Inspired by the talks from Brenda and John Romero, I decided to write a short piece on the evolution of gaming. I will not focus on specific time periods, however, as the industry progressed through subsequent phases quite fluidly. Rather, I will try to draw a comparison between then (1980-1990) and now (201x). I was born at the end of 1980s, therefore I still managed to get to know the amazing Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) first-hand. This will be the starting point of our journey, though I will mention other consoles and gaming systems when relevant.
To begin with, the NES and the original Nintendo Gameboy were amazing systems. Such a variety and richness of games as for these two platforms was never seen before. I didn’t own a Gameboy myself, because they were quite expensive, but some of my childhood friends had them so I would often borrow one to play a bit. Also, back then it was perfectly natural for kids to meet in small groups and game in turns. My favorites were Donkey Kong Land and Super Mario Land. Both were quite difficult, but the enjoyment was enormous regardless! I did have a Famiclone (a Japanese Famicom clone) as these were extremely popular in East-Central Europe. Of course, the cartridges were also Famicom imitations and the system itself (branded Pegasus) would never run any of the original NES games without a special converter. I had no idea about that when I was young since it was easy to get games from local flea-markets anyway. I remember playing Contra and Rescue Rangers 2 for hours and hours on until I could perfectly memorize the entire play-through. Many of the games then were platformers, beat-em-ups, racing games or sports games in general. Regardless of the genre, twitch reflexes were a must! Also, most of the games didn’t have password-based checkpoints so once dead, the player had to start from the very beginning. The replay value was in the difficulty of a game and the necessity to master it to complete it and beat the final boss. From today’s perspective this sounds terribly tedious, but the motivation behind making games was also different. They were supposed to bring fun and excitement in its purest form. Beating a game was intended as the supreme reward for mastering a game and honestly, it really felt rewarding back then. DOS games were slightly different due to the lack of a proper controller pad. They weren’t as fast-paced as NES games, but you could actually save the game state in some of them. Regardless, they still posed a considerable challenge.
Game design is an interesting topic when it comes to NES, DOS, the Nintendo Gameboy and other platforms from that era. Since games had to fit on a single cartridge or diskette (or multiple diskettes, of course), they could not contain information about the entire state of the game, but rather a set of procedures to draw pixels in correct positions at correct times. As a result, programmers had to implement various hacks to define object boundaries or increase the number of available colors. This caused graphical glitches when the bitmaps were too big or allowed the player to abuse the shape of an object to his/her advantage. Also, forget tutorial levels, help menus, maps, etc. Some games were packaged with a manual or booklet, which introduced the game world or explained basic gameplay aspects, but very rarely would a game provide any help features at all. The player had to explore the game to understand it fully and complete it.
Fast-forward several decades and games look and feel entirely different. Firstly, they are a lot more graphically appealing and realistic so we are no longer expected to use our imagination to complete the mental image of a character. Almost everything is WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). That helps with immersion a lot! On the down side, gore and violence are a lot more explicit and traumatizing (think, the Dead Space franchise). Game mechanics haven’t changed much, since even nowadays every game has a “core” which defines its gameplay. However, because games are no longer limited by diskettes or computer memory, developers often mix genres and implement novel gameplay aspects which were unknown in the past. In addition, the player is often gradually introduced to the game world so that he or she is not overwhelmed by the game from the very beginning. Finally, there is a major shift towards developing games in franchises or series to generate sustainable revenue and not as one-off hits. This, of course, puts pressure on developers and emphasizes the use of pre-purchase bonuses or advertising to make sure the game sells.
The differences between games then and now don’t mean that games used to be better or worse in the past, compared to modern games. The evolution of games merely expresses the growth of the industry. Nowadays, gaming is more approachable so that everyone can enjoy it. To us, veterans of the early Nintendo and Sega consoles modern games might seem boring or too easy, though that is only our perspective. In addition, when I recently returned to Castlevania and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II (both on the NES) I realized how unnecessarily frustrating games used to be due to technical limitations. In the end, to each their own. Since I have a lot less time nowadays, I prefer casual games and not the challenging monsters of the past. However, I did find Dark Souls enjoyable, to be perfectly honest.