Review All Games as if They’re New

We should have a consistent set of standards for games that doesn’t change over time, a change in our standards reflects that our standards were wrong. There’s this saying that in art you learn the rules before you break the rules, but if you can break the rules, then that indicates that those weren’t the real rules, there’s an even deeper and more universal rule. Einstein disproved newtonian gravity, but he replaced it with special and general relativity. Disproof of something we regard as true means there must be a deeper truth beneath it, that encapsulates everything we already knew about the previous truth, but also includes the exception within the same rule.

When we say a game was “good for its time”, what this should probably be recognized as was, the critics of its time were outright mistaken about the quality of the game. Probably the best example of this was Half-Life 2, a game that wasn’t as good as its immediate prequel.

Right now Zelda: Breath of the Wild seems a lot like the type of game that we’ll look back on 5-10 years from now and say, “it was great for its time, but it hasn’t aged well” when other people make games in a similar style, but better gameplay. We should be recognizing instead that it’s a good game which doesn’t fully live up to its potential and has a number of flaws, which I think many people are actually doing, perhaps because we’re more jaded than in prior generations.

The problem is that when we see incredible innovation in a video game, we ignore our normal priorities and rate it highly for innovation, even if it’s not a great game. Then legitimately good games come along after it, capitalizing on those innovations and demonstrate how lacking the innovator was. But because we called the innovator great in-of itself, we’ve already made a serious error and need to color it as being special within its own time in order to correct for the disparity in quality.

We should recognize technological innovation, but we shouldn’t mistake it for quality. I’ve made this distinction in my remarks on Chivalry and For Honor. They’re innovators, they’re helping to pave the way for something better, show us how it’s done, but some future game is probably going to be the real success in those formats.

When judging games, do you ever take into account their value at the time of release, or is all that matters to you, how they hold up now? MGS1 was a great game for its time. I think it should be respected for that.

I don’t think it should be respected for that, I don’t think it was especially great for its time. I don’t buy into the concept of “great for its time” in the first place.

I mean, look, we have all sorts of historical games that innovated things that nobody gives a shit about. Like Vietcong, which invented regenerating health. Or Space Panic, which is technically the first platformer game. We don’t remember the pre-Wolfenstein First Person Shooters. We barely remember Wolfenstein because Doom was so prolific after it.

If you want to look at other stealth games in the same time period, Thief on PC was way better and released only a month later.

I think MGS1 lacks a lot of the dynamism of other games of the time, because stealth games didn’t really know what they were doing yet.

I don’t care what invented what or what was supposedly groundbreaking or amazing for the time. I don’t think OoT deserves to be considered the best game of all time, or anywhere on the top ten list, no matter what innovations it made.

We literally do not remember the games before pong, yet we hold pong up as the first video game when tennis for two and space war came before it. We don’t remember all the MUDs and MMOs that came before WoW, or before Ultima. It doesn’t matter who invents a concept, it matters who uses it well.

I think the value at the time of release is inconsequential. I don’t think we should defer de facto to the opinions of even a large confluence of prior critics.

So, if games should be judged with a present perspective (e.g. I dunno, say, Killzone 2 is better than Goldeneye 64) then has G64 always been ‘bad’? Can ‘good’ and ‘bad’ change over time? Doesn’t that make them less set in stone than you’d like them to be?

Okay, disclaimer, I’m not an expert on G64, I’ve played a source engine port of it once and never the actual game. So I don’t know if it’s bad or good with any finality.

Assuming it is a bad game, yes, I’d say it’s always been bad. I’d say it was bad for the time, but people didn’t really recognize it.

Of course, if you compare it to other games of the time, it probably still wasn’t great. It has to compete with like, Quake and Unreal. Or Doom and Blood. Or Tribes if you want a multiplayer shooter from 1 year later. Recently on Reddit, my review of Halo 1 was reposted and some people remarked that too many people judge Halo 1 from a modern perspective and forget how revolutionary it was at the time, and praised me for judging it positively without the benefit of nostalgia goggles. The thing is, if I was judging Halo 1 by modern standards, I’d have rated Halo 1 a lot higher than I did. It’s to games older than Halo where the gameplay pales in comparison.

The thing to understand is that you don’t need great technology to make a great game. Again, it’s sort of like Animation. We have amazing programs like Flash, Toonboom, TVPaint, and others that make the work flow a lot simpler for animating cartoons. We can fill animation cels faster than the handpainted cels of the past. We can copy and edit frames more easily, we can see an unlimited number of frames in the context of all the previous ones. Does this mean that modern animation is better than animation from literally 70 years ago? Most of it isn’t. The best of it now is about the same quality as the best of it from back then.

Akira was released in 1988 and with few exceptions you will not find animation better than Akira today. The skills to make great animations are like the skills to make great games. Our animation technology is lightyears ahead of what it was in the 1980s, but the only thing that can create good animation is people who draw or model the right shapes in the right sequence with the right amount of spacing between them on each frame.

I think it’s fair to compare games now to games back then because I don’t think games have largely gotten better over time, technology has simply allowed us to make better FPS games than Hover Tank (an id soft FPS that predates wolfenstein 3d and amazingly is still not the first FPS). I don’t think that bad and good have changed over time. I think hindsight is 20:20. We couldn’t make FPS games on the NES, but we got past the technological chokepoint where they became possible to do well, and we have largely mismanaged our resources in delivering that. Technology enables us to deliver good games of new varieties more than it enables us to deliver flat-out better games. Technology had to get to a certain point for Doom and Quake to be possible, and before that, it just wasn’t possible to make a good first person shooter, so all the innovators be damned, they came too soon or didn’t do enough with what they had. Tried to make the wrong type of game before they had the right tech to make it actually work.

I’d say that the games of the past we praised highly back then, shouldn’t have been praised highly back then. You think we’d know better now, but we really don’t. Look at the game scores. Look at the facebook memes about terrible 7th gen games regarded as old classics by people who are practically children. There was an Assassin’s Creed movie and people have nostalgia for Nuketown. We’re long past having our priorities out of order. If hindsight is fucked for the blight that was console gen 5, then we’re likely just as fucked for gen 7 and 8.

So yeah, judge with a present or “timeless” perspective. Try to keep everything on the same scale. Also when reviewing new games, don’t buy into hype. I’ve been burned on enough games (Brawl, Dark Souls 2) to stop getting hyped for new releases.

But what if a game comes along that puts the rest of its genre to shame? Was DMC1 mediocre the day it released just because DMC3 and 4 were theoretical possibilities?

I’m not very concerned with that, because I’m not exclusively comparing inside genres. DMC1 was good, but not amazingly outstanding if you look at it in the context of the time it came from (if you ask me). It showed how 3d beat em ups could be done, but I think the moveset design and enemy designs were somewhat lacking.

It kind of sits in the same place as Dark Messiah, Zeno Clash, and Chivalry do for First Person Melee Combat games. It’s an early pioneer that is doing an alright job, and things came along later to actually flesh it out, but while it might be a good game, I wouldn’t list it as being one of the best games ever, even if context isn’t later created for how good the genre can be.

I think I could name a bunch of burgeoning genres that exist right now that haven’t quite hit that high point yet, like 3d beat em ups eventually did; such as first person platformers, free cam 3d fighting games, or turn based RPGs.

I mean, in theory, there’s always a way for games to be better than prior ones. There’s always flaws to correct, content to add, etc, but we can’t redefine the scale as new things come in that hit a higher top bound. Realistically these things happen so infrequently that it’s easy to just give them a 10/10 without having to adjust the whole scale for quality Inflation.

Do you think the increase tech made devs become lazy in game design? it seems a lot of older games with limited tech have better design like looking glass games, lets say thief 1 and 2? My theory is that limitation produces creativity. Thoughts?

I think they were always lousy in design, but we don’t notice the stinkers (and there were a metric fuckton of them). Nobody’s been perfectly consistent in releasing hits. I can agree that restrictions breed creativity and once you free up all restrictions, you have people trying to throw as much tech as they can at problems instead of building more constrained systems that can’t totally live up to their vision, but which are more sound on a design scale. You could argue that all the great chiptunes of early video games were there because they didn’t have diversity of sound, just a few instruments with a wide range of tones.

As for the decline of Thief in particular, you can chalk that up to the actual politics of the company more than tech, but tech has certainly had a weird involvement with the downfall of Thief. Look at Rope Arrows in particular. They were very robust in the original two thief games, then missing in deadly shadows and thi4f. Thi4f in particular has no excuse here, it’s running on a system that’s ludicrously more powerful than the original two thief games, but they didn’t allow rope arrows to be shot into any wooden surface because then you might be able to see too much of the environment at once and overload the tiny console memory on modern systems.

We have such ludicrously more powerful systems, yet within each respective genre, the games keep getting slower.

I think there’s been all manner of trends that have lead to AAA game design becoming worse over time, but I don’t think you can directly say that we’re lazier now that we have better tech. There’s a lot of other reasons we’ve lost our way, and the progression up through better technology is related to it, but not a direct cause.

Do you think games can be good for their time, but not good now, because of how stuff like controls have been more refined since. I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of PS1 games at the time, but don’t now, because their controls are just too dated.

I’ll say what I said before, I think hindsight is 20:20. There are plenty of older games without “dated” controls.

I don’t think games should be described as dated. I think we settled for what we had because we didn’t have a wide bevy of experience when we were younger. (assuming you weren’t old enough to have experienced the NES and SNES before the PS1). It was possible to make good games on that hardware, but most people just didn’t.

I guess what I’m getting at, with relativity, is that you can say that isn’t funny, or this game is good, but just saying that it’s relative, to me, seems like nonsense. We have ways of quantifying such things and theories to understand what makes these things good or not. Your opinion?

“It’s much like what you were talking about when replying to the Digibro video about things that are objectively good or not. Saying, “It’s just an opinion” or “It’s all relative” doesn’t seem to get anywhere.”

I don’t have much to add to that. It’s more interesting and rewarding to be qualitative.

But take Sonic for example. Those games were good platformers when everything around them was a subpar platformer except Nintendo games. Now they’re subpar platformers because the bar has been raised by so many newer games – Rayman Legends and DKCTF come to mind as my favourites.

Maybe I’m too young to really comment on this, but I knew a bunch of people who weren’t that fond of sonic before Rayman Legends and DKCTF came out. The perspective always seemed that sonic never quite worked the way it was supposed to. “You run really fast, then hit something and dead stop,” was the description I heard a lot.

But then again, I largely grew up after 3d sonic was already a thing.

There were a lot of great non-nintendo NES and SNES platformers, but I just don’t have the historical perspective on this. Maybe we can agree that standards rise? Maybe not? I’m still not inclined to adjust the rating scale for anything from here on out.

3 thoughts on “Review All Games as if They’re New

  1. Emil Karlsson January 30, 2018 / 7:46 am

    As a popperian I think you are right about that you shouldn’t take release date into account when judging whether a game is good or bad. Release date is irrelevant. In the beginning of this piece you say: “We should have a consistent set of standards for games that doesn’t change over time, a change in our standards reflects that our standards were wrong.”. In my mind, the first statement is wrong. We should change our standards, that’s progress. But we should of course judge old games against the new and better standards.

    I really like the analogy to physics. Genereal relativity was always a better theory than Newton’s theory. But Newtons theory of gravity where still pretty great compared to everything before that. And I see no reason why this can’t go on forever. This would mean that in hindsight all games would seem to be bad, which actually is great becasue it means there will always be ways to progress. As phycisist David Deutsch would say: We’re alwat at the beginning of infinity. (The Beginning of Infinity is a great book, you should read it if you are interested in epistemology)


  2. Spencer H July 11, 2018 / 9:30 pm

    Bookmarked. This is one of the best explanations I’ve ever found as to why “it was good for its time” isn’t a legitimate factor in games critique. If I could get every gamer and game critic in the world to read this, I would.


  3. Kenneth Dillworth December 19, 2022 / 11:45 pm

    That sonic comment really dates it to the pre-mania days when that game came out to critical acclaims. there were a ton of great platformers pre-sonic and sonic is a great platformer because its mix of physics based puzzle platforming with non-linear level design that you get to from using the systems is unmatched. DKC and Rayman are excellent but theyre linear 2d collectathons


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