A Brush With Modern Gaming and What It Taught Me

Author: Mike Craig

In a recent conversation it was suggested to me, though I was not directly implicated, that certain NES sites spend too much time fussing about modern gaming, whereas others choose to accentuate the positive (the example used being those who point out that NES collection demands minimal financial risk.) Likewise, I have since its submission been pondering the issue put forth by Scott Wallace -- the possibility that this community of vintage gamers (again, I was not singled out) has become bigoted toward any modern product.

I suppose I fear developing unchecked prejudices; or maybe I have an “it’s good for you” complex about being ecumenical. Either way, those two intimations hit home with me. I had no claim, I thought, to dislike next-generation products if I refused to give them a fair evaluation. Otherwise I risked ending up like John Henry -- overexerted to the point of death in combat against newfangled concepts, perhaps without even remembering why.

So I picked a game. Happily enough, it wasn’t terribly expensive -- I wouldn’t have to break my bank to reinforce my objectivity. Bear in mind, this wasn’t a flight of fancy. I did want to enjoy it, and I actually believed it might be fun; but I doubt it would have occurred to me to make this purchase had my faith not been shaken in advance. Operating solely at my own instigation, I would more likely have spent my $20 on NES games or.......... steak is the only other thing of such a price that comes to mind, so I’ll say that. Still, the game had been bought, and I was hell-bent on trying to enjoy it.

I did while I played it, but at this end of the experience I feel curiously let down, and not in the least bit inspired. (I should add that it is rare that a game -- at least of the vintage crop -- fails to inspire me in any way.)

It has been roughly twenty-four hours since I did not win the World Series. Of course, from an empirical standpoint, that isn’t earth-shattering. There have been somewhere in the vicinity of one hundred of them and I’ve not won any; but if you don’t realize that I’m talking about a video game, to paraphrase Ultima: Exodus, stop reading this article and go to bed.

The Series of which I am speaking is that of Triple Play 2000, the latest of EA Sports’ annually-released simulations of Major League Baseball (and, it’s worth mentioning, the first sports game to legitimately bear the millennial mark that isn’t really a millennial mark.) And, in this particular case, it was a hard fought series -- divided evenly until the final game.

But my Blue Jays lost. I say “my” as opposed to “the” because, before doing anything else, I maxed out the created player archive with people modeled after myself, my acquaintances, and the Muppets. Then I tossed the Rocket out on his rump and introduced my motley squad -- whose only palpable experience with thee game, I might add, consisted of two years in the endearing but ultimately uncompetitive IMTBA (Island of Misfit Toys Baseball Association.)

They had an up-and-down year, but in the end their pitiful division was sufficient to vault them into the playoffs (the talent the Yankees exude in this game is about as reflective of reality as the husky Vanna White in Wheel of Fortune: Family Edition.) Then they blasted the Twins as retribution for an earlier defeat, and prevented the Mariners from collecting similar damages. That forced them into competition with the Braves, against whose pitching staff their homerun-beholden strategy initially fell apart. Mercifully though, they were able to keep the series even (The Great Gonzo is great for so many reasons).

I’m tired of talking about this game, so allow me to make a long story short: “They were trailing by two runs in the ninth. The bases were loaded. Their batter grounded out. They lost.” (I could have been a color commentator for NPR, you know.)

One pervasive thing struck me as I watched the boxy, polygonal Atlanta Braves take their respective bows: I didn’t care. I had barely edged my way into the playoffs, and kept my hopes alive after the Braves put me in the hole only to be defeated with the bases loaded in the ninth. Few situations under the umbrella of competitive sports are more captivating, yet in that particular instance the only effect the event seemed to be having on me was boredom. I felt none of the let-down -- nor had I up to that point felt any of the excitement -- that had characterized such recent events in my electronic sporting career as when my Hail Mary was batted down in the end zone, preventing me from defeating #1 Notre Dame with Princeton (Super Play Action Football.) Despite the many camera angles and color commentary (which explains the etymology of “can-of-corn” after about every third play), I would far rather have been playing Baseball Simulator 1.000.

Still, after having thus renewed my allegiance with classic gaming I was not quite done with this game. Make no mistake, I haven’t played it since, and probably won’t for quite some time; yet it was through my experience of TP2K that I came to realize what it is that, for me, has ruined the contemporary market.

To be perfectly honest, the reality of “graphics over gameplay” had never seemed a sufficient explanation; nor had the widespread obsession with realism, though it seemed closer to what troubled me. I was, in a similar sense, always perplexed when I evaluated the objective qualities of modern-day products and compared them to the NES games I had reviewed. The visuals were, of course, infinitely better; the music had become far more symphonic and complex; the plots were more deeply textured; and I could find no game that was insurmountable when set on “Easy.” The one consistent exception was the play control. By adding eighteen new buttons to a controller, designers obligate themselves to create functions for each of them. The result is invariably a scheme twice as convoluted as it needs to be, particularly when one is using a keyboard.

So why, I ask myself, do I prefer NES games? I know by experience that improvement in all the technical capabilities of gaming does not inevitably make the products more enjoyable. In fact, it seems to make them less so, though I have never been able to satisfactorily explain why that is the case. It wasn’t until I took a whack at Triple Play 2000 that I finally came to recognize the disease afflicting the production of modern games -- perfectionism.

The gaming market is appreciably more competitive than it was in the days of the NES; and though, in theory, competition generates better products on all sides, it hasn’t in this case. Feuding corporations have become obsessed with topping each other. However, they do not attempt to do so by generating games in a manner reflective of their own corporation -- rather by aspiring to beat the industry leader at its own game. Take EA Sports -- as soon as their many series started to establish a position at the front, realism became the mainstay of all sports games. Nowadays, those who hope to compete with EA aspire only to emulate their style -- authentic rosters, team logos, and realistic play mechanics. Likewise, EA seeks always to top the popularity of its previous works by enhancement, not variation. Generating a noticeably original product is no longer considered as important as perfecting one’s presentation of the given sport. As a result, every EA series strikes me as an ongoing string of beta programs. Each new game makes its predecessor obsolete with enhanced visuals and current rosters; and the corporation will continue that trend until the game they actually want to make -- real baseball operated by code -- is achieved to perfection. Personally, I long for that day, because then EA will realize that they have nothing new to create, and will have either to work toward true originality, release accurate renditions of four-dimensional sports, or accept their lack of creative prowess and disband.

Most seem to believe that the situation of RPGs is less dismal, and I agree with them to a point. Because of their emphasis on plot, Role-Playing Games have been able to capitalize on the increased storage capacity of modern systems, and authorial maturity has enabled the writers to pursue thematic development of truly literary proportions. Yet once again, one notes an overemphasis on doing everything perfectly. The music must be perfect; the visuals must be perfect; and the overall engine must be perfect. This mentality, in combination with the rise of Full-Motion Video, has resulted in Final Fantasy products that take three years to create. Perhaps I should applaud this attention to detail, for it does lead to refined products. Notwithstanding, the ideology underlying that has done to the Role-Playing genre, if to a lesser degree, what EA’s self-effacing mania for realism has done to that of Sports. Nearly every RPG created nowadays stays faithfully beholden to the same elements -- at present, technology, enigmatic power, and religion -- until Square breaks the mold (it’s not like anyone else could do that or anything.)

But Square seems to be confused. Even though they manage to introduce profound stories, they have hybridized medieval weaponry with high technology, tried to expand the breadth of individual towns without forsaking the trudge-across-the-entire-bleedin’-world interface, and only now stopped forcing themselves to put chocobos in every one of their products. They seem, on the whole, to be attempting both to uphold their traditions and break new ground, resulting in strange environmental combinations (how can a world be on the verge of destruction if 99% of it is still not industrialized? I don’t care how potent those reactors are -- it doesn’t make sense.) Indiscriminately throwing together two different fantasy genres is not original -- it’s just disjointed. Only the characterization, the symbolism, and the soundtrack saved Final Fantasy VII, in my view (granted, they saved it shinigly.)

As to the rest of the genre, it is victimized simultaneously by narrow-minded public reaction and its own failure to innovate. Many (notice that I didn’t say “all” before you jump down my throat) of the new products either focus primarily on the battle system -- something that has always been peripheral to the RPG experience, and should remain so in my opinion -- or reuse old themes as if doing so is inspired. The Breath of Fire series has become so hideously formulaic -- in every installment, a young blue-haired hero with the default name of “Ryu” WILL join up with a winged princess named Nina and a ubiquitous large creature, learn he is the last survivor of a race of dragon-people, and do battle with a god -- as to actually siphon the fun of the first game. And SaGa Frontier, which could have done for Role-Playing what the short story did for fiction, was totally dismissed because it perpetuated few-to-none of the popular trends (FMV, lengthy, linear plots, an emphasis on stylism above fun, etc.) -- although it should be penalized for the many situations in which there is NO indication of where one is supposed to go.

I suppose, in hindsight, that “perfectionism” alone does not capture what I feel is wrong with video gaming today -- “perfectionistic emulation” is nearer to the idea. After all, the desire to “get it right” can hardly be held against game producers. What bothers me is what they now believe should be gotten right -- specifically, the trends popularized by industry giants.

This motivation can be ascribed to commercialism. With no single system dominating the scene, it is much safer to stay within established boundaries if one wants to make a profit. He who innovates does so at his monetary peril. In the same sense, innovation is no longer achievable in the way it was on the NES. Because of the ideological borrowing that abounds in the industry today, any game that breaks the mold must do so blatantly -- as opposed to the fashion of the Castlevanias I and III (the second was a different matter entirely), or Destiny of an Emperor. Subtle variations run a colossal risk of not being noticed.

...But at least the public seems to be tiring of blood.

(See, now this is baseball.)

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