Retro is not good; last-gen is not bad

I’ve seen a couple videos lately on the Jak and Daxter series and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion saying they have to be enjoyed as a product of their time because they just aren’t good by today’s standards, and in both cases they made the admission that it wasn’t graphics they were talking about. The claim that Oblivion was a rougher experience "figuring stuff out" was levied. That Jak and Daxter was "simplistic." I’d like to explain why that logic is flawed.

The not-so-distant past

First and foremost, the idea that Oblivion was "figuring stuff out" and Skyrim wasn’t is just hilariously wrong. Every game is "figuring stuff out." Oblivion is the 4th game in a series that goes all the way back to the DOS era. If we want to talk about "figuring stuff out," look no further than The Elder Scrolls: Arena as an arena combat game that accidentally became a sprawling RPG. No, seriously. There’s a reason the combat system in there is so focused on drawing the strokes of your attacks across the screen with a mouse; it was an in-depth gladatiorial combat game first and everything else came out of adding things like a patronage system and then wanting to have a town. That turned into one of the most enduring Western RPG series of all time! In terms of player freedom, Oblivion has Skyrim beat hands-down with things like spellcrafting, being able to do alchemy anywhere, and just how creative you can get in your killing, making for a Dark Brotherhood quest line that’s hard to top, and is certainly not topped by Skyrim‘s, as much as I liked the treehouse club and really wished you could have had more meaningful interactions with some of them. I won’t say Oblivion had it beat in that regard; the same thing more or less happens to the roster, but at least you were encouraged to get creative with the kills.

Oblivion did let you break things, yes, but every game has things you can exploit when it has any customization at all and that can be part of the fun. For Heaven’s sake, Morrowind let you fly to the moon and finish the game within the limits of a retail job break. Breaking things was part of the freedom; it always is. Skyrim may be the better game from a role-playing perspective, but its systems are generally oversimplified compared to Oblivion‘s and all the perks you can gain from joining all the guilds. Skyrim may be prettier, better voiced, and have a load more dialogue to acknowledge your every action more meaningful than a fart, but Oblivion is the better game to play. Two words: "water combat;" don’t @ me. Anything else can and has been modded in. I covered that a bit more in-depth in my Rant on Skyrim and the "10-year game", which I’ll admit I may have shoved out the door without being completely satisfied with to give context here.

The same goes for the Jak games. There were better ones and worse ones, but objectively speaking none of them were outright terrible. I may not be a superfan or expert, but I have tried my hand at them before determining I suck and for what they were, everything I tried was just peachy, my level of suckitude notwithstanding. These games don’t need to be viewed as a product of their time because they were relatively simple compared to, I don’t even know, honestly, it’s not like there’s been a huge flood of mascot platformers from anything that didn’t start on PS2 or earlier. Mario, maybe? The games are fully functional for what they are and I get the vague idea that Naughty Dog saying they were intentionally leaving Jak behind to work on Uncharted as a more realistic endeavor for the PS3 just kinda means platforming lost all its color in favor of more generic white guy protagonists, which is proving to be becoming unpopular these days as the likes of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro are getting remakes and even new games. It’s almost like we’ve had so many indistinguishable white guys propping up the brown box art for so long that digging up these old franchises has become a way to sell games. Gee, I wonder why! But that aside, if you look at the core gameplay of the games, they work just fine, and it’s not like they didn’t sell enough to justify making more of them. The only thing that’s really "a product of its time" is the whole aesthetic and atmosphere being a holdover from the PS1 era in the first game. J’s Reviews on YouTube has an excellent breakdown and interview clips spread across a couple videos of what ultimately happened to the series, but in three words: Grand Theft Auto. The third entry changed the whole industry in ways that were endlessly in the news at the time and in ways that, in retrospect, I’m not sure weren’t legitimately harmful given the whole rating system Mortal Kombat fomented was largely ignored by parents all of a sudden, but Grand Theft Auto III was in the hands of everyone old enough to hold a controller marked a hard left turn from the campy "Xtreme" edge of the ’90s into gritty realism.

That brings me a bit into things I mentioned in my review for Buffers Evolution where attitudes in general changed quite a bit in the early 2000s in terms of cartoons with Gundam Wing doing basically the same thing that Grand Theft Auto III did on cable TV. It’s easy to say "the early 2000s were just still the ’90s" and in many cases that’s true, because in terms of fashion and everything else, there really weren’t any changes, but 2001 brought a pretty seismic political shift in the US we’re still limping from today that vacated a lot of the wide-eyed hope of the previous decade for cynicism. As also mentioned RE: Skyrim, you can’t control the rest of the market and Jak fell victim to that, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. Yes, sometimes you can bring out the right game at the wrong time, but that doesn’t make the game bad.

Rose-tinted nostalgia goggles

At the same time as last-gen games are being treated like relics, games older than a certain point, which is always a moving goalpost, but is now in the PS1 era, are treated with a certain reverence for their simplicity. On one hand, I have long recommended enjoying things in the context of the standards of the time, but on the other, with PS1 games being as modern as they often are, I’m not sure that’s entirely necessary anymore, assuming people understand what made them good. We now live in a world where major companies aren’t coming out with handheld systems anymore, and yet GameBoy development has been democratized and is currently enjoying an explosion of interest. NES games also have been in the spotlight. Somehow people have just decided these games are good again and are making more of them.

And I don’t think that’s entirely fair in that it’s clear that cell phones are more than powerful enough to run these experiences and better, but you don’t see a whole lot of pining for the PSP and the Vita is barely cold in the ground. Though to be entirely honest, the PSP and Vita seem to be drawing a slow trickle of nostalgia from certain gaming outlets, and I honestly think it’s because cell phones have utterly failed to fulfill the promise they held for serious gaming. People are starting to realize they miss having a system that fits in your pocket, but it’s a little early for indie devs to be able to capitalize on it yet and nostalgia is going to have to collide with adequate tools the same way as it did for GameBoy.

But just because 8-bit is seeing a resurgence while PS1 tools are still out of reach doesn’t mean it should be seen as a golden age, either. Okay, so yes, the Nintendo Seal of Quality DID used to mean something, but otherwise I don’t think these games are sacred in a way that newer games aren’t. They’re very much old enough to be lacking quality of life improvements and you do have to go in with that understanding. These old games are best understood as novelties. They are just as buggy as modern games and in many cases have not aged well.

Take the original Final Fantasy for example. This is a game that’s been released in every decade since it first hit market, and the most recent one is Stranger of Paradise because that’s basically the most you can do with it. The game is light on story and at the same time has little you can add to it without making it something completely different. 8-Bit Theater made something out of nothing by taking what little there was and turning it into a parody with a ton of added content. The game is also buggy as heck, with none of the equipment working as intended, with the bug that broke critical hit chance being too much of a change from the original experience to even fix ever since, but also just none of the elemental or special damage effects working, negating the whole point of several weapons. Then there are the magic bugs that render some spells useless and others actively harmful to your efforts. And then you have the Run Glitch, which can make running away from battles trivially easy if you know how to abuse it. If the Internet had existed back then, people would have totally trashed the thing and the series would never have gotten off the ground, but since information was so hard to share back then, its flaws were overlooked.

And every time it’s been released, it hasn’t changed the fact that the game just doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. When I was a kid, I had tried Final Fantasy VII and liked it, and thought Final Fantasy VIII was also pretty good, but seeing the Final Fantasy Origins release of the game, I asked for it, tried it, and was just bored out of my skull with it, never so much as defeating Lich in my most valiant effort even years later. I only just recently finished the NES version of it because I have an NES now and looking at it from that perspective helped it keep my attention, as well as my novelizing the experience.

Final Fantasy is not the worst NES game, but it was a terrible PS1 game. Coming at it from the perspective of a PS1 game, even with quality of life improvements, it didn’t meet my expectations. On NES, I could see how it was something new and exciting that nobody had ever seen before and honestly, I think the lack of quality of life improvements worked in its favor, making battle a much more tactical affair than mashing a button until the Victory Fanfare played. At the same time, the PS1 context shows the game itself is far from without reproach.

There will always be a first of something and Final Fantasy experimented quite a lot, and what worked was brought forward and what didn’t was eventually fixed. But at the same time, older games weren’t able to stand on the shoulders of giants; they are the giants, and that’s not easy to earn and comes with a lot of bumps and bruises. Some of them are truly great, but just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s automatically good. The good ones just happen to get the most attention.

Meeting player expectations

Another big item to add to this rant is the Saints Row reboot, which has people generally commenting that it feels like it would have been an excellent one to come out roughly when the first one did. And in some respects that can be all too true when you talk about features that are a throwback to pioneering titles that toss out quality of life upgrades. Quality of life is never something to toss out unless doing so somehow improves the experience as an ingredient to something else. Sometimes you need salted butter or medium eggs in an older recipe to make the magic happen.

But it’s also important to differentiate what is and isn’t "quality of life." Not all features to streamline things are good. Going back to Skyrim, while it added smithing and enchanting, it took away spellcrafting, and people managed to break the game in the exact same way as they had with spellcrafting, solving nothing with the removal of the feature. Removing levitation from Oblivion in turn really didn’t help solve anything because people just abused the Athletics skill to break the game in the same ways, just being original Superman able to leap tall buildings rather than modern Superman who flies with no adequate explanation. Removing Athletics in Skyrim may have solved that, but then the question really becomes whether they needed to because the whole world map is literally the whole playable world, so it’s not so strictly cell-based to begin with and appropriate loading could have occurred at more places as a safety net, learning the lesson from before. And one could argue that people don’t expect there to need to be skills to let you better climb slopes and run faster, but that’s the industry’s choice, not necessarily player demand. There was a lot of fun playing a Khajiit and being able to stand on a sheer slope like a mountain goat. Going back to water combat, I honestly don’t know why they thought removing it was a good idea or why anyone might have asked for it. Just because Assassin’s Creed didn’t want to make a swimming animation doesn’t mean nobody wanted one. And you can still swim; you’re just totally defenseless against the Slaughterfish, who are as aptly named as ever and jumped the fence to being pure BS without any ability to defend yourself until you reached the shallows. That worked in the Jak games because they served as the invisible walls to the play area, but that’s not the case here.

A better question than "what do players expect" is "what’s fun?" Players are going to expect whatever they’ve been fed for a while; that doesn’t make it good. If you’re in a Medieval dungeon, you expect to be fed gruel, but that doesn’t mean pizza isn’t an upgrade. Ultimately player expectations matter far less than quality, and as such it’s unfair to measure "dated" games as having lesser quality just because their systems aren’t what people are releasing now. If the systems are fun, they’re doing exactly what they always did. Not every game needs to be a Roguelike and not every game needs RPG elements and not every game needs real-time combat. Chess isn’t a game improved by throwing all the pieces at each other. Final Fantasy X has a near-perfect turn-based battle system and Final Fantasy X-2 has a near-perfect active battle system that’s held back by the Wait Mode. That doesn’t mean that either is better than the other; they serve different purposes and neither would have been improved by giving them the battle systems from Final Fantasy XV or Final Fantasy VII Remake. For that matter, Square Enix focusing on real-time combat is leaving behind a whole market segment they’re clearly aware of who are being under-served because real-time combat polls well with American teens and that’s just what everyone is doing now and this what players expect despite Bravely Default finding a far larger audience than they’d ever anticipated with an innovative turn-based battle system. You don’t walk into Baskin Robbins expecting to find 31 flavors of chocolate ice cream, but that’s literally what the AAA games industry does.

There will always be a certain period where things were experimental in a genre and "experimental" may as well be code for "utter junk," because nothing ever is good the first time around. That’s why shools make you write 3 drafts of a paper. It’s the process of refining something that can promote what works and fix or discard what doesn’t. That’s why a bad game with good ideas is always more valuable than an okay game that does nothing new.

I also have to acknowledge, as always, that we live in more enlightened times and the PS1 and PS2 eras existed during a period where offensive humor was the langue du jour and some things really need a sensitivity pass by today’s standards, particularly when it comes to sexism, ableism, and even low-key racism that flew under the radar as "acceptable levels" at the time like Barret’s basically being a Mr. T rip-off in Final Fantasy VII and in portrayals of native and indigenous people in basically every game that had them. With PS1 currently in the window of "old enough to be nostalgic for" and PS2 eventually reaching that point, I think it’s important to consider that in what we see in remakes, with Final Fantasy VII Remake serving as quite the model on how to update something like Wall Market with a new spirit without fully sacrificing the events. The segment is still entertaining, but in a way that’s much more centered on Cloud’s toxic masculinity than homophobia, though much in the way the crows being considered among the heroes in Dumbo was progressive for the time, I do have to say the portrayal of the gay and trans characters in Final Fantasy VII was pretty notable for being in the game at all and Beautiful Bro’s could even have been considered flattering, even if literally everything else around the segment was not. But that’s the point I’m making here; the world has advanced and if you have to throw a giant asterisk in something like a Magic Shuriken, it’s something that needs to be updated when the opportunity arises. We no longer live in a world where every conversation is a contest for who can be the most offensive without dropping an N-bomb. Caring is cool again and as the PS2 starts trying to strain to peek into the nostalgia window, and even really with characters like Crash and his "suck it" dance, a lot of these things are ripe to come back to haunt us. The Macarena might be innocent enough, but I vote we try to avoid bringing back hip thrusts as a core dance move.

Sometimes enjoying older games "for what they are" means understanding that what they were is everything they need to be as a polished experience that doesn’t need to be complicated with anything else. Sometimes adding onto something means you’re adding too much and the experience is lesser for it. Sometimes you want a pizza and sometimes you want soda, but what makes soda good isn’t what makes pizza good and trying to add soda to your pizza just makes a soggy mess.

At the same time, sometimes you want to enjoy pizza and sometimes you want to enjoy pepperoni and putting them together is exactly what they need to be to make something great. But if someone decides not to offer pepperoni for long enough, people will forget about it entirely. They won’t expect it. That doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it something people used to do and don’t anymore.

And I, honestly, could not live in a world without pepperoni pizza.