This week on Cold Take, Sebastian explains why old video game design does not equate with bad video game design.
Old Game Design Doesn’t Mean Bad Design – Transcript
The Arkham games never really made me feel like Batman. Kinda the opposite. Both of his parents got shot and he’s got a bajillion batdollars. My folks are alive and well and my credit score’s shot.
There is a stigma that follows older game design staples. Water levels. Time trials. Three lives. Stealth. Choices matter. Quick Time Events. Sonic the Hedgehog. Whether they make you flinch or make you flushed is no business of mine. Sure, you can sometimes call them clunky, horrendously designed, or flat-out boring, but there’s one word I won’t stand for: old. I don’t mean ‘old’ as in ‘outdated’ as in ‘no longer functions.’ I mean simply old. Our obsession with what is new has made game makers and game players hesitant to touch what is not. “Ew, it feels like a game from the 2000s.” What where?? Which one? Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Spider-Man, Thief 2, Pikmin? Speak up! I, for one, could always use more of those. Some features never aged out. Some features that failed could be looked at again with a new eye. If it’s outdated then it’s outdated, but if it’s only old then when, or why, did we fall out of love with them?
Overexposure can be one of those reasons.
“Why is it that every video game has lava in it?” said an exasperated Junie Cortez, main protagonist of the critically acclaimed film Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. While he was making hasty generalizations out of frustration, this wasn’t the most inaccurate assessment of video games in 2003. There was a lot of lava in those days.
Doom. Sonic. Star Fox. Final Fantasy. Rayman. Metroid (technically magma). Mario couldn’t get enough of the stuff even when he was water-based in Super Mario Sunshine. Even games you wouldn’t expect to have lava in them had lava: Metal Gear Solid, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, and Kao The Kangaroo: Mystery of the Volcano.
Sometimes you gotta see outside of the overexposure. Is there a fundamental flaw? Is there a fundamental flaw with lava as a design feature? I quite like the aesthetic juxtaposition and readily understood nature of lava levels. The spectrum of artistic themes that can be explored when you start off in a nice meadow and end up in the fiery depths of hell are endless. You don’t need tooltips, pop-ups, or dialogue to tell you things have gotten different and dangerous, you see lava and you know. I still run into water to see if I can swim. I still jump into holes in case there’s a secret or an underground section. I still dip my toes into strange colored swamps to see what kind of poison damage I’m dealing with. I don’t really know what kind of reaction to have when I’m confronted with the void, the current stand-in for lava. It’s the same as a bottomless hole, but it stares back at ya. It doesn’t have the same ring, jumping all over the furniture gleefully screaming ‘THE FLOOR IS ELDRITCH!,’ but I kinda like it.
Back to the point, I don’t think overexposure is the only reason we got sick and tired of classic game features. I think tradition for the sake of tradition loses meaning after a few generations. Why did games in the early 2000s have those obnoxiously designed water levels? You know the ones that jarringly change the movement mechanics you had become accustomed to in a way that felt clunky and counterintuitive, kinda like drowning. How immersive. Metal Gear Solid 2. Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Explain yourself. “Well, we did it because that’s how it was done in the 90s.” Ocarina of Time. Tomb Raider 2. Explain yourself. “Well, we did it because that’s how it was in the 80s.” It’s a him, Mario, the cause of all our pain and suffering.
Tradition for the sake of tradition created an undeserved stigma around water levels. I say ‘undeserved’ because it wasn’t water that I didn’t enjoy, it was the poor execution I was trying to point a gun at, not ‘water levels’. Majora’s Mask kept the water and this time around gave you the fluidity of a bird in the air in the water, like a dolphin kinda thing. But it was too late for that kind of discussion, because games with poor implementation dominated the conversation. Water levels, lava levels, three lives, stealth sections, choices matter, Sonic The Hedgehog. All frowned upon by flubbed association during their prominence in the same manner that people reflexively gag nowadays when they hear about roguelikes, soulslikes, deckbuilders, dating sims, open worlds, and Sonic The Hedgehog. While games with older features do have to fight harder to overcome the disdain of the marketing machine, I’d like to think there is definitely still a place for games employing older design features, because at their core they still work as well as they always have or because we’re learning to reinvent the parts that didn’t work too well. At the very least, that’s why I love indie games.
(It’s) mostly in the indie developer space that I see older game features being explored in new and innovative ways while maintaining the spirit of the originals. Obviously you got the big ones like Neon White which strings together a delicious treat of dynamic levels to test your fingers and your brains. Boiled down to its core components you find it’s made up of time trials, ghost racers, hidden boxes, dating sims, cards, visual novels, and anime. Each one of those is a feature that could be labeled as old, and PTSD inducing, but come together to create a gem out of time. Paraphrasing Marty Sliva’s Quest Log about Neon White you should totally watch, Neon White radiates Big Toonami Energy circa 1998-2002. And while you’re at it, go watch Marty’s Quest Log about Tunic.
I like to think Neon White and games like Tunic are what happens when a timeline splits. Someone in the noughties refused to move on from simple combat, metroidvania maps, and used video game manuals, so they sent Tunic into the future for us to bask in its Big Zelda Energy. Howard Stark, limited by the technology of his time, sent a message to Studio MDHR and gave them the secret to Cuphead. “Take a Galaga(1981) boss fight and turn it sideways. Paint it like a cartoon from the 1920s.” Hades is a procedurally generated Greek reskinning of Bastion 10 years later with the artistic direction cranked up 8 points on a game that already had a 10 out of 10 artistic direction. Good, I say, I could use more of all of those. I wasn’t done with them.
I will agree some legacy designs could use more work, and it’s also in the indie space where developers are putting in that work. Limited lives seem so trivial nowadays I can’t blame it being overlooked, seen as a necessary evil, or perhaps thought of as a wheel. Why reinvent it?–Especially if with it you accidentally bring back those predatory difficulties that ate your quarters in arcades or forced you to rent a game over and over, because you couldn’t beat them.
But then there’s Revita by BenStar, a quaint roguelite platformer with all the familiar trappings that got my attention by how it blends Hollow Knight and The Binding of Isaac lives system and pushes it even further. You have a power meter that you build up by fighting. You can use special abilities with the power meter or regenerate your missing health, similar to Hollow Knight, but by using even more of your limited power meter you can generate new lives. Lives themselves operate as a kind of currency, similar to The Binding of Isaac. You upgrade and unlock just about everything by sacrificing your lives. Even if the game is composed of different parts I’m fairly familiar with, I am still engrossed and captivated in a way that feels similar to when I first started playing Hollow Knight or The Binding of Isaac. That, at its core, is precisely what I want.
I don’t just want more of the same old. I want what works to be expanded upon. I want what doesn’t work to be explored even further until it does. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that came about in 1980 or 2020. On a Gamecube. On an Xbox 360. Hell, even a flash game. Metroid Prime and Resident Evil 4 are showing us there’s stuff from the olden days that are still golden these days. My potential game of the year knows it, Dredge. Check out that grid-based inventory management, that skill check-based fishing, a little madness like in Sunless skies, and the best part is it’s an entire water level. I can only play Subnautica so many times– that time is none because I’m scared of the water. But what I’m trying to say is there’s gold in them hills, and we’re missing out because we think we’re too good for golden paint.