Uphill, Both Ways

Uphill, Both Ways
Videogames: A Modern Folly

Ryan Lambie | 27 Apr 2010 12:29
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As undeniably spectacular as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is, and it surely ranks among the greatest action games of this generation, everything in it is borrowed from somewhere else. Its storyline owes a clear debt to the Indiana Jones films (themselves indebted to the matinee serials of the 40s and 50s), while its game mechanisms are a refined mash-up of Gears of War's cover-based shooting and Tomb Raider's platform-puzzle solving.


It's all a far cry from the 80s, when computers were slow and bytes scarce. Programming games required cunning, and cramming ideas into the meager technology available required both imagination and guile. One only has to compare Nathan Drake's frenetic train-top battle in Uncharted 2 with the mechanically similar but graphically quaint platformer Stop the Express to see how far games have come.

Yet while 80s-era technology couldn't have come close to rendering the dazzlingly cinematic visuals of the current generation of consoles, the decade's best games managed to tell captivating stories with the leanest of resources. Largely forgotten now, the 8-bit adventure game Lords of Midnight somehow managed to cram over 4000 locations, dozens of characters and an epic storyline worthy of Tolkien into a positively miniscule amount of computer memory. Remarkably, this feat was achieved by just one programmer.

When early developers couldn't hope for realism, they opted instead for abstraction. In games like Rolling Thunder, bullets moved slowly enough to jump over - coins meant extra points and hearts represented energy. It was a visual language borne out of the quick-fix gaming of the arcade where, in the hubbub, smoke, and bustle of these raucous rooms, it was vital that a game's rules and controls could be quickly understood. Even in the heart-pounding hail of bullets that culminated in the show- stopping boss in 1985's Gradius, the objectives of this first end-of-level encounter could be understood in an instant: shoot the core.

Though the 80s could be regarded as the era of the shallow and the simplistic, there was an explosion of new ideas on consoles, home computers and in arcades. It was a time where entire genres were established within the space of a few short years. Tetris revolutionized the puzzle game. Populous kicked off the god simulator. It's incredible just how rapidly the fighter genre evolved from the two-move simplicity of 1984's Kung Fu Master to the complex, six-button brawls of Street Fighter II only eight years later - in fact, it was Konami's 1985 arcade classic, Yie Ar Kung Fu that established many of the elements that still define the genre even today.

By contrast, consider how little the first-person shooter has changed since Wolfenstein 3D appeared in 1992. The shooter has been continuously polished, honed and tinkered with, yet for all the spectacular graphics, physics and mature plot developments, the genre has stayed at a relative standstill for years. The otherwise visually striking shooter Metro 2033 has players skulking around the same kind of darkened tunnels and chambers they've been frequenting since Doom and Quake laid the genre's conventions nearly fifteen years ago, while Modern Warfare 2 added little more to the genre than suspect politics.

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