Generation (s)Kill?

Us gamers have found a novel way to get into tight parking spots

Walking to work the other day, I had occasion to observe a woman parking her car. All those at the back who just looked at each other with THAT look, you know, the one that says “are we in the right place?” or “has he finally lost it?”, can calm down. You see, watching this otherwise harmless action got me to one of my ‘thinks’. My thinks are legendary (in my own lunchtime), leaps of (il)logic taking me from random idea to random idea with all the alacrity of a stumbling drunk attempting to mount a camel to ride home having never seen a camel before. One moment I will be thinking about trees, and then I will go to squirrels, and squirrels will lead me to reminisce about my property one lecturer at university and that will get me on to the ludicrousness of words, and then whether English people speaking a foreign language conceptualise what they’re trying to say in English and translate in their heads as they go along and so on and so on ad nauseum.

Wake up at the back there, I’ve nearly reached the beginning of a point. Watching that woman park that car, which was a new one with funky ‘parking sensors’ made me start to ruminate, apropos of nothing at all, on the advancement of technology, and the double edged progress that it brings. On the one hand for example, those little beeping sensors on that bumper make parking the car easier (in theory at least). On the other hand, as more and more cars have these bloody ingenious little beepers, we are slowly breeding a generation of drivers who have surely lost out on some skills of parking (like knowing how big one’s car is, and spatial awareness) that earlier generations of drivers must surely have had, they having learned to drive in ‘beep free’ cars with bumpers that simply ‘bumped’.

The choice for a new generation?

And this brings me (somewhat ramblingly, I’ll admit) to games. I’ve been a gamer long enough to remember a time when dying mid level meant starting all over again. When memorising the layout of a platformer’s map was crucial to avoid the brain melting infuriation of doing the whole bloody thing far too many times. When progress in any run and gun (the natural grandfather of the modern day FPS) was bought at the cost of frayed nerves, super quick reflexes and practice practice practice. Nowadays though, gaming has moved on. It has embraced a ‘wider audience’. Think about it for a moment, when was the last time that you played a current gen game with no ‘save points’?  My guess would be that unless you are a hard core retro gamer, you’d be hard pushed to think of an example. Megaman, Metal Slug et al are mentioned in a certain ‘tone’ these days, where people emphasise their incredible difficulty and their ‘niche appeal’ in the modern market. But that niche appeal is only due to the fact that as gamers we have generally grown soft. Even the most hardened MW2 (you knew I’d get it in somewhere) player with all of his l33t skills would I suspect struggle to one credit Megaman. The bar has been lowered generally, to the point where the average FPS or platformer can be finished in perhaps a half dozen gaming sessions at most. RPGs continue to weigh in at 30 – 100 hours, and are generally viewed (even in gaming circles) as the preserve of a ‘special’ kind of gamer. Yet it wasn’t THAT long ago that a game would conceivably last for weeks or months, and NOT just because games were ridiculously expensive – they were (by modern standards) ridiculously hard too.

Now, I won’t complain too much of course, its great for a self confessed ‘average gamer’ such as myself to know that most games in my favoured genre (FPS) can be finished by even someone with my n00b abilities. On the other hand one can’t help but feel that the industry has somewhat ‘dumbed down’ as time went on. However, these days it’s not just games (and this is where my real link to that blessed lady parking her car comes in); back in the old days it was just you and a controller, usually consisting of either a joystick or D pad together with however many fire/punch/kick buttons were required. As time went on, more buttons were added to cope with more sophisticated games that required more sophisticated commands. Gamers would need serious skills to compete as games became more complex and challenging – my favourite ever magazine quote was from the lovely Linda Barker writing for Your Sinclair in a review of F16 Fighting Falcon for the humble speccy. Linda (I’m sure she won’t mind me calling her Linda) made comment that it was best to play the game with a joystick as playing with the keyboard only would require “28 fingers and the memory of a clever elephant”. Ok, so maybe that was extreme, but the point was that to succeed, you had to practice, hone your abilities and develop serious muscle memory and twitch reflexes. Now though, we stand on the threshold of ‘progress’ in videogaming. Don’t get me wrong, progress is fab – I love the fact that I can talk to people all over the world through the voodoo that is an Xbox 360 hooked up to a decent broadband connection but, like the parking sensors, new control methods are rearing their heads left right and centre to help make gaming easier. It started with eyetoy – an inoffensive little toy that helped to get people who couldn’t find their way around a dualshock 2 to feel included (or in reality make an arse of themselves) by allowing them to play by the simple expedient of waving their arms about. Nintendo clearly saw this idea and ran with it, giving us the flawed genius that is the Wii. Suddenly the big N found themselves where Sony had been trying to get for years – attracting ‘grown ups’, girls and grandparents and other such non-traditional gaming demographics to gaming and they didn’t even have to make it pink!

Your Sinclair... the magazine itself may be long gone, but the legacy lives on

Unfortunately, the attach rate (number of games versus number of consoles sold) for the Wii is not great, but then again console manufacturers don’t care about that – after all once they’ve sold you their big shiny box of tricks it makes no difference to them if you buy one game or fifty. Therefore, what works for Ninty is now being tried by all. Microsoft have natal and Sony have their ridiculous bloody wand. All demonstrations of these that I have seen so far have shown ridiculously simple games that involve various ways of – yes you guessed it – flailing your bloody arms about the place in order to achieve very little (other than looking like a fool).

I can’t help but think that eventually all console manufacturers and game developers are going to go where the money is , and all games will be of the ‘flailing arm’ variety. Vital skills – manual dexterity, hand eye co-ordination and the memorisation of complex patterns and button sequences – will all be lost in favour of being really good at waving your arms about in front of a motion sensor/camera. Even now, schmups and RPGs are pretty much marginalised compared to stuff like Wii Fit and Wii Sports, and I wonder just how much longer ‘traditional’ gaming can survive. The Wii is a great machine, and some very innovative games have appeared on it, but importantly most of them have crashed and burned – No More Heroes and Madworld being just two examples of games that were of a traditional ‘type’ trying to embrace the innovation offered by the Wii’s unique control opportunities, and being largely ignored by the masses. The ‘hardcore’ gamer is already a marginalised figure, viewed as an anachronism by the majority of the ‘new’ gaming fraternity – how long can madskillz last in an industry that no longer requires them? How long before the dexterity and hand-eye co-ordination of the top tier of gamers is lost through lack of use? In years to come, just like those kids learning to drive now, how will gamers cope without their parking sensors? Will retro gaming die out completely in the new ‘arsey arm waving’ gaming era? I wouldn’t like to guess, but right now I’m just going to go and hug my Megadrive, while it’s still there.




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5 Comments

  1. MarkuzR says:

    It’s weird that you mention games without saves, because I know it was always the case “back in the day” but when I think back on it, I really never found it a problem. Games on the Oric such as Zorgon’s Revenge could end up being infuriating as you battle your way through each section and then end up being killed by the poisonous vomit of the Quadnogs and end up having to start again… just as your princess was within reach. The odd thing is, however, if that was today I’d just be getting more and more annoyed at having to go back to the start and probably wouldn’t spend any more than an hour a time trying. Back then though, I could easily have spent a day doing nothing but.

    I recently watched Victor play through one of my Trials HD tracks, Fruity Loops I believe it was, and after 28 minutes and over 200 faults he was left with only two minutes to complete the track within the 30 minute time limit… and the whole time he was faulting and restarting I was getting more and more guilty because it was MY track that was causing him so much upset. The thing is… the track still had checkpoints so he didn’t have to go back to the start each and every time, but imagine the frustration if that wasn’t the case? I daren’t even think about it!

  2. The Preacher says:

    As long as ‘special’ gamers like myself are around, demanding proper traditional RPGs, there shall be that one bastion of serious, lengthy, and difficult games with proper controls around. Developers aren’t going to totally abandon us when we give them large piles of cash to roll around in, even if they do have to work harder to earn it.

    The long march towards casual gaming is just sheer laziness on the part of certain developers and publishers. The Wii isn’t the problem. The DS isn’t the problem. The games being released for the Wii and the DS however, are a problem. Because they’re mostly gimmicky, cheaply done, and almost exclusively shit. I’ve had my Wii longer than my Xbox 360, and yet I’ve amassed just 12 Wii games, and over 100 Xbox games. I’ve rather more DS games than Wii games, about 60, but I’ve had that machine twice as long again, and about four in five of my DS games are old retro titles that have been re-released or revamped, that I can carry around with me rather than newly designed games that were made to use the touchscreen. I’m looking at the spreadsheet with my gaming to-do list on it, and the ratio of Wii to XBox or PC is 1 to 24. I still play PS2 and Gamecube titles more often than Wii ones. If the Xbox moves more towards Natal functional games and casual over proper titles though after the end of this year, that list won’t be added to as quickly as it is now, and I’ll probably move back towards being primarily a PC gamer. And there’s no need for that – some games on the Wii prove just how good it can be, if the effort is made. The Metroid Prime Trilogy, Little King’s Story, and Okami, are all fantastic games with interesting ways of showcasing the difference the Wiimote can make to how you play them. If more games were as good as these, I’d still be as big a fan of Nintendo as I was during the era of the N64 and the Gamecube.

    On a side note, whilst games are generally getting easier, I never had any difficulties with the old 8 bit and 16 bit Megaman titles. Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario games were the ones that used to get me to throw control pads at walls.

    Great article, Greg; don’t stop taking these weird mental tangents, because if they result in blogs as interesting as this, that can only be a good thing.

  3. Lorna says:

    Really enjoyed this and certainly food for thought. Retro titles were always as hard as nails…sometimes even WITH the help of those ‘Your Sinclair’ tapes which loaded in infinite lives for your Dizzy game before you went merrily on your way.

    However, there are some rock hard gaming gems this generation…you just have to find them. Two of the hardest games that I have played for the 360 are Hitman: Blood Money and Mirror’s Edge. Hitman, with the increasing difficuty levels, rather than do the lazy thing of throwing more enemies at you, simply removed their presence gradually from your map, leaving you relying on using your stealthy tactics, judgement, timing, and memory of their movement patterns and patrol routes. By the time you get to professional difficulty, there are no police/guards/FBI or even targets, if I remember rightly, on your map at all. It is all down to you alone. The other smart and quite evil thing the game did, was that with each difficulty level, it would restrict more and more of your saves. Expert only allowing you three in total and pro graciously allowing you NONE at all. Not a one. Fuck the job at the last moment and you’ll be crying into your silenced silverballers for weeks when you have to start all over again. And then there were the silent assassinations….on each difficulty level.

    Mirror’s Edge…no wonder so many hated it…not just the different concept but the fact that it did not hold your hand. It was fucking hard…especially if you were out to max the achievments. Even the move set is a tricky one, let alone finding your way through the levels for the first time and avoiding death. The sheer speed and tricky nature of the pathfinding sometimes could be hair tearing…never have I had my patience tested to the limit and beyond as I have with Mirror’s Edge. Practice, pateince, and persistence….honing my muscle memory until it was automatic, memorising routes and shortcuts until they were second nature during speed runs and time trials….but when I was done, I have never been as proud. So they are out there…just savour them when you find them. :)

  4. Rook says:

    Games of old weren’t as big as the games are today, so they thought of putting in checkpoints and level select were needed as the games could be beat in one sitting. I remember the first game I beat was Punchy on the Commodore 16 and it was tough, at least back then when I started gaming it was. It was 16 screens of start on the left hand side and get to the right hand side

    Over the years the need to put in saves or checkpoints became necessary as the games were too big to complete in one go. As for difficulty, most games offer you the choice of a difficulty setting, so that the game can appeal to everyone’s level of skill. Any Call Of Duty game on Veteran is a test of patience, practice and potty mouth frustration.

    Markuz mentioned Trials HD in his comment, and that is a game that reminds me of early gaming days. The numerous trakcs are small enough to be completed within minutes and retain that ‘one more go’ aspect. Yet some of the levels are devastatingly hard, that you cannot complete them within the alloted 30 minutes/500 faults criteria without ALOT of practice.

    Challenge still exists, but we have difficulty settings to determine the level of challenge we want/can handle too.

    Good bloggage.

  5. MrCuddleswick says:

    Yeah the difficulty settings are there. I don’t think the games I buy, as an experienced gamer, are getting too easy. I don’t perceive much of a difference between now and ten years ago. Sure, the wealth of “casual” titles might not offer a huge challenge, but that’s not what their market wants. It’s a new market, and I don’t see that it’s preventing games “for me” from being released.

    Also, cars with sensors don’t park themselves! A driver of one of those cars has to practice parking just as much as if they didn’t have the sensors. All it does is reduce the risk of bumping other cars.

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