Once thought a hobby strictly for children and the socially awkward, gaming has exploded into a viable medium for both thoughtful narratives and engaging competition, telling great stories and providing deep, multi-tiered mechanical playgrounds for self-improvement and competitive betterment. Yet we can't forget where gaming once was, and both the brilliant ways and arguably necessary missteps designers made due with both limited resources and cultural impact.
Without modern hardware to render characters, environments, and music as designers pictured in their heads, they had limited toolsets to craft engaging, enthralling games.
The original Castlevania, one of the NES's best titles and a standout game to this day (you can buy it on your Wii), encapsulates everything about standout classic game design. With two buttons, Castlevania gives you all the tools you need: a whip attack with a slight delay, an instant jump for situations where the whip is too slow, swappable sub-weapons with various practical applications, and impeccably crafted levels with intelligent enemy placement. Aesthetically, it thoughtfully used the NES's limited color palette to craft vibrant, easy to follow visuals, ensuring protagonist Simon Belmont is always visible against the environment.
But nostalgia sometimes clouds judgment, and not every formula deserves to survive.
While the 2D Super Mario games stand the test of time, they also force you to hold a button to run, an action you realistically always want to be doing if you want to play even halfway optimally. Running improves your speed on the ground and, more importantly, while jumping, presenting only one real drawback (extra momentum) with an easy workaround (let go of the run button).
Megaman titles excel in offering responsive control and levels designed to teach you their mechanics as you play, but later titles force you to hold a button to "charge" your shot, encouraging you to hold the fire button any time you're not shooting.
Both Mario and Megaman could utilize mechanics where holding a button for extended periods of time — unnecessary at best, physically straining at worst — was the exception and not the rule, though many modern titles paying homage to those games follow similar ideologies, including Nintendo and Capcom's own throwbacks.
Nostalgia can also foster elitism, where fans of the games they grew up with fail to see modern games' merits. The recently released Gears of War 3 features mostly excellent encounter design in its single player campaign, encouraging thoughtful consideration of the situation, your tools, positioning, and enemy weaknesses. Regardless, the game is a popular target, garnering attacks regarding the unrealistic proportions of its characters. No doubt its popularity overshadows the solid mechanical foundation every aspect of the game is built on, both from its diehard fans and most vocal critics.
Gaming's rise to prominence is a social victory, make no mistake. Finally seen for the deep, vibrant medium it's always been, gaming yet remains a hotbed of untapped potential, both good and bad. As we move forward, both gamers and designers mustn't forget to look back, remembering both the merits and downfalls of yesterday's design and acknowledging where today's games succeed.
There's fun to be had, emotions to be felt, and betterment to be experienced.
Carlos Alexandre is a self-described handsome fat man. He ponders his entertainment, and you can find said ponderings on both his website and the podcast he co-hosts.