Years of My Life: 1996

1996

To recap: This is a series of posts that will cover each year of my life since my birth in 1987; mainly the things that interest me that happened/were released or conceived that particular year. This will include happenings in the world of music, video games, literature and television that are of particular importance or nostalgia to me. I’m hoping that this will give my followers a better idea of where my interests and passions in life lie 🙂

Check out the previous post for 1995 here.

On to 1996!

World events:

In Music:

firstbandonthemoon

The Cardigans – First Band on the Moon (Released September 17th, 1996)

Although the Swedish rock band released two albums prior to this (Emmerdale and Life, and yes, the former was indeed named after the British soap opera), this was the one that provided their major breakthrough in popularity, both at home and abroad, becoming their best-selling album in the US. It was also the one I was most familiar with and recall hearing the singles from at the time (along with their following album, Gran Turismo) – I particularly remember hearing ‘Lovefool’ a lot at the time – though, being that I was a merely an innocent 9-year old, did not actually stop to listen to its lyrics properly, assuming it was a simplistic love-song; which is far from being the case, as my adult ears have now realised.

If there is a theme running through this album, it is the struggles encountered in romantic relationships, as well as the often brutal aftermaths of break-ups. Not very original, you may well argue, but the band’s unique sound and well-constructed lyrics make it stand out. One of the most painful sides of a break-up, seeing your ex with someone new, is explored with the opening track, ‘Your New Cuckoo’ (the title itself dripping with a cheery resentment) – a rather upbeat number despite the subject, telling of someone observing their ex-lover luring in their latest girl, with a somewhat flippant attitude; feeling sorry for their replacement as they do not know what is coming – “I know the score/‘cause I’ve heard it before/I read your lips with fear’ – quite defiant in not wanting to wallow and simply chalking up this new girl as his latest victim. ‘Been It’, meanwhile seems to tell the story of what came before this, the imbalance of ‘give and take’ that is all too often found within relationships, bemoaning that ‘I’ve been your mother/I’ve been your father/Who can ask me for more?’ Again, it is far from being a bitter or self-pitying; it reduces the man to a ‘baby boy’, and icily asks ‘Where are you gonna go without me now?’ – the rhythm suggesting a newfound freedom now that it’s all over. It also has the brilliantly poetic lyric of ‘I made your bed/And I was in it when your faith was dead’. Crushing yet pleasing!

‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Happy Meal II’ both then explore the seedier side of love, the former seemingly about a one-night stand (‘Don’t be uptight because I loved you last night’ it cries), while the latter buzzes with the excitement of a date coming over, and the anticipation of the after-dinner activities (‘Hungry for the meeting’ appears to have a double meaning, given the ‘kinky thoughts I’m thinking’ that come after the mention of dinner and wine). ‘Never Recover’ shifts back to post break-up pain, but with a very energetic, upbeat rhythm, to the point where it is one of my favourite ‘angry songs’ to stick on if the mood should so take me. ‘Step On Me’ then strikes a particular chord with me, the lyrics expressing the burden of being a pushover in life, which I can very much relate to, not being the most assertive person in the world. ‘It’s hurting but that’s okay/Because I’m in your way’ is particularly painful, as is ‘Do what you want with me…Go on and step on me’, a simple resignation to the submissive role that has been cast. Again, however, the sarcasm that drips from these words expresses the burning desire to break free from it. We then come to the aforementioned ‘Lovefool’, which simply put is about a woman still in love with a man who no longer feels the same way. Again, while relentlessly cheery and upbeat in its sound, the lyrics themselves are excruciating in their sheer desperation and delusion of the heartbroken girl, who would apparently settle for him to ‘Pretend that you love me’ (which she cries, prays and begs for). The sad admission of ‘I can’t care about anything but you’ is also especially brutal. The part I can very much relate to comes in the confession in the second verse:

Lately I have desperately pondered,
Spent my nights awake and I wonder
What I could have done in another way
To make you stay

This describes more or less exactly what I have done many times in my life when relationships (or near-relationships) haven’t worked out, torturing myself endlessly thinking of what could have been if I’d said or done something differently, or not said or done certain things. ‘To make you stay’ hits home how unhealthy this way of thinking is, as it is essentially trying to force the other person to feel something that they simply can’t; not true reconciliation. I have been this exact ‘Lovefool’, as I’m sure many of us have, clinging desperately to the idealised version of the person who loves you back, ignoring the crushing reality. But listening to this song doesn’t make you want to break down crying about it – its infectious energy perhaps makes you realise how silly holding on to something unrequited like this is, and give you the incentive to move on.

‘Losers’ shifts effortlessly from sombre, soft-spoken verses to a defiant outspoken chorus, speaking of the burden of being an outcast or unusual in this life – ‘It’s lonely to be strange’ it declares, a harsh yet relatable truth. Things slow down from there with a serviceable cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’, then coming to the downbeat ‘Great Divide’, detailing the gulf that often results between two people after an argument or disagreement within a relationship, symbolising it as a monster ‘raised up on the wicked things we’ve said’. It does offer a faint hope, however, pointing out that ‘as long as we remember/there’s something to regret’, showing that the divide is damaging something built on love, and that it could still yet be repaired. The tone and beat pick up again with the closing track, ‘Choke’, with slightly more abstract lyrics, but continuing the general theme of denial and heartbreak. ‘I held you in my throat’ seems to speak of deeper problems within a relationship, the unspoken things that end up building up until it is too late. The continuing lamentation of ‘It feels like we’ve never made it together since’ culminates with the final lines of ‘We’ll never have the guts to discover/We’ll choke on it and die’, seemingly expressing regret at failed chances due to a simple lack of communication. It is indeed true that we often bottle things up until it becomes too much to bear, and ends the album on a brutally poignant note. It is certainly a rollercoaster of emotion, this particular offering from the Cardigans, and it’s easy to see why this is where they made a true name for themselves, and why it is probably the one I revisit most.

In Video Games:

virtuafighter3_title

November 1996 – Virtua Fighter 3 released in arcades

(Dreamcast release (Virtua Fighter 3tb) released in 1998/99)

While my first time playing this game was technically while visiting SegaWorld London at the Trocadero (sadly no longer with us, though I did inadvertently end up having a nostalgic discussion about the place on Twitter recently), my fondest memories of VF3 are associated with going to play it at Clacton Pier (my hometown where I grew up). Given that a home port took the longest time to materialise (a Sega Saturn version was on the cards but ultimately canned, as the console was deemed not powerful enough to produce an adequate port in the end, which given that even VF2 was far from ‘arcade perfect’ was probably a wise move), I often nagged my parents to take me down there just to play it during the summer, and would always end up in there if I happened to be passing. In 1996, this game simply looked amazing. The first game to be released on Sega’s new ‘Model 3’ hardware, the demo videos before the game’s official release made a point of showing off the new graphical effects, such as detailed facial expressions (the spin-off game, Virtua Fighter Kids was apparently intended as ‘practice’ for this), more realistic body and muscle movements, and the spectacularly improved metallic and transparency effects seen on the boss character Dural. The game’s advertising material of the time boldly declared it as ‘The New Standard’, and it most certainly was – in terms of both fighting games and sheer graphical quality. The young 9-year old me was blown away by just how good this game looked, wondering how video game graphics could possibly get any better than this. But for all its glitz and spectacle, how did the game actually play?

vf3-aoi

This is where the game proves divisive and a point of contention among fans, some even considering the ‘black sheep’ of the series (given the reception and general attitude towards another second sequel of Sega’s, Streets of Rage 3, is this simply a weird curse of the number 3?). This is due to two main new innovations over the previous game in the series – the first being the addition of a fourth button, the ‘Dodge’ button, shaking up the simple ‘Punch-Kick-Guard’ set-up established in all AM2 fighting games thus far. This button allowed the side-stepping of attacks, and essentially true 3D movement (the first two VF games were mainly fixed to 2D movement). The other major change was the transformation of the fighting arenas from simply being flat squares to all having unique shapes, including stairs, slopes and sometimes walls (but not breakable ones as in Fighting Vipers). The arenas were all generally impressive and more imaginative than the previous games as well – from a sprawling desert with the sun setting in the background, to a high-rise construction site with some spectacular lighting and transparency effects. These anomalies in the stage design caused contention for the more hardcore players though, with claims with made things unbalanced and certain move combinations more exploitable, to the point where the arenas reverted to flat shapes for VF4. I’ve always thought this was a crying shame as I really liked the originality and innovation that VF3’s stages offered, and it is not something that has been revisited since.

vf3_dreamcast_shot1

The game’s boldness and ambition also carried through to the two new characters introduced – Firstly there is Aoi Umenokoji with her graceful, dance-like fighting style of Aiki-jujutsu, and the long-flowing sleeves of her kimono (in fact the sleeves only appear if conditions allow – if the graphics for the current stage or character she is up against take up too much of the processing power, her sleeves will either be shortened or be absent entirely), being used in the tech-demo videos of the game to show off the game’s graphical muscle. Her fighting style also involves a lot of counters and reversals, making her unique from a gameplay standpoint as well. While she went on to appear in future sequels, her fellow newcomer, the sumo-wrestler Taka-Arashi, did not fare quite so lucky. A much less original addition, one may argue, given that he was following in the footsteps of Street Fighter’s E.Honda and Tekken’s Ganryu (in short having a sumo-wrestler had become somewhat of a cliché in fighting games, with VF only just cottoning on), but he still showed the amount of hard work put into the game, his sheer weight and size meaning that some characters’ moves either did not work against him or had different animations entirely. This, however, led to him being cut out of the roster by the time VF4 came along – the first and only the time the series would ditch a character. It was cited by the developers that it was simply too much work to include him and get him to work well within the already more advanced engine of VF4. He eventually returned to the series with VF5R, the first major update to VF5, but his exclusion before that adds to the ‘black sheep’ feeling of VF3, given it is the game where he was first introduced. The Dodge button was also removed from VF4 onwards, as full directional 3D movement was possible simply with the joystick by then, rendering it unnecessary, and as mentioned the more dynamic sloping arenas were also removed.

229-virtua_fighter_3tb-6

It was certainly an ambitious and experimental game in all respects, but this is part of why I loved it back in the day and still have a nostalgic soft spot for it now – it reminds me of the Sega of old, the ground-breakers who would continually set new standards in all of the genres of games they developed (sadly they are somewhat a shadow of their former selves now). In short I dearly miss this Sega who weren’t afraid to experiment and break boundaries. The changes of VF3 may not have been to everyone’s taste, and this seems to show in the reluctance to re-release it in any way (although this is true of all of their Model 3 games in fairness), but it is still a game very close to my heart. The eventual Dreamcast port unfortunately probably came a little too late, as it was already beginning to look dated at the time, and overshadowed by the spectacular Soul Calibur, which was getting everyone’s attention (and well-deserved it was too), again adding to the idea that the third game is something Sega would appear to rather forget. But for me, it is probably the one game in the series I most fondly remember. And if that makes me weird, then I don’t want to be normal!

nid_t

October 1996 – NiGHTS into Dreams… released in Europe for Sega Saturn

After the sublime swansong for the Mega Drive that was Sonic 3 & Knuckles (technically not the final Sonic game on Mega Drive, but the final traditional 2D platformer), it seemed as if Sonic Team wanted a break from the series they owed their name to, rather than work on a new instalment for the Sega Saturn. (this was instead outsourced to the American-based Sega Technical Institute, and ended in disaster, their proposed effort Sonic X-Treme ultimately being plagued by several development problems and being shelved for good). Instead, they came up with something new – and extremely different – for, still to this day, arguably, there is nothing quite like NiGHTS into Dreams.

nid_1

Instead of being a traditional platforming game, NiGHTS sees you take the titular character to the sky and fly through the levels instead, the worlds themselves being weirdly bizarre and wonderful to behold, for as the game title suggests, it is set within the world of dreams. The story concerns two children, Claris and Elliot, who are both facing problems in life, their dreams leading them to find NiGHTS and the courage to overcome the challenges of the real world. The kids ‘fuse’ together with NiGHTS, perhaps explaining the character’s androgynous appearance and lack of clear-cut gender – as he/she is essentially serving as an avatar that can appeal to any player (the purple colour keeping with his neutral appearance). The kids each get a set of three levels, or ‘dreams’ each, and then both share the same final level. This may make the game sound extremely short, but the true enjoyment of NiGHTS lies in replaying the levels to beat your score – leading to it becoming known as a ‘score attack’ game. The objective in each level is to complete four courses under a time limit (laps that each take a different path through the same bigger playfield), this is done by collecting the required amount of blue ‘chips’ (the equivalent to Sonic’s rings, essentially), and then depositing them in the ‘Ideya Cage’ (each course sees you pick up a different coloured ‘Ideya’, which represent a different quality, red represents courage etc.). Along the way, there are various giant rings that NiGHTS can fly through, which you can chain together into combos, or ‘links’ as the game calls them, one of the more addictive aspects of the gameplay. Once enough chips are deposited, the game proclaims ‘Bonus Time Start!’ in which the blue chips turn gold and net you more points, as do the various objects you can pass and ‘link’ through. This is where the main enjoyment of the game comes in, racking up as many points as possible but still making sure you make it back to the checkpoint before time runs out. This makes it a more frantic ‘arcadey’ experience than anything else, perhaps a strange choice for a console game, which may go some way in explaining why NiGHTS never really took off in quite the same way that Sonic did.

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The game also does not explain any of this – you are thrown straight in with no explanation of what you are meant to do, leading to much confusion when I first played it, before I consulted the instruction manual. No hand-holding tutorial to be found here! But when you do ‘get it’, it is an extremely fun game to play, and keep going back to beat your score. As said the worlds themselves are also wonderfully designed, the dream setting giving a unique spin on traditional video game settings. Flying along the rails as the train rattles past in Frozen Bell, and then roaring down the slopes as NiGHTS transforms himself into a toboggan is one of the more thrilling segments, as is bouncing wildly in the rubbery grandeur of Soft Museum. The music is also composed beautifully, and even changes depending on the mood of the ‘Nightopian’ creatures who inhabit the level (you can stop to hatch eggs containing these creatures throughout the levels, but it is also possible to accidentally kill them!), this being a forerunner to the more sophisticated artificial-life system later seen with the Chao in the Sonic Adventure games. There is also the bizarre cast of bosses that give the game a lot of its character (throwing the rotund opera-singing Puffy through the walls of her own home is immensely satisfying) It is quite hard to describe just why NiGHTS is such a joyful game to play, perhaps something you have to really experience yourself to understand. While the later Wii sequel was extremely underwhelming, and the character never reached the popularity of the blue hedgehog before him, this game still has its legacy and cult status and can still be rediscovered today thanks to the re-release on PSN and Xbox Live a few years ago. Check it out and you’ll see for yourself why there really is nothing quite like NiGHTS.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, wraps up 1996. See you next time!

Previous entries in ‘Years of My Life’:

      1. 1987
      2. 1988
      3. 1989
      4. 1990
      5. 1991
      6. 1992
      7. 1993
      8. 1994
      9. 1995

Check out my first poetry collection, ‘The Awakening’, available NOW for download as an eBook on Amazon. Check it out here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B017BZBH6M

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