Friday, April 20, 2012

5 Reasons Old School Games are Magical

Written by -/\ndrew.
This little project of mine started in earnest just after the apex of my interest in Halo:Reach, in that little void you feel after thoroughly quenching your appetite for an awesome game. After the satisfaction had passed I started to look for a new project, and interestingly enough nothing caught my eye - unusual to say the least, as I typically find myself hopping from game to game.

This time around I found myself dusting off some old Nintendo consoles that I had bought second-hand in a fit of nostalgic frenzy a couple years ago, engrossing myself in a new project - to thoroughly beat all the old school games I had always wanted to but never did. In short, I made my Re-beat list.

In the process me and my brother, Evan, re-discovered some of the things that made old school video games truly magical.

05. Plug N' Play

Anyone else hate the Xbox menus? There's nothing like managing to fit some game-time into your schedule only to find yourself wading through menus to get yourself started - it's kind of like running late to see your favorite band, arriving at the venue just as they're about to go on, only to find that a convoluted maze stands between you and the stage. You can hear the band's set starting in the back ground, the roar of the crowd as the tension builds and here you are having to navigate some odd collection of obstacles - it doesn't matter how simple each step is, the only thing that matters is the number of steps between you and your goal.

Old school game action starts almost the very instant you hit the power button - ain't no load screen on Super Mario Bros., or Zelda 2. No console menus to claw through before even getting to the game menus. I discovered that I actually could accomplish a decent amount on one of my saves in as little as ten minutes and still feel satisfied.

Sweet instant gratification. I would suggest that Xbox ought to find a way to cut through their menus, but then they'd have no time to shove ads for DLC down our throats.

Think you know this secret?
04. Out-of-the-box Secrets and Puzzles
Who the hell would have figured that the wall in that room wasn't really a wall? Or that you had to get that nondescript thing from that place two screens ago to get to the next level?

What about that secret you read about months (or years, in my case) after you stopped playing that game? The sort of thing that made you go "No FRIGGIN way!! That's what you're supposed to do there??"

Old school video games employed this "Flatland" approach to their secrets - if it was a good game, the secrets were actually really hard to find and you had to find a way to really think outside of the box in order to get them. The in-game puzzles worked in much the same way - I remember Evan bouncing around from area to area in Actraiser several times before figuring out how to proceed.

Turns out, a lot of these older games were all about figuring that stuff out. On your own. Before there was the internet to help you cheat. In fact, you could make the argument that these puzzles were the foundation of the game itself - figuring it all out was half the fun.

Nowadays you might spend hours on internet forums just to start to figure out how the hell your class in World of Warcraft is supposed to work. It's like homework for video games, which is awesome when you have the time to put into it. When you don't, old school might win out because of things like reason #5 - which is kind of like not having to eat your brussel sprouts before getting to your steak.
03. Epic Soundtracks Didn't Need to Be So Epic
Who doesn't catch on by the seventh note when you're humming the theme to Super Mario Bros? Hell maybe it's more like the third or fourth. How about Legend of Zelda? I heard an awesome System of a Down interpolation of that one, by the way - if you haven't go youtube that right now. G'head, I'll wait.

Now you might say that the older soundtracks, especially when dealing with the 8-bit era, were somewhat repetitive. Well, that's true. But did you ever get sick of listening to them? 9 times out of 10, I'll ask that question and get a nice definitive "HELL NO BRAAAHHHH" in response.

Truth is, these old school tunes were actually quite well composed. Try playing them on any real world instrument and you might find yourself challenged by what you expected to be super simple. Even better yet, get some basic audio editing/sequencing software, and see how peeps react to your badass remix of the Kid Icarus theme.

(There are people who have turned this into an artform, by the way. Google OCremix to see what I mean). 

Now, that's not to say games in the current market don't have amazing soundtracks. I think Bethesda did a crazy awesome job with the soundtrack to Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and I personally love the Halo theme - especially the version on the Halo 2 soundtrack which featured none other than the legendary Steve Vai. And don't get me started on Nobuo - by the way, if you don't know who that is, I don't like you anymore.

But, and this is a big but, old school managed to accomplish all that with just two tracks and 8-bit clicks and bleeps. You think that's easy? Let's see you get a bunch of people humming along to your 8-bit compositions. Ten bucks says the looks you get when you play it to your friends are akin to facial expressions made when decently moral and intelligent people watch Jersey Shore. Or when women watch Santorum give a speech.
02. High Stakes Action
Old school platforming sometimes makes you want to slap yourself. It's like a concentration marathon - one wrong move and Ryu/Mario/Simon Belmont takes a facefirst plunge into lava/spikes/people-eating plants/doom/death.

Now there's plenty of action in new school - the Devil May Cry and God of War series stand out in my mind.

Thing is, the stakes aren't as high. What happens when you die in the new school? You start at the last checkpoint, with all the stuff you had going for you when you first got there. What happens when you die in Castlevania? You start with the friggin leather whip, which feels like you're fighting the forces of evil with a fruit roll-up.

The challenge was in a simpler paradigm - no complex anything at all, just mastery of basic elements and a s*** load of concentration. If you died trying to jump that last pile of blocks in Super Mario Bros. there was an audible grumble, a groan of despair coming out of you as you helplessly watched Mario fall to his doom. If you're clearing it for the first time, well, it kind of feels like scoring a soccer goal - as epic as only things that happen like once a game can be. 

01. Mastery
That's right. Mastery. Old school video games end. If they're really good, you get a hard mode, but once that hard mode's beaten there's no more to the game. You've won! Grats, the entire universe owes you an impossible-to-repay debt of gratitude for saving the princess, or whatever.

Now, endless games do have their place - I personally love the skillsets involved in becoming a really good competitive gamer. I mean that; huge props to everything MLG, those insane Korean kids that can execute 5 badgillion commands a second in Starcraft and those crazy guilds that do World of Warcraft Hard Modes every single week.

But sometimes, well, it's kind of like how Jerry Seinfeld described soap operas. "If I wanted a long, boring story with no point to it, I have my life".

There's nothing quite like beating a tough game, so completely that there's nothing left to do. Hell, I just booted up my save of Super Metroid just to marvel at myself. When was the last time World of Warcraft gave you that feeling? Like, NEVER. Because it NEVER ends.

Of course, I love the new school AND the next gen. But that's another article.
Dig what I have to say? Think everything I'm saying is complete rubbish the likes of which only mentally inept imbeciles could contrive? Holler at this blog, we dig crossfire.
Look for more articles by -/\ndrew about Video Game Culture.

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