the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Nostalgic for the New

Nostalgic for the New

When I first heard the word nostalgia out of context, I did what many children would do: I created a meaning for it that made sense to me.  It sounded like some sort of crippling psychological disorder.  I was so convinced of this knee-jerk reaction that when I was told its real meaning, I found it hard to believe.  Eventually, childish obstinacy gave way to understanding and its real definition became second nature to me; no more foreign than the definition of anger.  In my late teens, fashion from decades past started to make its way back into popularity; my mother found herself musing that bell bottoms were now back in style.  Only a few years ago, a colleague and I were discussing the notion that we should’ve kept a lot of our old belongings from the 1980s; we could easily have sold them and made a fortune, since they were back in style again.  Now, it seems that much like the trends of popular culture, my definition of nostalgia has come full circle.

The nostalgia craze has gotten out of hand.  Sure, it was nice at first; it was incredible to play a brand new Mega Man game – and that’s Classic Mega Man; not one of the many spinoffs – after 9 years, not to mention that it felt like it was exactly what an actual NES sequel would’ve been like.  The problem is that it didn’t really stop there.  You likely know that I’m painfully oldschool when it comes to gaming, but I feel that the industry has gotten a bit off task.  In these modern times, I often find myself nostalgic for the new.

The core fascination with old games – the very reason they’re still discussed today – is because they were something special.  Now, before you start mentally drawing hipster glasses on my face, allow me to explain.  Back in the day, game genres weren’t so set in stone, and developers were more willing to tweak and experiment with them.  Sometimes, a game would be a hybrid of two genres, sometimes it would just throw in a little something unique, and at times, they would even give birth to new genres or revolutionize old ones.  So, whether something huge and obvious, like experience levels in Dragon Warrior, or a forgotten subtlety that could’ve been revolutionary, such as the creative ways in which Chrono Trigger revealed its not-so-random encounters, the industry used to be quite the amorphous entity.

THE HOOK

Wheeeee!

We’ll begin with a few games that just did a little something different, because innovation can be found in the smallest of steps.  8 Eyes was an interesting creature; it played somewhat similarly to Castlevania – with its similar stair-climbing mechanics and subweapons – but it had a stage select, like Mega Man.  You also had a falcon that you could unleash to fight enemies or hit switches for you, but it had its own health bar, so you had to be careful.  Throughout the game, one of your main goals – though you may not know it – is to find scrolls hidden in each manor, each giving a clue to the final puzzle at the end of the game.  It’s more than just an unusual Frankensteining of several popular games; there’s a unique experience awaiting the player.

Kid Icarus plays like a fairly standard Platformer – despite many of the levels scrolling vertically, rather than horizontally – but it has several subtle elements that make it stand out.  For one, there are three special weapons that you can find by passing trials throughout the game, all of which can be used simultaneously.  There’s a fairly complicated (for the era, at least) system governing a hidden stat, one that determines whether or not you’re worthy for an upgrade to your main weapon.  The fortresses – the last stages of every world – have a labyrinthine design, forcing the player to pay attention to where he or she is going.  Your score even acts like a mild RPG element, granting you more maximum vitality upon reaching certain levels.  Each of these elements determine what kind of ending you’ll get, too, so you’re given more than the inherent reward for achieving them, a subtle way of drawing attention to them.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World might seem like a typical Platformer on the surface, but there’s much more to it than you’d initially think.  For one, there’s a shop at which you can purchase power-ups, many of which you can use whenever you’d like from the menu; you won’t see that in a Mario game of a similar age.  Beyond that, there are secrets hidden everywhere, many of which determine the ending you get, and they’re well hidden at that!  You’ll find well-designed vehicle stages and unique boss fights that begin with rock-paper-scissors matches.  Where the game really shines, though, is in the somewhat non-linear dungeons, which are full of traps and other horrors.  It feels like a typical Platformer, yes, but it’s a much deeper experience.

Even into the Fourth Generation of gaming, Gunstar Heroes provides impressive levels of innovation with its four different weapons.  You can have two at a time, switching between them or combining them for a new weapon altogether.  It’s a simple gameplay mechanic, but it provides a nearly unparalleled level of customization within the genre.  The level design is equally brilliant in that each stage brings something new and exciting.  You might be sliding down the side of a pyramid in one stage, climbing the launch tower for a rocket in the next, and riding a gravity-flipping mine cart in yet another.  It’s an action-packed adventure that will have you begging for more.

I could go on and on, singing praises about games that introduced as little as one unique thing and created something mind-blowing, but I trust that you’re beginning to see a pattern here.  When introducing a Horizontally- or Vertically-Scrolling Shooter, the most common question asked is, “So, what’s the hook?” meaning, “What’s the unique gameplay mechanic that separates this game from the rest of the genre?”  This is a question that applies to many older games; if every single Platformer was Super Mario Bros. with a different skin, then what would be the motivation to play?  Yes, Super Mario Bros. is a great game, but would you want every Platformer you play from now until you die to be essentially a professional grade rom hack of said game?  Of course not; Mega Man had the cute little robots that gave you their powers upon their defeat, Rockin’ Kats had different upgrades for your fist gun that functioned as both a weapon and a grappling hook, and Totally Rad gave you a diverse spell menu.

Today, this question is less common.  What’s the hook for New Super Mario Bros.?  The answer is that there isn’t one.  The wall jump seems less like a glitch and more like something you’re supposed to be able to do, and there’s that mushroom that makes you a juggernaut the size of the screen, but they’re hardly pervasive enough to make it anything more than electronic comfort food.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – I greatly enjoyed New Super Mario Bros. on the DS – but it does show a wane in the overall creativity of the industry.

You might say that it’s unfair to pick on Nintendo for its lack of innovation, since many do, and I’d call that a valid criticism, because it’s hardly exclusive to them.  Dragon Warrior is a series that has long prided itself on tradition.  What has stayed almost identical in gameplay over the years, though, has been compensated by its storytelling.  Break down any Dragon Warrior game and you’re not going to see an award-winning narrative or even a particularly deep one, but what has stolen the show since Dragon Warrior 4 is the way in which it is told.  Whether it’s chapters with different protagonists all leading up to a finale in which they all unite, a story that spans several generations, a dual world, or even travelling backward through time to resurrect destroyed worlds in the present, Dragon Warrior 4-7 have delighted many players despite having little more substance than “lead the noble legendary hero to destroy the evil big-bad,” myself included.  So then, Dragon Quest 8 comes out and eschews any  sort of interesting storytelling style in favor of a narrative with less depth and dignity than that of even the second game in the series.  For the uninitiated, when you die in, Dragon Warrior 2, the king utters the ridiculous, “No pulse, no breath; cold as a cod.  Yes, thou art truly dead.”  Dragon Quest 8 doesn’t just stand still; it actively steps backward and removes much of the charm that the series had had.

HYBRIDIZATION

I guess they really were tomatoes

Sometimes, it wasn’t a single gameplay mechanic that made a game new and fresh, but that it was a hybrid of multiple genres.  Let us not forget that even The Legend of Zelda is a hybrid of the Action and Adventure genres.  It might seem like an easy way to provide a fresh experience, but hybridization takes considerable skill not only in weaving the two or more genres together smoothly, but also in picking two genres that will work together.  Granted, outlandish combinations can work, but would you really want to play a cross between a Run-and-Gun and a Farming Sim?  As hilarious as it might be to have some beefed up guy from a bad 1980s Action flick – complete with rippling muscles shown by his shirtlessness and a bandanna – charging through a field, brandishing a seed-firing machine gun, all while screaming, “GET READY FOR THE HARVEST!” as he blasts corn into the ground, the game would be a ridiculous abomination once the novelty wore off.

The most common method of hybridization – even today – is throwing some RPG elements at a game.  I cannot even begin to tell you how many genres – even hybrid genres – had RPG elements added in, even back in the Third Generation, but they were a bit more interesting in that particular era.  Back then – and this was most common with the Action-Adventure genre – developers played around with just how much of an RPG they wanted to make the game.  For example, both Zelda 2: Adventure of Link and Esper Dream 2 are Action-Adventures with RPG elements, but Zelda 2 is far less an RPG.  While they both have action-based random encounters and experience points, Zelda 2‘s points can also be collected like items or money, not to mention that they only increase one stat at a time.  In contrast, Esper Dream 2‘s experience points are only earned by defeating enemies, and levels are far more traditional, even going so far as to teach you new spells at certain levels.

In the past, however, there were more types of hybridization than “slap on some RPG elements”.  Of course, some of the games do follow another common hybridization trope of today: “make it as many different things as possible,” such as in the somewhat recent title, The SaboteurThe Adventures of Bayou Billy is a perfect example of this; you have Brawler stages, Rail Shooter stages, and even Driving stages not unlike Mach Rider, in which you shoot enemy cars and lob grenades at enemy aircraft.  This is a difficult type of hybrid to build, because you can’t just use the same game engine for every stage.  Some games can’t even get one set of mechanics right, much less three or more.

Some games do this extremely well, such as Doraemon on the NES.  It has only three stages, but each one is like a completely different game.  The first stage is an overhead Action stage with hidden sidescrolling areas, the second is a Horizontally- and Vertically-Scrolling Shooter, and the third is a sidescrolling, nonlinear swimming level with quite a few puzzles to solve.  These genres have very little in common – aside from falling under the Action umbrella – and yet they’re all implemented extremely well; the controls might feel a little like an early NES game, but that’s because it is an early NES game.  Similarly, The Lone Ranger has overhead Action stages, sidescrolling stages, and even primitive First-Person Shooter stages, occasionally inside of one another.  Both are commonly overlooked because they’re licensed games, the former of which is from a cartoon that’s fairly obscure outside of Japan.

Back to Zelda 2 again, it’s part of a surprisingly large number of sidescrolling Action-Adventures on the NES.  This type of Action-Adventure is often plagued by obtuse exploration, because it’s difficult to envision a world that falls along a completely linear path.  Solving a problem from both Castlevania 2 and Jikuu Yuden: Debias, Zelda 2 implements an overworld map to connect the different areas, making it easier to visualize the world, but still keep the intimacy of exploring dungeons and towns with a side view.  The Battle of Olympus also does this, but the world map is little more than a screen to tell you what stage you’re entering; you don’t actually interact with it, so it doesn’t work quite as well.  Interestingly enough, both suffer from somewhat clunky controls, so you trade one problem for another.  Esper Boukentai attempts to solve this problem in a different way: make the layout two-dimensional and enable the player to move comfortably along both axes by giving him or her a ridiculous moon jump.  It was an interesting experiment just so long as you didn’t make anything angry with you; combat was borderline nightmarish until you got used to it.

The Guardian Legend is a somewhat unusual hybrid in that it combines Action-Adventure with a Vertically-Scrolling Shooter.  Upon first glance, you see a very clear distinction between the Shooter sections and the overhead Action-Adventure areas that connect them.  However, when you step back and think about it, the lifebar from the overhead sections carries over into the Shooter sections, as do the archetypical Shooter weapons into the overhead sections.  So they’re not interwoven; more like duct taped together.   That doesn’t make it shoddy, though; it provides a similar set of core mechanics between the two types of areas, but also two different angles for their use.  It’s neat because you rarely see Shooter weapons within the context of an overhead Action-Adventure, as you rarely see a Vertically-Scrolling Shooter with an expanding set of weapons that you collect along the way.  Xexyz does a similar thing, but with the genres, Platformer and Horizontally-Scrolling Shooter; it’s almost like a cross between Monster Party and Fuzzical Fighter.

Some hybrids are completely fluid, though; Penguin Land for the Sega Master System is a Puzzle-Platformer in the truest sense.  It plays like a Platformer, but you’re solving puzzles to get your little egg to the bottom without breaking it, rather than pummeling bad guys.  You can pause the game and scroll down the level to see what’s waiting for you, but don’t think that this feature makes it easy; you still have to get through it all.  Of course, if you wait too long, a parrot flies by and drops a brick onto said egg, so you don’t even get to think for too long; this game is for the quick of both mind and reflexes.  The action is no less furious in the upper levels and the puzzles are no less brain-melting just because it’s a hybrid; both genres are working overtime to provide an wonderful experience.

Operation Logic Bomb is another fluid hybridization; it takes the overhead perspective and exploration of an Action-Adventure and gives it the weaponry and intense action of a Run-and-Gun.  While the game is fairly linear, it is one long world to explore, rather than being broken up into levels.  You get different weapons as you go, which are better used in different situations, yet again combining aspects of both genres.  It tells a surprisingly interesting story, but in keeping with the pace of a hardcore Action game, it doesn’t use a single word to do so; everything is detailed in short cutscenes.  Truly, a hybrid can be so much more than the sum of its parts.

Genre fluidity is the exception, rather than the rule, however, and other games opt just to throw certain elements of another genre into their game, which is much easier to pull off.  Both Kick Master and Beyond Oasis throw in some basic Fighter elements, requiring the player to enter a button combination to execute certain moves.  It works much better in Kick Master, since it’s a sidescroller, and thus has the same perspective as a Fighter.  Beyond Oasis‘s overhead perspective sometimes makes it awkward to pull off certain moves, though it does have enemies with longer health bars, so executing the moves makes a little more sense, thus making it more complete as a hybrid.  It might not be the one to integrate its elements better, but it’s creating a more unique product, and that’s the point that I’m trying to drive home: at least it’s trying.

EVOLUTION

Pluto has quite a diverse ecosystem

There are times when a game is so much a revolution that it brings about evolution, or at least attempts to do so.  Perhaps you’ll disagree with me, but I find one of the most tedious things in a Zelda game to be gathering money.  Enemies don’t always drop it, and sometimes, they drop very little.  Golvellius on the Sega Master System doesn’t have this problem, because each kill gets you a certain amount of money, determined by what kind of enemy you’ve just defeated.  For how progressive this is, it was largely forgotten; sure, Crystalis has a similar system, but the Zelda franchise has completely ignored it.  To date, the only thing they’ve tried as a solution is the Rupee Medal in Skyward Sword, which only increases the chance that enemies might drop money.

There are times, though, that an evolution is so radical that it gives birth to a completely new genre.  Considering how well Katamari Damacy was received in the West, it’s a shame that we don’t see that much in the way of new genres these days.  Sweet Home is an RPG on the NES with a haunted house theme.  What makes it more than just Spooky Warrior is a very limited inventory (two items, a weapon, and an item inextricably tied to your character), a finite number of healing items with no inns, and the permanence of death.  You have to carefully defeat enemies and avoid traps using the few tools that you’re given.  It essentially created the Survival Horror genre, even though said genre took a more action-oriented approach before really taking off.  For those who still doubt me, there’s a wall etching in the game that says something about “residing evil”.  Seems like Capcom must’ve been cleaning out their closet when looking for an exciting new intellectual property on the Playstation.

Gaming’s earlier years were full of these sorts of new genres, and the world wasn’t quite sure of what to do with many of them.  If you’re old enough to remember when Harvest Moon was new, you might recall that it was originally billed as a Farming RPG.  Of course, the idea of Harvest Moon being an RPG – and I’m not counting the Rune Factory games – is simply absurd, but it was the first of its kind; nobody really knew what to call it.  Its similarly-themed counterpart, Legend of the River King, was considered a Fishing RPG, but it was a bit more appropriate, since you did have things like random encounters; you know, actual RPG elements.  While the Harvest Moon franchise has taken off, many other new genres weren’t so lucky.

A lot of the new genres weren’t actually billed as such; many of them fell under the rather large Action genre.  They weren’t just Action games with a hook, though; they were wholly unique creations.  Godzilla: Monster of Monsters was one such monstrous oddity.  You move around the overworld, choosing your path as you go, as well as whether or not to fight any of the large enemies also roaming the map.  From there, you’d enter sidescrolling sections based upon the hexes through which you passed on the map, and they weren’t really what you’d call Platformer stages; they were long, flat stretches in which you destroyed everything in your path, since being as tall as the screen made you too big for platforming to be anything but atrocious.  The Ecco franchise took place almost entirely underwater, and while swimming levels are usually despised by gamers everywhere, they work very well when the game is built around them – just ask The Legendary Starfy – but what genre label would you give it?  Underwater Platformer Without Platforming Elements doesn’t really make sense, much less roll of the tongue, and then you’d have lazy gamers everywhere trying to pronounce UPWPE like it’s a word.  Solar Jetman is also a unique title that falls under the generic Action umbrella; you pilot a jetpod around planets with their own gravity, trying to find treasures and fuel to bring back to your mothership.  It’s not quite Action, not quite Action-Adventure, and not quite Asteroids clone.  As I’ve mentioned, the physics engine is a bit to realistic for it to be as fun as it might be, but this is an untapped genre with a lot of potential, whatever you’d call it.

Some games don’t even fall under any particular umbrella; they’re creations all of their own.  Haunting: Starring Polterguy on the Sega Genesis was a game with an isometric perspective in which you run around a house, possessing things.  The goal wasn’t killing bad guys or stacking blocks, but scaring a family out of their house.  There was a variety of different types of possessions, determined by which seemingly harmless household object you chose.  The only real deterrent was that your energy was constantly draining, and if you ran out, you had to go through the underworld, where things could kill you… again.  The game was unfortunate enough to terminate in an extremely awkward isometric battle scene – for which the player was completely unprepared, since it was the only one in the game – but how exactly would one classify the rest of the game?  Is Poltergeist Simulator an actual genre?  No?  Well, it should be.

THIS ISN’T HOW I REMEMBER IT

Both equally charming

Beyond the lack of creativity in new genres that we seem to be experiencing, there are times when developers aren’t even trying to make something new.  There is currently an inundation of remakes and reboots in the market.  To clarify, a remake is the rerelease of a game that changes very little, if at all; usually just an update in graphics and sound.  A reboot, on the other hand, is when an old franchise becomes something else, while still bearing the same name.  I’d first like to briefly discuss remakes.

I understand the reasoning behind a remake.  Yes, it’s a quick way to cash in without doing much of anything to the source code of a preexisting game, but it’s also a way to bring old classics to a new audience.  Unfortunately, many remakes are just lazy cash-ins and it’s easy to spot the ones that are; just make the graphics look a little better and change the sound a little and you have a game that’s guaranteed to sell a million copies.  Sometimes, they even get away with it because it’s a portable system; sure it’s the same exact game you already have, but look: you can play it anywhere!  Then, there are remakes, such as Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land – a remake of Kirby’s Adventure – that are so radically different from a visual perspective that it almost looks like a new game.  It was so lovingly crafted that it easily stands on its own, and I can’t really say which version I prefer; that is how you make a remake.

Reboots, on the other hand, are largely unnecessary; if you’re going to create a radical new take on an existing franchise, then why not make it a brand new intellectual property?  Say what you want about how Super Mario 64 revolutionized 3D games and set a precedent that nearly every 3D Platformer on the N64 tried to copy, but there was no real reason that it had to be Mario.  Take out the Italian plumber (and that horribly grating voice of his) and throw in anything else – for instance, a cute little anthropomorphic bunny – and it would still be the same game; to drag up a tired concept of my own, a rose by any other name would smell as sweetly (or so I’m told; anosmia and all).  The argument is that brand recognition is very important in these uncertain times, but they didn’t call it The Battle of Olympus: Cliche Reboot Subtitle; they called it God of War, and it still sold millions.

Mario and Zelda are one thing – I suppose that I can be convinced to understand a franchise wanting to jump to the third dimension – but some of these reboots are from franchises long forgotten.  The Playstation 2 saw a reboot of Rygar, which hadn’t seen a release since the earllier days of the NES.  The NES game and the reboot were both awesome games, but aside from the first weapon you get (and not the other two thirds of your arsenal), the connections to the original series are tenuous at best; why not make it something new in name as well as in structure?  We’re seeing reboots for series that haven’t been seen in decades; reboots that have completely lost the spirit of what made the original games so good, as well as reboots for series that were born in this millennium, such as Devil May Cry.  Honestly, is it really necessary to reboot a series that was only created one generation prior?  What of Castlevania?  Was it really necessary to reboot a series that was alive and well, turning it into something with absolutely no identity of its own?

There is a little hope left in the industry: the indie scene.  Not every independent game is revolutionary, fresh, or even necessarily playable, but that seems to be where most of the new ideas are originating these days, and it makes sense.  Think of it like a sonnet compared to a free verse poem.  The bigger companies – in this case, the free verse – can do anything they want and keep churning out much of the same thing again and again, whereas the independent developers – the sonnets – have many restrictions, which make it necessary to be extremely conscious of everything they do in order to make a product that will be noticed.  If that’s a little too abstract for you, then think of Bionic Commando on the NES.  It’s a Platformer with one huge restriction: you cannot jump.  Your only means of aerial movement is a bionic arm that allows you to swing from platform to platform.  In order for something like this to work well and not be a frustrating trainwreck of a game, Capcom had to be very conscious about the level design, and the result was a masterpiece that, despite having a predecessor in the Arcade, blossomed thereafter into a Game Boy game, a Game Boy Color game, two modern PSN/XBLA titles, and even… a reboot…  A reboot that completely ignored what made the original game so great, turning into an okay-at-best First-Person Shooter with a hook, in this case a bit more literally.

So what can we, as gamers, do?  We can make our voices heard!  This is the Information Age; if you’re reading this, then you have access to the Internet, which is a massive web of information and opinions.  Can you honestly tell me that you haven’t heard someone RAEG on and on – whether in text or on YouTube – about something in a game that he or she didn’t like?  I do not suggest that we reduce ourselves to the community of howler monkeys that many of the non-gamers of the world already see us to be, but that we take the time to form rational opinions and intelligently put them out there for the world – and more importantly, the developers – to see.  I’m sure that they’ll appreciate the feedback, and would be more likely to take to heart the opinion of someone speaking intelligently than someone that they view to be “just some spoiled kid, who’s going to buy our next game anyway”.  Play demos before you buy a game, read reviews, watch gameplay videos online, and make an informed decision, rather than just being part of a mob that preorders everything to make sure to get it on day one.  Personally, I’d rather be satisfied with my shiny new game than get it right away and wish that I hadn’t, no matter what kind of goofy costume I got as a preorder bonus.  Above all, though, we must encourage developers of all budget levels to show us something new, lest our beloved industry die out before it is accepted as a form of art.

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