Every so often, someone overhears me talking with a friend about older games, or they see my laptop wallpaper (I love my Phantasy Star desktops!), and the scenario always ends the same way. They always ask me why I still “waste my time” with old video games. Don’t you have a Playstation 3 or an Xbox 360?, they ask me. Yes I do… both, actually. What has that got to do with anything? Why does having a modern console automatically mean that everything that precedes it is obsolete and should automatically be discarded? It seems like many people feel that the two are mutually exclusive. If I like older games, then I can’t possibly play the newer ones or vice versa. I’ve never understood this particular brand of logic, since they’re all just games to me.
However, I do have to admit that as time goes by I’m finding myself enjoying my time with the older stuff more than what this generation is offering. To be clear, that’s not a knock against the quality of games being made today. There are still lots of great titles coming out, and I won’t hesitate to fire up the PS3 or 360 to get lost in Skyrim or save the Earth in Mass Effect 3. I also love chatting with friends and comparing achievements/trophies.
No, my quarrel isn’t with the types of games being released but rather with the business direction the industry in general seems to be taking. Every year, we’re moving farther and farther away from merely playing games to having to jump through all kinds of hoops just to be able to enjoy them. More and more, it appears that gamers must be content with all sorts of things that just a few years ago would have been considered totally unacceptable to console owners. These unfortunate circumstances seep their way into my gaming sessions and often taint the whole experience.
I remember when one simply bought a game and popped it in, and that was all there was to it. Unless you had something like the Sega Channel or the Xband, there was nothing complicated about playing games. And if you actually did have either of those two, you were considered to be one lucky bastard. Gaming was between you and the machine or you and a friend. Nothing came between that, save for maybe some snacks and a bathroom break.
Those elements are still firmly in place, but there are additional layers to the experience that aren’t all that attractive. For instance, an Xbox 360 isn’t a third of what it’s supposed to be unless it has an internet connection. Even when you bring your console online, you have the annoying prospect of not being able to utilize most of its capabilities unless you fork over another $50 for an Xbox Live subscription. Without it, you can’t play against anyone (except locally), use your Netflix or Hulu accounts, or even watch a simple YouTube video.
The Playstation 3 and Wii are slightly better, offering free online play and open use of Netlfix and Hulu. Both even have (limited) web browers. Gamers are apparently quite content to spend tons of points and cash for things like wallpapers and avatar clothing, and there is a certain type of appeal to doing so. Even I can’t deny the temptation a lightsaber or Sega shirt poses for my digital doll, and I currently have a ton of Miis cluttering up my Wii plaza. There are so many goodies to buy on all three platforms that there’s no shortage of ways to burn through a bank account. Microsoft has even managed to one-up its competitors in this regard by allowing gamers to even use their PayPal accounts for purchases.
You’re probably wondering what’s wrong with all this and what does it have to do with retro gaming. Well, all these purchasing options, while convenient, have a dark side. Companies are becoming more comfortable with nickel and diming customers for every little thing, and what was once an experience that was enjoyable partly because of its simplicity has now gotten lost amidst a sea of online passes, on-disc bonus content, and pre-order bonuses.
Take, for example, the whole used game debate. If some developers get their way, we won’t be able to trade games, lend them out, rent them, or buy them used. You either buy them brand new or lose out on a major part of the experience. Online passes are becoming more and more popular, with publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubi Soft embracing the practice. Even Tecmo recently got in on the act, announcing that Ninja Gaiden 3 will include it as well. If you buy the game used, you’ll have to fork over extra cash to get key aspects that are locked out, such as multi-player modes or downloadable content.
Speaking of downloadable content, how many people agree with Capcom’s decision to include the 12 extra characters in Street Fighter X Tekken on the actual disc itself? In other words, you’re paying extra for content already on the game you just bought. Capcom defends this move with the argument that it helps players save on hard drive space and ensures that all buyers have the same version of the game. Given that both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have hard drives that are of more than sufficient size to accommodate anything Capcom can throw at them, this argument holds little water. The most ridiculous part of the defense is the contention that including the extra content right on the disc will allow Capcom to avoid having to release an upgraded version of the game later on. Does anyone actually believe that? Any gamer who has ever paid any attention the company’s fighting game history knows that there’s always an upgraded version later on.
Add tedious installations and the constant “updating” to all this mess, and it can be quite expensive and laborious to play games nowadays. I know that many people obviously feel that modern experiences are more than worth it, and often they are. I can agree that there’s no way I’d miss out on Bioshock or Dead Space because of it all. That being said, it’s still really frustrating to see just how convoluted gaming has become.
It’s ironic then, that retro gaming would offer people a fresh perspective on the whole industry. When would I ever have thought that my Genesis, a console that was discontinued almost two decades ago, would often be more appealing to use than modern hardware? Between waiting for this gen’s machines to download updates to fix bugs that shipped with my $60 game or discovering that the latest online offering has been discontinued for no apparent reason or just upped and disappeared from the online store (remember Game Room and 1 vs. 100?), I can always just pop in a cartridge and power up the ol’ Genesis. The only delay comes from a possible Q-tip to the contacts, but otherwise I’m put right in the game. No notifications, no internet disconnects booting me to the start screen, and no foul-mouthed strangers speculating about my mother’s nocturnal habits.
There’s a simple charm to just needing a console, a cartridge, and a controller to get the full extent of what a game has to offer. While 16-bit titles are a far cry from today’s offerings in terms of scope and scale, that’s actually part of what makes them so special. There are times when one simply wants to play a game, without all the bells and whistles of modern technology. It’s like watching an old sci-fi movie or listening to classic rock; it’s an timeless experience that can still be enjoyed as much as anything available today.
Don’t think of this editorial as a rant against modern gaming; it’s not. It’s more of a defense of the classics in the face of a sector of the industry that applies value only to what’s current. Yes, there are many things I don’t like about the way things are, and it’s true that I don’t boot up my Xbox 360 or PS3 as much as I used to. That doesn’t mean I’ve sworn off them forever. It just means that my Genesis, Saturn, SNES, and Master System have as prominent a place under my television as they do.
I will most likely stick around for modern gaming through at least the next wave of machines, and I will still sink hundreds of hours into the newest RPGs and adventure titles. I don’t know how much longer these great open worlds and immersive experiences can hold me in, but that’s ok. There will always be the games of old to keep me glued to the television when I want a change of pace. Grab a controller and hit start. And no, you don’t have to sign in as a guest account.