Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Going Old School

Today marks an exciting experiment in the world of gaming.
I hooked up the ol' Sega Genesis today, and pulled out the first games I could find. It's amazing what games hold up to the test of time, and why. Back in the days before graphics made the game, it was really a matter of whether or not the game was any fun.
I miss those days.
Needless to say, I think the results of my experiment can truly determine what makes (or made) a game good.

Let's look at the results:

Sonic The Hedgehog:
After 10 botched attempts to get the debug mode (you only think you remember how to do it!), I actually decided to start playing the game. Believe it or not, there is still a fantastic sense of speed in this game (especially when rolling), and the difficulty of the game is tweaked juuuuuuuuust right: you never feel like you have unlimited lives, but at the same time, you know you won't be flinging the controller just yet. The bonus stages still give me seizures, and I still use the level select cheat like a bastard, but it's all in good fun. Impressively, the game manages to incorporate "obstacles" (underwater areas, teeter-totter slingshots, rock pushing) that don't feel as though they were tacked on: probably because they weren't cliche at the time. The challanges are there, and every stage feels different. Also, three cheers for checkpoints. There are STILL games that don't incorporate these!
Oh, and the soundtrack kicks ass.

Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude:
What the hell was I smoking when I bought this (Actually, this marks the first and last time that I bought a game based solely on good reviews)? I remember the day I brought it home, my older brother said, "what the hell are you doing? This is shit. AND it isn't two players." He was right then, and he's right now. Greendog came along during the peak of the Genesis' life cycle (I think '92, right after Sonic 2 was released), and while it looked the part, it had some of the sloppiest game play I've ever seen. Built as a mish-mash of various genres, Greendog basically had you throwing a frisbee at animals until they exploded (was PETA even around in '92?). The game stole elements from Pitfall! (lots of vine-swinging), Sonic (underwater stage where you need air to survive), and a lot of games that were based on impossible jumps (Cool Spot, Revenge of Shinobi...etc). Problem is, when you put all of those "looks like you just died" elements together with only 3 lives (and one continue), odds are that someone is going to get frustrated. That someone is me.
Granted, Greendog does a few things right: the powerups were rather clever (I personally enjoyed the "SuperDisc" that hovers next to you and kills everything), the usage of the dog was intuitive (he kills enemies for you as long as you collect bones), and the skateboarding/rollerblading scenes were a refreshing change (except that every jump was timed to the millisecond, usually resulting in death).
Yeah...I think Greendog is going into cold storage.

I had forgotten why this game was so damned popular. Good looks helped, but the frantic 2 on 2 gameplay just cannot be beaten (I was also thrilled to discover that my old record was still on the game). Continuing my run of dominance, I played a few games and boiled down the gameplay. Basically, you pick a team with one guy full on dunks, and another guy full on 3-pointers. Then, when you have the ball, you run with the dunker and try and dunk. If you're about to get blocked, you kick it out to the smaller guy (who should be waiting for a three) and sink the bucket. Easy as pie, rinse and repeat.
So what makes this game so special? Thinking that you can move outside the predetermined mold. See, in NBA Jam, it's impossible to blow out your opponent. It can't be done. CPU Assistance makes sure that the guy who just hit 15 dunks in a row can't hit dunk number 16 if it puts your team up by more than 8 points. It's actually more subtle than that (the losing team's accuracy increases, too), but that way, the game always stays close -- even if it is a little obvious.
Also, NBA Jam incorporates some game elements that Midway would learn to milk for all they're worth: "turbo" buttons, and an "on-fire" function. These are basically ways to make the player feel like he has even more control (though you'll really find yourself holding down Turbo all the time, and only getting on fire if you're losing).
All in all, I wouldn't mind taking on some friends, or teaming up with them for a few buckets.

So what have we learned today? Gameplay is the difference. Not graphics, not game type: just if it's fun. So far, the best way to have fun seems to be doing something innovative without forcing it on the player (recent examples: Lost Planet's grappling system, the Wii Controller, the open ended gameplay of the Splinter Cell series...etc).

Let's see if anyone is listening.

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