A Simple Question for a Simple Mind
Back in August of 2011 when I wrote my first Games Appreciation article (Fun fact: I actually wrote Adventure first; I didn’t write Oregon Trail until August of 2014) I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought it would be a cinch to write about the games that held a special place in video game history. By then I had already compiled a list of games I considered the best; nothing to it, right? Well, in 2011-2012 I began intently reading up on the history of games so that I could one day call myself a Video Game Historian–and immediately shush any laughter that resulted–and during my research I found out that some games were overrated, some were sorely underrated, others still were completely forgotten. It became quite clear that my task was about to become a lot more involved. Here’s a sample of what 1982 had to offer.
But why write these articles at all? Well, let’s have a little quiz. How many of the following IPs (Intellectual Properties) do you recognize without clicking on the links?
How’d you do? I imagine your results varied greatly based on your age and what year you’re reading this in. I chose these examples specifically to point out how arbitrary our collective memory can be. “The Legend of Korra,” being a cartoon on Nickelodeon, is unpopular in the grand scheme of things despite being a far better show than, well, 90% percent of shows out there. I’m guessing (and I dearly hope I’m correct) that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” will be forgotten just like most other reality TV shows. The others have their own story. “Chappelle’s Show” and “Laugh-In” were both very well-loved but short-lived. “The Matrix” is a very well-known film based on the not-at-all well-known movie “Ghost in the Shell.” “The Smurfs” was never a good show (mediocre at best) but it stubbornly remains a part of our culture along with the likes of “Romeo & Juliet.” Most Americans who have heard of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy probably only know of it because of the awful movie adaptation. You see where I’m going with this?
It’s not always the best and greatest works of art that survive the test of time, unfortunately. It seems that that was the case before the invention of the printing press (after all, what scribe would bother preserving a book that no one wants to read?) but now it seems that with ease of propagation popularity can surpass quality without even trying. The loathsome ditty “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies was the best-selling song of 1969, despite being released the same year as “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones and “Someday We’ll Be Together” by Diana Ross & The Supremes. Oh yeah, and the entirety of “Abbey Road” by The Beatles! Stupid hippies….
The preservation of information is a blessing but also a curse, for it means that the bad information will stick around along with the good and middling. Because of this, every second of every day information piles up on top of piles of information. Here’s a link to the Amazon page where you can buy a DVD of the 2013 film “Snitch.” You mean you’ve never heard of it? Well, it’s been preserved for the rest of eternity on optical disk, along with millions of other two-hour films and millions of 30-60 minute TV programs. Get crackin!
If I’ve reminded you of your mortality and you are depressed at the seeming futility of the search for knowledge, I’m sorry. If it makes you feel any better, there’s no way anyone could know every fact or read every book or eat every cheesecake.
What I can do–the one small solution I can offer to this conundrum–is to point out the games that are the best and most worthwhile of your attention. Millions of gamers, without even knowing it, are at this moment playing games influenced by Escape from the Mindmaster, Scramble, and Joust. Furthermore, most gamers don’t even know those games exist. We play roguelikes without ever having heard of Rogue. When I was three the first video game I ever played was Super Mario Bros. Children now are playing GTA V and Angry Birds and [insert whatever throwaway game is popular this week here]. I’m going to make sure that my children have a classical education. They will be familiar with Bach, Beatrix Potter, Charlie Chaplin, and Miyamoto Shigeru. There will be no generation gap in my house–it’s absurd. Also, how ridiculous is it that Crush the Castle never became popular but its inferior rip-off Angry Birds sold tens of millions? How is it that Piou Piou never amounted to anything but its rip-off Flappy Bird took the world by storm four years later? Arbitrary cultural memory, that’s how. (Plus, it might have something to do with the formula ___ Bird(s).)
New information has all-but-completely buried the old and most people are too overwhelmed or disinterested to pick up a shovel. Partially inspired by Justin Towell’s old series on Gamesradar.com, I decided that I would separate the wheat from the chaff and show why these old games were great then and why they’re still great now. Even after exhaustive researching (about two years too late– I never wrote an article on Stampede because I didn’t know it existed), the question still remained of what exactly qualified as a great game. I mean, greater than great; the créme de la créme. I wanted to be able to say with authority what the best games in the medium were, but I wasn’t sure of how to do that exactly, seeing as how opinions are subjective.
Many gamers consider Berzerk to be a great classic and for the life of me I shall never know why. In such a case I really have to ask myself “Am I just being blind, or are they blinded by nostalgia?” Sometimes that question is laughably easy to answer. Other times, I really have to pause and think. Although I haven’t been able to remove all subjectivity from my viewpoint (sadly), I have devised a checklist reminding me of what major points a game should have. I often have to force myself to set aside my emotional attachment and exclude those games that are unworthy, and include those that are, whether I like it or not. (update: I wrote this article in December of 2013 and have been waiting until the end of the 2nd generation to post it. Since that time I have gradually been finding it easier and easier to exclude good-but-not-great games. This I can attribute to a sudden realization that entertainment is to happiness as seasoning is to food–a compliment but not a substitute. Now that I have close friends and happiness, I just don’t have the same need for entertainment as I used to.)
So, here are the requirements I have come up with to act as a filter. This, combined with my fervent, continuing study of game design and commentary, should enable me to separate the great from the eh. In order for a game to qualify for an appreciation review it must satisfy 13 of the 14 following requirements in addition to being enjoyable in nondescript terms.
- · Contain gameplay mechanic that is deep and timeless (meaning it will be engaging whether played the first time or the hundredth). (e.g. Portal) (anti-example: Shadow Warrior)
o Whether this means depth in terms of strategy, reflexes, pattern recognition, puzzle-solving, or otherwise, game must present due challenge and satisfaction without getting old.
- · Rely on skill more so than luck. (e.g. XCOM) (anti-example: Zork III)
o If a player wins or loses a game because of (an) action/s independent of the player’s skill it relies on luck too much and is disqualified.
o If an incorrect skill-based decision results in a weakened character who is then destroyed by a luck-based occurrence, and such a luck-based occurrence would not have killed the character had it not already been in a skill-based weakened state, the game is not excessively luck-based.
o To say “luck-based” is to refer also to a cheating computer. An unfair disadvantage imposed by a cheating computer counts as “excessive luck.” (guilty: Mario Kart)
- · Be just as much fun to play today as it was when it came out. (e.g. Asteroids) (anti-example: World Games) This requirement is the most complex of all the requirements, since it requires a great deal of analysis of every aspect of gameplay, and subsequent judgment calls on those aspects. Woe is me. To simplify, examples of aspects that detract from fun include tedium (Devil May Cry 3), trial-and-error (Taipan!), and monotony (Phaser Patrol).
o Corollary: If a remake or port satisfactorily fixes the problems of the original, it will act as an exemption. (e.g. Metroid: Zero Mission) (anti-example: Ys 2)
- · Not contain an action required to beat the game without notifying the player such an action is required. (guilty: King’s Quest V)
o Meaning, do not force the player to restart the game because s/he forgot to pick up an item at the beginning (a situation known as Dead Man Walking). If an item is required, make the player get it or make it available for as long as necessary so the player can always be able to collect it later. That freaking custard pie, man!
- · Observe essential consistency. (example: Mirror’s Edge) (anti-example: Bioshock)
o Gameplay variety is good, but an 11th hour divergence for no reason is not. On the other hand, NOT diverging, when diverging is necessary, is also unacceptable. In the case of Mass Effect, Shepard’s powers of diplomacy result in Saren dying, but immediately afterward the player is treated to a typical, clichéd, video game boss battle with a health bar and everything. The game betrayed the strengths of its own diplomacy mechanic and diverged to shooting-gameplay for no reason. (At least it’s not as bad as L.A. Noire. Instead of ending with a super-tough interrogation, it ends with a flamethrower extravaganza in a sewer. Wow, just wow.) In the case of Bioshock, the player ought to have been free after learning about his true nature and Fontaine. Continuing to take orders from a radio for the rest of the game along a linear path presents a failure to necessarily diverge (and then ends with another typical, clichéd, video game boss battle.) Mirror’s Edge is about running, not gunning, and it follows through to the very end.
- · Be free of plot holes which jeopardize the fundamental integrity of the story. (e.g. Metal Gear Solid) (anti-example: Mass Effect 3)
- · Not present a protagonist whose controllable actions are at odds with uncontrollable ones, such that it fundamentally compromises the story. (guilty: Bioshock: Infinite)
o Meaning, a protagonist must not make a decision during a cutscene or gameplay which is the exact opposite of what the player would choose were s/he allowed full control, unless there’s a darn good reason for it. There is no excuse for a schizophrenic protagonist (unless you’re playing Kane & Lynch). Game must also present illusion of choice in such a way that it cheats the player (guilty: Final Fantasy VIII)
- · Not jump the shark. Unless a game is a remake, it must respect previously-established canon. (guilty: God of War III)
- Story must also agree with itself. No matter how closely or loosely the story follows “The Hero’s Journey” it must have solidity and sensibility. A plot twist that comes out of nowhere just to shock and awe the player is unacceptable (example: Sonic the Hedgehog 3) (anti-example: Indigo Prophecy)
- · Present story in a way that does not bereave game of emotional investment. (e.g. Final Fantasy VI) (anti-example: The Witcher)
o Emotional engagement requires the story to dodge a few pitfalls, among them being a protagonist who is less compelling than a box of rocks. Expository dialogue and lack of physicality (i.e. minimal blocking) are prime examples of what is unnecessary in a visual medium—an interactive visual medium, no less. Long-winded monologues delivered about Emperor Jerkblade’s sinister plan to enslave the galaxy while the protagonist stands perfectly still with arms crossed have no place in video games, or anywhere else, really.
- Not be hindered by a technical fault which disorients the player (anti-example: Pac-Man for the Atari 2600). Examples include flickering (Ah Diddums), stuttering frame-rate (Virtual Hydlide), and excruciatingly long load times (Bayonetta for PS3).
- Not contain bugs which break the game or corrupt/delete save files. (guilty: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion)
o Corollary: If a player can be reasonably expected to install an easily-available patch which removes such bugs, it shall act as an exemption. (e.g. Sim City 4)
- · Move the medium forward. A game does not have to be original, but it does have to be innovative. (e.g. Uncharted) (anti-example: Alex Kidd)
- · Make it possible for the player to beat the game without external help. This way, gamers in the future may be able to beat a game without the aid of a copy-protection cheat sheet. (example: The Secret of Monkey Island) (anti-example: Police Quest)
- · Not be obsolete. If a subsequent entry in the series makes playing the first entry redundant, that later entry must be reviewed instead. (example: Pole Position)
I recognize that no game is perfect, and so I only require that 13 of the 14 criteria be met. Because each requirement is more or less self-contained, a game is allowed to be strong in one area and not another. To the Moon and Spec Ops: The Line are all about engaging the player emotionally. Neither one has the best gameplay in the world (no one is going to an arcade any time soon to spend 25¢ looking for mementos inside a lighthouse) but that’s OK, because their storytelling strengths excuse their clunky gameplay mechanics. Similarly, RPGs such as Final Fantasy can have some pretty wild and nonsensical plots, but it’s all worth it if it means that the player can spend fifty hours fighting the same random encounter 400 times to level up. Wait, what?
Next week, we’ll take a look at the games from the second generation that just didn’t quite make it. Maybe they were a little too repetitive, maybe a little too frustrating. Whatever reason, they just fell short of scoring an article. Nonetheless, these are the games that are great, perhaps so great I couldn’t bear not to mention them. Join me and we’ll take a look at the B-list. Who knows, you might just find a game you like better than the A-listers.