Sunday, August 29, 2010

I'm starting to wonder if game developers understand "retro"

While it's been going on for awhile now the whole idea surrounding retrofied games still seems to be very much stuck in its infancy. I'm speaking more specifically about the whole NES age we're reliving again. There's a lot of stuff out there that sounds neat on paper but when it comes down to it the games just aren't there. As you've seen in my earlier post I'm not a big fan of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World: The Game. It's a harsh score certainly but I forgot to leave out my harshest comment: It doesn't even feel like a game.

Now I understand words like "feel" tend to open a lot of unwanted cans of worms. Thankfully in the case of SPvTW it's quite simple. While there are elements taken from other games there is nothing there that completes the assembly. It's like getting a bunch of really cool lego pieces but only certain parts of them can connect to one another. You don't get a car with three wheels, instead you get an interior, a trunk, and maybe the engine. There's no real sense of progression and worse still no sense of ambition, originality, or creativity.

On the DS we have an example in Xseed's Retro Game Challenge. It's a throwback collection that culls together a handful of games that we might have played on our NES consoles way back when if they had actually existed. Unfortunately again for the most part they lack the most vital functions and ideas. Without focus and direction this game merely comes off as an exercise in nostalgia. That's an ugly word for me because it's hard to get nostalgic over something that's readily accessible. I can't very well ask my great-grandmother to bake me cookies because they remind me of a better time and that's because...well..she's dead. While I can't get Nanny's cookies I can still get my hands on just about any classic game that was originally released on any classic console. Sure I might get nostalgic about the experience of playing that game, but never the game itself.

Problem is most of these retro-game developers are more worried about the experience than the game. 3D Dot Heroes seemed to have everything in order as it referenced all sorts of classic titles from Zelda to Dragon Warrior. You couldn't throw a stick without it hitting a sign or a townsperson saying something totally 8-bit. The game itself however was just not good at all. It might have included everything that made Zelda memorable but it forgot to include all of the things that made it great.

The worst part about all this is that retro-developers seem to imply that the experience was the only thing worthwhile about the games back then. Nowadays whenever there's an argument about older vs newer games that nasty nostalgia word gets thrown around a lot. There may be a bit of truth in it but at least as far as I'm concerned more than a handful of games made back then are still playable today. Problem is when I play something that uses old-school charm to hide its awfulness I start feeling like my intelligence has been insulted. It's like the people that made this game forgot where they came from.

2D Shooters and Beatemups both went through a Golden Age back in the 90s where seemingly every developer could whip up a competent to classic title. They make it all look so easy I wonder why so many developers today haven't been able to follow suit. Instead the results tend to be inept imitations. Everything from the controls, to the mechanics, to the little things like enemy design feel like they were ripped right out of the code of a title that came before. Still there were no actual games being made. They're just bits and pieces that the player was able to interact with long enough to reach the ending. It's really pretty embarrassing that I haven't seen much if any improvement in games styled after the ones that came before so many years ago. We have access to the teachings of the master so logically we should have been able to improve upon them and yet it just isn't happening.

So how does one begin to understand retro? It's really not complicated at all. Simplicity is one aspect of it and that's easy enough to understand. The average retro game should be able to get away with only requiring a couple buttons to play, the concept should be accessible, and the player should be able to understand the game in less than a minute. Retro is also about challenge. I'm not just talking about making the game really hard though. Challenge just has to be natural and constant so that the player's skills are tested as they progress. Retro does not underestimate the importance of a high-score. Sure there were quite a few older games and heck even some classics that had bad or even broken scoring systems but they still gave the player something to work towards. Nowadays it's a bit of a tough call because we're seeing a lot more arcade-style games that use scoring properly. Still it can have something to offer for the clever. Speaking of retro is originality. This is a huge thing that almost everyone is missing because a lot of the time they're all doing the same games. Back in the NES days many of the more memorable titles like Blaster Master, The Guardian Legend, River City Ransom, and so on had similarities to other titles but also offered some unique twists, some different methods of handling traditional aspects, and just plain thinking creatively. This sort of thing just isn't happening today since retro is such a niche concept that if one person does something they think they're the only game in town. How easily they forget that they're still competing with games that are just as viable as they were nearly 30 years ago.

Retro is not about how 8-bit-looking the characters are or if everyone speaks in engrish. This is the sort of stuff that ties into the experience aspect and usually feels forced and inconsistent. Retro isn't just making a game two-dimensional and thinking that's enough. That sort of thing strikes me as a disillusioned method of fighting the system, where the end result is just bitter old gamers decrying everything 3D, next thing you know it turns into elitism and then the dogs and cats start living together. Oh and retro isn't emulating all those glitches and other problems that plagued so many older games. Slowdown is one thing as its pretty essential to 2D shooters but making a game flicker or letting the sound skip just isn't cool at all. For all the power these newer consoles are capable of we really have no excuse for some retro games running like they do.

It's not all bad for the retro scene though. There are a handful of real stand-out titles like Mamotte Knight, Half-Minute Hero, Spelunky, Pixel/Jump!, and quite a few others. Not only do they capture the right qualities of the retro game but they also use the hardware they're on to do things the NES could only dream of. If nothing else at least these games are showing creativity and originality, which in the end is all I really ask for.

Anyway thanks for reading this rambling post full of nonsense. I just felt like I had to say some things even if I'm not 100% or even 15% clear about it all.

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