I grew up a Nintendo kid. I know things about Animal Crossing that would make you blush. I've been playing Harvest Moon since I was knee-high to a polygonal grasshopper. I could probably run through Paper Mario with my eyes closed. Cut me, and I bleed red, white, and blue shells.
Most kids only grow up with one console, though, and while I was pretty lucky to have access to an Xbox 360 later in life, I spent most of my formative gaming years in the company of Mario, Zelda, and Pikachu. It was a pretty good childhood. But it does mean that I was missing one thing: PlayStation.
There was an original-model PlayStation at my friend's house, and I'd go over and play games every now and then—Croc, Tomb Raider, and Crash Bandicoot, our legs crossed on creaking wooden chairs, controller cables wrapped around our feet. But she also had Pokémon Stadium, which, sorry, I'm going to have to tell you this, is miles better than Crash. Does the Crash Bandicoot character have a mini-game about eating sushi in his life? No. Does he have another about flopping Magikarp? No. What does Crash Bandicoot have? Running, and fruit. If you have a friend who is really into running and fruit then you will agree with me when I say that these are Boring Things.
But I digress. Right up until the start of this year, the last PlayStation game I'd played remained Crash Bandicoot. That was the summation of my PlayStation knowledge: if Nintendo is about cute things and animals talking about their day, and Xbox is about shooting things and 12-year-old kids talking about their day, then PlayStation was, for some reason, really into tombs and ancient buildings and destroying the relics of a long-lost civilization because you really want some apples.
Nathan plays 'Crash Bandicoot' in 'Uncharted 4'
And it turns out that I wasn't wrong, because the next PlayStation game I played was Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, which is a game about occasionally eating apples, climbing all over beautiful ruins and accidentally pulling chunks off something that hasn't been touched for decades. As someone who studied ancient civilizations at university, playing Uncharted 4 was a bit like making a stamp collector watch live footage of people licking the back of the queen's papery head.
Don't get me wrong, though—Uncharted 4 is a brilliant game. Coming to a game like that with no real knowledge of what it's about or what PlayStation games are like enhanced the experience a hundredfold. It was like coming home after a long, hot day to find ice cream in the freezer and beer in the fridge, but instead of beer it was Nathan Drake and his sassy, adorable face.
Even better than all that was the fact that I could actually play Crash Bandicoot in the game. What started as a whimsical experience turned into this strange meta Russian doll thing, where I was playing across a 20-year gulf without any of the knowledge of what happened in between. Devs (of both games) Naughty Dog put in that reference as a cheeky wink to PlayStation's history, as well as their own, intended for players who'd been with them for two decades, but here I was—an unintended audience member who crashed the party 20 years too late and was asking when the pizza was coming.
It was fascinating. Twenty years of missed history in as many minutes. Hearing Nate and his wife Elena commenting on how bad he was at playing, how bad I was at playing, the difference between Crash's arcade-style high-score-chasing and Uncharted 4's slower, languorous story with all its feelings and emotions and subtlety. Crash Bandicoot's idea of subtlety is to hide a bonus level just out of view. Uncharted 4's idea of subtlety is putting rust on the taps. We've come a long way.
It left me wondering what Naughty Dog was trying to tell us in that little game-within-a-game section. On the surface, it's a sweet little set piece to solidify Nate and Elena's relationship, it's a knowing reference to Naughty Dog fans, and it's just a silly mini-game to make you think that ND is the cool teacher of game studios, the kind that gives "have fun, enjoy life" as homework.
But what do the designers gain from making Crash Bandicoot Elena's game, and Drake—the main character, played by us—the complete noob? As the player, we're all likely to be experienced gamers, but as Drake, we're someone who doesn't even know what Crash Bandicoot is, despite the fact that he is basically a stronger, sexier, higher-definition version of Crash himself, 20 years on. There are even a few sections in Uncharted 4 where he becomes Crash, dashing across and over obstacles and running towards the camera. That's no accident.
So we're playing this game-within-a-game with the narrative that we are a bad gamer, and we're trying to get a high score to prove ourselves to Elena. When we fail, is it us that failed, or is it Drake? Are we bad gamers for not being able to get a high score, or is that a different kind of gamer to the ones we are today?
If you die in an Uncharted game, you just start over from the last checkpoint—same as Crash Bandicoot, really—but there's no penalty, no lost life, no score deduction. Uncharted expects less from you in terms of perfection, but more from you in terms of engaging with the story—you won't get as much enjoyment out of the game if you don't care about the people, the locations, and the mysteries. If you merrily skip through the dialogue, you're missing a good chunk of what Uncharted 4 is trying to offer you.
I don't expect that Naughty Dog designed their Uncharted/Bandicoot parallels with people like me in mind—the gaming equivalent of a guy that lived in a cave since World War II and is now amazed by Snickers bars and Babestation. But we all have gaps in our gaming knowledge, and we all come to every game that we play with different backgrounds and experience that affect how we think and feel about it.
I might not have played The Last of Us or Jak and Daxter, or even the previous Uncharted games, but that makes it no less enjoyable to play the latest one—in fact, missing the last 20 years of PlayStation's evolution might even make it more enjoyable. Playing a game like Uncharted 4 when you have no expectations at all is like being Freddie Prinze Jr. in She's All That, seeing Rachael Leigh Cook transformed from a froggy sort of dork into a girl with a cute late-90s bob and a booty that Sisqó would write songs about. The booty part also applies to Nathan Drake.
Maybe having gaps in your gaming knowledge isn't such an issue, especially since 2016 is apparently the year of the remakes and remasters—I might soon be able to experience Red Dead Redemption for the first time in a glorious new form (who knows), and if I ever muster up the courage to have a crack at The Last of Us, at least I know I'll be able to watch Joel's pores dilate in terror. So let's not judge those who've missed out on the biggest games—they might have the best insight of us all.
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