Abandoning the past?

Game design is a vast subject, especially when considering three decades’ worth of trends. Sadly, current trends are often far removed from what went before, prompting the cliché, “they don’t make them like they used to.” I’m a sincere fan of older “retro” videogames, from Atari to the ZX81. But it’s not because of any dislike for modern games or design concepts; I’m eagerly looking forward to Okami and Oblivion, for example. It’s because modern gaming, with a few exceptions, has a tendency to discard everything that went before once something new arrives. I advocate and praise classical games, because within them are wonderful genres, ideas and methods (not to mention aesthetic splendor) that have been left behind as the industry progresses.

It’s infamously known that Sony dictates what you can play, and they have a deplorable anti-2-D policy. Symphony of the Night nearly went unreleased in America; SCEA allowed it, only because of Konami’s arm twisting. Recently, they forced companies like Working Designs and SNK, who traditionally work with 2-D graphics, to release double packs of visually simple games and release single titles at budget prices. The former is now tragically bankrupt, while the latter has found a better friend in Microsoft. This is why Metal Slug 3 made it stateside on the Xbox but not the PS2.

Microsoft isn’t innocent, though. Keith Robinson disapproved of Microsoft putting disclaimers on the Xbox Intellivision Lives! compilation, which stated the title was not an indication of “normal Xbox graphics.” Are hand drawn sprites really the abhorrent evil the industry believes? I say there is a unique beauty to hand drawn visuals, one which can never be replicated with polygons.

With these shifts in accepted visual standards also comes a change in gameplay mechanics. Where are the flick-screen cell-based adventures of yore, like Below the Root or the original Zelda? Go and play these oldies for an hour; I defy anyone to claim he didn’t have fun. Yet, those in control of the money still feel that investing in simpler ideas is market suicide, which is why we have the plethora of identikit titles currently available. Sometimes, I just want to be restricted to only two axes when I play. Why is a fun game like Alien Hominid, which harkens back to Contra, greeted with surprise and seen as unusual? I wish people would again be able to regard such games as the norm, not relegated to being curiosities or on handhelds.

There have also been many genre casualties over the years. Text adventures are ignored, FMV was cut short before anyone tapped its full potential, and graphic adventures like Sam & Max used to be a staple of PC gaming.

Games, too, are abandoning the notion of “short and sweet,” artificially giving the impression of value. I miss the days of practicing games like Quackshot to the point of completing it within an hour; it was no less perfect once mastered. My friends, some of whom are becoming parents with less recreational time, also bemoan increasing game length. Why can’t shorter titles be sold alongside the lengthy epics like GTA?

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Do modern RPGs need to be over 60 hours long? The original Suikoden on PS1, an RPG that broke new ground, boasting hundreds of well narrated characters weaved into a complex political story, took me only a weekend to complete! But that didn’t stop me from regarding it more highly than SquareEnix’s bloated projects. Meanwhile, the extortionately priced Panzer Dragoon Saga has an exquisite length of around 20 hours. Its price results from being rightfully regarded as one of the finest examples in the genre, regardless of brevity.

Publishers claim they force changes to suit “market demand.” And the result? Longer development times, overworked staff and skyrocketing budgets, which says nothing about the fact I can no longer spend my money on the types of games I want. To quell my disenchantment, I turn to retro games and enjoy previously missed classics. I also contemplate: What if companies started making older games again? I want to frolic blithely in a world where the industry doesn’t try to suppress history or old ideas that are no longer mainstream.

But could things be changing? The Revolution will play downloaded NES games. I wonder if Nintendo will release NES development software, creating a Net Yaroze situation where civilians develop homebrew games. Imagine for a moment – the glory days of bedroom coding returning, along with simple, yet fun, games. Microsoft, too, is taking action. Cynics joke that Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved was the best 360 launch title, but Xbox Live Arcade and its simpler games may just be Microsoft’s winning coup, this generation. The PC market also looks bright, thanks to Manifesto Games. We might see old fashioned games distributed, thereby generating focus for older, forgotten styles of play.

I only wish that as a technological plateau is reached and the industry matures, corporations will realize that they can still profit while giving niche players, like myself, the classically styled games we enjoy. Older abandoned genres, shorter play lengths, and 2-D sprite-based games are all still economically viable. This has been proven by the commercial success of retro, and things like Live Arcade. Hopefully, companies are paying attention, and will someday begin developing new games that are a little old fashioned.

John Szczepaniak is a South African freelance videogame writer with a preference for retro games. He is also a staff member on the Retro Survival project, which contains articles on retro gaming and is well worth investigating.

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