The mid-nineties was a strange time for us gamers. We had long become used to pixel art and the two dimensions, and then along came polygons and the third dimension. We had our Fez moment if you like, but unlike Gomez we had obvious signs that it was coming. Early vector based games in the arcades and at home didn’t count at the time because it seemed more like a gimmick, far less common than the usual sprites and parallax scrolling. The likes of Virtua Racing and Starfox, with their non-textured polygons, didn’t really feel like the future even if they were awesome.
For me it all changed with Ridge Racer in the arcades which was the first and best example of pixel art on polygons that was truly impressive. What followed with the likes of Daytona USA, Tekken and Sega Rally was just the build up to the real change; being able to play those games at home. So, with the release of the Playstation, Saturn and Nintendo 64 the change from 2D to 3D was complete and only that dimensional trifecta would be good enough from then on. Only that wasn’t the case. At this time Japan was still the beating heart of the video game industry, with all the successful console hardware coming from them along with most of the top class software.
3D hadn’t been force fed to them like it was to us in Europe and the US and, while 3D was in its infancy, 2D was fully maturing into something beautiful. In Japan pixels sat comfortably alongside polygons as a viable aesthetic for games but we got shafted. By that I mean ignorant, middle-aged white men decided that 2D was dead, they decided that for us. Thanks guys, good job as usual. With many of the best 2D works staying in Japan the rest of us, particularly poor Saturn owners, had to sift through a (small) sea of messy, warped 3D turds to find the golden nuggets. These days it’s easy to see what we have gained, the list is a long one, but consigning pixel art to the world of the HD re-issues and independent developers has, in my opinion, resulted in the loss of something. That little bit of magic that only visible pixels, without that pesky third dimension, can create. Yes, progress took a sneaky shit on our dinner again.
No game that I have played on the Xbox 360, even the mighty Grand Theft Auto 5, has the same effect on me as playing Thunder Force 3 on Sega’s finest and I currently have an unhealthy addiction to GTA Online with an embarrassingly large amount of hours on the clock. I think it’s a brilliant game with massive potential and the finest piece of software from the last generation. However, if I was forced to choose between that and Castle of Illusion as my only desert island game……I’d choose Mickey in a heartbeat. Not because I have any particular affinity for Disney, nor because I’m one of those aggressive fanboy types but because there is more joy to be had from ten minutes with Castle of Illusion than ten days with GTAO. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a fact. Modern, cutting edge games use various tactics (and a few cheap tricks) to keep you playing and invested but it’s usually just the latest iteration of a popular brand name or idea, perpetuating the saga of cherry-topped repetition.
Perhaps the best example of this is the pollution of pre-owned sections with past sports titles, going all the way back to the PS2. The first EA Hockey game on the Mega Drive though, that’s a classic. Grand Theft Auto 3 is, and always will be many things but timeless is not one of them. It still plays fine, and its relevance in the gaming history books will forever be intact, but time and progress has not been so kind to the rest of it. That’s one of many examples. Toejam & Earl, Super Castlevania IV, Super Probotector, Fantasy Zone, Super Mario Bros….all timeless. Why is this? Why does the first Tomb Raider game play like joyless ass today but Yoshi’s Island remains pure joy? I don’t know, it’s the magic contained in those pixels I guess, but I do know what some, if not many people would say.
Nostalgia, it’s because of nostalgia that I prefer pixels, right? Wrong. Rose-tinted glasses play their part, I’d be lying if I said otherwise, but just a small part. Thanks to the internet I can satisfy nostalgia by watching one of many retro video game themed shows: Game Sack, The Game Chasers, AVGN, Continue?, all great shows that were born from a desire to revisit the past and fed by public desire, primarily from the older gamer, to go there. Hell, you can even watch one of those ace longplay things if you wanted or needed a fix. Seeing and hearing retro games can get the job done, as does simply owning these systems and games. I can get my fix by reading an old manual from a Master System game….and then smelling it (don’t roll your eyes, you know you’ve done it too). Even the Super Nintendo logo has the power to take me back in time and make my heart flutter a little bit. Actually playing them though, that satisfies something else other than nostalgia, and for me at least it’s something that can rarely be satisfied by the modern approach. Perhaps this is why, at the tender age of 37, I get a little bit excited when a Mega Drive game arrives in the post. Not because I can read the back of the box, read (and sniff) the manual or put it up on the shelf with the others but because I can play it….immediately. Just slap that cart in the slot and away we go, no updates, no day one patches, no loading….no bullshit.
Maybe that’s it; maybe it’s a trust thing. A crappy game was still a crappy game back in the day but it didn’t take a few hours to find out that it was an unfinished, broken mess like it does these days. You could usually return games, or at least exchange them, with no problems so a duff purchase was never eating away at your pride for very long. These days you could be waiting months for a game to be fixed so it actually works properly, by which time it has been devalued quite a bit and it’s long past the hour for any restitution. That’s assuming you didn’t download it which comes with little or no chance of a refund. Given the state of mainstream games right now, and the industry practices that fuel them, I think that it’s rather foolish to pay for a download, to pay more than a physical disc I might add, that you can’t refund if it turns out they released yet another work in progress. Trust has to be earned but it can also be lost very easily. Many of the big hardware and software organisations have, in recent years, been walking a very fine line with regards to this particular matter. No names, we all know who they are, but their failures have led to the steady rise of the Gamers Rights Army and various other oxygen thieves like the Super Fanboy.
Like a defence lawyer forced to play dirty because they know their client is guilty, the Super Fanboy will lie through his or her tightly wound ass, unable to admit that their beloved Micronintony is as spurious as the rest of them. These are just a couple of things that a lack of trust has helped to create in the world of video games. Didn’t used to be like this, if you couldn’t settle the argument one way with phrases like “blast processing” or “mode seven” then a dead leg usually did the trick. Nobody laughed at you if you had a Mega-CD (usually they wanted to play on it), nobody threatened to kill the programmers of Pit-Fighter on the SNES (a crime far greater than tweaking a weapon setting on Call of Duty). Things have indeed changed: There’s too much money, too much pressure, too many boardroom members, too many promises to break, too many lies told and far too much expectation and demand. Not even the competition is healthy anymore.
I think perhaps the best analogy here would be the introduction of CGI in movies. You used to have to be creative to get grand visions up on the big screen; practical effects, make up, miniatures….that way you had to limit the screen time of any special effect so any holes or flaws couldn’t be too obvious, at least on the first viewing. These days CGI is the standard and, while it does allow very grand visions that you could never do before, it mostly looks like very expensive ass. Added CGI scenes in E.T. and Star Wars? That hurt those films quite a bit and took away some of the magic that the untouched originals still, and probably always will, have. Modern 3D remakes of old 2D classics? Come on, you can count all the ones that truly worked out on one hand. Not only is modern technology unable to recreate the magic from the past but it is constantly struggling to create some of its own. Polygons are much like CGI in the way they have become the norm, the standard, and they have done much the same as CGI has by taking over from something, or things, that worked beautifully before.
Time may yet prove me wrong in some way, I kind of hope it does, but it won’t. Just like proper game music and a fun retail culture it looks like this magic that I have been referring to has gone from video games for good. Thankfully, as long as you own them, you can watch, listen, sniff and play these retro games and still experience the kind of joy that you once did. And if you don’t agree with me or you just don’t know what the hell I’m talking about then I guess I only have one thing to say to you:
Enjoy your dinner.