June 25th, 2011 - Ryan
Remember back when you got your first gaming system? Remember how crappy the graphics were and how simple the gameplay was? It was almost a better time for gaming just because games were being designed as… well, games. At what point did the market decide that games needed movies and cinematics? What happened to games like Rocket Knight, Adventure Island, Mega Man, and the original Final Fantasy? Back then no one worried about DLC and game updates: Back then the customer just bought the game and enjoyed it to the fullest. Gamers didn’t care about reviews, release dates, or even release dates getting pushed back. There was a simple equation: The player, a system, and their favorite hero saving the day for the 100th time, without any system for reward, achievement, or trophy – and we, as a community, were okay with that. I miss the good ol’ days of gaming…
…Or do I?
It may seem as though I’m going on a tangent about how “gaming is better now because of this and that,” but that’s not really the takeaway point here. Forget modern gaming for now and ask yourself, “What made the “good ol’ days” so good? Were games just flat-out better? Was it because games shipped with all the content on the disc (or cartridge, in that era), or was it because games were executed more simply instead of attempting to engage players in an experience that simplicity itself would have solved?” To answer these, one must look to some of the individual facets of what is now lovingly referred to as “retro gaming.”
One facet of “retro” is the sense of euphoria of the time. A feeling of nostalgia is felt when one experiences a game from the past in favorable, and even ecstatic, memory. These memories remain so cherished because a gamer’s younger self found some modicum of joy through the experience associated with that game. An emotional bond is formed with a given title, character, or story, so much so that when the player sees it they feel a sort of anxiety. Having established nostalgia, are the NES and Genesis eras considered the hey-day of gaming strictly due to nostalgia alone? That seems too convenient an excuse, and that argument can be made for any generation in gaming. The biggest reason someone might feel that gaming was so superior in the 80’s and 90’s is a matter of development: Not the process of developing games, but rather the development of the entertainment medium as a whole.
In retrospect, the time before the so-called “golden era of gaming,” the 60’s and 70’s in particular, was an infant stage in gaming – People didn’t get the idea of gaming or its potential. To be fair, there were some early adopters, but it didn’t really reach critical mass until Nintendo and Sega jumped into the game. As the years passed on, new genres in gaming began to emerge: Platformer, role-playing-game, fighting, and first-person-shooter, as well as several others. These are all genres that players have taken for granted in today’s gaming industry, but back then these were entirely new ways to play. Countless masses rave that GoldenEye was, and to some people still is, the best first-person-shooter of all time, but is it really? GoldenEye has aged pretty harshly, and the genre has moved light years forward. When GoldenEye was first released, first-person-shooters were something that was played strictly on a PC. The shooting genre tried to make a debut onto consoles, but it wasn’t well received. Consider how big the F.P.S. genre is now: It’s almost the same as witnessing the birth of Rock and Roll.
Beyond the 60’s and 70’s era, the past 10 – 15 years in gaming hasn’t evolved much compared to what it was in the 80’s and the 90’s. Once a well-received formula was established, the industry really stuck with it. We, as gamers, haven’t witnessed the birth of game-changing genres that set the standard for what we know and play today like we did back then. There are a few exceptions to this rule: Sandbox action games (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) and music games (a la Guitar Hero) are a couple. The G.T.A. series is to the Sandbox Action genre as GoldenEye is to console shooters, and Guitar Hero introduced a completely new way to interact with music; however, from that point and beyond the industry seems to have slouched into a comfort zone. Each year, game developers release something like G.T.A., something like Call of Duty, something like Assassin’s Creed, something like Need For Speed, and something like Madden. Is this a bad thing? Well, technically no; It just means that there is a steady stream of games that the market is almost guaranteed to know and like.
All of this is not to say that every company has given up on reinventing the way we play games. Nintendo has proven, with its Wii console, that it is committed to constantly looking for new ways to play. Microsoft and Sony are pursuing alternative avenues as well. Games like Katamari Damacy, Flower, and Rez consistently prove that there are new genres to be discovered, but none of these have resonated with the critical core of gamers. An argument might be made that the Wii sold well, but it did so to a demographic that is fickle, and that adopts fleeting mania. I’m not saying that the Wii itself is a fad, but the way that it is advertised, as well as the demographic that it’s advertised to, aligns it with the trend of other passing fancies.
Portable gaming is still evolving as well, and it remains a viable venue that may try to relive the birth of console genres, but, ultimately, the impact won’t be the same as it was the first time through on a true home console. As I see it, augmented reality is the next step in gaming that will actually take it in new directions, and invoke some of the “early-years-excitement” all over again, and that technology is just now being realized. Honestly, there is so much to discuss about A.R. that it deserves its own article, but this is not that article, so stay tuned to F.F.o.P. for more on that.
Because the video game industry is so young (compared to other forms of entertainment, such as movies or music), it’s hard to understand the height that the industry has reached. A large number of gamers grew up when the medium was being created, yet the aforementioned media of music and film had been established for decades; music, for centuries. Society doesn’t hearken back to the 1980’s for movies, claiming they were “more magical” than today’s films (outside of nostalgia, of course). Normally people are able to recognize that films from past generations were horribly made due to inferior technology and less evolved or enlightened knowledge of the craft than the present day. The cinematic industry had set its foundation and its standards many decades before most of us were born, so when video gaming came around, the film industry was already recycling its genres, much like, in turn, the gaming industry does now. The same may be said of music, theater, literature, and so on. This does not necessarily mean that the industry has become stale and is doomed for extinction; Video games are no more cursory than music or film. Gaming has merely established itself as an industry in very recent history, as opposed to the hundreds of years music has had. It knows what the consumer base wants, and it delivers it to them: There is nothing magical about being predictable, other than the large amounts of cash flow; So the magic of creation may be gone, but there is still plenty of evolution left to do. To this day the movie industry is still evolving, just not at the pace it did when making films was still experimental and new. So it is with gaming in the modern age.
The only way for us gamers to relive the magic of the 90’s is to witness a new medium being born. What medium? I don’t know, it hasn’t been born yet. Video games, however, will never be as exciting or magical as they were when each genre was being fully realized, and that’s the biggest misconception of the early 90’s era of gaming. I’ve heard countless tired arguments saying that games were better, or that systems were better, or that commercials were better, or even that cereal boxes were better in that time, but the bottom line is that gaming was simply better back then because it was trying harder, and forging itself into what it is now: Nearly everything was still being conceptualized, genres were being created, industry standards were being set. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what era you grew up in, or what you hold near and dear to your heart; The evolution of gaming during the late 80’s and early 90’s will forever be held as the big boom of the industry. If you were lucky enough to get in on the ground floor, having been born in that era, just consider yourself lucky enough to have borne witness to the birth of one of the biggest entertainment media in the world, because there is no way back.