Back in the NES era every game was part of a publisher’s collection, and the collection was expanded in waves. I sort of miss that context. You’d get fold-out posters presenting a broad range of software, all in the same template, as if they all were aspects of a greater whole.
The implication was, to fully understand a given range you needed to collect them all: Kid Niki and Side Pocket and Ring King and Break-Thru. The sense was that any given game was just part of the picture, and together they all added up to something more — like a band’s albums. It helped that across the range they had consistent, usually hand-painted artwork.
It’s this that lent the publishers a sense of an overall creative voice and personality. As if Konami and Acclaim were individual people. A player got to know and appreciate these voices, like old friends. Every new templated game was like the sharing of a new confidence.
A change of template was a change of mission, and a break of template — your Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 3, even Wizards & Warriors — was a radical event. The suggestion that this game stood alone, apart from everything else a publisher had to say, was startling. These were event games. Mission statements.
The non-event games, though — even if they weren’t important unto themselves, they also had a part to play. They were the album tracks to the hit singles of the standalone games. I’ve written before that when I was younger I had no concept of a bad game. There were games that I understood and got into, and there were… strange games. There were big games and there were small games. And time was, for every Metroid or Kid Icarus there were a dozen Wrecking Crews, Gumshoes, Balloon Fights, or Clu-Clu Lands. Collectively these games set the field and the context that both lent the event games their special meaning and made the whole medium feel vibrant, alive, like anything could happen.
Today, every game is a standalone. There isn’t as much sense of a constant dialog, with occasional upsets and asides. In the mainstream at least, nothing is as special and nothing is as intimate. Or as complex and varied. The last vestige was the Sega Dreamcast.
You get some of that now by following indie authors, but you don’t get the context — it’s like iTunes, versus full albums by an artist like Nine Inch Nails. You get bits and pieces; not a sense of place and posterity.