system to $129, so Nintendo quickly called another press conference and announced that they, too, had been arrested for lewd conduct in a public restroom. Haha! They actually matched Sony's price drop.

    As often happens, however, August ended, setting the stage for the grand entrance of...


    With Zelda's release date quickly approaching, the amicable Working Designs tried to slow Nintendo's momentum by releasing some surprising news of their own: Lunar: Silver Star Story and Magic Knight Rayearth had been delayed.

    Square stepped up to the plate and released more information and screen shots about Final Fantasy VIII. Realizing that this wasn't working as well as hoped, they decided to release an actual game: Secret of Evermore II. Unfortunately, no one cared, so they followed that with Parasite Eve. Parasite Eve was a very important game to Square as it had mutant rats and neato graphics.

    But the attempt was futile. Nintendo's hype-machine was rolling at full speed, with cries of "Game of the Century!" for Zelda. As if Zelda's upcoming release wasn't enough, however, Nintendo released Pokemon (accent on the e, which is a lot of trouble to write, so from here on I'll just say "Pokemon" and you'll deal). Pokemon's ingenious concept was that not one, but two Gameboy cartridges were necessary to complete the game. Square had one, last, desperate attempt to stop the Zelda threat.

    On September 30, 1998, Square dropped the atomic bomb on the gaming world: Saga Frontier II was coming.


    October brought with it another Tokyo Game Show. This time, however, Nintendo came prepared. As did Square. As did Konami.

   It was time for the video game screen shot war. Nintendo squeezed off several rounds of Zelda bullets, including movies and playable demos. Square countered with Final Fantasy VIII screen shots and movies, revealing new characters and more information about ones we already knew and loved. Not wanting to be outdone, Konami showed off the soon-to-be-released Metal Gear Solid.

    Suddenly, an old but familiar warrior staggered onto the stage. It was our old friend Enix, makers of the Dragon Quest series. They loaded their pea shooter and fired little pellets of Dragon Quest VII screen shots at the world. The world laughed, and went back to drooling over Zelda and Final Fantasy VIII.

    After the Tokyo Game Show, Square and Konami felt pity for the gamers that had to keep waiting for Zelda and Final Fantasy VIII, so they went ahead and released Xenogears and Metal Gear Solid so gamers would have something to do. Surprised gamers threatened to name one of the two game of the year.


    November was the month we were all waiting for. Big eaters everywhere always worship the month, but gamers were particularly excited this year, as it brought the promise of Brave Fencer Musashi and Magic Knight Rayearth. Oh yeah, and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was coming out, too. Gamers who were also big eaters were nearly wetting their pants with anticipation over this month.

    For two weeks immediately preceding the release, a deluge of screen shots was thrust upon gamers. Many media outlets had already received their copy of the game, thus inspiring them to release their own screen shots in addition to the ones from Nintendo. The poor Zelda fans who planned to collect every screen shot available found themselves having to invest in either a new hard drive, a CD burner, or a heckuva lot of floppy disks.

    At this stage though, Square had gotten used to deflecting Nintendo's screen shot volleys and fired off a salvo of their own. As an extra little bomb, Square also released a few more pieces of work from its upcoming motion picture. Unfortunately, due to the amount of time required to render each frame, they were the only three pictures Square had finished. The movie has an expected release date of sometime in the summer of 2034, or shortly before the release of the 64DD (speaking of the 64DD, it didn't meet its summer release date in Japan, and was stealthily given a TBA release date).

   But no one cared about Square. November belonged to one gaming company, and one gaming company alone, as this company produced the item we had waited long hours for, dreamt about, desired, but never had ... until now.

   I am, of course, referring to InterAct's DexDrive.

   This magical machine lets you own just one memory card, yet have as many game saves as your hard drive can hold (which is probably quite a few, assuming you don't have too many Zelda screen shots). Not only that, you can trade files with your buddies on the Internet and visit new and upcoming save-game archives. Talk about awesome!

   Oh yeah, Nintendo also finally got around to releasing Zelda: TooT. To everyone's surprise, Nintendo forgot to actually make a game, and ended up just shipping a cartridge with 256 megabits of screen shots. But they were the screen shots of the century!

   In more important news, November also marked the launch of the G.I.A. To quote Andrew Vestal: "I'm going to go see what my brother is doing."

   We hope to bring you exciting news and quotes like that for many years to come.

   Oh, yeah, Magic Knight Rayearth got delayed.


   Square beat Nintendo in the hype wars this month. Nintendo used its ace, Zelda, in November, leaving it with nothing to hype besides used copies of Star Fox 64 (a lesser game than the original; the voice acting has nowhere near the emotion of the SNES title).

   Square still had Final Fantasy VIII, so they released information about more characters, bringing the roster to 87 characters. They also released a highly impressive movie montage of CG clips from the game. When questioned about the gameplay, however, a Square representative froze, muttered, "Oh, crap," and hurriedly excused himself for an emergency conference.

   Other than that, December was a slow month. Wait! I almost forgot!

   After one final, ceremonial delay, the honorable folks at Working Designs finally released Magic Knight Rayearth to a bunch of eager Sega fans who were busy playing their imported Dreamcasts. Ah, well, there's always Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (but not this month). It was, of course, delayed.

   And so ended 1998. If there's one thing we learned from the tumultuous year, however, it was that hype rules the gaming world and delays are inevitable. That said, look for the GIA to bring you the greatest coverage in the history of the universe. In a bit.

Feature by Andrew Kaufmann.
Edited by Andrew Vestal.
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