With the tech world growing in leaps and bounds in such a short span of time, the medium that’s seen the biggest advancements is video gaming. Books and radio have only gained more methods of delivery to consumers, and while films enjoy better special effects, video games have changed drastically over the course of around 60 years.
In 1958, the first video game was created. Tennis for Two was played on an analog computer using an oscilloscope for graphics and two simple controllers with nothing more than a single rotating knob.
Fast forward to 2022, and we have series like Assassin’s Creed and the Elder Scrolls simulating entire imaginary worlds, as well as impressive virtual-reality games like the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator, which allows players to fly anywhere on the globe by using Bing Maps data.
Essentially, video games have gone from being two-dimensional tennis simulators to composing entire worlds in cyberspace. And while a lot of these modern games make the likes of Tennis for Two, Pong and Adventure look quaint, many of them fail to see the forest for the trees.
The more massive the game, the more attention must be paid to every last detail. And while development teams have grown exponentially – from a mere dozen or fewer people in the 1980s and ’90s to sometimes hundreds today – it’s often still not enough. AAA games in particular have been found lacking in recent years, launching in bug-riddled states with oversights aplenty.
Even legendary series like Call of Duty and Battlefield released lackluster titles at the end of 2021 – massive, yet uninspired and chock full of glitches. Ten-plus years ago, AAA game studios would launch occasional stinkers, but it’s rapidly becoming an industrywide problem.
What’s the use in launching a video game with huge, realistic-looking environments when they just aren’t fun to play? With the internet, developers can patch shoddy games into good ones over time, but first impressions are important, and updates often come too late for the gaming community to take notice.
This is where my appreciation for retro video games enters. Whether or not constraints produce better work is a fairly common debate within artistic circles, and I’d argue that for games, constraints certainly can help. When photorealistic graphics were still a pipe dream, developers knew exactly what they could and couldn’t accomplish.
In the 1980s and ’90s, development teams knew upfront just how much game data they could squeeze into a cartridge or CD. They had limited color palettes and were often forced to use chiptunes instead of recorded music. If too many objects were on screen at once, the system would buckle and slow to a crawl.
So instead of feeling pressured to make photorealistic worlds, developers sought to make games that were simply fun. In the process, titles managed to look and sound incredibly unique despite their limitations. I’d much rather enjoy the smooth two-dimensional animations of Marvel vs. Capcom than look at yet another modern monotone war game like Call of Duty or Gears of War.
Sound capabilities have come a long way, too. I enjoy the heavy electronic beats that characterize Deep Rock Galactic and Cyberpunk 2077. But, I have yet to hear a video game soundtrack that surpasses 1996’s Sonic 3D Blast in catchiness, and all of it was composed using the Sega Genesis’ FM synthesizer – truly primitive by today’s standards.
But like everything else we call vintage or retro, there were plenty of awful products released in those days that we’ve happily forgotten. Mascot platformers like Bubsy and Gex tried and failed to parrot the success of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and the game adaptation of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was so bad it helped start an industry-wide crash from 1983-1985.
Pornographic games aren’t new, either – Custer’s Revenge is still notorious for how tasteless it was even by 1982 standards. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But I yearn for a time when more video games prioritized the fun factor above all other standards.
Riordan Zentler can be reached at [email protected]