I have been gaming for almost a quarter of a century now… I’ve seen 5 generations of console gaming come and now start to go, I’ve seen innovation and advancement, I’ve seen highs and lows, and I can honestly say that I don’t think we’re ever going to see a time that was as incredible as the end of the Super Nintendo Era and the beginning of the Playstation 1 era.
The Super Nintendo and Playstation 1 were systems that had so much less power than our current generation systems so as to be incomparable, between the massive increase in storage space and processing power. Yet why do they sing so fondly in our memories? Why is it that when I think of a top 10 ‘all time’ games list, more than half of them appear within that 5 year era at the end of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan and the beginning of the Playstation 1. Games like Super Metroid, Final Fantasy 3(6) and 7, Super Mario RPG, Metal Gear Solid, Donkey Kong Country, Resident Evil, Pokemon, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Crash Bandicoot, Chrono Trigger… and that’s just games on those systems. If you count other consoles and PC gaming, you’ve got Warcraft 1 and 2, Heroes of Might and Magic, Rayman, Earthworm Jim, Diablo, Goldeneye, Dungeon Keeper, Age of Empires, and so many more. These are games that overcome the dramatic limitations of the platform and create unbelievable gaming experiences… comparing that to games now which have so much more power behind them yet seem to always be being held back by their platform. While the games nowadays have dramatically better mechanical design, they seem to be unable to really make use of it except to make things prettier and prettier. Looking at every other aspect of game design, the games of the past produce experiences on par with, if not superior to, anything we have nowadays in most genres. Yes, that’s a very strong statement, and one that’s hard to really quantify. But let’s break it down a bit…
Sure the fidelity of the sounds and sound effects nowadays is far superior, yet I have still not heard a soundtrack to date that I remember more fondly than the soundtrack to Final Fantasy 3(6). Each of the character’s themes does a beautiful job of representing the personality and style of the character. Add to that some of the most touching and moving general themes out there – themes like ‘Forever Rachel’ – and even a few of the most wacky and addictive tracks a game has ever had such as the Veldt and Gogo’s Theme.
Another perfect example of a game that refused to let the limited power of the console stand in their way is the soundtrack to Super Metroid. In this case, less is definitely more with Super Metroid featuring only a few tracks – one for each region in fact – yet managing to not only create themes that sound good, but also themes that do a fantastic job of setting the mood for the game. Each region’s theme is dramatically distinct, and yet all fits together to create a cohesive theme for a strange planet.
And these are only two of the many games whose soundtracks stand out as being among the best ever made. Starcraft’s music received such acclaim that many people turn off the music when playing other RTS and have the SC music playing in stead. The debate is still raging as to whether Chrono Trigger of Final Fantasy 6 have the best soundtracks in Video Game history. Earthworm Jim, Castlevania: SotN, Metal Gear Solid… the list goes on… and these were music made using 16 and 32 bit consoles without surround sound support or fancy 7.1 systems… that still sounded fantastic, and to this day STILL sounds fantastic. I’ve been replaying Symphony of the Night the past few days and I’m still in awe at the music. Sure games nowadays have great music too – but to produce such lasting and memorable tracks using so little… is just unbelievable.
There’s no logical reason for it… but for some reason it feels like even the story is suffering lately. When you look at games like Super Mario RPG, Metal Gear Solid, and Chrono Trigger – you can’t help but be amazed at how cohesive and creative these stories were. Nowadays we have RPGs with no story – like Skyrim – and ones with stories that are so convaluted that you practically have to play it twice and spend 5 hours reading the gamelore just to get the basics. Even Super Metroid, a game with almost no text at all, managed to create an interesting story through the use of the environments and the world. It’s really hard to talk about this since it’s so subjective so I’ll just leave this one here.
It feels like, with the advent of more powerful and diverse input devices and systems, people seem to be floundering to make it work. Games like Earthworm Jim or Donkey Kong Country had incredibly responsive, reliable, and fun controls to use. In fact, thinking back, I can’t think of very many games where I felt like I was fighting with the controls. There were one or two, but for the most part the controls of games back in that era just worked. Sure they couldn’t do quite as many things as they do today, and in order to make things fun they had to be creative with the controls… but they worked. Nowadays, more often than not, I feel like I’m fighting the controls more than the opponents. What good is advancement if people don’t seem willing to put the time in to make it work?
Not to say that every game or genre has gone backwards… shooters in general have benefited more than anyone else as a result of the new technology. And as development becomes more sophisticated, some developers are being able to focus more time on quality of life adjustments and improvements to make games more approachable and fun. However, at the same time many of these same developers are also not spending enough QA time and leaving so many common bugs in the game. Sure Final Fantasy 6 had a few buried glitches, and Super Metroid had some bugs that allowed you to do things you weren’t supposed to… but these were things that were beyond difficult to find out and most people could never manage to duplicate. It’s perfectly understandable a QA team could miss that, especially since back in those days the QA team was comprised of a couple of dedicated testers and the development team. The bugs nowadays are things that nearly everyone sees and that are so glaring that they practically ruin the experience, despite the fact that game QA teams are often a few dozen people nowadays.
I’ve thought about why this is the way it is for a long time. Sure some of it is nostalgia, absolutely. But I also think that the new technology is hindering design as much as it is helping. Really the only part that keeps improving is the graphics and the online components… and the new hardware becomes more and more complicated to develop for meaning that it takes a lot longer, and they have to focus on just making it work in stead of working on making it good. Add to that that with the incredibly high cost of development, publishers have probably too much of a say in the development cycle of games which means that games are often pushed out before they’re ready counting on the ability to patch things to fix them. Furthermore, publishers really like the thought of their developers leaving content out to ensure continued income from DLC which means we get less complete stories. Finally if you include the fact that all of the new technology tends to make developers try to go too complicated which leads to awkward controls more often than not. KISS rule people. All of this just adds up to games that feel less complete, less joyful, and less fun. Not every game, of course, but a majority.
And if you look at it, the developers who see the most success are the ones who are mostly self-sufficient, developers who don’t even really try to make full use of the graphics engines on the newer hardware, and independent developers who understand how to keep things simple. Developers like SquareEnix and Blizzard, who mostly supply their own coin, have seen pretty noteworthy success with their continued releases. A lot of the smaller Japanese studios who are just producing lower-graphics games like Idea Factory and Nippon Ichi have seen their games continue to be seen as improvements, even if their successes often don’t cross the ocean. And independent developers who are making games that are simple and charming like ThatGameCompany, Mojang, and Q-Games continue to push bounderies and bring back that classic feeling of joy that existed back in the gaming old days.
With so few developers able to really make proper use of the current hardware, doesn’t this really make you worry about what is to come next? I mean, motion control games are still mostly derivative with only a few studios able to actually make them right, touch screens are still in a lot of ways more of a hindrance than a benefit, gyroscopic controls have become almost a joke in many titles(Hello Lair), and yet we’re pushing forward to try to bring more and more new technologies, and stronger and stronger graphics engines on more and more complicated hardware?
I don’t really like where this is leading… back in the old days, a new console generation came out when every developer was maxing out the old ones and everyone was begging for it. The Super Nintendo had games that literally used EVERY scrap of power the console had, every bit of memory, and it took the developers every bit of their creativity to pull just that little bit of extra awesome out of it. The PS1 was much the same, when the PS2 came out was dictated more by the developers – when they started clamoring for more power. Same goes for the N64, it had been absolutely maxed out, so they needed to do something more. Most console generations have worked that way – except this one. The 360 and PS3 still aren’t being maxed out by most games released for them – very few developers even come close to utilizing all the power in the new hardware… so why do we need more? And the developers are still trying to figure out how to efficiently develop games that are good for this hardware… so why force them to start from scratch again?
I don’t know – maybe I’m way off base with this, but I can tell you that I’m more than a little concerned with the gentle downward slope we’re on. What do you think? Do you, too, miss the old days – the golden age of gaming or do you think I’m dead wrong?