Saturday, July 4, 2009

Why 16-bit was a Golden Age

The game industry of today is a completely different world than the world of yesterday.  Today we have high-end near photorealistic 3d graphics.  We have massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) that have vast landscapes and millions of living characters inhabiting them.  And we have games so easy and short that you can beat almost any of them in a single rental.  Wait, that last one isn't a good point!

What I'm getting at is that todays games are simply made differently than they used to be.  Market polls have been done and research into demographics has been conducted to ensure that when a new game is made, it appeals to as many people as possible.  Not to make better games mind you, but to make games that will make more money.

Now I know the argument that one would shoot back at me now.  "They are companies.  They are in business to make money!"  Or perhaps the more naive statement of "But wouldn't the best games make the most money?"  You see, there are gamers and then there are GAMERS!  I will get more in depth on that last statement in a second.  But before that I would like to remind people that we live in a time when movies are judged by how much money they make opening weekend.  The important thing to remember is that no one knows if a movie is good or bad until after they watch it and the ticket sales opening weekend are generated by hype not the quality of the film.  I say that to dispel any belief that sales equal quality.  I can't tell you how many times a bad movie has made enough money to warrant a sequel even though is sucked.  If movies could be judged by how many people saw it more than once we would have a much different film industry.

In the early days of gaming, it was a small market.  The people who played home video games or computer games back then did so because it was what they loved to do.  Like the table top games such as "Dungeons & Dragons" or "Warhammer", video/computer games had a small but dedicated following.  These people are what the industry of today calls "hardcore gamers".  Back in the early days, games were made for these people, by these people.

At some point, the balance of power began to shift.  As with any industry, the people at the top realized that to make more money they needed more people to play games.  But just as it takes a certain kind of person to sit around a table and imagine being in a different world battling monsters and going on great adventures, it takes a certain kind of person to sit in front of a screen and play a game made up of text and crude shapes.  I feel that not until the 32-bit age or beyond, games began to look good enough to appeal to the average person.  Or as todays industry calls them "casual gamers".

Now back to hardcore gamers and the balance between graphics and gameplay.  You see, it wasn't just marketing that changed games.  As graphical power increased it allowed games to become more of a visual experience than an imaginative exercise.  The early games had extremely limited graphical capability.  For instance, one of the causes of the great video game crash of the early 80's was the fact that just about every possible game that could be made on the existing technology had been done... and then done again, and again.  Games became redundant.

The 8-bit era ushered in better but still limited graphics.  To make up for this, the creators had to be more creative.  Games then had deep stories and intuitive gameplay.  Yes, there was a lot of crap too.  But most of the most cherished franchises were born in the 8-bit era.  Games like the Dragon Warrior series that took weeks to beat.  Or like the original Legend of Zelda which offered you the opportunity and challenge of a completely open world.  The game started and you were left to decide for yourself what to do from there.  You didn't HAVE to do anything in a certain order.  You didn't even need to take the sword from the old man in the cave on the first screen.  You could simply walk away and try to survive a different way.  You cant finish the game without a sword, but you can play through the rest of it without ever picking one up.

Now we get to the 16-bit era.  I believe the 16-bit era to be the golden age of gaming because it was a perfect blend of graphics and gameplay.  Games of this era had graphics good enough to realize the creators vision without leaving too much to the imagination while at the same time still having the main focus of the games development on quality storytelling and playing experience.  Some games were long and difficult.  Now a casual gamer would get frustrated with a long difficult game.  But to a hardcore gamer it was heaven.  Long games were games you could live in and become part of.  Hard games were a challenge to conquer and brag about.  Like a knight might brag of slaying a great dragon a gamer would brag about beating Chronotrigger or finishing Turtles in Time unspeakably fast and without using any "Continues". 

The 32/64-bit era had some gems.  Games that were truly incredible both visually and creatively.  But it was this era that saw the beginning of the dark times.  The seeds that eventually brought us to this age in which companies like Nintendo have forsaken those gamers who loved them most were planted at this time.  Games like the Madden series began to grow in popularity.  Games like these could easily be made by simply updating stat info and perhaps adding minor graphical improvements of the last years game.  Sports games of this kind flooded the market and are a dominant force to this day.  It was also this time that saw the resurrection of the clones.  Games that were built around demographic information and made almost like a paint by numbers process.  Games like Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, Ratchet and Clank, Banjo Kazooie... the list goes on.  These were essentially the same game in different settings.

Todays game industry is the evolution of this trend.  The few games that are truly great are very rare and difficult to spot among the see of shovel-ware.  And the old champion of quality over quantity, Nintendo, has all but forgotten gamers like me.  To survive they looked outside the existing game market to find new people to hold them afloat.  It has gained them tremendous financial success but for the first time in my life I find myself hoping Nintendo fails.  At this last E3 I saw the inevitable shift.  The other major players in the game market are starting to follow Nintendo's lead and it bothers me.  I think I would rather see another great video game crash than watch the entire industry I've grown up with go somewhere I will not follow.

Its a morbid way to look at it, I know.  But if it were to all crash, there would at least be the hope it could be born again like the phoenix and regain some of its former magnificence.  I would have the industry delivered back into the hands of the hardcore gamers.  If it were to fall and be forgotten by the casual gamers it has embraced, it would find that it would be helped to its feet by those who have always loved it and have remained by its side waiting.  Waiting for it to remember who its real friends are.

1 comment:

RetroPengo said...

I second this post.

The reign of "cookie-cutter" platformers has destroyed what we gamers once held dear.

Luckily certain subsects of Nintendo's megacorp and of SEGA's remains are still making games for hardcore gamers. And then there's companies like Valve and Blizzard that are doing more to keep hardcore gamers pleased than most other companies.

Unfortunately, as the biggest fish on the block, EA is keeping the market going in this same direction: churning out game after game, underpaying their employees, and reaping the rewards of a console game world. I wish we could go back as well, but I wish we could go back to the Middle Ages of gaming, where consoles couldn't keep up with the amazing leaps being taken in PC gaming, but to keep up they made their games more epic in scope. We had a glorious medium then. New titles came out like Silent Hill (and other similar series) that pushed the envelope on "Rated M" titles and evolved storytelling rather rapidly.

Granted most of the games now are crud-scrapings, but a few are truly amazing: Prototype for one has an incredible story (though it's graphics will keep it in obscurity). Mirror's Edge is a graphical and story-telling symphony even though it's a little short. New games are coming out that are going to be epic in scale, like Diablo III and Starcraft II (both from Blizzard, go figure). There are genre-defining games like Half-Life 2 and Fallout 3. Games like this keep me proud to be a gamer.

Few games have the right combination of fun-factor, graphics, epic scope, and storytelling anymore. But if you're looking for one, try Bioshock.

So while most of the games out now are absolute drek, the shining gems in the rough keep me going as a gamer.

Oof. I talk too much.