When Bionic Commando
came out for the NES, it was heavily promoted in Nintendo Power, which
to me was the source of gaming news . When it finally arrived, I rented it (as I did with all games
at the time). After five minutes, I became utterly frustrated with the
lack of jump button and promptly returned the game. At ten, the lack
of jump button was a deal breaker.
So the years passed, and after passing on remake after remake, while discussing whether Braid was worth the purchase, Alex convinced me to try the game out. For the past few days I’ve been playing a bunch of Bionic Commando: Rearmed. If you want the in-and-outs of the game, read Alex’s great review.
However, this isn’t a second love letter to Rearmed. Instead, as I went through Reamred, I realized how the motivations of gamers have changed over the past thirty years; and in turn, changed the focus of the video game.
In the beginning, there were cabinets, Ataris, Colecovisions and whatever other home system that can be recalled. Think back, if you were alive, to what was shown on an arcade game before playing it. First, there would be some in game action, then a picture or two and then ultimately the high score list. Always the high score list. High score was the ultimate barometer of gaming ability. Games didn’t have an end. Sure, Mario saved Pauline,* but she was always recaptured three seconds later.
Moving into the 8-bit era, the focus changed. The talk on the playground became, how far did you get into Mario? Have you made it to the Second Quest? Gamers became less concerned with the scoreboard and obsessed with sticking it to Dr. Wily. This was also the beginning of the RPG and the sports game. The goal in those games was simple, win. As for the reason for the shift, it’s simple. Consoles didn’t save high scores. If a gamer was looking for something more, he tried to beat games as quickly as possible, like the Mario Speed Run or the low-level RPG missions.
But the 16-bit era added more content to the game. Platformers offered a bonus level or two, like Super Mario World‘s Special Area, RPGs offered the side-quest. Focus on “scoring” had evaporated, and “beating” the game was the only goal.
As the gamer grew up, games added more and more sidequests, optional levels and unlockables. Instead of an optional area, optional worlds became the norm. To use Super Mario 64 as an example, a large chunk of the game’s levels were optional. Large portions of the game were locked away from the gamer. The goal, as such, became shift from beating the game, but to unlocking the game. And that’s where the current focus began.
The modern game, in general (with some exceptions), focuses on the unlockable, rather than a satisfying conclusion. “Beating” the game means virtually nothing anymore. Look at Mario Galaxy. To beat the game, a gamer need only beat half the
levels. The modern RPGer plays the “main quest” for 30 – 40 hours and
40 – 60 hours on optional areas.
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the more
bang for the buck, but there has been an effect on games. If a gamer doesn’t “beat” a game, it means either he got bored or were playing the game for the achievements, trophies or picture of Mario with a star. No longer is the main “quest” of the game near difficult, it’s mearly the prelude to more items, unlockables and achievements. Games, even the most basic 8-bit platformer told a story or least tried to tell one. The gamer endured many tests of testing reflexes and puzzle-solving to the ultimate conclusion, which was the end of the game. Now the end comes when the gamer collects 20 hardhats on Super-Difficult. Games end when something shinier distracts the gamer.
And I hadn’t been so reminded of this fact when playing Rearmed. There are upgrades, optional areas and hidden items, but in the end, the most difficult area is the final area. The finally level is by far the most difficult test of the game. I haven’t cursed, tantrumed and carried on over a game in ages. Such were the games of the 8-bit era. Think Ninja Gaiden for this generation is tough? Try trying to dodge tens of fireballs knowing that you have no continues left and one wrong move with ruin four hours work.
At a time where technology allows games to test reflexes and wits, while reaching the gamer through a real story, instead, the challenge of the modern game is attrition. How long are you willing to grind gathering the 50 shards of light, to open the are to collect 20 stars, which allows you to go through some maze, to unlock a fifty point achievement?
I understand the past is the past, and there are games like Ninja Gaiden and Bioshock, which focus on difficulty and conclusion, but as they say: they don’t make them like they use to.
That’s all for now
*Whatever happened to Pauline? Did her and Mario break up before Princess Peach or was he a two-timer. Eh, she’s probably better off. Dating an Italian plumber from Brooklyn can’t be a pleasure cruise. You just know that Peach is getting a pop in the mouth everytime a ravioli is cold in the middle. Maybe she ended up in a women’s support group for video game characters with Nathan Spencer’s wife, Edward the Bard and the ladies of Golgo 13.