NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint. Continue reading “NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History”

Mega hurt

Jesus, Megaman 3 is hard.

Despite the uninspiring music and level design, and second-class boss design, I might have a higher estimation of the game were I able to beat a level or two. Maybe once, in fourteen years.

A criticism often levied against the second game — indeed the only frequent one I hear — is that it is too easy. Usually it’s the hardcore assholes who lay the claim, although other, less hardcore, sometimes not-at-all-assholes sometimes agree. I have always found the US version of the game at just the right level: tough enough to hold my attention, while forgiving enough that I can play the damned thing.

As regards the follow-up, I just don’t understand the appeal here. Were the game itself rewarding enough to drive me through the frustration, that would be fine. Megaman III, though, makes me feel even worse than when I play Ninja Gaiden III. At least the latter game is such a bizarre failure that I am compelled by a dark curiosity. Megaman III isn’t so charming as to be poor. It’s just dull. Way too dull to be way too hard. It seems to expect me to bring my own baggage: to play it, and like it, just because I played and liked its predecessor.

Then, I have never enjoyed Streets of Rage II as much as the first game. I feel Sonic 2 loses a lot of the appeal of the original. I don’t enjoy King of Fighters 2000 or ’97 nearly as much as the chapters to which they are mere upgrades. Perhaps the game is just too polished for my tastes. Perhaps the implicit inertia in its design and execution offends me on some level that I cannot justify in rational terms.

Or perhaps I’m just not hardcore enough.

I guess I can live with that.

Monsters known as “Hellspawn”

Oh, there is a Japanese dub. Was this in the menu before? I don’t recall seeing it. Although still not perfect, the acting here is about the level of a decent-budget anime. Especially given the setting and the subject, the game sounds far less proposterous this way.

Yeah. The only part of the game which is really tough so far is in the jumping. And that is not so much because the jumping itself is poorly-done; it’s just that it can take some trial-and-error to gauge where Hotsuma can leap and where he can’t. The game does not really support this approach: when you fall, you die; when you die, it’s game over. You must start the round again from the beginning. This can be refreshing; in this way, you learn the hard way how to blast through a level without error — as with, say, Castlevania. For platforming sections, and for other areas where you’re just trying to figure out how to progress, it is less refreshing.

Still. This is kind of fun, so far. Although I guess it does have some Shinobi-ish qualities after all — they are just minimized — the game continues to remind me more of Ninja Gaiden. Which in itself is fun, since — as I mentioned a while ago — the new Ninja Gaiden reminds me more of Shinobi than of Ninja Gaiden.

I think I am on the doorstep of a mild sickness. I am doing my best to backpedal.

Videogaming 101

Castlevania
Contra
Double Dragon
Dragon Warrior
Final Fantasy
Gradius
Ikari Warriors
King of Fighters
Makai Mura
Mario
Megaman
Metal Gear
Metroid
Ninja Gaiden
Phantasy Star
Shinobi
Sonic
Street Fighter
Virtua Fighter
Zelda

These are, I think, the twenty most vital series with which a person must familiarize one’s self if one desires to gain a decent background in videogames. Console-centric, of course. PCs are, as usual, another matter entirely.

This isn’t even getting into the important one-off games (Strider, Kid Icarus, Outrun) or the other vitally important series within particular genres represented here (Streets of Rage, R-Type, Shining). Or just the individual games and series which are just plain terrific but obviously not part of a core curriculum (… nearly anything by Treasure?).

And then there are series like Panzer Dragoon or which seem like they should belong, but which remain just low-key enough to remain for a deeper investigation.

There are a host of reasons why I don’t include many pre-crash games or series here — Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Defender. Basically I consider that another topic altogether, important but not immediately relevent to the post-crash concept of videogames.

Later semesters can dig into the more esoteric, or formational, or modern games and series. But this is a decent beginning, I think.

Cell division

Legally, I must comment that Metroid Prime has the best music in the world.

Something weird comes over me, just sitting and listening to the theme which plays behind the game options menu (one button-press past the title screen).

Game music has done odd things with my emotions on numerous previous occasions. It has ever since the original Legend of Zelda, where the first time I placed the game into my NES I simply stared at the TV for what might have been half an hour for all I know, listening to Kondo’s lilting title theme and watching the item scroll. It does when I watch the opening FMV to the first Sonic Adventure. The Phantasy Star II score has done mountains for me.

But even in the best game scores — Jet Set Radio, Streets of Rage, Ninja Gaiden II — generally the best that happens is that they impress the hell out of me and then that’s that. And even in the cases where I’ve been struck more deeply (for one reason or another), generally it’s been a single blow — often a manipulative one — in an otherwise so-so score.

Frankly, the reason the intro to Sonic Adventure does a weird job with my chest lies more in the direction of the intro sequence and my own personal share of nostalgia than anything about the music on its own. Heck, I’m not even very fond of half of the music in that game for its own merit. What music I do like well is mostly from Kumatani Fumie’s end of the stick rather than that of Jun Senoue.

Kenji Yamamoto has done something different here. I can’t explain it rationally. But it fucks with my head. The more I listen to it, the more this becomes true.

I’m afraid I’m going to develop a nervous condition, playing this game.

A bigger one, I mean.

I find this interesting, as I’ve honestly never been as impressed with the Super Metroid score as just about everyone else on the planet. It didn’t come near to Hip Tanaka’s original vision, or even the chirpy B-ambience of Return of Samus (a soundtrack which I still contend has never gotten its proper due). Super Metroid‘s music was appropriate, well-written, and… there. It suited the game, and sounded Metroidy.

But this? Ye god.

Again, I feel more or less exactly as I felt when I was eight and Zelda was new. And this fact is all the more peculiar just because I’m no longer eight years old. Zelda isn’t new. Metroid isn’t new. I’ve played so many games. I’ve seen so many conventions. Cleverness and skill and joy and wonder are about the best I can expect. That anyone can expect who has been around as long as I have.

There just isn’t a lot out there which feels new anymore. There aren’t any more revelations. There’s no new life to discover.

But perhaps there is.

And perhaps it’s not in Japan?

Who would have thought.

It’s not that this game is anything so totally original that it should — taken as a mass of parts — be as much of a breakthrough as Zelda. We’ve seen most of the elements here in at least some form before, for years on end. Some of the incarnations perhaps aren’t even all that different.

Half-Life was a step away from its FPS roots, and toward a more evolved gaming sensibility — and look at where that got it. Metroid Prime, I suppose, a person could consider the next logical step in this direction. Except that when you pull its laces, this is something else entirely.

I guess the way one could put it is that what this game feels like is something close to a culmination of what we’ve learned over the past thirty years of game design. Someone managed to boil it down and make The Game — or something like it. After all of the struggling since the last checkpoint, suddenly we’ve got progress. And we’re allowed to move on.

I’ve not played Eternal Darkness yet, but it’s worth noting again that this game was developed by an American studio, with aid from Nintendo. I imagine it’s got its flaws, but it still sounds like that game did a hell of a lot more right than most games have been doing lately. And like it had a solid vision to it.

Edit:

Nintendo has been doing a lot for the industry lately. They’ve gone through some pretty huge changes in attitude since the glory days of the NES, and now seem to be pretty much content to be Nintendo. I keep harping on that Q-fund thing of Yamauchi’s, but I feel it’s a lot more important than it looks. It fits right in with the recent “apprenticeship” system of game design that Miyamoto’s been pioneering, and what Nintendo’s been doing with second and third parties.

They’ve got the money and the expertise, so they’re investing it in the next generation. They won’t have it forever. Miyamoto won’t be around forever. Nintendo won’t be. But the art will remain, the skills will flourish. And maybe someone else will march on to victory, birthed from the seeds of that knowledge and support.

Sure, Nintendo is acting in Nintendo’s best interest — but they don’t have to do it in such an enlightened way. The fact that they are, says mountains to me and sets a tremendous example for the rest of the industry.

I think we’re closing in on a new era here. And it’s not going to come from where we expect. The old guard is starting to break down. The entire old infrastructure.

Just look at all of the shit happening in the industry right now. If you’re clinging to the old ways, it’s bad news. And it’s pretty scary. But there’s a new wind in the air, and just about everyone is clueless about it so far. If there’s any time to block one’s sails, I think this is it.

And dammit, I want a copy of this soundtrack.