Becoming Cranky With Age

When Donkey Kong Country was released in 1994, I was eight years old and had never heard of the character Donkey Kong before.  Reading about the game, I learned of the original arcade game that introduced both DK and Mario to the world through the grumblings of Cranky Kong.  The old man ranting about how that newfangled Super Nintendo was stopping people from appreciating retro games was certainly not someone I could relate to on any level.  I was clearly one of the “whippersnappers” he was talking about, aside from early 90s commercials that my accelerated nostalgia gland was yearning for I didn’t have any understanding of longing for a bygone era.

 

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Back when a 2D SNES platformer somehow counted as fancy 3D.

 

 

Well, things have certainly changed since then.  While I was angry at fifth-generation systems for trying to push aside SNES less than a year after Donkey Kong Country was released, it wasn’t until Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze’s release, almost 20 years later, when I had a revelation: I could relate to Cranky Kong.  While the mass market was turning on Nintendo and Tropical Freeze was being treated as a niche, too hard to be entertaining game by many in the gaming media, it was easy to identify with the jaded old ape who complained about kids these days not appreciating gameplay.  It was more people roughly my age not appreciating gameplay, but still.

But it didn’t stop with the Donkey Kong Country series, and I was in fact inspired to write this article because of a different 90s series that recently reentered the spotlight, one with quite a few parallels to the DKC games, despite initially being the mascot for a competing platform.  That’s right, I’m talking about Dark Souls.  Or as it used to be known, Crash Bandicoot.  If you aren’t sure why I would joke about two series with nothing in common being the same, you are a luckier person than I am.  The first three Crash Bandicoot games were recently given complete graphical remakes and released as a trilogy for the PlayStation 4, and the original Crash has somehow gone from a harder than average platformer to a brutal exercise in extreme difficulty, and that exercise has in turn somehow been trademarked under the Dark Souls label.  Crash has become Dark Souls, according to an infamous review, and so many people have overreacted to its difficulty that I can’t tell which memes about this topic are mocking the claim and which sincerely believe it.

 

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This is either Crash or Dark Souls, lost the file label so I can’t tell which.

 

This is where I’d yell at those kids to get off my lawn, but I’m afraid they’ll slip and get hurt, leading to claims that my lawn has become a minefield (the Dark Souls of battlegrounds).  That, and like I said, this really isn’t about kids.  Maybe kids are mocking Bandicootborne for being an impossible to play relic while chatting in Minecraft or comparing fidget spinners, I don’t really know, but the people I’m some combination of amused and annoyed by are self-proclaimed old-school gamers that are around my age.  the people desperately trying to pinpoint the slightest physics changes in Crash N. Sane Trilogy to justify claims that it “became” Dark Souls.  The ones talking about how NST proves how much more hardcore gaming was back in the day.  The people who insist they were great at the games back on PS1 but now can’t reach the first boss in the PS4 version.  This isn’t about age, of gamers or games.

So what is it that’s making me cranky then?  It’s how people treat difficulty in games, both older and modern ones.  There’s the obvious target of people who can’t stand any difficulty in games and resent games that don’t play exactly how they expect because of that, but they’re not the only annoying group.  The people who go on about how games are so easy now and those damn kids could never beat games with REAL difficulty are just as misguided and irritating.  I got every trophy in all three Crash N. Sane Trilogy games in a week, while plenty of people online were complaining about not being able to simply get past an early level in the first game.  Does this mean all those people are scrubs I should mock and tell to git gud?  No, and not just because that would make me an asshole.

 

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I also beat this game in a week! With 100% completion! In one life! Without leaving the chair my character model is fused to!

 

There is obviously truth to the idea that playing platformers for around 25 years is going to make games like the three in the N. Sane Trilogy much easier for me than for gamers who grew up playing Halo and Call of Duty without ever touching a platformer.  But that doesn’t automatically make me more skilled as a gamer or make the platformers harder, the difficulty they present and skills they require are simply different.  Newer games aren’t easier, they’re simply challenging in different ways.  Yes, you can see the ending of pretty much any modern game if you blast through the story missions on the easiest setting, but trying to 100% them on the hardest setting is just as difficult as doing everything in classic games.  And struggling in a genre they have no experience with isn’t a sign that someone is a stupid kid who can’t compare to the “real” gamers of the 90s.  There are elements in genres I don’t play much that frustrate me and probably wouldn’t if I had grown up playing them, I doubt many people are experts at every single genre.  If younger gamers don’t understand platformers, or any other genre you loved as a child, the solution is more new games in that genre being released, not mocking people for being born later than you were.

 

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I haven’t actually beaten this game, the WRPG elements aren’t something I grew up with and they just piss me off. Assuming I labeled this correctly and didn’t accidentally post a picture of Crash again, anyway.

 

And now to tie things back into why I’m cranky.  The way people on both sides of the Crash: New Souls Trilogy issue are acting annoys me.  The people who can’t beat the Crash games and decide that the games are to blame because their lack of auto-platforming is outdated are obviously going to incur my wrath, but I’m probably more annoyed at the people in my demographic using this whole thing as an excuse for elitism.  Yes, supposedly professional reviewers marking old-school genres down because the reviewer is just bad at them deserve mockery, but don’t take it out on entire generations of games or people (like participation trophies, the kids get blamed for things adults are doing because they assume it’s what kids want).  I understand Cranky’s point of view now; but shockingly, the comic relief character from a platformer doesn’t present a robust philosophy ready to be adopted in real life.  I want those damn kids off my lawn, but I also want the adults patting themselves on the back for how much better they played on lawns to shut up and get over themselves.

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Retronaissance’s Most Anticipated Games of 2017

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Well, 2016 is almost over, and while there were some great games released, I mainly just want this year to end and to focus on the future (or gaming’s future, anyway).  Thankfully, 2017 in gaming fills me with a sense of true optimism (as opposed to forced hope) that I haven’t had in a long time, lots of series that haven’t had an entry (or a satisfying entry) in years are returning and while Nintendo has a lot less representation on this list than my ones from previous years, things should Switch on that front very early in the year.  So, let’s hurry up and get our focus to the new year.  I’ve decided to handle games from previous lists that got hit by delays with a rule that games can only appear on my lists twice, so Zelda won’t be showing up this time.  Let’s get this started!

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What Went Wrong: Platformers in the 3D Era

The 8 and 16-bit eras were a glorious age for platformers. Super Mario Bros. completely redefined gaming at the start of the third generation, and as a result platformers became the dominant genre in console gaming. This continued through the 16-bit era, with Mario and Sonic engaging in the greatest franchise war in gaming history and countless companies trying to cash in. Despite the mascots with attitude invasion, there were still plenty of great platformers. Donkey Kong Country, Ristar, Mega Man X, Kirby Super Star, Rocket Knight Adventures, it seemed like the good times would never end. As we all know, however, they did. I don’t think anyone would deny that in the sixth generation, platformers were nowhere near as prominent as they had been a decade earlier, but what led to this and where did it start? In my opinion, the roots of the problem can be traced back to the very start of the fifth generation.

When Super Mario 64 was released, the last thing on anyone’s mind was that platformers were going to face a decline. Arguably the most influential game of the 90s, Super Mario 64 single handedly carried Nintendo 64’s launch to record breaking heights, and it was one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. No one can deny that it had a huge and positive impact on 3D gaming as a whole, and few would deny that it is a great game. There are, however, some valid questions about how great of a platformer it is. Super Mario 64 was praised for its sense of wonder and exploration, the feel that you could go anywhere and do anything (at least relative to other games from the time period), but as it took people far too long to realize, that’s really not the point of a platformer. Super Mario 64 did not have as much pure platforming as the 2D Mario games, there was a lot more time spent searching and exploring with often minimal environmental challenges, and dying from anything except bottomless pits was nearly impossible. The non-linear nature of the levels necessitated a simplicity in their design, since it always had to be possible to backtrack. Despite these issues, Super Mario 64 was still a great game and a quality platformer. However, something that revolutionary is bound to have wide reaching influence, and not every designer knows when to stop.

Anyone who was into platformers during the fifth generation will recognize the label collectathon. A collectathon is a platformer where the goal of the game is to collect a huge and varied amount of items that are strewn throughout the levels. They are usually non-linear, and most of the items are checked off a list scavenger hunt style (“In this level find 10 Important Plot Things, 6 Kind of Important Things, 100 Scattered Everywhere Things, and 3 Secret Things”) instead of being a renewable resource like money in an RPG. Super Mario 64 was fairly restrained in what it made you collect, but naturally future 3D platformers wanted to be even bigger and presumably better. Some games such as the Crash and Spyro series struck a good balance, but for other platformers this spiraled out of control. “Platformers” became more and more about checking every corner of usually mapless levels and less about any sort of actual platforming. Since the non-linear design made standard platforming so difficult to incorporate, mini-games were given more and more emphasis (more on that later). This came to a head in Donkey Kong 64. Not only did you need to collect 25 Golden Bananas, 375+ bananas, a couple of hidden Banana Fairies, an Arena Crown and Boss Key, and enough banana coins to buy all the new abilities in each stage… you had to do this with five characters, almost every collectable only being available to one of them! The backtracking and aimless wandering through the massive levels completely overshadowed any platforming, and that’s not even getting into the chunk of the game taken by genre switching mini-games. Donkey Kong 64 was the rallying point for a backlash against collectathon platformers, and developers did listen. Unfortunately, the solution was arguably even more detrimental to platformers.

Enter the sixth generation of gaming. Things started out rocky for platformers from the very start, with Sonic making a rough transition to 3D, Crash and Spyro leaving their original developers, and Mario missing GameCube’s launch. The generation really got started in Fall 2001, and some of the most popular and influential games of that time were Grand Theft Auto 3, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Halo. I bring those up not only because they were trendsetting games that weren’t platformers, but because they are all M rated, which demonstrates one of the big problems platformers faced in the sixth generation. The sixth generation’s market was dominated by mature rated games, which barely any platformers fall under (and the few that do tend to be satire based instead of gritty realism). Grand Theft Auto 3 is especially relevant to the decline of platformers’ mainstream popularity, since the wide open sandbox genre it popularized in many ways took the role platformers had in the fifth generation. Huge open worlds with a gigantic amount of collectables, sub-missions, and gameplay types made the generational transition, but the platforming elements didn’t come with them. Sandbox games were getting all the clones, not platformers.

The defining platformer for the sixth generation was Ratchet and Clank. The gun focused combat system, increased emphasis on story, and more clear mission objectives were all things that the series made standard for 3D platformers in its generation. The influence can clearly be seen with the Sly Cooper and Jak and Daxter series. The first game in those series came out before or at the same time as Ratchet and Clank, and both sequels changed a great amount to be more similar to R&C. Unfortunately, like Super Mario 64, Ratchet and Clank’s formula (which still had a good amount of platforming) would be exaggerated to its detriment in future games. The Ratchet and Clank games consistently reduced the amount of platforming in them throughout the generation, replacing it with RPG style upgrades for the guns and a combat emphasis. Other platformers used the wide open sandbox approach of Grand Theft Auto, leaving little room for platforming. The evolution of platformers in the sixth generation was a lateral move, while the new standards were less annoying than the collection mania of the fifth generation, platforming had been even more shoved to the wayside.

Things were not looking good for platformers as the sixth generation came to a close. What exactly was it that caused the genre to go from its industry dominating golden age to the verge of extinction? The biggest internal problem was the transition to 3D, platformers thrive on complex environmental level design and precise control, neither of which were the strong point of early 3D games. This caused platformers to look for another way to wow gamers, and while it initially worked, it grew out of control to the point where gamers decided they didn’t need the platforming at all. Combined with the rise of cinematic and adult oriented games, everything was perfectly lined up to knock the platforming genre from its dominant position. Things were going to get even worse in the seventh generation, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. But that’s a story for another time.