Playing Videogames 1984-1996

Jun 30, 2011

This isn’t a review blog, nor a personal gameplay journal. However since I often allude to older games, I figured it might help to take an entry to look at how context for our gameplay has changed.

I was a kid during NES/SNES era, teenager for N64, in university when the Wii was released. The Atari 2600 was something I heard about, but I didn’t play/own/enjoy it until after college (thanks to a very generous and awesome fellow EA designer that owned several).

My purpose in writing this is not to argue that the industry, games, or culture should still be like this, should go back to being like this, or that this was better by any metric. My aim is only to document and share, to provide some background context for younger readers that began playing later than me, and perhaps too for older readers who were children during an even earlier phase (2600, mechanical arcades, etc.) to hear what childhood gaming looked like for the generation that followed.

Many of the NES games that I played growing up were ports of arcade games. Marble Madness, TMNT 2: The Arcade Game, Bubble Bobble, and Joust were among my favorites. Something that took me two decades to realize is that many of my favorite design decisions about these games were driven by the quarter-play profit model from their original forms:

  • The games were very different from one another, since arcade players switched between many games and were unlikely to hop between overly similar ones. Who would go from one golf game to another golf game?
  • Due to limited audio and graphic power, companies could rarely get ahead by simply remaking their competitor’s concepts with noticeably higher production values. This further added to diversity between games.
  • Simultaneous multiplayer was included when possible, primarily since that meant the game could eat twice as many coins at once.
  • The games were excruciatingly hard, to increase the number of quarters spent per hour.
  • High “replay value”, meaning that the gameplay could still be enjoyable even when replaying levels previously completed. For example, the first 1-3 levels tended to be played dozens of times, since the game was often too difficult to consistently make it further.
  • Shallow, nonsensical, or non-existent story. In the arcades the player needed to either understand everything immediately upon looking at it, or understand enough by watching a dozen seconds of autoplay demo, because the setting didn’t facilitate getting wrapped up in time-consuming, non-interactive details, besides which players typically would be mashing buttons to skip a story sequence every time after the first anyhow.

On the other side were videogames designed specifically for home console. These were comparatively longer, and often single player. Zelda, Final Fantasy, Blaster Master, Mega Man, Metroid, TMNT, and Castlevania. The distinctions between arcade design and console design were not black and white, however, with games like Battletoads and Contra offering mixes of larger scope and co-op play, and games like Paper Boy and Burger Time offering arcade-style gameplay without same-time co-op.

Battletoads, Contra, Ninja Gaiden and many other NES titles were known for their abusive difficulty. In many of these games, the player could only survive a few hits, and only had a few lives for retries before going completely back to the beginning. This made seeing the later levels and bosses more valuable to us. In addition to not having emulator-style Save State (Quick Save), we couldn’t just YouTube for gameplay videos, Google search screenshots, or GameFAQs winning strategies.

Game Genie (later replaced by Game Shark) was a bit of marketing genius. It was essentially a software/electrical engineer’s debugging device, accepting two part intercept codes – one part was the memory address, the other part was the value to return any time that memory address was checked by the hardware. This made it possible to force health to always be full, lives to always be 99, player racing rank to always be #1, etc. It came with a code book in which we’d look up the codes to type in (gliding a hand around over letters on-screen), but otherwise getting new codes meant digging through magazines.

Speaking of magazines: when my mom went grocery shopping I’d linger around the magazine racks thumbing through Tips & Tricks, Nintendo Power, Electronic Gaming Monthly, GamePro, and a handful of other magazines, skipping to the back in search of codes, maps, and strategies. If I saw enough codes for a game I owned, I’d buy the magazine, but if I just saw one I’d try to memorize it. Every now and then, in the bookstore I could find a book chock full of accumulated Game Boy game cheats, or NES game cheats, whatever – those were the next best thing to having an internet to turn to.

Genres on home console at the time were somewhere between fuzzy and non-existent. The decade that followed saw a few handfuls of games cloned so frequently that the clones established new genre identities. However when Double Dragon came out, there were not a lot of videogames like it. Nor for Dragon Warrior, Excitebike, Punch-Out!! , and so on. During the NES era, the games that played similarly were generally sequels (Mega Man compared to Mega Man 2), but even that wasn’t an established or completely accepted convention just yet (see: Zelda 2, Super Mario Bros 2, Double Dragon 2, TMNT 2).

Near the end of the NES era, leading into the SNES, the arcade games began to take on some of the business characteristics that we now associate with the console game industry. More powerful graphics hardware enabled arcade machines to better differentiate themselves from home consoles by having superior production values. Companies that invested money into engine development and narrow design specialization began to churn out similar games with different graphics and characters to maximize return on investment (Konami released X-Men, TMNT, and The Simpsons, all very similar games in terms of gameplay, though with different art and audio for characters, settings, and moves).

While I played those arcade games, my father typically hung around outside the just outside on a mall bench with a book.

When Super Mario 3 was revealed in The Wizard before the game was released it was a huge deal to many of us. That’s the only thing I remember from that movie other than a dinosaur park, and the latter is mostly reconstructed from later cultural references. It seemed like pure magic. The Power Glove, Nintendo’s (well, Mattel’s) earlier attempt at motion control, was also placed like an advertisement in that movie, and though it looked really cool it was unfortunately extremely impractical for play.

At my friend’s house, we played Jordan vs Byrd (Michael Jordan was a huge deal, and that was the first licensed athlete sports game), a few pro wrestling games, and Ghostbusters.

Electronic stores used Pilotwings and Final Fight to show off the SNES and big rear-projection television sets with Picture-in-Picture. Final Fight and Street Fighter II were among the first games that believably felt like real arcade ports, since during the NES era we were used to seeing games downgraded considerably to be played at home, with the exception of course of then-retro titles like Pac-Man or Galaga.

Super Mario World and Zelda: A Link to the Past are really what made the SNES for my peers and I, though. The Nintendo games seemed so bright and huge, and let us do so many things that we’d never seen before. Secret of Mana was almost like a religion for me when I first played through it. Many of my friends experienced that sensation with Final Fantasy 3 or Chrono Trigger instead.

The blood in Mortal Kombat and Wolf3D resulted in national news stories, which made it something our teachers and parents talked to us about. We tried to not get caught playing those games when our parents were around, even though they’re the ones that bought them for us. It caused considerable commotion among players that the SNES version of Mortal Kombat didn’t get blood splatters, and I remember that being the first time I thought of Nintendo as specifically family-friendly.

Donkey Kong Country was rated 100% / 10.0 / Perfect / A+ by nearly every magazine that reviewed it. The pre-rendered 3D blew away everything else in terms of graphics, and the game otherwise held up as a well-made platforming game (quite different in gameplay from its peer games). That same aesthetic didn’t work out so well for every company that tried it, though: Rise of the Robots, released the same year, was terrible.

Super FX Chip – the on-cart chip that enabled the SNES to support polygonal graphics – made Star Fox and Stunt Race FX possible. Both were very difficult games, and the latter was the first game I remember where much of the desirable content required a great deal of skill, practice, and patience to unlock. There were vehicles, modes, and tracks that I read about but was never able to access. To make this worse, Game Genie didn’t work on Stunt Race FX, though a similar device called Pro Action Replay did. I tried to find one of those, but never did.

In the arcades around that time, Virtua Fighter was the big thing, with its untextured low-poly fighters. It’s hard to explain now how confused my understanding of graphics was back then, but it was several years before I understood the technical difference was between a 2D and 3D graphics environment. The flat shaded polygons just seemed like a wildly original and brilliant style alternative to how things looked in Street Fighter II.

I remember wishing I could find videogame character action figures, T-shirts, decorations, anything really – but it didn’t exist anywhere in the US yet. Japan probably had its share of videogame toys and backpacks, but this was pre/early-internet so finding or ordering such things was well outside my reach. By the time Hot Topic started carrying videogame shirts, and videogame toys started showing up in American toy stores, I was a bit too old to own them for anything besides novelty.

I watched the Super Mario Bros TV shows. There was also a Battletech show (skip to 2:15), which I woke up early on weekends to watch since I found MechWarrior 2 on PC fascinating.

The most unusual system I owned growing up was the Atari Jaguar. Iron Soldier, a gaint robot game predating MechWarrior 2, was my main reason for taking an interest in the Jaguar. Destroying skyscrapers turned them into towers of tumbling 3D cubes, invoking a similar spectacle to what we accomplished with Boom Blox on Wii 14 years later.

Speaking of Atari, 5 years earlier the Atari Lynx, to people that knew about it, seemed like it was going to blow away Game Boy. The Lynx had a bright, colorful screen, though it had a much smaller selection of games and it cost too much compared to the Game Boy. Game Gear fell somewhere in the middle.

I got hooked on Command & Conquer at a friend’s house. The game’s music was unusually catchy (yet was more than just synth sounds), and at low-resolution the in-game animations seemed almost photorealistic, like a live satellite feed. C&C used pre-rendered 3D for its vehicles, which gave them a very smooth look, and enabled them to be fully animated in between-level cinematic sequences, which alternated between story-relevant and pure CG showmanship.

Between C&C and Doom (the latter I discovered through my older brother’s friend), I segued toward PC games for a bit. While searching for cheat codes for Command & Conquer, I discovered mod tools as a way to make the game easier – sort of like an extremely powerful and customizable Game Genie. That’s what got me into modding, which at first I just used to make the games much easier so I could have more control over the play. When it became apparent that destroying the game’s balance made its fun wear off much more quickly, I began exploring ways to tune it to be better (by my own tastes and preferences) instead of simply easier, and that’s how I got mixed up in game development. That led to drawing and changing out sprites, laying out new maps, and in other game engines eventually to bits of weapon/AI scripting, texture mapping, 3D animation, etc.

My attempts to work on mods with small teams were rife with trouble trying to get everyone productively on the same wavelength, and my attempts to make significant mods on my own weren’t gaining traction since I lacked the art skill or sheer organizational ability at that age to put together such massive undertakings entirely on my own. Not long after that, I began programming simple games

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