the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Reality is for the Real World

Reality is for the Real World

Since the dawn of the Bit Wars, the video game industry has been on a never-ending race toward complete and total realism.  The more realistic a game is, the better.  Look no further than the latest EA Sports or Call of Duty title, and you can see it for yourself. Even Medieval-themed fantasy RPGs are going the route of gritty realism, as opposed to the former, decidedly less dirty-looking fairy tale aesthetic.  The question is, though, is realistic really better?  Well, I’m with Valkyrie Profile’s Mystina, who said, “Reality is so boring.  I’d choose to sleep forever, if it meant I’d never stop dreaming.”  My goal here is to convince you, the reader, that the green-haired magician is on to something, through a series of short reviews.

Gritty Realism in Fantasy

In today’s market, there is one colossus that dominates the sports genre: Electronic Arts, better known as EA.  They began in 1981, making games for the Commodore 64, and remained relatively unknown until the Sega Genesis (known as the Megadrive in some territories) came around.  Since Nintendo had given the royal screw job to Sega by making its third party developers sign exclusivity contracts with them, thereby rendering them unable to make games for any other company, Sega’s Master System tanked just about everywhere but Brazil, where Tec Toy made a lot of the games.  Can you imagine having to make nearly every single game for your own console?  Sure, Sega was well known for many of its arcade classics such as Space Harrier, Thunder Blade, Outrun, and Altered Beast, but you can’t make a system work on arcade ports alone.  When Sega released the Genesis, it got a momentary jump on the market, being the second 16-bit system ever created, and the first to reach the United States, but it needed some third party support to stay ahead.  “Oh!  Cool!  16 bits!” can only last for so long before “Hey!  What about some games?” sets in.  Enter EA, one of Sega’s biggest third party developers during the fourth generation.

EA served the same role that Sega did during the Master System days, making games of all genres and themes, keeping the system afloat.  The best financial move they ever made, though, was getting into the sports scene, then somehow convincing the masses that it was absolutely necessary to buy what was essentially the same game every year, but with updated team rosters.  Aside from that, the few updates to the formula were minor, but pushed each installment a little closer to turning that Sunday afternoon pastime into a video game, with the only difference being interactivity.  Of course, we’re not there yet, but there’s no question that this is EA’s goal.  Of course, the sport I’m referring to is American Football, but it is true of any of their sports franchises.  To shorten a long story, EA is bringing you ever closer to filling the enormous shoes of Shaq.  If you ask me, though, there’s a better way to be Shaq.  There’s a game that was recently remade in 2010 that immediately springs to mind.

The game I’m referring to is, of course, NBA Jam, a classic from Iguana Entertainment of Turok fame.  Now, the remake, ironically developed by EA Sports, lost a great deal of its charm from the original, just because of when it was released.  You see, in the United States, in the ‘90s, not only was there time for Klax, it was also a really popular time for basketball.  Now, I’m no fan of sports, especially as a spectator.  I find watching a game to be incredibly boring, though I realize that makes me part of the minority.  That said, I enjoyed NBA JamNBA Jam was a great game at its core.  The gameplay was solid and it was a simple game of 2 on 2, so you didn’t have to micromanage quite so much.  It was simple for anyone to pick up and play.  That alone isn’t enough to make a sports game stand out; it needed some zazz.  Well, it had that in spades with its ridiculous stunts alone.  First off, you had some insane physics-bending moves, like spinning through the air on your way to a slam-dunk.  Then, there was the “On Fire” status that allowed you to light the hoop on fire and burn it to a crisp upon sinking a basket.  You even had features like big heads or baby mode.  The most ridiculously awesome feature, by far, though, was the insane roster of hidden players.

An example of NBA Jam's All-Star Line-up

He’s on… fire?

Now, they could have just left the hidden players to basketball legends pulled out of retirement (or the grave), but that would have been boring.  No, they had various mascots, musical artists, and even political figures thrown into the mix.  You had Bill Clinton, Frank Thomas (of baseball fame), and even Will Smith as the Fresh Prince.  Now, returning to our earlier question of Shaq: Would you rather play him as a realistic basketball player on a 5-person team in a normal game of basketball, or would you prefer that he receive a pass from the Charlotte Hornets’ mascot and spiral through the air over the heads of Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles, completely engulfing the net in flames upon his descent.  I’ll take the latter, myself.

He’s on… the bandwagon for a running joke.

Next up is a relatively unknown little gem called (Super) Baseball Simulator 1000 from Culture Brain, best known for Magic of Scheherazade and the Ninja Brothers series.  For the most part, it plays like a regular baseball game, but there are special hits and pitches that you can use.  The Phantom Ball is a literal interpretation of the real life pitch called the fader, meaning that it completely vanishes from view.  The Fire Ball and Spark Ball are exactly what they sound like and the Iron Ball is heavy enough that it sometimes shatters the bat.  On the other side, you can nail a Bomb Hit, which causes the ball to explode upon landing, stunning the players near it.  For the definite run, try a Missile Hit, which knocks anyone dumb enough to catch it against the backboard, causing him to drop it.  All of this may seem overly flashy or superficial, but what makes this superior to a “real” baseball game is that dramatically increased level of strategy involved.  In a realistic situation, your options are to hit hard, hit in a particular direction, or to bunt.  Here, you have those options with 14 additional flavors, with or without Hyper Running.  Add to that 20 different special pitches and 4 special fielding abilities, and you have one of the deepest, richest baseball experiences you could possibly ask for.  For those who couldn’t care less about statistics, weather conditions, and or what‘s for sale at the concession stand, this game provides one of the greatest baseball experiences ever conceived.

 

Thus far, I’ve only discussed the flair that breaking reality can add to a game, but the other problem is that realism is sometimes a straight-up detriment to fun.  For that, we have Solar Jetman.  Now, Rare is a developer that needs no introduction.  Whether it’s Goldeneye, Battletoads, or the graphical revolution that was the Donkey Kong Country series, I’d say that most gamers know at least one game made by this company.  Back in the days when their biggest games were R.C. Pro-Am and the Wizards and Warriors series, they produced this forgotten game with a very impressive physics engine, especially by NES standards.  There are a total of 13 beautiful, colorful planets with a wide variety of hidden treasures, fuel cells, and 12 pieces of the legendary Golden Warship to find.  You eject your jet pod from the mothership and explore each planet in search of the aforementioned goodies.  Preceding even-numbered planets, you can use some of your treasure to buy upgrades, such as better engines, special weapons, shields, mapping systems, and even better jet pods.  Entering each planet will give you its statistics, such as diameter and gravity level, which plays a huge part in how your ship moves during exploration.  Sounds like a lost gem, doesn’t it?

Well, this rock is less a diamond than a lump of anthracite.  Just so we’re clear, I think the premise, upgrade system, and exploration aspects are fantastic.  The part that doesn’t work is that which makes it realistic.  Because of the deep physics engine, it’s almost impossible to control your jet pod.  The gravity and momentum are extremely realistic, but they make it very easy to overshoot your goal and slam into a mountain (it does a real number on the paint job).  It’s sort of like playing Asteroids, except with gravity.  Now, you have the option of intentionally trashing your jet pod and exploring in a space suit and rocket pack.  This causes the momentum to really only apply to the y-axis, since the source of your propulsion is now only capable of firing downward.  It makes exploration a real breeze, comparatively speaking; there’s just one problem: you can’t take anything with you without the jet pod’s tractor beam.  So, while it may be useful for getting somewhere or getting a feel for the level layout, you can’t take any of the goodies you find, essentially defeating the purpose.  Sure, it would be that difficult to perform the tasks in real life, but we play video games because we can’t do these things in real life.  I don’t need hyperrealism in my escape from reality.

It’s clear to see that while realism may make something more immersive to those with little or no imagination (you can get immersed in a good game of Pong, if you’re really into it), it can sometimes be a detriment.  How would you like it if everything animated were banned and all movies and TV shows had to be completely realistic?  Better yet, what if Mario were to tire out from constantly running?  What if Mega Man could get hurt from falling too far?  What if you would always die from a single bullet in every First-Person Shooter out there?  What if you were realistically fragile in every game and had to start over from the beginning every time you died?  Hey, that’s realism.

So, were video games the training programs that angry Christian mothers and politicians are thoroughly convinced they are, realism would be preferable wherever possible.  I wish I’d been able to come up with some more contemporary examples, but it seems they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.  What I’d like to suggest is that first and foremost, video games are just that: games.  Games are supposed to be fun.  Realism and fun aren’t completely mutually exclusive, but sometimes, I think we all need to take a step back and realize that fun is sometimes less about gritty realism, and more about more about screaming across a magenta desert in a nuclear-powered bobsled, while hurling flaming radishes at your fellow racers.

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