Title: Editorial #2 - SNES: The Gilded Age of Gaming
Posted: January 15, 2006 (06:05 PM)
Mark Twain referred to the industrial era as "The Gilded Age." Hidden behind the booming economy and brand new inventions and processes was a world with poverty, unrest, and rather unscrupulous business dealings. The era was gilded - made to look wonderful but in reality wasn't. Perhaps the same can be said of gaming's supposed golden age - the 16 bit era. We hear about the wonders of the SNES and Genesis so much that it is taken for granted this generation was the pinnacle of gaming. But was it really? My experiences with the Genesis are limited (the types of games that are popular on it don't appeal to me at all), but I've played my fair share of SNES games. And from what I've seen, this generation wasn't all that special.
I'm not saying it's not good, of course. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention all the excellent games I played on the system, or the wonderful improvements over the NES. Games like Super Metroid are legendary; others like Tetris Attack or Sky Blazer are relatively unknown but still excellent. The widespread use of saves allowed developers to expand their games even more, creating vast adventures and larger quests. The improved processing power led to better graphics, faster movement, and more immersion in the game world. The added buttons improved functionality tremendously, spelling the end to bizarre button configurations. Could you imagine playing Street Fighter or Mario Kart or Final Fantasy III on an NES? It's just not possible. The 16 bit era brought many wonders to the gaming world and offered a broad range of new experiences; I would be a fool to deny that.
But that doesn't mean everything became better. Take platformers, for instance. Time after time I started playing a new game, hoping that it would provide a quality platforming experience. And yet, time after time I found a cute looking animal slowly moving through a barren and boring world, collecting nonsensical objects and firing nonsensical weapons through generic worlds. The joys of Mario and Kirby's Adventure and Duck Tales and Rainbow Island gave way to an endless stream of generic "platformers" that do not hold true to the basic elements of the genre. Lion King, Mickey Mouse, Addams Family, Mr Nutz, James Pond, and others were simply stale, derivative pieces. Even Kirby's Dreamland and Donkey Kong Country were boring, slow moving games with far too much empty space. Mario World is the one shining exception to this, but even that game pales in comparison to Mario 3.
Why is this? I think part of the reason is that developers just got too enamored with the spiffy new technology that they ignored the fundamentals. Saving is nice, but it destroys the concept of constant repetition and creating one's own challenge. You don't end up memorizing the levels; gameplay never becomes unconscious; you don't have a chance to experiment and start seeing challenges within challenges. DKC was a huge graphical showcase, but still ended up to be a relatively standard experience. Enemies were your typical fluff and there was too much empty space. Kirby had animal partners and sub quests and new powerups and all sorts of ridiculous things when all I wanted to do was get to the end of the level.
Or look at Yoshi's Island, probably the worst offender and my biggest disappointment. There were tons of enhancements and cool ideas, but they were all just crammed in there. Some ideas were ignored for worlds at a time, some were never used to their full potential, and others were so weak that they were no fun at all. It's sort of a "too many chefs spoil the broth" thing; there's too much stuff in there that these 10 minute long levels end up losing something. Mario 3 also added a ton of stuff, but all of them were focused on enhancing and improving the classic Mario formula. Yoshi pretends to have the same formula, but instead is pulled in so many directions that it ends up far weaker as a result.
And this isn't merely constrained to the platformers either. Capcom knew that the Mega Man series had become stale, but their reinvention with X contained so many new ideas that the simple fun of the NES games weren't present. Super Castlevania is so overblown with stylishness that it becomes almost a mockery of the pure challenge that the original games stood for. With so many new moves and actions, whole sections of the game become pathetically easy. Nintendo realized they needed to change the style of Zelda gameplay, but their additions ended up creating a pathetic illusion of exploration. Pieces of heart were thrown at you with no effort required on your part, items had giant signs pointing out their location, and the hilariously obvious cracks in the walls insured that nothing was really a secret to anybody. Game after game contains so many new elements and new ideas that the original reason for playing becomes lost. Mario, Zelda, Kirby, Mega Man, Ninja Turtles, Punch Out, Castlevania, Tecmo Bowl. All of them lost something when they went to the SNES, something special and important.
It doesn't have to be this way. Look how Super Metroid took a bad game and turned it into something amazing. It fixed all of Metroid's flaws, revamped everything thanks to better technology, and added in new aspects that molded well with the series. Or look at Metroid Prime, which took SM as a basis and built an entirely new game out of it. It is possible to make sequels that top the originals, but it just didn't happen all that often on the SNES. I think developers just got sidetracked by saving and sprite scaling and extra buttons and pretty colors and extra storage. They didn't focus on what they wanted; they didn't spend their time making sure the final product was more than the sum of its parts. Since it was easier to insure a game didn't turn out to be awful, nobody wanted to spend the time to make a game that became spectacular.
On the other hand, I will admit racing games improved with the advent of easy sprite scaling. Of course, they improved even more with 3D, making the whole thing a moot point nowadays. Can you really name one racing game on the SNES that is superior to any other similar game? Some still claim the original Mario Kart is the best, but that's certainly debatable. F-Zero X and GX are both far superior to the original, and any realistic racing game has long been left in the dust. Admittedly, there are some racers unique to the system. But besides the incredible Uniracers, I can't think of any good ones (and yes, I played the "underrated" Biker Mice from Mars and Rock and Roll Racing).
The same could be said of fighting games. Once again, it's hard for me to get excited about Street Fighter II when there's newer versions out there. These versions have extremely similar gameplay while moving faster and smoother than the SNES can handle, to say nothing of all the new fighting game franchises like Soul Calibur. Sure, I suppose some fighting game purists might say I'm nuts, but whatever. For most people, there's no fighting games on the SNES that can't be found elsewhere.
And then there's RPGs, the genre SNES purists seem most enamored with. And for good reason, as there's tons of them everywhere. But once you start going through the stack of RPGs, you may end up noticing that they're all the same, and they're all rather boring. In every game, you play the part of some lonesome hero up against total evil and bound to end up getting the girl as well. In every game, you have a simplistic levelling up system, only a few attacks worth mentioning, stale dungeons, pathetically simple puzzles and tactics, and excruciatingly lame dialogue. You'll find yourself playing, say, Breath of Fire, and wondering why you're bored with the game when you know there's nothing wrong with it. You'll play a game like 7th Saga and wonder just why you're spending all this time levelling up. You'll go through game after game and discover that the minor differences aren't enough to make it worth another 25 hours of your time. You'll find much heralded games like Lufia or Tales of Phantasia have some serious gameplay flaws in them, and you'll find more unknown games that are simply terrible. Even the legendary Chrono Trigger finds itself succumbing to the "haven't I done this all before?" phenomenon, as nothing really sticks out as inventive, unique, or completely refined. Thankfully there are a few exceptions, such as Lufia II's puzzle-based dungeons or FF3's decision to ignore what would undoubtedly be a stupid story in its second half and focus instead on a theme. Its sad, but the most popular genre on the system is also one of the lamest.
Combining these lame RPGs with action didn't help much either. The most famous, Secret of Mana, had so many flaws in the design that any quality the game had was washed away. It's a perfect example of developers cramming stuff in there expecting it to fit; as so many ideas were executed poorly or were simply superfluous. Remember what I said about focusing? Square certainly doesn't, as the game changes drastically as you play through it, moving from a moderately interesting adventure to some sort of haphazard action game. Enix didn't do much better, offering so many of these hybrids that never lived up to their potential. Actraiser's gameplay was so simplistic that it became boring and EVO's control was horrid, while Gaia and Brain Lord were simply too derivative. Yeah, I enjoyed Soul Blazer, but even I'd have to admit that the game was extremely bland. And that's pretty much the best of them!
I suppose I could go through genre after genre and game after game, but this has gone far enough. I look at any list of must have SNES games and simply see an endless stream of games that I have absolutely no desire to play. All those Donkey Kongs and Mortal Kombats and Final Fantasies and other generic Japanese RPGs and Mega Man Xs simply aren't worth the time. I see sequel after sequel fail to live up to the past, as well as games like F-Zero and Street Fighter that are superior in later versions. Of course, I also see quite a few great games, games I love playing. The extra advances and technologies that the system offered were occasionally used for improving games rather than simply complicating them. But just because there are a few shining examples, a few more great games, and a rather large library of "pretty good" games doesn't mean the generation is the best ever. There is no golden era for me, as I simply cannot ignore the serious problems this console created.
Posted: February 15, 2006 (09:44 PM)
Well played sir.