May 26, 2009
Playing older games can be a joyful experience. Revisiting an old favorite evokes a certain nostalgia that feels less like re-reading a book and more like driving your first car through your old neighborhood. Some things appear just as you remember them; other things seem oddly small or ordinary. Sometimes the car doesn't handle like you remember it.
I've been thinking about why certain games age better than others. Playing Ultima IV with my students recently, the neighborhood felt like home, but the car was stiff and hard to drive and, after awhile, not much fun anymore. I confess I found it mildly heartbreaking. Revisiting Super Mario Bros. 3, on the other hand, makes me wonder why I bought the car I'm driving now.
Is it simply a matter of mechanics? In terms of playability, RPGs have improved greatly since Ultima IV, but I'd be hard pressed to name a platformer released in the 20 years since SMB3 that improves on its formula. Or is it more than mechanics? Aesthetically, Ultima IV is, let's face it, an ugly game to look at these days. When my students saw it for the first time, the looks on their faces told me all I needed to know. They struggled with the game, not simply because it was hard to play, but because they found it so visually primitive and unappealing. SMB3, as you might expect, required me to physically extract the controller from certain students' hands so they wouldn't be late to their next classes.
Comparing a 25-year-old RPG with a 20 year-old-platformer probably isn't fair. Apples and oranges. But I do think there's something to be said for the staying power of games that unify their elements in ways that continue to appeal. If I were to compare apples to apples in this case, it's worth noting that my students had a significantly more positive response to the early Dragon Quest games for the NES, which appeared at nearly the same time as Ultima IV.
I'm intentionally posing more questions here than I can answer because I'm eager for your thoughts on this issue. Why do certain games age better than others? Can you think of a game you once loved that seemed somehow diminished when you revisited it? If so, how do you account for that? Conversely, have you replayed a game recently that stands the test of time especially well? If so, why? What is it about that game that shields it from aging?
I hope that by sharing our experiences we'll identify some of the evergreen characteristics of games and better understand why some games seem to age better than others.
Update: Sinan Kubba reminds me that a recent episode of the Big Red Potion podcast deals with this very subject. Sinan produces a good show, and I encourage you to check it out.