Friday, September 24, 2010

The Ugly Truth About Classic Games. They Are Terrible.

It's no secret that I love classic games. My games are all, in some way, tributes to classics. I have a huge personal collection of old Atari 2600/5200/7200/Intellivision/Colecovision/Vectrex/Astrocade/Odyssey 2 cartridges. (All in good working order, thank you.) That you can still buy old Atari games in stores and on XBox Live, among other places, warms my heart.

But let's not put too fine a point on it. They are not, for the most part, fun. One of my favorite things about my classic games collection is my ability to keep having this conversation with my friends:

"Oooh! Old games! I loved Pitfall! Do you have Pitfall?"
"Of course."
"Can I play it?"
"Sure."
(Five minutes pass.)
"This isn't any fun."
"No, it's not."

I have this huge collection of old games, but I spend all my gaming time with my XBox 360 or PS3. (Or, on increasingly rare occasions, my Wii.)

The reason I bring it up is because of this fascinating article about the unquestionable classic, that inspirational breakthrough, that great of greats, Ultima IV.

Basic summary: Professor teaches class on classic video games. Makes students play old games. Goes all right until they try Ultima IV. They find it to be opaque, dull, and completely unplayable.

Well, YEAH.

Look, nobody worships at the altar of Lord British more than me, and you can't put into words what a breakthrough Ultima IV was at the time. It set me on the path to writing games for a living. I played it again and again. It literally Changed My Life.

But it isn't playable now. The controls make no sense. The dialogue is bland. All of the little UI tricks that make RPGs accessible (tooltips, in-game maps, pathfinding) were not yet invented. And, and this is really important, everything that Ultima IV introduced everyone has done far better. Ultima IV had an epic quest and morality woven into the game, which was amazing at the time. But everyone does those things way better now.

So it's been years and years since I've recommended anyone play a game with Ultima in the title. Or, if they really want to try a game in the series, I recommend Ultima VI, which is awesome.

I like looking back to the past. Nostalgia. History. And there are some old designs that really should be modernized. (Archon. M.U.L.E.) But, hey, classic gaming back in the day? Pong? The Atari 2600? Man, I was there. It's better now. Wherez mah Halo?

Oh, and I will finally know that we have shaken off the dust of the past when it is no longer possible to play Joust. God, but I hate Joust.

77 comments:

  1. I will still play these things, like the original Apple ][ Castle Wolfenstein ... but it is all about the nostalgia.

    I could actually manage Ultima IV the last time I tried a couple of years ago, but I assume it is because it isn't new to me - I KNOW what to expect. My kids ... I'm happy enough that they like your games :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love Joust!
    That said... yes, there are some games which age better then other, and this is somewhat unrelated to how much important they have been in past.
    Still, with a MAME and a lot of patience, you can likely find something that despite being old is still worth playing. Sub-par, maybe, but worth playing nonetheless.
    A lot more from the NES era than from the 2600 era, granted.

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  3. One word: Zork.


    (The rest of this space intentionally left blank.)

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  4. I completely agree that MOST classic games are bad, even many that were great at the time.

    But many games, I guess less old games, like Dig, Grim Fandango, Starcraft, Diablo 2 are really good.

    And they still make remakes of tetris, pong, and pacman (not that I really enjoy those games).

    But then i guess they are all new enough that their genres have not really changed.

    And I cannot think of any really old games that are that fun any more, but I have not played that many.

    But I think for example Dwarf Fortress could of existed way back then. (the graphic, and gameplay seem like they would fit). and it is still an amazing game (but then most people do need graphics mods to play it).

    And I would say while the first generation of games might not have aged well, games since then will continue to be great far longer.

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  5. I played Ultima IV sometime in the late 90s and really enjoyed it, probably because I did grow up playing western RPGs in the early/mid 90s.

    about 5-6 years ago I started playing Japanese RPGs and I played some of the classic jRPGS from the 90s... I think they're called 16-bit jRPGs? The truth is those games don't really age well either (I don't say this often because people don't like hearing their all time favorite game from when they were 12 doesn't stand the test of time)

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  6. There are plenty of things I remember in U4 that were awesome: gathering nightshade, mapping my way through the dungeons and heavy forest, building up virtue stats (including the [spoiler] part of the final battle)... I think a less flame-attracting way to say what you're saying is, "Ultima IV and its ilk were giants, but their shoulders have since been amply employed".

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  7. I ultimately agree with your sentiment that if U4 were updated with a better UI - and possibly, rewritten dialogue - it would fair much better now than it does. (How different, really, is it from many indie RPGs coming out now?)

    One area where classics are finding a real rebirth is on the iPhone/iPad - LucasArts! Seriously, try out Secret of Monkey Island I & II, and tell yourself it wasn't freshly minted. (well, it did get some of the updates you mention, and more)

    Frankly, it seems what you're talking about is obsolete technology - no one will argue that playing Monkey Island on an old Tandy is superior to playing it on the iPad. Joust is as fun or awful as it ever was - no matter how it gets remade and updated, if you hated it, you still hate it (and its clones).

    But if the intellectual property is brought up to speed, there is a market for reborn classic games.

    ReplyDelete
  8. We make "remakes" of old games. I'm the first to admit that the originals were pretty crap on mostly all levels except nostalgia. We've tried to make them modern and good and all but... at the end of the day, we've completely failed to actually win any customers. So no more of those. Good riddance.

    ReplyDelete
  9. You can shake off the past, but I'll still be able to kick your ass at Robotron.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Mule is still totally playable, for the record!

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  11. I'll admit I mostly use me 360 and PC for gaming these days, but every once and a while me and a friend of mine will bust out the 2600 and get a few HOURS of legit fun. Granted that I really don't play it alone but the 2 players make it fun for me.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'd have to add Elite to the list of games that have aged excellently, especially the version for the Acorn Archimedes, ArcElite, which was harder, had much improved AI, and more missions.

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  13. I might have almost as many "oldie" games on my computers as new ones. I have remade versions of King's Quest I-III and Quest for Glory II (though I'd probably still play them with their original 16 color graphics and text parsers if remakes weren't available), original versions of King's Quest V-VII, the first two "Doctor Brain" games, a couple of Infocom's text adventure games, and Myst. I love them all (and nostalgia isn't even a factor for QfG II and the Infocom games, since I downloaded them recently). For me it's about the stories. If a game has a good story to tell, I'll deal with poor graphics and a cludgy interface for the sake of living through the story again. Even if modern games do everything they do better, they won't have the same stories. So I'd rather just add them to my collection instead of abandoning my old favorites.

    After all, people still watch old movies and TV shows -- even the ones that suffer from substandard special effects and budgets (I'll cite original Star Trek as a prime example).

    Now -- if the story's not good (or there isn't one at all) and there's nothing unique about the game to set it apart from more advanced modern offerings, then there probably isn't any point in holding onto it, apart from nostalgia. I can't speak to Ultima IV, since I've never played it.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Two words: Robot Odyssey. God, I don't want to think about the amount of time I must have sunk into that game as a kid. I was obsessed with it. Eventually, I finished it. A few years ago I gave it a whirl and gave up after 20 minutes. It was endlessly frustrating and I couldn't figure out how to get the bots to work - something that came so easily to me when I was a kid. Did we just have more patience as kids? Or did we just not know any better?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Retro games that are still fun and playable now is a great idea for a blog topic.

    I saw a new version of Archon being demoed at PAX a few weeks ago. HOT!!!!!

    - Jeff Vogel

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  16. Super Mario Bros, Metroid, and Legend of Zelda are barely younger than Ultima IV and very playable.

    ReplyDelete
  17. @deanero: They are playable, but the only reasons to play them instead of more recent games are nostalgia and historical interest. I say this as someone who has played (and enjoyed) Super Mario Bros. in the last month.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I actually did a blog entry about this very topic just a week ago - http://zeboyd.com/2010/09/17/retro-evolved-nostalgia-vs-reality/

    ReplyDelete
  19. Old games are awesome, but games are better than they have ever been. There's no way masterpieces like Monster Hunter or Demons Souls, Dragon Age or TF2 could have existed before they did. As much as I like to complain to my friends about the state of the industry, and how much money any given game takes to make nowadays and that big publishers aren't willing to take risks etc etc, games now really are better than they have ever been- and I don't mean just graphically.

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  20. I, too, collect all things Atari. The 5200 makes even the original Playstation look tiny. We call it the battleship. Thanks to emulation, we will ALWAYS be able to play Joust.

    My guilty pleasure is Super Breakout in progressive mode. No grown man should enjoy such a simple game so much.

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  21. "Ultima IV had an epic quest and morality woven into the game, which was amazing at the time. But everyone does those things way better now."

    I disagree on this point. Ultima IV was, and still IS unique, because of the nature of its "epic quest". There's no main villain to defeat or grand treasure to claim - the entire purpose of the quest is the personal enlightenment of the PC. Pretty sure no one has done that since.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Pitfall II is still reasonably playable. It's no worse than many super pixelated Flash platformers.

    ReplyDelete
  23. The new version of archon you saw was probably this one here http://www.archonclassic.com/. I've seen this first hand and have met some of the guys making it. It's awesome! Now has anyone done this for M.U.L.E.?

    I also agree that a lot of old classics aren't that playable anymore, however I'd contend that there are still a lot that ARE still playable. I still enjoy a lot of old classic arcade games (thanks to MAME), and yes, I like Joust too. Some of my favorites from that era are Tempest, Tron, Star Wars, DigDug, and Bubble Bobble.

    ReplyDelete
  24. "Retro games that are still fun and playable now is a great idea for a blog topic."

    Here are two: Sega's Thunderground and Imagic's Cosmic Ark, both for the 2600. Simple, but very well done for the time and they still hold up as addictive once you fire them up.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Worlds of Ultima II: Martian Dreams is still pretty mind-blowing, if only in a tiny, tiny window.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I totally disagree with you. The classics are actually more fun in most cases. What has happened is your palate has become used to Sugar and Salt and can't taste anything else.

    Anyone who says most modern games are fun is full of bull. Modern games have all the garbage that takes any mystery and brain capacity to figure anything. Modern games are built for lazy people as they have conditioned them to all be lazy. Modern games have also burned out all possible imagination with trying to do it all. It is a culture addicted to eye candy.

    The classic games are really fun because they are frustrating. You are challenged to actually struggle and that struggle is what is rewarding. Hell you couldn't even find cheats and trainers in most cases.

    One of the things I really despise these days is how 60-80% of all modern games are shooters. It has become a very sad state of affairs and they only thing that keeps me inspire is indie developers.

    My latest indie games that are a total blast to play are Chime and Eufloria which you can get off steam.

    ReplyDelete
  27. One thing I feel the need to disagree with is this line:

    "Ultima IV had an epic quest and morality woven into the game, which was amazing at the time. But everyone does those things way better now."

    No, they really don't.

    Ultima IV had a very interesting and complex (in a relatively simple manner) morality system based off of the 8 virtues. You had to judge events on how they intertwined and affected each other (Do I let the enemy run and deny valor, or attack from behind and deny both honor and compassion?)

    That's a pretty far length away from how modern game gives you morality choices. "Do I eat the baby or save thirty starving children?"

    ReplyDelete
  28. Jeff: indeed, I wrote an entire series of posts about retro games that are still fun and playable that I called "Playable Classics": http://tleaves.com/?s=Playable+Classics

    The sine qua non of this category of games is, and probably always will be, Star Control II.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Some more retro games which are worth playing:

    Megaman [1-4], Frogger, Burger Time, Battletoads, Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Batman.

    Granted, I'm a bit of a masochist and love hard games, so you might not agree with me here.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Most games have immediate feedback on doing "immoral" things. You rescue the kitten from the tree, you get an item. You leave it, you don't. And you can go back later and rescue it.

    U4 emphasized the delayed gratification. You could steal from the shopkeeper or run from battle, and it would not be until much later that the consequences of your actions were visited on you. Very reflective of the real world and it made doing the right thing that much harder.

    (This was especially emphasized in U5, when the virtues changed from ideals into authoritarian state law.)

    ReplyDelete
  31. @Chris Kringle: "I totally disagree with you. The classics are actually more fun in most cases. What has happened is your palate has become used to Sugar and Salt and can't taste anything else."

    That's right. The problem is that I am a failure as a person.

    "The classic games are really fun because they are frustrating"

    Um, frustrating is the opposite of fun. Though the feeling of congratulating yourself for being superior to other people because you inflict pain on yourself is definitely fun. Might I suggest playing Ultima IV while wearing a hair shirt?

    - Jeff Vogel

    ReplyDelete
  32. @ProfessorCirno: "Ultima IV had a very interesting and complex (in a relatively simple manner) morality system based off of the 8 virtues. You had to judge events on how they intertwined and affected each other (Do I let the enemy run and deny valor, or attack from behind and deny both honor and compassion?)"

    I played Ultima IV a lot. While the morality system was revolutionary for the time, I'm afraid it is as facile as anything out now. And, where it had complexity, it only let to bad design. For example, it was considered immoral to flee from a fight where you faced certain death. This is VERY questionable from both ethical and game-design perspectives.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  33. It did feel like a little bit of a cheat that they gave us the ability to flee from battle, only to penalize you if you did.

    I went through a period playing it where I was bored with fighting so I always ran. Paid for it later.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Some retro games are still wicked good (someone mentioned Zork), but I am also a huge fan of text based games (MUDs) which still do really well these days. For example the ones at www.ironrealms.com.

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  35. This is what I like about you, Jeff. You're not afraid to call it like it is. You throw down the flag up on blind delusion. You, my friend, are the Bob Woodward of the gaming world.

    But . . . I mean, Super Nintendo is exempt, right? You just can't mess with that level of genius.

    ReplyDelete
  36. LOL, this really hit a cord with me. I just made an iphone game that comes out this friday which is a remake of Atari Combat. For some reason my memory of Combat was better than the truth. I built TANK! on that memory, and it is fun to play, but when I go back and play Combat, I realize how it was lacking. Very digital controls (you jump by angles when turning), no reverse, and the bouncing shots really were unpredictable (not true reflection). It was great at the time though.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Nostalgia allows me to overcome all manner of interface issues and sub-par graphics. I could play games like Sword of Fargoal or Might and Magic II all day. One thing I can't get over is when there is no auto-mapping in an RPG. I just can't get back into scribbling lines on graph paper anymore. Luckily that only keeps me away from a few games, or forces me to use a cheat book as an "auto map".

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  38. M.U.L.E. / Mule has been redone.

    http://www.planetmule.com/

    And fairly recently, too.

    ReplyDelete
  39. "Do I eat the baby or save thirty starving children?"

    You puree the baby and distribute it evenly, saving the thirty starving children.

    *** +1 to selflessness stat ***

    ReplyDelete
  40. Which is one of the reasons why I am hoping that you will eventually do your games over again, despite what people say against that (and I still don't get the reasoning). Because though I like the IDEA of them, bought three, and even played one through, they could really use updating. So I am really hoping that someday I will experience the thrill of playing Geneforge 2020. Because believe me, I'm not going to ruin a good memory by trying to replay the original. Love your work, man!

    ReplyDelete
  41. Lol, thanks for saying the emperor has no clothes. I tried playing a lot of my old favorites and they are unplayable. Too ugly, too sloppy, bad interfaces. Even the best classics aren't that good. They have their special charm, but it doesn't forgive their other sins.

    BTW, why the fuck is Exile priced so highly when you know this. They should be $3 or so :P

    ReplyDelete
  42. Really got to disagree. The latest two in the Elder Scrolls series had neat story (Morrowind being much better than Oblivion) but both had broken game mechanics (too easy to create an unbeatable character) and no morality system to speak of. Most morality systems boil down to what color your glowy sword is; you still run the same quests and play through the same story (BioWare games) or there are no moral choices with lasting consequences to speak of (Diablo).

    Maybe I've missed the games that do that well? I have to admit, I haven't tried the latest offerings from Spiderweb, so it's possible I'm missing some really good stuff.

    Likewise, where can I find a better single-player starpilot trading game than Elite? Rogue and Privateer (though the latter wasn't half as fun as the former) came close. So did that RPG where you have a ship and a crew, and trade and pick up alien creatures on planets... Gah! What was it called? Starfall? That's not right. :p

    Eve might scratch this itch, but I don't want the expense that comes with a MMOG. So if you know a good single-player game of this style, please let me know.

    I'm sure it's a matter of taste, but I've largely given up on computer games. Every now and then I'll fire up Elite or Master of Orion 2. I kinda keep half-an-eye on the industry, but after being burned by titles like Black & White and the Elder Scrolls games, I really don't see any reason to invest the time and money they require. Which comes as a real surprise to me. :/

    ReplyDelete
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  53. So much for editing posts. Thank you, Google, for pushing the edge of web technology back 15 years. (They do this with googlecode, too.)

    Some classic gamer you are! Don't even know the difference between a 7200 and a 7800. (Hint: the 7200 doesn't exist.)

    But you're right: video games, unlike music, cheese, and wine, do not age gracefully. I don't even like *your* older games (couldn't get into Avernum until part five, but at that point I was like, awesome), but I like your ideas and, more importantly, your willingness to explore, develop, and share them (for a small fee).

    I also appreciate that you don't get full of yourself just because you sold a game (*cough* Braid *cough*). Or 20 games. On three platforms. Whatever.

    I, too, despise Joust. You are not alone.

    ReplyDelete
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