Above: 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' movie still courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Back in my day (she says, wrinkles carving their way through her skin in real-time, flesh desiccating with every word) people generally only bought a couple of games a year. They were expensive things, costing the equivalent of up to £100 in today's money. You just didn't keep up with releases, back then—and if the one game you saved up for was a dud, well, you played it anyway, and you enjoyed it.
Or you found ways to enjoy it, at least. It baffles me when I hear people talk about how they thought Burnout 2 was a terrible game—my brother and I would compete for hours to see who could cause the most expensive crash (it was me, every time; the trick is to chain several oil tankers into one another). Or Sonic Adventure 2, a game that, for me, is about perfecting the Chao Garden, with some boring side-quest about rings and running.
But the first game I loved, truly loved, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on Game Boy Color. This was before the days when I talked to other people about games, before I knew which ones would get you Gamer Cred™ like Ocarina of Time or Metroid. Before I cared about any of that. Maybe HP and the Phizzle Sizzle isn't a good game, but I'm so deeply entrenched in everything it meant to me that I can't see it objectively, at all.
As with any hobby, the way you learn to love it is by going out on your own, and connecting one-on-one with the thing itself.
The game was a very different beast from port to port, but on the GBC it was a simple sort of RPG set in Harry's first year at Hogwarts, with a turn-based battle system that's quite similar to early Final Fantasy titles. Remember that bit in the books where Potter has to fight a bunch of rats and spiders every time he leaves his bedroom? Sure you do! That's the main mechanic of this game. I mean, what's the point in learning spells if you don't have vermin to test them on?
The story follows the plot of the book with a little bit of embellishment here and there, like Professor Snape forcing you to go out into the grounds alone to collect potion ingredients, and a weird, convoluted fetch quest that has you trading cards with a creepy stranger in an alleyway.
I have played the game from start to finish roughly 20 times. I know the location of every secret passage, every hidden item, every optional spell. I can do the bit where you sneak into the restricted section of the library with my eyes closed. I love this game.
And so, I wanted to write this piece, telling you why Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was how I learned to adore games. Yeah, I played GoldenEye and Super Mario 64 and Link to the Past, but they weren't mine like Harry Potter was. I didn't have to share it with my brother; I didn't have to use the treacle-slow dial-up internet to print of sheaves of badly-written game guides to figure out how to play. I didn't have to approach the nerdy guys in my school playground to ask them how to beat the boss, causing the whole year to start whispering rumors about how we were definitely kissing. On the mouth.
I figured Harry Potter out myself. The knowledge I had about this game was mine, and mine alone. It was my project, my undertaking, and I shared it with nobody.
Above: Gameplay from 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' on Game Boy Color (via a GameCube Game Boy Player)
I'm not saying that's how games should be enjoyed, and nowadays, that's not what I want. I want to talk to as many people as I can about That Quest in The Witcher 3, and the fashion in Watch Dogs 2, and the anecdotes in Final Fantasy XV. But as with any hobby, the way you learn to love it is by going out on your own, and connecting one-on-one with the thing itself.
I played Harry Potter in the car on long trips, waiting for the brief illumination of a passing streetlight before I could see what I was doing, because this was a time before Nintendo figured out backlit screens. I played it in my bedroom, sitting at my desk so I could charge the Game Boy, listening to some age-appropriate '90s music on my CD player and hugging my Beanie Babies.
There's something about playing a game over and over again that makes it unique to you, and something even more special about a game that's just small enough that you can memorize its hallways and layouts, its quirks and exploits. I have bits that I love about that game, bits that I can't wait to do again every time I play—the potions class, the card collecting, the final test before you get to the Philosopher's Stone. But also, there are the bits I can't wait to get past, like the entire Forbidden Forest maze, that feels a bit like filler.
This game feels comfortable and familiar to me, like sinking into an old, beaten-up armchair. To others, it may look like trash—but it fits me exactly right.
Here's the thing: I imagine that, objectively, people probably think this game is a bit pants. It's quite repetitive, it's very combat-focused for a game about learning magic, and, at the end of the day, it's a movie/book tie-in.
But I don't care. This game feels comfortable and familiar to me, like sinking into an old, beaten-up armchair. The stuffing is all out of shape, the upholstery is tattered and disintegrating, and to others, it may look like trash—but it fits me exactly right. It's like coming home, that feeling of taking off who I am now and slipping back into the skin of who I was, back before I had responsibilities to worry about. Back when to-do lists didn't exist and someone else made your lunches for you.
There's a reason nostalgia is such a lucrative industry. The Greek word literally means "the pain of coming home", and while it hurts in a way to remember a time when things weren't so hard, it's a pain that's nevertheless comforting. I love Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone not necessarily because I think it's a fantastic, genre-defining classic, but because it was me, at that time in my life: the Potter-loving, game-playing tiny nerd girl. I'm a bigger version of that now, but it feels good to go back home sometimes.
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