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.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Nintendo's folly - the Virtual Boy

A black mark on an otherwise rather clean record of quality for Nintendo was the Virtual Boy.  I can remember the original hype about Nintendo's new portable virtual reality game system.  It was going to be like living a sequence from the movie adaptation of Lawnmower Man but without the VR sex and going crazy parts... perhaps not the super robo monkey soldier either.  AND it was PORTABLE!!!

It sounded like we had all died and gone to uber sci-fi geek heaven.  But while we were all having dreams about romping around the Holodeck from "Star Trek the Next Generation" like Lt. Barkley (wow what a geek reference) Nintendo had other ideas.

Nintendo's idea of a portable virtual reality game system was headset so friggin heavy it needed a metal frame to stand on and blinding red lasers that would give gamers migraines but in the process kinda look like an interactive 3d vector line world... kinda.  Nintendo's dream and gamers' dreams were about as close as poop is to a sandwich.  Needless to say, it didn't sell well.  There were about 3 games for it and it was super expensive so most people steered clear of it.  Its fall was quick and dramatic.  I can clearly remember a time I was walking through the local mall and noticed that the toy store had the Virtual Boy on sale for $15 because they just wanted to get rid of it.  I was moderately disappointed that I only had $12 on me... but not that much.

I guess if your an extreme Nintendo fanboy then owning one would be a nice addition to your collection.  But it really did prove the hard lesson that you shouldn't try to market a technology before its even close to being viable.  Unfortunately the Virtual Boy debacle put a stigma on the concept of home virtual reality gaming, and it really hasn't been pursued seriously since then.

Personally, I always thought that if you could make the head set with two color screens over your eyes all you would need to do to make awesome VR games would be to make a Quake III mod that had a second "Spectator" camera locked to your character looking in the same direction but a little to one side.  Binocular vision = depth perception = VR.  But thats just my idea.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Zelda Re-Orchestrated

Have you ever been playing one of the old Zelda games and said to yourself "Man I wish Nintendo had used an orchestra to make this soundtrack!"?  Well, your prayers have been answered.  Not by Nintendo, but by an industrious team of digital musicians.  They call themselves "Zelda Re-Orchestrated" and they use high end sound samples and synthesizers to imbue a realistic symphonic sound into the music of the Zelda series.

They have re-orchestrated songs from just about every game in the Zelda series and they add new songs constantly.  There is seriously TONS of them and all of them are free.  They have a download section and a listen section were all the music is available and separated by album.  The even have a few albums they call "Soundscapes" in which they mix the songs with
 atmospheric sounds to give the feel that your in the game world and the music is simply playing around you.

When I discovered this site it truly blew my mind, so if your a Zelda fan you should check it out HERE.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

River City Ransom

This is one of those games that not many people have ever heard of, but those who have always jump with boyish glee when the name is mentioned.  "River City Ransom" was one of my favorite NES games and to this day is something my friends and I will get together and play because its just that fun. 

Essentualy its not much different on the surface than "Double Dragon" except that the characters have a much more chibi-anime look to them.  You have a punch button and a kick button and you jump by pushing both at the same time.  The story is goofy.  Its about how the gang at one of the highschools is holding the city ransom.

At any rate, the games real draw comes from the unique implementation of rpg elements into this traditional side scrolling beat'em'up.  Every time you beat an enemy, they drop money.  At certain spots in the city there are malls with all kinds of shops in them that sell different items.  Almost every item you use modifies your characters abilities.  For instance, certain foods will increase your characters strength making his attacks do more damage.  A more noticeable example is speed.  If your playing with two players and one player chooses a food, vitamin or shoes that boost his speed, you will notice that character will walk and run slightly faster than the other.

Perhaps the coolest power ups you can buy in the game are the books.  There are several book stores in the different malls in River city.  A very select few books found in a few of the stores will grant your character new powers.  The goofiest of these is probably "Javelin Man" which lets you pick up fallen enemies or even your partner and launch them through the air as a spiraling projectile of DOOM!  

Yes, along with the typical pipes and chains, you can use almost anything as a weapon.  Trash cans, boxes, rocks, tires, bats, brass knuckles and yes, even people.  All this contributes to the fun of the game as well as the fact that long before Nintendo decided that having multiplayer games make players cooperate at the same time as compete, this game had perfected it.  I can't tell you how many times I've punched my best friend in the back of the head and thrown him off a cliff so I could finish off one of the mini-bosses and take the big bucks he dropped.(sorry Jack)

I'm warning you, if you play this wont ever want to stop.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Chip tune radio

I know in the past I've talked about 8-bit musicians and about game music remixers and I've given out a few places you can get your hands on some of this musical magic.  Today I'm going to tell you about an awesome site called KOHINA.COM.  

I'm not positive, but I think its perhaps the oldest streaming radio station dedicated to chip tune music.  Chip tunes are usually the music from video game roms that have been ripped out in there own original format.  You can listen to these files with special plug-ins or players.  KOHINA.COM streams this music as well as 8-bit artists.  If your getting into the 8-bit scene and need to get a feel for its roots, this is the place to go.

Did you know that the Mario bros worked in demolitions?

One of the often forgotten games of the 8-bit days of yore is Wrecking Crew.  I loved this game.  It basically boils down to a puzzle game in which you are in a construction site and have to destroy everything on the screen without getting caught by the odd little monsters that roam around the site.  The catch is that you have to do so in the right order or you destroy your means of getting to certain areas of the screen and therefor fail to destroy EVERYTHING.

The stars of this game are the legendary brothers, Mario and Luigi.  And the style of the game is very much like that of its cousins: Mario bros. (without the Super) and Donkey Kong.  You have one screen to work with but unlike the others it scrolls up and down to accommodate larger levels.  Also, like with Mario bros, if you spend too much time doing the level little fire balls will appear at the edge of the screen and fly horizontally at you.

Speaking of levels, there are a ton of them, each more complex and challenging than the last and you can start at any level you want.  If there is a level you just can't beat you can skip right to it instead of having to go all the way through the other stages.  If the levels that come already made aren't enough for you, the game also features a level editor that allows you to make your own.  What's cute about the editor is that if you don't pay attention to detail you could end up making a level that can't be beaten.

All in all its a rather awesome game and ranks as one of my favorite titles for the original NES.  If your in a retro mood but don't have an original NES your in luck because it's on of the many retro titles available on the Wii virtual console.

I would definitely suggest checking it out.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Custom Zelda...on your computer?

For all the Zelda fans out there (myself included) I've got an amazing application for you. Its called Zelda Classic and its a hand coded PC fan remake of the original NES Legend of Zelda. Its true to the original but has a powerful secret! It also has an editor! Thats right, you can customize the game and make your own world maps and dungeons.

If thats not enough, you can even use custom tiles meaning that your not limited to making just Zelda games. You can make your own completely unique games and post them on their site for all to download and enjoy. There are a TON of customized Zelda variations to download. Some of the tile sets even look similar to the 16-bit Link to the Past.

This is truly an EPIC victory for all true fans of old-school gaming because not only can we enjoy a real classic but we can bring our own visions to life in true tile-based retro glory. You NEED to check this out, if for no other reason then to enjoy a legendary game with a fresh coat of paint.