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Saving killed the video game star

Spend a little time around The Toast and you’ll quickly find I’m somewhat of a retro gaming nerd. Specifically the classic NES from the 80s. I grew up on that system and thus it holds a special place in my heart. I’ve done my best to keep up with gaming through past 20 years and have seen and experienced the leaps and bounds of game technology and design…and it’s all been great. But a recent reader letter in GameInformer magazine got me thinking.

The gist of the letter is that today’s games are too easy. The writer is obviously an old school gamer because he mentions the challenge of games from back in “the NES glory days.” He asks of today’s games, “where’s the challenge?” The response from GameInformer was this.

“It’s not that games aren’t difficult anymore; they’re just difficult in different ways…imagine if you had to start Super Mario Galaxy over from the beginning every time you put it in your Wii. Or let’s say that you had to play Call of Duty 4 with only three lives…” And they continue, “You may not get the same bragging rights for beating a game, but you also aren’t putting up with garbage like memorizing an entire speeder bike obstacle course in Battletoads.”

That response brings up a point that I’ve never really thought about before – the ability to save your progress in a game single handedly ruined video games.

I remember leaving my NES on for days, sometimes weeks, because I had gotten far in a game and didn’t want to start at the beginning again. But I also remember getting far in games only to run out of continues and had no choice but to start over again. It’s no question that saving your progress was a wonderful invention for gaming. It opened up the doors to the marathon games we have today…the Metal Gears, the Final Fantasies, etc. But in that same stroke it took the prestige and distinction out of gaming.

Because, Mr. GameInformer, you know what would happen if you did have to start Super Mario Galaxy over each time you wanted to play? You’d get really f’n good at it, that’s what. And believe you me, back then I totally rocked that Battletoads bike course because I had no choice but to memorize it, and that made me good at it. I’d rather have to memorize levels and have bragging rights, than finish a game over a single weekend and have it not count for anything.

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There’s a reason why I can still play the original Super Mario Brothers and know exactly where to go and what to do…because I had to start over every time I played. I, like many of that time, knew that game better than I knew the Star Spangled Banner. And maybe if games today made us play over and over we wouldn’t feel like we were getting ripped off paying $60 for a game.

I’ve been a fan of the Metal Gear series since the NES, but things really kicked in for that series on the Playstation. The game played out like a movie, complete with cinematics and cut scenes. It let me save my progress and after 25+ hours of play I finished the game. I was happy and it felt good to finish the game, but just because I beat the game didn’t mean I was good at the game. Because I was able to start from where I left off each time, it didn’t necessary mean I was good at the game. Sometimes it did, but sometimes it just meant I was lucky and mashed the right buttons at the right time. Point being, I never had to play a section of the game more than once. And if I’m not asked to repeat my accomplishment and succeed, how good can I really be?

Before game saves, if you got to level 7 or 8 or whatever everyone knew you were good because you had to be good just to get there. Going out today and saying, “hey, I beat Metal Gear,” doesn’t mean crap because everyone beats Metal Gear eventually. There’s no good measurement for games anymore. The only measures for game greatness seem to be high scores and low times, both of which are rarely put to use these days. But this is why games like Guitar Hero have become so appealing to me (and many others). Not only are they fun, but they actually require my skill and that has a direct effect on my actual (and perceived) greatness. I’ll put fighting games in this class too because it’s repetitive without much outside influence.

Of course, then you ask, “why do I want to play a game that is repetitive?” A valid question and in that question lies the challenge to game makers: How do you make a game that is challenging and fun but not frustrating? Guitar Hero does it. Pac-man did it. Mario Brothers did it. Space Invaders did it. And that list can go on…

So yes, games are still difficult but only in chunks. Simply finishing a game doesn’t count for squat these days, and in order to be recognized as being a great player at any game means one thing and one thing only: consistently doing well over and over and over again.

(And if you need more proof, just look at real life sports. Let’s say I go out and make a hole-in-one at golf. Does that make me a great golfer? No. It was a one time shot. But now look at someone like Tiger Woods. Why is he great and I’m not?)

3 Comments

  1. Peter Peter December 30, 2009

    I agree in the most part, but I think you left out an important genre: RTS. If Starcraft doesn’t require skill, then I don’t know what does. Also, any game with multiplayer requires skill.

  2. David David February 1, 2011

    I think you are right in that there is nothing in the way of “bragging rights” when you beat a game, but I would argue that there is still a way to achieve it. Multiplayer. Today a lot of games designed with both SP and MP options, with one designated for a story, and one designated for showing dominance and SKILL at the game. If you’re good, you win. Consistently. Like sports players.

  3. Brian Brian Post author | February 1, 2011

    I agree with that. Multiplayer games is certainly the best way to test someone’s skill level at a game…versus other people. But even then it’s somewhat hard to tell because you might not be playing similar skill levels. Unless conditions are the same for all players, it’s hard to judge fairly.

    I guess the ultimate point being that games used to come with challenge built in to the single player modes. I think that’s what is missing in many current games. Thankfully the indie titles and XBLA releases often fit the need for some fun, fast, high score challenges.

    Fun, challenging and replayable – it’s a hard balance to find in a game, but there was a time when almost every game came that way…what happened?

    I guess people just don’t want personal challenges anymore. It’s like unless there’s a cinematic finale people don’t feel they’ve been rewarded.

    But with all that said, I’m not a hater. I love playing the “checkpoint” games too. Metal Gear, Tomb Raider, BioShock…played them and loved them…but they’re pretty much one-and-done.

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