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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Have Video Games reached their Peak?

There's a point where "flashier" is too flashy.
My brother recently got the new Super Smash Bros. game for Wii-U (I still can't believe that's its name... I was so hoping for something like Super Smash Bros. Onslaught or something), and I realized something interesting and odd the months and weeks before it came out, as well as the hour or two that I played it—I wasn't excited for it. It seemed to me that all the anticipation of Smash Bros. Brawl that I had experienced after high school had used up my excitement for Smash Bros. games entirely. It didn't matter if they had 15 new characters in this new game or 30, or even if they would keep adding new characters forever. It felt like the game was superfluous and that no amount of new features or improved graphics would ever improve on the perfection that was Brawl.

I thought I may be biased about this. Maybe I only liked Brawl so much because I had invested so much personal anticipation in it, especially in a monumental time in my life. But then I began to think of other games, and realized that most sequel-based games I could think of had a clear and distinct point where they seemed to "jump the shark" and lose their charm. Even though StarCraft II had amazing graphics and effects, it seemed to be missing something the old StarCraft had. Every expansion of World of WarCraft after Wrath of the Lich King subtracted more and more from the classic feel of the game, until now it's barely a husk of what it once was. And I can see what people are saying when they criticize Diablo III, even though I've never even played the previous ones. Even Skyrim seems like a step backward from Oblivion in some ways.

I've noticed this trend especially in older games when the game developers change from pixellated graphics to three-dimensional models. Stronghold 3, for example, is much less fun than the first Stronghold, and the Kings Quest series took a turn from awesome to terrible shortly after the graphics were improved after Kings Quest VI. Heroes of Might and Magic V was a terrible update from Heroes IV, which was already a ruined game compared to Heroes III (don't get me started on the Heroes series—it deserves a category all its own). Some exceptions to this rule are found in WarCraft III and Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

It seems as if computer games are losing their essence as a whole, and the way I see it, this could be for two reasons. First, what was once a narrow and focused industry of a few game developers has since exploded into countless (literally countless) indie groups, so that games and apps are a dime a dozen and are at best revolutionary spiritual successors of old games, and at worst, glorified mechanics playtests. I could rant all day like an old millennial geezer about the good old days of video games, and about how in my day we'd download our games with CDs instead of Steam, and how we only had a handful of games to play, and had more fun playing each one than we did playing any dozen indie games. I think people subconsciously understand this concept, too—You can clearly see the indie companies' desperate scrabbling for attention and renown in their deliberately attempts to supply games that have retro graphics and music.

The second reason is that creativity seems to be stunted through making too many sequels. I'll use Nintendo as an example of this, because they are the worst at it: When was the last time Nintendo came up with something new, noteworthy, and fun? I can't think of it. In recent years, they've come up with nothing but remakes of the same few games over and over again, to the point where you can get good at one of them and essentially get good at all the rest. They've juggled a few mechanics here and there, but the funnest version of the game, the point where the game reached its peak in fun, was 15 or sometimes 20 years ago.

Take MarioKart, for instance. The Super Nintendo version was fun, but somewhat limited and the controls were difficult to play. MarioKart 64, however, was perfect. The gameplay was fun, the graphics were charming, and hours upon hours of fun can still be had while playing it. Then came Double Dash. The graphics were better after seven years, but a bunch of superfluous characters were added, and for some reason, Nintendo thought it would be fun to have two characters ride on each cart. It wasn't. Double Dash is awful, and they seem to have realized this when they made MarioKart Wii, essentially MarioKart 64 with updated graphics, motorcycles, and even more characters no one would ever want to be (Baby Mario? Really? He was in one game, and he wasn't the protagonist!). And of course, it wasn't nearly as fun as MarioKart 64. I'm not even going to talk about MarioKart 8, since I never care to play it and it has Pink Gold Peach as a playable character.

This is only one example of Nintendo's rut they're stuck in, but think of how it applies to their other games. There are five MarioKart games (I'm not going to count handheld versions, because those never count in my book), four Super Smash Bros. games, and ten Mario Party games! Ten! I'm surprised there isn't a minigame where you have to tap A as fast as you can to beat a dead horse. Even the Legend of Zelda series, with its nearly eighteen games, seems to be losing steam. I only find the games up to Twilight Princess fun, and even that one is on the line with me. It seems like every game franchise has its heyday, and then there's one extra game afterward that's sort of the "beginning of the end." After that, I think game companies need to just move on and start something new. Going back and resurrecting the same game repeatedly, giving it a polish and a new storyline, does not resurrect the fun. It only makes the contrast between the past and present more stark. All I can say more about sequels is "I'm looking at you, The Sims."

A part of this is comforting to me. If I never get in to new sequels of games, that means I have financial security if I own the older versions. As long as I own and enjoy playing Heroes III, I don't have to worry about any bad sequels coming out to entice me to buy more. I can end my search for peak Heroes of Might and Magic perfection, and enjoy it while VI, VII, VIII, IX, and any other garbagey sequels that get juggled from non-3DO company to non-New World Computing companies get tossed around future generations.

I can also ensure that my children develop a respect for the video games of old. If I can teach them that graphics do not matter, who cares if future versions are in HD or have all-new game modes? I feel like the fun and charm of an old video game is worth the disappointment that the journey ends there. Sometimes, things need to end, and new things need to be born. Making sequels of the same few games till the end of time may earn money from diehard fans, but if these fans lose sight of when perfection was in their grasp, they'll ultimately find that the road to polishing a stone that has been polished a hundred times turns it into something that can no longer be called a stone.

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