Thursday, May 29, 2014

What was old is new again, but for the wrong reasons.

Old school and new school gaming, two terms that since the end of 32-64 bit era have been at war. One of them roots for perfection while the other goes for change and the broader market. Almost every time a discussion is started about this topic, sparks fly and we hear or read words like casuals, hardcore gamers, people "stuck in the past", whiners, non-gamers, new gaming industry crash and so on. Today on The Gamertologist we will see how old school really came back, but not in the way must of us expected. We are going to look into the ideas and design of games of previous eras and compare them to these times so we can see how we have been slowly going back without us even noticing. Old school did came back, but as a mummy rather than a full revival and here are the reasons why.

Watch a speed run and you will see how short these levels really were.

1) Shorter games

Taking rpgs and the eternal "go for the high score" atari games out of the equation, most old school games were short at nature. We have from the classic 8 worlds to as minimum as 3. There were some exceptions, but the vast majority of old school games balanced length with difficulty. If you were really good, you could basically finish that 50 dollar game in a day, a thing that would be even easier if you went at it with a friend on multi-player (except for Battletoads), but the average gamer just had to take their time figuring out how to beat the stages and defeat the bosses. A little later on, games from the 90's to the early 00's were longer and shared the difficulty of their predecessors making them feel even longer while also having a lot of secrets and a level design based on exploration which made those secrets to be pretty hard to find. If you remember a time where you spent more than an hour searching the same room over and over you know what I mean.

Then came modern games which began emulating the short duration of the games of old, but severely toned down the difficulty and implemented level designs based on action and short thrills (cinematics, quick time events) rather than exploration. This happened because publishers began demanding games to be developed faster than before, while also getting the mistaken idea that gamers wanted shorter/easier games. Nowadays, many of the big AAA franchises are been forcefully taken into the "A game per year" cycle, which sacrifices a lot of things in order to make it up to the deadline.

It was reddish purple Friday on the Shadow Warrior's schedule...

2) Recycling of resources

On old school games, this was something that we basically accepted. We saw characters walk, run and jump through stages that featured the same buildings and objects over and over. At the time, we just didn't care, because the graphics of that era were so simple that we just filled the blank spots with our own imagination. One of those repeated buildings could pretty much be anything we wanted as long as we were using our heads to offset the lack of material coming from the recycled sprites, textures and color palettes that filled the levels.

On the case of modern games we can see this, but not often at the graphical level. The recycling of resources on modern games comes in the form of user interaction. Its the moment when you feel that you have done the same deed many times before and little by little it becomes monotonous. At this point we try to use our imagination to keep us interested, but because the graphics are so good, our ability to make stuff up and "imagine monotony away" becomes very limited so our interest for the game begins to fade away fast. Some of these modern games manage to carry us from the beginning to the end credits on the shoulders of a good story, but many of them don't have that and that is where they completely fail. Of course this doesn't apply to games that ARE supposed to be repetitive like competitive first person shooters, mmorpgs and some action rpg/adventure and dungeon crawlers which are based on character growth rather than passing through the storyline.

Yep as simple as that (well not really, but you get the point).

3) Simplistic game design

When we talk about game design on old school games we talk about levels that consisted of a one direction progress, meaning go left to right, going up to a certain point if the game has a top down or isometric view, screens that automatically moved, forcing the player to go with it or even games that moved "on rails" like some famous shooters like Virtua Cop or Time Crisis. Also we knew that most of the stuff that was put in a level was either put there to further our advancement (platforms, switches) or just as part of the scenery. Later on in the middle of the 90's, game design became more complex with game worlds full of places to explore, secrets to find while rewarding our curiosity with story elements. This advancement in game design lasted until halfway through the 00's when game companies decided to go back to the simple style of the 80's.

So modern games went down a couple notches in game design and began having levels that look beautiful, but lack the stuff that made games famous in the mid 90's. They took the action and simplicity of the 80's, but left behind the deep environments of the middle of  90's to mid 00's time span. This doesn't mean that all modern games are like that, but too many of them go for the cheap design path and that is kind of going backwards don't you think?

Gaming is a business, but that doesn't mean that it has to be one sided.

To wrap things up

In summary the mainstream aspect of modern games revived some of the old school game characteristics, but only on its cheapest aspects like shorter gameplay, recycling of resources and simplistic game design. So if you are an old schooler that says that old school gameplay must come back, think again because it is already there, just not what you expected to see.

If you want a real old school styled modern FPS, try Wolfestein: The New Order.

There is still hope:

Even though the last generation (Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii) spent almost their entire lifespans using the cheapest stuff they found about old school gameplay in order to save money and develop fast and pretty looking games, they began fixing things up in these last two years and the trend has continued on the new generation with games that feature the nice graphics and effects of today with the GOOD parts of the old school style minus the cheap stuff with the indie scene serving them as an example of how to do things right. So let's hope that this trend continues to live on and we get to experience those super advanced games many of us had dreamed of, with the modern advances of today and the fun and interesting styles of old.

Bonus stage!

If you are one of those old schoolers, looking for some recent (as of May 30, 2014) modern (but old school) good experiences you can check out these games:

Wolfestein: The New Order 

Child of Light


Killer is Dead (Re-released on Steam)

Mario Kart 8


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