June 12, 2009

When did video games become so boring? About 1998

[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.


  1. Amen.

    I take it you weren't/aren't a fan of sports games? These function just like FPS as you mostly play against humans. FIFA 09 finally surpassed Pro Evo as the best soccer game, been playing that alot with friends this year.

    Too bad MLB sold exclusive rights to just one title, EA had a very good baseball engine but has given it up after trying their hand at a college baseball game that didn't sell once they lost the rights.

  2. let me say first that i agree w/ your overall point.

    however, there are exceptions. the first being warcraft. i quit warcraft by level 55 b/c i couldn't stand the grind, but there is endgame content that is extremely difficult. players must figure out how to beat bosses that can wipe a team of dozens in seconds. and even once teams know the procedure, they have to execute w/ precision timing. most mmo's have endgame content w/ this type of difficulty. there was endgame content in guildwars that was so difficult that no one beat it for about half a year. but there is also pvp in these games which pushes difficulty b/c of competition.

    fighting games are another category of game requiring skill to win. street fighter 4 was released this year and the skill on display on youtube is phenomenal.

    finally, there are still difficult games around too. ninja gaiden was updated and is still famed for it's difficulty. i'm not saying there are many games like this, but they exist.

  3. For a long time, through most of high school and college, I only played multiplayer games with friends: Madden, Halo, etc... So I hadn't been paying attention to how other games had changed. This post captures how I felt when I went out and bought and played GTA IV last year. It was technically stunning but fundamentally a really long, boring movie. None of the missions were hard; there were just a lot of them. So while the story and exploring the Liberty City were somewhat interesting, it became so tedious to do the same shit for hours. There was no skill involved.

  4. Lately I've been playing Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii, and I really can't say whether it's the sort of game that everyone can beat given enough time. Some of the more advanced levels seem to require more coordination and timing than many people have. And even if it does qualify as an "everyone can beat it" game, in many cases the amount of time required would be absurdly long.


  5. Games these days are usually just to introduce a "new conecpt", or to make money. Take for instance all Wii games.. most of them suck enourmous balls, they just have the "innovative" Wiimote, which people somehow have fun with? Look at Crysis, that game has nothing but decent graphics, the gameplay is one of the worse things I've seen in my life. The latest game I enjoy is Unreal Tournament 99. Other than that I find old roms pleasing.

  6. So let me get this straight: Playing the same level 100 times over because you always died at the very end with the extremely hard boss...that's not boring? Sure, there was a sense of accomplishment when (if!) you finally beat the boss, but if you're introducing yourself to girls at parties as the guy who finally beat Battle Toads...well...

    I think games today are way better than they were in the past, and getting better every day. They have a much better balance of difficulty and fun than games in the past, plus the gameplay is vastly more in-depth and complex.

    It's easy to be an old codger and point to the "old glory days" of videogames, but that's total bullshit. If it were true, there would be tons of people still playing all the NES games they never beat. Instead, we've all moved on. Wanna buy my old NES? I have no use for it anymore.


  7. I totally understand where you are coming from, believe me. But I think it's wrong to say that video games are boring and generally suck because they don't happen to be the types of games you prefer to play. You only briefly touch upon this idea in the 3rd to last paragraph, but even then you try to make that idea invalid by filling the section with exaggeration and sarcasm. Of course when you say people who like current games are:

    "autistic packrat types who might otherwise be collecting Star Wars memorabilia or jarring up polluted water from every major river in the world"

    they're going to sound bad. But just because you say that doesn't make it true. They just happen to value different aspects of video games than you (neither of which have much real world application).

    Yes, nowadays video games are much closer to movies than they were back in the days of arcades, NES, and SEGA. But that's just because they can be. No one would have sat there and watched a long cinematic story unfold when its just text and crappy images at best ie. All your base are belong to us (yea its foreign so its not the best example, but i had to, sorry). Now that a story can more effectively be told on a modern gaming platform, it makes sense that games are designed to be completed, otherwise you would never finish the story. Conversely, it makes perfect sense that older games are designed to not easily be completed, because then you would just blow through it and there would be no payoff, no rewarding story or anything.

    In addition, I think it's short sighted to say they don't make those sorts of "skill-based" games that are very difficult to beat. For some reason Geometry Wars comes to mind (yea, just an amped asteroids, but it can still be pretty and hard to beat without any story). Also, I think of Braid, similar type of platformer but with an interesting modern spin. And then there are the types of co-op multiplayer games that people have mentioned. I've recently been playing a lot of TF2 and you can immediately tell the difference between skilled players and "noobs". I'm also a big fan of the Smash Bros seriers, I can play those for hours and they require just as much skill and dexterity as any other game developed in the 80's or 90's (and they often call for much more complex strategies).

    So, I guess my main problem (in fewer words) is that you rail on modern gaming as being "objectively" bad just because of your subjective personal preferences. Your desire to repeatedly mash buttons trying to advance through level upon level of an oldschool game is no better or worse than some other person's desire to painstakingly search every nook and cranny of a massively built out world looking for flags and badges. Both are your based on your own personal preferences (and unfortunately, I can admit being guilty of both these activities). That's why the gaming industry makes more than one type of game, because people like different things. In the end, both or equally useless when applying to the "real world", but at least you can have a good time and maybe, just maybe, pick up a skill or two.

  8. I think this may be why we've seen the rise of the "casual game" category. Play some of these games like Collapse or Zuma and you instantly see the connection to the twitch games of the 80's and early 90's. Mostly they are uncovered by the press, or occasionally mentioned as some minor little niche. But I think a lot of people play them because they actually test and require skill and aren't so passive.

  9. RF: Always hated sports games. Much more fun to actually play football, mini golf, etc.

    691: I've read games like GTA described as "sandbox" games because there's no real point; you just sit there and play around. Imagine a world where sandboxes are a standard that fun is judged by.

    Micah: trying to get through a tough game is more fun than playing a movie-like game. Obviously some skill-based games are more fun than others -- Double Dragon is better than Bart vs. the Space Mutants, since the latter is too tough and frustrating.

    But the optimum is clearly on the "skill-based" side of things. If you don't challenge yourself and have the chance to fail, you can't get into it. It's like playing "Hot Cross Buns" all the time when you're learning an instrument.

    And plenty of people still are playing Nintendo -- look at how much those emulator / ROM sites have exploded. Also, look at those sales / rankings data for the GBA: NES ports from 10 - 15 years before performed better than the vast majority of new games for the GBA.

    And the most popular video game of all time? Tetris! Hard to think of a more skill-based game. "Replay value" is built in since each block fall is up to chance.

    Jason: But that's what games are supposed to be -- challenging and depending on some skill. Cruising around at night, watching a movie, etc., may be fun, but those aren't games. And it's not like video games now can compete with movies -- GTA is a snooze compared to The Godfather, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, etc.

    I actually don't prefer button-mashers -- no skill involved. (Some Final Fight-like games are OK, though.) Super Castlevania, Super Metroid, Mario World, Tetris, the Adventures of Lolo -- you have to plan, time, and execute your moves pretty precisely as the game goes on.

    RP Says: My impression is that casual gamers are actually fewer than before. Take the salesman or receptionist who used to go to arcade to play Pac-Man for a little bit during their lunch break or after work.

    I'll try to put together some data on the per capita rate of playing / owning video games sometime to see for sure.

  10. I rarely finish video games, but I'm a notorious girl gamer (which isn't really a gamer at all).

    "I'm also a big fan of the Smash Bros seriers, I can play those for hours and they require just as much skill and dexterity as any other game developed in the 80's or 90's (and they often call for much more complex strategies)."

    The Smash Bros series is one of the few I could play for hours. I got into some of the older Final Fantasy games, but generally, if there's no plot to follow, I'll lose interest.

  11. agnostic:

    Yes, I agree that games are supposed to be challenging. But "challenging" can mean so many things to so many different people. Challenging can be anything from Wii sports to Donkey Kong (the original, with jumpman) to Halo 3 (multiplayer) to WOW, it all depends on your skill level and what you are trying to get out of the game.

    And I don't think the challenge of a video game is the only reason to play video games. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I think the real reason to play video games is because you enjoy them and you have FUN! Yes, challenging yourself is inherently fun, but there are other ways to have fun. Maybe you enjoy the "realistic" sandbox of GTA or the movement of Assassins Creed or the awesome physics of pretty much anything Valve does or the grand cinematic landscapes and scale of games like Shadow of the Colossus or the FF series. The only reason to play a game is not just because its hard to beat. And yes, these all still count as games (at least they did last time I checked).

    To your last point, video games do compete with movies. No, they cant always do pre-rendered graphics because the tech is not there yet, but they can be cinematic in their own right. Take machinima for example. Plus, the video game industry has long surpassed the film industry in terms of $$$. As technology continues to advance, I guarantee that we will see video games and movies grow closer and closer together.

    Regardless, for the time being, you can't fault video games for not being movies. That's not a fair comparison because they are separate things. Watching a movie is a completely different experience from playing a game, even if they are both equally good. Just because you get certain things out of video games and movies doesn't mean that if someone else gets something different from those, their preferences are wrong or less valid.

  12. I think it is just a fault of the specific types of games you like. I dislike games where the challenge is in my personal reaction speed and hand eye coordination. The old games you love were the ones I hated.
    On the other hand 4x games, strategy games, and management games that challenge my brain are great and get better all the time due to improved AI.

  13. there is endgame content that is extremely difficult

    Sort of. Two points to this, though:

    - the overall trend is for the endgame content to get easier over time. Makes commercial sense; you don't want to spend man-years of development and then have only 2% of your subscribers benefit from the result. Compare the difficulty of the original C'Thun encounter in WoW (damned near impossible) to the difficulty of something like Kel'Thuzad in WoTLK; the difficulty is vastly less.
    - second, the difficulty of execution for individual players in the raids you mention isn't that high. It's more like a situation where you bring 25 people, and most or all of them have to execute some not-that-complicated strategy. The difficulty of the encounters comes from the fact that 25 people are likely to (in aggregate) make a bunch of mistakes.

  14. The old skill-based games are a niche now occupied by flash games like bejeweled. Most of them even have a high score board.

    The "new" market of movie-like games has existed since text-based "Adventure". Only the graphics have improved.

  15. Good post. I loved the Atari, though I was quite young at the time. Games were simple but there was an element of challenge.
    After the Atari burned out we bought a Sega master and a Sega Mega. One of the games we had was the Revenge of Shinobi. My brother and I never finished that gamed. The second to last level was a maze and we only passed through it once. The big boss kicked our arse. No matter how many times we tried later we never finished that damned game.
    There was also Alex Kidd in Miracle Land. No person in our family finished that game, but our mother came closest. There were other games that we finished and played again, but they took skill to finish.
    After that we bought the N64 and Goldeneye. Best game ever. I still try and replay that game to see if I am as good. And the best part about that game is once you finish all the levels on the hardest settings you have the option of adjusting the difficulty settings, thus making it possible for you to make the game more and more challenging to your hearts content.
    We did buy a game cube, and my sister recently bought a Wii. The former we played a bit and then grew bored with, the latter we played a bit but when the novelty wore off we gave up. I played it for a week straight and haven't touched it for months. The older consoles were definitely better.

  16. Love your vgame posts!

    I beat Mario 2 for the first time in second grade during a sleep over with a friend at my house. It was after midnight, and we'd, along with a couple of other kids from the neighborhood, been trying all throughout the previous afternoon to get past the flying eagle head and throw enough vegetables at the frog king to flip him over, without success. So when I finally did beat it, I called one of the other kids who had been over earlier but wasn't spending the night, waking up his pissed off dad. Man, I could reminisce for hours.

    I'm only a connoisseur of single player rpgs, but the pattern of decreasing difficulty is apparent in the genre. The first few Dragon Warrior/Quest games were difficult--I still haven't beat the second in the series--and Final Fantasy games were hard until FF7, which is a cakewalk, and probably not coincidentally, the game that launched the series from nerdish niche into mainstream (among teenage males, anyway) uber popularity.

    Fortunately, in a nod to those who want a challenge, all of the rpgs I've played in the last couple of years, spanning 1997 to 2007, have had 'bonus dungeons/bosses' (Ruby/Emerald weapons in FF7, Ozma in FF9, Thu'ban/Nemesis in FF10, Bevelle Cloister in FF10-2 Dragovian Trials in DQ8) that are even more formidable than anything in the earlier generation of rpgs for the NES, Genesis, and Super NES.

  17. Apropos:

  18. I enjoyed a lot of games from the NES era thru the 90's. However, there is another thing about comparing games with movies. And that is the fact that you can give a story with more impact than a movie nowadays. Since there are ratings on videogames, you can have scenes and angles that cannot make it to film because of censorship.("SILENT HILL", "THE SUFFERING" comes to mind.)
    The original NINJA GAIDEN is one of the 3 NES games that I played the most, and it left me with a sense of fulfillment when not only finishing a game; but a story. I really hated those games that as soon as I finished, the only thing next was a black screen with the type words: "THE END".("KARNOV" comes to mind.)
    As a gamer, when playing a game for the first time, I take my time looking for most stuff. After I finished the game, from then on, its all about speedruns. How fast can you finished the game from start(Without using unlock stuff or cheats.)This requires skill, precision, and more than average knowledge of the game.
    For me, since I got so little time for playing than 15 years ago, I avoid a lot of potentially good games just because it can be so addictive and I dont like starting something I know I wont finish.(Because of time contraints, distractions, etc).

  19. I disagree with the exploring bit TBH.Super Mario World required you to explore secrets to 100% the game.And I find "exploring challenges" fun cuz they make you think.
    Old games did test your hand-eye coordination but you missed the whole point
    What they tested most was your intellect


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