In Defense of Old Games

By Garrett Martin
Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 11:00 am
it wasn't even very good at the time.
We're a tight-knit group here at Joystick Division. We aren't just colleagues, but friends who stay in constant contact with one another. Ryan's won our Fantasy NASCAR league three years in a row. James and Alexander split a houseboat together up on Puget Sound. For years Mitch and Dennis tag team DJ'ed a zouk night in Dorchester. Brian and Gus swapped beards to unite their houses forever. I'm just saying we treat each other seriously and with respect while preserving the ease and familiarity of old drinking buddies. That doesn't mean we don't disagree, though, and damn do I disagree with Dennis on the subject of old games.

Two Saturdays ago Dennis posted "The Challenge of Taking Old Games Seriously". In it he writes that old games don't just feel outdated or old-fashioned compared to the high-tech gimcracks of today, but that they don't even feel like games anymore. Dennis can't take the old SNK overhead shooter Ikari Warriors "seriously", stating that the game "feels somewhere between mere historical curiosity and irrelevance."

He also mentions Adventure and The Legend of Zelda, but repeatedly focuses on Ikari Warriors. Singling out Ikari Warriors to deride old games is like writing off the entirety of rock'n'roll after hearing a Matchbox 20 song. It's like taking the Best Picture Oscar for Crash seriously. It's writing off a medium's entire history based on one mediocre yet inexplicably popular example from its past.

Here's the thing: games are timeless. Not their appearance, of course, but the tools necessary to enjoy Cosmic Ark or Yie Ar Kung Fu are the same today as they were in the 1980s. A game is a system of rules dressed up with story and (too often of late) cinematic pretensions. If you can't suss out the rules you're probably not trying, and if you don't enjoy abiding by them that's the individual game's fault, and not the entire medium's.

Dennis also errs in comparing older games to the classic works of other artistic media. Bookworms don't love all old literature. Film buffs might appreciate Welles and Eisenstein but largely (and erroneously) overlook the cinematic contributions of Hal Needham. Music is my jam but I sadly can't find an entry point into post-Barrett Floyd despite loving rock of both the psych and classic varieties. You don't have to like everything in order to like a thing, the thing in question being video games from the era before the Wars on either Science or Christmas (we also tolerate all political affiliations at Joystick Division, although we reserve the right to mock you behind your back). But dismissing every game older than Halo is an extreme and misguided step.

Dennis writes that older games don't "speak" to him in the "current language of video games". Shakespeare doesn't speak to us in the current language of English, but he remains mandatory not just because his work is a cornerstone of our culture but because he was often very great. The effort necessary to understand a game like Zaxxon is absolutely nonexistent compared to following the Bard, and it's often more fun, too.

super zaxxon.jpg
who could kill such a cute space dragon?

Obviously older games can't compare on a tech level. Video games are inherently technological, but their quality is not entirely dependent on how advanced that technology is. Yes, Pac-Man is nothing like Uncharted 2, but failing to understand or take Pac-Man seriously because Uncharted 2 resembles a mediocre adventure film that lets you fake-murder countless foreigners only reflects an individual's lack of patience or effort. 

Dennis's central point is also undercut by game developers' ongoing retro fixation. Look at the never-ending stream of critically acclaimed and commercially successful titles that revisit long-running genres and aesthetics, games like Bastion, Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and Shadow Complex. With a few changes in presentation, these games could exist in a recognizable state at any point in the last twenty-odd years. What would have felt revolutionary the year half of U2 and half of REM serenaded a newly elected Bill Clinton as Automatic Baby now feels intentionally nostalgic, but that doesn't decrease these titles' efficacy as entirely enjoyable and contemporary video games.

A good game is a good game regardless of its age or the technology that it runs on. Not every once-revered game will hold up throughout the years (hey there Wolfenstein 3D) but saying that it's not possible to take old games seriously makes it hard to take your argument seriously.

Every week Joystick Division associate editor Garrett Martin complains about one thing or another in his column Run Button.

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