7 Ways Video Games Sucked (That Kids Know Nothing About)
Older gamers tend to look back on the old 8-, 16-, and 64-bit days through rose-colored glasses, remembering how much fun they had with those great retro titles and wishing modern gaming could be more like the glory days of Mario, Sonic, and the elf from Zelda. But the truth is that playing games has never been easier or smoother than it is right now, because the industry has had decades to iron out all the catastrophic bullshit. Back in the day, there were a hundred different things that could make a game you just bought virtually unplayable, with absolutely no way to fix it. In most cases, fans of retro gaming have repressed all the memories of what a pain in the ass retro gaming truly was. For instance ...
Bad Translation Was Common, And Could Royally Screw you Over
We've all been in that situation where you needed to ask directions in a foreign country and discovered how important prepositions are, because "turn right at the library" and "turn right in the library" can mean the difference between a great road trip and vehicular homicide. Communication can quickly fall apart if you don't have the right language -- and the same can happen in video games.
As games became more and more global, game companies (which in the early days were predominantly Japanese) were forced to spend time and resources translating their local content for the international market. Especially in the early, cheapskate days of video games, this led to some pretty bad translations. And while "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" and "A Winner is You" may look like funny memes to us modern folks, those little mistakes could get your character killed.
Often, these translations were annoying yet harmless mistakes. Take Level 6 of The Legend Of Zelda, where you're given the hint to "Aim At the Eyes of Gohma." Since Gohma is a giant spider with only one eye, this might cause some initial confusion, but gamers are foremost a "when in doubt, stab" kind of folk, so that didn't cause many problems.
Link has no magical rolled-up newspaper, so his options are limited anyway.
This was not the case for some of the other words of advice the crusty old man in Zelda was doling out. Thirty years later, people are still debating on the exact meaning of "Eastmost penninsula is the secret" or "Secret is in the tree at the dead-end." Maybe Legend Of Zelda was ahead of its time, using a clearly demented sage to serve as an unreliable narrator. How avant-garde.
The real secret is how he keeps convincing Link to not throw his ass in a home and forget about him.
But none were as deviously deceptive as "10th enemy has the bomb," the translation of which is supposed to be "Look for the Lion Key." How can you translate that badly? That's straight-up sabotage.
"13TH ENEMY HAS TACOS ..."
"Have-- have you been high this entire time?"
Similarly, the bad hints in Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest get quite ... esoteric. At one point in the game, in order to advance any further, you must decipher the meaning behind this clue: "Wait for a soul with a red crystal on Deborah Cliff." And we assure you, that clue is exactly as meaningful to longtime Castlevania players as it is to people who have never heard of the game before in their lives. Are we supposed to bring the red crystal to Deborah Cliff? Is Deborah Cliff a person? Does the soul have a red crystal? What does a soul even look like?
"IT'S TOO DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS COLLECTED WORKS OF PABLO NERUDA!"
Besides giving the player a full-on existential crisis, what the hint is supposed to communicate is: "Go to Deborah Cliff, present the red crystal, kneel down, and wait for a gust of wind to take you away." Whoever translated it decided to skip every third word to add a fun extra challenge.
Many Games Were Unplayable Without The Instruction Manual
Designers have gotten good at making their game's mechanics easy to understand. Say what you will about tutorials, on-screen tips, or even glowing items, but without them, many of us would start a game repeatedly getting murdered by the first stick-wielding goblin we encounter. Back in the day, however, games didn't have any kind of tutorials or in-game help menus. And this was before the internet, so unless you had a knowledgeable older sibling or the game's paper instruction manual, you were basically screwed.
Though in some cases, just buying the game meant you were screwed.
A big part of old games' intelligibility were their graphics. Admit it, the only reason the original 8-bit Mario resembles anything close to a human being is that Nintendo told us so on the box. These blocky images were especially problematic in games which relied on you using the right item in the right situation. In such cases, manuals were also invaluable, informing you that what you picked up was a power bracelet and not a jumbo shrimp.
The old man was too busy blathering about peninsulas and pudding to clue you in.
Then there were games with obtuse mechanics, like Ghouls 'N Ghosts and Demon's Crest. These required you to replay several times and collect specific items before you'd be able to take on the final boss. Good luck figuring that out without the manual, though, as the barely present and often badly translated in-game instructions could leave you battling a godlike villain armed with the game's equivalent of a melon baller.
This dependence on manuals was especially problematic in the booming rental and secondhand markets. Kids would lose, tear up, and wipe giant boogers on manuals all the time, which put a real dent in their resell value. Understanding their customer's frustration, video rental juggernaut (and entertainment dodo) Blockbuster tried to combat this by stocking photocopies of all their games' manuals. So when a game would be returned without a usable guide, they'd slide in a fresh copy. In recognition of this fair and reasonable solution, Nintendo rewarded the retailer by suing them for copyright infringement. If only they'd stuck to making copies of game manuals, Blockbuster would probably still be in business today.
Getting Hints Was A Massive Hassle
Today, if you're stuck in a game and need some help, three minutes of web searching will net you the aid of a dozen forums, three professional walkthroughs, and a YouTube video of a Scandinavian grade-schooler flawlessly completing the entire game in under 10 minutes. But before the internet, in order to receive advice on a game, you had to pause it, walk out the door, scale the sacred mountains, reach the Temple of Game, and pray for enlightenment from the wise grand masters -- who looked like this:
They avoided locker-stuffings and swirlies by lording knowledge of Dr. Wily's weak spot over the bullies' heads.
These dashing men and woman were the official Nintendo counselors for the NES, and later SNES. When these experts weren't writing game guides for Nintendo Power, the official Nintendo magazine, they were answering phone calls. By calling 206-885-7529(PLAY), desperate gamers would receive the one-on-one counseling they needed to beat that boss or find that missing key. Not that Nintendo was running a charity. An eight-minute phone call would cost kids over $5 (again, this is 1980s money, so adjusted for inflation, that phone call cost a million dollars). This probably infuriated parents, and that's before they found out that their kid was making these expensive phone calls to ask a mulleted stranger how to beat Gunsmoke.
You know you're running a scam when you charge money for strategies that came from a magazine anyone could buy.
But before you go thinking that being a paid video game badass must be the coolest job ever, the phone line operation wasn't exactly smooth sailing. The hours were long, the work wasn't that exciting, and, most importantly, the counselors received electric shocks when their feet touched the ground.
"Quit whining. Who needs feet to sit, anyway?"
Also, much like any job that requires a headset, most of these counselors were probably not even close to being the best gamers in the land. In an interview with the A.V. Club, many former employees revealed they often had no idea how to solve a problem, and were reduced to thumbing through binders of all the game levels (blueprints made by the designers to navigate the game), like some bored telemarketer following a script.
"... go the other way." -- most side-scrolling advice, presumably
If You Wanted Game Cheats, You Had To Pay For Them (Or Rebuild Your System)
Hacks, mods, and cheats are an integral part of modern gaming. It's hard to even imagine there was a time when you couldn't easily make your character invisible, or everyone else naked, with a few button clicks. But once upon a time, modifying games was a sinister black market affair. An interested gamer would have to look at the back pages of magazines, find a dealer of haxors, and pay them for the privilege of seeing Lara Croft's square boobs.
For a mere $17, you too could own a floppy disk that would let you start the game in whatever room you wanted. Revolution!
This is a real ad taken out in Computer Gaming World Magazine in 1984, informing players about a revolutionary hack of Wolfenstein in the kind of language Anonymous uses when they've hacked actual cheating websites. Then there was Galoob's Game Genie, a magical device you could attach to your game cartridges which allowed you to enter special cheat codes. Nintendo, seeing people enjoying (and profiting from) their entertainment in a way they hadn't anticipated, responded to this news in typical Nintendo fashion: They sued Galoob (and ultimately lost).
Their clearly coked-out mascot seemed satisfied with the ruling.
Then there was the Game Action Replay, a nifty device which allowed you to save your game at any time -- a feature which, like seat belts in cars, took way too long to become standard. There was only one catch to this revolutionary bit of tech: You literally had to disassemble your Nintendo to install it. That's right, in order to be able to have the minor cheating ability of not having to start the game from scratch every single time, you had to take your Nintendo apart and attach this thing. When you're going that far, you might as well build your own console. With blackjack. And hookers. Actually, that's what a PC is, isn't it?
Sadly, "instant recall" didn't mean an immediate refund when people inevitably gave up halfway through installation.
Every Single Accessory Was Terrible and Broken
Video game accessories are currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. With devices like the Kinect and Oculus Rift (which is apparently being used to fund white nationalism), developers are again looking for new, and somewhat nauseating, ways for gamers to enjoy their art. It's weird to think that, for a long time in the early 2000s, video game accessories were treated like taboo jokes. This is because in the early days of 8-bit, any piece of garbage gadget someone could think of would wind up on the shelf right next to the official consoles.
"WARNING: Contents too radical for anyone wearing same-colored shoelaces. Game responsibly."
Take the Roll & Rocker. It might look cool on the box, but inside, all you'll find is a controller you have to stand on. Which is an insult to Darwin himself, as our species clearly evolved thumbs for the sole purpose of not having to press buttons with our feet.
You know your foot controller sucks when your model insists on keeping his hand controller because he knows better.
At least the Roll & Rocker delivered on its dumb promise. Worse were the gadgets that didn't even work the way they were supposed to:
The only thing these products cleaned out was your bank account.
Most cleaning kits were little more than pieces of plastic packaged with a bottle of some sort of mild solvent. You know what is the preferred method of cleaning old consoles and games today? Rubbing alcohol and Q-tips -- things which cost way less than what they charged for "official" cleaning kits.
Then there was the endless parade of controller covers, all of them shitty pieces of plastic ...
Being too lazy to hold the controller should be a sign for an intervention, not innovation.
... or, incredibly, wood.
They would later reuse half the copy text for sex toy ads.
They all purported to make gaming more comfortable, because children are majorly concerned with ergonomics. Another culprit in supplying false comfort were old-timey wireless controllers -- which, way before technology made them legitimately convenient, did nothing but gobble batteries like they were hotel pillow mints, and only worked if you kept them perfectly aligned with the TV. Clearly, these people didn't play video games themselves, or they would have known that the best way to drive in Mario Kart is to wildly swing the controller around like a giant steering wheel.
The wireless controller came with wires, because even the developers knew damn well you were going to use them.
Things got so wacky and weird that at one point, Nintendo almost released a knitting add-on for the NES. In the end, the company axed plans for releasing the Nintendo Knitting Machine, which was probably their loss. We're reasonably sure that Knitting Mama would've made them billions.
This is 100-percent goddamned real.
Games Used To Be A Lot More Expensive
Imagine it's 1997. You've biked all the way to Funcoland to buy a new N64 game. You pick your poison, ask the nice man at the register to ring you up, and you're told to pony up $74.99 plus tax (that's about $115 in our future bucks). That's a ridiculous amount of money for what was then still a hobby squarely aimed at children. While many games now boast play times of over 100 hours, back then, even if Mario found the right castle inside of an afternoon, you had to make that game last for hundreds of hours, because you couldn't afford a new one until your next birthday.
Thank god for today, when you only pay half as much to be brutally disappointed by this year's Madden rehash.
That price tag, of course, doesn't include one of the countless niche consoles you had to purchase to play the game. And they weren't a bargain either. A great example is Mattel's Intellivision, which, despite the fact that you've probably never heard of it, cost a whopping $248.88. In today's dollars, that's $649, and as the ad wisely informs us, that included neither games nor the crappy TV shown in the picture.
And if you had to sell your own TV to pay for this monstrosity, that was your own damn problem.
The issue, of course, was corporate greed. In 1995, a typical SNES game had to hand off nearly two-thirds of its price over to Nintendo and the retailer, all for the privilege of allowing gamers to get their hands on and play the damn thing. After everybody's cut, a $60 game still only left the developer with a few bucks per copy to pay salaries, keep the lights on, and actually make the game.
There's a reason the monster is in the "retailer" section of this graph.
Early Copy Protection Was Totally Insane
The games industry really doesn't like it when games are shared between friends, family members, or ransomers, because that means that's one fewer copy they're going to sell. These days, with the advent of Digital Rights Management, companies can punch in a bit of expensive code to make it much harder for pirates to copy their precious games. But before the age of all this fancy coding, companies had to be a little bit more creative.
Sierra was a company that made lots of adventure games, and so was a veritable expert in the field of creating a string of complicated puzzles to complete the most basic of interactions. Most of their copy protection started as simply as looking up a code in the game's manual. But when cheap photocopiers made it easier to copy these manuals, Sierra had to think of something a little more foolproof. Like they did with The Colonel's Bequest, in which you had to pull a physical map with all of the in-game character's fingerprints, look at them through a paper magnifying glass with a red lens, and match the prints with the one on the computer screen. Lose, rip, or break that flimsy magnifying glass, and you'd be presented with a new mystery: the case of the $60 game that's now forever unplayable.
Colonel Sierra, in the wallet, with the fuck you.
Other games relied on you not damaging the lenses in your own head. The original SimCity forced you to strain your eyeballs on its "unphotocopyable" red high score sheet. Each city's high score came with a unique set of symbols, one of which you had to put in at the start of the game. Failure to do so doesn't shut down the game, though -- it releases wave after wave of disasters until every little Sim in your city is dead by your negligent hand.
Robbing you of the joy of getting to destroy them with wave after wave of disasters on your own.
The Secret Of Monkey Island had its own ironic defense against piracy, wherein you had to "Dial-A-Pirate," i.e. rotate a wheel to match a pirate's face with the date of death to get the right combination to find the hidden pass code:
There is nothing more charming than dead pirates.
Then there were developers who went full National Treasure with their copy protection. Companies like Strategic Simulations, Inc. included code wheels with alien symbols on them, which needed to be solved by placing the cutout bits against the computer screen at specific moments. Similarly, the original Alone In The Dark 2 came with a set of cards which needed to be used throughout the game to solve puzzles, requiring you to hold the cards up to the screen and shift them in the right position. Because nothing gets you in the mood to enjoy some escapist entertainment than being forced to solve the kind of cumbersome puzzle you would have to complete in order to stop the Riddler from destroying Gotham.
"Do you get a kick out of holding money up to a light to check for watermarks? Then boy, do we have the game for you!"
Like the first monkey in space, gamers of yesteryear took the bullet for the rest of us. They let themselves be crippled by gadgets, screwed over by manuals, and upsold on the path to progress. But if you know a gamer over the age of 35, you don't need to thank them for their sacrifice. Just don't ever mention the freaking Power Glove. It was so bad.
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