Rapid Fire: Imagination vs. Reality

I went shopping for games this weekend for the first time in a long time. There were two games that I wanted that had just recently been released; however, the last time any of these games were “new” was way back in 1994. One of them, in fact, wasn’t even a game for a system – it was a plug-and-play TV device instead. But it contained two classic sports games and was well worth the $20 price. The other was a collection of essential fighting games (which also included more recent inferior games as well) that was also a steal at $30.

I got a decent amount of crap from people who felt that NHL ’95, Madden ’95, and the Street Fighter Anniversary Collection for X-Box wasn’t the best allocation of $50. But many more people thought that it was pretty awesome. And I’m inclined to agree. There’s just something about these games that make them great, even ten years later, that today’s offerings simply don’t have.

Lately, one concept has been constantly on my mind when it comes to video games – the things that make people fall in love with gaming. The one thing that keeps coming back to me is showing people things they haven’t seen before. That’s why so many great games have been bizarre concepts that became surprise hits with gamers for reasons they don’t even understand. That’s why a sizable number of people spurn modern gaming in favor of retrogaming – while realism sells games today, imagination is what hooks people to begin with.

I brought the plug-and-play device to my Saturday night poker game and it became an instant conversation piece. And while only a few of us had played NHL 2004, EVERYONE had played NHL ’95. Even people who have never followed hockey owned this game for their Genesis growing up. And like 30-somethings discussing high school, each of us had their own memory about the NHL series.

For example, I always favored NHL ’95 because it had awesome gameplay and a full season mode. Brian T liked NHL ’96 better because the game moved faster. Ranger fan Schiff thought it was funny that the Islanders were called “Long Island” in NHLPA ’93 because EA couldn’t use the real team names. These quirky things might seem kind of strange to someone who didn’t grow up with these games, and that’s a point worth noting.

You see, for better or worse, the new generation of older sports games don’t seem to have the same nostalgic value as the originals do. Maybe it’s because after you play a series for ten years, the formative years stick out and the middle ones don’t seem to matter. Perhaps today’s generation will grow up with a soft spot for NHL 2001 and develop retro-hatred for NHL 2000. But it’s just not the same, because it seems silly to hate Version 9 when Version 10 is essentially the same game. And the way some non-sports series are going, the rest of gaming is headed down a very similar path.

You can pop in GTA3 now and still enjoy it. Odds are good that you will still be able to in five years because it was probably your introduction to the series. But will, say, GTA: San Andreas be a great source of nostalgia in 2010? Maybe not. That’s because at a certain point, the game stops being original and instead just tinkers with a format. The GTA franchise may have already hit that point; if not, it’s well on its way.

The original NHL games, in retrospect, were great because they didn’t give everything away immediately. It took EA five years to create a hockey game with all the features we currently take for granted. In the first one, you only had the real teams. In NHLPA ’93, you only had real players. In NHL ’94, you had both, but no season mode. In NHL ’95, you had real players, real teams, and a full season, but no fighting. And once they put it all together, the individual games stopped being memorable. That’s a major reason why these games are so memorable – because they DIDN’T have it all, yet were monumental achievements in gaming nonetheless.

Today, there’s such an emphasis on reality that anything short of one hundred percent realism is a disappointment. There’s very little margin for error and very little slack given by the gaming community. When the technology wasn’t caught up to reality, people were willing to accept things for what they were. So even if the new sports game didn’t have commentary or even real teams, they were able to see past that and enjoy playing the game anyway. Today, that’s just not possible. If Sega decided to make Sega Football 2K6 with no real teams or players and tried to charge $40 for it, nobody would buy it. In 1995, people might have taken a chance to see the quality of the football that Sega offered. Not in 2005, where if it’s not real, it’s not worth the investment of time or money.

Video gaming finds itself with a serious dilemma, and it’s nobody’s fault. Sometimes, I think the industry sees gaming as an extension of real life, rather than the escapist hobby it once was. It just seems like people play games just to beat them, rather than enjoy the hell out of them. And it also seems like people are too critical and cynical to appreciate something they’ve never seen before, especially if it doesn’t conform to their particular ideal of what gaming “should” be like. Today’s idea of imagination seems to mean imaginative ways to express reality, which is pretty depressing in its own right.

Call me crazy, but I’ll play NHL ’95 over NHL 2005 anyday, and that’s not just because NHL 2005 was a half-assed steaming pile of crap that was a terrible excuse for a hockey game. I choose NHL ’95 because it reminds me of the days when playing hockey on a video game system was a new and exciting phenomenon. It wasn’t a quest for perfection; instead, it was just a fun way to spend a few hours. The game was far from flawless, but the time spent playing it was priceless. And you know what? It still is.

Somewhere over the last ten years. people have forgotten that there’s more to gaming than graphics, gameplay, and sound. There’s an atmosphere about gaming that’s present for the really great gaming moments, and guess what? It’s not there when someone’s playing a game with a strategy guide wide open, just so he or she can beat it and move on to the next game. The great games mean something more to those playing them. That’s why RPG players are so into the games they play, because they feel like they’re a part of it. That’s why people who can’t remember how to spell their middle names can fondly recall the first time they won the Super Bowl in Madden. And that certain atmosphere is why so many gamers can cast aside the visual beauty of today’s games in favor of the escape to the days of youthful innocence they get by playing the games they grew up with.