The Era of Byzantine Gaming
Comparing console games to smartphone games is like comparing a Kubrick film in theaters to a TV series. But console gaming has created a number of barriers to entry for creating great games. Why have we gone from the golden-age of gaming to the byzantine era?
I’m certain you’ve heard the phase “The Golden Age of Nintendo” before. Heck, you might even remember select snippets of this apex of entertainment personally. However, the sun no longer always shines on the Nintendo empire, despite the amazing advances in graphics, you’re just not as excited by what the new generation of console gaming has to offer, right?
Sure there’s the occasional diamond in the rough like Skyrim, but the exception does not prove the rule: more often than not, you find yourself re-playing the old games. You find yourself signing into PSN, Xbox Live, and Wii virtual consoles to download Megaman, Mario, and various other two-dimensional side-scrollers with CPU needs and graphic outputs so low you could play them on high-end refrigerators. Now, why are you paying money for obsolete games you already bought 20 years ago? Is it just nostalgia? Do you have an elitist sense of pride in “old-school” games? Or were games actually somehow just more interesting “back in the day?” Well, actually, they were: extensive open source access for third-party developers led to a boon of innovative titles, the likes of which we no longer see in the current and more restrictive console market. However, instead of lecturing you on Nintendo’s licensing rules, let’s talk about a game called Base Wars.
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That’s right, gather round the rocking chair. It’s time for Grandpa Foley to regale you with a tale from the mythical eight-bit era… Now, this may come as a surprise to you, but your humble author was never very into sports. Even their famous electronic adaptations such as Tecmo Super Bowl, which his father bought him in a last ditch effort to instill some modicum of rugged masculinity into his frail indoor-kid offspring, did barely more than collect dust, only ever used as a wedge to be shoved into the Nintendo ON TOP of games like Contra or Metroid, as part of the intricate blowing and tapping rain-dance that was necessary to get the better cartridges to work properly.
Sports games like 10 Yard Fight and RBI Baseball were lacking something to get him hooked, and our young Foley didn’t even know what that something was… Until he played Base Wars, and realized that what games like Bases Loaded! were missing was giant robot tanks and laser beams! Tag a guy as he skids into home on his Gizmo Duck-esque uni-wheel, and he’s out… assuming he doesn’t want to contest the call with his Vibro-blade. Of course, the game was best played against a friend (if you had one), with your choice of 12 teams made of four types of robots, all of which had innate abilities and control types. However, the single-player experience was equally impressive with the ability to upgrade your chosen team’s abilities and armaments. Win a game, and you got paid cash which you could bring to the pro store to buy pitching arms, mitt attachments, and of course, weapons! You could even forgo the standard rules of America’s favorite past time, and merely beat the cybernetics out of the other team so hard that their players actually exploded, forcing them to forfeit the game.
Now listen up: I did not call you over to this figurative rocking chair just so I could explain to you how awesome a game Base Wars was (though, seriously: it really was an awesome game). The point of the story is that Base Wars was able to take something many gamers like me did not like (sports), and think so far out of the box that they put a twist on it that got us eat it up like it was Burger Time. The idea was amazing. You had to simultaneously wonder how no one had thought it up before, as well as wonder how the heck anyone had ever thought it up in the first place! Developmental genius like this is what personified the Golden Age of Gaming, and spawned all the great nostalgia we now feel for the era. It is important to note, though, that this was not achieved through having better developers–it was achieved through having more developers.
By facilitating and welcoming third-party game development, Nintendo was able to attract a veritable legion of independent developers. During the late 80s and early 90s, there were so many of these third-party developers pumping out idea after idea that Ultra Games (itself, a spinoff subsidiary of Konami) wasn’t even the only company to think up a combination sci-fi, combat, and sports game! Electronic Arts had Mutant League Football/Hockey and Capcom had MegaMan Soccer (not to mention Atari and PC classics like BasketBrawl and Blood Bowl). The NES had a ton of avant-garde classics merely because the sheer number of titles being produced demanded mathematically that there be a large amount of gems made as well (like monkeys with typewriters, only they’re writing Kirby’s adventures instead of Shakespeare). Because independent companies got almost free reign over what titles they could develop for the console, creative minds jumped at the bit and made games from love and devotion, not from cubicles and strict deadlines. The same thing happened with the first generation Playstation, and early Xbox Live arcade contributions.
However, as the “big three” got bigger, they clamped down on their guidelines, making it harder and harder for the smaller third-party developers to do what they do best: make games based on every gonzo notion that passes through their possibly drug-addled skulls. Games like Clu-Clu Land and River City Ransom were some of the great products of this creative spirit, but the breed of developer necessary for these gems simply does not exist on the console market anymore. The amazing, crazed developers have not left us–they’ve just been forced to migrate. We still get innovative indie games like Something Else’s completely audio-based Papa Sangre or Wagstaff’s self-explanatory Pizza vs. Skeletons. The indie developers just can’t afford the steep licensing fees or to fight to be heard among the PR juggernauts of EA and Activision, so they’ve been relegated to the word of mouth powered spp-stores/market-places, and the three-inch screen of your smart-phone. Now although I’m sure your morning commute is thankful to have these pioneering titles to distract you from the claustrophobic circus that is your daily rush-hour venture to work, it’s like watching a Kubric film on an iPad: impressive, but you can’t help but feel you’re viewing a cheap recreation of what could be an even more amazing experience. There is something about the setting of a console (comfy couch, big screen, controllers, etc) that just feels better than tapping away on a small touch screen. I can’t be the only one that feels that way, because console enthusiasts are still shilling out $40-$80 for games that they’re growing more and more annoyed with. Meanwhile, the casual commuter is enjoying hours upon hours of portable fun for 99 cents.
It gets worse, because with the cutting edge titles being developed on a completely different medium than the big three’s games, there is no longer even competition for originality in the console gaming market. It’s important to remember that some of the greatest titles during the Golden Age were put out by Nintendo themselves. This is because in order to combat their third-party competitors, the flagship was forced to get creative too, and it turns out corporate gaming companies have just as big a bag of crazy genius as the little guys (and deeper pockets with which to flesh those mad ideas out). Think about the Apple App store versus the Android Market Place: regardless of your personal preferences, the strict quality standards of the App Store keep iphone apps shiny (and people love themselves a shiny game), but rivalry with the Android Market Place is still keeping everything fresh and innovative. In contrast, console gamers are getting barraged by uninspired third-person shooters, mindless sequels, and downloadable-content honey-traps.
Console games were better back in the day, and open access third-party game development was the driving force behind those Halcyon days. Now something that’s gained a lot more press (both good and bad) since I wrote about it in the first draft of this article is the OUYA project: OUYA is a Kickstarter uber-funded console dedicated to the idea of open source development and third-party support. It could be a shining light of hope that puts us back on the path to inspiration, but it’s still too early in the development stage to predict whether it will be able to help re-instate a Saturnia Regna of gaming (However, regardless of the OUYA’s success: Boxer8 has come from basically no where and caused a HUGE disruption, which in and of itself is an encouraging sign that the market is ripe for change). One thing however is for certain: until someone can revive the third-party console spirit, we’ll remain stuck, trudging through the shattered ruins of mindless genre clones and Sequelitis. Rome’s Golden age, the Pax Romana, was also followed by a period of schisms, strife, and stagnation (which led to it’s complete collapse); and that is where we find ourselves today: the Era of Byzantine Gaming.