Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Closer Look at Going Home Again in the World of Video Games

A Closer Look at Going Home Again in the World of Video Games

Thomas Wolfe broke the bad news to us about thirty years before Pac-man gobbled his first dot, “You can’t go home again.” Wolfe wasn’t writing about video games at the time, but his themes of change both personal and environmental extend even into our modern technological age and yes even to video games.  I have experienced this phenomenon numerous times in my long love affair with the pixilated media, but it became even more salient recently upon purchasing Mario Kart Wii.

Allow me to start by saying that Mario Kart Wii is perhaps the greatest kart racing game I think I have ever played (and that puts it up there with Crash Team Racing for the PSX).  The game is ground-breaking in terms of innovation and game play.  One of the coolest features in the game is the ability to play older tracks from previous incarnations of the Mario Kart franchise.  It was this that sent me down the inevitable road to disappointment.  So enamored was I with the sleek controls and bright colors of Mario Kart Wii that I was prompted to revisit the previous best Mario Kart racer I had ever played: Mario Kart 64Mario Kart Wii features a couple of tracks from that blast from the recent past and playing those gave me a longing for those days of yore.  Thus, back to the N64 went I.  And therein lays my mistake.  Thanks Thomas Wolfe.

As the video game industry becomes more and more advanced and modern games get deeper and their complexity increases, the merits and faults of classic games are becoming glaringly obvious.  One of the consequences of our rush toward into the future of gaming is the difficulty of returning to classics we once loved.  This difficulty is multiplied when the classics we are revisiting have been updated in more modern versions of the game.  Hence my disappointment upon plugging Mario Kart 64 into my console.

It’s not just the fact that Mario Kart Wii implements a new, unique and innovative control scheme, although that does make going back to a D-pad or analog stick a bit mundane.  But Mario Kart Wii is such a leap forward in terms of graphics and game play that going back to Mario Kart 64 is very difficult.  Mario Kart 64’s graphics were awesome for their time, but when held up against the bright, detailed tracks of Mario Kart Wii, they seem cardboard cut-outs in a 3-D world.  What’s more, the kart dynamics are sluggish and awkward next to the seemingly flawless kart mechanics of Mario Kart Wii. In the Wii version the karts (and motorcycles) are a seamless part of the environment and they move and interact with the other karts and background elements naturally.  In my revisit of Mario Kart 64, the karts felt clunky and looked like they had been pasted onto the background, as if you took the background away and they would just keep on going through space without need of a playfield.  The game still played pretty well, though not as smooth as the Wii version and the fun was there, but somehow diminished.  It didn’t take very long for the 64 version to go back on the shelf and the Wii to get fired back up.  Thanks again, Thomas Wolfe.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened to me.  Now that I think about it, there have been several times in my gaming history that I have attempted to revisit older games that have had more modern updates and found the older games wanting. Rogue Squadron and Rogue Leader present another example of this phenomenon.  I loved Rogue Squadron for the N64 and played it to death, but after moving on up to Rogue Leader on the Gamecube, trying to play Rogue Squadron is like trying to wear great looking pants that are three sizes too small.  No matter how badly I wanted to run those missions again, the controls were just too clumsy and awkward.
Nice, shiny, and slick!
Still nice, but a bit clumsy

Even Spidey knows these two are worlds apart!
And the phenomenon isn’t just limited to games; genres can undergo this as well.  Fighting and sports games are perfect examples of how modern games can render older games completely obsolete.  Soulcalibur and Soulcalibur II changed the face of fighting games forever, particularly 3D fighters.  Even great older fighting games like Tekken do not hold a candle to the majesty of Soulcalibur, which when released was actually better than its arcade counterpart!  If Tekken cannot hold up, lesser fighters are reduced to an unplayable mess.  Don’t believe me? Try playing Star Wars: Masters of Tera Kasi.  Similarly, the constant evolution of the Madden football franchise is practically geared toward outdating its previous incarnations.  With each new year a newer and flashier version of Madden Football is released with more whistle and bells, online support, updated player rosters and the previous year’s game is forever lost in the discount bin of the local second hand video game store.  Hell, you can build a house out of unwanted, outdated sports games for the N64 alone!  I personally own Madden '93, 2000, 2001 and 2008 and have played them only during the year in which they were released with the exception of Madden '93 which still rocks!).  For kicks, I once put Madden ’00 in my PS2 just to see what would happen.  First and foremost, this happens to be one of the games that is not backwards compatible with the PS2, so that was interesting enough, but second, the game was practically unrecognizable when compared with more recent versions, even next generation versions for the PS2 (even when played on an original Playstation)!
The phenomenon isn’t limited to video game consoles either.  Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of games being outpaced by their modern counterparts can be found on the PC.  Computer technology is obsolete by the time it hits the market and I cannot tell you how many times I have purchased a new PC one year and a new game the next only to find that my computer isn’t powerful enough to run the damn thing.  That quibble aside, computer games possess a special vulnerability to this phenomenon due to the very nature of their medium. My wife loves, and I mean loves in that very unnatural way, the Sims games for the PC.  She owns practically all of the expansion packs and other accoutrement for the original game and a healthy compliment of add-ons for sequel offering Sims2.  While the original Sims still holds a special place in her heart, she simply cannot play it very long anymore, not after playing Sims2.  According to her, Sims2 provides a much fuller gaming experience, filling in gaps in the original game and building upon its foundation.  These new additions and enhancements create a rich experience that satisfies in a way that the original no longer can.  In my own experience I can attest that I found similar difficulties with Roller Coaster TycoonRoller Coaster Tycoon 2 is for all intents and purposes almost exactly like the original Roller Coaster Tycoon with some crucial upgrades and improvements.  Graphically, the games are nearly identical.  The game play is foundationally the same.  Yet there is enough of an improvement that it is very hard to play the first Roller Coaster Tycoon again.  The coaster building and landscaping interfaces are much improved.  The new kinds of attractions and amusement park themes are rich and diverse.  And these things are just enough to make it hard to return within the confines of the original game.  Damn you Thomas Wolfe!

In studying this phenomenon there appears to be at least a semblance of reason to it.  It seems there are some games that are immune to the syndrome, some games that are particularly vulnerable to it, and some games that float in the middle.  The games that seem the most vulnerable are those mentioned above including but not limited to racing games, fighting games, and sports games.  These games tend to get outdated by improvements in their next iteration.  There may be some appeal to the earlier versions, but chances are good the improvements make dull the luster from the older game.  Sometimes this is due to a new level of depth or complexity that is made possible by later versions; Gran Turismo certainly takes a beating from this.  Sometimes it is due to game play improvements that a more powerful gaming platform allows; hence my aforementioned trouble playing Rogue Squadron.   And sometimes, as with sports games, it is just the nature of the game to have the newest version outpace the older ones, as with Madden and other sports titles.

Whatever the cause, there are certainly types of games that suffer from being outmoded by their latter counterparts.  The interesting thing to me is that graphics are rarely the determining factor.  Sure, nearly 99% of the time, the newer game is going to look better than its older cousins, but that is not generally enough to render an older game obsolete.  My wife makes a hard case for the original Tomb Raider succumbing to this phenomenon due to its incredibly blocky graphics, especially when compared to more recent releases such as the Anniversary version for the Wii or other modern systems.  Being a die-hard fan of the early series, I contest this, but I can see her point to some extent.  Still I maintain that the original game is fun enough on its game play merits that I can look past the polygons and still enjoy the ride.  That example notwithstanding, it seems that graphics are a minor player in this particular phenomenon.

I did notice one interesting exception to this phenomenon, however, directly related to my Mario Kart experience: sometimes if you go back far enough, you can in fact go home again.  While I was not able to recapture the magic of Mario Kart 64 after playing Mario Kart Wii, I did find that I was still able to enjoy Super Mario Kart for the SNES.  So perhaps some games are able to skirt the phenomenon if their history is rich enough and if the most recent game is sufficiently removed from the original offering.  I would like to try to make the same case for the Madden NFL series.  As mentioned above, I still have Madden ’93 for the SEGA Genesis and I still play it and it is still fun.   As long as you are not too wrapped up in using fifteen year old players and viciously limited playcalling, the game still has much of its original appeal.  Since nearly all of the players featured are retired and the divisional alignments are no longer valid, the game is almost like playing an even earlier football game like Tecmo Bowl, where teams and players really had no bearing on the game play at all.  So while I cannot plug Madden ’01 into my PSX and relive the magic, I can dig a little deeper and get back to a place where the earlier versions still retain some of what made them great.  This unique situation may also shed some light on why some games are immune to this phenomenon.

And thankfully, there are a whole slew of games out there that appear to be immune to this “can’t go home again” syndrome and interestingly enough these games are predominately adventure/RPG games.  No matter what year it is, I can always plug The Legend of Zelda into my NES and get the same charge out of it I did back in 1988.  The same goes for Castlevania, Metroid, Pitfall II, Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy VII, and a host of others.  These games do not seem to diminish at all from having newer chapters added to their lineage.  In some cases the mystique and charm is actually increased by the addition of the newer games. And the determining factor seems to be story.  Most of the games I have mentioned either are rooted in a specific story or are a chapter in a larger story that has unfolded as more games are added to the series.  This is definitely true for the Zelda and Metroid series.  The fact that the game develops as a story also develops makes each game unique and doesn’t ask it to stack up against later games in the series.  Of course Link to the Past isn’t going to be the same as Phantom Hourglass, they are two totally different games with totally different stories that ask you to do totally different things, all the while preserving the flavor and character of the overall series.  As long as the games are well made and the game play is good, chances are they are going to stand the test of time and the release of bigger and better games in the series.

The other games I mentioned, Super Mario Bros., Pitfall, Castlevania, survive for an entirely different reason.  While those games may part of a larger story or world, subsequent editions in the series function more like extensions or supplements to the original game.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is just as much fun as Super Mario Bros. despite SMB3’s obvious superiority because the games don’t really compete for the same spotlight the way their kart racer cousins do.  Furthermore, Super Mario Galaxy can be just as fun as either of those two older games, because it has taken the basic concept and applied it in a way that neither of the earlier games could even attempt.  It’s still platforming fun, but it is sufficiently different without outdating its predecessors. Take that Thomas Wolfe!

The defining factor seems to be related to application of the theme.  If the theme is kept true, but re-imagined in unique and different way, then there is a good chance you’ll be able to go home again.  However, if the theme is kept true and the execution of that theme is maintained without significant change, but the primary adjustments are to peripherals like game play, controls, options, or graphics, then chances are going home again is going to be difficult and perhaps disappointing.  Preservation of the theme is vital to the success of any game series (look what happened when they tried to re-invent Lara Croft…).  The theme can undergo evolutions and changes, but it rarely survives a complete overhaul.  Even when the Castlevania series shifted from strict platforming to a non-linear exploration game, they kept the theme by remaining true the existing story and adapting the original platforming design to accommodate the new direction they were taking the series.  The same can be said for Metroid when they changed to a first person shooter perspective, the exploration that made the initial games such a success were maintained while the gaming style was diversified.  However, preserving the theme and updating the set dressing without evolving the theme in some way can quickly render an earlier version obsolete.  And in cases like the Sims and Roller Coaster Tycoon, evolving the theme can even be dangerous if doing so doesn’t change enough about the theme to make both the newer and older versions uniquely appealing.

It is a tricky thing going home again in video games.  Sure, you may have great memories of you and buddy staying up all night for one more game of Wrestlemania on the NES, but that may not mean that Wrestlemania is still as good as you remember, especially if you’ve played anything more recent.  Games that are modern versions of older classics that have updated the peripherals, controls, graphics, etc., but not changed the fundamental game play are going to make it hard to enjoy those original games.  Going home again is a function of gaming’s evolution as we move toward sometimes better, always more powerful games.  The true test of a game’s staying power is directly related to its development over time.  Games that develop naturally and grow beyond their beginnings manage to maintain their charm and appeal, no matter how much better the games in the series get. So, Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again, but you have to be careful which home you are going to.

Pitfall Harry says, "Thomas Wolfe is a punk."
 Join me next month, when I’ll take a Closer Look at the Spider-man game that ushered in a whole new era of web-slinging and see how time has treated it.