Are Old Games Good?

It’s a question EA bossman Frank Gibeau asked to CVG, and when important people ask questions, then less important people ask the same questions! The salient quote:

“The key thing for us is, if we do bring [any of those] back, the game has got to be good. I don’t know about you but when I look back at GoldenEye, I think of it as this amazing game and the you go and play it and are like, ‘Oh. Really?’. From our perspective we have to manage that element which makes things look nicer in the rear view mirror compared to what you have to do now in the modern day. ”

Of course, Frankie picked the game most likely to get people to say they agree with him, to a ludicrous degree. He ignored the games that “aged well” and that, therefore, we should be remembering.

As usual, he’s half right. Everyone in the fucking universe is half right half the time. He’s half right: old games can suck, but not all of them.

The thing is, we can’t just say, “Old games are shit!” and leave it at that. There is, in nearly every genre, a cutoff point, where games before are hard to play except through the eyes of nostalgia, games after being the same and derivative.

What are these cutoffs? It’s easiest for first person shooters: games like Halo, Half-Life and Unreal are the first “modern” shooters. Dual stick and mouse look are the last major innovation in the genre (no, sticky bombs and shoehorning action movie plots and epic moments into the games don’t count), and anything before that is hard to play. Some of those games, too, are tough to play, because of graphical fidelity: in general, the year 2000 was the cutoff point for 3D graphics being “playable”. In general. There are exceptions, of course, but if I were to pick a blanket point where we figured out graphics, that would be it.

Other genres are harder. Have RPGs moved anywhere since Chrono Trigger? Not really. It’s why the game holds up so well, and why Final Fantasy VI holds up so well: they’re 2D, and they pretty much have everything modern games have. The highest praise I’ve given an RPG since then has been “it’s as good as those games”, which makes them a pretty good cutoff. Real time strategy, similarly, hasn’t moved much since Starcraft, which itself wasn’t much removed from Command and Conquer; traditional strategy neither (but is, in general, a difficult genre to get in to, so it presents its own problems I am ill-equipped to handle).

The genre I’m most interested in as this relates to is the Western RPG. It’s interesting, because besides production values, besides that, where have they gone? Sure, some have gone first person, which creates a different genre, but can you name me major innovations between Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age 2? The combat is more fluid. The story is better written. There’s more blood. Everything is more streamlined and simple. But that’s it: there’s nothingg else that Dragon Age 2 does better than Baldur’s Gate. It’s all production values.

Unfortunately (back to the topic!), it seems that’s Frank Gibeau’s standard. The difference between old and new is production values and interface simplicity. Dungeon Keeper is old and forgotten because it doesn’t feature beautiful graphics, a story penned by the writer of the Lord of the Rings screenplays, and a manageable interface. These are the things it lacks from modern big budget games. Shallow things.

I mean, how far have we come since Dungeon Keeper, in the realm of micro-management sim? We haven’t. It is the Sims, but less accessible and less sadistic (really! Less sadistic than a game about torturing your followers!) That’s it. I played Dungeon Keeper for the first time two years ago, and it held up impressively well. Could it use polishing? Sure it could, because the interface was confusing from someone acclimated to modern controls. But it was still good.

I get the opinion when EA looks at old Bullfrog properties, they don’t see a chance to make games that matter, at all, to “gamers”. They see Dungeon Keeper and they see a game that could probably make a good social game: after all, it’s from that whole “stop the heroes from entering my base!” kind of game that tower defense came from. I think in their minds Dungeon Keeper should be revived as a tower defense game aimed at teenage boys, or as, at best, an Overlord style action-strategy game.

Which is a shame. It’s a shame to throw all old games under the bus to justify whoring out the good ones, because not only does that not make sense under scrutiny, it’s also downright disappointing.