It’s a strange thing being archaic and curmudgeonly in your early twenties, but the rapid growth of the video game industry can leave even the youngest and most readily adaptable of nerds left behind. There exists an entire generation of gamers who were raised in two dimensions, whose minds were entranced by the bleeps and bloops of chiptune music, whose roots are so firmly entrenched in the soil of the bizarrely colorful and impossibly abstract worlds of ghost-eating pie symbols and eggplant-evading cherubs. These gamers spent the formative years of their lives displaced within primitive digital fantasy worlds that may only appear as mere cave drawings when compared to their present-day successors.
Video games, while still very much in their infancy as a medium, have grown so quickly as to be almost unrecognizable from what they were in the eighties and nineties. The gamers of those decades fell in love with Super Mario’s unfathomably trippy landscapes and Final Fantasy’s 8-bit symphonies and Contra’s twitch-based gameplay – characteristics which can be upsettingly absent from today’s realistic and open-ended games – characteristics which were most likely born from limitation. The dream-like levels of Super Mario Bros. are more than likely a result of the NES’s inability to create a two-dimensional side-scrolling level that could take place in a realistic environment. The chiptune music that sends shivers down a nostalgic gamer’s spine was produced with the oppressive restrictions of the machine’s soundboard. The reaction-time and pattern-recognizing gameplay of old games comes from limited computational power – it was impossible to program any more variables. And yet thousands of gamers fell in love with these games, and maybe not despite these limitations, but because of them. As games have matured, the graphics have become more realistic, the music has grown to encompass whole orchestras, and the gameplay has become more open-ended and customizable. Technologically it is all very impressive, but what about all those gamers who identify with those previous limitations? They made their minds up decades ago when they picked up that NES controller for the first time. They played Battletoads and said “This is it. This is what I want from my entertainment.” And now it’s gone.
Well, not entirely. But things have definitely changed.
It can be hard to understand sometimes. Did the simplicity of 8 and 16-bit games make them purer in design? Or does nostalgia blind? Without question plenty of early games have appallingly detrimental design flaws, from unapologetically punishing obstacles to puzzles so arbitrary one has to wonder if they were some sort of ploy to promote the toll-based tips & tricks hotlines that pre-dated the internet. These games weren’t perfect (most of them, anyway), and yet the classic gamer is much more forgiving of these early flaws than they are for modern games. It could easily be said that this is because the classic gamer is lost in a bygone era. It’s possible that every time they fire up Mega Man 2, nostalgic gamers hear that opening theme and are reminded of simpler times when freedom meant disappearing into a mildewy basement where Mom would leave you alone and you could blast robots all day. Sentimental value may be weighing in a little too heavy on the grading scale for some. But these classic gamers are still discovering new games from that bygone era and enjoying them just as much. Maybe they never played Metroid back in ’86 and didn’t get a chance to give it a go until just recently. Chances are they appreciate it just as much, even without associating it with past memories. That’s because these games were made in a different way. They came from a school of thought that has changed with time and money and exposure.
A number of things have changed considerably over the years, which I shall illustrate further in articles to come:
- Challenge. Classic games had simple control schemes, but complex and difficult obstacles to push them with. Modern games have complex control schemes, but hold the player’s hand along the way to make sure they don’t get left behind.
- Music. Classic games had theme-focused songs that were catchy and electronic. Modern games are more inclined to have mood-focused or ambient music that hovers in the background.
- Level design. Classic games were linear and focused. Modern games are non-linear and meandering.
- Realism. Classic games were often surreal abstractions of abstractions. Modern games strive for realism.
- Appeal. Classic games were for nerds. Modern games are for everyone and their grandmother.
These differences aren’t inherently bad. They’re just… different. But the classic gamer prefers things the way they were. They committed their lives to video games a long time ago, and to change what they were, to take away too many of their defining characteristics, is a betrayal to those early gamers.
More to come, losers.