I like roguelikes.
I don’t love them, but when you have half an hour to kill and a laptop close at hand they’re a pretty nifty diversion. Well, it’s either that or annoy the shit out of my Facebook friends with Farmville updates.
If you’re still staring at the third word of this post, wondering what the hell I’m talking about, then listen up. Roguelikes are (traditionally) minimalist, turn-based RPGs that offer a fresh, randomized gaming experience each time you play them. They’re also (traditionally) presented in ASCII graphics/characters. They’re about as retro as anything else you’re ever likely to play this side of of the Magnavox Odyssey. (The term “roguelike” is derived from Rogue, one of the earliest and most fondly remembered games of its type.)
On the surface it all sounds rather dull, but if there’s one thing roguelikes have going for them it’s this: they are as addictive as chocolate-coated Hobnobs. Go on, just try one. Give it a superficial, half-hearted play through and you’re unlikely to see what all the fuss is about. But take time to learn its mechanics and its scope may surprise you. Once everything clicks you’ll be in “just one more go” territory, burning the midnight oil like there’s no tomorrow.
If there’s just one problem with roguelikes it’s that there’s just too damn many of them. If you’re anything like me you’ll find it hard to settle on just one roguelike and fully explore everything it has to offer. I really should, but each time I suddenly get a roguelike craving (it seems to happen about once a year), I have to download dozens of the fuckers and give them all a try. This time round I seem to be gravitating towards Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, although DoomRL is proving to be a worthy distraction.
Also worth checking out is Dwarf Fortress, which takes the basic roguelike template and adds elements of city building, resource management and tower defense. Be warned: it’s not for the faint of heart and has a learning curve so steep it’s almost vertical. However, if you persevere through the early learning stages (perhaps with the aid of various wikis and online tutorials) you’ll come to appreciate just how deep and rewarding the game is. If you still have any doubt as to game’s awesomeness, check out this amazing Let’s Play Dwarf Fortress thread that originally appeared on the Something Awful forums.
But let’s not get too carried away. If you’ve yet to delve into the world of roguelikes, it’s best to start with one of the simpler ones. The aforementioned Stone Soup is an ideal starting point. It has a built-in tutorial that’s genuinely useful and its internal mechanics are lot more focused than some of the older roguelikes. You also get a graphical tile set thrown in with the main package. If you’re familiar with Doom (and, let’s face it, who isn’t?), then DoomRL may also be a good starting point.
If you want to go for something with a little bit more depth then NetHack is where it’s at. If you find the ASCII graphics to be a little too retro for your liking, you might want to check out one of the many tile sets; Falcon’s Eye and Vulture’s Eye are very easy on the eye. Once you’re familiar with the basics of how these games work, just experiment with some of the other roguelikes. Play around with whatever else sounds interesting. The chronology of roguelike video games on Wikipedia is a good place to start, although just Googling for “roguelike” will turn up no end of resources.
Meanwhile, for all you roguelike veterans out there: which one is your favorite?
The ZX Spectrum did not exist. The BBC Micro may also be a figment of your imagination. The Amstrad CPC? Never heard of it.
I make a point of reading as many books about the history of computer & video games as possible. Most of them are pretty decent reads, well researched and historically accurate. But if there’s one alarming trend common to most, it’s the glaring omission of anything relating to the European (particularly the British) video game scene during the 1980s.
If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games, turn to the index and try to find any mention of the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro or Amstrad CPC. Nope, I don’t see anything either. Now grab your copy of Vintage Games by Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton and do the same. Zippity-nilch. A bit strange given that these computers, along with the Commodore 64, dominated the British gaming scene for most the 1980s.
While it’s fair to say that neither of these machines found commercial success outside Europe (which I’m assuming is the main reason the annals of video game history appears to be ignoring them), it’s dangerous to overlook them as they made significant contributions to the video game industry and helped shape it into the one we’re familiar with today.
One of the most critically acclaimed developers for the ZX Spectrum were Ultimate Play the Game, responsible for the likes of Sabre Wulf, Knight Lore and Underwurlde. These days you know them better as Rare, who gave us Donkey Kong Country, Banjo Kazooie, Goldeneye, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark and Viva Piñata (amongst countless others). Without their early success on the ZX Spectrum it’s fair to say they wouldn’t be around today.
Meanwhile, the BBC Micro introduced us to Geoff Crammond and David Braben. Crammond gave us the highly successful Formula One Grand Prix series of racing simulators, while Braben is perhaps most famous for introducing Elite to the world (a game that’s 25 years old but still continues to be the yardstick by which all space combat/trading games are judged). His current studio, Frontier Developments, are currently working on The Outsider for Xbox 360, PS3 and Windows platforms.
As far as the existing video game history books are concerned, everything happened in either the USA or Japan. It’s all about Atari, Mattel, Nintendo and Sega, with a little bit of Commodore on the side. Sinclair, Acorn and Amstrad rarely get a look in, which is a bit of a shame given the rather exceptional and unique games that appeared on those systems. To ignore the European contribution to video game history is to ignore the likes of The Last Ninja, Head Over Heels, Lords of Midnight, The Hobbit, Alien Breed, Manic Miner, Mercenary, Flashback, Paradroid, Elite, Revs, Knight Lore, The Pawn and hundreds of other critically acclaimed titles I could reel off without a pause for breath. All these titles directly influenced an entire generation of PC developers during the 1990s, who in turn influenced many of the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 developers working today.
I urge those writers responsible for the next batch of video game history books not to overlook the influence of the countless British/European developers responsible for so many great gaming experiences during the 1980s. Without their influence many of the contemporary classics you count as your favorites probably wouldn’t exist.
For anyone under the age of twenty, a world without cell phones, laptops, netbooks, widescreen TVs, ebook readers and mp3 players must seem like something from the Dark Ages.
Step a little further back in time–barely more than a decade–and we’re in an even bleaker realm where it takes months to send a letter halfway across the world, where it’s almost impossible to watch a movie from the comfort of your sofa and (perhaps most importantly for us) the home video game market is nonexistent.
How on earth did kids pass the time without the abundance of digital distractions available to us today? While I can’t speak for every kid who made the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s relatively unscathed, I came up with a list of pre-gaming diversions that managed to keep me entertained. At least until home computers and game consoles entered our home. Things were never quite the same after that.
Any of these sound familiar?
If there’s one toy that monopolized my attention as a kid, it’s got to be Lego.
I suspect the multi-colored building blocks need little introduction around here. They’re one of the few children’s toys that are just as popular today as they were thirty years ago. Why? Quite simply, they encourage children to use their imagination (something many of today’s toy manufacturers tend to neglect).
For a good five years or so, each birthday and Christmas would bring about new additions to my ever-growing mountain of Lego. My favorite? Undoubtedly the Lego Castle, which I suspect my dad may have enjoyed a little bit more than me, given that he painstakingly spent the evening before my birthday constructing the thing. Naturally, I knocked it down pretty quickly and started from scratch. Well, c’mon! Half the fun of Lego is that initial construction phase.
My next major Lego fix came in the form of Lego Space. Moon buggies, laser guns, space suited figures and lunar landscapes were the order of the day. Once again, my brother and I accumulated numerous kits which would inevitably be used to reenact scenes from Stars Wars, Battlestar Galactica or whatever episode of Doctor Who had aired that week. I daresay generous helpings of gore and extreme violence were also added to the mix.
The last time I dabbled with Lego was probably back in the early 80s. It goes without saying that video games gradually began to usurp my time and energy. However, I look forward to the day I have kids of my own to whom I can introduce the wonderful world of Lego.
Lego themselves are no stranger to moving with the times. They’re one of the few toy manufacturers who’ve not only survived the onslaught of the video game industry but actually managed to take advantage of it; Lego Mindstorm, Lego Digital Designer and the various Lego video game franchises wouldn’t have been possible without the proliferation of home computers and games consoles.
If you grew up in Europe during the 1980s and had more than a passing interest in football (that’s soccer to you colonials), chances are you’ve at least heard of Subbuteo and maybe even played it.
For those with a Subbuteo-shaped hole in your life, here’s the deal:
- 1 x green felt cloth with white markings to represent the footie pitch
- 2 x teams of 11 players on a weebly-wobbly base, at least one of which would be broken out of the box
- 2 x goals, including nets, in which your goalie would become inextricably entangled
- 1 x football which, if it were to scale, would be about six feet in diameter
Players took it in turns to flick/shove/throw their players around in such a manner that they’d connect with the ball. Occasionally the ball would go in the net. Repeat until someone got frustrated, threw everything up in the air and stormed off to their bedroom in disgust.
Good fun and a great way to spend some time with your mates.
Once again, the dark spectre of the video game industry slowly encroached upon Subbuteo’s turf. Sports simulations had been around since the year dot and it was only a matter of time before video game technology progressed to the point where it offered a more realistic and enjoyable take on the beautiful game. Nevertheless, Subbuteo sets and accessories are still manufactured today and annual competitions continue to be held annually by bald, sweaty men in their late 40s.
Another take on football, only this time one needed little more than a paper, pencil and a six-sided dice.
I’m not sure where my brother and I picked up the concept of “dice league”. I guess we thought it was something of our own invention, but a little bit of digging around revealed that it wasn’t an uncommon game for kids to play.
At its very basic level, you created a small league (or World Cup tournament) containing your favorite football teams, devised a fixture list, and then simply rolled a die to determine the score. Maybe re-rolling if your favorite team failed to score. (A six represented no goals scored. If you rolled five, you could roll again. If you then rolled a six, you’d score an extra goal and get another free roll. Anything else would end the match. A cunning system—at least for a seven-year-old—that allowed for high-scoring games but also ensured they were relatively rare.)
You’d eventually realise that this wasn’t a very accurate simulation of the game (especially if Manchester United and Arsenal were consistently thrashed by all the crappy teams) and so you’d begin to introduce a number of modifiers to create more realistic results. Before long, you’d be bringing things like player stats, weather and pitch conditions into consideration.
At one point I even went as far as writing a basic program on the BBC Micro to handle all the variables and generate the results. Then someone called Kevin Toms came along, showing off with his new-fangled Football Manager game and thus the school exercise books, pencils and dice were retired.
Sports management games are two a penny these days and a great way to encourage some analytical thinking. But if you want to give your kids some basic math practice and trick them into having fun at the same time, you could do a lot worse than introduce them to the wonders of Dice League (it can easily be modified for most sports) before it’s too late.
Developed by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were the UK’s answer to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Unlike the CYOAs, which were (mostly) grounded in our world demanded little more of the player than merely making a narrative choice, the FF books (mostly) took place in a rich fantasy or science fiction setting and featured Dungeons & Dragons-esque character stats and dice-based combat.
Admittedly, the first FF book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, was published in 1982, by which time the fledgling computer & video game industry had been up and running for a while, but these books nevertheless offered a worthwhile alternative when it came to filling gaps between gaming sessions.
Having already begun to explore science fiction and fantasy novels as a kid, the Fighting Fantasy books were a natural extension of that interest.
The Fighting Fantasy books were a natural extension of my interest in science fiction & fantasy books, TV shows and movies at that time, but they weren’t my first introduction to tabletop gaming. My parents had given me a Dungeons & Dragons set for Christmas a few years earlier, although my friends were never really the D&D types. Nevertheless, I familiarised myself with the system and would eventually run a few play-by-email games online.
The Fighting Fantasy phenomenon continued well into the 1990s–spawning no end of spin-offs and rip-offs–but it’s fair to say it peaked during the mid-80s. Not surprisingly, a number of video game publishers converted some of the earlier books into text adventure games, but they did little to enhance the experience of the original books.
The has been some resurgence of interest in Fighting Fantasy in recent years. Its most devoted followers are now parents themselves, hoping their childhood interests will rub off on their kids. Wizard Books currently own the rights to the series and are actively reprinting old classics in addition to publishing brand new titles. It’s encouraging to see kids still enjoying this series in its original form. Not an easy task given the allure of contemporary computer-based roleplaying games.
As an aside, I had a bit of a geeky thrill when I had the opportunity to playtest Black & White for Lionhead Studios back in the summer of 2000 and got to meet Steve Jackson. A thoroughly nice guy, who seemed impressed that I was one of the few people not to immediately mistake him for the other legendary Steve Jackson.
British comics often differed from the US comic book. They’d usually be printed using a 2-color process (commonly red/blue and black) on magazine sized paper. And whereas a typical US comic book would be devoted to a single character, British comics would feature multiple characters. (US comic books were hard to come by in the UK, but would often be compiled into single volumes and sold in book stores.)
Like most kids, I was a big fan of both The Beano and Dandy, two behemoths that were first published in the 1930s and continue to entertain kids today. Other early favorites included Whoopee!, Wow! and Whizzer and Chips.
Whizzer and Chips did something a little bit different. The comic was split into two halves, each with its own set of characters and an antagonistic attitude to the other half. Each week, one character from each faction would “raid” a rival’s cartoon. It was up to the readers to spot the interloper. I must admit, my loyalty swung between the Whizzer and Chip camps fairly often, depending on who had the funnier strips that week.
When I turned ten, the more juvenile comics would be abandoned in favor of edgier titles. Step forward Tiger (sports), Battle (war and gore, most strips featuring Jerry getting his arse kicked by Tommy), Scream (gore galore!), 2000 AD (sci-fi gore!) and Roy of the Rovers (erm, football). Classic 1950s comic Eagle was relaunched in the early 1980s. One of the books I regularly swiped from my dad’s bookcase was an anthology of old Eagle comics, so I was understandably excited about the relaunch. Unfortunately the new Eagle became dominated by tacky photo stories (although Doomlord emerged as the most readable). Dan Dare continued to be drawn traditionally (initially by Oliver Frey, no doubt familiar to readers of Crash and Zzap! 64) and remained the comic’s saving grace, even if it couldn’t save it from eventual
2000 AD is still around today. In fact, I bought it very consistently between 1990 and 2003, stopping only when I moved to the States. Now I’ve recently discovered that 2000 AD is available in digital format, so I might have to pick up the ol’ habit again.
So, those are some of my pre-gaming memories. Can you remember what you did before video games assimilated your free time?
Retroblique’s been up and running for little over a year now, although it has admittedly been living a rather low-key, infrequently updated existence. In lieu of becoming ensnared in NaNoWriMo this year, I’ve pledged to kick the blog into overdrive this November and actually deliver some of the content you’ve been very patiently expecting.
It suddenly occurred to me that I’ve never given you guys an insight into my history as a gamer. The 6% of you who’ve taken a look at the About Retroblique page may be a teensy bit wiser as to my motives for starting up the blog in the first place. The braver 1.5% who’ve visited the FAQ will have discovered which systems I’ve owned and are likely to post about at some point in the future. Nothing substantial really; just some vague muttering and a few bullet point lists.
So, with this newfound work ethic comes a series of posts that will hopefully give you a deeper insight into my experiences as a gamer. Don’t worry: they’re not going to be huge, rambling essays. Just a broad but concise overview of where I’ve trodden in the digital realm and my favorite ports of call.
Here’s what to expect during the weeks ahead:
- Part 1: Life Before Gaming
Lego, Subbuteo, Dice League, Fighting Fantasy & Comics.
- Part 2: The Blocky Years
Nintendo Game & Watch, Sinclair ZX-81, Mattel Intellivision & Atari VCS.
- Part 3: The 8-bit Years
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Acorn BBC Micro & Commodore 64.
- Part 4: The 16-bit Years
Atari ST, Commodore Amiga & Sega Mega Drive.
- Part 5: Rise of the PC
PC Gaming 1990-1994.
- Part 6: Into the Third Dimension
Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, PC Gaming 1995-1999.
- Part 7: The 6th Generation
Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube & PC Gaming 2000-2004.
- Part 8: Return to Retroville
Nintendo GameBoy Advance, Nintendo DS, Sony PlayStation 3 & PC Gaming 2005-2009.
The more observant among you will notice a lack of certain systems in the list above. Unfortunately, I’ll only be covering the systems I owned or had regular access to. So that means no mention of the Amstrad CPC, SNES or Xbox—but only where this series of articles is concerned. (I’ll still be covering other systems elsewhere on this blog.)
If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to Retroblique with your news reader of choice. That way you won’t have to check back to see whether or not I’ve been fibbing about actually posting some damn articles on this blog. They’ll plop into your news reader all of their own accord.
And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter if you want to indulge in a bit of geeky banter from time to time.
If you tuned into Retroblique a week or two ago, you’d have noticed my response to Blake Snow’s Top 5 Reasons Moderns Games Beat Retro Games article for MSNBC’s tech & gadgets blog. True to his word, Snow recently posted a similar article, this time offering his Top 5 Reasons Retro Games Beat Modern Games.
Well, here at Retroblique we’re no strangers to pedantry or arguing for argument’s sake, so without further ado here I go disagreeing with him again!
Retro Games Play Longer
“If retro games were a ‘king size’ candy bar, modern games would be the ‘fun size’ (aka lame) version. While both taste good, the latter seriously lacks longevity. This is one of the reasons gamers keep returning to retro games.”
I’d argue that the opposite generally tends to be true. When I fire up the likes of Sanxion, Paradroid or Rescue on Fractalus! on the C64, I’ll probably spend no more than half an hour in their company—maybe an hour or two if I’m determined to play them through to completion—before they’re placed back in the proverbial box (I actually play them on VICE these days). On the other hand, when I embark upon yet another play through of STALKER: The Shadow of Chernobyl, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots or BioShock, I’m hooked into a gaming session that will last considerably longer—and I’ll be playing it every day, without fail, for the next few weeks.
Still, it’s all swings and roundabouts really. Civilization, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid are prime examples of retro titles with plenty of meat on the bone, while the likes of PixelJunk Eden, Flower and Geometry Wars are modern snack-sized titles.
Retro Games Are More Challenging
“In addition to containing more levels, retro video games are significantly harder to beat. As a result, the feeling of achievement is a lot greater after finishing a retro game than a modern one.”
Most games should, by definition, provide some degree of challenge.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that retro games are more challenging. They certainly provide their own specific style of challenges, mainly as a consequence of the limited technology. Unless you were playing a text adventure or role-playing game, opportunities to save your progress in many 8-bit titles were rare. You’d therefore be required to complete the game in a single sitting with a limited number of lives. Certainly a more significant challenge than a game in which you can save your position at any point and thus have a convenient rewind feature should you come a cropper.
Modern games acknowledge this crutch and adjust the challenge accordingly. Your typical narrative-driven action game will divide the challenge into a number of peaks and troughs, the former represented by intense action set pieces and the latter by slow periods of exploration, introspection and exposition. On console platforms these troughs are often populated by save points. As the gamer begins to climb a peak, the difficulty typically rises, to such an extent that they’ll often fail and need to try climbing that peak several times.
Pluck a NES gamer from the 1980s, sit him down in front of Half-Life 2: Episode Two and ask him to save the White Forest base—on the hardest difficulty level—and chances are he’ll be reduced to a nervous wreck. (If you look at the Steam stats for Episode Two, you’ll see that fewer than 50% of people completed that challenge.)
However, it is true to say that modern games are, by default, a little easier to play than their retro counterparts. Contemporary developers have a much bigger casual gaming audience to consider. Today’s “normal” difficulty mode is yesterday’s “easy”. I’ve known many veteran gamers who complain about today’s games being a bit too easy, only for them to admit that they stuck with the “normal” difficulty mode (or, in some cases, actually started on “easy”). Personally, I always fire up a game in the highest difficulty mode from the outset. It’s the only way I can be guaranteed a significant challenge.
In short, today’s games can be as difficult as you want them to be. Even if you find the hardest difficulty level to be pretty easy going, you can always impose your own set of restrictions, such as forgoing the ability to save your position. In fact, a whole bunch of people are doing just that at the moment with Far Cry 2 and writing up their experiences.
Retro Games Are More Straightforward
“Pong’s objective is simple yet elegant: Avoid missing ball for high score. That I can understand. What I don’t understand is some convoluted revenge plot taking place across three continents and involving 50 unrelated sub missions — a complex task that plagues far too many modern games.”
It’s hard to disagree here, although that straightforwardness is a double-edged sword. Not every modern gamer wants a “straightforward” experience. Some gamers thrive on a non-linear experience with multiple strands of narrative. For the prices we’re paying for our games these days, you’re damn right I want more than a repetitive side-scroller with a simple “save the princess” narrative. I want my Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto, Ken Levine and Warren Spector epics that take weeks/months to complete, not some wam-bam-thank-you-ma’am tiddler that shows me everything it has to offer within the first five minutes of play.
Retro Games Are More Durable
“Modern video games hardware is great and all, but today’s consoles break like nobody’s business. Retro gaming hardware, on the other hand, is known for its resilience. Remember what it was like to throw a controller at a wall without fear of it breaking?”
I can’t say I ever needed to resort to throwing a controller at the wall, but I guess Blake Snow’s mileage varies.
I’ve been rather fortunate in that I’ve rarely suffered any significant hardware glitches during my many years as a gamer. I do, however, remember many idiosyncrasies associated with older consoles and computers. The ZX-81′s 16K RAM pack remained awfully sensitive to things like breathing and mayflies sneezing half a mile away. There merest hint of a whisper would dislodge the RAM pack from its socket and cause you to lose all your data. The ZX Spectrum’s joystick extension port didn’t fare much better. One accidental prod of the squishboard would be enough to instigate a crash, which was never much fun when you were a goal up with a minute of full-time remaining at the end of a Match Day marathon.
The catalogue of disasters doesn’t end there. The Atari VCS and Mattel Intellivision’s cartridge slots would become clogged with dust and goodness knows what else over the years, requiring the dependable Blow Method™ to get your games loading up in the first place. Oh yes, talking of loading: remember having to adjust the volume on your cassette players in order to get many BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum games loading properly?
If anything, my modern consoles have been a lot more durable. My PSX, N64 and GBC are still alive and kicking after more than 12 years of use. Likewise, my Dreamcast and GameCube are perfectly healthy. Haven’t had a single problem with my PS3. I’ve built my own PCs over the last 10 years and, with the exception of a video card that was DOA, no problems there either—despite running Windows! I’d take all that over wonky Sinclair connectors, sensitive cartridge slots and cassette players requiring fine volume tuning any day of the week.
Retro Games Are More Creative
“You would think the inferior technology of retro games might dampen creativity. Wrong! In many ways, modern technology often hinders imagination, as developers get complacent with the tools at their disposal.”
Unimaginative games are hardly restricted to the 21st century. For every annual update of Tiger Madden’s NBHFL there’s a third class Space Invaders clone. For every World War II-themed first person shooter there’s a… well, World War II-themed top-down shooter. And don’t get me started on the endless procession of atrocious movie tie-ins, all of which were the same side-scrolling action platformer, albeit with vaguely different sprites. (Yes, Ocean/Imagine/US Gold. I’d be looking at you lot if you were all still around today.)
You only have to look at the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, Photopia, Portal, DEFCON, Galatea, STALKER: The Shadow of Chernobyl, BioShock and Professor Layton and the Curious Village to see that there’s an abundance of creativity within the gaming industry. With homebrew, retro remakes, special editions and rereleased classics in addition to all the modern games out there, there’s about three decades worth of gaming history and creative diversity at every gamer’s fingertips. Would you really forfeit all that for the much narrower choice presented by yesteryear?
Who Wins? Modern or Retro?
While I’ve taken apart Blake Snow’s articles purely for fun, he’s come under fire elsewhere for his two apparently contradictory posts. But those taking a more aggressive stance against him are missing the point. Snow’s not attempting to suggest that one generation of games is better than the other. Every era has its classics and barrel scrapers, its Shigeru Miyamotos and Derek Smarts, its Sensible Soccers and World Cup Carnivals.
Young gamers with no experience of anything further back than the PS2 and Xbox undoubtedly find it difficult to appreciate titles on older systems. The language, logic and semantics of video games have changed significantly over the years and only a few of us have been lucky enough to walk that evolutionary path in its entirety. It goes without saying that someone brought up on a steady diet of 8-bit gaming experiences is going to find it easier to continue engaging with them today. What must also be considered is that older games lean more towards the abstract, whereas modern games lean more towards the figurative. Just look at North Atlantic Convoy Raider, Lords of Midnight, UMS: The Universal Military Simulator and Medieval II: Total War for examples of how military strategy games can sit on very different points along that abstract/figurative line.
If you favor a more figurative approach to gaming, then a sudden shift to the abstract side of things can be bewildering to the point of frustration and resentment. But it works both ways too—there are numerous account of old school gamers, some of whom haven’t owned a computer or console since the 8-bit days, picking up a PS3 or Xbox 360 only to be overwhelmed by control methods, disorientated by the spatial awareness required by a third dimension and generally alarmed at the bombastic assault of noise and color.
As a gamer, you create your own comfort zone. As long as you’re happy within its confines, all is well with the universe. But if you haven’t already done so, consider stepping outside that comfort zone once in a while. Old school gamers holding on to your 8-bit ideals: try a modern game. You hip and trendy youngsters: play something that came out before you were born. You might just like what you see.
MSNBC’s Tech & Gadgets blog has, gauntlet in hand, slapped retro gamers about the face with their Top 5 Reasons Modern Games Beat Retro Games article. Well, here at Retroblique we’ve picked up our Nintendo/Mattel Power Glove and slapped them right back.
Leaving aside the irony that MSNBC’s article eschews the beautiful, ‘old-fashioned’ simplicity of presenting itself on a single page, in favor of a thoroughly ‘modern’ yet terribly awkward multi-page layout (one page per paragraph!), let’s address each of their points in turn and fight the good fight for retro gaming!
Modern Games Are Cheaper
“The cost of a console game in the mid-1980s and early 1990s? Often $50 or more. The cost of a console game launched in recent years (like “Super Mario Galaxy” pictured above)? $50. In some cases, modern games are even priced between $30 and $40. Although still more expensive than movies and music, and despite a $10 “high definition” tax for select Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games, retail video games are more affordable than ever.”
Here’s how it went down the UK. A typical full price ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 game on cassette, during the mid-1980s, would set you back £7.99. Adjust for inflation via the retail price index, this gives a 2009 retail value of about £16.99. A new PS3/Xbox 360 game currently carries a retail price of £49.99.
If we turn the clock back to 1998, full price PlayStation and PC games cost £29.99. Once again, if we adjust for inflation via the retail price index, we get something which we’ll round up to £39.99.
We won’t go into the budget game price points of the late 1980s, which typically ranged from £1.99 – £4.99, suffice to say that they still work out cheaper than their modern budget counterparts.
In the United States, however, games typically had a relatively higher price point. While your average 8-bit gamer in the UK played his games on cassette, US gamers with home computers more commonly used a floppy disk drive and thus their games, on average, were a little more expensive. Also, let’s not forget that during the 80s the US, European and Japanese game markets were a lot more self-contained. You’d get imports criss-crossing the Atlantic and Pacific, but publishers pretty much stuck to their own territory and thus the price points would more accurately reflect their home country’s economy. It’s fair to say that over the last ten years or so, games have become a lot cheaper in the US than they have in the UK. (We’ll save the “rip-off Britain tax” argument for another day!)
Having said all that, the video game industry is substantially bigger now than it was during the 80s and 90s. We also now have online retailers who are able to pass the savings of their low cost operations on to consumers, which means it’s almost always cheaper to buy games from them rather than a bricks & mortar store. (And cheaper still if you’re prepared to wait about 6 months for the inevitable price drop.)
Modern Games Have Better Multiplayer Features
“Over the past five years, there has been a resurgence in party, cooperative, and massively multiplayer games. What’s more, online gaming against “live” opponents is practically standard now.”
Okay, I’ll give them this one. The 1980s definition of “multiplayer” would generally involve between 2-4 players taking it in turns to embark upon their own single player experience. We’d eventually see games offering a simultaneous multiplayer experience, such as Bubble Bobble or Gauntlet, but they’re still a far cry from today’s 32-player deathmatch brawls or substantially larger MMORPGs.
What I will say, however, is that the modern multiplayer experience does tend to physically distance players from one another, to such an extent that in some games you couldn’t necessarily tell the difference between a server full of human players and a server full of AI bots. Headsets and the ability to type at insane speeds aside, the modern multiplayer experience can feel a little cold and clinical. People are generally more interested in gameplay dynamics than they are in social interaction.
This is a far cry from the 1980s, where you and a bunch of school mates would gather to show off your gaming skills to one another, devise your own methods of competition, smack talk while games loaded, flip through the latest gaming magazines and discuss the contents therein, etc. It always made me laugh when early video game critics described the hobby as a very lonely, solitary experience. For me it was the complete opposite, where the weekends, school holidays and even the gaps between daily homework assignments were filled by three or four of us getting together to share our gaming experiences with one another. I’ll take that multiplayer experience over a game of Counterstrike any day of the week.
Modern Games Have Better Controls
“In their nascent years, video games often had only a joystick and a single button to dictate play. Fun but not ideal. In their adolescent years, games often required that a player consult the instruction manual to learn complex button presses. Fun but, again, not ideal. Today, there are more options than ever to play games.”
It would have been more accurate of MSNBC to suggest “modern games have better controllers“. True, their were hardware limitations back in the day, but it was the developer’s responsibility to work around those limitations in order to ensure you maintained optimum control over your in-game avatar. There weren’t all that many games that stepped outside the boundaries of what could be achieved with the controllers available.
Some people have argued — particularly those returning to video games after a decade or two’s hiatus — that modern games are perhaps too complex where control methods are concerned. Anyone who’s played the likes of Super Mario Sunshine or The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time will certainly testify to the number of moves you’re required to learn during the course of the game. The number of ways in which the PS3′s Dual Shock controller can be used during Metal Gear Solid 4 would even scare the living crap out of anyone who last played a game with a SNES gamepad, let alone a one-button joystick.
It all boils down to that well-worn adage: it ain’t what you got, it’s what you do with it. Any controller, regardless of the number of buttons and joysticks attached to it, can become the gamer’s best friend or worst enemy, depending on how the developer implements their control system. A very fine balance has to be struck between what you want the player to be able to do and how intuitive you can make that process for them. It doesn’t matter if your controller has one or a dozen buttons, the player needs to be in the screen, not even thinking about the controls, rather than constantly staring down at the controller as if it’s a thing possessed.
There are plenty of retro games that did amazing things with just a single button joystick. Take a look at Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid on the C64. You could pull off smooth eight-way maneuvers, eight-way firing (even fire in the opposite direction to which you were traveling without a loss of momentum) and even jump into a “capture” mode, all with a single button. Martin Walker’s Citadel, also on the C64, did all that and more within a similar game.
So yes, modern games do have better controllers, but they don’t necessarily have better controls.
Modern Games Have Better Graphics
“Video games are only fun to look at for so long. They either have it where it counts (the gameplay) or they don’t. But marry arresting gameplay with good looks, and you’re in for a lasting treat. Though blocky pixels will always have a special place in my heart, today’s games are more fluid, more artistic and more elaborate — in short, they’re downright gorgeous at times.”
Okay, this one goes without saying. No one’s trying to suggest that black & white movies are just as colorful as their technicolor counterparts either.
However, are modern games really taking advantage of the processing power available to them, or are they using it as a crutch? Back in the 8-bit and 16-bit days, consoles and home computers had a longer shelf life. To this end, developers would be challenged to squeeze as much out of these systems as possible. In many cases they’d discover various architectural oddities that could be exploited to produce results even the hardware manufacturers couldn’t have anticipated. Compare the C64 games of the early 80s with those of the late 80s and you’ll see a remarkable difference in what was possible, almost to the extent that they appear to be two different machines.
There’s no denying that today’s games look fantastic and we’re almost at the point where that holy grail of photorealism has been achieved. But what then? If every game looks photorealistic, how do we tell one from the other? This is where true visual artistry will come into play, as developers will then be required to investigate the possibilities offered by stylistic expression in order to differentiate their games from their competitors.
My point here is that 2D artists were already doing this in the 80s and 90s. With a limited number of pixels and colors available to them, artistic flair was required to grab a gamer’s attention. That’s not to say that modern games aren’t making bold, stylistic statements, but those titles tend to be the exception (see Ico, Wind Waker, Okami and Team Fortress 2) rather than the rule. Back in the day, stylistic statements were the rule. That’s why we have beautiful 2D games such as Yoshi’s Island that would lose all artistic value if translated to photorealistic 3D.
I loves me some photorealistic 3D — case in point there was a brief moment, while playing Crysis, where I actually had to stop playing because the illusion of realism was so overwhelming — but at the end of the day I’ll always prefer something that looks like it’s come from an artist’s brush rather than a photographer’s camera.
Modern Games Are More Captivating
“I played Atari 2600 and NES as much as the next guy — for entire Saturdays even. Addicting games will always have that kind of appeal. But today’s games bombard the senses on all fronts. They control better. They sound better. They look better. And they tell better stories. It’s no wonder “immersive” has become the most overused adjective in modern game reviews. I dare you to casually walk away from a game of “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.” It demands your attention.”
Okay, he wins here.
With their myriad limitations, particularly where memory and storage space were concerned, there was only so much an old game could give you. Plot, narrative, environment and ambience all had to be curtailed in the name of gameplay. As technology’s progressed over the years, we’ve been able to gradually feed those elements into our games, to the extent where we now have something like BioShock, which gives us a huge environment to explore, beautifully rendered with an art-deco style, drenched in a heady atmosphere of sounds and voices, all wrapped up with a compelling narrative that doffs its hat in Ayn Rand’s direction. Then there’s Thief: The Dark Project, Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, STALKER: The Shadow of Chernobyl, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Resident Evil 5.
Poor old Space Invaders doesn’t really compare.
On the other hand, there’s much to be said for a game that allows you to pick up the gamepad and enjoy a quick ten minute blast without having to invest several days/weeks/months of your life in order to unlock and fully appreciate its intricacies. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are fully aware of this need, which is why the likes of Xbox Live Arcade, Virtual Console and PlayStation Network are home to a large number retro games, remakes and indie titles to satisfy the ten minute gamer.
Sometimes you just want a quick snack rather than a three course meal.
Our story doesn’t end here though. MSNBC are promising a follow up article that will offer 5 reasons why retro games are better than modern games. So maybe we’ll hold back on the gauntlet slapping until we’ve heard what they’ve got to say about that.