The site has been a bit neglected over the past week, but I needed the time to embark on a psychotic, OCD-driven cleaning spree. In the process of organizing and Tetris-ing various suitcases and tubs full of stuff collected over the years, I came across numerous games that had gone missing. Games like the unexpectedly great Game Boy adaptation of The Lion King. The surprisingly enjoyable racing game that is Beetle Adventure Racing. The greatest baseball game ever made (Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr.). I also found two copies of Goldeneye despite having no memory of ever re-buying it. That’s not even mentioning all of the SNES games discovered, all of which still have perfectly functional save batteries despite being 20-odd years old now. While going through and testing all of my newfound treasures—including a once-broken Playstation 2 that somehow de-broke itself over years of neglect, opening up an entire new gaming library to explore—I was overcome with a sense of longing for these older games. Nostalgia isn’t even a factor, because I suddenly wanted to buy copies of games I’ve never played and see if they still hold up. That’s normal for this site, of course, but I’ve never really talked about why I like playing old games and new games side by side so much.
There’s this strange attitude that I occasionally see where younger gamers act like these older games and systems have become redundant and outdated in the face of games that are newer and therefore must obviously do everything better, but in a lot of cases the opposite is true. One of my favorite comparisons is of Baldur’s Gate 2 and Dragon Age: Origins—both are good games, but you can steal in BG2 and not in DA:O. You have far more companions to choose from in BG2. While both ultimately become linear, you’re given a ton of freedom to explore early in BG2 while DA:O gives you a small handful of KOTOR-esque hubs to visit. It’s a night and day difference, and games like Arcanum make even Baldur’s Gate 2 seem limited.
Basically, as graphics get better and better and more games focus on voice acting over text, the cost to produce said games goes through the roof and corners are cut when it comes to gameplay freedoms (and that’s if they were even intended to begin with). Making games is expensive, so we live in a time where “good enough” is the point where games are declared finished. One doesn’t need to look further than patches for confirmation of this; older games didn’t/couldn’t receive patches in most cases, so they were released in a much better shape than modern games.
That greater amount of freedom is really only true of older computer RPGs, though. The thing that makes older console games stand out is that gameplay and graphics were advancing along at such a steady pace that there were no successful templates developers could cut-and-paste into their own games for years to come, so while today a developer can go, “hey, the Arkham games had accessible combat that was fairly enjoyable, so let’s just do that for our gameplay,” back then they often had to build their own systems. That’s not to say that reusing something that works is inherently a bad thing, but the uniquely weird that pans out tends to be more memorable/timeless than the generically functional. The control schemes in the PS1-PS2 Metal Gear Solid games, for example, are downright bananas when you think about it, but they work against all odds. Also, a much greater number of AAA games fulfilled the role that indie games currently do, which is bringing something weird to the table (Katamari Damacy and Killer 7 spring immediately to mind). And hey, it’s easy enough when going back through older games to ignore the ones where the risks didn’t pan out, so you can easily find numerous classics you’ve never played that still hold up. Obviously their age and the amount of information about them available out there means that they tend to be a much safer bet than picking up modern games based on hype and misleading marketing.
Praising limitations always seems like a crazy thing to do, but it seems like the developers forced to work within certain limits are the ones with the focus (and creative workarounds) to create the truly memorable, inexplicably magical games. Texture limits have led to fun cel-shaded art styles. Musical limits have lent themselves to arrangements with clearly distinguishable instruments that emphasize the melody. I don’t know what limit caused the Playstation 1 Final Fantasy games to mix prerendered video with fixed camera angles and allow gameplay while they play, but it’s one of those touches that makes those games so great. Little things like this really do add up, and the more limitless nature of modern game engines has robbed many AAA games of the charm their forebears enjoyed.
If you look at something like Child of Light and go, “the combat is so unique and unlike anything else out there,” you’re going to look like an idiot when someone familiar with the Grandia series shows up and corrects you. A lot of awesome things in modern games (and for all my criticism, there are a lot of stellar modern games out there) are derived from much older games, and familiarizing yourself with various titles throughout gaming history goes a long way toward recognizing the ways the industry has changed and yet remained the same over all these years.