the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Living in the Past

Living in the Past

There is no doubt that the gaming industry has become a juggernaut since its early days. Back then, video games held the stigma of being just for kids, but today, even some of the hardest, toughest adults you’re likely to meet will chatter excitedly about the latest Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. During a recent recession here in the US, sales were still good; so good, in fact, that the statement was even made that gaming is recession-proof. It’s dubious, I know, but it goes to show that such an industry would be hard to stop, as it did back in 1983. There is, however, a powerful force that is incredibly pervasive in all aspects of our culture, gaming included, and that is a force that’s dragging it down into a pit of thick sludge. That force is nostalgia.

What!? The painfully oldschool Alice Kojiro – who, when faced with the choice between a Wii U, a PS4, and an X-Bone, went with a TurboGrafx-16 – is about to lambast nostalgia!? You’d better believe it; nostalgia is ruining gaming just as much as the Mega-Manesque manner in which modern franchises are churning out game-after-game with little in the way of innovation. Yes, we’ve created an alternative – a counter-culture, if you prefer – to the grittiness of modern “realism” with happy little retro games boasting their colorful, pixelated graphics, but like many counter-culture movements, all it’s done is create a secondary culture with almost equal ubiquity. A lot of people hate the Hipster movement, but what is it, really, but a counter-culture movement bereft of all subtlety? It’s the most straight-forward “screw you” to conformity I’ve seen yet. Whereas beatnicks, hippies, goths, and even the emo movement picked something specific that they hated about society and focused on that, the hipster movement’s big thing is just hating the mainstream. That said, it seems like they’re rebelling more against the sense of modernism and overly roomy pants that haven’t been relevant since the ’90s, but that sort of brings me to my next point.

Though not universally valid, there is a proclivity toward equating indie games with pixelated graphics, and indie developers with the Hipster movement. Like with culture in general, though, this movement often completely misses the point. As much as it makes me sound like I just burned my mouth by eating a slice of pizza before it was cool (thanks, Tim; I miss you just as much as ever), I was still playing my NES long after the SNES was out. Was it out of nostalgia or a small SNES library? Hardly; I had a great SNES library – it was, and still is my favorite system, after all – and if you think the former, then you and I need to have a serious chat about what my life was like in the ’80s. No, there’s something very special about games of the Third Generation, and while the old sound and graphics were great, gaming hadn’t lost that special something just yet, so it wasn’t just that. So what is it that makes those old games classics, even today?

To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure in the beginning. My first exposure to this new age retro gaming was Mega Man 9, and I was swept up just as much as everyone else. For a while, it was great; people were designing games with oldschool sensibiities, so I had more than just a handful of new games and a bigger handful of rom hacks to play. Once the novelty started to wear off, though, it seemed like there were just as many old-styled games as… well, when that was still cutting-edge technology. Back then, it was the standard, and the focus wasn’t on making games look and sound that way, but using the limitations of the hardware to create a sonnet, rather than today’s nigh-unlimited resources, which is little more than free verse; when game developers have access to a full symphony orchestra and can make their game sound identical, you have no restrictions, and that’s just in the audio department. Take some time to appreciate the brilliance of a sonnet, and then read some free verse poetry; the difference is undeniable. Those constraints almost always send a creative mind into overdrive by giving focus and perspective, as well as heightening one’s problem-solving skills, and designing a game is no different.

Limitations breed creativity.

Limitations breed creativity.

When it first came out, Super Mario Bros. 3 blew all of our minds; today, Nintendo still loves trotting out this horse again and again, yet a lot of us decry it as soulless, while still enjoying the source of its inspiration, but why? Is it because this particular horse is one of those rides at the supermarket that costs a quarter and seems super exciting as a little kid, but utterly pointless as an adult? It’s all in the design; if you ask me, Super Mario World was a much better game, but Super Mario Bros. 3 had a far greater impact because of what it brought to the table. The map-based platforming was a pretty new thing – at least in North America, where we hadn’t gotten Getsu Fuuma Den – that gave us a sense of the greater world beyond the boundaries of the individual stages; it wasn’t just a linear string of obstacle courses anymore. Perhaps more importantly, though, was that it had no save feature. That sounds like a bad thing, and unless you have several hours to devote to the game to beat it in one sitting, it can be, but it gave us something that so many games of today lack, even the retro ones: a sense of mystery.

Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World are roughly equivalent in size, once you break them down, but the former seemed so much bigger. Is that because by Super Mario World, it had already been done, and with more power-ups? Not entirely; the multitude of power-ups weren’t great just because they existed or even that they were useful, but because they were uncommon. The allure of the Hammer Brother Suit wasn’t so much that you could dress up as a former enemy, that you could kill almost everything with it, or even its fireproof shell; it was that you had to wander pretty deep into the game just to maybe get your hands on one. The fact that it’s not an everyday occurrence is what makes it special; you wouldn’t be excited about Mario shooting fire balls, would you?

Beyond even that, the game’s world was inherently mysterious because it wasn’t immediately accessible in its entierty; as I’ve said, Super Mario Bros. 3 has no save feature, which means that you aren’t just going to blow right through it on your first try. Like its predecessors, it has warp zones – this time in the form of an item useable on the world map – and that actually adds to the mystery. Let’s face it: if you played it when it was new, you didn’t ignore those warp whistles and just keep on the straight and narrow; you experimented with them every chance you got, and with the branching paths on the map screen, you never knew just where you’d end up in any given session. I vividly remember winding up in some weird underground cavern in 5-2, having missed an upward turn; the bizarre, torturous landscape of World 6; and even the dark, labyrinthine pipe maze in World 7-5. At the time, I was still struggling to make my way through World 3 on legitimate runs, which just made these strange events seem even more distant and dream-like, knowing that it would be a very long time before I’d be able to reach them in a straight run. I wasn’t just running left to right in search of the goal; I was exploring.

Someone tell me WHAT is going ON with the art direction here!

Someone tell me WHAT is going ON with the art direction here!

Let’s talk about one of the biggest retro titles at the time of this writing: Shovel Knight. When it was first announced, I was extremely cynical; the retro scene had become so bloated by that point that I was completely jaded, not to mention that it has kind of a stupid title. I kept hearing over and over again that it was really good, though; that it was the real deal, so I decided to check it out. I was completely blown away by just the first level, and it’s a feeling that didn’t really fade. Yes, the graphics clearly exceeded NES hardware limitations, and the music never goes deeper in tone than Final Fantasy 3‘s does – an odd choice, considering that we never got Final Fantasy 3 in North America – and it does fall into the pitfall that most retro games do, which is trying to sound like Mega Man. Mega Man is great, but the NES has a very diverse library of sounds.

What makes it legitimate is that it still plays like an NES game. It’s challenging, but not as impossibly hard as most retro fans seem to think old games were. More importantly, the level design is spot-on; it really feels like this could’ve existed on the original hardware, its few technical restrictions aside. For everything it gets right, it’s easy to forgive the few, decidedly less important things that it gets wrong. Upon further inspection, Shovel Knight really isn’t such a stupid title, either, if you consider that we have NES games called 3D Adventures of World Runner and a game starring a blue anthropomorphic cat with a gun that fires a fist at the end of lazy tongs; gaming was still allowed to be strange and absurd back in the Third Generation.

This makes no sense, but who cares?

This makes no sense, but who cares?

What does this have to do with Super Mario Bros. 3, aside from the obvious inspiration for its overworld map? Well, the simple fact that it doesn’t lose that sense of mystery and exploration. The levels are fairly linear, and wouldn’t feel out of place in a Mega Man game, but there are all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore in each of them, a bit like DuckTales. Deeper than that is how strange and mysterious some of them are. You have your grasslands and your obligatory other biomes, but they’re so visually interesting, like the dark depths of the underwater stage or the beautiful aurora of the ice stage. Even the second town has kind of a dismal atmosphere that makes it feel like a neat discovery, like that second dwarf village in Final Fantasy 4, whatever the translation of the week is calling it. My personal favorite, though, was the one-screen area where you meet the Troupple King: it’s a small, dingy pond in the middle of a dark, dull forest, even when the bright red Troupple King shows up. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is exactly the kind of thing I would have loved to discover back on the Game Boy, in a game like Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters or Cosmo Tank. Most people look for an item as a reward in a dead end like this; my treasure is that I found something beautiful, and that memory is something that I can take out of the game and continue to have once I’ve stopped playing.

This sense of exploration is a bit hard to replicate, though, and upon subsequent playthroughs, it’s only there as much as your memory has failed you. I love Kirby Super Star, and my favorite subgame has always been “The Great Cave Offensive”, because of all of its treasure hunting and exploration; it was fascinating to explore every nook and cranny in search of that one elusive treasure. I still love it to this day, but every time I play, I still long to be able to forget every inch of the subgame’s world, just to get back that sense of exploration; it’s still good, but it can never be that good again. The only real way to design a game around this is to have randomly-generated levels, but in so doing, you force them to be straightforward and uninteresting, in order to make sure that no broken levels are generated, and I’ve had that happen; one time in F-Zero X, I had the X Cup generate a track with a turn so impossibly sharp that it instantaneously killed every computer driver, because it could not be taken at full speed, and even killed my car in the victory lap. What lends such games their longevity is the player’s own fond memories of discovery.

Don't you just want to dive into this?

Look at all this crazy crap; it’s wonderful!

Is it any wonder that WRPGs have taken off the way that they have in recent years? Yes, PC gamers have enjoyed them since the beginning, but those of use sticking to consoles weren’t really exposed to them until more recently, with titles like Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. These are not randomly-generated experiences, but the in-game world is so big that it’s not realistically possible to see and do it all. In fact, Daggerfall has been out since 1996, and to my knowledge, no one person has ever seen and done everything that exists in the game; Daggerfall is only the second game in the series, and I imagine that they’ve only gotten bigger since then. So, if you want that sense of mystery, it’s very easy to just explore another one of the game’s enormous regions; you’re going on adventures again. These games, however, will take up an incredible amount of time to finish, and as we get further along in life, we find less and less time to be truly immersed in such things, and not that I’ve been playing Daggerfall all that long, but I don’t expect to have any weird, dream-like experiences, so we’re back to square one.

There is actually a rom hack out there that strives to bring back this sense of mystery in a much more bite-sized experience: Mario Adventure. Your goal is not just to make your way through the worlds, but to find one key in each of them. There is no indication as to which stage contains the key – though it is the same each time you play – so you’ll be forced to explore them all to the fullest. You’ll crawl through some of the darkest, most obscure, dreamlike, sometimes even glitchy corners of the game’s world in order to find them, and you don’t have any idea how the weather’s even going to be. That’s right: each time you play a stage, there’s no guarantee that it’ll even look the same, because there’s a random weather generator. Combine all of that with some strange new power-ups, as well as twists on old ones, and the mystery is back. It does have a save feature, but the ever-changing nature of the game keeps things at least a bit unfamiliar.

A dark, mysterious area or a sunny day?

A dark, mysterious area or a sunny day?

It’s not that the Bit Wars didn’t expand upon games and make them better, but because graphics were so much better, there were far fewer unknowns. It was those unknowns that made gaming back in the 8-bit era seem so magical. Look at Legend of Zelda: the original game sells itself almost entirely upon mystery, and now that GameFAQs is a thing, that mystery is gone, and the game has aged poorly as a result. Certainly, nobody’s forcing you to use a walkthrough, but as obtuse and frustrating as it can be, you’ll likely resort to that at least before the end of the second quest. Sadly, in most of its modern installments, Zelda has completely lost that exploration of mystery. Mechanically, it’s been improving a great deal with each installment (well, mostly), but the last game that I played in the series that had any real sense of mystery to explore was Wind Waker, and before that, Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past; that’s a very long time. Even Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field wasn’t that big, but seemed big, because of the strange horrors that seemed to come out of nowhere, making you want to reach your goal quickly to avoid being slaughtered, and therefore, psychologically increasing the area of the map. The original Legend of Zelda is a frustrating mess if you’re trying to get through it, because it’s such an unguided experience, but now, there’s so much guidance that you might as well make your next game a God of War knockoff, rather than a Dynasty Warriors clone; that style of gameplay might even freshen up the combat a little bit. Even a Kart Racer would have about as much exploration; I wonder if the Zelda DLC in Mario Kart 8 is Nintendo’s way of thumbing their nose at us.

Well, will you look at that? There’s a new Zelda game in development, and it’s going to be huge and non-linear! In fact, it’s so big that each dungeon is supposed to be as big as the entirety of Ocarina of Time! Wow! Sounds like a real return to form, but utilizing the advantages of more powerful hardware, doesn’t it? Well, of course it sounds that way, but are you going to get to actually explore them, or is it going to be another trip through the Fanboy Tunnel of Love? Dungeons that big would need to have an incredible amount of time and thought put into them to become anything better than a tedious slog, and I haven’t exactly had a lot of faith put into me with most of the franchise’s 3D installments in terms of dungeon design. The franchise’s very creators have lost sight of what made it so special, back when it still had contemporaries that people called Zelda clones. Seriously, have you ever noticed how the term becomes less and less commonly used to describe overhead Action-Adventure games over the 16-bit era, and nearly vanishes when 3D hits town? There’s a reason for that: not only have the games been far surpassed by their imitators in terms of gameplay, but it’s also lost its sense of identity, adopting a new one that’s almost entirely its opposite.

Nintendo isn’t uniquely guilty of this, either; I fairly recently played Sonic Generations, and it wasn’t pretty. Well, it was pretty – the 3D reimaginings of the worlds from the old 2D games were absolutely stunning – but that’s beside the point. Everyone talking about it kept praising it as back to basics; the Sonic from the good old days of the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive was back! I excitedly dove into what must’ve been the seventh or so incarnation of Green Hill Zone since the series’s inception, and I almost immediately had camera trouble. In the 2D section. The camera in a 2D sidescrolling Platformer shouldn’t do anything aside from moving with the character to keep him/her/it onscreen, ideally in the center; this one kept zooming in and out so shakily and so often that I had a headache in minutes, and I’m not all that prone to them. It isn’t far in that I have some little glowy fairy thing telling me how to press the jump button when I want to jump. I know that memory fades with time, but I don’t remember the old Sonic games treating me like a complete idiot; they’d teach me to moderate my speed with a big spiked wall to my spiny little face, leaving me barely enough time for half of a horrified scream. Of course, the 3D sections were even worse, playing like some sort of Platformer inspired by Guitar Hero, but this particular rant is about misplaced nostalgia and an utter failure to understand what makes these old games so special, so I’ll spare you that. Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Sky Sanctuary Zone; it’s all there, and yet, it’s still a miserable experience, and I’m not even going to mention the mandatory minigames; there’s more to old games than fond memories.

All I need are colored blocks coming at me.

All I need are colored blocks coming at me.

So, if Nintendo and SEGA, practical deities of oldschool gaming, can’t handle making more of the old stuff, then what hope do indie developers have? We keep running into the same problem: you get piles of games that seem retro on the surface, but lack the guts and soul of their aspiration figures. Level design is an obvious misstep, and it’s pretty clear to anyone who actually lived through the 8-bit era that most modern retro games don’t actually look like the old games, because they can’t even get the palette right most of the time. Even the music is a much bigger departure than most people realize, and perhaps the biggest tip-off that most of these developers never had an 8-bit system when they were still contemporary. Just listen to the chiptune in most any retro title, and it’s certainly evocative of the NES’s sound chip, but only a very specific portion; I believe that we now call them iNES mappers, for those of you with intimate knowledge of the hardware.

Mutant Mudds was one that really jumped out at me, so let’s use that as our example. Even if the actual design is more evocative of one of those old Amiga games like The Great Giana Sisters (and you thought Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie started the collect-a-thon), if it had the large, sprawling levels of Turrican, it does still attempt to emulate the NES sound chip, which alone is odd. However, most every neo-retro soundtrack focuses on the high, whining end, or the occasional warbly one that sounds more like one of those poorly made games by Ocean, the latter of which wasn’t regarded as high quality back in the day, causing the style’s current popularity to astound me. Listen to the soundtrack for Legacy of the Wizard, any Sunsoft game, or even Super Mario Bros. and tell me that the NES doesn’t have much deeper tones than the throwbacks of today; where is their representation? I understand that some people have never played Legacy of the Wizard or even a Sunsoft game, but Super Mario Bros. is the game on the NES; even non-gamers know the music. Not that the high, whining sound isn’t valid or even that it isn’t good – it is – but it’s further evidence that these games came not from someone who had an NES in the ’80s, but from someone – likely in their mid 20s – who just got a crash course in video game history. You can get a pretty good idea of what the scene was like that way, but you’ll never remember it the same way that someone who had a few weird, old ones that not everyone had, like Milon’s Secret Castle and Journey to Silius; that’s part of the experience, too.

That happens with everything, though: if you haven’t lived through a part of history, you don’t know what it was like, no matter how much you study it. I’m sure that there are some war veterans seeing the appropriate First-Person Shooter, and shouting, “That’s not how it was!” and they’re probably not wrong. By no means am I saying that there shouldn’t be retro games; what I’m saying is that nostalgia for its own sake is misguided, especially when the work is made by someone nostalgic for things that happened before he or she was even born. For every Shovel Knight that hits the nail on the head, there is a dump truck full of sloths in cheetahs’ clothing. The sad thing is that people who really did grow up on those old systems are suckered in, too; just a low-res image here and a wail of chiptune there, and the mind fills in the blanks, just like those sentences that skip or scramble words, but begin and end properly, causing the reader’s mind to auto-correct them. Mega Man 9, for example, was described as being “Really difficult, just like Mega Man 2” upon its release, but that’s not really true; Mega Man 2 was never as hard as 9 is; the statement is nothing more than a misplaced memory.

I can do this with my eyes closed!

Kids figured this out!

Today, we have games like Guacamelee. Guacamelee had the brilliant idea of taking the Metroid formula and adding in a Street-Fighter­-style combo system, complete with special moves, as well as giving it a luchador theme; if that’s been done before, I sure haven’t seen it. It worked extremely well to make a challenging, engaging, thought-provoking, and all-around fascinating gameplay experience. The humor has some really great moments, too, like luchadores with names like El Gato Negocio (the English equivalent would be Business Cat), who wears a suit and tie with a cat mask; you also have a move called the Dashing Derpderp, because the mystical sage who bestowed this legendary ancient power upon you couldn’t come up with a real name for it. Get a bit further in, though, and it all falls apart; the game’s humor becomes nothing more than mindless 8-bit video game references and Internet memes. I’ll give you the Strong Bad poster, because of the luchador theme, and maybe having a little 8-bit Mario in a brick pattern in a game that has nothing to do with oldschool gaming, not even visually is fairly harmless, but when you have dozens of them, as well as a scene basically (poorly) recreating a castle stage from the original Super Mario Bros. for no reason other than, “Nostalgia amirite? XD lololol,” it has absolutely no reason to be there. I’m not even going to get into the Pedrobear poster.

The real lesson to learn here is that rather than enforcing a rigid dichotomy between “hyperrealism” and 8-bit graphics, developers should be branching out in all directions from these to create a greater diversity among today’s games. Do you want to design a game with chiptune and pixel art because you think they’re neat or that it fits your game? I think that’s a wonderful idea, but don’t do it just to try to imitate older games. Shovel Knight doesn’t work because of nostalgia; it works because it takes several concepts that have already worked, puts them together thoughtfully, and refines it all. I’ve played countless oldschool Action-Adventures, but there’s still a game in the genre that I’d love to bring into existence and play, because of the polish that I’d put on it. There’s nothing unworthy about a game that takes something that already works and spruces it up a bit.

It's Dragon Warrior with hi-tech cowboys, and it's AWESOME!

It’s Dragon Warrior with hi-tech cowboys, and it’s AWESOME!

Different graphical styles can work, too; VVVVVV strives to emulate more of an old Commodore 64 or even Atari 2600 style of aesthetic, and it was a big hit, not mention a great game. While the general concensus is that the 8-bit era had some of the best 2D Platformers, I think that the 16-bit era had the best JRPGs. I miss the times when JRPGs were trying new things in both gameplay and story, rather than just relying on the same old anime graphics and tropes, so let’s see more 16-bit inspired JRPGs. You also have games like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that use pixel art and chiptune, but don’t look or sound like any particular system to the trained eye and ear; that’s a unique style, too! There’s also the occasional indie game like Toren that does its own thing without trying to emulate older graphical styles; that’s also still a possibility. It’s 2015; the choices for a graphical style are now limited only by the artist’s imagination.

Try something new, too; take a familiar formula and add a really interesting hook, or better yet, take an old game with a great concept and terrible execution and make it work. DuckTales Remastered even took a good game and added content that seemed like it was missing in the first place, with some excellent new tunes, to boot, because Jake Kaufman is a genius.  Seriously, though, why is Transylvania the center of the universe in the NES DuckTales? We have the technology to do whatever we want in games at this point, so why not revisit concepts that didn’t work because the technology just wasn’t there yet? The Nokia NGage was a miserable failure, but we’ve since revisited the technology and made the iPhone. Even if you hate the iPhone and all Apple products, it’s hard to deny that what ever smartphone you like better would likely not exist without it. Could Castlequestvania or BartvstheSpaceMutantslike be the next big subgenre? If there exists a subgenre based upon something as old and primitive as Rogue that can become just as omnipresent in today’s gaming scene as Metroid clones, I think that it can.

You'll see this a LOT.

Wonderful to explore; agonizing to play.

The problem, I think, is that we have no idea where to go from here. We’ve explored so many concepts that it seems like it’s all been done before. Sure, you have your occasional experience based upon something new to the public consciousness, like what Child of Eden does with synaesthesia, but those sorts of discoveries don’t exactly happen every day. Some developers are trying to make games more experiences than just games, which I applaud on one hand, but on the other, when they’re not competent as games, they just don’t work. What’s important is that we don’t give up. Developers need to keep trying to bring fresh experiences to the medium – though having the staples along with them is still a good thing – and we, the gamers, need to keep providing that feedback; telling them that we want this. Only then, can we climb out of this trench-deep rut.

4 Comments

  1. Great read, and some very keen observations about the whole neo-retro movement with which I completely agree. That’s a nice touch with having Mega Man’s eyes closed in that one screenshot, as though he’s willfully ignoring that tantalizing-yet-dooming treat.

    • Oh, why yes, that was TOTALLY intentional. It represents how as children, we would have jumped for it, leaving ourselves stranded, but the wisdom and cynicism with age causes us to ignore such things. Good eye, sir.

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  1. This Week in Video Game Blogging: Nostalgic narratives - GeekTechTalk - […] Gaming Symmetry’s Alice Kojiro, while skeptical of retreading old ground for its own sake, lauds the imaginative potential early console…

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