You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’

By Jonathan Barnes, 4 years ago
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to review the XBLA release of http://www.trueachievements.com/Dragons-Lair-xbox-360.htm. Reviewing this game led me to think about how games age, how we treat them on their re-release onto modern consoles, and the metrics by which we judge them.

As I reviewed Dragon’s Lair, I observed an important schism in game design that has (thankfully) gone by the wayside. When gaming was more-focused on arcades rather than home consoles, an important balance in design was keeping the game fun and addictive, while also making it challenging enough to compel gamers to keep pumping quarters into it. This was one of the reasons why I felt that Dragon’s Lair failed as a game. It was basically designed to be a quarter-sucking mother-f*er with infuriating gameplay mechanics that gave the gamer zero chance to succeed. The game’s success and longevity were/are due to its (at the time) ground-breaking graphics and nothing more. The memory of these images has created a nostalgia factor that gamers of that generation latch on to and cherish.

That nostalgia factor has led many arcade games of past generations (http://www.trueachievements.com/MSPACMAN-xbox-360.htm, http://www.trueachievements.com/TMNT-1989-Arcade-xbox-3....htm, and http://www.trueachievements.com/Altered-Beast-xbox-360.htm amongst others) to be ported to the Xbox LIVE Arcade. These games are usually a fun jaunt down the alleys of memory lane where we pumped the silver circles of our allowance into those shiny cabinets. Now, possibly for the first time, gamers are getting the chance to see the kill screens of many of the games of our arcade youth.

When it comes to reviewing and evaluating these games, however, certain care is needed and gamers are usually drawn into two camps. One camp feels that these games should be judged on their history: they were great once, iconic even, and that’s all that matters (I’ll call them the classicists). The other camp feels that these games should be judged by their relevance and value today (the modernists). These two camps can be found at war in the forums on any 'classic' review.

Such a war was evident in my review of Dragon’s Lair. The classicists felt that my review was too harsh because Dragon’s Lair was an iconic experience of the 1980’s and it shouldn’t be judged by modern standards. The modernists felt that the review was more fair, as the actual gameplay has not aged well. Both camps make compelling points and there is no absolute right or wrong in this matter. For those who read the review, you know to which camp I belong.

I’m of the mind that, if a game is being released and priced today, then we should judge it by its value today. I feel that games should not be given a pass simply because they were great 30 years ago mainly because we are not playing the game 30 years ago. We are playing these games today and I feel they will be judged by the standards of the time because they are being offered and sold now. Playing a game should be an enjoyable experience to the modern, general public, not a history lecture. Furthermore, when detractors say that it’s unfair to judge a 'classic' game by modern standards, I think they’re simply trying to fabricate an excuse to justify their nostalgia as 'quality'. It is my experience that people (not just gamers) confuse an idea of 'quality' with their sense of nostalgia.

Many of us have very strong feelings about positive experiences of our childhood/youth and let those warm feelings of nostalgia cloud our subjective judgment of quality. As a kid, I loved the old Super Friends cartoons featuring DC Comics’ most famous heroes. This doesn’t mean that they were good. In fact, upon modern examination, they were downright horrible, but I LOVED them as a child and have a warm sense of nostalgia surrounding them.

On the flip side, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t experiences (gaming or otherwise) of previous generations that still hold up today. Many games still hold up to modern standards. Games such as Metroid, Super Mario Bros. 3, Sonic the Hedgehog, and most Zelda games all hold up well even by modern standards. If you want to go the arcade route, you could even argue games like http://www.trueachievements.com/GALAGA-xbox-360.htm and http://www.trueachievements.com/PACMAN-xbox-360.htm hold up relatively well to modern scrutiny. This is due to the fact that these games were/are games with great gameplay that extends beyond their graphics. As I mentioned in the review, Dragon’s Lair fails because it was an experience built solely around graphics, not gameplay.

Many classic games basically have one audience, the people who remember playing it in the arcade and want to relive/share that experience with others. I’m of the mind that reviews for these games are not written for that audience. That audience has already made up its mind on the quality of the experience and whether or not to purchase the game. If they’re reading the review, they’re doing it for validation of their pre-existing, nostalgic belief. I believe that reviews of classic games are written for gamers who might have been curious about the game but never experienced it. For that reason, in good conscience, as someone trusted to evaluate the quality of a title, I could not give Dragon’s Lair a good score because I felt it would not resonate with a modern audience devoid of that nostalgic preconception. A good many 'classic' games probably fall into the statement I placed at the end of my review: “Dragon’s Lair is not so much a game you want to play, but rather a trip down memory lane.”

As gaming continues to move forward (or backward, in this case) an interesting dynamic is emerging between the classicists and the modernists. I know which side I fall on, but I’ll put the question to you: are you a modernist or a classicist?
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.