Editorial: From ground-breaking to well-worn (Part 1)

This week I have decided to (fully) embrace my inner old git, and over the next two weeks will be looking back – way, way back – into gaming past. With this generation’s first-to-release console, the Xbox 360, coming up for seven years old, only Nintendo has thus far shown its next machine to the world. That this generation’s consoles have had greater longevity than previous is undeniable. The single main reason for this seems to be that current technology has reached a kind of tipping point: to make a console with graphical capabilities that dwarf its predecessor is becoming ever more difficult. Without the traditional huge leaps in technology, persuading consumers to upgrade one expensive box for another is a difficult task; hence all three protagonists devoting large amounts of time and money to new control systems, new ways of syncing devices, new ways of playing games. In short, it is not easy to impress your average 2012 gamer.

This has not always been the case. We used to be so easily pleased, so blown away by the merest hint of technological advancement. And this is what I am writing about this week. I present to you the first part of “From ground-breaking to well-worn”. They’re presented in a totally random order by the way.

Speech

Speech is now an integral part of game design. It is used constantly, both for narrative purposes and within gameplay. Bigger budget games even rope in Hollywood actors to lend their (usually abysmal) plots some gravitas. It was not always thus.

The first video game to feature digitised speech was 1980’s Stratovox arcade. I have watched this clip about twelve times, and I am none the wiser as to what the ‘man’ is trying to say. I think at one point he may say “very good”, but at other points he seems to be saying “budgie”. Although Stratovox is a little before even my time, I do know that even a few years later any game that featured speech, no matter how sporadic or poorly implemented, was the talk of the playground.

I distinctly remember the queue to play the Star Wars arcade game at my local fairground. It seemed like days waiting in line before I got to the front. Star Wars, incredibly, featured both barely audible speech and futuristic vector graphics. I can’t remember much about the game itself, only that it seemed like it came from another world. Or galaxy, or something. Games that contained speech had any gameplay inadequacies completely ignored by gamers, so impressed were they by the sound of barely comprehensible synthesised talking . In truth, though speech clarity and frequency did increase with each generation, it still retained its impressiveness until surprisingly recently – I remember being blown away, as late as 1994, by the Mega Drive’s Joe Montana Football 94 featuring commentary, fpr example. Watching the following clip in 2012, I’m not sure I’ll be whingeing about FIFA’s commentary again anytime soon:

It really wasn’t until the launch of Sony’s first Playstation, with its incumbent CD format, that speech became the ever present (so much so that it goes almost unnoticed) part of game design that it is today.

Parallax Scrolling

Frankly, parallax scrolling is such an expected – nay, necessary – part of modern video games, that I don’t expect younger readers to even know what it is. Essentially, it was a way of side scrolling (more of that later) games giving depth to their backgrounds. Scenery that was in the foreground would move quicker than those in the background, giving the illusion of three dimensions. See the below clip of the 1982 arcade Moon Patrol, which popularised the technique, for a visual example:

Right up to, and including, the 16 bit consoles (there is quite clearly a pattern emerging of the subsequent generation changing pretty much everything), games reviews would be full of comments about the amount of layers of parallax scrolling. Big, of course, was better. California Games on the Mega Drive was particularly impressive; just look at the amount of layers! And perhaps forget about the physics engine:

Parallax scrolling was so fashionable in the early 90s that designers seemed determined to shoe horn it in even when not appropriate. The following clip of John Madden ’95 on the Megadrive shows that for some reason the pitch markings move at a different speed to the grass. Unless the markings were three feet tall and solid (which admittedly would make for some hilarious gameplay), this makes zero sense, and in fact I distinctly remember the disorientating effect that the game had.

In fairness, when used imaginatively – such as in the following clip from Castle of Illusion, parallax scrolling really did provide a hitherto unimaginable sense of  immersion, as underwhelming as it may seem now:

Digitised Graphics

Arriving later than digitised speech was the mercifully short-lived fad of digitised graphics. There is one game in particular that I am thinking of here; the execrable 1990 fighting game Pit Fighter.

Pit Fighter was unresponsive, slow, unimaginative drivel. But both the playable characters and the crowd looked like real people – well, real people that have not given their permission to be on a tv show and so have their faces blocked out, anyway – so the game was given an utterly undeserved level of attention.

Perhaps even worse was Mad Dog McCree, which took things even further by using full video. It was terrible – truly, truly terrible – but we all convinced ourselves that in ten years’ time all video games would look like this. Ten years’ time was 2000. It’s safe to say that we were stupid, and that games designers had wisely decided that photo realism was not something that lent itself, ironically, to realistic gameplay, feeling as it did detached and fake. Though modern games, particularly FPS and driving games, feature incredibly realistic graphics, thankfully no-one has attempted to make one in the style of Mad Dog McCree again:

Controllers

The arrival of the Wii has led to a total re-imagining of what a games controller should be. Before voice activation, before motion control,  even before wireless pads, it was a much simpler task for companies to show progression from generation to generation. Below, for example, are the Sega Master System and NES pads respectively:

Sega broke ranks and released their 16 bit console first. As you can see, they had improved their pad by a very obvious 50%:

Of course, Nintendo were having none of this. Anything Sega could do, by adding an extra button, Nintendo could match, via the by now familiar medium of extra button addition:

Actually, this was a doubly aggressive move in what was fast becoming an amount-of-buttons-on-a-control-pad-diplomacy-issue, as you will notice that Nintendo had actually surreptitiously added an additional two shoulder buttons on the SNES pad. Sega was understandably furious at Nintendo’s deviation from the previous understanding that each new console would add just a solitary button, and so went frankly bat shit crazy with its Saturn pad:

That’s right, three more extra buttons! By the time that Nintendo’s N64 was ready, it was almost like Nintendo was taking the piss; taunting its rival by adding 418 buttons, myriad pointy bits and an analogue stick:

In all seriousness, most of these changes saw incremental improvements in comfort and capability, so the addition of each button was of slightly more value than, say, adding an extra blade to a razor and telling people that the razor that you said a year ago was the best razor ever is now actually akin to shaving yourself with your own freshly cut fingernails. Nonetheless, it seems an odd thing to have been so impressed about now, particularly as the trend now seems to be going towards minimising the controller to the point that Microsoft’s follow up to Kinect allegedly features no-one actually doing anything, and the game just playing itself.

Next week, I will conclude this look at things that make me feel old, easily pleased and ungrateful with the effort that goes into making contemporary games.

This rather wonderful piece was brought to you by Olly. He’d like to point out that any Twitter people out there can follow him @OllyRicketts.

 

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