I’ve been playing video games for a long time now, most of my life in fact. I played Myst back when it was still fairly new (the game came out in 1993 when I was three years old so I didn’t exactly play it on release day). The first gaming system I truly remember sitting down with was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES for short). I played Mario, Zelda, Metroid and all that quite a bit as a child. Video gaming is one of the main ways I have of relieving stress and having fun.
One of the most common complaints I hear among gamers my age is one of difficulty. “Man,” I hear them say, “games these days are so easy. They just tell you exactly what to do. Older video games were way harder.” Often the implication is that the older games are better because of their more difficult nature.
Now, are older video games harder? Yes they were. That’s not just me saying that either. It’s actually been scientifically proven.
So the question then becomes, why were these older games harder? And why are the newer ones so much easier? Well I have a theory about that. But first, we need to take a trip back in time.
The Arcade Age
The average age of the video gamer these days is somewhere in their thirties. So to understand where they’re coming from, we need to travel back to the 1980s. This was an era where the Cold War still raged on, where Ronald Reagan instituted the war on drugs which continues to this day, and where every single song was about sex (you know it’s true). This was also the era of the arcade, a hub of video gaming where kids came to play in their spare time. They’d step up to machines like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, plop in their hard-earned quarters, and play.
It’s been known for a long time that arcade games were designed to be difficult, even unfairly difficult. The whole point was to ensure that someone playing it would die frequently, forcing them to fork over more quarters to continue playing. It was how the arcades made their money.
But when people talk about older games being harder, they’re generally referring to the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short) and the Sega Genesis, among others. So how do the arcades explain why these older games are harder? Well, it all comes down to the matter of the target audience.
Who do you think was the target group for these game systems? That’s right, the very same people who stepped up to those arcade machines and whittled away their quarters. They were the people playing the games, so to appeal to them companies like Nintendo and Sega designed their games in a similar manner to the arcade machines. The only major difference was that you didn’t have to spend quarters to continue playing the game. Once you bought it, you could play it as much as you wanted. Games like Mario were from a design standpoint very simple, but they were incredibly hard to master because the people who generally played these games had already been beaten many times by the arcades and their skills had been honed to a fine point. It was simple supply and demand. There was a demand for difficult games, and so the game designers supplied them.
A New Dimension
So then, why are the new games generally much easier? I attribute part of it to the rise of 3D. When the Nintendo 64 came out, people were amazed by it. Nowadays it seems very primitive, but back then it was something truly amazing. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was and still is one of the most renowned games of all time.
But with all this amazing new technology came a new difficulty curve, just not in the games themselves. It became incredibly more complicated to develop games due to the three-dimensional space game designers were allowed to use. It’s easy to design a fair challenge when all you have is a flat plane and a character running left to right jumping over everything in sight. But what do you do when suddenly that flat plane is expanded to encompass all directions? It no longer makes sense to just design a game that goes from left to right because it’s a waste of potential. Because of that, Super Mario 64 plays like a much different game than its predecessors. Instead of just going left to right through a series of linear levels, you hopped into paintings inside a castle which took you to different worlds that you had to explore. Your goal, instead of just reaching the end of the level, was to find stars that you would use to unlock the later levels. Because of different design considerations that had to be made as well as game designers’ unfamiliarity with the three-dimensional space, the games were generally less difficult than their two-dimensional ancestors (there were 3D games around already, especially on home computers, but the era of Playstation and Nintendo 64 was where gaming truly entered the third-dimensional age).
However, this was not the only thing going on. While there were still plenty of gamers left over from the older age of gaming, there was also a newer generation coming in at the same time. This newer generation was not hardened as such by the hard as nails difficulty that a lot of older games possessed. They didn’t have the benefit of being forced to play the old arcade games. I believe that game designers made their games easier as a result to help improve the accessibility of gaming as a whole. People who hadn’t played games on the NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis were able to jump in on the Nintendo 64 or the Playstation and still have a good time without becoming too frustrated. And this trend continues today. Nintendo, with the Wii, attracted an audience that had hitherto been untouched by video games. They designed games so that people young and old, gamers new and experienced could have fun. It was a marketing strategy that put Nintendo in a completely different space than Microsoft and Sony, who continue to appeal to the traditional gamer crowd.
There’s one final question that has to be asked here. It is indeed true that games these days are easier than their predecessors. But is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.
Sure, some games are poorly designed and have absolutely no challenge factor to them. But there were plenty of older games that were poorly designed as well. Nostalgia is a funny thing. It blots out the malodorous parts of our gaming past while retaining all that we thought great about it. People remember Battletoads fondly without remembering how unfairly difficult that game could be at times. We remember the first and third Castlevania games while only briefly touching on the second one, which is widely considered to be atrocious by any standards.
And besides that, video games have changed greatly. They’re far more complicated and capable of providing experiences that older gamers probably never dreamed of. A game like Gone Home (which I talked at length about in an older post) never would have happened without the gradual evolution of the medium. Instead of just simplistic tales of a kidnapped princess and a heroic figure rushing to the rescue, we can have incredibly intricate plots that rival those of a good book. We may lament the loss of difficulty, but we can also welcome the depth we have gained. Games are no longer confined to being simple little excursions to pass the time. Games can be complicated and intelligent, brooding and thoughtful. They can explore themes in the same way as movies and books, and even in ways that they can’t due to the one thing games have that they don’t: interactivity. Games becoming easier isn’t a bad thing, because they have become many other things as well.
Video games will continue to evolve. We just have to evolve our conceptions of games along with them.
Well that’s all I have for you this time. Thanks for reading! Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week everybody!