Player’s Choice

When it comes right down to it, the video game industry in general is a very tumultuous place. It seems like consumers, publishers and the journalists who act as intermediaries between the two are often at each other’s throats in a way that doesn’t appear to be that common when it comes to entertainment in general. Usually, I find myself siding with the customer side of things: after all, that’s probably where I end up falling most of the time – I think my article from last month proves that. The thing is, lately, I’ve been noticing a trend among some more vocal gamers. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always hated the “entitled gamers” label: frankly, I think it’s generally just used as an out for publishers to put out a lackluster product, expecting to get away with it scot-free. But I’ve seen cases where I’d be willing to apply the label; if it weren’t for the baggage associated with the term. I’m talking about the kind of people that demand that every game priced at $60 owes them 60 hours of gameplay, bare minimum. Of course, that’s a rare and extreme example, but it exemplifies this trend I’ve seen. I’ve heard of cases where people have demanded platformers and other speedrun-friendly genres last between 30 and 50 hours to be considered worthwhile purchases. It just sort of strikes me as a ridiculous proposition: there are decidedly few genres out there that could achieve anything remotely close to that length on a regular basis, and most of the time, they have to resort to “tricks” like endless sidequests or a multiplayer mode. Single-player campaigns just aren’t built to last for that long and frankly, I can’t really recall a period where it was practical to hit that mark consistently.

Expecting an hour of gameplay per dollar paid for a product just seems insane and unfair to me. I mean, let’s compare this to other forms of mass media. At the time I’m writing this, most Blu-Ray releases of theatrical movies tend to range between $25 and $35 – and that’s after taking into account severe discounts compared to the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which generally appears to sit around $40 a movie. I don’t see people demanding an hour’s worth of film per dollar spent on new movies. Granted, those usually come with bonus features. You know what doesn’t? Watching brand new releases in the theater. The average price of a movie ticket in the United States was about $8.84 in the first quarter of this year – yet, I can’t even remember a mainstream film that clocked in at five hours, let alone eight. Books are a bit harder to gauge in terms of how much time is spent getting through them – everyone reads at their own pace, after all – yet I don’t recall seeing any Amazon reviews calling a book a ripoff because they got less than 100 pages for every dollar they spent on it.

One possible argument I could think of is that when someone buys a movie or a book, they can rewatch or reread it ad nauseum, whenever the urge hits them. I don’t see how this doesn’t apply to video games too. Maybe the longer ones would be difficult to replay immediately, but if shorter games are the problem in the first case, then it should be easy enough to replay them soon after if they’re that short. In fact, replay value is where video games shine compared to other media. Most movie buffs talk about how certain films can be viewed in entirely new lights upon repeat viewings, but that’s nothing compared to video games. Due to their inherent interactivity – well, in most cases – each playthrough of a video game offers an entirely new experience. In pretty much every video game I’ve ever played, there have always been new secrets and exploits to be found upon second or third playthroughs, allowing for a more in-depth look at the game. That’s nothing to say of self-imposed challenges: I’ve replayed the original NES version of MegaMan 2 several times, but it’s been years since I started with Metalman – the traditional boss to start with when playing the game – and the game feels entirely new each time I tweak the order.

Then of course, you’ve got additional bonus content. While many games these days tend to hide extra features behind paywalls as opposed to in-game achievements, there are still a fair amount of games that respect the old ways in at least some small form. While most home video releases of major motion pictures and TV shows have a tendency to add bonus features, the majority of them have little bearing on the meat of the package. Maybe you’ll get the occasional “extended cut” that mixes various deleted scenes back into the work proper, but most of the time special features are generally expected to be enjoyed outside of the feature attraction. Not so with video games. Higher difficulty levels, alternate playable characters and “New Game+” modes all add something new to the game itself, allowing for entirely new experiences, which can double the standard length of a game. It’s a shame that features like this generally aren’t taken into account when gauging a game’s length, because generally, that would double the length of a game bare minimum.

That’s a problem that most people don’t seem to consider: where does the metric of calculating the time it takes to complete a game come from? Most people game at different skill levels – not to mention the fact that most gamers excel at some genres better than others – so how is the average time it takes to complete a game determined? It always just sort of struck me as arbitrary. I’ve taken more than the average time to complete a game on a blind-run than what the developers expected and in some cases, I’ve managed to finish in less time. The whole concept of measuring time in video games just strikes me as an inexact science and it makes me wonder about those people who demand such large games. Do they keep track of the time they spend with the game meticulously or do they just take traditional timekeeping methods – be they in-game or on the console itself – at face value? I suppose that this would bring video games more in line with books, as people have different reading levels and often read at different paces based on the material. Unfortunately, they’ve also got a much more uniform tangible length, in the form of pages. Sure, at times, you can say a game has a certain number of “levels” or “chapters”, but considering how these vary from game to game (not to mention, segments typically get longer as games themselves go on), it still comes across as an inconsistent way to measure a game’s true length.

I guess my main issue with the whole argument that every game should last a certain amount of time is that, as a rule, I’m more concerned with the quality of the time I’m spending on a game as opposed to the quantity. I’m often much more enamored with games that grab my attention for 5 hours over anything that just becomes a 500-hour trudge for the sake of “getting my money’s worth”. Granted, those are my priorities – but I just can’t wrap my head around to idea of demanding that a game takes up a certain amount of time instead of just giving players a certain amount of enjoyment. Of course, these days I seem to be gravitating more and more towards smaller games in general. Considering the fact that I’m a retro gamer at heart in the first place – I doubt I’ll ever see anything after the 16-bit era as gaming’s “Golden Age” – shorter games remind me of the good old days. In addition to that, a lot of the games I find myself enjoying the most tend to retro-style throwbacks anyway and those games are generally shorter than AAA extravaganzas. Oftentimes, I think the best thing I can ever say about a game is that it leaves me wanting more. That’s probably the main thing I keep in mind when gauging just how much I enjoyed something: it all comes down to whether I feel satisfied upon finishing it. Whether I just want an expansion, a straight up “level pack” sequel or some kind of spiritual successor from the same developers, it’s always a good sign.

This article may come across as a defense for some of the admittedly scummier tactics that publishers and developers – but mostly publishers – use to milk their consumer bases for all they’re worth. I’m by no means defending practices like selling a $60 game entirely on additional paid content. There just has to be some happy medium between companies demanding full price for an incomplete experience and gamers demanding that a game provide at least a full 168 hours of content before they consider buying a game at half price. Neither extreme really feels all that viable for the industry as a whole and as development costs continue to balloon, concessions need to be made at both sides. Of course, as I said, I’m not really that big on AAA blockbusters, so I’ll probably be fine either way. I’ll stick to getting ripped off by shorter games, thank you.

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Of Axioms and Idioms: The New Sub-Standard

While I’ve been having fun revitalizing older series that I abandoned awhile back, it would be hypocritical of me to orphan my latest series. This time, it’s not so much a lack of topics that has caused me to forgo writing Of Axioms and Idioms, it’s more a lack of time. I’ve got so many ideas for new articles that I’ve managed to leave a good number of worthwhile topics on the back-burner for quite some time. It doesn’t help that I seem to be coming up with more new ideas quicker than I can write the existing ones. Worst of all is the fact that I tend to find my newest ideas the most intriguing, which pushes things back even further in many cases. Still, it’s been roughly half a year since the last time I wrote an article in this series, so it seems like it’s the right time to bring it back.

This one’s been rolling around in the back of my mind for quite some time, yet ironically, it’s also the latest topic I’ve managed to come up with for this series. Basically, there’s something of a stigma when it comes to long-running series. Specifically, when it comes to their latest iterations. The issue isn’t specifically liking the current games in an old series, that seems to be alright by most accounts. Rather, considering the most recent entry in well-established franchises to be the best that said franchise has to offer seems to be frowned upon among die-hard fans. Likewise, when a more or less “objective” best game is chosen, it’s generally a relatively early title in the series’ history.

To show you just how long this idea has been sitting around, the original example that inspired this topic is no longer relevant. Tekken Tag Tournament 2, while still currently my favorite game in the Tekken franchise – ironically, I’ve yet to pick up Tekken 7 – is no longer the latest game in the franchise. Still, I felt a little ashamed to acknowledge that the latest entry in the series had become my favorite, simply because I was a long-time fan and therefore, was familiar with the earlier games in the series. Meanwhile, ask the average Tekken fan and chances are they’ll name a much earlier game as their favorite: specifically, Tekken 3. If you’ve read my Tekken retrospective from earlier this year, you’d know that I was never really quite as enamored with the game as the majority of the Tekken fanbase, even if I did recognize its quality.

Another slightly more relevant example would relate to MegaMan, specifically the Classic series. Personally, I think the tenth game in the franchise – which has been the most recent game for a whopping 7 years at this point – is the best that the series has to offer. Most of the Classic faithful, on the other hand, are still hung up on MegaMan 2. Honestly, I don’t even think MM2 is the best of the NES games, let alone the best in its entire series. MegaMan 2 made the most significant improvements over its predecessor, but the franchise still had room to grow. What I find especially ironic is that MegaMan 9 – a game that was essentially built to perfectly emulate an MM2 ROM hack – received much greater acclaim, despite having weaker level designs. Worst of all, it seems like if you don’t accept 2 as the “one true Classic MegaMan game”, you’re bound to be accused of being a contrarian, or worse still, a hipster. Don’t get me wrong: MM2 is a great game, I just think that some of the later games in the series made vast improvements to the formula, but they’re generally cast aside as inferior copies. As a side note, I think it’s a crying shame that the Game Boy games (namely IV and especially V) don’t receive as much attention as they deserve: I think both of those games blew MM2 out of the water, in spite of their hardware limitations.

A slightly less relevant example would be the near-deification of Super Mario 64 among the 3D Mario platformers. Sure, people recognize the quality of both Galaxy games – to at least some extent – but for whatever reason, 64 is still somehow the golden standard to which all future Mario games of that type are held against. I’ll never understand it: honestly, I never thought SM64 was that good in the first place and I think every other game of that type in the Mario series surpassed it in some way, even the abomination/cult classic Super Mario Sunshine. To make matters worse, I actually consider 3D World to be my favorite in that particular batch of games, though I’ve seen more than a few people dismiss it as an inferior knockoff of 3D Land which was, ironically, my previous favorite. I’d argue that the 3D Marios keep improving with each game and that makes 64 the worst by default. Yet it is still the clear favorite for some reason.

Of course, perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is the fan reaction to the Legend of Zelda games. While both A Link Between Worlds and especially Breath of the Wild have seemingly put it to rest, the so-called “Zelda cycle” is, by and large, the most prevalent and observable example of this mentality I’ve seen on the internet. The Zelda cycle, as I understand it, can be broken down thusly: after enough time has passed since the release of the latest Zelda game, the fanbase begins its backlash against the game itself, deeming it terrible. This, in turn, allows the previous game in the franchise – the one that was previously dubbed the worst the franchise had to offer – to be viewed as an acceptable game for the series. The game that came before that will then usually take its place at the series favorite, the stated “gold standard” for what the next Zelda game should attempt to be. The former “gold standard” is then considered to be overrated (but still good) and everything before that seems to just fade into the ether, effectively just becoming acceptable in general but not a major focal point for the franchise. A safe choice, considered “good for their time” and generally otherwise ignored.

As for a counterpoint to this particular attitude, the best I’ve really been able to observe would have to be within the Ys fanbase. Put simply, “every Ys is best Ys”. Given the fact that the series has gone through at least two major gameplay shifts in its 30-year existence, it only makes sense that most of the fanbase would generally be pretty chill about liking the newest games in the franchise, as Falcom always seems to strive to improve upon mistakes made in the previous games and avoids change strictly for its own sake, rather only fundamentally shifting the gameplay style once they’ve reached the limits of their current format. Of course, this isn’t a perfect example by any means: there’s a distinct faction that considers The Oath in Felghana (and to a far lesser extent, Origin) as the one true Ys game(s), disavowing anything that came after and, bafflingly enough, before. I guess there are problem children in every fanbase.

Then there’s the Sonic fanbase, which I supposed also acts both as an example and a counter-balance to this perspective. There are essentially three major camps contained within the Sonic fanbase: those who enjoy the original Genesis-era games and feel that this is the best direction for the franchise moving forward, those who cut their teeth on the series during the Adventure games and want the games to go back to that style (in spite of the fact that Sega already tried to recreate said formula twice and ended up with the games generally considered the worst in the entire franchise in the process) and finally, fans of the modern games who consider any references to older titles to be meaningless pandering to a bygone era. If it’s not obvious, the former two camps clearly act in support of my theory, while the third and final camp appears to be its Bizarro doppelganger rather than a nuanced reaction. Of course, these three factions don’t encompass the entire Sonic fandom – there is room for nuance elsewhere – but they definitely make things difficult for Sega moving forward.

Of course, there is a certain level of forgiveness allowed when it comes to committing the grave sin of liking the latest game in a long-running series in general. This is generally reserved for those new to the series. After all, you always remember your first and as they’re new to the series, they have time to learn the “right way” to consider the series. Older fans, on the other hand, generally aren’t afforded the same level of leeway. They’re already familiar with the franchise and its history, so the entire concept of long-time fans disagreeing with the status quo is inconceivable to the hiveminds generally associated with these fanbases. It’s almost like to prefer a game that was intended as an improvement to earlier games in the series is to completely discount the series’ entire history in one fell swoop.

So what exactly is the cause for this animosity towards the most recent games in a franchise? An obvious culprit would be the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t necessarily follow: if nostalgia were to blame, then every fan would generally consider the first game they played to be the best in the franchise, which would be a particularly difficult move for those who had been playing games in the series since its inception. Not to mention the fact that if the first game in a franchise is its best, then there’s really no point in continuing to produce them, diminishing returns and all that. Likewise, given the fact that many video game franchises tend to have one or two games that are considered the best at large, that would also imply that most of the fanbase started playing the series upon the release of that specific game, which seems a bit farfetched if you ask me. So clearly there’s more at work here than simple nostalgia.

A much more likely explanation is equally simple: credibility as a fan. With well-established series – regardless of medium – knowledge of the series’ origins has a tendency to give the impression of legitimacy with regards to any particular fan’s adoration for the works in the general. The same could be said for general consensus: as with most group dynamics, a lack of dissention among the ranks has a tendency of creating a much stronger sense of community, an element that fandoms require to thrive at any stage in their life cycles, from their humble beginnings on. Whether or not this means that most fans legitimately believe that the designated best game in the franchise is their actual favorite, they’re simply giving the game lip service to fit in or that they’ve been essentially railroaded into considering said game to be the best in order to align themselves properly within the group tends to vary – all are clear and distinct possibilities, though I’d consider the former two to be the most likely.

This leads to a much more pertinent question: why is there such resistance to the idea that modern entries of an existing series could potentially surpass their forebearers? I mean, it just seems logical to me that games should constantly strive to improve over what came before them, so maybe I’m missing something. Does acknowledging the strength of newer games make the older ones retroactively worse? Is one’s credibility at stake if they acknowledge improvements made to an existing formula if they just happen to be implemented to close to current year? I’m at a bit of a loss here.

Maybe newer games are just being held to a higher standard in general. After all, they do have years of experience to fall back on, so I can’t argue that they should be held to a higher standard than the games of old. However, there is also the potential to take things way too far in this regard: while nostalgia isn’t completely to blame, they can generally build classic games up to be better in fans’ memories than the reality – take a look at how well various re-releases for more obscure games have been received. Put both the overinflated quality of older games with an expectation for every game to exceed the previous entries in their series to an obscene degree, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I mostly wrote this article to essentially dispel any shame, perceived or otherwise, I’ve felt when liking the latest games in series I’ve been following for quite some time. The sheer sense of elitism when it comes to long-time fans vis-à-vis newer entries has always just struck me as weird. I suppose that this was more of an exercise in trying to justify my own preferences to myself. Of course, this is a fitting use of the “Of Axioms and Idioms” banner, as they’re generally meant to explore my various opinions, unorthodox or otherwise. But what do you think? Do you think I’m completely off-base or am I on to something? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.

The Elements of Gameplay

In my previous article, I dissected the meaning behind several essentially identical terms used to judge games, terms that I hate.  I condensed them under the label of “soul,” and argued that if a game actually had a soul, it would be its gameplay.  I realized that just labeling the real important part of a game as gameplay could sound kind of like the copout I accused the term soul of being.  What exactly is gameplay, anyway?  Well, I’ve actually given that quite a bit of thought, and pinpointed five clearly defined (if often subjective in terms of quality) parts of a game that combine to form that seemingly sacred concept of gameplay.  I’ll be going over each one, so let’s start putting together this Megazord known as gameplay!

Control

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Let’s start with something simple, but vital to every game, arguably the primary thing that defines something as a video game.  Control is one of those things where it being good means you never think about it.  You’re not thinking about the controls when you’re steering an airborne Mario past obstacles or circle strafing demons as Doomguy, but if those games had bad controls you sure as hell would be.  Control is the link between the game and the player, good control adds more to immersion than all the graphical touches and flavor text in the world.  Bad control, on the other hand, will haunt a game no matter how much it excels at the other elements of gameplay.  Control sets the tone for a game: some of the other elements have to be designed entirely around the controls.  One game’s perfect control could ruin a different game, and that could easily go both ways.  Control is the vehicle that the other elements of gameplay ride in, and if it crashes, the entire game goes up in smoke.

Content

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You’re playing a modern retail game that does everything perfectly.  You’re completely absorbed by the gameplay, the first two hours made you fall in love and you can’t wait to see what’s next… CREDITS!?  I think we’ve all felt the painful sucker punch of an unexpected credits sequence.  No matter how a good a game is, er, was, if your $60 purchase ends after two hours it’s probably going to lower your opinion of the experience.  Content is probably the most objective element of gameplay: the amount of levels, missions, secrets, etc. in a game can’t be changed by someone’s opinion.  The objective nature of both what content is and how much an individual game has makes this a simple but important factor when it comes to gameplay.  While content doesn’t really affect the core gameplay experience directly, the truth is quantity does matter to some extent, and I think how long you get to enjoy a game is pretty important.  I mean, what are you going to do after you finish a game, just start it over again?  Wait, maybe you will…

Replay

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I debated on whether to combine this element with the above.  It was tricky because while content and replay serve a nearly identical function, the abundance of one often leads to the lack of the other.  These two elements are the only ones on the list that can almost totally replace each other.  Replay value is the other side of content’s coin.  Content is how much you get out of a game before the credits roll, replay value is whether you want to go back and play the game again after that happens.  The line can blur at times, what does going back to earlier levels for a better rank, with the option to do it before or after you beat the game, count as?  What about looking for secrets needed to unlock the real final level/ending after you saw the first ending?  How the hell do you define when a multiplayer game is being replayed?  Replay can also have a purer form, however.  A truly great game will be fun to play again and again even if you’ve seen everything in it.  If you feel compelled to go back to a completed game again and again over the years, it has truly achieved great replay value.  Replay value is what makes a game immortal, how can it not be part of a game’s soul?

Challenge

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If Content and Replay can make up for each other, Challenge completely inverts that and must fight with itself to reach the correct balance.  A game being too easy makes it boring and pointless.  A game being too hard makes it frustrating and stressful.  To have great gameplay, a game has to use the spice known as difficulty and the sweetener known as mercy in just the right amounts, creating just the right amount of Challenge.  Checkpoints should be placed thoughtfully, difficulty spikes and breathers have to show up at the right times, puzzles have to take effort to solve without throwing the player into a pit of despair that only looking up the solution can rescue them from.  The game must somehow appeal to players of different skill and experience levels in the same package.  A game’s difficulty level may not be the most subjective quality about it, but whether it’s the RIGHT difficulty level is going to cause fistfights.  This is where Challenge versus cheapness comes into play, and games should make sure they only rely on challenge, no matter how many people online define cheapness as “any challenge above my personal skill level.”  If you thread the needle just right, however, you’ll contribute something to gameplay that adds a dimension to the experience which other artistic mediums can’t compare with.

Design

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And now we arrive at what I personally consider to be the most important part of gameplay.  I was originally going to call this element Level Design, but in addition to preferring that every element was one word, there are a few genres where that name wouldn’t fit.  Level design is mostly a cosmetic feature in genres like fighting games or Tetris-style puzzle games, after all.  In the end, there are a lot of terms you could use for this element depending on the genre.  Level design, fighting engine, competitive balance, course layout, it goes on.  At its core, this element is a game’s unique and personal layout, the thing that makes an individual game that specific individual game.  You could mess with the other elements in a game and it would be a variant or fragment of the same game, but Design makes it a new game. All of the other elements are intimately connected with design in every aspect.  The most subjective element when it comes to quality by far, Design is truly the core of the soul, the thing that defines the individual.  Whether it’s designing the level, placing enemies, balancing combat, thinking up puzzles, or deciding how far to go with realism, Design is the most important part of gameplay and by extension the most important part of game.

By Your Powers Combined

So there we have it, the five parts of a game that I believe make up that ideal known as gameplay.  Whether you want to think in terms of Power Rangers/Captain Planet/Avatar/My Little Pony or whatever, they have been assembled and Gameplay, the soul of a game, has been formed.  So, if you ever want to argue with someone bashing your favorite game for lacking “soul,” you can use gameplay as a counterargument, and you can use these elements to define gameplay.  Maybe I’ll write something about the anti-elements at some point, but for now I’ve said all I want to.  See you next time, and remember that gameplay puts the soul in console, wait, gameplay is the only consoulation for… no, don’t be con-souled about the soul of… never mind, just go.

 

Striking at the Soul

Over the years I’ve come across many terms that I hate seeing applied to games.  Soul.  Magic.  Heart.  Charm.  Spark.  So it looks like it’s time to do another list, all of these terms deserve to be categorically addressed so I can explain exactly why they are not valid ways to judge games.  Let’s get right to it: time for the intimidating task of dissecting five different concepts in one article.  Let’s get started!

Magic

What it means:  Magic, when applied to games, is a catch-all term for an indescribable feeling you get from a game.  Something you can’t describe, but you just KNOW it when you see it.  Something that supercedes any part of a game you can actually give a supportable opinion on.  Magic is different from the other terms because, because…

Wait…

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All of them are the same freaking thing! 

Yep, the list was a fake-out.  These (and probably many more) terms are all functionally identical, and it’s that concept that I want to argue against, in all of its guises.  There are two main things that the various terms (I’m just going to use soul for the rest of this article) are actually describing, and neither are good reasons for judging a game.  Let’s get to the real dissection!

Aesthetics

You know how some people judge games on their technical or budget merits?  How many polygons there are, how much wide open empty space the draw distance can show at once, how expensive the voice actors were?  Well people who care about a game’s soul would never do that.  Why?  Because it’s not petty ENOUGH!  It’s the little things that make a game great: little touches in the background, the exact right amount of comedic quirk in the dialogue, whether it’s a sequel or not.  Judging a game by the graphics as a whole makes you shallow, but judging it by dissecting minor details of the graphics makes you deep.  Maybe an 8-bit art style could have potentially passed your metric for the game having enough “soul” in its look, but you’re still judging a game for how it looks, and no euphemism is going to change that.

 

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This is what letting games be judged by soul gets us.

 

Why would anyone believe in this double standard?  I’m not convinced that many genuinely do.  The fact is, saying a game is bad because of its graphics is going to make a lot of people disregard your opinion, which in my magical and soulful special spark of an opinion is justified.  As someone who still regularly plays games from earlier console generations, defends Nintendo for focusing on gameplay over writing and story in many of their series, and gets very annoyed by being told my systems of choice are inferior to the “master race” because the graphics aren’t as good, I obviously don’t approve of judging games by their graphics.  So I don’t like it when people ostensibly on my side do the exact same thing but insist that it’s actually about “soul.”  If you care about aesthetics to the point where a game not meeting your expectations in them can ruin the experience for you, I’ll have a much easier time agreeing to disagree if you don’t use vague and frustrating terms to hide it.  But maybe it isn’t really the artistic merit that the game is really being judged on, quite often it’s really…

Nostalgia

Yep, it’s come to this, the big N.  No, not Nintendo… well, a lot of the time they are the ones this is being used against, but that’s not the point.  It’s not a coincidence that sequels and recent games are so much more likely to be derided for having an insufficient quantity of soul.  Nostalgia is a powerful force.  I’m not going to claim to be immune to it: in fact I’m hyper-sensitive to it and develop it much faster than most people (I’m listening to a song that brings back memories of 2014 as I type this sentence).  I’ve certainly replayed many games that in no way merit ever being touched again because they gave me nostalgia, I’m still looking for my floppy disc of Dino: Lost in Bedrock just because it’s a different version than the one you can find online.

 

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This has great nostalgia for me, do I have claws for claiming cat puns and terrible controls are soulful?

 

So having nostalgia is fine, enjoying things just because of nostalgia is fine.  But you have to be aware of what you’re doing, and more important, don’t judge new games on how much they appeal to your nostalgia!  If you want to pick up a game because it’s pandering to your nostalgia just right, go for it, but don’t judge newer games as a whole because they don’t accomplish the impossible task of giving you the same nostalgic feeling a game you played in elementary school does.  It is not the game lacking soul that makes it feel less magical than the 20-year-old previous installment did, it’s the fact that you were 20 years younger back then.  Not understanding your nostalgia cravings is just going to lead to disappointment and despair, and bashing every new game in a franchise because of that makes you annoying, okay? So stop it.

So what would it be?

So if games actually did have souls, what would the soul be?  What is the core of a game, the element that really makes it special?  If you took away all the extras and aesthetics, what would be left to define the pure essence of a game?  How long am I going to insult your intelligence by building this up when it’s blatantly obvious that I’m going to say the answer is gameplay?

 

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The gameplay in this is more soul than you’d find in any pixel art walking simulator.

 

Yes, if we were to say games actually have a soul, it would clearly be gameplay.  In addition to being the most important part of a game, gameplay ultimately leads to the things that are wrongfully called the soul of a game.  A game being good in the first place will be a major contribution to how much nostalgia it eventually produces, right?  And the positive associations a game gives you thanks to its gameplay are what lead to the little aesthetic touches and quirks that people mistake for soul.  If Bubsy was a platforming masterpiece, I firmly believe Bubsy’s annoying puns would be iconic and loved in a somewhat ironic way like the dialogue in Star Fox 64 and Resident Evil 4.

So that’s my rant for the day.  Week, months, whatever I procrastinated it to.  I hope I’ve made some points about what a game should and shouldn’t be judged by, or at least gotten people to find better terms for what they use to judge games.  A thought occurred to me as I was writing this, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that I was using gameplay as just as much of a vague catch-all in this article as the terms I railed against.  Going into detail about what I consider gameplay, though, would take up an entire article of its own… so that’s what I’m going to give it.  Stay tuned!

 

First Impressions

These past few months, I’ve been working on a couple more retrospective articles not unlike the one I wrote for The Legend of Zelda back when Breath of the Wild launched last month. In addition to writing a far larger than average article, I’m also left researching various things, simply to jog my memory for games I haven’t played in quite some time, so I’ve had little time to write much else aside from a post on my side blog and another list in what’s quickly become my April Fools tradition. The one upshot to all of this is that I was running low on topics to write about outside of said retrospectives and in the process of writing them, I’ve had time to think of new topics to write on. In fact, the topic for this very article was inspired by a trend I noticed while writing one of the retrospectives.

Effectively, I was researching the fan reception of one of the games I was writing for – a game that I specifically remembered being considered the worst of its series – and found that, unsurprisingly, the game had its own set of fervent defenders. Some of the people defending the game in question made the argument that it was, in fact, the first game in the series that was truly the low point of the series and that most people gave it a pass simply because it was the first game in the entire franchise – and therefore, was owed a great measure of respect, as the series itself wouldn’t exist without it. Obviously, the argument raged on after that, but I must admit the statement gave me pause. I’d felt this way about the originators of various other classic series: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, MegaMan …the list goes on. Yet somehow, an obscure flame war on some internet forum actually made me reflect upon it. Many fans of video game series do generally afford the first games of the franchise in question a greater extent of leniency than all other games in the series.

I mean, the reasoning is understandable. Being the first release in a series means that not only have the basic gameplay mechanics not been completely established, as the games that start series generally end up being far more experimental in nature, simply because they were often developed as stand-alone titles in the first place. As such, it’s dishonest to compare them to their sequels: after all, most sequels tend to build on whatever framework the original had. You know the old metaphor, “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants”? Same basic principle here – the clear majority of video game sequels wouldn’t be able to reach their level of quality without learning from both the mistakes and successes of earlier titles.

Of course, that leads to the major question at hand: do we overcompensate when it comes to discussing these first games? It does seem entirely possible that when looking back at the games themselves, especially in the case of longer-running series, we’ll often forgive bizarre design choices, stiffer controls, blander level design and other short-comings, simply because they were the originators of their respective franchises. Of course, this is particularly evident in series where there is a designated black sheep – a later game in the franchise that is despised by the fanbase in general, no matter how many lone wolves claim that they actually liked it, either due to contrarianism or genuine love for the game in question.

The weird thing about this is that this level of protectionism only seems to apply to the first game in the franchise, as opposed to earlier games in general. It’s as if, by the time the second game rolls around, every aspect had better be perfected or else the game itself is considered garbage. Take the second Ace Attorney, for example – despite the fact that we only received the enhanced port of the first game, people judged the second game far more harshly. As such, people would ignore the improvements Justice for All made compared to its predecessor’s gameplay, such as increased complexity, a higher difficulty level and the addition of the “Psyche Lock” mechanic.  Instead, most player reactions concentrated on the game’s flaws, particularly some story elements that were not considered on-par with those of the first Ace Attorney. You’ve also got to consider many cases where the second game was a complete departure from the first game’s base concept, though this will often yield softer criticism than incomplete refinements of existing formulas. Yet, in other forms of media that gravitate towards a more serialized approach, missteps in the process of development are generally more easily forgiven. Why then are video games so different?

Is the reason for this standard practice merely consideration for the game’s age and relative simplicity compared to its follow-ups or is there more to it? Could nostalgia play a role? The fact is that while there is a case for nostalgia being attributed to some cases of blatant protection – Legend of Zelda, Virtua Fighter and Metroid all come quickly to mind – this isn’t particularly a rule of the case. I mean, I honestly doubt that many people attribute any lasting nostalgia to games like the original Tekken or Bomberman, but even new fans of a series avoid scrutinizing these early iterations harshly. On the other hand, there are cases where there are objectively worse games later on in the series, which kind of muddies discussion about the first game’s flaws – it’s kind of difficult to pick apart a game if one of its successors is obviously flawed in ways even the original managed to avoid.

This phenomenon is particularly strange when you consider video game genres and sub-genres in general. While the first game in a beloved series will often be given a pass for their various shortcomings, the same is not always true for games that originated entire genres. For example, Pac-Land could be said to be one of, if not the, earliest attempts at creating a side-scrolling platformer, but doesn’t receive nearly as much love as the original Super Mario Bros., which popularized the genre in general. The same can be said for Karate Champ with regards to the fighting game genre: it’s generally viewed as a curiosity as opposed to hailed as a legitimate game, despite creating many of the conventions the genre enjoys to this day. Likewise, I’ve heard few discussions of the history of RPGs mention the Atari 2600’s Dragonstomper, perhaps the earliest example of the genre appearing on home consoles. Most discussions favor discussing Dragon Quest, or worst case scenario, the original Final Fantasy. This would seem to imply that age is not the only factor that causes people to be protective of the first games in these series, likely because these games are so obscure, they aren’t really under attack either. Still, it feels a bit hypocritical that if earlier games are considered important, these trailblazers aren’t afforded the same privilege.

While writing this article, I also considered if there were any major examples of series originators that missed out on these protections. I racked my brain, trying to think of multiple examples, but in the end, I could only think of one: the original Street Fighter. For the longest time, most people’s knowledge of the series started at “Street Fighter II” and for some reason, no one ever seemed to question what had happened to Street Fighter “One”. I’m not sure what people thought – maybe they figured that the “two” was referencing that there were two fighters in a match? I’m not entirely sure. Basically, back in the 90s, if someone mentioned “Street Fighter”, you knew they were talking about SF2, period. Of course, I had limited knowledge of the original Street Fighter game – but that came in the form of a port that managed to be worse than the original in every respect. These days, however, knowledge of the original 1987 arcade game is a lot more common, albeit tinged with copious amounts of vitriol. I’d probably argue that it’s almost a comedy of errors that Capcom still celebrates the franchise’s anniversaries on the original Street Fighter’s release date. Nonetheless, perhaps it’s the fact that it isn’t afforded any respect that made Street Fighter stick out in my mind: at best, I’ve seen people request characters that are forever tied to the game reappear in later titles as fully playable characters, as they are considered concepts too good to be left as unplayable characters in a game no one likes.

Maybe the true reason for handling the first game in a series so gently is less due to hostility towards follow-ups, but simply done with the purpose – subconsciously or otherwise – of making sure that these games don’t end up like the original Street Fighter. In the end, these games definitely hold an important place in the history of not only the franchises they started, but in the case of some particularly old series, video game history itself. I guess when you take that concrete level of importance into account, it’s easy to see how an attempt at treating these gaming giants with well-earned respect can quickly go overboard – nostalgia filter or no. Likewise, bashing a game simply because the ones that followed it improved on the formula isn’t particularly fair. However, by that very same token, holding a sequel accountable for “not doing enough” to improve on its precursor by criticizing it excessively doesn’t strike me as the proper response either. In the end, I guess it’s just better to keep a firmer grasp on context in general when documenting a series’ evolution, regardless of medium.

Of Axioms and Idioms: The “Bayonetta May Cry” Syndrome

I have this tendency to start new series on the Retronaissance blog seemingly at random, only to let them die. I think my main problem is that I come up with a topic that I would absolutely love to revisit on multiple occasions, I come up with one topic to serve as a pilot article for the prospective series and then when it comes right down to it, I’m either unable to think of a good follow-up or a severely limited number of viable subjects for future pieces. Here’s hoping this one ends up surviving.

Welcome to the first article in a new series, “Of Axioms and Idioms”. These articles will essentially act as a soapbox for various “rules of thumb” I appear to have. Odd quirky choices that have affected my personal taste in video games and specific trends I’ve pinpointed. These aren’t going to be simple revelations – so don’t expect articles on why I love arcade-style games over their simulation counterparts, why I love fighting games or why I detest most turn-based RPGS – more along the lines of specific aspects that transcend genres, companies and generations.

The topic of this first article is simple, yet more than likely incoherent: a certain phenomenon I generally refer to as the “Bayonetta May Cry” syndrome. Essentially, playing later games in a franchise/genre, has a certain tendency to paint earlier iterations in such a negative light, that I’m completely unable to enjoy them. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a prejudice I wholeheartedly acknowledge. Of course, on the surface it probably seems obvious: I’ve never heard of a case of a video game sequel not attempting to surpass its original.

“Bayonetta May Cry” seems like an odd way to phrase it, but I mainly identify it as such due to the events that led me to fully realize and articulate exactly what was going on. I was playing the original Devil May Cry on the PS2 for the first time. Unfortunately, by that point, I had already played through the original Bayonetta on Xbox 360 and it had painted a very vivid picture of what to expect of “character action games”, a sub-genre which DMC trailblazed. Unfortunately, DMC1 did not live up to the hype and as such, I never ended up finishing the game. I may want to do so at some point, but only on my terms – perhaps if Capcom decides to port that shiny HD collection to PC?

There are some other examples that come to mind. Obviously, I played Street Fighter II long before the original (or at least, a real version of the original) – but that’s so common, it’s not worth mentioning. Tekken 1 and 2, on the other hand, seems a lot more interesting. While I did encounter Tekken 1 first (in an arcade on vacation), Tekken 2 was the first game in the series I played. The evolution that went on between these two games is amazing – the graphics, the gameplay, everything but the roster had changed immensely. Likewise, you’ve got the Capcom vs. SNK duology: the first game was alright, but playing the second game first: with its extended roster, the expanded number of fighting styles and the complete overhaul of the ratio system, CvS2 surpassed the original in every way.

Aside from Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, perhaps the best example of this feeling happened with Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series. While I did technically start The Sacred Stones first, playing Awakening on the 3DS pretty much confirmed that I would never be looking back on it. The best part about this one is that I can even track my opinions of it. At first, I thought Sacred Stones was alright, a bit slow compared to other strategy-RPGs I had played at that point, but not bad. After playing Awakening, however, I decided there was no looking back: too much had improved and I was completely looking forward. The ability to pair up units alone confirmed that I would never go back to the GBA title and made me glad that I hadn’t paid a single cent for it – after all, I had received it as a 3DS Ambassador bonus.

Of course, it’s all contextual: I’m a lot more forgiving when it comes to retro games – or at least, what I consider to be retro games. Anything before the 5th generation (Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation) are generally safe, as well as the Dreamcast due to its short lifespan. The rest of the 6th generation – the PlayStation 2, the GameCube and the original Xbox – are more of a blind spot for me. I understand that they’ve been gone for roughly a decade now, but it feels like they were the beginning of what the current generations of consoles built themselves upon, a clear break from the earlier generations. It doesn’t help that that was the generation where I essentially felt out of mainline video games, preferring to stick to portables and classic retro for the time being.

I’m certain this bias has pretty much always existed in the back of my head. It’s part of the reason I’ve always liked playing series “in release order” as opposed to doing what most people suggest and start with the latest game in the series before working backwards. I’m completely convinced that playing later games earlier will ruin the earlier games in a franchise for me, though there have been some cases where this has not come to pass. For example, I played the TurboGrafx-16 version of Ys Books I & II after Ys I & II Chronicles+ on Steam. I enjoyed the TG-16 version a lot, despite Chronicles+ being a longer game, with more responsive controls and superior graphics. There were some things I’d argue that Books I & II did better than the later release – best example would be the fact that the leveling system was balanced to account for both games.

Still, I worry that game mechanics and features that I grow to rely on and expect in later entries in a long-running series may end up spoiling me. More importantly, I’m worried that it may color my outlook on the earlier games, because I’ll be unable to realize whether I hate it because it lacks features I’ve come to expect or if the game is legitimately bad. Of course, that’s something that anyone who focuses on retro games would have to worry about, whether there is nostalgia for the subject matter or if it’s an unfamiliar release. It’s important to keep this kind of thing in mind.

Of course, the truth is it’s for the best that I’ve realized this bias of mine. It helps me to compensate when playing older games. This came into play this past year, when I finally decided to livestream Final Fantasy 7 – one of the three games I’d consider the most beloved (if not overrated) of its generation, alongside the original Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time. When playing the game, I promised not to compare it to more modern turn-based RPGs I liked: games like Undertale, Evolution Worlds and the first two Paper Mario games. I decided to compare it to its predecessors – Earthbound, Super Mario RPG – as well as a contemporary game: Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, originally released a few months before FF7 was in Japan. It didn’t help matters (I still ended up hating FF7), but at least I avoided the pitfall of judging the game against modern games that should have surpassed it.

Of the odd preferences and quirky opinions I could possibly discuss in this series, this one would have to be one of the more negative ones. Comparing older games to later iterations in their series or genre is clearly unfair, but the problem would have to be that it’s common. When you consider that there are younger gamers enjoying the medium, some that weren’t even alive during the 5th and 6th generations, it’s completely understandable: few people my age like watching films from before they were born, so why should kids today be forced to appreciate games that are clunkier and less refined than those that are available to them on a wider and more regular basis? The one upshot to that is that by acknowledging it, I can avoid unfairly judging older games by forcing them to live up to unfair standards and hopefully this will allow me to judge them more fairly, even in retrospect. Maybe one day, I’ll even go back to playing the original Devil May Cry.

Made To Be Broken

A few months back, I wrote a piece about how both my feelings of nostalgia and general malaise towards more recent generations have cropped into how I view the medium of video games as they move forward: that is, negatively. Needless to say, there are just certain trends that are making me feel burnt out and I somehow long for what I remember as gaming’s “Wild West” era. While I was conceiving the piece, I was persuaded to split it in half and the previous article dealt with the more loose and open nature of the console market in general, focusing on just how many companies tried to break into the video game market in an effort to revolutionize it, but ended up as “also-ran” footnotes in the ever-lengthening history of video games.

This time around, I’ll be focusing more on oddities within the games of this time period themselves – games that would clearly be indies if they were made today. Though for the most part, I’ll be focusing on various cultural shifts that happened during this time period, many of which have had reverberations that affect the medium to this day. Perhaps if some of these events hadn’t happened, video games as a whole would look completely different. Shifts that may very well have only happened due to the sheer fluidity of the format at the time they occurred, things that may have even been impossible if they happened today.

One of the reasons I decided to write these articles in the first place was due to a story I had read online that just amazed me. It involved the cult classic D, an avant-garde full-motion video adventure game released in 1995 on the 3DO, Sega Saturn, PlayStation and PC – the latter has recently been re-released on Good Old Games. The game’s creator, the late Kenji Eno related a story to 1UP about the game’s development. He actually added the game’s story late in the game’s development and it involved cannibalism, a taboo subject in many parts of the world. In order to assure that the game was released uncensored, Eno submitted the game for approval late, sending a copy without the story segments. He then switched that copy with the full game, sending it to be printed out. I am just awed by this story: if anything like this were to happen today, the game would have likely have been recalled and every original copy would have likely have been destroyed.

Indeed, the entire landscape of the video game market changed back in 1993. Due to the controversial video game releases of Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, both in their full unaltered state on various Sega platforms, there was a congressional hearing over whether or not video games with “controversial content” should have been completely banned. That’s right, the United States Congress threatened to ban video games with violent or sexual content, not unlike Germany or Australia’s wide array of video game regulation. In the end, a compromise was made: the video game industry decided to self-regulate content and educate parents on the type of content the products they were selling contained, in order to allow them to make informed purchases of material they deemed appropriate for their children. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was founded the following year in 1994. It was later joined by Japan’s Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) in 2002 and Pan European Game Information (PEGI) in 2003. In the end, this was probably a net positive overall, but what I find ironic about this was that Sega was putting ratings on their games before the ESRB was even established.

Night Trap and D were both what were referred to as “full-motion video” (commonly abbreviated as “FMV”) games, utilizing the then-cutting edge ability of CD-based consoles to create an entire video game experience using video clips. Typically, these games utilized live-action footage, thus creating “graphics” that trump even modern video games in terms of realism. Of course, this would generally come at the cost of complex gameplay experiences: gameplay was rarely more complex than the quick-time events we’ve seen in video games for generations. Of course, we’ve recently seen a resurgence in the genre, via indie developers. Though this time around, it would seem that the games made in the revival are less about providing graphical fidelity and more about creating “art” – scare quotes intended.

Of course, the existence of FMV games as a genre brings up another point. This may just be a matter of my own perception, but it seemed like there was a time when popular titles would lead into entirely new genres. I remember watching the “first-person shooter” genre blossom from the more derogatory “Doom clones”. Street Fighter II, while not the first fighting game, cemented various aspects of the 2D fighting game genre. These days, it seems like we never surpass the “clone” phase of this evolution: the closest we’ve gotten is the deluge of “crafting” games in the wake of Minecraft, but this generally just leads to games in existing genres adopting its unique elements.

Likewise, another thing I’d consider to be better in “the good ol’ days” would be the limitations put upon developers. In generations past, developers were generally only limited by whatever hardware they were developing for. This would generally lead to clever solutions to problems: arcade games would be entirely overhauled if they weren’t suitable for consoles, various perspective cheats would be used to create amazing graphical tricks and sometimes even entirely new hardware could be added to offset whatever limitations the systems in question had. Meanwhile, in the modern era, developers seem to have the exact opposite problem – an amazing amount of power to work with, but generally held back by the far more mundane problem of a lack of resources. Strict deadlines, a lack of manpower or finances: these are the major bottlenecks that plague today’s developers. In an era where it seems like we’re getting less and less for the same amount, it’s just sad to consider that we’re effectively being cheated out of the best possible games of this generation for such bland reasons.

In the end, perhaps the reason that video games as a medium feels far less elastic and much more deeply rooted in various traditions is due to the simple fact that they have a history now. Much like how early motion pictures were far more inventive than modern films, video games have gone through their own set of growing pains and settled on various frameworks. While adhesion to whatever institutions that have taken root in the industry are obviously not mandatory, they’ve effectively become a groove that the industry as a whole have settled into, effectively creating the landscape we know today.

Dark Horse Ensemble

I’m going to be completely honest here: lately, I’ve been feeling a little burnt out in some ways when it comes to modern gaming. Not enough to drop the habit entirely, as I did during the sixth generation, but the feelings of nostalgia I felt back then have bubbled back up to the surface, albeit for different reasons. Instead of the simple statement that “games back in the old games were, like, a billion times better!” (ah, the simplicity of adolescence!), these feelings are a bit more introspective. Instead, what I long for were the paradigm shifts of yore: when every electronics company tried to break into the video game console market, when big-name companies would actually publish the weird experimental games you only see as indies nowadays, back when computer games and video games were completely different things. Back when, at least from my perspective, video games were in their “wild west” period: an era where a plucky Hanafuda card company could break into the scene and take over the entire video game market, only to be toppled down the line by the company that brought us Betamax.

Originally, I was going to write a single article to attempt to flush out my nostalgia into something worthwhile. However, just due to how nebulous everything I’m talking about is and the fact that the original concept could only come across as a bitter rant from a nostalgic millennial, I was advised to split it into two articles instead. This time, we’ll be focusing on the hardware side of things – stay tuned for the software side of things sometime soon.

Since the sixth generation, the first-party gaming companies have been, shall we say, set in stone: Nintendo, which emerged all the way back during the third generation of gaming; Sony, which burst onto the scene during the fifth in an act of unbridled revenge on the former; and wacky PC company Microsoft sliding into the sixth generation, effectively taking over for the departing Sega. In previous generations, however, there were several pretenders to the throne – even back when people would have you believe there were even less choices. Now this article won’t be, by any means, comprehensive: instead, owing to the nostalgic origin of this piece, I’ll be writing about the systems I can remember most vividly.

First, let’s start with something a bit less obscure: the Sega Master System. Released in North America in 1986, the Master System was Sega’s first console released outside of Japan – it was known as the Mark III in its country of origin, being preceded by both the SG-1000 and the SG-1000 II, technically making it Sega’s third console overall. Now obviously, the Master System didn’t do such a great job breaking into the American market (as evidenced by the fact that what most people referred to as a “Sega” was generally the Genesis/MegaDrive), it did manage to break into a very profitable niche both in Europe and Latin America, especially Brazil. Regardless, the system sold well enough worldwide for Sega to continue tinkering with console hardware, before releasing their magnum opus: the aforementioned Genesis. While I personally had no experience with the Master System itself, it still manages to hold a special place in my heart: after all, the first video game system I ever owned was Sega’s Game Gear, which was effectively a portable (and significantly more popular) Master System.

Speaking of the Game Gear, here’s a fun fact: it wasn’t even the first handheld console to serve up games in color. Predating Sega’s slimmest handheld by two years in North America, The Atari Lynx was not only the first Atari system to be named after a wildcat, it was also surprisingly long-lived, being sold all the way into 1995. Cheaper and more power efficient than the Game Gear that would push it into obscurity, the Lynx’s Achilles’ heel was critical: it had an absolutely miniscule library of games, only managing to hit 75 official releases by the time the console was discontinued. That means that for its entire lifespan (from 1989 to 1995), the Lynx averaged roughly 12 and a half games a year. The main game I remember from the console was, bafflingly, a port of Ninja Gaiden III from the NES, though it had a respectable amount of ports, such as Robotron 2084, Ms. Pac-Man, Hard Drivin’, Pit Fighter, Double Dragon and bafflingly, the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden.

Another interesting factoid generally lost on most of us was the fact that the Sega Genesis was released in North America in August 1989, thus officially starting the fourth generation of video games for the Western hemisphere. Of course, many people would think that the Genesis would have to wait until the Super Nintendo was released in 1991 for some real competition, but you’d be wrong. The ultimate in also-rans, the TurboGrafx-16, released by Turbo Technologies Inc. (or TTI, for short), was released the same year as the Genesis in North America, but actually predated it in Japan: the MegaDrive was released in 1988, while the NEC’s PC-Engine (the TurboGrafx’s Japanese counterpart) was released the previous year. NEC’s little wonder console would also manage to beat Sega to many other milestones as well. The most notable of these would have to be the TurboGrafx-CD, released in North America in 1989, an add-on unit akin to the Sega CD. There was also 1992’s TurboDuo, which combined the CD into the base unit and beefed up the system specs as well. In addition, TTI (a joint venture of NEC and primary developer Hudson Soft) released the Super System Card by mail order, which upgraded existing TurboGrafx-CDs to the same specs as the TurboDuo.

Of course, perhaps the most amazing thing about the TurboGrafx-16 was its mascot: not platformer mascot Bonk (or PC Genjin, as he was known in Japan), I’m talking about Johnny Turbo. Truly a product of the halcyon age of the ‘90s, Johnny Turbo was the totally rad alter ego of computer expert Johnathan Brandstetter who fought against the evil alien overlords over at “FEKA” who were spreading lies about how the TurboDuo wasn’t the first CD-based game system on the market. Needless to say, the TurboGrafx-16 was generally considered a loser outside of its country of origin, mainly due to the fact that the base system was weaker than the Sega Genesis (which from our perspective, came out first) and that many of the best games the system had to offer were strictly Japan-only releases, leaving us with less recognizable games and some truly abysmal Western-developed releases. The ironic thing about this was that, in Japan, the MegaDrive was actually the third most popular system of its generation, effectively being trounced by the PC-Engine and its countless off-shoots.

However, perhaps the most incredible thing to come out of the TurboGrafx experiment was the TurboExpress. Released a whopping 4 years before Sega’s own portable Genesis the Nomad, the TurboExpress was a fully functional portable TurboGrafx-16 that could play all of the TG-16’s games. It also had a TV tuner, which allowed owners to transform the TurboExpress into a portable TV, much like the Game Gear had and even offered a link cable to allow for two-player play. In fact, a few TurboGrafx-16 games even had unique multiplayer modes for the TurboExpress.

Next up, we come to what was perhaps the biggest loser of any of the consoles I’ll be talking about in this article: the 3DO. Conceived by EA founder Trip Hawkins and developed by the aptly named 3DO company, the 3DO wasn’t so much a console as it was a series of specifications. Panasonic manufactured the first units back in 1993, but both Sanyo and GoldStar (later LG) would begin producing their own models in 1994. In essence, it was effectively the predecessor to Valve’s current model for its Steam Machines. The 3DO was a technological powerhouse back when it was initially released in 1993. Unfortunately, it was also launched at a whopping $699. Likewise, the game’s library generally consisted of some fairly unwieldy PC ports though there were a few gems on it. My main memory of the 3DO was playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo on it at a short-lived game shop near my house and I was literally blown away: my young mind was so impressed because while the Genesis and SNES couldn’t handle Super Turbo, this behemoth could! Unfortunately, developers never really adapted to the hardware and by the time both the PS1 and Saturn came out, the 3DO’s impressive technology had aged like an internet meme. It just couldn’t compete and bowed out entirely in 1996. 3DO did plan a successor, dubbed the M2, but eventually bowed out of the market and sold the concept to Panasonic who eventually abandoned their planned concept. The technology lived on in ATMs and coffee vending machines and Konami would also license its use to build an arcade board in the late 1990s.

Speaking of expensive powerhouses, what list would be complete without the NeoGeo Advanced Entertainment System. Now, while I’m sure most gamers are at least marginally aware of the NeoGeo Multi Video System, a proprietary arcade board built by SNK, substantially less should be familiar with its home console variant. Released in 1990 at a whopping $649.99, The NeoGeo AES was quite literally worth the price of admission, as it had the exact same specs and library as the MVS. Think about that, you could literally play arcade-perfect versions of arcade games from the comfort of your home at a mere $200 and without the hassle of trying to stash multiple arcade machines in your garage or basement. Of course, while the AES didn’t enjoy mainstream success, it did have a dedicated fanbase and an extremely long lifespan, with the last title being released in 2004. Then there’s the NeoGeo CD, released in 1994 at a much more reasonable $399, with games costing $50 apiece. Unfortunately, the NGCD was marred by extremely long load times, though the Japan-exclusive NeoGeo CDZ doubled its disc-read speed and its last game was released in 1999. The NeoGeo CD did have its fair share of exclusive titles however, the most well-known being Samurai Shodown RPG, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Last but not least, I’ll be talking about the also-ran that’s the closest to my heart. The one system on this list, I not only own, but owned while it was still alive and kicking. Despite relative success in the arcade and enthusiast gaming markets, SNK decided to branch out even further – into the handheld market. The Neo Geo Pocket was originally only released in Japan as a black-and-white handheld, but its successor, the Neo Geo Pocket Color saw a much wider release, including North America. A simple system to say the least, the NGPC was unique in many ways. It had the best selection of fighting games on a handheld EVER (yes, I’d say it’s even better than the Vita in that respect), but it also managed to push SNK out of their arcade-style comfort zone, allowing them to develop more refined gameplay experiences: classic turn-based RPGs like Card Fighters’ Clash and Biomotor Unitron, the turn-based strategy game Faselei!, the action RPG Dark Arms: Beast Busters 1999 and even third party support from Sega in the form of Sonic Pocket Adventure. Alas, when SNK closed down for the first time in 2000, the NGPC fell by the wayside, leaving several titles in limbo, including a revival of Ikari Warriors, a third game in the King of Fighters R series, NFL Blitz, Magician Lord and perhaps most heart-breaking of all to me, Windjammers. As an aside, ever since SNK announced that they’re looking through old IPs to revive in the near future, I’m personally hoping they consider giving another shot to ladies-only fighting game Gals’ Fighter, an NGPC original.

In the end, talking about these old failures scratched that nostalgic itch ever so lightly, which is kind of ironic. Back when they existed, I generally considered the majority of them as pathetic imitators attempting to encroach on the territory of “real video games”, but when I think back on them, they were just a part of what made the environment so exciting back then. After all, no one thought Sony was going to become a powerhouse during the fifth generation and everyone expected Microsoft to drop out after the initial Xbox’s lack of success, only for the 360 to best the PS3 for the majority of its lifespan. Lately though, the closest we’ve seen to these competitors of old have been Valve’s line of Steam Machines and the Ouya, the crowd-funded failure of an Android console. More depressing still, this was even more action than we saw in the previous two generations. For the reasons I’ve stated, I’m actually somewhat excited to see what happens with Fuze Entertainment’s Tomahawk F1, which was released in China back in June. I’ll be honest, I agree with the general consensus that it looks a bit lame, and yet, that’s the reason I’m excited for it. I’m getting the warm fuzzies of nostalgia for this thing because it almost looks like the modern-day equivalent of the Atari Jaguar. Of course, who knows? It could surprise us.

But Is It Art? – Street Fighter: The Movie (Arcade)

I’ve wanted to do another one of these articles for quite some time now. In fact, I really wanted to do another one right after finishing up the first one about Bubsy. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t think of any topics that I both considered interesting and had enough knowledge about. However, not too long ago, a friend of mine suggested I do a new one, as he was a fan of the first and challenged me to rack my brain for inspiration for a suitable topic. Somehow, challenging me to continue this series gave me the inspiration for a new topic in record time.

If you haven’t read the title of the article, the topic of this entry in the “But Is It Art?” series is Street Fighter: The Movie: …The Game. Specifically, the version released in arcades circa June 1995. Now this game (which from here on out, I’ll abbreviate as “SFTM”) is the pinnacle of willfully forgotten Street Fighter games: it lacks the historical significance of the original Street Fighter from 1987; there is no real (albeit misguided) demand for character original to this iteration to make reappearances in future titles, quite unlike the Street Fighter EX series (developed by ARIKA) and there’s definitely no call for the game to be re-released, due to the game having the infamous reputation of being the worst Street Fighter game of all-time – even when taking into account the hyperbole slung at the most recent Street Fighter V.

Yet, I still beg the question: is it art? Where most stream monsters see an abomination cobbled together by the hands of a worthless “baka gaijin” company from the 1990s, I see what may very well be the most brilliant movie-to-video game adaptation of all time! Consider this, SFTM’s arcade version was generally considered a poor conversion of the classic Street Fighter 2, but who among you would not claim the exact same of its source material: the ill-received, ironic cult classic that was 1994’s Street Fighter movie. Can one consider a game that truly embodies the essence of the film it was commissioned to represent really be considered a failure? As I argued that Bubsy was a parody of the original Sonic the Hedgehog before, I now argue that Incredible Technologies made the greatest video game adaption of a major motion picture in the history of both mediums.

First off, let’s look at Exhibit A: the mindset behind the movie’s creation itself. Steven E. de Souza, the movie’s director actually wanted to actively downplay the “supernatural” elements of the games in his film adaptation, citing that adherence to the source material was what made the Super Mario Bros. movie a critical flop. Considering the fact that the movie that provided the basis from this game decided to actively avoid elements from the source material, wouldn’t it be more accurate to equally avoid those elements when converting the inaccurate movie into its own video game? Indeed, the game would only be considered defective if you were looking at it as a straight replication of the Street Fighter II games –this was strictly not the case: the game was a tie-in for the movie, which took its own creative liberties.

Exhibit B is a little more esoteric, but hopefully all will be revealed by the end of this paragraph. During the production of the Street Fighter movie, Capcom put an extreme emphasis on nabbing famous action star Jean-Claude Van Damme to play the leading role of William F. Guile, to the extent where they used a majority of the film’s budget signing both him and Raúl Juliá. The majority of the film’s cast reprised their roles in the game, with the exception of Juliá, who was replaced by a stuntman due to his ailing health. Why do I bring this up? Simple, it is almost common knowledge at this point that the original plan for Mortal Kombat was to create a licensed video game based on van Damme’s 1992 film Universal Soldier. Midway counter-pitched a game focused on Van Damme himself instead, taking inspiration from his 1988 film Bloodsport. As we all know, those plans fell through, but Van Damme provided the inspiration for the character Johnny Cage. Considering the fact that at least in the West, Mortal Kombat was Street Fighter’s chief rival at the time, bragging about the fact that Capcom had succeeded where Midway had failed seems like an entirely plausible theory – though ironically, van Damme only managed to record four hours of motion capture for the game, the rest of the digital captures were provided by one of Van Damme’s stuntmen: Mark Stefanich.

Finally, there’s Exhibit C: the fact that the movie itself was a Western production, it would only make sense for the video game adaptation itself to take on some Western design philosophies, in order to better match the tone and style of the film itself. Unfortunately for the game itself, at this point, the majority of 2D fighting games were simply terrible clones of the Mortal Kombat series, many so bad I have a sinking suspicion they were intended more as parodies than copycats. Even Mortal Kombat’s chief Western rival, Killer Instinct, aped elements of the game including blood and dynamic finishing moves. In fact, Incredible Technologies, the game’s developer, was no strange to Mortal Kombat clones, having made two of their own: 1992’s Time Killers and 1994’s Blood Storm – which is likely the reason why Capcom recruited them to make their own digitized live-action fighting game (even though both games actually used sprites).

As an aside, I just find it kind of interesting that many people consider the home console game – which was an entirely different game from the arcade version, which never received a home port – to be the superior game, though both are generally disliked. The home version was just a dolled-up recycling of the engine for the classic Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Granted, the home version of SFTM did add some new elements, actually being the first time in a Street Fighter game where you could use “EX” special moves (referred to as “Super Special Moves” in-game), predating even Street Fighter III 2nd Impact. Likewise, the roster was changed to better resemble Super Turbo as well: Sawada was kept, as he was a replacement for Fei Long, but the four palette-swapped Bison Troopers were removed from the game and replaced with Blanka and Dee Jay. Interestingly enough, there was an unused ending for Blanka in the arcade version, implying that he may have at one point been considered as a playable character. Even more bizarre was the absence of both Dhalsim and T. Hawk from both versions, despite appearing in the movie itself. Regardless, though the home version is considered the superior version of the game, my preferences lie with the arcade version, because all-in-all, no matter how bad the game itself may have been, the conversion made for home consoles was just an inferior version of a game that was eventually made available for both of the consoles SFTM appeared on – via the first Street Fighter Collection, a two-disc set that included Super Street Fighter II, Super Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 2 Gold.

Of course, the argument that could be made against this theory is pretty obvious: Incredible Technologies doesn’t exactly have the best track record, though they would eventually enjoy reasonable success with the Golden Tee series. Likewise, while you’re unlikely to find Time Killers and Blood Storm on anyone’s top 10 worst fighting games of all-time list, the memorable aspects of these two games were their gimmicks, not great gameplay. Considering the fact that Capcom worked with such abominable companies as Acclaim, U.S. Gold and my mortal enemy, Hi-Tech Expressions, it’s entirely possible that this was just a cynical cash grab at the hands of Capcom to try to win over fans of their chief fighting game rival for the least amount of money possible. Fun fact: Incredible Technologies also co-developed Ducktales: The Quest for Gold on various computer systems (not to be confused with Capcom’s NES and Game Boy titles). That was actually the only Ducktales game I ever played growing up. Maybe I’ll revive Repressious Memories and do an episode on it someday.

In the end, whether or not it was art, despite all the horrible things people have said about this game, it did some interesting things. Alongside the original Street Fighter Alpha (which came out the same month), it was one of the first Street Fighter games to expand on the Super Combo concept, allowing characters the chance to perform more than one. It gave some classic Street Fighter characters some brand new moves, most notably Guile’s Handcuffs, a reference to the infamous glitch from the original version of Street Fighter II. It was even unique to see a Capcom-published fighting game ape the concept of SNK’s desperation moves – special attacks only available to fighters when they lost a certain amount of health – though in this case, they were more like standard special moves than the super combo-esque moves more common in SNK’s version. There were also counter throws, the ability to interrupt blocks to perform special moves (not unlike an Alpha Counter) and SFTM Arcade even had the distinctive honor of being the first Capcom game to incorporate a “Tag Team” mode, predating X-Men vs. Street Fighter by over a year. Granted, this game’s Tag Mode was more like the 2-on-2 mode in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3: not allowing to switch characters on the fly, rather the second character would take the first’s place when they were defeated and the round would continue until both of one player’s characters were defeated.

Granted, I probably don’t have the best opinions with regards to the Street Fighter series in general. I don’t consider the first game to be an unplayable abomination, simply because my first experience with it was with a PC port so terrible, it made the original arcade version look like a gaming masterpiece. While most people fight over whether Super Turbo and Third Strike is the best game in the series, I personally tended to prefer the Alpha sub-series. So maybe considering Street Fighter: The Movie: The Arcade Game to be something of a work of art is just another one of those offbeat opinions I have.

What do you think? Was SFTM a brilliant commentary on its own flawed source material or a truly cynical fighting game built by committee to appeal to Capcom’s own pessimistic viewpoint of Mortal Kombat fans? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section.

Top 10 Games I Want Ported FROM PC

In the past, I’ll admit, I’ve had a tendency to write articles that were simply thinly-veiled attempts at port-begging – one of the perceived cardinal sins of PC gamers in general. Eventually, I decided to branch out into asking that old and nearly-forgotten games be re-released on modern platforms, partially out of the revelation that begging for games on a single platform was completely self-serving, but equally important was the fact that I was just running low on material in general: hopefully that problem won’t end up rectifying itself.

Regardless, after those articles began to dry up, I considered multiple ways to keep the concept alive. While I’m happy with what I ended up deciding on, there were some other concepts I managed to kick around: one of them a simple enough concept – a complete reversal on the original idea, done up as an April Fools’ parody of one of those PC ports articles, done completely tongue-in-cheek, focusing on the idea that it was, in fact, the console gamers that were being deprived of games. As time went on, I began to feel that the joke article simultaneously came off as too bitter in tone and was far too interesting of an article to relegate to joke status. So while I still decided to release the article on April 1st, it’s now a legitimate article, detailing 10 games I feel console gamers should be allowed to play.

The rules for this article is somewhat different than the usual. This time, we’re looking at relatively recent PC games (let’s say, games that were released from 2006 – a decade ago, near the beginning of the seventh-generation of video game consoles) that have not appeared on consoles at the time this article was written. To make things a little more interesting, I’m also going to opine on which platforms the game would be best suited.
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