The Good Old Days

Thanks in part to my new addiction to Slashdot, after being infected by my dear father and brother, I've become remarkably better informed about recent developements in gaming. That and I read Penny-Arcade. In any case, I rather enjoyed Nintendo President Iwata's Keynote Speech. There's also a streaming video version at Gamespot.

In any case, Iwata's speech reminded me heavily of the "Good Old Days" of gaming. Back in the time of the NES and even of its predecessor the Atari, there were many, many games. These games didn't pop out of nowhere, but were conceived, drafted, coded, and released through the hard work of people. In some ways, that thought is disturbing if you've ever played one of the crappier NES games, or the odder ones.

While most games fit into various categories, platformer, adventure, RPG etc. there was something then that seems to be absent now. Think about Super Mario Bros for a moment. The concept of that game is utterly rediculous. You're a plumber in a strange world where it is safe to eat random mushrooms and flora while stomping on rapid mushrooms and turtles, some of which can fly. At the end of each zone, you meet a giant mega turtle that breaths fire and chucks hammers like there's no tomorrow.

If someone proposed a game like that today, do you think they'd succeed?

Beyond even the concept, the game had craziness that is simply unparalleled today. There were blocks you could hit that you couldn't see, secret warps hidden behind obvious exits, and even a mundane background could become important.

Super Mario Bros singlehandedly evolved gaming and bred into the gamers of that era a sense of seeking something beyond the obvious. A spirit of exploration began to rule the day, which pushes players like me to comb every inch of every dungeon to make sure I did not miss a single secret.

Obviously, not every game can be so influential. The point of the reference is that in the early era of video games, there was massive innovation, creativity and originality. Any bored college student could make a hobby out of creating games, and have a shot at making something special. Iwata himself was of this breed; he and his friends making the company Hal, the Kirby, Earthbound and Super Smash Bros. games and becoming president of perhaps the only company who's name is synonomous with video games.

Yet now, the world of console games seems shut off. While for the video game fan PCs still remain as an option for amateur game developers with freeware, shareware and perhaps eventual corporate help being options, the console is slowly becoming an elite realm. Companies like EA swallow up smaller companies, and the budget for video games slowly creeps closer to that of major hollywood movies. Iwata himself admitted in his speech that, "After all, if a game never comes to market, there is very little chance of it making any money!" Even if an excellent video game is crafted, most hopefuls lack the resources to get a game published.

However, I don't think it beyond a meager group's ability to seek out an investor or help from a large company. What I bemoan is the intent of many of these large companies.

Big businesses involved in media have a tendency to stick to formula. Barring a Shigeru Miyamoto-like figure, I have rarely seen any case where a big business tried something extraordinary on its own initiative. With big businesses beginning to dominate the video game industry, and with the small hopeful only able to publish through big business, a recipe for stagnation is perfected.

For example, I doubt any of you have played Goldeneye: Rogue Agent. It's a semi-sequel to that N64 James Bond game that rocked the world of console FPSs. The concept was very interesting. You're an ex Mi6 agent who joins up with the bad guys after Mi6 tries to kill you (taking an eye in the attempt. For anyone who ever saw the world is not enough, it seems Mi6 has a problem with making sure people are dead). With you're replacement "Goldeneye", you get cool powers that utilize that nifty gadget as you go about doing evil. This is an interesting and cool concept.

Be that as it may, never have I played a more terrible game. At least the overly biblical Spiritual Warfare for NES was in some ways fun. Rogue Agent tried even my patience with more flaws and problems than I can even count.

The game plays almost completely the same as any other FPS. The novelty of being a cruel villain is completely lost. The only sign you're actually a villain is that you can take hostages and use them as human shields. You don't even fight Mi6 much (at least not in the beginning, I didn't get very far before I couldn't take it anymore), spending most of your time involved in a power struggle between Dr. No and Auric Goldfinger.

Aside from the clunky controls, terrible level designs, lack of anything resembling a need for covertness etc. The one thing Rogue Agent exemplifies is the big business's ability to take a clever concept and stifle it. Rogue Agent was a square peg jammed into a round hole. Beyond the clunkiness and other purely technical problems, the concept was taken from a potentially trend setting awesomeness to the depths of failure.

Being a villain would have been so much more evil and cool if you weren't simply doing the same things you would have were you Bond with Geordi LaForge's eye implants. There are no innocent bystanders to terrorize, no scores of agents to face off against, no devious tortures, no minions to send before you, nothing. The most evil objective I had was to snipe Dr. No from an adjacent building. Evil, eh?

Meanwhile, Evil Genius for the PC grants a true and better look at being evil, granting all of the above, just not as a FPS.

Anyone who knows me might remember me discussing something akin to this back in the late days of the original Playstation. Squaresoft released three Final Fantasy games for the Playstation, each taking the system to levels it never had before. However, by the time of Final Fantasy IX, most other developers had long been looking to the PS2.

Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) may done some things that disgruntled me (I wasn't fond of the attribute system of FF8 or the plot of FF9) but they do have a few aspects about them that are beyond reproach. They are not afraid to take something that any intelligent human being would say, "This is excellent, let's leave it that way." and go, "Let's do something completely different." Aside from the recurring Job System, each Final Fantasy's character attributes system is as different from the others' as their storylines. Additionally, Squaresoft has never been afraid to stick around and push a system to its limits.

What I decried then, and continue to now, is one of the problems I feel is stifling the creativity of game developers. For the NES, once the pinacle of graphics achievement had been reached the developers didn't say, "Okay Nintendo, what new gaming console are you going to release for us?" (Or even before that pinacle had been reached). They looked around and saw that they needed something beyond better graphics to reach out to gamers, and they made games that did so.

What disturbed me when the Playstation was ditched and continues to do so now is the wanton carelessness with which aging consoles are left behind for newer, more powerful ones that don't even have set technical specs, let alone anywhere near manufacture. Developers don't stick by a console and look to what they can do aside from graphics to draw in gamers.

This attitude could not be shown better than by Xbox representative J. Allard's speech on what he called the "HD Era".

It struck me as idiotic then, and still does now, to solely pursue the perfection of the graphical, and only the graphical, portion of the medium known as video games. It was obvious to me then as now that there is a point at which no further graphical detail can be crafted. While that point has not yet been reached and may not be reached until I am many years older, that point exists.

As Iwata makes clear, this does not mean I wish graphics remain in the stone age or be ignored. To me this is the same as someone who studies soley for the first part of a two part exam. It will definately be an achievement to ace the first part, but somehow that achievement is sullied when you utterly fail the second.

In any case, I hope that one day my ideas will be able to blaze across the medium known as video games, and before someone else comes up with the same ideas I have.

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