Have you ever found yourself wishing that today's games could be just a bit more like the ones you enjoyed as a kid? We all look back at the "good old days" of gaming with nostalgia, but was gaming actually better back then? I had a chance to think about that question a few years ago, when an indie game company made a game in the style of the old Bard's Tale series, one of my favorites when I was growing up. I was very excited about the experience until I actually tried to play the game and found that I had no patience with the antiquated interface and dated gameplay mechanics. It turns out that something that captivated me in the 1980's just didn't compete with the more modern experiences I'd been enjoying.
That's not to say that older games aren't worth playing, only that sometimes we let our nostalgia run away with us. When aspects of modern gaming annoy us, it's easy to remember being enraptured by a new game as a kid, and wishing that today's games could bring about those same feelings. Did those feelings come only from being young, though, or did older games have a certain something that we've lost in the modern era?
Back in the days of more limited graphical technology, it could be argued that games had to work harder in order to engage the imagination. PC games in particular often sported high-quality writing and imaginative settings. Console games used fiendish puzzles and difficult fights to keep gamers hooked on improving their skills. Gamers could spend much longer with an individual game both because of greater difficulty and the lack of easily accessible FAQs online. Getting stuck in a game meant practicing to improve one's skills, puzzling it out for hours, working with friends, or perhaps begging one's parents for permission to call an overpriced game studio hint line. There was something pure about that kind of gaming experience that we'll probably never return to in this more-connected age.
It was also nice to know that one was getting a complete game at the time of purchase, before the modern fad of endless DLC was popularized. Heck, back in the day we sometimes got neat extra goodies in the game box, like large and impressively illustrated manuals or cloth maps. Never mind that the manual was needed in place of actual in-game instruction and the cloth map was generally a poor substitute for a non-existent in-game map. Unboxing a game used to be part of the fun, an experience that can now only be reproduced when buying the $150 Super Limited Collector's Edition Extreme.
Part of why nostalgia is so powerful, though, is that we tend to remember the best games we played. For every classic like Secret of Monkey Island or Final Fantasy VI, there were five terrible movie tie-in games or platformers with inexplicably awful controls. There's a reason why action gamers reminisce about playing Street Fighter rather than BMX Ninja, and RPG fans prefer to discuss Ultima or Final Fantasy rather than Elvira or Albert Odyssey. Sure, plenty of bad games get released today, but can we really complain when there's a steady stream of excellent games coming out as well? There are plenty of reasons why I think it's better to be a gamer today than it has ever been before.
Since gaming is a far more widespread hobby than it used to be, modern games have the budget to provide cinematic experiences the likes of which we've never seen before. While older games often tapped the development team itself to provide dodgy voice acting, today we have professional actors voicing our video game characters. From interactive blockbusters such as the Uncharted games to RPG sagas like Mass Effect, modern games often make gamers feel like they're playing the lead character in a movie, creating a truly immersive entertainment experience.
Modern game engines allow game creators to do amazing things we could only have dreamed of in the early days of gaming. It's not just that modern games look amazing, although many of them do. We've got physics engines that allow players to blow up buildings and see the result without it being a scripted event. We have games that can show so many objects onscreen that people were able to roll thousands of cheese wheels down a mountain in Skyrim. We even have A.I. improvements that allow non-player characters to make decisions based on what's going on around them, although I'd argue that modern game developers could do a lot more with A.I. than they usually bother to do.
Along with the many technological and artistic advances that have contributed to modern gaming, developers today have the benefit of several decades of game development history. Games today are far more user-friendly than they once were, to the point that it's annoying to play many older games in which important information is buried behind multiple menus or even completely unavailable. Modern games also provide an extended experience thanks to Internet connectivity and a history of understanding what gamers enjoy. We now have many opportunities to game together online, to create and share new content for games, and to download new levels and adventures for our games (you know, the good kind of DLC).
Were there some amazing games made back in the old days? Of course, but I don't think any of us actually want to return to our own old days of gaming, be they the era of 16-bit games or the long-ago days of text adventures. They may be fun to reminisce about, but we really have little to complain about in the modern gaming era. Ideally, modern game developers should look back to the best aspects of older games and marry those concepts with the new in order to make the best game possible. I'd argue that having done just that is a hallmark of the best development teams making the greatest games we play today.
Date: March 23, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*