The year is 2000, and somewhere in the bowels of a now-decomposing CRT TV in West Yorkshire, the ultimate battle of good versus evil is about to be waged. On a bridge of purple energy stands Darth Maul, the pineapple-headed, acrobatic thug who's one of the few memorable aspects of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. On a platform nearby are the honorable Jedi Master Mace Windu and myself.
"Come and try it you fucking cunts," bellows the Sith Lord (Maul is voiced in this retelling by Begbie from Trainspotting). Windu and I look at each other. Nothing is said, but knowledge flashes between us like static electricity, like the wind. We leap simultaneously, our lightsabers tracing a double arc of sapphire—but, oh no, what's this? Thanks to a Dark Side-induced error of collision detection, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi has glanced off the bridge and tumbled to his doom.
Everything's fine though, as long as Windu can hold his own against Maul until the next checkpoint. Channeling the Force, he drops to one knee and sends his sword spinning around his bowed head faster than the eye can follow. The whirling blade slices through Maul's foot several times, but he merely yelps in irritation, as though treading on a hairbrush, then retaliates with a cheap, Street Fighterish uppercut that punts poor old Windu into the chasm. Game over, everybody. Darkness reigns. Begbie has won.
It's taken me 14 long years of private reflection to admit that Jedi Power Battles—the PlayStation brawler a friend and I played for well over 100 hours while at school—is not a rough diamond waiting to be dusted off and shelved alongside The Legend of Zelda, but a modestly proportioned crock of shit. It isn't the worst game ever made but it's in the neighborhood, just across the street, and as with middling-to-miserable Jedi sims at large there's really no excuse.
It shouldn't be difficult to make playing as a samurai wizard with a plasma sword entertaining any more than it should be difficult to slide off a well-buttered horse. But it turns out there are plenty of ways you can screw the idea up. Here's one: arrange for enemies to shoot at you while they're not visible on-screen, obliging the player to develop prophetic abilities worthy of an actual Jedi. Or how about this: make it so that foes can block your strikes and, what's more, lay you out for the count using their fists. Their fists. Watching a Separatist droid kung fu punch a lightsaber without melting its own forearms surely ranks as one of humanity's lowest moments, the sort of thing we'd beam to aliens if we genuinely wanted to be invaded.
So why couldn't I put Jedi Power Battles down? It's simple, really: because my friend couldn't either. Dreadful though it undoubtedly is, the game is built around the same principles of competition and cooperation, of role-play and mutual appreciation that make other, better games such a great way of not just forming friendships, but deepening them.
Game Informer's "Replay" plays 'Jedi Power Battles.'
It feels like this notion has yet to properly dawn upon our collective consciousness—as widely disseminated and enjoyed as games now are, they're still perceived as a loner's pursuit, a barrier to intimacy. There continues to be much anxiety among parents about the extent to which their children shut themselves off from peers when playing games—an anxiety that overlooks or undervalues the social component of online gaming, and the extent to which kids are trading thoughts and sentiments even when they're squatting together in silence, eyes locked on a high-definition screen.
Let me spend a few hundred words correcting these assumptions. To kick off, role-play isn't a substitute for or danger to "real" communication, a way of hiding one's identity, but a social tool. Favoring a character may tacitly reveal to fellow players not simply who you are but how you view yourself, what you're afraid of, who you dream of becoming. My friend was the more outspoken and forward of the group, and also a bit of a martial arts buff, so it made sense for him to choose Mace Windu, whose move-set consists of rapid, highly technical strikes (if you really want to get geeky about this, Windu's a practitioner of Vaapad, the seventh and most savage of the Jedi lightsaber forms). I tend to be quite passive in real life, or "gloriously ambivalent" as my friend would put it, so preferred to focus on blocking and the measured, decisive swipes of a Qui-Gon Jinn.
Neither of these characterizations is exactly profound—they're played with gaseous gusto by Samuel L. Jackson and Liam Neeson in the movies—but they were a means of representing ourselves to each other that played into how we behaved at school and elsewhere, like choice of haircut or footwear. Years later, speaking aloud the button inputs for our chosen character combos serves as a sort of secret handshake, a reminder of the sweaty bundles of adolescent insecurity we once were. Add in all the characters we've played in various games over the years, and you'd probably end up with a pair of workable biographies. In fact, that sounds like a great Kickstarter pitch. Chuck us $75,000, someone.
Then there's the element of competition. No so-called cooperative game is complete without it. Jedi Power Battles has a primitive leaderboard system, whereby each character earns experience points from battle that are collected and spent on new moves at the end of each level. It's one of the oldest Jedi mind tricks known to game designers (and, indeed, office managers), seeking to portray humdrum activities as glamorous—the easiest way to make somebody care about a task, after all, is to persuade them that their pal is doing it better.
In the thick of combat, this would lead to moments of occasional treachery where one of us might gallop ahead, hoping to lasso a Jedi artifact or nobble a clutch of XP-rich foes while the other expired in a crossfire or, even less forgivably, fell off the edge of the screen. Such oscillations from selflessness to self-interest are fundamental to a team-based shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield, where everybody has to work together to prevail, but everybody has one eye on their leaderboard ranking or personal Kill-Death ratio.
All this sounds like it should be anathema to amicability and, when some dickhead's just trapped you in a corner with a bunch of Destroyers while they nab a collectable, feels like it. Actually, it's a way of thrashing out the rivalries that underpin many friendships in a safe environment, a fictional space. I don't think my friend and I ever resented one another more than is usual for kids of a certain age—competing for social prestige, grades, sporting prowess, or what have you—but having an outlet for those feelings was important nonetheless. Perhaps it still is.
Last but not least, video games are good for friendships because both games and friendships are voyages of discovery. Take our eventual, inglorious defeat of Darth Maul, after much trial and error. You fight him in stages across the length of the game's final level, with the boss retreating automatically once a certain level of damage is inflicted. Catch him on the run with a protracted combo, then have your partner follow up immediately with one of his own, and you can ding away at the bastard's health bar uninterrupted as he struggles to disengage.
It's yet another of Jedi Power Battles' broken bits, but I can still recall the elation we shared when Maul went down—the sense of having reached together into a wonky, whirring mechanism and yanked out the clockwork at its core. That even a sim as woeful as this one can prompt such a sense of camaraderie speaks volumes about the medium as a whole. Video games let us venture to places and perform feats we can otherwise only dream of, but more importantly, they let us do it together.
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