Sometimes I Miss Video Games, You Guys

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

So I’m going to be upfront with you right now – I don’t really know where this post is going to go. As is often the case with me, I’ve had a lot of thoughts and opinions swirling around that I can’t quite express or explain concisely. Maybe the point of this post is to give me the chance to do just that! So, please bear with me, as this one might get away from me at times. Screw it, that’s why people have blogs, right?

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little iffy about modern video games, and occasionally I get a little iffy about old games too (which may surprise you considering how often I write about them on this blog, and elsewhere). It’s just occurred to me more and more that the video games industry isn’t what it used to be (ugh, I know, I’m an old person now) and I’ve felt lately that either it’s losing me, I’m losing video games, or both. And strangely enough, I have The Misadventures of Tron Bonne to thank for this revelation.

tron bonne

Sadly, this wasn’t the first time Miss Tron made me…think a lot about myself. Look, whatever, I was young!

Recently, I wrote a review of The Misadventures of Tron Bonne for TheGameJar, one of the online outlets foolish enough to employ me, and it really put a lot of things in perspective for me. Things I did touch on in the article, but perhaps not to the same degree as I might here.

It occurs to me that, in a broader view, the entirety of the 90s were my favorite period in gaming – if I had to specify further, I’d say 1992 through the release of the PlayStation 2, and if I had to nail it down even further I might actually say the 32-64bit generation holds some of my fondest memories. This is an important distinction: while I probably place higher value on the games of the 8- and 16-bit eras, I think I look back on the time period surrounding the PlayStation, Saturn, N64, and Dreamcast the most fondly.

Highly subjective, I know, but thanks to my age, I would say that console generation is when I became aware of video games as a “thing”. These were real products that people made on computers for me to play, which was a stunning revelation at the time. I partially have Metal Gear Solid to thank for this – the Psycho Mantis fight made me try to figure out what the word “hideo” might mean in Japanese, which led to me spending a lot of time on the Internet finding out who these people were.

hideo kojima, hideo kojima sombrero

And you can imagine my relief when it turns out all of these people were giant goons, just like me.

Things back then just seemed different, you know? The gaming industry seemed a little more…well-balanced. Goofy low-budget titles like PaRappa the Rapper and Chu Chu Rocket could exist right alongside the big-budget triple-A shooters of the time (which showed an unfortunate precedent for where the industry could go in just a few short years – but I will pick Syphon Filter a million times over most games of the last generation), and furthermore they appealed to a wider audience.

Much is made these days of how indie games allow different development voices to be heard and to touch on subjects that might not be explored otherwise. This is great, and absolutely vital in an industry as broad as this, but I think there’s a distinction to be made. These days, if someone wanted to make Rez it would be lucky to make it to Steam and PlayStation Network, whereas during its original Dreamcast release it was given a full-fledged standard-budget retail release, on shelves at full price. And people loved it. Is this an exact analogue to something like Gone Home? Not at all – but to me, it isn’t difficult to imagine that Gone Home may have very well been given a big promotional push by Sony in 1998 had it existed at the time as a PlayStation exclusive.

parappa the rapper, parappa the rapper box art

Smiles! Colors! Friendly-looking characters! Can you imagine turning the page on a Batman: Arkham Knight ad to see this guy nowadays?

The fun, colorful stuff, or even anything not immediately graspable, has all been relegated to something of a niche distribution and audience, whereas back in the day the cute platformers and experimental Japanese stuff got to exist right next to the grim ‘realistic’ 3D action games on the shelf at Blockbuster. For god’s sake, Kenji Eno made a game without graphics where you have to navigate by sound and context clues. If you found anyone to publish that these days, you’d be given a budget of about $800 and it would get ported to WiiWare a year later if you’re lucky. But back then? It was an actual goddamn retail release you could just go buy at SuperPotato or whatever. You know, like you would do with a video game.

Maybe the problem is video games are just too afraid to be video games. You can see it in everything: the commercials don’t show a ton of gameplay footage and all look like shitty movie trailers, the box art varies from vapid clipart to grimacing space marines, and even the systems themselves are trying to look like “socially acceptable” movie players, or maybe super-fat computers. Remember the Neo Geo Pocket? That shit came in so many colors.

neo geo pocket, neo geo pocket camo

Can you imagine someone holding this up during an E3 nowadays? They’d get laughed right out of the building by a bunch of white dudes in polos and/or Assassin’s Creed hoodies.

I would, however, be an absolute idiot to let my cynicism overtake my love of video games as a “thing”. I’ve seen way too many posts on NintendoAge or whatever about how “modern games are all trash and I only love the old stuff”. Not only is that willfully ignorant and reductive, it also makes you the video game equivalent of the guy who wears a ton of Led Zeppelin shirts and constantly boasts about how “classic rock is better”, which to you means creating a Pandora station for “When The Levee Breaks”.

There’s a lot of fun stuff these days. Much of it is indie or download-only, but despite how the industry tends to relegate such things there’s literally no reason to judge a game based on its release platform. And some companies are still trying to provide balance – Nintendo is really good about giving their more off-kilter stuff a big push at retail. The fact Splatoon got a disc release surprised the hell out of me, and was honestly really impressive.

And I guess maybe writing this post helped me realize it. There will likely always be fun video games; no matter how many bloated and joyless open world slogs exist through worlds created solely to appeal to humankind’s need for conquest (with the shining and golden exception of Saint’s Row), there’s always going to be Oniken or Shovel Knight or Ducktales Reloaded or Lovely Planet or something that stands out from the crowd of grim militarism and shadowy murderers.

Maybe we’ve all got reason to feel cynical about video games sometimes, but try to keep things in perspective. There’s joy and life left in the old thing yet, and up until the day when all we have left is FarCry and licensed superhero games (and look, I even really like the first two FarCry games) I’m sure there will be SOMETHING worth playing. You just have to try a little harder these days to find it. Will we ever get back to the days when The Misadventures of Tron Bonne can be a major release? Hell no. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have games like it.

The ads just won’t be as fun, is all.

Thanks for letting me get this off my chest, everyone. My next post shouldn’t be as…navel-gazey.

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3 comments on “Sometimes I Miss Video Games, You Guys

  1. Zycrow says:

    It’s funny, I think I felt the cynicism you describe the most strongly during the onset of the 32~64-bit era in late childhood and early adolescence. I was still really into NES, SNES, and Genesis games and I felt like that style was being replaced with lots of full-3D stuff which alienated me.

    It all grew on me, of course, and things all came back around in a big way, didn’t they?

    But anyways I think the industry trend you’re describing has a lot to do with video games now being on the same level as film in terms of revenue dollars. Everything needs to be a big show to make back those bucks. It does result in companies taking fewer risks and having much less faith in the players themselves.

    • Tim Keaton says:

      You know, you bringing up the N64 era kind of puts a different context to the whole thing – what if it’s just age? What if video games are one of those things that just sorta loses their magic as you get older? For me, I loved the 32/64 bit era but that’s because I was like 10-13 around that time, and I can say the first time in my life I wasn’t super excited about video games was when I heard the Dreamcast was getting discontinued. Things did indeed come back around, but maybe ‘coming back around’ happens at a different time for everyone.

      ‘Player faith’ is a great way to put it – maybe the Sony, Sega, and Nintendo of yore trusted their customers a bit more to enjoy a wider range of experiences? The N64 had both Perfect Dark, Quake, Cruisin’ USA, and Banjo-Kazooie, all of them successful in equal measure. If you take out the indie stuff I can’t think of an Xbox One game off the top of my head that isn’t meant for a ‘cool older kids’ audience, except, ironically, for the Rare Replay collection. Are game budgets too big, can publishers not trust their customers, or is it a little of both?

  2. […] railed on here long and hard about how I was starting to fall out of love with video games over the last few years, and while I sincerely don’t see a point in my life ever wherein I […]

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