Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Retro game bash: The bad

Above: Unfortunately, a real product.

Yesterday I talked about the high points of the retro game bash. Not everything was hunky dory. Take the food. (Please!) I don't know when it happened, but at some point over the last 10 years I stopped enjoying junk food. It wasn't even a conscious decision. Little by little, things like soda and chips vanished from my diet. Gorging on this crap at the bash came as a shock to the system.

Drinking Mountain Dew was not a pleasant experience, nor was drinking several more, all from the World of Warcraft-themed "Game Fuel" line. Both the cherry-flavored Horde and berry-flavored Alliance varieties are sickly sweet, but you have to give the edge to Alliance because it is a blue color that exists nowhere in nature. It looks like it should be in a beaker in a mad scientist's lab. Plus, I just don't understand why soda has to be high-concept these days. (You even see beer starting to go this way now and again, when "it gets you drunk" ought to be the lynchpin of the whole thing.) But the drinks weren't nearly as bad as the food.

The Doritos "Late Night" line is, frankly, bewildering. What is the difference between tacos at midnight and tacos at another time of day? Has anyone ever gone to Taco Bell at 6 P.M. and thought, well, this is okay, but what it could really use is another six hours sitting out at room temperature? Because that's essentially what "Tacos at Midnight" Doritos taste like. Don't even get me started on the other flavor, "Last Call JalapeƱo Poppers." There's no way that's even a thing. I mean, at least people have occasionally eaten tacos at midnight. Nobody has ever rushed the bar at last call for remaindered apps.

Onto the games. I'm not hugely into bigtime retro gaming (i.e., pre-NES), and it didn't take long to remember why. The Intellivision controller is insane. The control pad is a shiny disc, which might lead you to think it rotates. You would be wrong. You press its sides for four- or eight-way controls. I understand that when the Intellivision was released, there was no precedent to draw on for the controller, but they could have done better with a little common sense. Atari's joystick made perfect sense at first glance.

I am not a big fan of the Atari 2600 catalog, though, and it's not hard to remember why. It seemed like every game for that system was a direct clone of something else, usually Space Invaders. Even acknowledged classics like Adventure and Yars' Revenge seem unplayable to my modern sensibilities. They're like cave paintings: obviously important, and fascinating historical artifacts, but I can't engage them on their own level.

Some of the bad games we played weren't surprises. We love Area 51 precisely because of how bad it is. That was the lightgun shooter that used digital photography of costumed actors to depict an alien invasion of the infamous government facility. The pace is slow, the graphics choppy, and the gameplay rote. Enemies all explode in an identical, cartoonish gib animation. The cover art depicts some sort of ghoul in a sleeveless orange jumpsuit brandishing two assault rifles. At one point, an actor playing an ally runs in front of the camera, waves his arm slowly, and shouts "Stay low!" in the least intense tone you can imagine. It is truly terrible. And so awesome.

A couple games, sad to say, have aged terribly. I remember Treasure's Guardian Heroes as an unappreciated classic. It's a sidescrolling fighter with heavy RPG elements and what I remember to be incredible hand-drawn graphics. Today it's a pixelated mess, prone to slowdown, and not very fun. Granted, we were locust-like in our approaches to every game that day, swarming from one to another, but Guardian Heroes didn't hold anybody's attention for very long.

Then, of course, there's GoldenEye. I know I didn't love this game 10 years ago, but today it is beyond bad. Unplayable. With four people playing at once, the frame rate drops to what feels like single digits. Even with two or three players, the low resolution and copious anti-aliasing makes it seem like the part of the eye exam where the doctor is showing you different lenses and you say, "Worse!" But you expect graphics to seem worse years later. What's surprising is how bad the gameplay is.

In GoldenEye, you can't jump. There's no crosshair. The levels are largely flat and nondescript. You can only aim along the y-axis when you're motionless. Firefights are nothing more than players running circles around each other. I know this game deserves a lot of credit for being the first successful console FPS, but we used that logic to determine what's good today, then people would still be riding bicycles with the giant front wheel. Nothing in this game gives me what I want from an FPS.

Tomorrow: The ugly. It will be a shorter post, I promise.


Filipe Salgado said...

I'm with you on the snack thing. I was hanging out with a buddy and got some Sprite and a big old bag of salt and vineger chips. I had an intense headache for the rest of the day. My body just can't handle it anymore. Ugh.

Matthew Gallant said...

I remember my first time playing a dual stick shooter (Red Faction?) after years of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark: "This makes so much sense!"

Gary A. Lucero said...

I occasionally play Amiga games in an emulator and although they look pretty bad nowadays, I have a lot of fond memories of those games.

And the Atari 2600 was my first gaming device and it provided a ton of fun for a group of young men.

Would I play Atari 2600 games today, or consider replaying an entire Amiga or Commodore 64 game? No, no way.

Memories are great but they are only memories.

Julian said...

I remember playing that Turok game on N64. The level design was pretty terrible, and the enemies were annoying. But the controls! The controls were amazing. Map WASD-style movement to the d-pad or C-buttons, and dedicate the analog stick to looking around. It was a revelation.

Later on, when dual analog stick controllers became the norm, my friends and I said "Wow! This is like Turok controls with analog movement!"

Anonymous said...

I loved (and applaud) your eye-doctor and big-bicycle-wheel references! Remember when you said those? That was awesome.

As a 40-year-old gamer, I find I'm not even a little bit bothered by pixelated graphics, slow framerate, or even constraining game play (e.g. not being able to aim on the Y-axis while moving). In fact, I find that a lot of times, the lack of graphical polish in these older games, by virtue of causing the gameplay to be laid bare for all to see, forced the gameplay to be solid right out of the gate, or the player would move on after 5 minutes. (Not to say that there hasn't always been tons of shovelware to sift through, of course.) You can see that bare-bones effect illustrated again today with many XBLA games (I'm looking at you, Geometry Wars, and don't think I've forgotten about you either, N+).

Having said all that, I have to agree with you that controllers have come a long way, baby. (As have standardized best-practice control schemes.) So, I prefer to do my "retro" gaming when retro games are re-released on current systems, whether they be collections, remakes, or Virtual Console. I think these re-releases do a better job of simulating the original experience I had while playing the game, since this way I get to use the controller/scheme that I'm currently used to (just as when I originally played the game, I was also using a controller/scheme that I was used to *at the time*, even if it sucked in hindsight).

Along those same lines, to have an even better re-creation of my younger self's gaming experience, I love to play any new game that's released in "retro style". Currently, I'm addicted to "The Dark Spire", which, naturally, I'm playing in Classic wire-frame mode (in addition to the nostalgia factor, it's easier to navigate, and the game runs faster). Again, this wraps the core game in modern niceties, allowing me to fairly evaluate the gaming experience without "interface bias". I haven't enjoyed a game as much as I'm enjoying The Dark Spire since... oh, Exit. I guess I'm just a sucker for minimalist presentations. (Did I mention N+ and Geometry Wars? Oh yes, I did.)

Alex Denham said...

Thank god someone finally called out Goldeneye...

Tim Mackie said...

I never really understood why people loved GoldenEye so much, either. I played it back in the day at social occasions, but not because it was particularly fun in and of itself.

I also agree on Mountain Dew and all its horrible mutant bastard children. As a young whippersnapper compared to the rest of you people and in general (19), I know a lot of people who will go through a case of the stuff in like a week. I can't even drink that much of pop varieties that I like, let alone something as disgusting as Mountain Dew. My caffeine intolerance doesn't help matters much, either.

As for the issue of outdated graphics... I've been a longtime apologist for good games with mediocre or bad graphics, as long as the game mechanics don't rely on the graphics. I try not to let that sort of thing bother me, but I can understand how things that used to look great don't hold up any more. For me, though, a lot of games that I remember looking great still do look great all these years later, but then I didn't own anything from the mid-late 90s console generation until I bought a PS1 upon the untimely death of my brother's PS2 he got the week of the launch, so a lot of games from that era never looked all that astounding in my mind.

Mitch Krpata said...

As long as I can remember, sane people have agreed that graphics aren't everything, and of course that's true. But graphics are more important in some games than others. Something like GoldenEye really does depend on clear visuals and a good frame rate in order to be playable at all. Hell, take Tetris, the poster child for gameplay over graphics: how much fun would that be if the tetriminoes weren't clearly outlined?

The funny thing is that, in my eyes, lots of 16-bit games look just as good as they ever did, especially some Super Nintendo games. They were drawn with such clarity and with such a bright color palette. For me there's a graphical dead zone in the mid-90s, when 3D graphics came into vogue. Those early-gen PSX, Saturn, and N64 games look just horrible (with many exceptions). The N64 in particular employed so many ill-advised visual effects, particularly anti-aliasing, that on today's displays you see nothing but an undifferentiated mass of drably colored blobs.

Mike said...

I'll third the satisfaction at having someone call out GoldenEye. My brother insisted it was one of the greatest games ever made, and I tried so hard to like it, but man, give me Doom II any time over that (note: not the N64 version, which was an abomination). Console shooters didn't click for me until Metroid Prime.

Also, w.r.t the 2600 -- did you happen to have Warlords on hand? That's an excellent 4-player game that still stands up. Straightforward and simple gameplay, but it fails to become boring and with 4 people it's a blast. We used to play it at Castle Awesome quite a bit.

Tim Mackie said...

I agree fully that some games do rely on the graphics, and that's why I had that little disclaimer in my original post (although I drifted away from it a lot in the rest of it, so I can understand how it might have gone unnoticed or seemed that I didn't really mean it). With GoldenEye, though, it seems to me that the problem is less that the graphics themselves are bad and more that they were done inefficiently and/or there was too much going on in four-player split screen for the console to handle effectively. Either way, though, it does make for a pretty crappy game.

The funny thing is that even though the multiplayer is nigh-unplayable due to the frame rates and crappy controls, single player still manages to be worse somehow in its very design.

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