Azure Dreams suffered from no shortage of ambition: it’s a randomly-generated, brutally difficult roguelike; a sprawling town development game; a very Japanese fluffy dating sim that offers up fanservice shots of doe-eyed teen girls in bikinis; and a Gotta-Catch-Em-All monster training and breeding adventure. The PlayStation game, released domestically by Konami in 1998, seemingly had something for everybody. Even if you were a terrified, closeted gay 13-year-old in the South.
I was introduced to the game by my best friend at the time, a precocious homeschooled kid who, enviably, had a subscription to Electronic Gaming Monthly. He also introduced me to the most formative games of my youth, including Pokemon and Final Fantasy Tactics. We were thick as thieves and spent most weekends together, gaming late into the night. Our weekly ritual: my mother would drive me to a Walmart on the south side of town, about midway to his house, his mother would come pick me up, we’d all get a McDonald’s Happy Meal with an Orange Hi-C (always Orange), and excitedly gab over burgers about the new game he’d picked up. He lived a fair distance away, so we had plenty of time for him to describe the fantastic worlds he’d been escaping into, and for me to build up anticipation about sharing those worlds with him.
His description of Azure Dreams baffled me. There was only one dungeon? It was different every time you entered? Your hero lost all progress whenever he left the level? The PlayStation magically knew if you turned off the game mid-dungeon and PUNISHED you for it? He then moved onto the dating sim aspects, mentioning that you could see girls in swimsuits if you got far enough (or so EGM reported). His mother blushed; I shrugged.
The game was as deep and as beautiful as I’d been promised. Though the game’s rough 2.5d character models and rudimentary polygon environments were considered lacking even at the time, I found the rich juxtaposition of a scorched desert, a deep blue sky, and the characters’ technicolor-anime designs to be absolutely dazzling. The monster designs were fresh and new, the town building was empowering, and the dungeon was harrowing but irresistible. We played into the night, striving to get even halfway up the tower.
More than any game I’ve played, Azure Dreams reflects the confusion, stimulation, and seeming insurmountability of teenagehood.
I was immediately smitten with the game, and remain so to this day. Azure Dreams resonated with me as I imagine it would with any teenage boy teetering on the brink of real world responsibility. The game begins on the fifteenth birthday of Our Hero (“Koh” by default). Upon reaching this momentous milestone, all adults are permitted to try their hand at plundering the tower for riches and monster eggs. Koh is finally included in the world of adults, but is still markedly a teenage boy. The game is laced with phalluses (a NPC named “Jacof,” a shiny motorbike that is unabashedly penis-shaped, and the 40-floor, masculine tower jutting out of the fertile desert town), and contains plenty of thrills tailor-made for teen boys (a racetrack, a harem of potential girlfriends, and a swimming pool where you could see the girlfriends in their bathing attire). More than any game I’ve played, Azure Dreams reflects the confusion, stimulation, and seeming insurmountability of teenagehood.
One weekend, my friend and I were successful in wooing all seven potential girlfriends who live in the hero’s small desert town. As we were winding up for the night, my friend entered the Save menu, and I noticed, curiously, that there was space for an eighth face on the save file. He raised one eyebrow, knowingly: “Yeah, that’s because in the Japanese version, you can have a BOYFRIEND, too.”
“Whoa, that’s gross!” I never wanted anything more in my life. A BOYFRIEND?! I yearned so badly for the game to show me this possibility. Even though the “boyfriend” character, Ghosh Rhode, was arrogant, classist, and battled you every time he ran into you. Even if “he” was a lightly-scripted sprite whose only animation was a periodic eye blink. I wanted nothing more than for this low-budget roguelike to tell me that it was possible for me to develop a romantic connection with another boy.
And why had this possibility been cruelly withheld from me? In my mind, I painted a portrait of the nebulous villains in this story, the localization team. I pictured them as closed-minded, stereotypical censors who would clutch their pearls at the hint of anything that would give pause to a Sunday school teacher. I actually recall picturing the conversation they had, determining that a same-sex romance was completely unacceptable for the North American market (which was, at that point, rather hostile to depictions of same-sex attraction in popular culture). The spectral heroes, of course, were the generous, wise programmers who recognized same-sex attraction as a natural fact, and who wouldn’t hesitate to include it in their game.
I went home that weekend with a mission. No matter what it took, I would find some loophole in the game’s code to correct the grievous wrong that the sinister localization team had committed. The first step in my plan was to research anything I could about the rumors my friend reported. The only place this was really possible at the time was the game-specific message board on GameFAQs. For teens in the late nineties, GameFAQs was paradise. It was a trove of meticulously-written walkthroughs and crudely-drawn ASCII maps. It was rife with peddlers of secrets that none could verify in the absence of a Brady strategy guide. One such peddler started a thread about the differences between the Japanese and Western versions of the game. First, he mentioned that there was a wedding ring that you could buy in the general store (staffed by one of your girlfriends, of course) for 30,000G. When offered as a gift, the ring would initiate a special wedding scene, and the lucky recipient girlfriend would then move into your home. He then confirmed what my friend had mentioned: you could develop a romantic relationship with Ghosh. He said that he tried everything he could, but could find no way to trigger the relationship in the English version of the game.
But that poor soul didn’t have an older brother with a GameShark! I plugged the device into the mystery back of my PlayStation, and scoured the “Cheats” section of the GameFAQs site to find a code that would give me my first taste of gay romance. I first decided to try to hack in a Wedding Ring, to see if the tipster’s claims were plausible. I pored over lists of GameShark codes and Item ID numbers, but couldn’t find one for the ring. I’m not sure if it was desperation or boredom, but I made myself believe that the ring’s absence was an oversight of the cheat writer, and tried various combinations of digits, spawning dozens of nonfunctional garbage items into my hero’s pockets. Eventually I gave in and, though the wedding was called off, I still believed it was possible to have my happy ending with Ghosh.
i still believed it was possible to have my happy ending with ghosh
Several GameFAQs commenters noted very confidently that their friend in Japan had Ghosh as a boyfriend, and I seethed with jealousy and redoubled my effort to tamper with the game and see Ghosh’s face on my save file. Another commenter noted that the eighth face actually belonged to *SPOILER* the final boss */SPOILER* but my faith was unshaken. Konami wanted me to have a boyfriend, and I would do anything I could to overcome the intermeddling of the villainous localization team.
I tested hundreds more GameShark codes doing everything from giving me ten of the rarest monster egg to removing girlfriends’ sprites from the game entirely, but nothing would change Ghosh’s dialogue or allow us to share moments that I hadn’t already experienced ad nauseum. I spent an unreasonable number of suffocatingly hot Florida summer afternoons and damp, cicada-scored summer nights trying to convince this game to relent and give me what I worked so hard for. But though my hero could cut through the toughest enemy, resist the most ferocious magical spell, or have any woman he wanted, the haughty blonde neighbor was always just out of reach.
I moved on from Azure Dreamsi> and played dozens of the other great RPGs released in the late 90s. And though I’m sure many had particularly difficult battles that drove me to consult GameFAQs, I can’t recall those times. No video game battle was ever as urgent, ever as significant, or ever as engrossing as the 1998 fight to see myself reflected on the screen.
Some time later, I revisited the rumored changes from the Japanese version, and was able to verify that there was no wedding ring, and there was no boyfriend. The only significant change to the game was that the original version was voice-acted, while the American characters were silent. However, the rumors still lingered as long as a decade after release. As recently as 2008, an eager fan posted to the GameFAQs board, asking how he could find the wedding ring, and whether Ghosh was available as a love interest. Though the polygon counts and production values have changed, our desire to see our realities reflected in the games we play is constant.