The Critical 'I'

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Friday, January 02, 2004

IN PRAISE OF RETRO-GAMING
The aftermath of this past Christmas, home-entertainment-wise, has been the loading-up of retro-arcade videogames in my household. In addition to the JAKKS Namco 5-in-1 joystick game from Jamie, I got a couple of classics-collections Xbox discs from my friend Kirby:

- Midway Arcade Treasures, which features some of my oldtime favorites like Joust and Robotron: 2084;

- Namco Museum, which I already had but requested as a gift because my copy had somehow gotten damaged: You can still play the games on it, but you can't switch between games without ejecting and reloading the disc--major pain in the ass.

As I've pointed out recently, retro-gaming is where it's at, or at least where I'm at. I've had loads of fun blasting my brains out to these games from my childhood. I particularly like the port of Robotron, as the Xbox, with it's two separate directional joysticks, has the perfect controller for the move-in-one-direction-shoot-in-the-other game.

Almost as entertaining as the games on the Midway disc are the DVD commentary for the games, which include brief video interviews with a lot of the original programmers. The interviews were all pretty dated, from 1995; I get the feeling that they were part of some attempted documentary, like the upcoming Atari Lives! DVD, that never got off the ground, and so were tossed in here. Although I'd like to see more up-to-date interviews, what's on here is pretty fun. Also included are old sell sheets for the original arcade games, and other assorted ads.

Liz from Breakfast of Losers noted what's probably the biggest appeal of these moldy-oldy games, aside from nostalgia: That they're low-investment in terms of the time it takes to learn how to play them. I agree with that in more ways than one: Fact is, the load time the average disc takes is something I can barely stand, especially when I think of how fast the old cartridges would start up!

I've figured that this love for classic games was something that wouldn't catch on in a really big way. After all, the above two discs retail for a discounted 20 bucks each, way below the average price for a new-release game, which indicates the market isn't exactly robust for these offerings (ironically, the old cartridges these games were ported to back in the '70s and '80s, which were a far cry from the arcade originals, were priced at around $30-40--considering inflation, that's probably about $70 in today's dollars!). But Lisa Williams pointed me toward Clive Thompson's recent Slate piece on how these games are gaining in popularity among all age groups. Go figure. It could be that the long-anticipated '80s nostalgia revival is hitting at the right time for these relic games.

Thompson's article has some pretty good summations of why the oldie games rock:

For the last decade, most game companies have been governed by one obsessive idea: that making games more lifelike—more three-dimensional and hyperreal—will make them more fun. But this hasn't worked. Even the crappiest game today has an elaborate 3-D world you can wander around and marvel at the superb rendering of shadows, the elaborate tattoos on the characters, or the lens flares when you look up at the virtual sun. But after you've finished admiring the scenery, the game itself is often incredibly tedious. You're just running around, solving obtuse puzzles, and listening to wretched pseudoacting by virtual characters.

What's missing? Game-play. What today's game designers have forgotten is that a video game isn't about 3-D rendering. In fact, a video game isn't about "technology" at all. It's a game, and as game theorists such as Eric Zimmerman have argued, a good game is created by crafting a few simple rules that make your goals teasingly difficult to achieve...

Desperate to shove ever more eye candy at gamers, today's video-game companies constantly forget to put any play in their games. On the contrary, game designers spend hours creating "cut sequences," little dramatic segments where the player has to just sit there, helplessly watching a scene unfold, unable to participate in any way. "The designers have all got 'film envy.' They're just trying to emulate what they see in movies. But that doesn't create any play," Zimmerman once told me.