Comparing Old Games to New Games

Is it wrong to compare the gameplay of something old with the gameplay of something new?

Personally, I don’t think so. I think a lot of old games hold up. There’s very different design principles at work between older and newer games. Older games tended to be more about the relative positions and movement patterns of objects, where newer ones are more about animation states. We’ve lost some stuff from old games, and games nowadays have more mechanics at the expense of not making each individual mechanic as deep as it could be. Plus 3d free cameras that orbit the character impose a lot of baggage on games.

Most people think it’s unfair to compare old games to new ones on the grounds that over time there’s technological progression that gives newer games better tools. We learn from old mistakes and hopefully don’t repeat them, instead indulging in a bevy of new mistakes that we refuse to learn from.

A lot of old games had clunky gameplay systems imposed because they were hackneyed together in assembly code or some bullshit. A lot of early 3d games suffered from these types of problems, which is where this argument most commonly comes up.

I think if a game has a specific issue because of the technology of its day, or because the designers weren’t clever enough, then too bad. It’s a flaw of the game. It doesn’t stop being there because the game was, “good for its time.” Games don’t age. We have all these flawed games that did a terrible job with 3d cameras and everyone complained about the cameras back then too. They didn’t get worse over time, they were bad and nearly unusable back then too.

Metroid 1 didn’t have saves, it had passwords, and you had to spend forever farming from tubes if you wanted to get back up to full health after respawning. All these things sucked back in the day and they still suck.

On the other hand, a lot of old games are still pretty damn great. Like Castlevania 1 and 3, Demon’s Crest, Megaman. Shatterhand, Mario, or Gimmick!

Like, this isn’t comparing engine models where there’s a strict upwards trend over time. We see regressions within the same series all the time. Games are dependent on technology to an extent, but largely they’re an art and practice of design. Better 3d camera algorithms had to be developed by trial and error, but it was still possible within that early period to make a very simple workable camera. It was possible from the earliest days of video games to make a solidly designed game. Even a few rare Atari 2600 games were good. It’s about knowing the limits of the medium and working within them. It’s basically always possible to make a good game with given technology. If something is flawed, it being old doesn’t forgive that flaw. It’s not a process of forgiveness or blame. It is what it is, for better or worse.

The comparison I like to make is to Animation. Early animation technology was really bad, because early film technology was also really bad. Here’s Gertie the dinosaur:

And here’s a scene from Pinocchio, made in 1940:

THIS WAS POSSIBLE IN 1940! This is right around when the first electronic programmable computers were being used to crack the Enigma machine in World War 2. Now there are all sorts of effects that are damn near impossible for films back in those days. If you had a shot of a street in perspective and wanted to nudge the angle a little bit, you can forget it. If you ever wanted to pan the camera to another angle, you’d need to draw a really clever and smooth transition to another perspective on another part of the paper such as through the use of curvilinear perspective.

The fundamental principles that enable the creation of good artwork are universal across time. You can make good art no matter what tools you have, it’s always possible. It’s just not always possible to make the type of art you want to make. Modern digital rendering and production tools have enabled a ton of different animation tricks that simply were not possible or realistic to implement before their invention. Doing things like animating large crowds is now way more possible than it ever was before digital techniques.

However, a lot of the best animation was done almost 100 years ago now (about 80 years since Pinocchio). The things that make someone a good animator are constant over time, those old films hold up, and I believe the same is true for games. Tons of trash was made back then, and tons of trash is made today too. The skills to make good animation didn’t change significantly, and I don’t think the skills to design good games is much different either, though I will admit that technology has enabled a diversification of video games in a way that is not comparable to animation.

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