I’ve read a couple of seemingly anti-retrogame articles recently and it’s got me thinking. The first was written by Dennis Scimeca over at Joystick Division. That one asserts that old games are essentially just that, old, and have no place amongst all the shiny new games we have now because they lack some cultural relevance that Citizen Kane has decades later. Fortunately, his cohort Garrett Martin wrote a pretty good comeback. The more recent is a piece by Joel Goodwin over at Electron Dance. It’s the last in a long series about his history with games and seems to assert that the only value in old games is for us older gamers (whatever the fuck that even means, I’m in my twenties, goddamnit) to relive our childhoods. The games aren’t actually that great, it’s just our rose-tinted nostalgia goggles that make them seem good.
I’m calling bullshit on both of these arguments right now. The second has more validity, but I’ll get to that. The former is kind of insulting, honestly. Really, though, the whole thing pivots on the continuing belief that games aren’t art or literature like films, music and books. If someone wrote an article asserting that Citizen Kane isn’t really that good because it uses outmoded filmmaking techniques, they would be laughed off the internet, even by the author of the article I mention, who specifically defends the film (although I’m sure some troll somewhere has done it). If someone wrote that the only reason people think the Beatles are good is because all the people who like them were young in the ’60s and are just trying to recapture their youth, the scoffs would be hear ‘round the world. Games, though? Fair game, apparently.
Looking around, it seems awfully odd for this argument to be coming up now. In a way, it’s a backlash to the massive 8- and 16-bit nostalgia that’s taken hold in many twenty and thirtysomethings in recent years, which is understandable, but look at some of the most ubiquitous and popular games of our time. Angry Birds is a 2D, character based puzzle game. Farmville is an online-enabled Harvest Moon. These are games that almost everyone, whether they consider themselves a gamer or not, is aware of and has probably played. Sure, Call of Duty makes more money, but it also costs more by several orders of magnitude.
How is that not culturally relevant? If I can draw a direct line from Mighty Bomb Jack (a 2D, character based puzzle game) to Angry Birds, is that not cultural relevance. The idea Scimeca puts forth that old games are too primitive to have that relevance is shattered by a look at nearly any successful iOS game. They show direct lineage to vintage games. Doodle Jump has more than a little in common with Q-Bert, Game Dev Story is a lot like Aerobiz.
Now, to Goodwin’s point, it’s hard to argue that nostalgia doesn’t have its place. Retro Game Challenge was critically acclaimed (despite selling sadly few copies) for its ability to capitalize on your nostalgia. On the other hand, the people came for the presentation and stayed for the games, which were done in the style of NES games. Even more to his point, though, there are some games I’m happy to defend out of pure nostalgia. Is the NES port of Double Dragon any good? No. It’s arguably among the worst versions, but I like it because it was the first version I played (and was very confused by the title, let me tell you) and I associate it with my childhood. On the other hand, I never played VICE: Project Doom until about a year ago. It’s an NES game I missed, but when I played it, I found it to be a woefully underappreciated 8-bit gem. I could not have nostalgia for it, because I never played it as a child. And yet, I still enjoyed it.
Certainly, there are technological limitations that make some games more difficult to go back to, but they mostly revolve around progress and are easily solved via emulation, either legitimately (Virtual Console) or nefariously (ZSNES). Not everyone has all day to sink into Super Mario Bros. 3, which has no password or save feature. That’s fine. Not everyone has the patience for games with limited continues (I think I’ve made my opinions on that issue known over the life of this site). That’s also fine. With emulation, save states solve literally ALL of these problems. They can also break a game wide open, but that’s up to the player to use them judiciously.
Again, I return to previous examples. If someone argued that Casablanca didn’t have a good story because the composite shots look awful, you would think they are insane. By the same token, arguing that Contra isn’t infinitely playable (and you can take that from someone who’s training for a World Record run at it) because the graphics are outdated and flicker a little is insane. It’s easy to pick up, the controls are simple and the game can be finished in about thirty minutes, even by an unskilled player. Most notably, it’s frantic and it’s fun.
Now, I’m also not interested in lambasting new games to boost the old. There are a lot of new games I love. I own all the current consoles except the 3DS, which has more to do with my finances at the moment that my feelings on 3D gimmickry. There’s a lot to love about new games, but new games aren’t all sugar and spice. My fiancee won’t play modern console games because she says “the controller scares me.” Modern big-budget games are off-putting to people who haven’t played games, because the controller may as well be the Lament Configuration.
There’s room for all games. The real concern I have is that articles like Scimeca’s make me worry. The medium has a history, both in terms of its art and gameplay. We don’t have a London After Midnight, but without people who do care for retrogames, we might someday. So while you should love Angry Birds and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, don’t forget VICE: Project Doom and River City Ransom.
(Images taken from Google Image Search, TinyCartridge.com)