Editorial: From ground-breaking to well-worn (Part 2)

Last week I began looking back into videogame past, looking specifically at those elements which, where once revolutionary, are now taken for granted. I soon found that compiling the list was a bigger than anticipated job, far too big for one article. It turns out there were a lot of things that used to impress me, hence a lot of YouTube clips to be watched myriad times instead of actually writing the article. I therefore present the second half of my rundown of things that, somewhat ludicrously looking back, blew me away back in the day:

Mode 7

I suspect I may have some trouble explaining what the SNES’ ground-breaking graphics mode is to anyone that doesn’t remember it first-hand. I went to Wiki for an authoritative description, and have ended up more confused than when I started. They – that is, the internet – describe it thusly: “Mode 7 is a graphics mode on the Super NES video game console and the Sega CD addon for the Genesis that allows a background layer to be rotated and scaled on a scanline-by-scanline basis to create many different effects. The most famous of these effects is the application of a perspective effect on a background layer by scaling and rotating the background layer in this manner. This transforms the background layer into a 2-dimensional horizontal texture-mapped plane that trades height for depth. Thus, an impression of 3-dimensional graphics is achieved.”

So there you have it. Personally, my preferred description would be along the lines of “that thing that made all SNES games look the same in a spinny sort of a way”. Whichever is the more accurate summary, there is no doubt that Mode 7 was the bane of Mega Drive (Genesis) owners everywhere, what with their machine having a paltry six modes (probably) and far less background spinning. Narrowly missing the cut in terms of machines that featured components that seemed to be as famous as the machines themselves (why has nobody made a movie about this?!) is the Playstation 2’s Emotion Engine. The Emotion Engine, from what I can gather, a canny marketing move designed to make Sony’s machine sound far more futuristic, as well as human, than it actually was. Although actually, you can’t argue with the sheer emotion in the following clip. So so moving:

Real music

Glance at any list of credits for a contemporary video game and you will see rafts of people employed solely to compile the title’s soundtrack. Sports franchises in particular use an eclectic mix of indie, hip hop and electronica as a vital component of the game’s presentation. After all, sports games have a plethora of options to wade through before you’re into the game proper; who wouldn’t want to hear Kasabian on a constant loop? After all, you’ve only heard them 491 times that day already.

Of course, using ‘real’, as opposed to bespoke music is not always highly irritating; I have mentioned before, for example, that the use of Jose Gonzalez to soundtrack your arrival in Mexico in Red Dead Redemption is truly inspired. The game that really started the move towards using real, and in many cases well known music was the original Wipeout, released in 1995 on the Sony Playstation. With its mix of intense graphics and soundtrack courtesy of electronic behemoths Orbital and The Chemical Brothers, Wipeout was an integral part of Sony’s campaign to de-geek gaming as a pastime.

Until Wipeout, the previous golden age for video game music was undoubtedly the 1980s and, more specifically, the work of Rob Hubbard on the Commodore 64. Hubbard was, at one point, one of the most famous people in the entire games industry, his name being enough to garner hype and attention for an upcoming game. Granted, the following clips don’t exactly sound impressive now, but they were leagues beyond what anyone else was able to extract from such limited technology. And, actually, they do still sound good, so there..

Bosses

Back when games were altogether simpler affairs (linear, side scrolling, limited lives), an aspect that could mark a game out as truly special were its end of level bosses. The first arcade game to feature a boss was the 1979 shoot ‘em up Galaxian, in which the usual tiny little enemy spaceships were often protected by bigger enemies.

Bosses have always been a central part of both RPG and platform games. The Legend of Zelda on the NES featured bosses that were technically impressive (being much larger than the game’s other sprites) and required a variety of techniques to defeat them.

As the industry progressed, so bosses became more frequent, more sophisticated and often more frustrating. In Doctor Robotnik and Bowser, both Mario and Sonic featured recurring bosses that were essential to the games’ narratives as well as being iconic in their own right.

The best bosses always feature more impressive graphics than any other character in the game (no matter which generation of console), and begin with you dying about 36 times, declaring them “impossible”, before suddenly twigging what the enemy’s weak spot is just before you get tempted to cheat. Modern examples of iconic bosses are becoming ever less frequent as games move away from traditional levels. That said, there are exceptions, such as this beast from Resident Evil 4.

Opening Sequences/Loading screens

Cut scenes have become so impressive (as well as ubiquitous) that their impact has all but diminished. There was a time, however, when an opening sequence was a rarity, a technically impressive one rarer still. The king of opening sequences was undoubtedly the Commodore Amiga. The following is from Shadow of the Beast II, and it’s actually still a little scary. Once the game gets going, the clip has also reminded me that every single Amiga game ever made looked exactly the same on account of the same gradated sunset effect being used.

Also impressive was the intro to the futuristic (and rock hard) platformer Flashback:

Before opening sequences, even static title and loading screens used to have the capacity to impress. If, as with the following clip from the loading screen of Robocop on the Commodore 64, the artwork was accompanied by music (skip to 1:22 if you’re one of those impatient younger types that is used to instant gratification, rather than getting a huge wave of comforting nostalgia from the whole Commodore 64 loading experience. You people don’t know you’re born. Etc.), then it frankly felt like the future had arrived and we’d all be teleporting to work within a matter of months.

That concludes what has been an exceptionally fun piece to research and write. In the course of putting this together I have realised that there is enough material for about another 11 parts. Given that thatvideogameblog is not actually a retro site, I think they can wait till another time..

 

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