Looking Back, Moving Forward (or The Accelerated Back Hop)

SPOILER ALERT: Mild spoilers for Persona 4.

Can you remember your first experience with video games? Since you’re reading a blog about gaming, chances are you probably can. Even I, with my admittedly poor long-term memory, can remember the games I grew up on. I remember the Super Solver games, I remember Sim Ant, I remember Dino Park Tycoon, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Oregon Trail II, Amazon Trail, Toggle Trouble Math, Lego Island, Mechwarrior 2, Descent 2, etc. These games helped me pass many an hour as a child, and they undoubtedly had an impact on my identity, both then and now. However, it wasn’t until I got my very first gaming console, a refurbished PSX already bundled with a DualShock controller, that gaming became a truly integral part of my life.

One of my favorite franchises on the original PlayStation was the Crash Bandicoot series; the games were colorful and fun, but more importantly, they were accessible (i.e. easy) enough to be some of the first games I ever actually finished. Crash Team Racing was especially addicting and trying to beat the campaign with every character gave birth to the completionist tendencies I have today.

So imagine my surprise and elation when I read that CTR was finally coming to the North American PlayStation Network. I knew the other Crash games had already been available as PSOne Classics for some time, but like I said, CTR held a particularly special place in my heart. You know, that special place where re-buying an 11-year-old game always seems like a good idea.

Regardless of my reasoning, or lack thereof, reliving one’s youth for only 6 bucks is a pretty sweet deal. Needless to say, I downloaded CTR as soon as it hit the freshly-updated PSN and immediately started up a new campaign. To my surprise, despite not having touched the game for ten years, all of the controls and game mechanics came back to me instantly, as if I had just booted up a save from the day before. To those who aren’t familiar with CTR, my surprise may seem a little melodramatic. After all, it’s just a Mario Kart clone, right? Well, not really. Granted, many (most) of the mechanics in CTR are plucked straight out of Mario Kart 64, and usually unabashedly so. It’s CTR’s boosting system, however, that really sets it apart. It’s a technique that’s essential to master and spam in order to beat the boss races, and it added an additional timing element to the game that was absent from Mario Kart

It may seem odd to those who grew up with Mario Kart on their SNES’s and N64’s, but CTR is actually my kart racer of choice across any platform or generation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t give Mario Kart a shot; I’ve played each iteration many a time, and I really did want to like it, but I just wasn’t used to it, I hadn’t grown up with it. Even though Mario Kart is the industry standard for kart racers, to me, it will always feel like a CTR knockoff, even though CTR came out seven years after the original Mario Kart title.

And indeed, this revelation seemed odd even to me. After all, aren’t the Mario Kart games supposed to be better? Didn’t they receive higher review scores? In trying to come up with an acceptable reason for preferring the game which supposedly paled in comparison to its competitor, I began thinking about nostalgia and how it affects our relationships with the games of our youth.

Take, for instance, Final Fantasy VII. Two summers ago, I was talking to my friend and co-author Rushabh, or rather he was talking to me, about the franchise. He was explaining how the battle system worked and how it changed from game to game, Chocobos and Moogles, MP and ATB, etc. See, I had never played a Final Fantasy game before, though I really wanted to give one a go, especially since many of the entries are considered to be some of the best titles of their respective platforms. I asked him which one I should start with, and he recommended VII, as it had just released on the PSN and was one of his personal favorites. So I dropped the $10 and began my journey as the purple-clad terrorist, wreaking havoc and chaos through the oppressed, yet otherwise peaceful streets of Midgar.

And after the 75 or so hours it took to clear the tower at Wutai, release Vincent from his crypt, help the villagers play a tower defense game, kill the Weapons, and finally kill Sephiroth, I was able to say that I had finished a Final Fantasy game. I was proud of the work I had done leveling up my party and becoming strong enough to kill even the optional bosses, and seeing all my grinding and item farming pay off in the end felt incredibly rewarding. Yet I wouldn’t necessarily say that I enjoyed myself. It was a great experience playing through what many consider to be the best game on the PSOne (besides Metal Gear Solid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), but I had my problems with it, the story being one of the biggest issues.

Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t necessarily a bad story; for a JRPG, the plot worked. And even though the writing was heavy-handed, I could still tolerate it. I just had zero interest in what the game had to say. I couldn’t have cared less about why Sephiroth had gone crazy, or who Cloud really was. In fact, the only character I really had any interest in was Barrett. His backstory in Corel was one of the only bits of plot that really piqued my interest, followed by Yuffie’s side mission. Virtually every other character was so tainted by melodrama and so concerned with some greater goal that it was nice to take time and (briefly) explore the more personal aspects of at least one character.

That’s a big reason why I thoroughly enjoyed Persona 4, my first Persona game, when I played it this past summer, and why I now consider it my favorite JRPG and one of my favorite games of any genre or generation. Though there is an overarching mystery narrative, the game’s main focus is on your comrades themselves. Fleshing out characters by establishing social links is an integral part of the game, and, more importantly, by the end, they become characters you actually care about. I felt much more connected to my party in Persona than I did in Final Fantasy. As such, the events in P4 affected me in a much more meaningful way than did the plot in FFVII because I actually cared about what happened to the inhabitants of Inaba. Call me heartless, but I didn’t even flinch when Aeris died. However, Nanako’s brush with death had me on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears.

When I tried telling Rushabh that I enjoyed Persona more than I did FF, he had a hard time fathoming how his friend could prefer any other JRPG over Final Fantasy VII besides FFX (his other favorite in the series). I tried to tell him about my problems with FFVII, and how Persona addressed many of those issues, but no matter what criticism I had for the game, he had some counter-argument in defense of FF.

One of my other issues with Final Fantasy was its pacing: the story seemed to be relentless, always pushing me forward to the next cutscene, never really letting me stop and smell the sidequest roses. Obviously I did the sidequests anyway, but I was wrestling with the game’s narrative all the while. Whereas in Persona, the game always reminded me to pace myself, and that not everything had to be done immediately. It made exploring the town of Inaba that much more enjoyable, as I could do it at my own, more leisurely pace. When I explained this to Rushabh, he replied that he never had any remorse breaking away from the plot, and joked that I was being overly sensitive.

We’ve had similar discussions before, though, the most notable of which was about the Resident Evil series. The scenario begins the same way: I wanted to try a Resident Evil game as I had never really played one before and I wanted to familiarize myself in time for RE5. Rushabh suggested RE4, so I bought a copy for the PS2 and began playing it. As I reached the town with the church, I was already frustrated by Leon’s inability to strafe. After the first fight with the town mob, I was sick of aiming with the left stick. Then when I realized that half the game was essentially an escort mission, I popped the disc out of my system and sold it. I only made it halfway through the castle. I confronted Rushabh with my complaints and he said to be thankful that I wasn’t playing any of the earlier games. When I asked him why he still liked them despite their controls, he said that their control schemes were intentionally bad, or rather cumbersome. I’m sure you’ve heard this argument before, but if you haven’t, it goes something like this: the poor control schemes in the Resident Evil series were intentionally constrictive and awkward in order to increase the feeling of panic in the games. Regardless of whether or not the developers actually thought this, the implementation or support of this “bad equals good” design philosophy is complete bullshit. There is absolutely no reason for developers to rely on constrictive controls to amplify the feeling of dread. Just look at Dead Space, another survival horror title. It had intuitive, modern, albeit slow, 3rd-person shooter controls, but the tension never faltered because of its functional control scheme. Or take Amnesia: The Dark Descent, by far 2010’s best survival horror game, as another good example. But I digress; this is an issue which would be better revisited in a later, more game-design-centric post.

What I find interesting about this argument and similar arguments for “bad equals good” game design is that they are typically only applied to older games. No one is as quick to defend Resident Evil 5 from criticism as they are 0-4. Which, in its own right, is a good thing; it’s a game that deserves some serious criticism. However, the fact that people are more likely to exempt the games of yesteryear from similar criticism is worrisome. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on a soapbox here; I do the exact same thing. But I understand that this is a very problematic way of thinking about games, and even other artistic mediums. Whether it’s out of reverence or out of nostalgia, we tend to give older works more merit than newer ones, despite the fact that most of these “classics” are slowly loosing their relevance with modern audiences due to the innovations in gameplay and game design that have been made since their debut.

What we need to do as gamers is go back and re-evaluate the games we grew up on as unbiasedly as possible. Now, I don’t mean going back and changing review scores for SNES games or anything like that. Games like Super Metroid and Earthbound deserve their high ratings as they were some of the best around when they first released. Rather, we should use our powers of hindsight to acknowledge the shortcomings and missed opportunities of older games, no matter how well they were initially received. Hopefully by doing so, three things will happen:

First, there will be less prejudice towards new games. I personally have met many people, and I’m sure you have too, who only play games made before 2003.  They refuse to try new games not because of the cost, nor because of the cultural stigma of being a “gamer,” but because they don’t feel that new games can measure up to the quality of the “classics.” Those of us who do play modern games know that this isn’t the case, though, and one need only look at three of 2010’s biggest titles, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Mass Effect 2, and Red Dead Redemption, to see that quality is in no short supply in today’s industry. By encouraging these die-hard retro fanboys to be more scrutinizing of their Genesis collections, they will hopefully see how even classics have their faults, and that there exist games today which are of the same caliber as games of yore.

Second, by acknowledging and accepting the faults of older, more “classic” titles, newer games could have a more even playing field when vying for “classic” status. Or at least people would be quicker to acknowledge newer games as being classics. Personally, I would consider Braid a classic; it’s a wonderful game that deepens the interplay between gameplay and narrative, and despite its shortcomings, could serve as a hallmark title to which other developers look for inspiration. However, even though many people consider it to be an excellent example of games as art, it’s never referred to as a classic, a title I feel it deserves. It’s a work that will most likely have historical significance in the future of gaming, so why not give it that recognition?

And third, if developers follow suit, they’ll begin re-assessing their own works more thoroughly, hopefully leading to a boost in quality and originality. Not that those two qualities are missing from today’s games, but really, how many times will we have to beat a Water Temple before Nintendo realizes (or cares) that they’ve been pumping out almost the exact same game for the past 10 years?

Long post short, we need to accept the fact that the games of our past are not infallible. That isn’t to say we can’t still enjoy the games we grew up playing. After all, there’s a reason why we enjoyed them in the first place: they’re great games. But we need to be fully cognizant and accepting of their faults and shortcomings in order to make further progress in the gaming industry. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go kick Pinstripe’s ass.


3 responses to “Looking Back, Moving Forward (or The Accelerated Back Hop)

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