Thursday Thoughts – Old Games Made New Again

I’ve been on a retro game kick lately. Having dabbled in game design theory – we’re talking armchair hobbyist level here – it’s been driving me crazy with some of these titles. There are so many good ideas dragged down by unfair or unfun game mechanics that seem, from my position, obvious. Granted, many of the frustrations and short-comings come from the limitations of the technology of the times. And even in the early 90s, videogame development was in its infancy. We crawl before we walk, stumble before we run, and my generation grew up during some of the most inventive – if not most successfully designed – periods of game development.

On the other side of the coin, I look at my library (and regrettably large backlog) of modern games and feel less of a draw to them these days. I want a momentary distraction, not a major time investment. And that stems in part from the amount of time, money and manpower that goes into them. It’s staggering! And I’m just talking basic development, not the marketing or brand licensing. There’s considerably more thought put into modern game design, which is fantastic. But in a lot of ways, it also feels overburdened.

Games today cost so much to create, market and distribute they’re desperate to get your dollar. To woo you they add every bell and whistle, wave their shiniest screenshots at you, cater to the solo player, multiplayer and professional league player alike, and cram as much content as possible onto the disk – and then charge you for the DLC. It feels like a system that can’t sustain itself.

This feels especially true with the rise of mobile gaming with his far smaller production teams, budgets, and the appeal of the simpler gameplay. Instead of waiting for the latest software patch, assuming your console of choice’s network is running, passing the litany of developer logos, choosing your file and engaging in a game that wants to hold you for as much time as possible – you can click your app, hurl a bird at a pig’s house for ten minutes, and be done. Or you can sink days into them if time allows. (I’m looking at you, Tales of Link).

So where am I going with all this? I grew up in the glory days of the Console Wars, and I’m a sucker for a solid IP. Numerous franchises languish, begging to be reborn for a new age of gamers. And in an era when franchises are being pushed hard in television and movies, you’d think revitalizing these older IPs would be a no-brainer. But what if they fail? Giving them a AAA revival and modern retooling is a risky venture, especially when the console market is fighting tooth-and-nail with the casual mobile market. I think the answer lies in a simpler solution.

Let’s look at Sonic Mania, which has me ridiculously excited. It holds all the promise of the classic style of Sonic gaming, but with a level of polish greater than what the Genesis could provide. It doesn’t run on the Havok engine, it doesn’t have an unprecedented number of polygons or require the latest graphics card. It’s just the core gameplay that made the Sonic franchise stand out from among the other mascot platformers with extra polish – and that’s all you need.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, go with what you know and let a simple, solid game bolstered with the franchise name. Give us an Odin Sphere-styled Golden Axe. Dust off the God of War engine for Altered Beast. Give Mega Man to Yacht Club, the geniuses behind Shovel Knight. Hand Darkstalkers to Lab Zero, who gave us Skullgirls. Give us a straight port with updated sprite work and localization for the Phantasy Star quadrilogy! Pokemon-styled Chao Rancher! Ristar by Kirby’s Hal Labs!

In summation: I want to play with all my old toys again, and there’s comparatively cheaper and easier ways to breath new life into them than trying to “modernize” them. Go small, go focused, and once the quality foundation has been laid, go big.

And I’ll write the comic adaptation. Or the game script. Or, hell, slap a “producer” title on me and let me shout ideas all day long. I ain’t picky.