Screw Nostalgia: Why Gaming is Better Now

I almost fell into another blogging trap where I was tempted to write about how good games used to be, and how things have changed for the worse now. The whole Mass Effect 3 ending debacle was torn open as a fresh wound when Bioware released the “extended cut” DLC yesterday, and now when we’re getting “proper” endings as downloadable content, I can’t help but thinking we’re moving in the wrong direction.

But it’s not fair to dismiss the progress of an entire industry because of Starchildren or the fact that I can’t play any good local multiplayer games any more. The fact is, the industry has come a long way from when we were kids, and it would be good to remember that. That’s what this post aims to do.

I’m trying to get past all the negativity that surrounds gaming these days so we can remember why we have so much fun with them in this day and age. Possibly more than we even used to. Read on to see how gaming’s gotten better.

These Worlds are Almost Real Now

The first and most obvious thing to address is how games have evolved graphically over the past two decades. When I was born in 1987, Final Fantasy games looked like this:

Today? We have this:

The same could be said for countless other series as well, as many of them are still around today. Whether it’s humans that almost look photorealistic in games like Heavy Rain or LA Noire, or environments that couldn’t seem more real and expansive like Skyrim and Just Cause, games can now give us an immersive experience that past consoles simply couldn’t. We had to use our imaginations to make the pixels epic before, but now games are richer than anything we could envision in our own minds.

No More Blowing

Hardware has evolved to the point where it’s no longer a gamble whether or not a system will work when you turn it on or not. It seemed like every other time I wanted to play a game, I was blowing in a console cartridge, but now, we can pop in almost any disc and it will work without hesitation.

The obvious exception to the rule would be the fact that every single Xbox 360 will self-destruct at one time or another, and there are some ancient Game Boys that work even after being exploded by bombs. We may have more consistency now, but I think old systems do win for pure durability.

Multiplayer Knows No Borders

As much as I lament the fact that there are very few games these days that I can play with three other friends who happen to be in the same room with me, multiplayer has expanded in ways that allow old friends to stay in touch, no matter where they are in the world.

As we grow older and not everyone lives in the same neighborhood anymore, it can be hard to keep in touch. And which would you rather do? Write on somebody’s Facebook wall or spend an hour blasting Russians in Call of Duty? Online multiplayer may have brought us screaming twelve year olds in our ears, but it’s also kept old friends together as we grow older and our lives expand outward across the country.

There Are These Things Called Plots

With greater graphics come greater storytelling experiences. It’s hard to name a game that’s more than ten years old that had a truly compelling plot. What’s your favorite video game story from the ’80s or ’90s. The President who was kidnapped by ninjas? The battling toads with a death wish? The hundreds of protagonists who wanted to save hundreds of princesses?

Today we have actual stories to our games, and ones can be as compelling as anything we see in TV or film. Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock or Mass Effect (most of the time), have all delivered truly memorable experiences in a way that doesn’t solely rely on gameplay alone. It’s the stories that have captivated us, and it’s why video game characters are now more than simple mascots. Mario and Sonic are logos, Commander Shepard and John Marston are heroes.

Gaming is No Longer for Little Boys

The truth is, if you were an avid gamer twenty or thirty years ago, it was most likely the case you were a young boy, and your parents had never touched a console themselves. It was an activity primarily dominated by children or young teens, and was the geekiest of geeky past times. Yes, girls played games, but in far, far fewer numbers than boys overall.

Now, things are different. Little girls are growing up with games nearly as much as boys are. And their parents? They’re gamers too. We’ve now learned that gaming is not a “phase” you have to grow out of. Rather, it’s shaping up to be a lifelong past time the way watching movies or reading books is. As such, it’s no longer this nerdy, dorky or geeky activity relegated to a certain age group or gender. In 2012, everyone is gaming, and that’s something you couldn’t say in the whimsical time of yesteryear.

Things Will Only Get Better

Few things get me more excited than anticipating all the great pieces of pop culture I haven’t experienced yet. All the great movies or shows I have yet to watch, but more pressingly, all the fantastic games I haven’t gotten to play. Each new console generation drives the industry forward to an even greater degree, and it’s downright impossible to predict what gaming will look like ten, twenty or thirty years from now. I bet gamers then will be waxing poetic for the simpler time of Xbox 360 and PS3, but they’ll probably have some pretty kickass games as well. And I can’t wait to play them.

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  1. “No More Blowing”
    But at least in those days, you owned the game and could do what you wanted with it or your console. Now, if a publisher decides to pull the plug on your game, you’re S.O.L., because all you have is a virtual permission slip to play.

  2. Hey Paul, great post. Happy to see that you didn’t fell for that “It was so much better before” trap. (crap!?!)

    I follow you here and on Forbes. Always like the fact that you are honest and able to put yourself as well as your opinions in perspective.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. My sister was feeling really nostalgic last week and brought out my old genesis. I had every game imaginable, and a few barbie games thrown in for good measure just for her. The whole process of hooking it up to the cable outlet really confused her, almost to a point where she wanted to give up after initial difficulties. She played a few of the good Disney games i had along with the classics like sonic and road rash, but after a good 45 minutes she was playing mass effect.

  4. The only problem I have with some of the newer games is that they fall into the “Look at the great new graphics, tech, whatever we have for you” trap. They forget that, with adventure games and rpg’s in particular the story is what makes the game compelling and makes you want to keep going.

  5. Paul,

    I can agree with some of the items –

    Graphics – new is much better than the old ones

    No-More Blowing – You talk about popping in a disk. There are disks that get scratched, hard drive glitches and of course the DRM. (as someone pointed out – you don’t necessarily own the game)

    Multi-player – true. Doom/Duke Nukem had fun multiplayer. So did some other. But this is also a problem because now companies just focus on multi at the lack of single.

    Story – yes, there are a few games that have a good story (Diablo III isn’t one). Go to GOG. com and see the games from the 90s there. From Star Control, to Icewind Dale. They had stories. Or let’s go further – what about Zork? (Or all infocom games). Sorry most the games these days the story is just filler for multiplayer. That Skyrim – that story was horrible. (Phastay Star for Sega or lots of other RPGs at that time.) Again for every Bioshock -there’s a Rage game.

    Length – newer games are short in general. You pay 60 dollars and your finished in 10 hours. Old games – Civ 2 (People are still playing), the Heroe’s series, Baldur’s Game, well crap Master of Orion had crappy graphics and is one of the best games ever.

    Challenge – you didn’t touch on challenge. New games relay on multiplayer for a challenge in general. Yes, there are some that challenge in a different way but we’re generalizing here. Old games – well since multiplayer didn’t exist – they were challenging. Sure the computer might have even cheated sometimes (Or started with a big advantage). You had to work to win. Now, it’s handed to you so the accomplishment doesn’t feel …well like you accomplished anything.

    By your own words – Diablo II vs Diablo III. Which one did you prefer? Which story was better.

    I like new games don’t get me wrong. But I think we’re lost some stuff. I loved Everquest because when you died – there was a plenty. WOW took that plenty out. (I like Diablo III hardcore because it makes it a challenge).

    I’ll play new games but alot of old games, will still be in my heart!


  6. I agree that the good outweighs the bad in the current generation.

    But in reference to the “No more Blowing” point, yesterday I fired up my PlayStation for the first time in months after burning through the Mass Effect series on my X-Box. I had to sit through 15 minutes of Firmware updates (System, and then the game i wanted to play) before I could do anything. That is a frustrating experience all PS3 owners know the feel of.


    Well said, people do tend to look back with rose colored glasses, but that doesn’t mean a lot of things that we enjoyed about gaming has slowly gone missing in the last decade or so.

    This might sound odd, but I think the games crash of the early 80’s did tons for gaming, and I don’t think we are there yet, but a similar situation I think would actually benefit the ‘hardcore’ gamer, just as it did then, for similar reasons.

    I think when it comes to modern gaming the biggest issue is that a lot of game design choices are made about maximizing profits, and a lot of ‘innovation’ and gameplay choices are centered around that. (Diablo 3 being the most obvious and recent example, I would consider me3 another, in regards to its MP component.)

    One of the reasons I love CDProjekt is because they seem to kick it old school in the regard.

  8. It bugs me when people bitch about games being shorter now. For two reasons, mainly.

    First is, older games are longer because they have nothing else. There’s little in the way of story, characters or choice. So forty copy and pasted levels with a few extra bad guys, or bad guys of a different colour that take 3 more hits to kill, could be added and no one cared because all the game was was doing this.

    Second is, older games might be longer, bit current games are much denser. Let’s forget sandbox games, they just prove my point right off the bat. But more linear games like, let’s say Splinter Cell Conviction and The Darkness 2 (2 games I just plucked off the top of my head) are denser because you can turn them on, pick a level and enjoy it again and again, playing it different ways, seeing new stuff, experimenting. You can’t do much with pressing A for attack and B for jump as you go from left to right.

  9. Rock on with this, Tassi. I know this is a sign of me getting old, but these kids that whine and whine about gaming today can screw right off. I used to play Superman on the Atari 2600 and I LIKED IT. Let me put this in perspective for the kids of today: this is what I used to play.

    And you may here legends of the E.T. game, but I OWNED that piece of shit and spent significant time playing it.

    So bitch about underwhelming endings and shitty team mates and spawn camping and whatever everybody’s beef was with Dragon Age 2, but know that some of us grew up with this art form in it’s infancy and YOU AIN’T GOT SHIT TO COMPLAIN ABOUT. Nostalgia is in fashion, but I don’t see any of these posers actually trying to play any of these games they act like were so much better. I saw a vid the other day of some kid doing a tribute to Ninetendo with dominos and he has Soci the Hedgehog in it. That’s like doing a tribute to East Coast hip-hop and putting Tupac in it. If you weren’t there, leave the old schoolin’ to the old schoolers, please. You could hurt yourself with this stuff. Trust me, modern gaming is better in every possible sense. It’s the gamers themselves that have become a problem.

  10. I agree with most of what’s in this post, but you ask if we can name a game more than 10 years old that had a compelling plot. Maybe being a PC gamer gives one an advantage, but off the top of my head here are a few I remember playing: Deus Ex, Star Wars Jedi Knight, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Academy, Wing Commander 3, Gabriel Knight, Drakkan.

  11. I think you’re only complaining about old games’ plots because you were a console gamer, or at least those are your only old examples. PC games had amazing plots from the start, as frikkenkids’ examples attest. You should go back and check out all of the Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games, for example. What we have gotten better at is adding complex plots to more genres of games, but even then in most games outside of the RPG genre get tacked-on, stereotypical, pointless plots (with clear exceptions like Max Payne).

    While there are lots of things better now about gaming, many of which you pointed out, I do miss the old adventure game. That was a type of challenge we don’t see much anymore.

  12. Having spent many a day in my youth fighting my way through NES games with friends only to get a black “Congratulations” screen, I can only snort with derision at anybody who complains about the length or ending of pretty much any modern game.

  13. Gaming is reaching the point of movies, where ideas are being stretched out and everyone feels like they’re just playing (or watching) the same shit again.

  14. I think it should be said that despite some great games that have come out in the past couple of years, nothing revolutionary has come to fruition besides, IMHO, Minecraft, and even then, it goes against everything written here. I’m a long time teen gamer and I’ve played mario, mgs, halo, sonic (3d and 2d), mass effect, and they were all different from each other in some regard, but modern games such as mgs, halo, and M.E. (even COD) all seem so familiar and unoriginal that it doesn’t astound me that people can jump from game to game and not have a hard time learning the controls. They’re basically the same for each, no matter what genre they are.

    Even if graphics have improved, what do I care? I live in the real world and I see the same thing day in and day out. Who cares if Modern Warfare takes place in NY? Many people have seen it and can see it in much more realism than if they played a game in the city itself. I think too much emphasis goes on graphics and not the amount of enjoyability one gets out of their experience. I can say that I had a better time playing metallic madness in sonic CD with its surreal imagery when compared to how i played some level out of Halo: Reach.

    Don’t get me wrong, Reach is a great game, a shooter out of many, but still a great game, but, there’s a point when I get tired of the same game mechanic being used over and over with no real obscure change in gameplay from sit-down to sit-down. Older games were just to distinguishable from each other so it made some kind of sense to go out and pay the 50 or 60 bucks per title. These days one little change between each game is not a selling point to me to go out and spend crazy amounts of money when I can be home playing classics that are fun on a console or emulator.

  15. In my honest opinion I believe games just feel shorter now because we have grown with video games meaning we have gained a greater understanding of how most video games play out, and how the designers think when they create a games layout. So in effect we are just getting better at playing and beating them, at least thats how I like to look at it (also keeps the nerdrage in check :P)

  16. Fallout 1 + 2, blood omen: Legacy of kain, dune, the might mand magic series (not the heroes of) just to name a few of the games that you obviously havent played

  17. I don’t know, but I’m having a hard time thinking of games that are groundbreaking in the modern era. Aside from Half-life 2 (physics), not much has really changed the landscape of gaming to the point that every game thereafter was changed. The “cover system” is just animation replacement for crouching and strafing behind walls. There’s just more of what was already there.

    Compare that to the 90’s. Doom(multiplayer, shareware), Half-life(AI, mod support), Tomb Raider(Full 3D worlds), and many more.

    But yeah, I might agree that gaming is more pleasant nowadays, but not better.

  18. While I agree that graphics have obviously gotten a lot better, many other things have either stayed the same or gotten worse.

    Loads of old games have great stories and thesedays only RPGs and the rare non-RPG really focus on having a good one. Like has been said before, story is often ‘tacked-on’ in a lot of games, and there are -still- an abundance of clichés and stereotypes used. Truly unique storylines are a rarity.

    Multiplayer, while it has vastly improved, now seems to be taking over. I miss the old says where 90%+ of games were single-player games and you could get everything out of a game just by yourself. Now it seems every other game has to be connected to the internet and you need to have a good-sized friends list to be able to really experience everything a game offers.

    Also, older consoles and cartridges were actually a lot more robust. Sure you had to blow the cartridge every so often, but you were almost guaranteed a decades of play from it so long as you took pretty good care of it. CDs seem to get scratched at the slightest thing, even just by being played, and after a few scratches you then can’t play at all. That’s not even going into how delicate modern game consoles have gotten.

  19. Great article, Paul. I would like to say that people who think games nowadays have no plots are playing the wrong games. The industry is diven by the consumers and if games like COD and BF sell as much as they do, then the studios will pour money into developing titles like these. There are games out there with wonderful stories besides the ones already mentioned. One that comes to mind is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has a surprisingly moving story even though the gameplay was somewhat shallow. If gamers want better stories, speak with your wallets. Personally, I don’t usually care for multiplayer games unless they are local multiplayer so I ALWAYS look for games that have great stories.

  20. I liked a lot of what you said, but it kind of hurts my heart to see you saying games from the 1980s and 1990s had no story, when that was in some ways the golden era of storytelling in CRPGs particularly. Ultima IV basically wrote the book on crafting a compelling plot for a game–nothing less than tossing out the entire “kill the wizard and save the world” storyline, already cliché by 1985 when this reaction took place mind you, and replacing it with the still-heralded “cast off the trappings of selfishness and the lack of human virtue to become an exemplar for humanity” storyline. Which, as was sort of eluded to above, puts “storylines” like Diablo III’s to shame. And is 27 years old. Do not even get me started on Wasteland, my personal favorite, which came out in 1988 and had a more compelling storyline than some Fallout offshoots from the 2000s.

  21. Yea, SOME games are awesome from this day and age. Some. I’d like to see you throw a ps3 or an xbox 360 game or any disc, off a two or three story building and see if it survives or even works. Carts ftw.

  22. “It’s hard to name a game that’s more than ten years old that had a truly compelling plot. ”

    Final fantasy 7, any game in the legacy of kain series, resident evil(kinda), Silent Hill 1 and 2. I could go on.

    The final fantasy comparison is a joke, final fantasy XIII was garbage in every way except graphics. I love new games potential, but most of them are crap.

  23. FFXIII may look better but all you do is going forward and pressing the auto command battle. Most games today are shooters with regenerating life and that completely kills the challenge of a game and at the end it feels more like a crappy interactive movie where the game plays itself.

    Games today have been dumbed down so much you don’t even need a guide anymore because even the most retarded person can beat them with one hand and blindfolded. And what about the tons of gimmicks like Kinect and Move?

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