Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Brief Introduction

"The lifeblood of old-school gameplay is consistent, distinctive, and satisfying gamefeel. This is accomplished by the well-orchestrated combination of player control and challenge elements."

--Me, in this blog, just now

    I thought beginning my project with a sweeping generalization in scholarly language, as shown above, would be dramatic and capture people's interest. "How is he going to justify such a broad-brush statement," people might well ask, while silently thinking "Clearly this man is an expert of some sort." "By the thorough analysis of well-known examples," I would reply, a look of endearing self-confidence on my face. "Isolating the basic elements of design and the choices made in their arrangement in the timeless classics of the medium will provide us with insight into why they became timeless classics, and inform future efforts to duplicate the successes of the past without giving up modern innovations."

    I don't think that's how I'm going to do this, though. It's not like me to be that ambitious, not to say pretentious. Maybe it's because I'm a Type 9 INTP with no self-confidence at all, endearing or otherwise, or maybe it's because I have no formal training in game design to back up my efforts and insights, but one way or another I just don't feel up to a soaring, rigorous intellectual effort like that. But I've been a gamer my entire life, and I have put a great deal of thought into the very thorny issue of what made old-school gaming old-school, and I do have some things to say about it, and I think that maybe, just maybe, some people might be interested in reading them.

    Separating nostalgia from genuine analysis is very difficult in any artistic medium, and perhaps especially in gaming. There is no 'Institute of Gaming', after all: no orthodox and widely recognized authority on what games are true masterpieces. Mainstream game journalism is infamously beholden to corporate interests, and independent journalism is opinionated and informal. And, of course, gamers learn to love games by playing them, not by studying them, and so the greater part of their love will always be given to the games they grew up playing. I have no intention of being perfectly objective, and anyway I think it's impossible. Games are art, after all, and trying to separate an abstract 'science' of games from the love and excitement that motivates the medium from the start seems a bit unnatural.

    For my part, I can point to a few specific moments when my 'tastes' in gaming were formed; magical instants when a single gaming session lit my imagination on fire and shaped the way I thought about games, the world, and life forever. Playing Mega Man 2 in the loft of a baby-sitter's house - the sacred space of her older son, opened only to a select few of the children who stayed there, and only on the whims of its occupant - was one. Playing the opening of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in the basement of my church at a youth event was another. One experiences a moment of perfect satisfaction and transforming excitement, and then follows the thought, "This is the game I am playing.  This is what I am going to spend the next several hours doing." Whether it is true or not, such moments provide the standard by which the rest of one's experience is judged. When I examine my gaming memories in this way, they resolve themselves almost entirely into such moments, separated by periods of activity largely shaped and informed by those moments. Perhaps the fact that I was never allowed to own or play games freely as a child affected my perceptions; I have no idea if it is the same for other people or not. But I do know of one specific respect in which my experience is widely shared, and that is in the development of my taste in platformers.

    Platformer games were the genre in the world of home console gaming from their popularization in the mid-80s until 3D games came into prominence with the rise of the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 in the late 90s. From the success of Donkey Kong, considered the first 'true' platformer, in arcades, the genre grew and expanded until it became the 'default' gameplay style for most commercial releases, much like the 'Action Adventure / Third Person Shooter' blend (think of the Uncharted and Gears of War franchises) is today.

    And during the days of the NES, there were three franchises that, more than any others, defined what platforming was and how it worked. Those franchises were Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, and Mega Man. Those three franchises essentially divided the platforming world between them; while Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and other franchises became popular and brought their own innovations and unique characteristics to the style, none of them reached the level of ubiquity in influence during the lifespan of the NES that those three did, and none of them hold up as well by today's standards. Super Mario Bros., of course, defined an entire sub-genre on its own, becoming the basic template for many other games, and still surpasses most of its imitators even today in the precision and liquidity of its controls and the subtle genius of its design. Castlevania displayed meticulous attention to detail in the creation of a moody, atmospheric experience, expanding the narrative possibilities of the genre considerably, and its high-pressure challenges - made all the more intense by the very limiting, yet precise, control scheme - hold up today as a model for combining design and control elements in a directed and cohesive way.

    But the focus of my first project is going to be Mega Man. In my view, Mega Man did more to define and promote the possibilities and unique character of console gaming than any other platforming franchise, and produced some hard-to-pinpoint innovations that greatly informed the future choices of game designers in every genre. More so than any other series I have mentioned in this article, the 8-bit Mega Man games hold up as well today as they did on the day of their release; they are still considered models of brilliant level design and tight controls, and feel just as fresh and natural now as they did twenty years ago. Plenty of people have analyzed the design choices and successes of the Mega Man series; I know I am treading familiar territory. I don't care. These games cannot be analyzed too often or too deeply. In the following articles, I will be exploring what set the Mega Man games apart from their contemporaries and how they created the experience they provide the player, one game at a time, one stage at a time, starting with the very first game.

    Before I close, a quick note on my assets, for legal purposes: I will be providing screenshots and, I think, gameplay footage to illustrate and support some of my points, as well as to provide visual interest to break up monotonous blocks of text like this one. All of them will be of my own production, unless otherwise attributed. For reasons of convenience I will be using an emulator to provide them, but I would like to say ahead of time that I will not be emulating any game I do not own or have immediate access to (i. e., am able to borrow) in purchased form. The Undesigner does not officially endorse piracy, and encourages all gamers to support the industry by purchasing games through legitimate vendors, or at least borrowing from friends who do.

Thanks for reading,
The Undesigner

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