by Ken Gagne

Remember the good old days of video games? When symphonic music was  replaced by simple bleeps, and a single button represented the extent of the character's abilities. Today we have Mortal Kombat III, Ultima VII and innumerable shoot-em-ups. Despite all their pizazz, many fail to live to the standards set by their predecessors all those years ago.

The video-gaming industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry, pumping out clone after clone every day of the year. Each game is only a slight variation from the other, with an extra added here and there in a vain attempt to make it stand out: full motion video, digitized voices, Mode 7 scrolling, hidden stages. These are for null if the game itself is no good. Only once now and then do we get a unique game, such as Earthworm Jim or Ogre Battle. Most of us recognize even Donkey Kong Country for the simplistic Mario game that it is.

Back when video games were in their infancy, a multiverse of possibilities  were yearning to be explored. Hundreds of modern adventure games owe their heritage to Pitfall, Activision's megahit which sold over seven million copies worldwide. Today's RPGs are akin to Adventure, which was possibly the first game to have an Easter Egg. These genres are nearing exhaustion after thousands of games have been produced for dozens of systems over the past few decades.

A few companies are realizing this, and going back to their roots.  Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, various incarnations of Pac-Man, and golden oldies such as Missile Command and Asteroids have recently appeared on the market. To players, this can mean a revisit to the past of excellence, and a glimpse into a brighter future.

What was so special about games back then? Were the programmers more  talented or imaginative than they are today? To me, my Atari 2600 symbolizes the origin of all games today; the beginning of everything else we play. These games opened our minds to the world of playability and exploration. They are every other game stripped down to the core of gameplay. Maybe this is why us old-timers remember them so fondly, because a piece of the games of years gone past are still present today.

In a more modern sense, this may be why the Street Fighter II series is more popular than so many other fighters there are. They may all be equal in enjoyment, but SFII was first on the scene and first in our hands.  Before SFII came along, we had close to no fighter-type games, and we appreciate the originality of the series with this patriarch. Any other game has SFII as its roots, and so we go back to the roots when a good fighter is called for.

Everything was original in the early days. There was always a new game with an exciting new "first." Metroid was the first game to give players a fantasy world to probe. Super Mario Bros. was the first game to no longer limit play to a single screen; now it could scroll! These were exciting new innovations in gameplay. Now we have shallow, technological advances, such as the first fully-rendered game, Donkey Kong Country, or the slew of CD-ROM games to have full-motion video (FMV). The former is the same old hop-n-bop, and not a very good one at that. Most FMV games have in actuality been GCV: grainy, choppy video. Who wants to play a movie?

When was the last time you saw anything like Marble Madness? What action game has the depth of Rygar or the cinematic feel of Ninja Gaiden? Has a  world ever been so secretive, calling for digging, as The Legend of Zelda?  I think not! Publishers have tried to duplicate these blockbusters, but end up scratching their heads, asking themselves how those first games were so popular. The answer is right there, in that these games are popular because they were first.

Or maybe it is that the magic of what goes on behind the scenes has become lost upon us. It was not many years ago when terms such as "bits" and "bytes" were the lingo of a few genius programmers. Nobody really knew how pushing a button could make Pac-Man eat a ghost, but we were glad it did; and so we were happy. Now, the two most common foreign languages are Spanish and C++. Every individual console type was an opportunity for different, entertaining games. Were the Intellivision, Colecovision, and Atari 2600 ever really in competition, or were they simply passengers on the same boat? Video games were a hobby, not an industry. Now we can spend hours debating the advantages of cartridge over CD-ROM, or use the 65816 processor instead of 68000.

Maybe there's even a thirdunlike, but perhaps connected, front to take his essay. In the days of Q*Bert, a person could sit for hours in front of a cabinet, blindfolded, one hand tied behind his back, and still make it to the twentieth level. These people were god-like in their arcade domains because they had the patience to learn the ways of the programming. Now, there are those who train to be the cheapest, lowest, dirtiest Mortal Kombat player there is, the kind you cannot defeat for any number of tokens. These are the people who appear and steal your quarter's worth of game by defeating you, and then refuse to divulge how they executed a particular move or pulled off a certain combo. Even when playing against a computer opponent, there are no easy tricks to memorize.  In a sense, this has restricted the playing field to those with true skill, removing those who would memorize how a game worked just for the fun of it. Everybody used to be equal at games where no skill was necessary, so anybody could play anybody and have a good time. No longer.

In the Super NES, there is the NES; the Jaguar has its Atari 2600 and 5200; don't forget the Sega Master System which is part of the Genesis.  The fruition of decades of video games belong to the success of those which were first on the scene and kindled the spirit of an industry.

This article is copyright (c) 1998, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 02-Mar-98