Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Retro(spective) Gamer, Part II

How's this for a lead-in?

See, I can be concise sometimes.


Nintendo Entertainment System - 1985
"Simple to learn, challenging to master" is my favorite gameplay philosophy, and nowhere was this more prevalent than on the NES. Four buttons, one control pad. Graphics just detailed enough for designers to clearly represent whatever they needed without drawing the focus away from the gameplay. Significant memory limitations on the cartridges that kept the length and complexity of a game under control. What more could a gameplay-oriented gamer with no patience for sidequest-heavy 80-hour games want?

Well, for one thing, decent games.

The NES had its share of lousy games, but unlike with most modern systems, you could finish a terrible game in the same amount of time that it now takes to realize that the game you're playing is terrible, at a point where you're just invested enough to deliberate over whether it's worth giving up. I freely admit that I wouldn't like the NES nearly as much if it weren't for one thing: Mega Man.

Having six of my all-time favorite games on one system (technically five, but Mega Man III is a favorite by association) is a pretty compelling reason to love the NES, I'll admit. But I've also got Crystalis as another favorite; such runners-up as Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3, and Kirby's Adventure; games that fascinate me but I can't play well such as Bionic Commando and Metal Storm; and RPG classics Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy.

Whether it's nostalgia or pure appreciation, I enjoy and admire so much of what the NES had to offer that it might just be my all-time favorite system...and even without Mega Man, it's still pretty high up there.

Game Boy - 1989
Game Boy is the system I always liked but never took seriously. Allow me to explain.

Tetris was a great time-waster, but it didn't feel like much of a video game. The Mega Man games were great for getting my Mega Man fix, but they were mostly rehashes of the NES games--except for the fifth installment, none of them could pass as a legitimate sequel on a "real" system. Games with real storylines like Link's Awakening and Final Fantasy Adventure never seemed to have the impact of their NES and SNES counterparts, perhaps because the epic scope of these games was diminished thanks to the monochrome visuals being confined to a tiny screen with tinny music being pushed out through tiny speakers.

Even after all the advances in handheld gaming, original Game Boy games are what I turn to when I need a dose of fluff to help me through a road trip, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System - 1991
I've been spoiled by the SNES to the point where I honestly can't tell how much I actually like the system. The game library of every other system I own has its fair share of average and lame games, but my SNES game library is an all-star ensemble. Chrono Trigger. Donkey Kong Country. EarthBound. Mega Man X. Super Mario RPG. Super Metroid. And so on. All the big-leaguers, and virtually nothing else. I should be inclined to say that the SNES is one of my favorite systems, but my collection leaves entire genres and game types (I.e. competitive multiplayer) untouched, so it's difficult to reach a final verdict based solely on a few of the best platformers and RPGs ever made.

I will say that I like the comfortable and responsive controller, except for the Start button, which inevitably becomes all but totally inoperative after several years of not realizing you push the Start button that much. Button failure is to be expected, but aesthetically, time has not been good to my SNES. Weird things happen to the color of the unit itself over time, and though there are methods of restoring a system to its gray glory, those of us too lazy or clumsy to do anything about it get to enjoy a sickly, oxidized yellow for the rest of time.

Nintendo 64 - 1996
I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand the popularity of the N64. Sure, it was revolutionary and had 3-D graphics and--hey, I was playing PC games with 3D graphics in 1996. So much for the novelty factor. At least my controller rumbled, and that was kinda fun. Brrrrm vrrrrm.

So it has some big-league games, like Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask...but Zelda has never been a huge selling point for me. 3-D platforming was still rough around the edges at the time, so Super Mario 64 and Donkey Kong 64 might be enjoyable, but never enjoyable or streamlined enough to win my heart away from the 2-D platformers of the NES and SNES. Another issue I have with the single-player N64 games is that, at least of the ones I've played, the graphics are obtrusively crude. I usually don't mind if games don't have blow-you-away-beautiful visuals, but I don't find anything much charm in the primitive polygons, and when unpolished controls start getting in the way, the games feel pretty junky to me.

Multiplayer games, then. I've already said I like GoldenEye, and the customizability of Perfect Dark makes that multiplayer experience even better. Mario Kart 64 is still my favorite incarnation of the series, Mario Party is always a hoot, and Star Wars: Episode I: Racer is a fantastic rush. Still, I do not play well with others, so multiplayer games are usually more of an extra entertainment option when I have company over than a compelling reason to haul out the N64 at every opportunity.

Needless to say, the N64 is my least favorite of all the Nintendo systems I've owned. I'm willing to hold off on final judgment until I've played a few more single-player games that might be more up my alley, but for now, I'm going to continue raising an eyebrow at anybody who says the N64 is their favorite Nintendo system, as I suspect that nostalgia and only three or four games are responsible for the sentiment.

Game Boy Color - 1998
I admit that I haven't played many games specifically designed to take advantage of the GBC's color capabilities, but the ones I have feel a little less like fluff and a little more like games to be taken seriously. Wait--that's a lie. Most of the GBC games I have are flufftastic to the extreme.

Still, I think it's telling that, for an entire sentence, I was deluded into thinking that the Game Boy Color was less fluffy than its progenitor. It's interesting to me that graphics rarely factor in to my assessment of the impact of a game, except where the graphics are particularly ugly or pretty, and where nothing is in color. It also helps that the GBC feels more like a game system and less like a battery-powered brick.

GameCube - 2001
By the time the GameCube was released, the novelty of 3-D had been traded in for sophistication that allowed for a broader range of visual styles, virtually all of which have withstood the test of time better than anything the N64 had to offer. Games looked better and played more smoothly, in part because of the lessons learned from the N64, and in part because of the redesigned controller.

Metroid Prime was my driving reason for wanting a GameCube, but my interest in the system didn't extend much farther. Thanks to several years of bargain bin sales, I now find myself with perhaps the most diverse game library in my collection. Fighting, racing, platforming, puzzling, roleplaying, singing, sports...ing--it's all there.

By far my favorite feature of the system itself is the option of the Game Boy Player accessory, which can be affixed to the underside of your GC and allows you to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games on your television. The Game Boy Player has all but replaced the original systems for me, excepting when I'm on the go, and when I am way too lazy to sit up, face the television, and even consider being on the go.

I was also amused by the optional link cable that connects your Game Boy Advance to the GameCube. I'm normally not one for something so gimmicky, but the link cable has proven its usefulness on multiple occasions. There's a couple of fun unlockables in Metroid Prime that you can access by linking up with Metroid Fusion; delinquents who run away from the rest of the group in The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures can keep track of their characters on their own GBA screen; and there's an entire island filled with coconuts in Animal Crossing that requires a connection to visit.

I might prefer the simplicity of the NES and count more of its games as favorites, but the versatility of the GameCube makes it a strong contender for first place.

Game Boy Advance SP - 2003
I thought the GBA SP was the coolest thing when I first played it. Backlit screen for nighttime car trips, easy to store in any pocket, no batteries required, and backwards compatibility with regular Game Boy and Game Boy Color games? It didn't get any better than that!

After several years of 3-D this and 3-D that, I was glad to see what was effectively an encore of the SNES in handheld format. Once more I got my 2-D platformer fix, and I got my RPG fix--two genres that weren't so popular on the N64 or GameCube. Interestingly, Scurge: Hive is about the only game I own for the GBA that isn't part of a greater series, like Metroid or Shining Force or Wario Land. It's like sequel city.

While my GBA library doesn't quite reach the highs of my SNES library (tough competition, really), I dig the extreme portability factor, and I appreciate the similarities in the styles of the games (especially considering a few of them are localized re-releases of Japanese Super Famicom games). It's a great system with good games, and that's fine by me.

DS Lite - 2006
The less I think about Metroid Prime Hunters, the more I like the Nintendo DS. I've never used the original model, but the DS Lite is a sleek little number that fits comfortably into a cargo pocket, rests securely on a table with its little grippy feet, and sports two clear and well-backlit screens. I'm tempted to say I like the DS better than the GBA SP (::gasp!::), but I find it's incredibly difficult to press the control pad diagonally (a problem that I suspect is unique to my DS and not every DS). So, factoring in backwards compatibility, let's call it a tie.

My DS library is still very small, but I've picked or have been given games that, for the most part, don't shoehorn in dual-screen and touch-screen technology just because it's there. I appreciate what the DS has to offer, and it's actually a great deal of fun to slide blocks around with the stylus in the puzzle mode of Tetris DS, and to snuff out candles in Phantom Hourglass by blowing into the microphone. Of course, I look like a moron leaning toward my lap and blowing on my DS in public, but that's a small price to pay for portable amusement.

Wii - 2006
I don't think I've figured out how to take full advantage of my Wii yet, or else I care not to. I've got a couple of games--most of them with LEGO in the title--and have downloaded Mega Man 9-10 and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. Oh, and I made a Mii. I roped a few friends and family members into making Miis, too, and now they exist somewhere in a tiny white box, alone and forgotten. The Miis, not my friends and family. Weirdo.

I realize that there are more games to download, but all the old ones I'd prefer to have for the original system, and most of the new ones have yet to strike my fancy. I still don't completely understand this Friend Code thing. The weather and news channels occupy valuable blank space on the main menu. I've got a perfectly functional GameCube and no need for backwards compatibility. I take any opportunity to use button controls over motion controls, and the memory card situation confuses me. I have no intention of owning any wacky peripherals such as a steering wheel or a baby.

The Wii has a lot to offer, but sometimes it feels like driving a car with a vegetable brush in the glove compartment and cupholders on the ceiling. You say "Wii," I say why. I see layer upon layer of gimmick and superfluous feature--at least with the N64, there was a clear focus on exploring the world-expanding possibilities of 3-D; the Wii strikes me as a system without direction, where even the use of motion controls is more often a replacement for a traditional control scheme than an exploration of where the technology can take us. Perhaps it's got nothing to do with the games or the technology, but the idea of making gaming a social experience for a broader audience. Whatever the case, I don't think I was the target demographic Nintendo had in mind when they released the system.


That was concise, wasn't it?


Matt Link said...

I have to say, excellent retrospective recap on all the big N consoles and handhelds! Since the 16-bit era, I'm by no means a full Nintendo devotee, but it's very rare and refreshing to get an objective analysis of all the Nintendo systems from a fan that's not simply blindly praising Nintendo or putting down other systems. I've seen that far too often elsewhere. I found myself nodding in agreement with what you said all the way through.

I will say though, being the old-school gamer that I am, the NES is still my all-time favorite console due to the philosophy you pointed out. I'll admit, nostalgia does play some into my love for the NES, and yet despite that, I can still go back to good NES games that I didn't grow up with and enjoy them all the same.

I was a bit of a late-bloomer when it came to the SNES. I grew up with a Genesis, in which I loved the games I had to pieces. Unfortunately, I was turned off from exploring the SNES for a while due to the fact that the few people I knew back then that had one came across as way too fanatical about the system and wouldn't open up to anything else. This has ruined my curiosity for systems many a time throughout the ages. And it was a real shame, since there are so many great games on there like Super Metroid, Super Castlevania IV and Mega Man X1-3, but from my experience at the time, my thought was that I didn't want to become a jerk like the few SNES gamers I knew that spoiled my curiosity. Of course, I realize now that this was just an unfortunate circumstance, as there are tons of SNES gamers out there that would have introduced me to the system in a much better light. Thankfully, once the whole 16-bit wars died down years later, I finally shelled out for a SNES and caught up with what I'd been missing out on. I felt that this "after the heyday" approach was a much better intro for me :)

Also, I really agree with your thoughts on the N64... it didn't appeal much to me back then, and even now, I can only count the games on one hand that I like from it. Still, I can directly point to one specific reason I dislike the system: the controller. It feels absolutely awkward holding it, has way too many buttons, and overall it just has a terrible design. That reason alone ruined so many potentially good games and prevented me from going after the ones that interested me. It wasn't until years later when I finally downloaded Super Mario 64 for the Wii and played it with a Gamecube controller that I could finally enjoy the game the way I wanted to. (Whoa, an N64 entry from an 8-bit franchise on a Wii with a Gamecube controller... I think the time space continuum just bent backwards).

Also I'm with you on the whole 3-D novelty thing. It's part of the reason I'm glad the mid-late 90s era of gaming are over as that seemed to overtake anything and everything. It's also one of the reasons that Mega Man 8 and X4 were almost not released in the US. I remember hearing that Sony informed Capcom that they wanted to do away with 2D games in favor of the new 3D, although Capcom was adamant on porting these games over along with the new big 3D franchises of the time (like Resident Evil), otherwise Capcom wouldn't be participating in their US market.

So God bless Capcom for sticking up for 2D gaming in a time that shunned it. And Konami. They're devoted like that too.

Flashman85 said...

Thank you! I was concerned it might be a little more babbly than usual.

I'm mostly nodding in acknowledgment in return, though I hadn't heard about MMX4 and MM8--though it doesn't surprise me a bit!

Great comment; thanks again!