Friday, December 28, 2018

Memory Mirage

We're living in an age of nostalgia. That much is certain. However, what is the substance of said nostalgia? Is it centered around the good feelings and memories involved or on the products themselves? Do we even know? I can't answer that, and yet I doubt the entertainment conglomerates know either. It will require years of cultural studies to find out just where this whole thing came from and why no one can define it in concrete terms.

But the truth is that the past we all remember wasn't some Golden Age where everything was perfect and the sun always shined bright on the world. There were plenty of terrible things, and we know this. Remember Friends and Survivor? Try watching them now. Those haven't held up too well, and you won't find much argument to the contrary.

Some things simply don't age well, and sometimes those in charge completely misunderstand that. And sometimes they're more interested in re-purposing the old for sinister (and not-so-sinister) motives. Then, just as now, there existed a media that wanted to weaponize art and slander the past to create it. Either way they tend to misunderstand what made the original product hit the mark to begin with.

Even as far back as the '90s there were those who attempted to control discourse by gripping nostalgia by the throat and choking the life out of it. You don't have to look much further than video games and the attempted murder of 2D gaming.

It might have fallen down the memory hole for the general culture, but for those of us who didn't jump and clap our hands at the newest shiny toy on the block it remains fresh in our minds. An entire industry, and its sycophants tried to erase a genre overnight. Yes, this happened, and people in the industry deny that it ever occurred.

But it did.*

*Special mention must be made of several comments solely blaming Nintendo and/or saying this propaganda effort doesn't matter now. If you want to know why your hobby is a multi-billion dollar industry and is still dying then you can blame yourself for being completely unable to discern symptoms of the issues destroying it.

For those unaware, in the mid-80s when the video game industry was on its last legs, Nintendo came out with the Nintendo Entertainment System, a video game console that saved the industry with its focus on quality and stamping out the clutter and junk the shelves had been flooded with. The effort wasn't perfect as some quality was blocked from release and trash still slipping through the gates, but Nintendo's focus helped the hobby gain footing again.

By the mid-90s, video game systems like the Sega Genesis, Turbografx-16 and Super NES, had come around and raised the quality of the medium by putting fun first and creating the single best console generation of gaming to date. These systems proved video games were sticking around.

However, that was not to last. You can read the article to see why things changed and why the move to 3D was wanted by different companies, but it was inevitability either way. 3D was new and there were things you could explore with it that you couldn't in 2D space. I don't blame Sony, Nintendo, and Sega for pushing 3D (but I do blame Sony's anti-2D policy as directly harmful. Sorry, Dualshockers, we missed out on many 2D games because of Sony's censorship and no one in the industry ever calls them out on it) because there had never been a 3D console before. As far as selling points go, it was a great one.

What was damaging to the industry, however, were the game journalists who for the first time revealed themselves as corporate slaves more interested in pushing some nebulous form of progress while burning its roots to a crisp at the same time over promoting what the customers wanted. They deserve to be called out over this.

You see, 2D gaming is why the video game industry exists at all. It's where the medium started, where the top franchises emerged from, and where genres (including first person perspective games) were born. Without 2D your favorite video game would not exist because the medium wouldn't.

And game journalists fought to kill it. I had personally gotten into arguments on the internet as a boy with these very people who would give good ports of arcade games lower scores for being arcade games, lower price be damned. I'd seen 2D platformers degraded for being 2D platformers. I watched as sprite games were outright dismissed because they weren't overly blocky polygons. All this when less than five years prior games like Contra 3 and Axelay were praised for the inventive use of sprites and scrolling. Now these games suddenly didn't matter?

Meanwhile these journalists pushed 3D as the future of gaming and a step towards some utopian future for the hobby. Why both couldn't coexist was a mystery to me at the time, and it took until the Nintendo Wii (much to the chagrin of game journalists: they hated the Wii) and New Super Mario Bros. Wii (which IGN even wrote an article decrying Nintendo for releasing) being the highest selling game of the generation to show that audiences still wanted 2D. Because game journalists wanted it dead and relegated to 5 buck indie games. They didn't care that the audience made NSMBWii a higher seller than every Call of Duty game--they wanted their industry the way they wanted it.

Because of the success of that game, 2D came flooding back. One year after Mega Man 9's success and 2D was allowed to live on consoles again after being quarantined to handhelds (and with the rise of the Nintendo DS and then 3DS it was already being replaced by 3D) and saved from extinction. Years of quality games later and 2D is alive and well again.

No thanks to game journalists.

And with the recent success of the NES and SNES Classic, with the announcement of a Sega Genesis one, with affordable arcade cabinets coming into fashion and being sold at Walmart, with classic gaming merchandise selling higher than ever, the question remains. Was the audience actually tired of 2D, or were they simply not given a choice to get sick of it?

Because as much goodwill as the 8 and 16 bit generations have, the following one does not have anywhere near their popularity.

The uncomfortable truth is that 3D games from the PlayStation 1, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64, have not aged well. While many games came out for those systems that were great, they suffered from problems later systems never did and it hampers playing them today or with fresh eyes. If there is a generation of gaming that deserves to be totally remade with modern hardware it is that one.

Ironic that the most "important" and "advanced" console generation aged the worst of any, but there it is.

But the generation before it? The SNES, TG16, and Genesis, have aged perfectly well. In fact, there was room for improvement. The SNES had problems with faster games, the Genesis couldn't output as much on screen as the SNES, and the TG16 was weaker than both despite the CD attachment giving it a boost of Redbook audio. Systems like the Sega CD and the Sega Saturn showed where 2D could have gone with multiple levels of parallax scrolling, large sprites, and imaginative and bright art design, but were too enamored with a graphical arms race that amounted to nothing in the end to pursue it. That road led to bloated HD gaming costs, closed companies, oversized teams, and a decrease in output from studios. But at least every game looks as exciting as a National Geographic photo. That blind obsession with progress is what led gaming down the hole it's currently sitting in. The pursuit of 3D derailed the hobby.

So why are gamers nostalgic for the past? I wouldn't say they are, actually. I'd say the 8 and 16-bit generations remain popular because they are objectively the best generations in all of gaming. It was the one that hit worldwide, where genres flourished, and where quality was more important than technology. It's the 32-bit generation that requires nostalgia to enjoy to its fullest, and the trends started under it are what led to every modern problem (Save DLC) that is currently stagnating the industry from cinematic obsession to a focus on "realism" at the expense of player agency and fun. There is nothing to miss from post-16 bit console generations because everything they started still remains.

It isn't that people think the past is better but that the present is so terrible that they have nowhere else to go, and that is because of a pointless and obsessive worship of the future that buried it all to begin with. When you stray off the path you need to retrace your steps to where you first got lost to find your way forward again. You don't blindly plod along in the dark toward the coyotes howling over the next hill. You know what they say about doing the same thing multiple times and wondering why you get the same results.

Maybe this will serve a lesson for Gen Z coming from Gen Y and Millennials not to believe the hype.  The hype is not on your side. Eventually it will turn against you.

And the problem has not been remedied.

Yes, we can say games like Cuphead exist now and sell gangbusters so the stigma against an entire genre isn't a problem anymore. But that would be a lie. Entertainment was disposed of for the simple reason that it was declared outdated by someone other than the customers. We were never given the choice.

The fact of the matter is that it happened, and could very well happen again. In an age where journalism is losing credibility due to hacks and liars working against their customer base, we must remain more vigilant than ever. They're not going to stop doing the same thing over and over.

Pulp, 2D gaming, action cartoons, adventure movies, and comics as a whole, have all suffered heavy blows from groups of people who hate what they stand for and will do anything to take them away.

None of this is anything new, so don't be surprised when they try it again.

Don't forget, because it's not over yet. Nostalgia cash-grabs exist because of the feelings corporations are hoping to invoke, not because they want to continue the lineage of the product you enjoy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is when those involved don't understand the appeal to begin with. That is how you take a billion dollar franchise and within three years release a movie that can't even break even. That's how you know they don't get it.

The truth is we're not in any Golden Age right now, but we have the tools to make one. While those who dislike us and wish to pilfer the last remaining bills from out pocket as we walk by their foreclosed business look at us with scorn, we actually do know what we want.

We don't want the past, we don't want the present, and we don't want the future. We want all three at once. And if you don't understand that then maybe that's why modern art fails to connect with so many people.

Screw your bloodless manic-depressive Utopian paradise. We deserve better.

I have two recent stories out in Storyhack #3 and one in DimensionBucket Magazine. If you are looking for good old fashioned action and adventure stories like they haven't made since the '90s then I've got you covered.

Someone's got to pull the slack, after all.


  1. "For those unaware, in the mid-80s when the video game industry was on its last legs"

    This is an awful meme that you've bought into. The "Great Video Game Crash" was the Great American Home Console Crash. PC gaming and arcades outside the US were carrying on fine before Nintendo showed up.


    1. True enough. It was the NES that really brought attention to the home market, but the PC market was growing, too. However, the success of the NES was a gigantic on a level consoles had never seen before. Without it I don't think gaming would be what it became.

  2. I initially had high hopes for 3D games due to how much Mario 64 impressed me. Too bad most 3D games aren't as good - I think it's just harder to make a good 3D game than it is to make a good 2D game.

    Another frustrating thing about that era is that I was hoping 3D would help rail shooters take off, but they didn't much - more Star Foxes* and Space Harriers seemed like an obvious move to me, but I guess arcade-style games were unfasionable by then.

    *The original Star Fox is still by far my favorite - it's a tough arcadey shooter and doesn't try to be anything else.

    1. 3D games require bigger teams and budgets, HD even more so. When you find a great 3D game it is usually something special. Unfortunately most copy and paste mechanics and ideas from others because it's simply easier to do with teams that size and projects that expensive.

      There's a reason the first HD generation killed so many studios and led to the creatively bankrupt one we are in now.

  3. I'm not a set-top box gamer, but there is no question that text, ASCII image, sprite, and full 2D (and 2.5D) games brought an enormous number of people into gaming, game design, and general computer programming from the 1970s through the early 1990s.

    The Spectrum and Commodore computer systems alone supported thousands of games for their platforms. Including some of the most popular games of the day, hundreds of small companies and individuals building games and other software sprang up around them, far in advance and in number than other platforms (e.g. Apple ][).

    These activities drove the creation of the Association of Software Professionals (ASP), which was one of the first "try before you buy" organization in computing. It predated Open Source by over a decade.

    What's out there now? The repositories of Simtel, CICA, Walnut Creek, TUCOWS, and the myriad AMIGA boards are mostly gone and forgotten. Why is this an issue? These programs seeded a generation or two of computer programmers in games and in apps.

    Where is the Public Domain of computing right now? What is Silicon Valley doing to encourage that Public Domain to interest the next generation? (Trick Question; their answer is 'H1B1 ad infinitum'.)

    Taken further, it's doubtful Silicon Valley would exist without 2D gaming.