As many of you may know, I’m a retro gamer. I’m a collector of old games and game systems, despite the fact that I could easily emulate most of the games I try to obtain, or play them in some Ps3 or virtual console port. Still, I like to have the originals whenever possible, even if I can’t always play them in their original formats. Some of the games are actually easier to play in their ported versions in fact, because of the advent of save stating, rescuing me from having to start Sonic 2 over every time I want to shut down the console and walk away. Sometimes you just don’t have 4 hours to sit down and finish Sonic.
That said, the originals on their intended consoles still feel right when I play them. I still own my SEGA Genesis model 2, and I still own all the games I had with it as a kid. In fact, I still start the system up from time to time. Sonic 2 just doesn’t feel quite right without the original kidney shaped controller in my hands. Even remake consoles don’t quite measure up, like the retrobit brand NES I got the other day in order to play the original Zelda. The system felt shoddy, even though it works better than my childhood NES ever did, but the plastic just doesn’t feel the same. I know that sounds idiotic, but the original controller and system had a more solid feel, and they felt better in your hands.
What brings the subject of this post back to mind is my recent purchase of a SEGA Saturn. I have wanted one for a very long time, and Tuesday night was the veritable realization of a dream I had as a child. That purchase completed my collection of SEGA systems – Genesis, 32x, SEGA CD, Saturn, Dreamcast, Gamegear, and of course my SEGA Nomad. Other than the Master System, the very early SG-1000 and SC-3000, and some Japanese only releases like the Megajet and the ultimately doomed Sega Meganet. Yeah I know I’m kinda weirdly obsessed with this stuff.
Buying that Sega Saturn caused me to go back and play a lot of my old games, and there’s something that all these old gems have in common. There’s something ultimately mysterious about them. There is an odd mystique to these older games that had limited capabilities, something almost otherworldly in their simplicity. Or I could be nuts.
There are a number of reasons that these games give me these odd combinations of nostalgia and a sense mystery. I think a few things in combination give old games this quality. The silent protagonists and lack of voice acting, and often minimalistic story leave a lot up to the player. In Sonic, the story was ultimately a footnote, but the to me all the characters had voices and stories, and the Death Egg of Sonic 2 was a real threat of doom upon a world that I had come to call my own. In the same way, in games like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, a lot is left up to the imagination of the player, despite the strong storylines. In older games, these characters had no voices, and things were hinted at rather than explicitly defined.
K. Cox of “Your Critic is in Another Castle” posted something along these lines recently, talking about the evolution of control in RPGs recently, which contributed to my thoughts about this subject, although not explicitly related to what I’m trying to say.. Control of player characters and even non player characters has risen to almost DnD levels, and for me at least, it takes some of the fun and imagination out of it. Character details have been taken out of my imagination and put into dps levels and status buffs. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy many current RPG’s, but things just aren’t quite the same. Again, not necessarily in a bad way, just different.
One game that follows this pattern in a little bit different way is Harvest Moon. The original SNES version and the 64 version had parts of the world that couldn’t be explained, like the harvest sprites, and the magic berries, and character conflicts of the various people around town. There was always a very mysterious and mystical vibe to those games, and I loved it. Then, you’ve got a game like Rune Factory that has a defined player character storyline that is shoehorned into a game that is supposed to be very open ended. Where Chrono Trigger is different from Skyrim in certain more likeable ways, with character choice being paramount, HM64 is different to Rune Factory in that many games that shouldn’t have detailed storylines for their main characters have tried to stuff them in where they don’t belong. At least one thing can bring back that feeling of mystery to me, that feeling of imagination; it is games that leave the storyline of the player character undefined to a certain extent, allowing you to fill in the blanks of their history yourself. It’s all part of the fun.
That’s the real point here – those old games left a lot up to the imagination, whether it was with the graphics, the stories or the characters. They let players fill in the blanks without being barren of good writing and storytelling. I kind of miss that.
That’s not to say that story is not important in video games. Uncharted 3 is a prime example – but that’s a whole other post. Perhaps next time?