An introduction of sorts:
In light of discussions that have occurred between myself and others within the past two or so years concerning audio gaming or gaming with accessibility in mind, a recurring theme has developed which the staunchest crossover mainstream audio gamer will defend, that being that the audio gaming market and the mainstream markets do not feel the same. People point to how games by big companies are pumped out with greater frequency, seem to have overall better design, and truly give you more bang for your buck than their audio counterparts which don't even begin to match up in scope or caliber. Responsiveness is overall greater, online play is king, and graphics and sound design, helped along by the latest advances is technology ranging from improved sound systems and audio engines to video and graphics cards boosted by more powerful processors have made gaming on a mainstream level more believable, more realistic, more flashy, much cooler, faster... "Insert your favorite word here for epic."
Nothing, however, seems to point to this truly making a fine footprint in the gaming industry save in the financial side of things. At the heart of the gaming world lie titles that have not been forgotten, ranging from obscure names such as "Castle of Illusion" which as recently as three years ago saw a horrible remastery for Xbox LIVE, to Every Mario game appreciated in the 80's and 90's alongside series like Castlevania, Zelda, classic Street Fighter titles and Donkey Kong all being rereleased for brand-new, old consoles. Meant to be sold as novelty items leading up to the Switch, NES and SNES classic rebooted the mainstream market into nostalgia mode, which was not sincerely a difficult task as we were and have already been there, trying to find ways to keep old titles alive as long as possible with new releases that focused more on classy gimmicks as opposed to story plots, game mechanics or replayability. A game means more nowadays when it happens to be a franchise title, regardless of how little is actually introduced for the game and how much more is spent concentrating on higher frame rates per second.
The overarching truth here seems to be that, while our technology is getting better, gaming has become spurious. More titles are available now than ever before on the mainstream market, but few deliver the same kind of experience gamers who have been playing for the past 30 years are looking for. There is a lot left to be desired when companies shift from making more games to sell than making better games to sell and doing their best to entice the youth of the nations through heavy and many times false advertising about what features and functionality a game truthfully delivers. Companies like bioware are currently reeling from releases such as Mass Effect Andromeda which received mixed reviews at best, a hampering blow that could hardly be called anything else and is certainly not a favorable outlook given the series hadn't seen any development in a few years and should have been a hit on a new generation of consoles. The basic story of good guys being from earth and bad guys being from somewhere else helped not at all, glitches upon initial release had many gamers acting as trolls, and a fair amount of varied and upgradeable weaponry along with diverse characters did nothing to mask the fact that said characters were poorly designed in the studio and acted with mediocrity. the greatest complaints centered on character customization being practically nonexistent, the world being overdone in size and scope for a game from this franchise, and when compared to its previous counterparts the devs will never get past the fact that it failed spectacularly for a game that was some 5 years in the making.
In the end though, we have to recognize that the good, the bad and the ugly are not as simple as pointing to a few variables and calling it a day. If the huge companies and game developers are to blame because marketing practices are reflective of their data gathering, gamers are to blame for their lack of attention span and their complacency. Where once upon a time a game was considered good or bad based on a shelf life that included you coming back to the game weeks or even months later, today a game is rated based on various things ranging from high frame rates and screen resolution too who or whom you can play it with and what system it's available on which you may or may not have and may or may not have to transition to.
In many respects, I feel the audio gaming community faces many of the same challenges. We're looking to greater sound design and stage presence rather than to game mechanics and replayability, willing to buy into something before the product is finalized because we're constantly connected to the net and know an update can easily be pushed out to squash bugs as fast as we can find the causes, and we take few risks in developing games we haven't discussed within the community to try and anticipate the reaction instead of developing the product first, preferring to try and create a level of expectation and suspense that may or may not live up to the game gamers are already imagining.
We're at a crossroads where gaming in its entirety is concerned, and I feel we can learn by observing what mainstream gaming is doing overall to effect a better outlook for audio games, a result every gamer may secretly or otherwise be aiming for but may also be afraid of voicing because constructive criticism and negativity go hand in hand on public forums. As I outline the data below I'll do my best to remain as neutral and objective as possible, I myself being a 30 year old has-been, fully aware that a new generation of gamers has come upon the scene that doesn't always share my interests. I would like to stress, however, that my aim is not to showcase why modern gaming is better or worse than retro gaming or anything of the sort, instead doing what I can to point out pros and cons on both sides.
The good and the bad of a massive multitude:
Fact: mainstream gamers have access to more titles today than in any other decade in the history of gaming owing to the rise in popularity of gaming in general and the many companies and sites ready to deliver. When Steam is down, turn to GOG.COM. When those two fail, ORIGIN will cover you just as nicely. Yes, it's seriously like service surfing, not to be confused with channel surfing back in the 90's. Every TV junky today knows that if it's not on Netflix, you can try Hulu. When all else fails, Amazon-prime is there as well, and as I hear it, Apple is currently in the works with its own take on TV it hopes to offer to people who have purchased its devices. The point here is, before I stray down a different path, that whether you want digital or physical copies of your games, you're not too far from either option.
And as good as that is, it's also a bad thing, because the mass marketing machine is focusing on a few genres more than others. The most popular games of the 21st century are either first person shooters, action roleplaying games, action adventure, sports related or some kind of fighting/beat em up style multiplayer package. Last year saw the rise of Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Fire Emblem Heroes, Cuphead, Persona 5 and others. The exception is not in that lineup, a game called Super Mario Odyssey, a game loved by many and seemingly hated by few, quickly gaining traction as the Mario game by which all other future 3d Mario games will be judged. Those who hate it, point to how this new game is slow with somewhat sluggish controls, is so focused on exploration that it's not worth finishing, and not as exciting or fast paced as Mario games otherwise should be or have been. I? "I don't like the cat!"
Whatever your take on this may be, one thing is certain; Odyssey easily took the cake as the best platformer in practically every gaming circle, because it virtually was the only platformer worth looking at. Games in which progress is valued over exploration have become few and far between. Where once Super Mario was a game with a simplistic storyline involving saving a Princess and the world the two brothers lived in, we now have the tyrannical Bowser engaged in all out kidnapping, technological warfare and a twisted, comical ending involving him and Mario both outright being rejected by Peach. The end result, as Polygon writers wisely point out, is a game that is fun to learn but pointless to master. Sadly, this seems to be the case with today's games overall; they read like books rather than feeling like a challenge.
Learning from the end of the 20th century and an outfit called Rare:
In 1985, Nintendo granted an unlimited budget to a company with whom they were exceptionally impressed aimed at developing games for a console simply known as Famicom. This platform would later be released in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES,) writing a page in history for gaming that would stay with us throughout the decades. Because the company was focused on quality versus quantity, much of its early work went unnoticed for a good while, only to become a matter for Nintendo to continue investing in later. Titles like Jetpac, Atic Atac, Sabre Wulf, Battletoads and their work on A Nightmare on Elm Street propelled the company into the spotlight again and again, so that as the 90's neared their end Rare was quickly becoming a second party developer for Nintendo. Between 18months and 20 people, Rare would release the critically acclaimed Donkey Kong Country for the SNES, a game ahead of its time that was well received owing to the company's ambitious work with 3d imaging and fantastic artstyle that were well balanced with exceptional gameplay, something many critics were impressed to find in a SNES title given the availability of more advanced consoles at the time and rumors that Sony was gearing up for a massive release of its own.
Rare moved on, releasing Killer Instinct both on its own developed arcade machine as well as for the SNES, then developed and released Blast Corps for the Nintendo 64, followed up by GoldenEye 007, based on the Bond film by the same name, a game that would sell more than 8 million units worldwide.
To cap off the century and bring the n64 to a beautiful end, however, Rare would outdo itself yet again with titles such as Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini and Donkey Kong 64, the last of which features several minigames and includes the 1981 version of Donkey Kong and the 1983 version of Jetpac.
Behind the scenes, Rare faced many problems. Outbid by another company, they scrapped a project in which they hoped to revive the FPS glory they achieved with GoldenEye. Around the same time, many of its people were leaving the company and starting studios and projects of their own. This would not, however, stop Rare from releasing what would arguably become one of the greatest FPS games of all time, Perfect Dark. At a time when female protagonists were a rarity, Rare decided not only to make one, but to make her a character that would stand out as bleak, edgy, cold, calculative, aggressive and intelligent. Paired with a comical Alien Sidekick, Joanna Dark would set out to save the world and conquer the minds of the masses that played on some 3 million copies by 2001.
If GoldenEye was good, Perfect Dark was many times better, a game which featured far more than should ever have been fit on a simple cartridge. It's environmental mechanics in which characters reacted to specifics, such as limping when receiving a shot to the leg, clutching at a limb when it was hit or shouting out that their gun had been stolen when disarmed made the somewhat poor frame rates forgivable offenses. Its true challenge, however, lay in an astounding amount of progression requirements which all provided perks and rewards, making it a game that one could go back to and play again and again with much to discover. Other game mechanics include crouching, ducking, leaning, dropping from ledges, close quarter combat sometimes using handguns, dual wielding of various weapons, autolocking/aiming assistance at easier difficulties, and a setting that allows for the customization of enemies, enabling players to tweak their health, aiming accuracy and the damage inflicted upon the player. As an added bonus, three of four extra missions included with the game give the player control of other characters with unique capabilities of their own.
Moving on to 2001 and beyond:
As the cost of game development skyrocketed, Rare was left in the dust by Nintendo, opening a door for Microsoft who would purchase the company in 2002. This would in many respects fracture the company, as much of what it had worked on still belonged to Nintendo including Donkey Kong and Star Fox, both seen as exclusive intellectual property. Many of Rare's employees became disenchanted and left, while those who stayed behind pushed for the company to continue developing games for Nintendo even after the MS takeover. Perfect Dark Zero was nothing like its predecessor, while Kameo: Elements of Power, a game in which one controls an elf trying to save her family was seen as a disappointment owing to the time it took to release and how little seemed to have been done with that time. MS's mismanagement was, as far as Rare employees the culprit for much of these and other failures that would haunt the company. Titles such as Gears of War would see massive budget advances while others like Viva Piñata would be cast aside. By 2007, Rare founders Chris and Tim Stamper had left the company and much of what Rare was noted for seemed to have become legacy and novelty. As if to prove this, the greatest thing the company would do within the next 7 years was the release of Rare Replay, a compilation of 30 games made in the company's then 30 year history, all classic, critically acclaimed titles, making the collection the most pre-ordered game shown at E3 that year.
Outside of Rare, Call of Duty became a colossus in which players could tell you how many time's they'd slept with your mother while secretly being angry because you had just blown their brains out, forever changing how an FPS would and should be played. Die in GE or PD? Start over. Die or kill in COD? Demoralizing consequence involving cyberbullying on steroids. The upshot is that if you buy into the stigma you help fund Activision Blizzard's support for US Veterans.
Hollyweird, when movies and games become one another
After watching my brother and many of my cousins play GoldenEye, I was able to go and enjoy the movie. They were actually two separate entities. Perfect Dark, one might argue, played a little more like a movie, but that was to be expected, having been released later in history; a lot happened in four years. Interestingly enough, Perfect dark's cutscenes are not a requirement... IE, you don't need to watch Trent Easton being killed by Mr. Blonde to understand everything that is going on in the game and which may or may not affect you later. Assuming that you are curious enough though, you can go back and review most of these scenes at a later time to get a better sense of the simple storyline. Get back to enjoying your game and go to the theater when you need a movie.
Or so it was, once upon a time. Gaming and cinematography now go hand in hand with one another. Don't skip the two minute cutscene; you may have just set yourself up for trolling at a later date because you asked a question you could have easily found the answer to by watching it. Shame on you if you feel that watching is wasted time! It's part of the gaming experience; never mind that little bit of fact on the side which is that, well, that you're not actually playing!
HDMI and white noise, cartridges and disks, physical and virtual:
I grew up with a lot of consoles; I find it somewhat miraculous that I was able to experience Atari, watch the endless hours of live play on the NES, listen to how developers tried to emulate true sound on Sega systems, loved the feel of the remote for the Super Nintendo, geeked out the first time I felt a Playstation remote vibrate between my hands, rediscovered my love for remote controls with the various configurations that were available for n64. All of them had one thing in common though. You found the right TV channel which was usually easy to find owing to the wonderful ocean of obnoxious sound your parents hated so much, you plugged a cable into the back of the TV, you inserted a cartridge, turned on the system, the white noise instantly died out, logo, digital sound and music, play! If your channel didn't have white noise, it was silent; that became a little more prevalent as the 90's came to a close. The concept, however, remained the same.
Today, your TV needs to be set to the right input, you may have to unplug your cable box especially if you're not sighted to resolve the whole HDMI business and possibly make it easier on yourself, if you have a physical copy of your game you insert it into your console, your console must be hooked up to the internet because update, run fix-patch, not sure how big it is this time, server lag, other people are doing the same thing, validation, server rights because of course you don't own the game just because you purchased it, cloud licensed, servers are down...
A cartridge is virtually indestructible. The warning on a NES cartridge says you have to either crush or submerge the thing in order to get it to seriously, not work. CD? Scratch it. Digital copy? Crash your new shiny system with many shakable parts and don't forget copyright bla bla bla no net connectivity! I can, as I'm writing this, probably get on EBay and buy an n64 and a copy of any of the above mentioned Rare games, keep them for 20 years, and they'd still be in good, playable condition. Your new generation console won't last that long.
Yes: there were drawbacks...
I was playing WCW versus NWO World Tour when my dog stepped on my n64. The resulting comical chaos that ensued has forever stayed with me; the audio started crackling, buzzing and even screeching a wavy A-flat while on the screen the character I was playing spun to the top of the ropes of the ring in a wirlwind of multi-colored flames. All of the progress I'd made was gone, wiped out by a trivial paw swipe owing to a canine who didn't know any better. There were some things you just, couldn't save, meaning that you had to spend that much more time trying to recover your progress, fully aware that the next thunderstorm or well aimed car at a powerline would be the end of your epic gaming experience.
Beyond that gaming consoles also got hot! Burning hot! Scorching hot... I was witness to an atari frying to an inoperable state complete with fun noises coming from the TV, a sizzling sound coming from the power supply and a rather smoky experience. Granted, wiring and ventilation wasn't as sophisticated in 93, but the point here is that, if you wanted to play it safe, you either quit playing or had to shell out extra cash for an extra power supply for your favorite console. Dustbunnies could render your cartridges finiky until you were able to blow the stuff out, and no, there wasn't much in the way of portability where reputable games were concerned.
So, where are we?
In mainstream gaming, we have more flash, greater sound, awesome virtual realism, tons of games, and greater availability. In some cases the games themselves are even longer, contain more content and owing to the fact that controlers have become more complicated, the game may actually be difficult to master as you figure out what button is going to perform what action. All of these are causing gamers to quickly escape the difficulties of life, which for many is translating into something going right where the game industry is concerned. Your games can link to your social media accounts and are ready for virtual reality headsets. They can help you download apps, make purchases for more content, give you more cosmetic character customization. Multiplayer is almost a requirement in order to make a game a game. You don't have to go outside to explore a seemingly endless, physical reality of a world, characters may relate emotionally to you now more than ever, your games will autosave for you more often than not, and if you have a personal agenda you feel you need to promote you can more or less promote it, especially if you're a game dev.
Whether in fact this is where we want to be or should be is questionable. Because the average age of gamers seems to be mid thirty something, companies are starting to take notice. Nintendo is teasing us with a possible n64 release they will not confirm but won't altogether deny after having hit us with a NES and SNES for this day and age. Atari is still releasing products geared at exploiting the fact that we miss the 80's. Meanwhile, modern day consoles are getting pricier and so are the games made for them. Fortnite has become a multi-million dollar entity all on its own in two short years, Twitch streams containing people constantly playing it are so popular that one can easily make money doing it if said person can actually become the best of the best, a Celeb can participate in the mania and make it all that more impressive, resulting in FPS games realistically not being all that much different from one another. Developers are not willing to take risks, we don't get a one size fits all product as we once did, publishers are money hungry, opinions have become more important than gaming, and anonymity has made it possible to make insults as much of if not more of the game that you're playing as the mechanics. Where once it was necessary to go to your local convenience store to play Street Fighter with another child who might be slightly younger or older than yourself and who might know a little something you didn't know, a person you grudgingly respected even if you inwardly hated them, today you can outwardly hate everyone equally regardless if they're your next door neighbor or a 10 year old battlefield wiz you met last night who hit you up from thousands of miles away because he needed to escape the fact that his parents just don't pay him any attention. Characters have become throwaways; if you, beloved gamer, can name any truly iconic character within the last 10 to 15 years that compares to Spyro the Dragon, Mario, Pacman, Sonic or DK of which, even your grandmother is likely to know and remember one, you have permission to rewrite this section, submit it to me and I'll quickly submit a revision of this article containing your rewrites and a public apology.
What does all of this have to do with audio gaming?
It's simple: whatever audio or accessible game you look at now which has a claim to popularity relies on perceived great sound, drawn out plot/story dialogue and elements, multi-player and player cooperation, a bunch of keystrokes and gestures, a ton of open-ended exploration that many times seems to lead to nowhere in particular and never leaves you with a sense of finality, and the need to talk about it extensively before there is ever a product to hype up a product we may or may never see. The greatest and most memorable terms and sentences of the audiogame community? Mod mentality, clone, some derivative of BGT is useless and you really need to learn something else, I'm banned from such and such game, don't play such and such game, and at the end of the most prolific, flamewars. Flamewars! Forever flamewars!
The last three years were a nightmare of people wanting to use data they obtained however they managed to get their hands on it, be it freely distributed then later classified as leaked or stolen, all to make clones of things that didn't last any longer than it seriously took to play them. OF the online games we have left, one in particular has resulted in such toxicity that said toxicity reached out to the forum it was announced on, spawning a consequential article that attempted to shift the blame in a controversial mess entirely to one side, a mess in which one community saw a total of 6 people make a quick retreat from moderation positions in the span of a month, left many others to question if the community could actually recover owing to its small size, and forever changed how at least one person will be viewed, whatever the actual truth may altogether truthfully be.
If Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and DK have the ability to show us that simple games can live forever in the mainstream market, Super Liam, Judgment Day, q-9, Lunimals and Dragon Village can do the same where audiogames are concerned. If JD had any one particular thing going for it any true gamer should admire, it is the massive amount of progression one has to achieve to unlock the various and varied goodies it has to offer, ranging from minigames to satirical and sometimes overly exaggerated, idiotic content that provides just a little more humor in one's everyday life. No endless worlds, no super-important cutscenes that contain spoilers and clues to how things will progress in the game that you can't skip over, no need to get on a server to troll. Start it up, skip a quick logo, set a couple of things if necessary and play!
But I'm going to take it a step further. If I keep on bringing up Perfect Dark, I do so because I truly believe it is the one game that ties both the past and the present together, having been released right at the end of the 20th century and the start of the interesting era we're in now, a game that showcases that you can have your cake and eat it too. How you fit Hollywood Edge and sound idea's most memorable computer, whoosh, zap, drone, footstep, door, ambient, hand to hand combat, gun and explosion sounds all into one cartridge along with a well put together soundtrack and fair graphics just to release a game that you know you can't go back and edit once it's out the door is beyond me, but Rare did it well. That is why, 18 years later, I'm sitting here typing about it and drawing it to your attention. If you're a true gamer, you'll value the idea of having to beat the same level more than twice with different objectives in mind to unlock something new. If you're a developer, go with your passion and develop it! Take risks, prepare to fall on your butt and expect it to hurt! Step back and catch your breath when the pain becomes a bit too much to handle!
They say that when you spray on cologne you only need a little to go a long way; I don't see why games have to be any different. Cartridges limited people to squeeze in a ton of creativity into a tiny space, and people enjoyed it immensely and still do today. We have a broad amount of technological advances at our disposal; perhaps we should take a step back and look at what we did when we didn't have it. Whether we'll let movies be movies and let gamers have fun or whether we truly want to be controling the next cinematic production has yet to be seen, but there's just no hiding my bias that if you were to ask me which I'd like to see more of, I'd tell you to give me a textual or even 8bit experience that plays well because the product is already finalized, to a sprawling wall of sound that might glitch out at any moment and which requires multiple updates to get right.