A Small Point about Game History

by Jed Pressgrove

Do video games naturally get better over time? There is a prevalent feeling among game critics and fans that gaming has changed for the better over the last few decades, especially when one plays certain old games that don’t hold up well. Terms like “evolution” accompany this feeling and confirm a deterministic stance. Unsurprisingly, this line of thinking mirrors what game companies want you to think.

But even if we place aside the interests of companies, my answer to the question above is still “No.” This is not to suggest the modern era doesn’t have its fair share of great games. Releases like Off-Peak and Titanfall 2 may more than deserve to be put in the same category as Planescape: Torment and Contra.

I simply think that too often people assume that game design overwhelmingly improves as years go by. This assumption is thought to explain why certain old games are hard to appreciate. But I maintain that people frequently pay too much attention to old games that never deserved much praise in the first place.

Consider how many people were quick to say that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild overtook The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the “greatest game of all time” (imagine being able to pinpoint the biggest accomplishment in an art form in mere weeks after a new release!). My feeling is that of course Breath of the Wild is better than Ocarina of Time. Ocarina of Time had more tedious exposition than any Zelda game before it and was surpassed, especially in terms of art direction and emotional complexity, by its sequel Majora’s Mask.

So perhaps certain old games have been dethroned because they were never that good, and perhaps new games would not automatically seem like beacons of superior design if one explored and thought about more game history.

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2 comments

  1. Great article Jed, as usual. I think that most people mistake tools with execution. Modern games have better graphics (from a extrictly technical point of view), bigger worlds, more characters, more dialogue, more, more, more. In the last years, I have seen an increasing focus on this, from developers, players and critique alike. But all this will be surpassed in the future as technology advances. What really matters is how this resources are used to achieve the games purpose, whatever it might be. Just compare the Original Metroid for NES with its Gameboy remake, Metroid: Zero Mission.

  2. I’m split on this issue. Game design has definitely improved as technology improved, and we are seeing more titles released now that are better composed/executed and have the potential to create much more compelling narratives. But you still have developers who half-ass things just to put out a mediocre product in the hopes that it will get some sales. That’s always been the case though, and it was very prevalent during the abundance of shovelware titles during the early years of gaming.

    I also admit that I don’t really care much for the argument that “games were better years ago”, as too often it comes from elitist retro-snobs. But I can’t deny that there were absolute classics put out during that time from people who knew how to work around the limitations of the then-restrictive tech and deliver a great experience. Final Fantasy 4 and 6, Chrono Trigger, and Planescape still provide experiences that captivate me more than a great number of modern RPGs.

    Then again, this all comes down to my personal preferences. I’m more for the story than the gameplay, and the ability to tell better stories with improving technology colors my perception as to why I see games as having become, overall, much better now than they were in the 8-16 bit eras.

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