Friday, November 28, 2008

A Present to be Thankful For

My grandmother has a saying: "There was nothing good about 'the good old days.'" Her life experiences have convinced her that scientific and cultural development has been "positive" in the sense that most people's standards of living are comparatively higher today than in the past. In support of her argument, I offer penicillin and the twenty-fourth amendment as examples.

I usually reflect warmly on gaming's past, but I am justified in idealizing "the good old days?" To wrap up our Thanksgiving themed week, I am going to give thanks for some modern video game innovations I often take for granted:

1. Ergonomically Designed Controllers

For video games, The Nintendo Entertainment System was represented the phoenix rising from the ashes. It reinvigorated the medium, introduced a generation of people to gaming, and set precedents design precedents that continue to influence games created today. These feats are even more impressive upon reviewing the NES controller:

The NES controller has a feature shared with no modern controller: corners. Because of its flat back and rectangular shape, the only way to keep a grip on it was to jam its corners your palms, leaving you with pronounced dents and bruises after long play sessions. And although it is hard to see from the picture, the A and B buttons were concave, as opposed to the convex buttons now standard on controllers. This is important, as it meant that the buttons had sharp edges. In addition to this, games were exclusively manipulated with the surprisingly sharp control pad. Anyone still remember "Nintendo Thumb?"

Say what you will about modern the PS3 and Xbox360's modern game pads, but one thing is undeniable: they fit like gloves compared tothe NES controller.

Ergonomic innovation has continued with the current generation with consoles: cordless controllers are now standard, allowing us to play in a seat dictated by comfort, rather than cord length. Never again will we have to shell out money for cord extenders.

2. Save Games

Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, there were basically three ways to end a video game session:

1. Succumb the the punishing gameplay and turn the system off in defeat.

2. Muster the skill to claw your way through the game, losing an entire day of your life but winning the luxury of going to bed knowing you were a bad-ass.

3. Remember or write down a ridiculously long "password" (I use quotes since they were usually strings random numbers and letters and not words). Lose that scrap of paper or transpose a number? Tough. Additionally, passwords often worked by simply placing you at the beginning of a level, rather than at your exact stopping point, forcing you to recollect the gear and points you had before you turned the system off.

The ability to save your progress and resume at that exact save point has become integral to the way games are structured. Even relatively short games like Gears of War or Portal run longer than feature films, thus necessitating game saving features. Saving in challenging modern games like God of War makes them more appealing to a broader audience, as the game no longer punishes players by starting them at the beginning if they die too many times.

It is no wonder things like Game Genie flourished in the early days of video games. Sometimes cheating was the only way to get back to where you left off, and often it was the only reasonable way to pass a hellishly difficult level.

In the "good old days," games would routinely present the player with the perfect storm of inconveniences: punishing difficulty, limited continues, and complete lack of saving or passwords. I am thankful we have left this era and its games behind. That's right, I'm talking about you, Battle Toads. I still have nightmares about this level:

3. Backwards Compatibility

Being partial to both nostalgia and history, I always found the transition to new platforms and technology to be a mixed blessing. Certainly, new systems with new games allowed for novel experiences, but they almost always relegated older games to obscurity.

Today, we need not box up our old games with the advent of a new system, as most offer backwards compatibility. There are also plenty of software oriented solutions to the problem of recording gaming history. Services like Steam,Gametap, Good Old Games, as well as each console's on-line store make attaining old games easy and economical for both companies and consumers.

True, it can be annoying to pay five or ten dollars for a game you may have previously owned, and I think we should guard against companies abusing DRM. However, the time and money saved by avoiding eBay and garage sales is worth it for me.

Most importantly, having access to old games provides common reference points and shared experiences within gaming culture. Having access to a machine that can play both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy is a boon to people's understanding and enjoyment of the medium.

As is often the case, idealizing the past obscures the benefits of the present. I have plenty of fond memories of my early gaming days, but when I use my GameCube controller to auto-save a Star Fox game, I am thankful that those days are history.


  1. I enjoyed reading this article a lot. Great references to some good past memories too. I liked the part about saving your progress in the early entertainment consoles, or I should say, the lacking of ability to save. Also, if you get a chance try to picture your favorite game of today as a major title on the Atari or original NES. It's pretty funny.

    Mix Gaming Arts

  2. DangerCurtis:

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm now imagining an 8-bit Kratos. Quite amusing.