August 28, 2009

Classic Games: They’re Better Remembered than Replayed

Troy Benedict Says I have been playing computer and video games for most of my 32 years. Some of my earliest gaming memories are of getting dropkicked by Princess Mariko at the end of Karateka, and playing boatloads of Infocom and Eamon text-based adventure games. I recall flying my pixilated snowspeeder at the seemly infinite hordes of AT-AT walkers in the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600, looking for their weakness - a single flashing pixel. I remember the first time I saw a friend’s Nintendo Entertainment System, and immediately fell in love with The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Super Mario Bros, and Contra.

There have been so many great games that I’ve played during my lifelong “career” as a gaming enthusiast. I could probably write endless, sappy articles about all of my favorite games and moments throughout my life, but I will spare you those details.

While I look back upon hundreds of cherished games with fond memories, absolutely none of the games are as enjoyable as they were during their prime.

I’ve read a lot of blogs and posts on message boards from gaming enthusiasts claiming that replaying a classic game was “just as good as I remember it!”

I immediately think to myself, either that person is so caught up in the excitement of nostalgia that they’re delusional, OR they’re outright lying. There is NO way that any classic game lives up to its original glory, and I’ll tell you why.

Let me clarify what I mean by “classic games” before I get to far ahead of myself, as this term can be very subjective depending on when you started playing video games. When I talk about classic games, I’m referring to the games of the 80s and early-to-mid 90s, when the PC and video game industry was still in its infancy.

I remember how absolutely amazed I was when I took my first steps as B.J. Blazkowicz in Wolfenstein 3-D or the thrill of being genuinely frightened while playing Doom, when a maze-like corridor in the Mars facility went dark and the sound of an approaching Pinky Demon could be heard in the distance. I play these games today, and am bored after a couple of levels.

I find it difficult to sit down and play a classic game like Dragon Warrior or Phantasy Star II, as I can immediately see how even the smallest changes over the decades have made for some of the genre’s biggest improvements. You weren’t always able to “try” out a new weapon or piece of equipment to see how it affected your stats. Sometimes you weren’t even notified if the item you were purchasing could be equipped by the character for which you were buying it. Even random battle encounters are becoming a thing of the past. I find these random encounters to insanely frustrating today, maybe even more so now I did in the past, especially when all you want to do is get to a checkpoint, and you run into that one enemy group that kills you. Game over! The controller is thrown – nerd rage achievement unlocked! It reminds me of that scene from Office Space when all that Peter wants to do is get out of the office and avoid Lumberg, and just as he’s finally logging off the network and making his escape – BAM – Lumberg pops up and asks him to come in on Saturday… oh, and Sunday, as well. I digress…

I have downloaded a lot of classic Genesis, NES, and SNES games through the Wii’s Virtual Console, and I’ll admit, I’ve probably played each game once or twice, at the most. It’s good for a brief trip down memory lane, but I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed paying even $5 for a game that I absolutely loved during its prime, and only honestly enjoy it for a very short amount of time.

It might be a bit pessimistic to think this way, but when I go back and revisit a classic game that I grew up playing, part of me expects the game not to deliver like it did back during its prime. In fact, I expect it to be less than impressive. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment.
I’m not knocking what many consider to be the forefathers of the gaming industry. If games like Super Mario Bros, Doom, The Legend of Zelda, Kings Quest, Final Fantasy, never existed, the current gaming industry might be a whole lot different! These greatest games of their time should also be the inspiration for newer better games.

If the pinnacle of gaming stops with a single classic game, then the gaming industry has failed! If there has never been a better side-scrolling action-platformer since Contra’s release over 20 years ago, then we all might as well hang up our controllers and find a new hobby.

Like all industries, what makes the computer and video game industries so great and exciting is that they’re constantly evolving and innovating. Evolution and innovation in the industry is a necessity! Evolution and innovation is the difference between something average and predictable, and something fresh, exciting, and great!

Take the evolution of the First-Person Shooter genre, for example. Wolfenstein 3-D was one of the first games to gather popular and mainstream attention to the FPS genre. It was Doom that incorporated that idea and functionality of Wolf 3D, built upon it, and added multiplayer. Duke Nukem 3-D and Quake added completely new technology – better, more complex level design, smarter A.I., the ability to jump and look around, as well as stronger, more efficient network code for larger multiplayer games. Half-Life built upon those and other popular FPS games before its time, by getting the player to really feel like they were in the game. Valve used techniques in Half-Life, like scripted events and one of the best game openings to an FPS game, to really immerse the player. While Half-Life was still ultimately about shooting things, it also introduced the idea of a more complex story to help carry the game along. Half-Life wasn’t broken into levels either, the progression from area to area in the game was smooth and rarely did the player see a loading screen.

Today, the FPS genre is so completely different than it was in the early 90s. Players now expect a certain level of gradual innovation between game releases, or they’ll complain. And rightfully so! Nobody wants to play the same game over and over, especially with so much technology in our consoles and computers. More modern FPS, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Killzone 2, almost play like role playing games, where players are rewarded for playing more and being more effective on the battlefield. The in-game character is no longer created equally. There are more sophisticated level progression – the more experienced a gamer becomes, the more deadly and effective his character becomes in the game. There are new weapons made available, better weapons upgrades, perks and skills, as well as different classes of characters. Multiplayer games are more team-based today, instead of the massive royal rumbles of yesteryear. Gamers are working together to win, rather than simply being the lone wolf with the highest kill count.

Halo 3 introduced one of the most impressive stat tracking systems to ever grace a first person genre. Not only could players see how effective they are over the course of the game, but they could save, share, and replay online battles – watching the multiplayer session from practically any angle, analyzing where they went wrong, as if they were a football team studying the strategies of other teams by watching replays of the game.

Frankly, the leaps and bounds in technology is amazing, especially in the FPS genre, and it’s still getting better. Sony’s MAG (Massive Action Game), which comes out in early 2010, is pushing for multiplayer games of up to 256 players. Modern Warfare 2 promises to deliver an even better experience than the already fantastic COD4.

Hopefully, you can see that when somebody says to me, “Wow! Doom is still as good as the day I remember playing it!” I can’t help but feel sorry for them. Either they’re just caught up in the comforting glow of nostalgia (which will wear off, I promise) or they really haven’t played and enjoyed any of the more current games.

You might be thinking, you’re an idiot, Troy! There are so many classic games that are still fun to play. Yes, this is true, I am an idiot, and there are still some classics that hold up over the many years. These games have the feeling of being “future-proofed”, to borrow a tech term. They hold up because they have elements and features that are still popular in today’s games. They were innovative for their time, and their innovation is still recognized and respected even today. A game like Super Mario World is one that I can go back and play over and over again, and still get a lot of enjoyment. Perhaps, we can thank the Game Boy and Nintendo DS for helping to keep a more simplified, 16-bit style of gaming popular, even today. Super Mario World offered a lot of depth, especially for completionists who could go back and try to collect all of the hidden coins.

If a classic game is to survive and get the attention of today’s gamers I feel that they have to meet two necessary requirements: 1) the game has to be updated or re-tweeked with today’s industry standards in mind and, 2) it has to somehow contain the spirit of the original game without horribly mutating it into a completely unrecognizable mess. This is very hard to do, and few have succeeded.

Pac-Man Championship Edition is an example of a classic arcade game that was able to update its look and feel, and still feel genuinely like Pac-Man.

I also really enjoyed the new Space Invader’s Extreme -- although it’s backwards E’s were a little to “XTREME!” for me – because it felt and played like a mix of the original Space Invaders, with some of the more modern arcade-style games Geometry Wars and Lumines. The audio and visual flair, along with a very familiar gameplay style, made for a very faithful modern update to a classic game.

More recently, I really enjoyed revisiting my all-time favorite PC game, The Secret of Monkey Island. A lot of time and effort went into completely overhauling the original for the Special Edition release. High-definition graphics, an improved musical score, a slightly different interface, and full voiceovers for all of the game’s dialog. There is even an option to immediately transition from the new Special Edition version of the game to the classic 256-color version to see just how things looked back in the very early 90s.

I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts as to why I believe that classic games aren’t as good as we remember them being. It’s still safe to admire those classics for being the forefathers of the great games we have today, as well as thinking back fondly of playing them. But I personally, can’t enjoy a classic game the same way I did during its prime. Like I said before, innovation and evolution are necessary in order for an industry to grow, and if people are still enjoying a classic game like Doom over a modern game like Call of Duty 4, then something is very wrong.
Great games should exist as inspirational stepping stones for the brilliant minds behind new games: future games designers, programmers, and video game visionaries. Great games, classic or otherwise, should not be expected to stand the test of time.

I encourage everybody to give me their thoughts on this article, as well as your thoughts on classic games vs. modern titles. Do they hold up for you? In your mind, are they better left remember, than replayed?