7 Needlessly Difficult Features of Every Retro Video Game
I've been thinking about retro games a lot recently. Because modern games are screwing us harder than minigun-cocked spiderdemon bosses ever did, because I'm always at least 10 percent thinking about Smash TV, and because I'm taking part in the RETRO gaming magazine Kickstarter with Seanbaby, Jeremy Parish, Bob Mackey, and almost every other video game writer you could possibly care about.
Now I'm also 90 percent thinking about that thing's motorized Gatling genitals, and really wishing I wasn't.
I remember a simpler time when we got extra costumes by entering secret codes instead of credit card details. But those are rose-tinted glasses, and in retro gaming the only rose-tinted glasses are the Virtual Boy: an expensive headache that wasn't nearly as good as it should have been. Most old games were so shit, they'd make lab rats ask to get back to work at the shampoo testing plant.
"I would rather fill this beaker with Chili & Vinegar conditioner than play Manic Miner one more time."
I spent much of my childhood hypnotized by computers simpler than most modern watches, and these are the repressed memories of pain I'm confronting ...
Having multiple "lives" is still the most famous trope of video gaming, even though it now has far more to do with British men who abduct emotionally vulnerable women in phone boxes. It made sense in the arcade, because they were trying to get the maximum amount of money for the least amount of work, but then they used it in home games for exactly the same reason. Forcing you to start from the absolute beginning every time extended a two-hour game into months of Sisyphean struggle. In fact, the more I remember old games, the more I realize that they only existed because parents can't leash a kid to the table with wrist manacles and a ball gag without getting a visit from the FBI.
Even though video games cause exactly the same pose and facial expression.
We fondly remember the Konami Code, but the reason we remember it is because one of our favorite games was such a blatant timesink. Playing Contra with only three lives was how you threw away an hour of your life. Entering the code became muscle memory. If I have a heart attack, forget the defibrillator -- put an NES pad in my hands and I'll automatically enter it, come back to life 29 more times, and be able to run through the first level before my eyes reopen. Thousands of children learned the first levels of games instead of musical instruments, playing them like sheet music made of machine guns.
And playing Emerald Hill Zone Act 1 won't impress anyone at college parties.
Combined with the lack of saves, this did more damage to childhood sleep patterns than the way they used to hide tits on TV at 1 a.m. It's just another problem technology has solved for modern kids.
Age brings perspective. I now understand that many games were ruined by obviously terrible decisions because the projects were managed by old people who'd never played one before. Their worst revenge was adding a water level to the game, which ended fun faster than adding water to your Nintendo. Water levels slowed you down, made everything dark, made it so you couldn't properly control your body, and surrounded you with little fast things that could still move quickly and kill you, and time was noticeably ticking away before you died. That wasn't just added by an old person; it was a simulation of being an old person.
"Hammer 'A' to avoid bladder control problems! Don't get too excited for the same reason!"
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had the most brutal water level of all time, and turtles are meant to be OK with water.
U.K. television called them "Hero" turtles and censored all the fight scenes, and that still didn't ruin the fun this badly.
Even Sonic the Hedgehog had a water level, and that game's only selling point was "moving fast." He couldn't have been less designed for immersion in water if he'd been Sparky the Talking Toaster.
Sonic the Hedgehog was never meant to be an exploration of mortality.
The mandatory water levels did worse than interrupt your fun: They blatantly revealed that the staff behind the games we loved couldn't care less. They were just working off a checklist to make the game long enough so they could finish and go home. It's heartbreaking to realize that people who had your childhood dream job hated it.
You're playing a character whose only job is running face-first into the unknown, where the only unknown thing is how it'll kill you. The hero leaps through smoking holes in alien fortresses, directly at attack helicopters flying considerably lower than safety regulations recommend, and becomes a cardiac catheter by running through alien guts just to be sure of shooting them in the heart. And the only thing that terrifies him is ladders.
"Here we see the flying enemy in its natural habitat, the video game ladder nursing its offspring as it OH YOU SON OF A FINCH!"
Leaving a ladder could mean limply dropping to your doom, but the worst games turned you into the world's worst train, fixing the character to the ladder so that it wasn't just turning its ass to the player, but to any rampaging enemy who might like to ream it. You had to slowly scroll up and down to avoid incoming pellets like a crappy anti-Pong.
In Castlevania, even the stairs could kill you, slowing you down, gluing you to the ground, and letting you fall through like you'd failed the leap of faith if you walked on them without thinking "up" with enough trust in your heart.
The stairs are by far the most lethal thing in this picture.
A ladder should only threaten an armed commando when he's attacking Jackie Chan.
When a game reversed your controls (so that left was right and up was down), it was because the designers could only get "Fuck you" into the game via contortionist ventriloquist sign language, twisting your thumbs to show you what they think of "players." A game shouldn't give you digital aphasia.
And you get so screwed up that for a second this pad doesn't look insane.
"Don't interfere with the link between gamer and game" is the second thing they teach you at video game design college, just after "Haha, we've got your money, and you really should have taken a real design or computer science degree." But back in the 8-bit days, entire games could be coded up by a couple of people in a room, and one solid hangover could radically change the game mechanics (and is the only possible explanation for screwing up the input this badly).
More than ruining immersion, reversing the controls revealed the designers' real attitude: It was their job to create as many obstacles as possible. When you destroy the players' ability to control the character instead of giving them a reason to do that, you suck.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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?
This one! This incredibly subtle one right here!
Luke also has a website, tumbles, and responds to every single tweet.
This week is all about Arkham Origins, so see how lucky we are with The Worst Batman Video Games Ever Made, or endure more nostalgiagony with The Retro Gaming Drinking Experiment. Sinistar lives!
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.