Because I'm a literary geek I've been attending some events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival - I know, it's pretty rock and roll. In any case, one talk I went to kicked off with some wise words, and I paraphrase slightly, that every generation lives under a delusion that theirs is the ultimate golden era. It's true, but as it was a talk that also went into the way the world is changing, the 'digital economy' and so on, I thought afterwards that in gaming this is a golden era. Now, I'm aware it's the common thing to be cynical and mean-spirited to show streetsmarts online, but I'll just allow myself to be downright happy with my lot as a gamer.
Two things made me draw that conclusion this week; the aforementioned talk and - to a degree - Sonic Mania. Don't worry, this isn't another Sonic article, but it was a game that blended classic gaming (which is seared into my childhood memories) with new ideas, and I played it on a PS4 and then on the go with a Switch. Those few days of gaming typified the sort of options we have in the modern era with consoles, and you can also build a decent PC (not a hulking 4K beast, but one nevertheless to run pretty much any game) at a reasonable price. We have never had so many affordable choices for gaming.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a romantic type and like to bask in nostalgia. I have a huge number of fond gaming memories from my childhood, from playing dodgy copies on a ZX Spectrum, to having my mind blown by a Mega Drive, to falling in love with basically anything LucasArts did for the PC in the '90s. I love retro games and retro memories, and I wouldn't replace that gaming childhood with anything. It's my experience, it helped form my personality, my strengths and weaknesses, and I'm happy with that.
Those warm and fuzzy feelings, however, do sometimes turn into that false assumption of saying 'our' era is the best era. I've done it myself sometimes, talking about a game like TIE Fighter on PC and saying "they don't make them like that any more". When I say it I may be thinking "those were the days", but there are other reasons they don't make them like that any more - because technology has greatly improved.
But that's not the right argument, perhaps, and from experience I know that debating which games are 'better' (say between Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe) is a can of worms. If the argument about the 'best era' of games tumbles down into opinions about QTEs, microtransactions and how crap Sonic Boom is compared to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, then nobody wins - that argument misses the point.
What I realise, as I look at my various systems available to me for playing games, is that whatever my preferred type of game I can access it, and cheaply. I'm not a rich man, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a PS4, Switch, Wii U and PC plugged in and good to go, all loaded with games, and I have a charged 3DS to hand. If I want I can dig out older systems easily enough too, for true retro kicks. But the key thing is that my current hardware gives me so much variety, and it hasn't cost the Earth to build up those games collections. There are 'triple-A' blockbusters, weird games, platformers, sports games, shooters, adventure games, narrative games, point-and-click, retro games, retro-style games, and more besides.
Gaming has never been more affordable, that is fundamentally undeniable (unless you copied Spectrum game tapes in the '80s, but that was naughty). That's partly because supply outstrips demand - there are so many games. Retail titles can often be found at discounts, but even at full price they haven't all followed inflation. You can pre-order Super Mario Odyssey online for about £40-42 in the UK if you look hard enough, but my copy of Sonic 3 still has a receipt from the mid '90s showing that it cost £39.99. Inflation, huh?
The abundance of games means that they're all competing, and therefore prices are generally reasonable; discerning gamers can be picky about what they buy and dodge some of the more iffy monetisation aspects of the modern gaming business. Don't get it twisted though, when I was a kid in the '90s games companies were still out to make money in any way they could. We'd buy some full price games with little more than a magazine review to guide us and they'd be major disappointments. At least now the internet is full of people that scrutinise and tackle rip-off games and microtransaction concepts.
The information you need is online, and so are a huge number of games. The rise of download games has transformed the industry, with Indie developers now able to bring their visions to wide audiences on PCs, Macs, consoles, phones and tablets. Over the past couple of years I think the download scene has been improving rapidly, too, as the cream starts to truly rise to the top. Developers pushing out garbage games get ignored more than in past years, because there are enough quality options already chasing our disposable income. The market for shovelware is shrinking because talented creators have more opportunity to share their work without necessarily needing publishers or a lot of start-up cash; there's little room for poor quality releases to pick up sales, unless it's made a sport by YouTube personalities and some then buy terrible titles out of morbid curiosity.
The range of devices and the variety of games also means that the gaming hobby is more diverse and popular than ever, too. 'Gamer' can mean anyone that enjoys video games, from 100 hour epics to a bit of match-three on the go. Everyone in my immediate family is a gamer, and we all play different kinds of experiences while sharing in others - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game shared, among a few of us, trading notes on shrine locations, swapping amiibo figures to scan, browsing online guides etc. Sometimes, though, a simple puzzle game on a laptop is enough to entertain for an hour or two.
It simply wasn't like that when I was growing up. Sure, every kid I knew played games, but not many parents did. Most of us would be playing the same games, or be jealous of those we couldn't afford; because, again, there weren't many cheap ways to build up collections. Now downloads can cost less than 10 bucks, or nothing, or we can spend out for a full retail game. Plus all of that retro goodness, all of those memories, can be satisfied with re-releases, download options (legal downloads, I'd add), collections and limited edition hardware. The whole of gaming history is there to be enjoyed if you want it badly enough, while modern gaming is also right at our fingertips.
Is this the perfect gaming generation? No, but such a thing will never come. Smaller developers with a lot of talent can argue that the giddying range of available content is also a problem, as getting noticed is hard for newcomers. The internet has driven this boom, and so it brings its own negatives; when I was young it was playground chatter and magazines, but the benefits of all our online information bring a few negatives - trolling, online harassment, abusive voice and text chat in games. Then there are some unscrupulous publisher models that may be ignored by many but draw in less savvy or younger consumers. There's plenty of debate to be had on what constitutes reasonable monetisation when it comes down to loot boxes, artificial currencies and more besides. Publishers of retro eras, however, would have been just as cynical in some of their actions if they'd had the internet and online tools at their disposal.
Ultimately, though, in my opinion gaming has never been better. The quality and variety of download games, the incredible technical achievements and immersion in some retail games; all of it draws in an audience of billions, each gaming to their own tastes and however they please. As a Nintendo fan and writer, of course, I love seeing the company finding its place in this generation; it made a success of 3DS and is off to a good start with Switch. A strength of Nintendo is that it seems to be able to find a hook and angle to stand out in such a heavily populated space. The big N adds to the richness of gaming.
So yes, I think this is a golden era for gaming. What do you think?