With the world of technology developing by leaps and bounds in such a short period of time, the medium that has seen the greatest breakthroughs is video games. Books and radio have only gained more and more methods of delivery to consumers, and while movies enjoy better special effects, video games have changed dramatically over the past 60 years.
In 1958, the first video game was created. Tennis for Two was played on an analog computer using an oscilloscope for graphics and two simple controllers with nothing more than a single rotary knob.
Fast forward to 2022, and we have series like Assassin’s Creed and The Elder Scrolls simulating entire fantasy worlds, as well as awesome virtual reality games like the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator, which allows players to fly n ‘ anywhere on the globe using Bing Map Data.
Essentially, video games have evolved from two-dimensional tennis simulators to making up entire worlds in cyberspace. And while many of these modern games make Tennis for Two, Pong, and Adventure look quaint, many of them fail to see the forest for the trees.
The bigger the game, the more attention has to be paid to every detail. And while development teams have grown exponentially – from a dozen or less in the ’80s and’ 90s to sometimes hundreds today – that is often insufficient. AAA games in particular have fallen short in recent years, slipping into bug-ridden states with many oversights.
Even legendary series like Call of Duty and Battlefield released lackluster titles at the end of 2021 – massive, but uninspired and full of problems. Over a decade ago, AAA game studios were launching the occasional stink, but it is quickly becoming an industry-wide problem.
What’s the use of running a video game with huge, realistic environments when they just aren’t fun to play? With the internet, developers can turn shoddy games into good ones over time, but first impressions are important and updates often come too late for the gaming community to take notice.
This is where my appreciation for retro video games comes in. Whether or not constraints produce better work is a fairly common debate in art circles, and I would say that for games, constraints are definitely can to help. When photorealistic graphics were still a pipe dream, developers knew exactly what they could and couldn’t accomplish.
In the ’80s and’ 90s, development teams knew from the start how much game data they could fit into a cartridge or CD. They had limited color palettes and were often forced to use chiptunes instead of recorded music. If there were too many objects on the screen at once, the system would warp and slow down at a breakneck rate.
So instead of feeling pressured into making photorealistic worlds, the developers sought to create games that were simply fun. In the process, the titles managed to look and sound incredibly unique despite their limitations. I’d much rather enjoy the smooth two-dimensional animation of Marvel vs Capcom than watch another modern, monotonous war game like Call of Duty or Gears of War.
Sonic abilities have also come a long way. I love the heavy electronic beats that characterize Deep Rock Galactic and Cyberpunk 2077. But, I have yet to hear a video game soundtrack that outperforms 1996 Sonic 3D Blast in terms of teaser, and everything was written to using the Sega Genesis FM synthesizer – truly primitive by today’s standards.
But like anything we call vintage or retro, there were a lot of horrible products that came out around this time that we luckily forgot about. Mascot platforms like Bubsy and Gex have tried unsuccessfully to replicate the success of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and the game’s adaptation of ET the Alien was so bad it helped spark an industry-wide crash from 1983 to 1985.
Porn games aren’t new either – Custer’s Revenge is still known for its tasteless, even by 1982 standards. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But I yearn for a time when more video games prioritize the fun factor over all other standards.
Riordan Zentler can be contacted at [email protected]