Virtual Insanities: the Old, the New, the Good and the Bad

A friend of mine came over last week so I could show him Mario Strikers Charged. He’s a big sports games fan, you know, the kind who will buy a new copy of Madden each year, buy both NHL 08 and NHL 2K8 and try the demos of those college football games and as well as this year’s FIFA, just in case it turns out real good this time and he actually needs to buy the full version. Anyway, I thought that a little bit of soccer/football with some Mario thrown on top could be his bag, and it turns out I was right. We spent an afternoon playing games against each others, and even tried an online two-out-of-three series where we got our asses kicked all over the place. Trust me; it was worse than The Ultimate Warrior against Hunter Hearst Helmsley at Wrestlemania 12. At least, Triple H could hit his finisher before getting squashed.

Everything was fine until we finished our session and I returned to the Wii menu. I took the opportunity to show off my Virtual Console downloads. I am a sucker for classic games, to the point where I will accept paying ten dollars for an N64 game despite my common sense saying “you’re crazy, son”. Due to that fact, I already have eleven games downloaded, with an additional two which I can’t wait to get my paws on. I thought my friend would go all “Hey look, that’s Streets of Rage 2, let’s kill some bad guys”. Instead what I got was this.

– “I am ashamed of you.”

– “Why? Is it because I caved in and bought “Street Fighter 2: The World Warriors” when I knew that the Turbo edition had to be coming out soon?”

– “No, it’s just that I am ashamed of how many old games you bought.”

As it turns out, it looks like I am the reason so many bad games are coming out today. According to my friend, nostalgia is killing the market for new games. Gamers who started playing in the 80’s are now grown up, which means that they are looking for any possible way to recapture these magical moments of days past, including buying old games instead of the newer ones to encourage developers to invest in new intellectual properties.

I guess I could see his point, but I also managed to completely destroy it by saying that the argument was coming from a man who mostly buys rehashed sports games and who I has downloaded the original Contra on Xbox Live Arcade.

Still, I did spend some time thinking about it, to the point where it has become the subject of today’s article.

Are we killing the market for new game by constantly buying retro games on the different consoles’ download service? It is an argument I have heard incessantly for a long time. I have seen it on sites, blogs, and forums. By spending our money on old games instead of new one, are we sending the message that services like the Virtual Console or Xbox Live Arcade are safer bets than putting resources in the development of original intellectual properties? Is this the cause for the overwhelming number of mediocre games flooding the market?

I have to admit that I spend a lot of money on older games. It’s not that I despise new games, or that I have an obsession with collecting retro games: it’s just that when it comes to buying a videogame, I go with fun over everything else. The reason I still play Star Fox 64 instead of Star Fox Assault is that I feel the former is a superior game. I still buy new releases. In fact, I own seven Wii games despite the system not being out for a year yet. I think it is not too bad. I think this is true for mostly everybody. People simply prefer to play the best game available, no matter if it is new or old. This is why my friends and I still play Worms instead of the latest iteration of Mario Party.

I can’t know for sure if that is telling the developers that they will make more money by re-releasing past hits. All I know is that the message they should be getting is that gamers want quality and nothing more.

There is still a problem with that previous statement. Yes, most of us will prefer quality, no matter its age. Most of us will buy something brand new if it is interesting, and if it can capture our interest. But when gamers go out and buy shitty games one after the other simply because it has “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Harry Potter” written it, this is when developers understand that making money is much easier by making quick cash-ins than by putting effort in creating something new. For each Spore, we get five Shrek games and the worst is that despite being mediocre games, they usually still sell en masse.

The problem is not retro games. The problem is much bigger. The problem is that creativity does not seem to be encouraged by consumers. Despite everything I have said, developers still try to come up with new characters and original stories, but a lot of times, people will shun these titles and go back to the familiar faces they see on TV or on the big screen, without even actually knowing if what they are buying is good.

If old games were the root of the problem, then it would be a fairly new issue. But if you look back, bad games have been overwhelming the industry forever and even crashed it in 1983. How many classic games have emerged from the Atari 2600, Colecovision and other primitive consoles? There was more bad than good coming out of development studios back then. Anybody remembers that E.T. game? Or China Syndrome? The same goes for the NES, the SNES and every system made since videogames have existed. I don’t think that retro gaming was a big preoccupation in 1985 when it was just getting back on its feet.

Recently, I have seen many alarmist statements on different blogs and websites: retired developers saying that the industry is stagnant, columnists complaining that we are currently drowning in bad games and so on. They seem to be ignoring the fact that these complaints have been around for as long as videogames have existed. Somehow, it looks like the industry always survives for another generation. I wouldn’t worry too much. As I have said, crappy games are nothing new. Stop trying to blame a thousand different things just to explain why the shelves are filled with mediocre stuff. The problem is not older games becoming hip again. It’s not a lack of new stories to tell either.

I think that the issue has always been gamers themselves. When a company makes a bad game and it does not sell, then you never hear about it again. There’s a reason why there were no sequels to Masters of Teras Kasi, despite the fact that it was a Star Wars game. However, when a tragically average game based on a Spiderman movie still manages to top the charts, you can be sure that the next movie will also get a game, and that more movies after that will get the same treatment. The result is that we have disturbingly bad games based on the Fantastic Four, Pirates of the Caribbean, TMNT and many other blockbusters. Some of these games could have been good with some time and efforts put into them, but why bother when you know it is going to sell anyway on name value alone?

Videogames are not very different from music or movies. In each case, the bad usually outweighs the good. Why is everybody overreacting with videogames? Is it because the industry is younger? Maybe people realized that when it comes to movies and music, there will always be cringe-worthy stuff, but that you simply have to wait a few years to look back and trim the appalling from the amazing. The 1970s also had their fair share of bad music, but what everybody remembers is Led Zeppelin, Queen or Pink Floyd because the bad stuff just stopped being played.

Maybe one day, it will be the same for videogames. Everybody will stop running around like scared little girls, claming that the industry has never been in worse shape and realize that no matter what you do, bad games will always be around. It’s not the fault of old games selling more, it’s not because the developers ran out of new material. It’s just that in general, consumers keep buying the bad stuff. They get fed crap and they come back for more. But a couple of years from now, all of that crap will be gone, and the classics will still rise.

So in the meantime, do us all a favour. Do a little bit of searching before buying your games, play what is really worth it and stop claming that the Armageddon is coming soon to doom the videogames business. The Backstreet Boys sold millions of their albums, The Beatles are still popular, and good new music is still being made anyway. I don’t think that things will be different in gaming.