McGinnis: Present of gaming often brighter than the pastWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“You can get just so much from the good things / You can linger too long in your dreams / Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies / You know, the good old days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”? — Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith”
Thanks to a sale on PlayStation Network, I was finally able to start playing the much-raved about video game “Guacamelee” recently. I’ve found it just as fun as advertised, a 2-D side-scrolling adventure where the player takes control of a Mexican Luchador in an epic struggle against evil. The game is a tremendously entertaining romp through a brightly-colored landscape with a deliciously offbeat sense of humor.
Somewhere among the hours of gameplay, I began reflecting on the traditions this title borrows from. In style and structure, “Guacamelee” owes much to the grand titles of years gone by. The basic controls have much in common with the classic sidescrollers of the NES days, and the ability to go anywhere around a large world at will is reminiscent of the original “Metroid” and “Castlevania” games. (In fact, this genre is typically referred to as “Metroidvania” in tribute.)
I thought to myself how well this game stood up in comparison to the classics it emulates. And then a thought stole across my mind that many old-school gamers would consider sacrilege.
This isn’t “just as good” as those old games. This is better.
There is a tendency among fans of art to lionize classics and hold them up as unchallengeable champions of their form. Woe be to the cultural critic who dares to speak ill of the legends, and I’m as guilty of the knee-jerk vitriol that comes in response as anyone. Musician and journalist Justin Moyer recently unleashed a firestorm by writing a column suggesting that it was time for pop culture to move past The Beatles. And while I totally disagree with his thesis (it’s akin to asking theater companies why they still perform Shakespeare when David Mamet exists), I understand and sympathize with the impulse to suggest that modern work isn’t necessarily inferior simply because it is modern.
The nature of video games as a genre makes them particularly appropriate to consider when looking at the advancing states of art. It is the nature of games that what follows be better than what came before. Developers rarely set out to make a sequel that underwhelms — they want something that far exceeds its predecessor in every way possible.
I’m not talking about graphics here. Technological constraints mean there is a limit to how good a game can look in any particular generation. But how a game controls and plays, the experience it gives you, how fun it is — these are factors that come through no matter if you’re playing a game that’s 30 years or 30 days old. The stereotype holds that games of yesteryear had it all over modern titles in terms of gameplay and fun. But a look at games that emulate those classic experiences shows game makers have not only learned from them, but improved upon them.
Look at “Guacamelee.” Its gameplay may borrow from the Metroidvania vein with the side-scrolling, open world nature. But I would argue that the combat is considerably better than either of the classics it emulates, with fast-paced action that is never hard to follow, and controls that are in-depth but never frustrating. The title’s enemies are tough, but not in a way that makes you feel overwhelmed and outmatched. While there are pits and treacherous jumps a plenty, if you miss, you get deposited back where you jumped — no controller-throwing cheap deaths. And plentiful continue points means no lengthy treks, recovering steps you’ve already taken a million times, just to get back to where you were before you took a wrong step.
This isn’t to say that all modern games are, by definition, better than classics, or that there is no worth to be found in playing and loving the titles of a bygone era. Far from it. A lover of any form of art owes it to themselves to understand and experience great works of the past. Only by knowing where you’ve been can you really understand where you’re going.
Part of that, however, is seeing the journey that art is taking and acknowledging that progress can and has been made. No amount of nostalgia will lead me to believe that vinyl sounds better than CDs or MP3s. I think some of the greatest movies ever made come from the past 20 years. And as fun as games from generations ago were, yes, games today can be even better.