What Matters More: the Gameplay or the Graphics?
Before I start, there are some things I should say. First of all, I’m an European guy. You know, that strange place, where games used to run slowly and RGB inputs on TVs are as common (or almost) as JUST TVs. Another thing is, that I was born in the Soviet Union. This makes gaming history different to me, from what everyone else was experiencing: I never seen or played an original NES as it was new and popular (I never played an original NES to this day actually). In fact, I doubt there was any NES console in my country to be seen or played with, everyone was busy playing Dendy (or Subor, another quite famous clone) and we all were convinced, that Nintendo released only two consoles: the Super Nintendo and the N64. The bit eras are also kind of shifted, so that 8-bit consoles were still pretty modern in the early ’90s.
So what matters more, the gameplay, or the graphics? Yeah, that question is probably as old, as the so-called bit wars, when the power of a console was measured by bits. As I was a kid, there was only one obvious answer to me: of course the graphics. No one would want to see the shitty Dendy graphics if he could play a 16-bit console, and no one would want to see plain 16-bit graphics if he could play a Playstation, right? In retrospective, I see that I always tended to like games because of their other features, but the issue wasn’t entirely clear to me. Newer, more realistic graphics always caught my attention and made me play the game or at least try it out, and graphics were always a big argument for me to like or dislike the game. I was the kind of a guy, who played Need For Speed 2: Special Edition because the graphics were that awesome. Now I see things quite differently, and Sega’s 16-bit wonder has played a big role in that development.
My first gaming experience goes further back than the 16-bit era. The first games I played were Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros., Wild Gunman and other NES classics. But as time passed by, I never really missed them. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I honestly believe now, that these games were good only because I’d never seen anything like them before and because there WASN’T much like it before. What made me a real gamer and what I enjoy playing to this day was the Mega Drive, not the NES and its clones. As far my opinion goes, there were just too many bad games in the 8-bit era, games barely playable because of messed up controls or an impossible difficulty setting. And in the ’90s, after I saw what graphics Sega was pulling off, that was another argument for me against the old Dendy/Subor/NES. So back then, just before it all started, graphics ruled the world for me, but still I have only seen what a small chinese NES clone could do… Until IT began.
Somewhere in the post-Soviet space, in the early ’90s, I was playing the arcade version of Mortal Kombat II for the first time. Simply put, it was the start of my addiction to video games. Yes, I’ve played Super Mario before. Yeah, Tetris was fun too. Some other games were already in my possession. But this one was so intense, so big, that I felt like I have found the holy grail. There is no doubt I was playing it with widely opened eyes and mouth, because at that time I believed the game was actually rendering photo-realistic graphics. I was aware of the fact that they probably filmed real people to achieve this, but the difference between that and actual rendering was too difficult for me to understand. I was totally sure that filming real people was the best idea ever for achieving realistic graphics.
The funny thing is that we had real arcade machines alongside with self-made ones. The self-made ones were basically Mega Drives in a big arcade-like casing, with the controllers somehow soldered onto the front panel. And the really funny thing: I was not noticing a difference. I was so in love with the game, that I wasn’t able to notice the big graphical gap between the arcade version and the Mega Drive port. At least I knew from the start that this awesome fighting game was also made for a home console. And the same second I understood there was a console out there, which could bring that game to my home, I begged my father to buy it. There was no violence discussion in our family, by the way. Thank God my parents were always aware of the fact that violence in video games could not affect me negatively, as violence seen in real life on the streets could. So, in general, my parents had nothing against me playing Mortal Kombat on a Mega Drive at home. In general that is.
The big problem was, I already had a NES clone called Subor, and my father refused to see that the graphics of the Mega Drive were so much better. He said, that the Sega console was too expensive and I already had one system, so there was no reason in buying something new. As I already mentioned, everything I was interested in were the graphics (at least I thought it was this way). I liked games for other features as well, but I was not actually realizing that the gameplay was more important than the visuals. And the graphics were the only thing my father would see about a game anyway, since he was almost never playing anything on the one console we had. No Sega for me, and I went on playing in the arcades, if I managed to save up enough coins. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very often, and playing there was too hard for a little kid, so I never got further than the third fight.
Fast forward to 1996, and I still wanted a Mega Drive. I still was stuck playing my NES games (I had quite a big percentage of pirate games mixed with original NES software, as I now understand). Somehow, probably through constant begging, I managed to get my father buy me a new console, but it wasn’t that simple. By this time, the Sony Playstation was already out there (even in post Soviet countries) and I was already exposed to its (supposedly) awesome graphics. I loved the new fancy 3D graphics (oh God, how awful they really are) but was still regretting that I kind of missed all of the wonderful 16-bit games for the Sega, most of all the Mortal Kombat series. And, as strange as the post Soviet space usually is, Mega Drives were still on the shelves, still for almost the same price as back in the day when they were cutting edge. So there was a choice to make, and I mean it. This was exactly what my father offered to me: a new console, Sony or Sega. Just think about it for a moment. Who was ever able to choose between those two like this? What epic fortune teller skills I must have developed for one second that I made the right choice back then, when I really liked the new 3D graphics of the Sony? Who knows. All that I said was, “I want a Sega!” (think of the “Sega!” scream from the start sequence of Sonic 3D Blast on the Mega Drive). And this is how I got my Sega Mega Drive 2 – the Asian version – with a red cartridge slot, slide switch for on/off, and a blue reset switch. It came packaged with two six-button controllers. I remember the wonderful original packaging, with metallic-shiny letters saying Mega Drive 2 on the side. I always kept the console in that box when not in use, because I was absolutely sure that it was somehow much more fragile than my Subor.
The first game I got was Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, the best MK for 16-bit consoles. All my friends, who were playing that same game already for a year or two, congratulated me, told me the secret codes and the special moves and some fatalities, so that I was soon in what I recall to be some sort of gaming heaven. I also rented the popular Sonic 1, but as you probably remember I was living in Europe, knowing shit about TVs and standards like PAL or NTSC (and of course not ready to give my beloved Mega Drive 2 away for modding it, yet alone trying to mod it myself). So I really did not like Sonic 1 that much. It was just too slow. It felt like Sonic’s super power was not the ability to run super fast but the ability to take an eternity to build up some speed.
Fortunately, many other games were optimized for my region (maybe not completely perfect, but still) and the speed issue really bothered me only with Sonic The Hedgehog. I was not aware how unlucky I was and just went on playing other awesome games like Aladdin, Boogerman, Earthworm Jim 2, NBA Jam, Mr. Nutz, Rock n’ Roll Racing, VectorMan, and my favorite Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. I also got into Sonic, but only through the (in my opinion somewhat underrated) Sonic 3D Blast. We actually did have the Sonic 3D Blast and not the Flickies island, as everyone else in Europe. I have no idea about what happened, but again, it just shows how different the things were on the post Soviet market. We had Asian versions of the console (Asian, not Japanese, because they ran on 220V) and European TV standards, but some of the games had American names. The game was still labeled “Mega Drive” though, not “Genesis.” Even though I totally loved the new 3D graphics of Playstation, I never regretted getting a 16-bit console, and almost every game I had was a winner. From that day on, the Mega Drive always held a special place in my heart, and in fact I never stopped playing its games, if playing on emulators counts.
You want to know why did I have to use emulators? Was my Sega broken? Did I give it away? Did lightning strike from the sky and destroy my favorite console? No. It was much worse. In 1999 I made the worst decision in my life (as opposed to the best decision, getting a Mega Drive instead of a Playstation): I actually sold my console, with two controllers and all of my games (unfortunately I do not recall the exact number and what some of them were any more).
It was the time when my family was getting ready to move to Germany. There are lots of reasons why we left our home, and I do not regret it at all. But this is not the point here, so I’ll just leave it at this: we were getting ready to move to Germany. We had a huge amount of books at home, somewhere near 2000. Of course it was impossible to take them all with us, but even after we presented many of our friends with lots of books, the core of the remaining library was still enough to fill twenty big hard-paper boxes. All in all, we had twenty-five of them, having books and other stuff mixed together. Of course there was no place for my original Sega Mega Drive 2 box and the many games I happened to accumulate. So it came, that I showed how dumb and rude I could be and actually sold the whole thing to a friend for 10$. And initially I wanted 20$. I traded with his father, so there is no surprise I was brought down to $10. But the thing is, 10$ or even 50$ was no big deal for us at that moment, and I could have had a new Mega Drive easily, after we moved to our new home. But I was selfish enough to sell such an awesome gaming machine to a friend for such a small price as 10$. I mean, was it so difficult to just give it to him as a present? This is really something I am ashamed of. But in the end, selling my Sega only brought me one step further on the way to realize how important this old piece of hardware is to me and how much I like its games, regardless of how much more realistic the modern graphics are.
As we arrived in Germany, I felt almost instantly (after six months that is) that something was missing. I was missing Mortal Kombat for the Sega. I had a PC already, so I tried to find out if there was a port or something (of course this was how I discovered that there were emulators around). I also knew about the DOS port, but installing and starting a DOS game was way too difficult for me at that time. But since I was really only starting to get into PCs and how they worked, I did not manage to make a Sega emulator play games for me either. I was dumb enough to pick one that needed bios dumps and wasn’t able to understand what a bios dump was and where to get it. I was fairly close to buying myself a used Mega Drive, since there were some at local flea markets. But thoughts like “do I really need that old thing? It cannot even do proper 3D, all of its games would look awful compared to what my PC can do,” or “everyone is going to laugh at me when they see me playing a 2D game now, when everything is capable of 3D nowadays” came to my mind, and I just went on without it. This wasn’t for long though; one or two years after that, I found Gens, and it worked on it’s own, bringing me the awesomeness back, which is Sega Mega Drive. I did however, only play games which I already knew from my past. And from that point my strong belief in graphics being the most important part of a game suffered. The big question arose in my mind: is there something that really makes a good game besides graphics? Sometimes I am just a quite slow thinker, I guess. What pushed me in the right direction was actually no classic title, but instead a modern ego shooter.
There came a day, when I played Crysis at a friends house, with all details maxed out and at a decent frame rate. This was the day when I realized: these are really realistic graphics. That’s what everyone wanted to see since the Playstation 1, and everyone thought they were actually seeing it with every new generation of hardware, but they weren’t. And after I saw it, after I played it, it wasn’t suddenly that important any more. Sure, I was wowed at the graphics: at the grass, at the sun, at the palms swinging in the wind and so on. But I loved that game not because of this, but because of the cool and useful features the nanosuit had! I was sneaking up on people while invisible, I was throwing people away, I was bulletproof, and I was as fast as Sonic The Hedgehog (or almost). It was like some spell was broken, and modern realistic graphics suddenly stopped being that important to me.
So finally, after years of playing on emulators or not playing at all, I had to admit, that there was no real reason to refuse to own an old console anymore. And I decided to buy myself a Mega Drive again and finally explore its library further, getting back in where I stopped. And this time around I was extremely lucky, not like before when I had to play a slowed down Sonic and wasn’t even aware of it. Without actually looking for it, I made a really good deal for a non-TMSS Mega Drive 1, the one with the “HD Graphics, Stereo Sound” claim (this is how the claim looks on European systems. The letters are smaller, and it says not only HD Graphics but also Stereo Sound) and it was also one of the earlier models with the better sound chip. After doing some research (and with lots of help from one of the forum members here at Sega-16.com, so I’d like to thank them again here) I found out that a 50/60Hz switch was necessary and really easy to implement, so I actually made one.
Now I have what can be considered one of the best possible Mega Drive set ups: an early model 1, with RGB cable and a 50/60Hz switch for those games that were not optimized to run at normal speed in Europe. The headphone jack is connected to a vintage Kenwood amplifier, that is powering two very nice Behringer speakers (having a decent stereo system is my other hobby besides retro gaming :-). The only issue now are the games, which I have to buy all over again, but one important game (along with five others, which are also really nice) is already mine – Mortal Kombat 3. Not exactly as bad ass as the Ultimate version but still a very special game to me.
So what matters more, the gameplay or the graphics? Does it take away from a game if it takes place in a 2D rendered environment? Do fancy 3D graphics make a bad game even a bit better? That’s not necessarily true, but God, I needed so long to understand this…