#3. Instant Death
Vintage video games are paranoid psychosis simulators: Everything in the world is trying to kill you, and your only hope is to murder them first. Birds, mushrooms, trees, inanimate objects -- they'll all develop the ability to perceive and move through the world just to remove you from it. All this when you weren't really a man, you were a bizarrely man-shaped soap bubble ended by even the lightest brush against an enemy. And still you launched yourself against entire alien invasions.
If Bill's cigarette so much as drips ash on him, he'll do a back flip off the screen and die.
Energy bars gave players more of a chance, but raised the specter of instadeath. Even a character with a full energy bar would be instantly obliterated if he hit certain items or fell down a hole, because being shot in the face by a robo-death-bot with a laser bazooka is only slightly damaging, but tripping and needles are always fatal. Or you could fall infinitely far as long as you remained in view, but the instant you couldn't be observed, you died, as if God was failing at quantum mechanics.
#2. Being Stuck
It's hard to truly remember the days before the Internet. I'm technically aware of a time when my younger self would want to see a pair of boobies and simply not be able to, but I can't recapture the bursting frustration building up to the point where it nearly seeped through my pores.
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Now I have to get ornithological to avoid being aroused by pairs of boobies.
Only slightly less frustrating were the adventure games. Text-based adventure games made you tell the story of a harried Hemingway -- "Go north. Open door. Hit someone." -- while point-and-click games had you talking to everyone you met and trying to jam anything you could into anything that presented itself. Wait, this is sounding like the teenage sex desperation again.
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"Can you believe he didn't even have a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle?"
And if you couldn't replicate the thought processes of someone who'd been staring at their own imagination in code form for seven weeks, you were hosed. Nowadays video game walkthroughs are the one and only subject for which the Internet can be trusted to give sensible solutions, but back then, if you got stuck, that was $40 of game turned into a simulated but solid wall.
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"I just can't get past that Broken Sword goat. And every time I say something like that in public, I'm shunned."
You were left moving from location to location and sweeping every pixel to look for new items. You were visiting a fantastical virtual world and then pretending to dust it. Nowadays, the first hint of any kind of frustration sends me to the Internet for quick and easy satisfaction.
#1. Rubber Band AI
The worst thing they did to us was cheat to beat us themselves. We didn't expect an 8-bit processor to be able to render a human-level intelligence because we knew we weren't in a science-fiction movie, but the processor didn't and created an evil program to murder us anyway. "Rubber band AI" did this by simply boosting the computer's speed/strength/interception ability to superhuman levels if you won too much.
Start winning in Tecmo Bowl and it becomes more realistic, with the enemy team discovering drugs.
This effect was most pronounced in racing games, and it was pronounced "THOSE FUCKING CHEATING BASTARDS." If you got too far ahead, the other cars were possessed by Agent Smith, and you weren't the One, just Player 1. And you got played hard. Mario Kart would (and still does) build entire endangered turtle memorials on your crashed kart with the most murderously cheating AI outside of the Terminator franchise. The R.C. Pro-AM yellow car would soar past at what wasn't so much high speed as low warp.
I invented five new curse words for this cantaloupe wheelmolester, and I used a different first vowel in "cantaloupe."
There was nothing more frustrating than being killed by the computer inside the computer. We were already doing nothing with our lives but pretending to move around in little circles, then the computer makes it even more pointless by revealing that you only ever win because it lets you, and now it won't. That's GLaDOS levels of psychological bullshit.
In modern games, the problem of idiotic computer opponents hasn't been solved, it's just been offloaded onto idiotic human opponents. That's why so many games feature advanced multiplayer modes, reducing the single player to an extended tutorial of whack-a-mole. It doesn't matter how realistic your lighting effects are when all it's animating is the machine gun equivalent of a cuckoo clock.
"Tick, tick, POP OUT AND GET SHOT IN THE FACE O'CLOCK!"
The way we prefer killing stupid humans over working out how to defeat intelligent machines is not going to help our species in the long term. That's why we need intelligent, fun, sexy, brilliant video gamers to make up the difference, and did I mention that loads of those are working for the new RETRO magazine Kickstarter?
If you aren't convinced games can suck, read 5 Groundbreaking Ways Video Games Are Screwing Players. Or celebrate how much sucking can rule with The 7 Biggest Dick Moves in the History of Online Gaming.