Readers! I have discovered a remarkable gaming system that I am excited to talk about. Yes, dear LusiGoblins, I have discovered a little retro system called the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I am not sure how popular or critically acclaimed it was in its time, but I have to say that it is impressing me quite a bit. Let me talk about a few of the games that are impressing me most.
Super Mario World
Despite a lack of wall jump, this ancient Mario title is tight as hell. In fact, its lack of a wall jump is part of what makes it so good. I love modern Mario’s acrobatics, but the challenge of the games have not scaled to match Mario’s abilities. In Super Mario World, the reason why the ability to save is infrequent becomes apparent. In the modern games, it feels like nothing but an inconvenience, but it started so that the games would actually be difficult. With harder levels and the pressure on to die less frequently lest multiple levels need to be played over again, players are forced to improve to progress in the game. It makes for a higher frustration level, but the payoff is immense. I think this works because the teaching methods are inherent in the game design and progress is directly tied to player skill.
Although one area in which I was surprised negatively was the music. Sure, it is iconic, but it is incredibly limited and despite being catchy, I do not find it to go far beyond competent. This appears to be a rare case of a game carrying the music when it usually goes the other way around. I suppose Koji Kondo should be commended for the distance he stretched one tune, but I do not think that the variation form – with a few notable exceptions – has much use beyond personal exploration. And speaking of dissenting music opinions.
Link to the Past
The main Zelda theme can go jump off a lake. The Dark World theme is great and Link to the Past overall has a respectable soundtrack – though far from the greatest in the series – but the main Zelda theme is not meant to be repeated. In that way I feel like it is decent music but pretty horrible video game music. It works when it weaves in and out of a theme and does not try to carry itself over and over, minute after minute. It is not an interesting enough tune to manage repetition and it is not ambient enough to get away with it in the other direction. No thanks.
Otherwise, Link to the Past is tops. It is a game I have attempted to beat on multiple occasions, but it is different this time. I know it sounds indulgent (especially considering the defunct state of LFoPD, but since starting to think as a game developer, it has expanded my appreciation of video games just as I feel like composing music helps me appreciate the compositions of others in a way I could not otherwise. This transformation has forced me to reject some games that I used to swear by and has helped me gain a deeper respect for others, but the place I feel it has done the most good for me is to allow me to go back and play older games in a different way. I would always attempt to put myself in the shoes of a player playing a game for the first time when I attempted older games, but it had middling results. For some reason, I feel I can now react to the game design itself regardless of its age. Good art is timeless, and this is true even for an art tied to something like technology. The weaker games let technology date it while the stronger ones harness it.
Link to the Past, is a fine adventure game and as impressive a leap in design from Zelda II as Ocarina of Time was from LttP. Like Ocarina of Time, Link to the Past is aware of the world it is presenting players and then rewards those players for exploring it accordingly. Both require the expanse of time to form a proper relationship with them and both are prepared to give back. I am not terribly far into the game, but I am farther than I have been before and I am excited to finally complete it.
I feel like the Super Nintendo era was so successful because it was the perfect time for a company like Nintendo to understand its own hardware and the market was in the right place to receive great games. The mass popularization of video games timed with the move into the far-more-complicated-to-understand-and-master 3D space has made for a much slower evolution of good game design, but I do feel like the paths are finally beginning to meet. Playing a game like Link to the Past which is so focused in its understanding of what it is and what it needs to be helps me further recognize which modern games are beginning to fall into this pattern and which are completely lost. Speaking of…
Assassin’s Creed is Confused
No wonder people hate the main missions. The funny thing is that the main missions have some good ideas in them. They encourage getting to know the mechanics and they encourage slow thoughtful play. The problem arises when none of the rest of the game matches that intention. The game is not a focused mechanics-based game and the game also does not allow its open world elements to bring it focus either. Instead it is a confused mess of developers saying “well, this stuff worked in the past” and cramming it all together. Open world games are such an easy distraction that I do not believe that anybody has understood how to make a game of that nature yet. Unless, of course, we count Link to the Past which makes me all the more excited for the Zelda for Wii U. But I digress. Assassin’s Creed IV has beautiful environments and unbelievable animation. It has an impressive number of locations and things to do. The game controls competently and certain elements are a lot of fun. But it is confused and bulky and does not know what to do with itself. This seems to define a lot of popular games these days and as graphics finally do seem to be reaching a saturation point (Nintendo was a little early in their conveniently cost-effective prediction), perhaps enough developers will begin to understand the technology they are working with and take on the very difficult job of bringing SNES-era focus to far larger projects. I do not believe Ubisoft will be the ones to do this.
I absolutely adore visiting the SNES-era, dear readers. While it does make me pine for those days that I missed being a direct part of, my distance also allows me optimism. I see the glimmers of this excellent design starting to glimmer into modern gaming consciousness and I believe that a second Golden Age is indeed possible. The next five years are going to be very interesting. What do you all think, LusiButtButts? I might not have Mel-style ninja transitions, but I still want you to talk to me in the comments below!