Jet Force Gemini: Retrospective

Jet Force Gemini

There’s a very special method to operating something as ancient as my Nintendo 64. Uncoiling and laying out each of the cords; blowing out the power, output and controller cords, mostly just in case; running each wire to its proper location; dusting the entire console; removing the cartridge and blowing deeply into it to get rid of dust; opening the flaps on the console and blowing to dust them out; placing the cartridge evenly on its seat; slamming it down with the proper amount of force; pressing the power button.

The process is mystical. I remember every step though I forget where I learned it. My hands follow a prescribed method and my eyes are needed only to make sure I have the right cartridge. But what’s most powerful, creepy, and memorable is the end of the beginning.

Jet Force Gemini is my favorite game of all time and I’ve returned to it, to Goldwood and Eschebone, to the abandoned Space Station, and to the water ruin, to find it’s not the same game any more. I expected as much, but I didn’t expect that the difference would be neither my age and personal change, nor the outdated controls and graphics, nor even the loss of awe toward such a unique game. The true difference is in the way I can play it.

The game itself is a little difficult to describe. It’s one of the first 3rd-person shooters but it’s more like a puzzle-based exploration game with co-op. It’s also notable for strong art direction, atmosphere and environments, its brilliant if recycled music, high difficulty, unique and tricky controls as well as a few more less important aspects; story, for instance.

Four of these aspects combined to make it my game: the high difficulty, puzzle-based exploration, co-op, and the age of the game. The game is made for one player but these four factors made it a great shared experience for me. The camera only ever follows one character but a small robot, Floyd, can be controlled by a second player and used as a gun platform, easing the learning curve for weaker players. The difficulty ensures that the ‘better player’ simply becomes ‘the player,’ especially since it doesn’t much matter who ‘plays’. The puzzles are everywhere and subtle; it takes a watchful eye to spot opportunities and a little preparation to take advantage of them later on. Finally, the age of the game ensures that it came out when I was five.

At the time I couldn’t read, there was only the one console among the extended family, and it was so easy to play Jet Force Gemini together. My (much) older cousin lead the charge most of the time, and was occasionally there to help when I got stuck. I could shoot aliens and I could tell him if I spotted a tribal (you had to collect every single one to finish the game) or a capacity upgrade. It was a professional relationship and it was beautiful. It was fucking awesome when we found an entirely new world because I saw the path. I’m sure that Jet Force Gemini would be a great game for most any father and son to enjoy.

And I can never again have another playthrough like that. I now know all the puzzles and locations of important items and the game isn’t very hard any more. But more than that, I don’t have the right person to play with, which was what the game really meant to me.

My nephew is five and about to go to ‘real’ school. To explain the difference between us I use the word “gentle”. As a child I didn’t speak for years; I could talk, I just didn’t see much point in it. To this day I have serious trouble killing bugs (a fly’s alright – annoying pricks) but I’ll be damned if I let someone squish a helpless spider. My nephew is none of this – kind of mean, even – but most importantly he’s not patient.

If he has difficulty with a game – or anything, really – he’ll give up. He’ll ask, if not whine, for me to beat a section for him. This I can understand, and I even appreciate a little; he is only learning after all. However, often enough he’ll just switch to something else because he feels a little frustrated. This is a horrible trait.

That is what happened when I played with him on the N64. He’s not used to the controls and refuses to learn properly (the controls are quite weird, in his defense). He hasn’t bothered to learn how the game really works. And he never even wanted to play through the first level on his own.

But he liked the game, I could tell. His eyes grew big when the arcane hardware quietly oozed life into the TV. He was interested in exploring though he never learned to do it right (as in, looking around a room). He called the tribals “travellers”, a strangely fitting and endearing name. He offered tips and acted as a lookout when I played (often proving mostly ineffective and annoying).

I think the difference is in our environments. He has more than a hundred games at his fingertips (mostly demos, but still). I had maybe ten. If ever he finds an issue with the game he’s playing, it’s broken. If ever I found an issue, I broke through it. It’s hard to express, but I served my games.

If a game was too hard then it meant I wasn’t good enough. If I died, it was because I made a mistake. If I wasn’t enjoying myself, I simply needed to push further. There was always a lot that went into a new game – the ride to the store, the guilt of making my parents give away their money, the anticipation (I always read the manual going home), the effort and time invested; I always made the most of it. I didn’t understand that games could be… wrong. It also helped that I got some of the best games of the age.

I like my nephew. But it can be hard to like him, because his is exactly the sort of attitude I hate. Ignorant, arrogant, mean and impatient. But he’s a good kid, and he does enjoy video games (too much, too much). It’s sad, then, that what should be such a strong link between us is actually more like a division. I also worry that he’ll never want to read (a vital school pastime, since they don’t let GameBoys through).

I think this shows how gaming can be both good and bad. Within me it instilled certain skills and traits, became a great tool for motivation and competition, and formed a link with people who would otherwise be too different to hang out with. With him it’s already an addiction, it’s making him impatient and narrow-minded, and though we sit adjacent – he on the chair before the Xbox, I on the bed before the laptop – we are disconnected by all but his whining.

I won’t let it end like this. I’ll make sure that as he grows up, as we become a little more alike, that I’ll show him good things. When his coddling mother finally lets him out the door I’ll take him for long hikes and I’ll show him Advance Wars. I’ll read to him, and lord help him if he doesn’t listen. When I leave in a few years (I’m postponing embarkation because of the cost of college) I’ll make sure to keep in contact with him, and give him a few nudges here and there. And he, just like me, will inherit ‘the collection’; the pile of used games that we’ve compiled (though I’m keeping the books – he can pry Steinbeck from my cold, dead hands). He’s acquired a habit and I’m going to make sure that he gets the most out of it. I want him to say, like me, that he looks back and sees that video games helped him become a good person.

I constantly play King Crimson, Muse, Sanders, Clannad, and Portugal. The Man on the laptop. (That’s one sentence. ‘Portugal. The Man’ is one phrase. They needed a reason to capitalize ‘The’.) These musicians, and the games that my nephew and I share, are bound to prove the same as my dad’s Hendrix, Floyd, Skynyrd and King, in that they’ll rub off on the next generation.

N64 controller