A Simple Question for a Simple Mind
Back in August of 2011 when I wrote my first Games Appreciation article 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. 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 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, what year you’re reading this in, and what you’re interested 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. 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 and mediocre film based on the not-at-all well-known but outstanding 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 usually 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, “Someday We’ll Be Together” by Diana Ross & The Supremes, and the album “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 going!
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 years old 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. 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, 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. This pondering compelled me to formulate a rubric that should allow me to be objective. 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.
Admittedly, evaluating the quality of a game requires some intuition–it’s possible for a game to check every box on the list and still be boring. Therefore, I made one final requirement which is to be generally enjoyable. But in order to balance things out and prevent my personal taste from being the deciding factor, a game only needs to meet 10 of 11 requirements to make the grade.
- Contain core gameplay that is duly deep and duly challenging.
- Whether this means depth in terms of strategy, reflexes, pattern recognition, puzzle-solving, player choice, or otherwise, game must present player with options. A game doesn’t have to have great complexity with its elements, but rather with how the player interacts with those elements. Tetris has very simple gameplay–you guide an endless procession of seven different blocks that fall to the bottom of a rectangular area. But the depth comes from how the player can interact with these blocks and the space within which they fall.
- A game may be easy if the low level of difficulty is “due.” For example, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is very easy, but the game is designed around this, so it can’t rightly be called too easy (and completing the game is quite difficult anyway). Sekiro is very difficult but the game is designed to be difficult, so the difficulty level is “due.” As an anti-example, Pokemon Generation 6 is easy, but the basis of the game is collecting and strategically battling monsters; if the challenge is reduced too far then there’s no point in thinking about one’s moves or Pokemon choices, therefore the game is too easy. Phantasy Star is meant to be challenging, but the amount of grinding required to beat the game is unreasonably high, therefore the game is too hard.
- This requirement is for core gameplay specifically. Jak & Daxter features a very shallow and overly-difficult fishing minigame. But because it only appears once, the low quality of this one minigame is not enough to drag down the game overall.
- Rely on skill more so than luck/trial-and-error.
- 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. In Dragon’s Lair, success relies on picking the correct option based on luck, several dozen times in a row. Winning on your first try is statistically impossible.
- 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 they not already been in a skill-based weakened state, the game is not excessively luck-based.
- To say “luck-based” is to refer also to a cheating computer. An unfair disadvantage imposed by a cheating computer counts as “excessive luck.” For example, in Mario Kart the AI cheats by spamming items, and the carts catch up to the player unfairly. In Mario Kart 8, however, it is almost always possible for a skilled player to win a race despite bad luck.
- Never allow the player into a Dead Man Walking situation unless it’s directly and predominately their fault.
- In King’s Quest V there is a custard pie which the player adds to their inventory early in the game. That custard pie is required to beat the game but the game makes no mention of this, nor does it prevent the player removing the pie from their inventory. It is possible to unknowingly put oneself in an unwinnable situation that requires a restart of the game. Such a situation is known as Dead Man Walking, in which you’re still alive and can walk around, but you can’t progress any further so you might as well be dead.
- Obscurity, when justified, is acceptable. In Final Fantasy no one tells you to talk to the pirates in Pravoka. But you are meant to figure that out on your own, and the world map is sufficiently boxed-in so that you don’t have many things to try before running out of options. Besides, the player’s natural curiosity leads them to talk to NPCs, especially ones who look special or out-of-place.
- Contain minimal ludonarrative dissonance or in-world inconsistency.
- Ludonarrative dissonance is dissonance that occurs between a game’s story and gameplay. In Tomb Raider 2013 a cutscene early in the game shows that Lara is emotionally devastated that she killed a person. She then kills hundreds more throughout the game without a single pang of guilt. The protagonist in Grand Theft Auto IV emigrates to America to get away from his murder-filled past, and then he murders untold numbers of police and civilians.
- In Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Dr. Eggman is able to run away from Sonic, with no explanation being offered. If Sonic is able to run at the speed of sound, as his name suggests, there is no reason that a human–and a terribly fat one–should be able to outrun him. If some explanation were given (say, Eggman having robotic legs or using a force field to slow Sonic, or perhaps Sonic intentionally slowing down out of a sense of fairness) then there’d be no issue.
- A small amount of dissonance for the sake of plot progression is excusable. In Ratchet and Clank 2, Ratchet is arrested by two guard robots. This stands in stark contrast to Ratchet regularly destroying enemy after enemy with a mighty arsenal of weapons. It doesn’t make sense that he’d surrender to two normal enemies. But Ratchet soon escapes anyway, so it doesn’t have a negative impact on the integrity of the story.
- A small amount of dissonance resulting from oversight can also be excusable. The frog in Frogger must reach a pool of water on the side of a river despite being unable to swim. Once the player discovers what to do, however, no more issues arise as a result of this dissonance.
- Observe essential gameplay consistency.
- Gameplay variety is good, but an 11th hour divergence for no reason is not. 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 difficult and lengthy interrogation with interwoven aspects, it ends with a flamethrower extravaganza in a sewer and a high-speed car chase.) Mirror’s Edge is about running, not gunning, and it follows through to the very end.
- On the other hand, NOT diverging, when diverging is necessary, is also unacceptable. 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.) In the Resident Evil series, on the other hand, there is appropriately a boss battle at the very end of the game. It is necessary to diverge from the usual fight-or-flight gameplay in order to test the player’s skills and inventory. A skilled player will have plenty of ammunition and health items left over which helps during the boss battle, so the one style of gameplay directly leads into the other. Keeping this in mind, it would be strange to not have a final boss battle.
- Present gameplay that is good on its own merits and doesn’t grow stale quickly.
- Gameplay may seem good to a given player only because it is tied to something else (such as a licensed tie-in that uses the player’s favorite characters) or part of a larger body (such as being the latest entry in a famous series). Entries in The Elder Scrolls series receive an absurdly generous amount of leeway for their deeply and fundamentally flawed gameplay. Fans regularly defend and even show affection for the numerous bugs in TES games. On the other hand, Star Fox Adventures was judged more harshly than it would have been otherwise because it was attached to Star Fox. Each game must be judged as if it were in a vacuum.
- It doesn’t matter if a game was good “for its time.” A game must be good now. Super Mario Bros., despite being primitive, is still fun to play now as it was in 1985. Battle Chess is not fun to play anymore because players can no longer tolerate such long wait times. Space Invaders is not nearly as fun anymore because its gameplay concept has been obsoleted by more full-featured games.
- Admittedly, how quickly a game’s gameplay grows stale is largely dependent upon the player. It may also be influenced by a player’s state of mind and experiences. Someone who has never played a beat-em-up game before may be enthralled endlessly by Treachery in Beatdown City whereas someone who has played many beat-em-ups may grow bored within a few minutes. In general, I will gravitate more toward the latter viewpoint–someone who has played many games in ___ genre before. If a game can capture and hold a seasoned veteran’s attention even after so many other games have attempted the same, then the gameplay must be special. (Also, it’s genuine because I actually have played many games in ___ genre. Almost every game, actually.)
- Good gameplay is not addictive or exploitative. Blizzard hired a psychologist to make World of Warcraft addictive via conditioning techniques. That’s not OK.
- Obviously, good gameplay is not needlessly annoying or tedious. The harpies in God of War are annoying, but they are meant to be as a challenge to the player, and they are not all over the place so you only have to deal with them some of the time. But the gameplay in most RPGs is tedious, being made up primarily of random encounters with turn-based combat. Having hundreds or thousands of such encounters throughout a game is objectively bad game design, no matter what fans of the genre say.
- Not be excessively hindered by technical faults.
- Examples include constant flickering (Ah Diddums), stuttering frame-rate (Virtual Hydlide), a plethora of bugs and glitches (The Elder Scrolls series), and excruciatingly long load times (Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex). Every game has technical faults but there is a sensible limit that must be respected.
- If a game’s technical issue(s) can be fixed with a single mod/patch, then it is exempt. But if two or more modifications are required, the faults are still considered excessive.
- Still be playable, without unreasonably long or complicated setup.
- If a game was really good but can no longer be played without substantial tinkering/setup/crying then it’s disqualified.
- This includes games which require certain hardware that cannot be approximated or substituted.
- Be free of major plot holes or ridiculous story elements.
- Mass Effect 1 & 2 make it abundantly clear that the Reapers cannot travel without mass relays. In the opening of Mass Effect 3, however, they do just that. Their invasion recontextualizes/retcons/spits on nearly everything that happened in the first two games. Aside from this, the ending of the game is riddled with too many plot holes to detail. In Bioshock Infinite, Booker being Comstock is indubitably the stupidest plot hole/paradox in video game history.
- The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a dream. In the Bionic Commando reboot Spencer’s arm is his dead wife. Final Fantasy VIII–the whole story after Disc 1. It’s just awful.
- Be fully playable without a physical copy of a manual or goodie.
- GoG.com is well-known for removing copy protection from games unless there’s a good reason to keep it. In the case of The Secret of Monkey Island they kept the copy protection but included an electronic copy of the wheel when you buy the game. This is acceptable because the .pdf will always be there.
- Games that require scannable items such as e-reader cards or amiibos are instantly disqualified unless the items are for extra content which the player doesn’t need to play the game.
- Have a net positive impact on the player when compared to the mean.
- Playing any video game has a positive effect on you because of the benefits that inhere to gaming (e.g. improving eye-hand coordination). For this reason, a game must be better than the mathematical mean of games to be a classic. Metal Gear Solid 3, even without considering its inherent benefits by virtue of being a video game, gives you something. It teaches you about Cold War-era technology and movies. It invites you to ask, “What is duty,” or “What is a soldier’s lot in life?” It makes you cry at the end. And, of course, it leaves you hungering for more. What do you get from Gone Home? You walk through a house reading notes and discover that you’re a lesbian. In Call of Duty you shoot people. In Mario Party you yell at your friends for screwing you over. What’s the point?
- If a game only has gameplay, then the gameplay must be really good in order to be above the mean. Bejeweled is fun, but offers nothing special. Super Mario World also relies on gameplay as its main strength, and said gameplay is so wonderful that it doesn’t even need the other characteristics.
I understand that no game is perfect. As I said before, I only require a game to meet 10 of the above 11 requirements. This allows games to be weak in one area and still be eligible. Spec Ops: The Line has weak gameplay for the most part, but in a manner of speaking the gameplay is not the focus or the attracting feature of the game. Rather, the gameplay is used as a tool to tell its poignant and impactful story. Bayonetta has marvelous gameplay but a ludicrous story. But both games have a place in Games Appreciation (probably).
It’s exciting to see what the 3rd generation of video games will bring.