[This won't be as immaculately polished as my usual posts since it's fucking Friday and because the topic is video games -- so really, who cares.]
Well, not that they started out very exciting -- they pretty much sucked on home consoles until the Nintendo came out. Just give Atari games to people who didn't play them when they were all the rage -- meh.
But instead of plateauing, the quality of video games started to slide. And it's not just me -- everyone who played Nintendo says that. And it's not that I look at that system with rosy spectacles: there are plenty of games on it that I thought stunk, and still thought that when I played them again on an emulator recently. Whether you judge by game sales or critics' rankings, a fair chunk of the highly successful games for the Gameboy Advance (popular in the early-mid 2000s) are lifted from the NES peak period of over 10 years before.
If there is a single change that we can point to, it is that video games used to be tests of skill, and so were challenging (and frustrating), whereas now they are tests of having free time, and so hold the player's hand through the game (and are boring). Today's video game is more like a movie -- as long as you turn the crank on the side of the projector, eventually you'll experience the entire thing. That is the opposite of playing a game, since you are never guaranteed to win a game.
Most people who have ever played a Nintendo or Super Nintendo know of plenty of games -- perhaps most of the games they played -- which they never beat, despite playing it for hours on end. I never got past level 3 or 4 in Blaster Master, which never stopped me from thinking it was one of the funnest games on the NES. I got to the final levels of ("Super") Mario Brothers and Mario 2, maybe Mario 3, but never beat them either. I did finish the first Zelda game, although I only got to the final area in Zelda 2 once or twice. And so on for the Double Dragon series: I beat the second one but could only get to the final level in the first one. I simply took this to mean that I wasn't the most highly skilled video game player, and again that didn't make me think that these weren't some of the most engrossing games to play.
They made games somewhat easier for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis -- I could beat Super Metroid, but not the Nintendo original, and ditto for the Castlevania and Mario Brothers games for the SNES. But they were still pretty hard. I didn't play an awful lot of games on the N64, but the games I did play were a lot simpler than what I was used to -- the two Zelda games lacking enemies throughout most of the game.
Now, though, reviewers routinely mention how long it will take to complete a game -- not whether or not you will, as that is assured by the lack of challenge, but merely how long you have to sit staring at the TV until it's done. It's just like a movie critic including the run-time in a review.
Can we date this shift from video games as games to video games as movies? Just from my own experience, it must have been when I tuned out of video games and only played the old ones -- including ones I had not played as a kid. I played the SNES games Secret of Mana and Terranigma only once I was three years out of college, but they were a lot more exciting than the bullshit my brothers were playing on Xbox and the PS2. That was in the late 1990s or early 2000s.
In fact, that's exactly right. All we need to do is search the NYT for phrases related to the certainty of completing any given video game. The search for ' "video game" hours complete', gives a result from 1988, but it's not clear that it has the intended meaning:
"When played, the game cassettes can take up to 70 hours to complete."
First, there's the word "can" -- meaning you might not even complete the game. Second, he's speaking in general, not about a specific game, so it's unlikely he has "expected time to completion" in mind. And third, he's not reviewing a game and giving the run time. The first unambiguous usage I can find is a result from 1998, a review of a particular game:
"In the 40 or 50 hours it takes to complete this game..."
This is the usage that holds up through this year, as shown in a recent review:
"I enjoyed almost every minute of the roughly 17 hours I took to complete the PC version of the game..."
Another phrase we can check for is "replay value" -- this refers to whether, when you watch the movie a second or third time around, there is anything new about it. Older games' "replay value" was putting your skills to the test again -- you knocked out Mr. Sandman once, but were you just lucky? Newer games must supply all sorts of novelties that are only unlocked when you finish the game the first time, to keep the re-watching from getting too boring. Alternatively, they may offer several paths to take during the game, which can't be backtracked to, so that you are encouraged to play the game through many times to explore all possible decision paths. The NYT gives three results for "replay value" in the context of video games -- in 2000, 2001, and 2002.
And it's not that the NYT only started covering video games then -- they have reported on them as far back as Atari in the mid-1970s.
So, just as I expected, in the late 1990s / early 2000s, video games made a shift from rather unforgiving tests of reflexes, reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and so on, to movies that the viewer prods along by tapping buttons. If I want that, I'll watch a well conceived and made movie.
And it's gotten even worse with adventure games. This genre used to feature games whose goal was to nimbly navigate your way through a new area -- to display your skill at quickly mastering an unfamiliar environment. Now their goal is just "to explore" and "to collect a bunch of crud." But wandering around is boring, no matter how different the scenery is, and pretending to be a packrat is something I can easily do in real life. I haven't played World of Warcraft, and never will, but it sounds like the epitome of this.
Rather, the games I have in mind are the Castlevania games for the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS. Figuring out how to get through a new area involves no skill -- you just walk and jump for as long as you're supposed to. All of the previous Castlevania games have at least one part (usually many) where you have to make a series of well timed and executed jumps to get through, as though you had to cross a river by hopping across logs being carried downstream.
To relieve the monotony of the newer games, they give you a whole shitload of items to collect along your devoid-of-danger journey: 5 weapon types with 30 examples of each, 100 secondary weapons, 34 types of headgear (I'm counting roughly here), not to mention the body armor, the foot armor, miscellaneous items, and on and on. You can also power up your weapons and secondary weapons, which isn't hard at all -- you just have to sit there and kill 5000 or so enemies with that weapon. You can also power up your strength, defense, etc., based on how long you've been playing -- and with 100 progressions, it can get pretty tedious. One of the Gameboy Advance games even has you collect scores of items to decorate a room, for no other purpose than to be able to brag that you're this much closer to completing this sidequest.
None of the previous Castlevania games had any of this boring shit. You've got so much life (no cornucopia of armors, gloves, boots, or whatever), you've got a small handful of weapons to choose from, and that's it -- see if your reflexes are quick enough to get you through to the end, and see if you're clever enough to get around the apparent dead-ends. Filling up some stupid toybox with arm-bands, enemies' souls, foodstuffs, money, and everything else that isn't nailed down, played no role in the gameplay.
This very different type of video game obviously selects for a very different type of audience -- namely, autistic packrat types who might otherwise be collecting Star Wars memorabilia or jarring up polluted water from every major river in the world. Only for them could the next one of 1000 coins, or the next helmet of 50, serve as an effective carrot on a stick. "Omigosh guys, just one more enemy's soul to capture, and I'll have all 100!" Yeah, and you only had to waste 10 hours to get them.
I hate to say it, but it looks like the only games that test your skill are the first-person shooter games. When you play against someone else, one of you is better at aiming, more agile at turning corners, or whatever. You don't just sit there and see who can finish first in mindlessly collecting a lot of junk. When you play against the computer, this is no longer true of course. But at least there's a remnant of video games as tests of skill. Only before, every genre was this way, including when you played by yourself.
On the plus side, home video games are selling better than ever -- because they're so easy that they won't bruise anyone's ego or offend by highlighting skill differences between individuals. Video games may have been somewhat late in jumping on the egalitarian bandwagon, but there they are. If you can insert a disk into your DVD player and click your way through to the end of the movie, you can complete any video game released in the past 10 years. Conversely, if you're too used to the two most recent "generations" of self-esteem-boosting video games, you'd probably hate most of the games on Nintendo since they'll only reveal how mediocre your skill is. Just pick up Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man and see. Then again, you may learn that playing challenging games is fun, whether you win or not -- much more fun than dozing through a glorified animated movie.