Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One Step Foward, Two Steps Back

I am a nostalgia hound. From wacky ‘80s flicks overflowing with big hair and bad tans to old school McDonalds commercials featuring a fantasy-oriented Ronald McDonald and the mop-like Fry Guys, I’m instantly addicted to even the slightest nod to the era spanning from the late ‘70s through about 1998. For example, if anyone had seen my reaction to Pepsi Throwback – made with REAL SUGAR, which kills you now but was okay to consume in 1986 – they would have skulked out of the store pretending to be just as disgusted with the soft drink crazed mental patient as everyone else.

Remember Re-Loaded?
Classic video games, however, trump even the most sugary of resurrected beverages on my nostalgia meter. While I should have been at work like the rest of the nation, I today found a copy of the January 1997 issue of Gamepro; it features Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 for the Super Nintendo, what would become Castlevania: Symphony of the night (then called Castlevania X), and a bunch of crumby Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 titles. It was a time when 32- and 64-bit systems were in their infancy and 16-bit was in its twilight, and they all existed simultaneously. Final Fantasy VII hadn’t ruined JRPGs yet and the future was uncertain – but clearly very, very bright. Delicious.

As I perused the pages for a little more than an hour, I was transported back to a time where most games held at least some promise of wonder and excitement; the potential to be great. If you’ve ever seen the cartoon Garfield and Friends, you know what I’m talking about: Anything was possible, and what started at home on a lazy Saturday could end in a strange foreign land several weeks later – all within the span of a few minutes.

"Did someone just call me?"

Today’s games don’t do that anymore. They’re much, much larger and graphically impressive, but a shooter is a shooter and if an action game isn’t super serious with a star like Krotos from the God of War series, it’s labeled as “kids’ stuff” and relegated to the bargain bin.

In some ways, little has changed. What we have today is the illusion of choice, just like 22 years ago when the king from Dragon Warrior asked the player if he or she would undertake a massive quest, but if the player answered “no,” the king responded with “But thou must!” We can change the way our avatar looks, we can customize the development of our character’s abilities and we can even download expansion packs to make our games last longer. But we’re doing all that in the same genres we’ve been playing for decades. Very few developers are willing to take chances, and if they do, they’re almost forced to release their games via PlayStation Network or Xbox Marketplace because they wouldn’t sell enough copies to the spoiled Call of Duty generation to turn a profit. Back in the NES era developers tried anything and everything, but now that games cost millions to produce, it’s more fiscally sound to go with something that’s a proven moneymaker. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing, but as a consumer who’s tired of guns, Grand Theft Auto and glorifying the bloodiest eras of American history, I’m getting tired of the same four quests rebadged and repackaged over and over and over again. To be fair, gaming has long been about copycat titles – but that’s all I see now.

I spent just as long saying no here as I did customizing my Saints Row character.

You can FLY in this one.
Up until about five years ago, if you purchased a game, you knew you had the same version as everyone else. Now, “special editions” of new releases clog our game stores and confuse our buying options, and forced updates and installs prevent us from playing our new games when we come home from the store. When I was a kid, I raced home from Toys ‘R’ Us with games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and was playing within seconds of my arrival. In contrast, about four years ago when Metal Gear Solid 4 found its way to store shelves (I got the special edition because I didn’t want to “miss out”), it took about 30 minutes to install and the opening video was 45 minutes long. By the time the actual game started, I was only able to play for a little while before I had to head off to work. In the same vein, I’ve purchased downloadable content which takes so long to install that I start doing something else and lose interest. Is it too much to ask to be able to actually play a new game less than an hour after putting it in the console?

Is this the ranting of a bitter player whose gaming era has come and gone? Probably. But as someone who had devoted almost 25 years to the pastime, I can’t be the only one who feels this way. If something doesn't change, I think we're headed the same way the industry was going in 1982-83, if you catch my drift.

I’ve got a few cans of Pepsi Throwback in the ‘fridge and U2’s The Joshua Tree album cued up in my CD player. I’m going to play a few rounds of Street Fighter II to clear my head and convince myself that I’m not quite an old man just yet.

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