James Matson yells at some kids to get the hell off his lawn, settles into his rocking chair, and rattles off some reasons why retro gaming is what’ll put hairs on your chest.
Gather round kids.
Put down your energy drink and your iPhone 5 in its faux Gameboy rubber case, because old Grandpa Retro D. Domination has got his falsies in, his medication topped up, and is ready to tell a story. This tale, is of the gaming world of old. The gaming world of the 80s and 90s that is now but a memory preserved and held in the minds and hearts of those who grew up in an era when video games were young, brash, ballsy.
If you gave gaming of today a face, a body and a personality he’d be one slick dude. He’d be a city guy, dressed immaculately, impatient and demanding. Often shallow, Mr modern gaming wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny often, and try to confound you with flash that hid a lack of substance beneath. He’s easy to understand, easy to quantify, and easy enough to get along with.
He’s no threat.
Mr old school gaming would be unmitigated chaos on two legs. Unshaven and smelling of a mixture of Brut and fervent man-sweat, old school wouldn’t tolerate any guff from anyone. He’d sort you out right and proper. He’s brilliant and creative and a total basket case. He’d beat you to a pulp just for stepping out of line. And then – when you’re down on the ground – he’d beat on you for being on the ground.
Mr old school represents the wild frontier of gaming, when games were tough, the media was tough, the everything was tough, and not a single gamer whose only grown up on post mid-nineties games would stand a chance of understanding him. Why? Well, like any other group of elderly people fond of dolling out useless information on a variety of subjects, we’re glad you asked…
Now put down that gosh darn energy drink and listen up!
1) The games were tougher than an Android Chuck Norris
Oh, your PvP build in WoW isn’t getting you as many kills as you’d like? Tell us again how hard gaming is. Pffft. Move over kid, you ain’t seen nothing. You’ve been pampered. Load up Airwolf for the Commodore 64, then talk to us about hard. A single twitch in the wrong direction and you’re dead. A single wrong move and you’re toast. Most people don’t even see past the first screen, and quit in sheer frustration. Hell, there’s bound to be a bunch of conspiracy nuts out there who think there is in fact nothing beyond the first screen in Airwolf. The rest is just a myth. Tough game. The first Mega Man on the NES is another fiendishly difficult game. Ghosts N’ Goblins – holy Hell is that a hard game. So hard people have actually died playing it.
Okay, that’s a lie. No one has died. We just said that for effect. Did it work?
The point is, old games are by and large tough as nails. Some are individually tough, but nearly all carry common threads such as limited controls, no save points and back in the day little to no information on how to beat them except what you pick up yourself or learned from friends. Sure, you could shell out for a hardcopy magazine that might have some cheat codes or walk-through guides, but for the most part you were left with your own ingenuity. If you need evidence of this, pick up any bundle of old Commodore or Atari games from a garage sale, you’re almost bound to find bits of paper with maps written out in pencil or other bits of notation to help someone get through a difficult title. Most older games were a simple case of hold your breath, buckle up and give it your best damn shot. No backup, no help. Modern games generally save your progress in the background every step of the way, baby you through the first few levels and provide a glowing arrow to lead you through the rest. If that wasn’t enough, within days of being released the internet is filled with Youtube guides, playthroughs, trainers and cheats.
Seriously. You could sleep your way through most modern games. You kids, no appreciation for how it used to be! Yes, we’re looking at you….
2) Copy protection so ballsy it protected even the owner from playing.
These days, most copy protection – or DRM (Digital Rights Management) for you hipster kids – is a silent partner. It hums away in the background of whatever internet connected, Steam aware, Skynet’s cousin twice-removed game you happen to be playing. You’re either authorised, or you’re not (bugs notwithstanding).
Back in the 80s, copy protection was an arcane art. Not only were you required to keep the manual handy for some games so you could be ready to quote what was written on page 34, paragraph 4, line 1, but if you were less lucky you’d get other contraptions required to prove to the software you were legit. We’re talking the wackiest of whack solutions. James Bond: A Stealth Affair for the Amiga used a colour puzzle to validate your original software. You’d have to sold a greyscale image puzzle in the game using the colour image from the back of the manual. That’s fine, except the colours were a little off, so if you couldn’t guess close enough, bam – no entry. The Colonel’s Bequest adventure game forced you to match on-screen fingerprints using a red-lense magnifying glass while checking the game map for partly hidden fingerprints. The horror. There were a whole host of image matching, paper wheel spinning, colour-coding craziness going on in retro games just to prove you paid for the thing, and if you lost a central part of the copy protection paraphernalia? Well, the jokes on you then.
3) Even the media was against you.
DVDs tend to work pretty well as a game media. They’re not foolproof, but they’re pretty robust. We’re able to go back through our DVD wallets for old games and assuming they’re not scratched to pieces they’ll work a treat. Then there are streamed games – straight from the cloud to your hard drive. Could it be any easier? Ask and ye shall receive. A constantly streaming diet of whatever the hell you feel like. You’ve got it good, kid. Us old timers had to put up with floppy disks. That’s right, flimsy magnetic media that was so prone to errors that sometimes successfully loading a game was a monumental occasion. You’d sit in front of the screen listening to your poor Amiga 500 or Commodore 64 disk drive chugging away – screeching in fact – holding your breath and praying that every painful noise emanating from the drive wasn’t a precursor to ‘BAD FILE’ or ‘Not a DOS disk in DF0’.
Once you saw messages like that, it was immediately crisis mode. Off to X-Copy, DiskSalv or some other disk copy/repair utility to go sector by sector trying to fix the damage. The success rate was low, the emotional binning of disks frequent. This was a bloody, dark world where sometimes just seeing the menu screen of a game could bring a tear of joy to your eyes.
And tapes? Cassette tapes? Don’t even get us started. You could pave a straight road to Hell with all the windy, stretched streamers of game tape that we’ve pulled out of tape drives over the years.
4) The blocky, low res world was open to interpretation
In any modern game, massive advances in 3D graphics – and indeed simple resolution and colour depth – have meant that what the game artists intend you to see, you see. Lush forests, capital starships, the open expanse of a sun drenched desert broken up only by the occasional trails of camel footprints. You don’t need any imagination, Unreal Engine has got ya covered. Gamers of old however, will be familiar with having to use no small amount of interpretation to work out what the limited pixels and colours actually meant, what was safe, what wasn’t. We’re not even sure after having played Vampire on the Commodore 64 for the past 20+ years, what the main character is actually supposed to be. A space man? A knight with a bowl on his head? David Letterman? Just some weird little guy. Who knows. Not us. It’s okay though, we’re not going backwards. Games are only getting more realistic, more beautiful, more everything. The only loser might be your imagination, which isn’t as engaged any more, simply because it’s not forced to be.
5) Bugs. You got em? You live with ’em
Release day 1, patch day 2, patch day 24, major server crash day 25, patch day 26. Welcome to modern gaming. Bugs are plentiful, but the always-on nature of online gaming means the patches and content fixes can be dolled out nearly as quickly as the bugs are found in the games. In the 1980s, this simply wasn’t an option. Got a bug in a game that makes your character go whacky on a certain level? Deal with it. Got a bug that stops you from completing the game at all, effectively invalidating the hundreds of hours you’ve poured into the game to complete it? Tough luck mate. Deal with it. That’s retro gaming. You’ve got a game with some individuality, some ‘undocumented features’. Suck it up. Learn to embrace it, or go absolutely crazy trying.
So there you go, champ. As you can see, the world has moved on. Gone are the tough days, gone are the scrapes, scratches and fully fledged blood noses that were a part of gaming past. Is it for the better? Probably. Maybe. That’s a tough call. Some things are for the better, that’s for sure, but some things – good things – have been lost along the way too. And we’re not above seeing that modern gaming comes with its own share of challenges unknown to the gamers of old. Social gaming – the rise of the MMORPG – brought with it an entirely new dimension of difficulty. No longer was it just you versus the game. It became you versus the social aspects of other people, hundreds of thousands of them, living and breathing and sharing a virtual environment. It wasn’t just dealing with enemies, it was dealing with people and their entirely unpredictable nature. Fighting against the game design at the same time you fought against the wants, needs and desires of living, breathing human beings. That’s a tough gig.
But it’ll never be Mr old school gaming tough.