By V. Taylor
Imagine a video game that tested your mettle to the point where you would be so emotionally invested, beating it would seem like winning a world war singlehandedly. Does not sound that fun, does it? Well, back in the 80s, amidst the synthesizers and disco was a budding video gaming industry that was pumping out game titles that did just that. Compared to the games of today, retro titles were undoubtedly harder, had steep learning curves, and were merciless when it came to game mechanics.
The Birth of Gaming
Time to bust your brain a tad. Ever here of Tennis for Two? It came out in 1958 and was made by William Higinbotham, one of the developers of the first atomic bomb. To many, Tennis for Two is the first video game ever. It could be played on an oscilloscope screen that lit up via cathode ray tubing. You controlled the ball by holding a controller, pushing buttons and rotating dials.
The first real adventure game to create the ripple that changed with face of gaming forever was a 1962 release called Spacewar. It was actually a computer game and the first of its kind to render actual images. The creator, Steve Russell of MIT and Stanford University, wrote the game using a PDP-1, a tiny computer that used cathode ray tubes. The computer was perfect for the back and forth controls and photon torpedo firing space cruisers drifting through blackness.
Steve Russell later introduced computer game design and programming to Nolan Bushnell. Yes, that Nolan Bushnell, the guy who founded Atari.
In the 1970s, Bushnell met up with Ted Dabney and made their first commercial arcade game called Computer Space. Later that year, college students introduced the world to Oregon Trail, which was soon to be found on almost every school computer well into the early 2000s.
1972 saw the birth of the first console that included 12 games and could be plugged into the television. It was called the Magnavox Odyssey. Sadly, the father of video games, Ralph Baer, passed away in 2014. In 1975, Atari came out with Pong for your television; and in 1977, the Atari 2600 revolutionized games forever. The console improved upon what the Odyssey started–players could now save their information, could enjoy colored pixels, change the difficulty level (as if you would want to), and could use a joystick.
80s Technical Difficulties
Pac-man, Donkey Kong, Tetris, and the NES. What do these all have in common? They came out in the 1980s, and they were all incredibly difficult. Not only did these games require hardcore focus, manipulation of difficult controls, memory, mental endurance, and hand-eye coordination, they had ridiculous hardware constraints.
The NES was a masterpiece then. But compared to what we have today, it was the Frankenstein of consoles. The NES had a 52 shade color palette, a resolution of 256×224, 2kb of RAM, 32kb of ROM, and a processing speed of 1.7MHz. Considering that, it is no surprise most games only had 10 levels to complete. 10 very excruciatingly difficult levels.
In order to extend the playtime, developers could not give in-depth stories. There was just not enough room or processing power to make complicated storylines back then. So developers decided to be a little sadistic. Retro titles were notorious for exponentially increasing levels of difficulty that made you actually want those 1000 extra lives. Part of this carries over from the arcade gaming regime, where the number of coins you popped in the machine to play was where the profits came from.
Plus, you had expert games crafting and debugging the games that were entering the market. For people that played recreationally, the skill set was entirely different.
90s and early 2000s Nostalgia
Sometimes my friends and I sit around and talk about all the memories we had made when playing SNES games like Porky Pig’s Adventure, Scooby Doo, or PlayStation titles like Parasite Eve, Resident Evil, or Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog. The complicated controls of the SNES Street Fighter still make me groan when I try to get Chun Li to do that whirlwind kick. But had me the most recent installment of Street Fighter and I will almost mindlessly do every combination at least once. And win.
What makes people sigh so heavily and want to reply these video games from the 90s and early 2000s. So many games back then–like the beginning volumes of Final Fantasy–affected people on such an emotional scale. The improvements to music, voices, graphics, and the duration of game play meant that the draw to specific titles relied solely on the content, the story, that was provided. The innovations in the video gaming industry was found in the conglomeration of improved video rendering technology and storytelling elements.
For those who grew up with these games, the adventures we took part in as the hero of the tale was like playing an active role in a storybook.
The Beginning of Now
So when did the games of today begin to get so easy? Around 2012 and 2013, there was another evolution that brings us to the present state of video gaming. The Playstation 3 and Xbox successfully integrated the ever-popular internet into their systems, meaning that people could now play with friends from all over the world, rather than gathering on the couch for Super Mario Smash Bros. Yet, is it the multi platform, multiplayer components that have made games less difficult?
Yes and no. Games have amazing graphics, but the stories are less immersive. This can be because environmental immersion is easier than emotional immersion, especially when more than one person is involved in game play. Second, gaming mechanics have changed to make big explosions and pretty visuals rather than force people to struggle to even jump across a gap in a platform.
Mechanics: Past vs. Present
Back in the 80s, if you jumped and died, you started from the beginning and lost all progress. Now, you can get resuscitated by another player, use an extra life, or start from a checkpoint. But other features have been made more friendly for casual gamers:
1. Save Points
I remember in Earthworm Jim getting to the same high level, dying, and having to start over from the level one again and again. I loved to hate that game. Compare that to today’s games, where you can save right before a boss battle, and if you fail epically, no worries! Just restart the game and try again.
Or take Contra, by Konami, a game that gave you 3 continues and 8 levels to get through. A single bullet could kill you. Thank goodness for the Konami code, right?
2. Health Points
There once was a time when you had 3 hearts (or were lucky to have an HP bar at all). If you touch fire, you died. If you hit a stalagmite, you died. Like in Mario or Megaman. Presently, games are in favor of the regenerating HP system. If you get wounded, you gradually recover, or can pop a health tonic, and everything is right as rain. This is quite forgiving when you think about it. Not only do you have more time to learn the mechanics of a boss battle, but you have more control of the situation.
3. Instant Gratification
NES had a famous message at the end of beating a game: “Conglatuation!” That was it. You devoted hours of your life, shaved off years because of the stress, and all you got was a horribly spelled exclamation.
But that is not good enough anymore. Not only do most gamers now require leveling up bonus, there are expectations of achievements, fancy weapons, unlockable characters, hidden levels, and other means of instant gratification. This is not just because people do not like going splat and receiving a strobing Game Over every 2 minutes. There are simply so many games out there that developers decided it was better to treat the players than fuel their frustrations.
4. Casual Gamers
This is mainly the cause of most games decreasing in difficulty. More people are gaming now more than ever. PC, Nintendo 3DS, Playstation, Xbox, and smartphone-based games are all merging into one entity (though some might feel one platform reigns supreme over others). Games must know provide a difficulty that lets everyone play, no matter how skilled they are. Previously mentioned, games used to be made by experts for experts, so you had no choice to adapt in order to succeed.
Video games have always been amazing feats of technology. In the past, with the limited capabilities of the machinery and complicated minds of the developers, games back then were a lot different than they are now in both look and feel. Though time continues to change how people play video games, as well as the mechanics included, no one can say video games will cease to be entertaining. With virtual reality on the rise, perhaps the next level of difficulty to surpass is drawing ourselves out of the VR world!
Epstein, Eli. (2015). Tech time machine: the evolution of gaming. Mashable. Retrieved from (http://mashable.com/2015/01/08/gaming-tech-ces/#jx2kMCd_kkq9).
Gooden, Nicholas. (N.d.). History and evolution of video games. ACM: Computers in Entertainment. Retrieved (https://cie.acm.org/blog/history-and-evolution-video-games/).