Speaking to the New York Times last week, video game industry analyst Mat Piscatella made the following observation: “Everything in gaming has gotten...complicated and tech heavy.”
It is easy to see what he means. The Atari 2600, the world’s first video game console, arrived in 1977 with a one button, one joystick controller. A handful of games were released, like Pac-Man, that used simple graphics and involved up to two players. Fast forward to 2018 and the newest video game consoles usually feature controllers with two mini joysticks and at least twelve additional buttons and triggers. They can play hundreds of graphically rich games, like Fortnite, that involve anywhere from one to thousands of local and online players.
The trend toward ever more complex, graphics-heavy games may help explain why many consumers are showing a newfound interest in classic video games. According to NPD, a video game industry analyst firm that employs Mr Piscatella, one in five new consoles sold in the United States in 2018 has been a retro plug-and-play device.
One of these, Sony’s Playstation Classic, was released just last week and comes preloaded with 20 classic games. Sony follows the example of Nintendo, which has re-released two classic consoles in the past two years, including the first-generation NES Classic and its successor, the Super NES Classic. According to a recent announcement, Nintendo’s classic consoles have sold more than 4.5 million units over the past two years.
Like the Playstation Classic, Nintendo’s classic game systems are cheap and come with a collection of popular older games. And in stark contrast to modern consoles, these vintage systems are simple and tech-light. “Here’s this $80 device that you can plug into a TV and go,” said Mr Piscatella.
To some, the increasing popularity of classic gaming options is a testament to the nostalgia-fuelled excitement that many adults still feel for the video games they played growing up. Popular Science writer David Nield wrote in a November 2018 article that “even as modern video games grow ever more advanced, many of us miss the classics that we enjoyed as kids.” To others, the continued popularity of older games is proof that video games do not have to use the latest hardware or feature advanced graphics to be fun.
What makes a good game?
The question of what makes a game fun is not new but it has resurfaced recently as the battle between classic and new games has appeared. IGN Entertainment, a leading gaming and entertainment website, asked its readers in 2014 what makes a perfect game and their responses show that no single factor is make-or-break.
“There are different tastes when it comes to gaming,” IGN said, which means that there isn’t “an ideal formula to create the perfect game.” Those different tastes are evident in the variety of video game genres.
For instance, for many fans of adventure or strategy games, the best games involve an interesting storyline and set of characters. That there are still close to 150 million active users on Pokemon Go attests to the durable appeal of the “pocket monster” storyline, whereby players travel around capturing and training beautifully animated creatures for combat and glory. Likewise, Nintendo has captured and recaptured generations of game players with its brightly coloured cast of Mario Bros characters.
Other games rely on more dramatic and cinematic storylines and characters. The complex plotlines of Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starcraft games, the novel-like depth of the Myst series and the role-played adventures encountered in any of the Final Fantasy or Zelda sagas delight players by immersing them in another world.
Visuals versus gameplay
There is also a large debate about video game graphics. Yet there is a basic agreement among players that whilst they are important, a game’s visuals are not essential to a good game. An online poll hosted by debate.org asked the question, “Do graphics matter in video games?” A small majority of 52% of the site’s visitors responded ‘Yes.’
Graphics supporters noted that dazzling visuals are something that newer games provide that older games cannot. “Would a [h]orror game be as good if all the scary enemies looked like playdough?” one respondent asked, adding that “half the amazement of Skyrim was the awe inspiring views...which wouldn’t have been awe inspiring with Super Mario 64 graphics.”
Another respondent wrote that graphics “may not be as good as gameplay, but they definitely matter,” adding, “Who wants to play a game when the characters look like stick figures throwing rocks? Good graphics enhance the game.”
Whilst “enhance” appears to be the key word for video game visuals, gameplay strikes at the heart of any game’s appeal. This is also true regardless of genre. Consider Super Mario Bros, the Street Fighter series, or the explosive popularity of 2013’s Flappy Bird; none of these titles rely on cutting edge or realistic graphics. Instead, the quality or nature of their gameplay is what has kept gamers coming back for more.
Using blunt terms familiar to online (and often young) gamers, one debate.org poll respondent said that he preferred “gameplay over graphics,” asking, “Would you rather have a realistic piece of crap or a blocky side scroller that you can play over and over and over again?”
Ultimately, without a delightful gameplay experience, even the most determined gamer will lose interest. In other words, video games need to be fun first. The recent resurgence of classic games and video game systems in today’s age of 4K graphics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality makes it clear that all the extras do not guarantee enjoyment.
So if you are considering wrapping a video game system for a friend, child, or family member this holiday season, give your vintage options another look. They will certainly be less expensive. They could also be more fun.
Photo credit: Creative Commons