Soapbox: The 8-Bit Era Laid the Groundwork, but Modern Day Progress Shouldn't be Discounted
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Tom feels that enjoying both retro and modern games is vital
This week we've published a few features to celebrate the Famicom's 30th Anniversary. It's an extraordinary landmark, particularly because so many games from the 8-bit machine are still treasured to this day, many of which are deserving because they're enormous fun. I think there's something powerful about how retro games can still delight, simply because we're dealing with technology; so much old technology is dead, the preserve of a small number of collectors. Yet digital releases of something like SNES classic Earthbound can cause a frenzy of online excitement in 2013; it's the power of quality over the ravages of time.
So I'm a fan of many retro games, with a ludicrous amount of money spent on the Wii Virtual Console in particular — born in 1984, as a youngster my family had a ZX Spectrum, then a SEGA Mega Drive, and then a Nintendo 64, so I was late to the Nintendo party. In fact that was one of the most magical features on the Wii, as growing up we could only afford one console at a time and, when the crunch came in the 16-bit era, SEGA was the choice. And yet I've now played a lot of NES and SNES classics on the Wii and have enjoyed some wonderful Game Boy titles on the 3DS VC.
Some may regard it as a mistake to come out, as a writer on a Nintendo enthusiast's website, and say "the N64 was my first Nintendo system". But I don't see it that way, because we all have our own paths we've followed in this gaming hobby, and that diversity is fantastic. Am I ineligible to comment on NES games because I've played a lot of them as a grown up via the Virtual Console? Absolutely not, it's just I have a different perspective. I remember 5-minute load times running games off cassettes on a ZX Spectrum — a bit like a British Commodore 64 — but if someone 10 years younger than me has one as a collectible and wants to chat about it, that's great. I don't have more authority on the matter because I was there, I just have an alternative experience.
And yet attitudes are often evident in gaming that if you didn't own specific systems decades ago — due to age or circumstances — you can't understand why that system is special or can't share a metaphorical pint to talk about it with someone that owns 600 games and the original model. It's a snobbery I saw over a number of years studying Literature, too, when for example a Professor snorted with outrage at Charles Dicken's Bleak House being adapted to snappy 30 minute episodes on BBC TV. I pointed out that it made more people aware of the material, but he seemed to expect everyone in the world to sit down in a cosy Drawing Room and read the 1000-page (or whatever, it's very long) epic, rather than experience it any other way. Yet any form of entertainment is there for the masses to enjoy in whatever way they see fit, and I can tell you from extensive study that Charles Dickens wouldn't have had it any other way.
Back to retro gaming, and beyond that level of snobbery, as I see it, is a perspective I find quite difficult to rationalise — that retro games are better than modern games. That's fine as an opinion, which I can respect, but I get frustrated with the assertive vehemence that sometimes follows that point of view, as if disagreeing makes you a gullible non-gamer suckered in by supposed evil mega-corporations like EA, Activision and Ubisoft. My perspective is that you can't dismiss the relevance of retro games, as they've fundamentally shaped the industry as it is today, but equally I think it's a shame if anyone decides that modern games are no cop and don't live up to the "good old days".
For one thing, there are no good old days in my view, nor is the current-day market smelling of roses. The modern industry has problems, such as poor-value DLC, potentially manipulative free-to-play models and major publishers frightened to take risks. But the old days certainly had their problems too, with examples like appalling licensed games that have made some YouTube reviewers famous, and enough plastic tat to make the Wii's range look conservative; games also cost more, lest we forget. And it's ironic that cynical marketing is so roundly condemned nowadays — you know, Doritos and Mountain Dew et al. — yet some still consider it cute to look back at Nintendo Power's old days, cereals and other goods that were designed to hype kids about games that may have been a bit pants. There was no internet to check multiple reviews back then, either.
So it's tit-for-tat between the eras in some respects, and I also feel modern games get hammered unfairly by some for failing to match their predecessors. Sometimes the points raised are fair, but often I think we're just spoiled, with unfair judgments sometimes passed on a lot of games against the very best from days gone by, often disregarding the mediocrity we faced in the '80s and '90s in many cases. There can be lazy dismissals of those that enjoy a bit of Call of Duty, for example, yet I relished a recent comparison made by our own Dave Letcavage and Stephen Kelly of Contra as the NES CoD. There are big differences, yes, but I can see what they're driving at — both are frantic and high paced shooters. I personally like Contra and don't particularly enjoy CoD games, but I appreciate the comparison and won't be caught dismissing the merits of Activision's series off hand — I may criticise the occasional tasteless airport "mission" or nasty online bit of voice chat, however.
Another personal example is from attending the Eurogamer expo last year, and an individual I consider to have a wonderful balance in simply enjoying all that gaming has to offer. NL contributor Jamie O'Neill has an impressive knowledge of retro games, yet he's a keen modern-day gamer as well. At the expo we had fun in a terrific retro area, which was a treat, but we also spent hours enjoying the Wii U at the Nintendo booth and various other big-name titles on show for other platforms. They were all just games, after all, and the modern games were as enjoyable to play as their retro contemporaries, just with a vastly different style.
I also think we should acknowledge that, while it can be argued that game design is King in whether an experience works, technology has evolved in important ways. A game like Pikmin 3 just wouldn't have been possible on the NES or SNES, and even in the portable arena the likes of Super Mario 3D Land or N64 remake The Legend of Zelda: Ocarian of Time 3D are only possible on the go with the progress of systems' power. Even genres that were possible on older systems can, in the right developer's hands, utilise the extra resources available to take experiences to new levels, with more data and variation than could fit on a retro cartridge.
Ultimately I hope that, as the years pass, gamers of all types can find their own balance of appreciating what's come before while enjoying modern titles. Because, in my view, we've never had it better. Games are cheaper than they used to be, the technology has improved and opened up new styles of gameplay, there's staggering diversity — assuming you look in the right places — and we can buy older games — and download-only releases — for less than a cinema ticket. If all you play is retro games, or vice-versa current-day games, you're probably missing out on a fuller picture.
So which is better, Super Mario Bros. 3 or New Super Mario Bros. U? It can be argued either way, but I for one will happily enjoy both. Games are fun, and rather than expend energy on saying why modern games aren't cutting it, or why retro games are relics to be left behind, maybe we should all just pick up our controllers and play. Because two things are beyond dispute. No gaming era is perfect, yet they all have have plenty of delights to offer.