Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 2    February 1998

Graphics Vs. Game Play
What's Happened to Games, Anyway?

By Chris Federico and Adam Trionfo

     Underground movements get started on the fringes by those who aren't concerned with maintaining the status quo...the console market has been specifically designed to safeguard itself against an underground movement.
     "Which Way to the Underground?"
     Next Generation magazine, December 1997

The most popular video-game graphic in the world, obsessed-over and fixated on by the most people at one time, was very simple. In fact, it was simplicity itself. It was a dot. A trail of dots, actually, winding its way around a maze. Seeking these dots was a graphic that spawned the largest mass-merchandising line (to that point) to originate in an electronic game. It was a yellow circle, scarcely more visually arresting than the dots it was consuming. Its one standout was a rapidly opening and closing mouth.

There had already been popular coin-operated arcade games (namely Breakout, Space Invaders and Asteroids, in that order), but Pac-Man was the first to make other industries acknowledge that video games were genuine competition for the movie, TV and music markets on their own multimillion-dollar grounds. And we all know what happened from there: It all spiraled upward, and now Mario is on Taco Bell commercials and whatnot. Games are more of a mass entertainment force to be reckoned with than ever.

But what are these games that are selling in the hundreds of thousands, or millions in some cases?

Right. Breakout, Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man -- bent, twisted, revamped, revisited and done in different perspectives. Throw in Donkey Kong and you've got the mainstream inception of the platform genre. The essence of modern game play is buried in the code of the earliest games, and everything afterward, to a great degree, is merely some sort of improvement or twist on the old concepts. But anyone over, say, 21 can clearly remember how gripping Pac-Man was to the average entertainment-seeker. It really had nothing to do with the graphics, barring of course the fact that they were accurately tracked and detected by the computer. Old games had a certain charm, and what's more, they were addictive in and of themselves. There didn't have to be any gorgeous realism to draw players in, because the raw basis of the average game was effective by itself, irrelevant to decoration.

So nowadays, we have this irrelevant need for realism that's keeping the engaging, edge-of-the-seat qualities of yesterday from the average modern bestseller. Wing Commander, for instance, looks pretty, but it needs a thousand extras and non-essential pre-game features to come across as being innovative or even entertaining; and the frame-by-frame, simulated 3-D doesn't even come close to throwing the player's synapses into an immediate panic of overdrive that a simple, smiley-faced ball like Evil Otto can in Berzerk.

Another obvious example is Myst. Folks, a frustrating point-and-click game is still a frustrating point-and-click game if there are pretty pictures involved. Get we get over our cultural fixation with detailed graphics already? Sights are separate from game play. End of story. I'm tempted to quote Next Generation's one-word review title for Myst: "Missed."

And yet the thing sells. And sells. Promotion has won out over quality, paralleling the music industry. Maybe it was just a matter of time.

And what about all these ninja fighting games? Does it matter how the screen LOOKS if it's the same game rehashed over and over and over? If this seems like an article written by two old retrofarts who are buried in the past, consider the immediate, addictive quality offered by the simplicity of Defender, Elevator Action or Gauntlet. Here's the question: Where is that instant, gripping quality these days? Where's the simplistic charm that makes a game unique within its basic idea, without any hood ornaments required? Well, to me, it seems lost in the decorations of rehashed fighting, driving and platform games that offer no innovative elements and yet succeed in fooling video game consumers that visual detail adequately compensates for a lack of raw entertainment.

One of the very rare exceptions, Doom, could have been a step in the direction of combining (what an idea!) modern graphic beauty with consistently high playing quality. But it stopped there, and we've seen nothing afterward that looks even nearly as encouraging. Home programmers, where are you? -- CF

I have this fear that I have told Chris about, and it is what originally inspired this article. I don't have any of the newest game systems, such as the N64, Playstation or Saturn. This doesn't mean that I haven't played these new systems. I have. But they scare me a little. I have a huge collection of video games, ranging back twenty-five years to the first Odyssey. Could you imagine what would happen if I got addicted to a new video game on a new console? Would I leave the classics behind? It is a fear, but like most fears, I know that it is unfounded.

What catches a person's eye while he's playing a game? The answer is, of course, the graphics. But what keeps a person going back for more? The graphics are far from the reason -- perhaps the least of all reasons! The question that bothers me the most is, would I play a quality game that had poor graphics? Would I give it the chance it might deserve? I hope I would say something like, "While this game has graphics on par with a horse's ass, the game itself is wonderful." I actually don't know if I could bear having those words leave my mouth. I do think that graphics are somewhat important!

When we talk about graphics, we may as well be talking about the speed of a machine, because they are very closly related. I am ultimately defending game play over graphics, because graphic capabilty relies on the speed of the machine in question, which is not a necessary (or fair) thing to attack if a game's well-done and fun to play.

There are several standby games that I like to use as frequent examples, and I'm going to admit what they are right now. They are Tetris, Doom and Combat. I obviously use others, but I come back to these time and time again. They are constants, and I use them because so many people have played them. There may be better, more obscure examples, but if the reader has not played a game that I might refer to, he will probably not understand what I am talking about. So, dear readers, shall we enter a maze of oddly angled rooms, all alike?

The most basic, simple graphic feature of a computer is the text display. Despite this, many of the early games utilized this display. I'm not talking about text adventures; nor am I speaking of the rather limited game play of ASCII-character games. The average early 8-bit computer used a screen display of about 40x25 text characters. This meant that the computer was keeping track of 1000 objects, each with a width of about 8 pixels by a length of 10 or so. It did vary a little from computer to computer, but what didn't vary was the lack of memory: 64K machines were considered a luxury. So to conserve memory and speed, most games demanded the usage of a redefined character set. The programmer could re-draw the machine's understanding of the letter A, for example, to look like a little bomb. When moved to RAM, the graphics set that used to be the alphabet took up far less room (and time) than making the computer keep track of thousands of individual pixels on the screen. Also, it wasn't necessary to relocate the complete character set. You could move what you wanted.

The above is a typical example of a way to get around limited resources. This is impressive, not the relatively easy dumping of digitized pictures into a game. Some good-looking computer games were even created for machines that actually had no true graphic capabilities. But if a machine could have a redefined character set (and most did), it could have games created for it.

Of course, as with any canvas, it took someone talanted to create something that was magical. Painting 1/1000 of the screen at a time (redrawing each built-in character) was tedious, but wonderful games were created that way. A great example of a game that used a redefined chacacter set was AtariSoft's 400/800 version of Pac-Man. It looked as close to the arcade version as possible, and it holds up fine today as well, unlike the VCS version, which has definitely not improved with age.

(You might notice that while I have general favorites, I also have least-favorites that I refer to just as often. The 2600 version of Pac-Man tops the list for my most-used example of inferior game design. And hasn't everyone seen that, too?)

Thus far I have not spoken of game play. When you play a quality game, there is no reason to think of game play or mechanics. It all works naturally. It isn't until you play a bad game that you see just how difficult it is to have a well-balanced contest.

One example of great play mechanics is The Legend of Zelda on the NES. That game plays so naturally that the controller becomes an extended part of you. The switching between screens happens quickly and effortlessly. It does not affect the flow of the game in any way -- so the player has no reason to think about the computer switching the view. Wonderful; a true beauty.

I know that games based on movies are almost always terrible, but there is one particular title that is clear in my mind as just worthless. It is Days of Thunder (for the NES as well). There is nothing to do. As a rule, I find driving games boring, but most of them are at least playable. This one is not. This game has no saving grace. It talks, though. I guess they thought that would be enough to hide the poor quality. (I need not mention that the colors used in the game make me want to gag: a pukey green-and-yellow combination that looks more at home in something like Chris's antithesis of fun, Frogs and Flies.)

Once, the creation of a game was left to one person. This one person was responsible for every aspect: graphics, sound, game play, coding, everything! Some guys taught themselves a language and started working on a game at home, not yet sure if a company would even want to eventually publish it (a good example is Bill Hogue, who created Miner 2049'er). Others went to school and applied what they learned to newer computer technology, writing games for companies who hired them based on their past work (like most of the Activision team). Yet, despite such diversity, so many quality games were released in the late seventies and early eighties. Now nearly all games are created using teams. You have different people who draw, animate, code, or speak. You have people who even just direct the game, much like a person does a movie. This has advantages as well as despicable side effects.

One person has one vision for a game. It can give a game the focus that is needed to make it perfect. While a team is able to give advice to and support one another, their committee-like compromises may also muddle any focus that the game might need. They also might tumble the play mechanics, and the appropriate degree of simplicity leaves the game.

The current games all look wonderful. This can always be said. With each passing year, games always seem to look more spectacular. It isn't as if the graphic artists are going to forget how to draw. They will use the hardware of new computers as well as they can, as will the programmers. Every year could easily be considered the year that has the best-looking games "so far." Also, with the passage of time, game play mechanics get more in-depth and complex. But the question -- at least the question being addressed here -- is: Does all of this necessarily make for a better game? The answer to that is simply "no."

But I can't get off that easily, can I? Hardly anyone is going to take "no" for an answer. I need something to back up that statement, some proof that great graphics don't necessarily make for great game play. For that, there is a simple answer as well. People had fun playing video games years ago; the fun didn't just recently start with the advent of visual realism. Those games had the best graphics and game play at the time, just as games do now. Those games were fun. I had fun playing them, and millions of others did, too. That is all the proof I need. -- AT