This is not a lament for the old days, Okay? We're very grateful for the endlessly forward march of video game progress, and if anyone tries to tell you that the classic era was superior, then beat them in the face with a Jaguar controller until it breaks. The modern world has full-motion capture controls, 3D, top-notch voice acting, photorealistic graphics, the ability to play live with people all across the Earth, and GLaDOS. In short, the future is awesome.
Still, there are aspects of the days when you had to rent your games from Blockbuster that we feel an odd fondness for, and a slight pang of regret at their absence. We don't want to turn back the clock or anything, but we did think it would be nice to pay them tribute here.
Once upon a time, you had to figure everything in a game out for yourself or pay for the information... we're lazy, so we paid. We had subscriptions to Nintendo Power, EGM and GamePro just for their code breaker and FAQ sections, but there's only so much room in a magazine, and when all else failed you called the Nintendo Hotline.
The concept of paying someone for anything over the phone that doesn't involve pornography now seems so alien, but when we were ten years old it was the most natural thing in the world. Stuck in Crystalis? Just drop $3 while a friendly and helpful Nintendo employee walked you through the process. Amazingly, the hotline was only discontinued in 2005.
You might remember the profession being glorified in the movie The Wizard when a counselor named Rick helps guide Jimmy Woods through his preparations for the big video game tournament. We tried to track down the actor who played Rick, Thomas Stanczyk, in order to ask him what kind of research he did to bring to life a profession that was like a second father to us in our youth, but all we found was a New Jersey investment banker who apparently drives off bears with firecrackers. If you read this, Tom, drop a line 'cause we'd still like to know.
Keeping in time with the theme of not being able to play a game on our own, we really miss strategy guides. Now of course there are still strategy guides out there, and some of them are real works of art. For years the nicest book we owned was actually the official hardcover, gold-embossed edition of the guide for Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The thing is more impressive than a medieval Bible.
However, strategy guides more or less died with the Internet, and you can point to one specific guide that killed the whole thing forever. Brady Games had been putting out stellar guides for the Final Fantasy series, until Final Fantasy IX came out. The guide had only half of the information. The other half was locked in an interactive section on the Brady Web site...or it would've been if the site wasn't a mishmash of poor code that never loaded.
As long as we were already on the Internet, hey look, other people are trying to figure this out, and thus we watched the strategy guide industry pretty much sign its own death warrant.
Once upon a time you had a greater likelihood of winning money in the lottery than finding a save feature. There simply wasn't enough memory in the cartridges to make it happen. Games had two ways around this. The first was the Mario solution, which was fuck you if you died because you're back at world one. The second was the password system.
Passwords were a nightmare because they were insanely complicated. Essentially you were using them to rewrite a game's code in order to return you to a specific location with specific items. To top it off, sometimes the passwords involved symbols that were difficult to translate into written notes, like Castlevania (Amazingly, Castlevania used this system into the SNES era, when saving became more common).
Now your games save for you. You don't even have to ask. That's a wonderful thing, but there was something very organic and proactive about having to record your progress like an Arctic explorer. It somehow made the quest even more real. Plus, we think it would be really funny if archeologists in a thousand years stumbled across a bunch of these notes and spent decades trying to make a language out of them.
The Game Genie still seems like magic to us. By sliding one onto the front of your cartridge and entering codes, you made video game physics your gimp. Infinite lives, super jumps, and you could even bring characters that died in the story back from the dead to play under your control, which actually makes it better than a real genie according to Disney logic.
With modern games we just don't see the point anymore. Most games have an easy mode specifically designed for people like us who don't try very hard, making cheating at that level the act of someone who is either morally bankrupt or hopelessly inept. Power-ups have become story-based -- take the Batman Arkham games, for example -- and if you can't be content being Batman then what's left?
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When we were in elementary school, you didn't beat a game. You flipped a game, and we have no freakin' idea why we said that. You didn't turn the game over upon competition, there wasn't some kind of weird mirror world unlocked for beating it... though now that we think of it, Nintendo started pulling that kind of thing as a "bonus feature" lately in what may be the laziest example of padding playtime since Ghouls n' Ghosts made you play the whole game twice just to hit Satan in the face with a bracelet.
We don't even say we beat a game anymore. Now we say we finished it, like you do with a book, and that's because we no longer feel like game designers want you to fail. When you were playing Ninja Gaiden, you were certain that somewhere a programmer cackled madly every time a bird knocked you into a pit. You were certain that they couldn't care less if you ever saw the ending because they were demons who feed on the frustration of children.
A modern game wants you to finish it, because the people who make them are proud of their work and they want you to see it. Games have become art, not something you could swear was invented by the military to see which among us would be best suited for military training and torture resistance. The experience no longer feels like a one-sided struggle between us and the Pixel Gods. Case in point, when was the last time you saw a game like Tetris that literally couldn't be beaten? Just doesn't happen that much anymore. We're not saying it's a bad thing, but we do want to point out its absence.