The 8 bit and 16-bit era of gaming is often referred to as the “gaming wild west” for its amazing ability to create a constant stream of new and weird games. We had not yet figured out how many of the things we take for granted now, first appeared in those eras. Controls, menus, gameplay mechanics even whole genres were totally up in the air with how much variety could be in any one game.
And yet for all the creativity and magic we all remember so fondly now, there are a few things that retro games did that honestly, I think we are best to leave behind. Here are 5 awful tendencies from retro gaming that WON’T be missed.
Lives are an old mechanic dragged over to us from the old arcade days of gaming; it was created in order to get the player to keep putting in money, every time you ran out of lives, that’d be another quarter, please!
And yet we bought it with us? When we transitioned from arcade gaming to home consoles we decided as a collective that we should let lives tag along too. Only now rather than dropping another dollar on the machine to keep going, some games would make us restart a level, losing any collectables we had found or worse yet just ending the game, getting the player to start right from the start – unless you happened to remember the games’ 16 letter-long password which you then had to slowly punch in using a controller (we’ll get to that!). It was a bad time all around.
Of course, I am not so naïve to not understand WHY we had lives in retro games. It was pretty simple really, game designers wanted to make very short games that seemed longer. You couldn’t exactly store a ton of data on a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) cartridge and even back in the 80s games could cost upwards of $60 – game designers wanted you to feel like you got your money’s worth, so they made a punishing life system, that might force newer players to keep playing the same levels over and over. This made the game seem way longer than it really was.
What’s truly mind-blowing is that even some games, launched in 2017, use this ‘lives system’, to limit our ability to progress through the game. Now in some cases like with roguelikes, this makes sense, as it’s an integral part of the game, and without these lives, the genre itself would lose some (if not a lot) of its value. My advice would be if you’re making a platformer or a worse offender of this, an action game, avoid putting in a live system; we’ve outgrown it, we want to see all your game has to offer, not replay the first three levels until something better is released.
2) Game Over!
Losing in a game is inevitable (just like life at times), in fact most of the games I truly love come with a very steep learning curve, the game I normally point to when talking about this is “Demon’s Souls” – a game where you die quite often but the death never feels ill earnt, and the time between death and starting over isn’t too long, so you never have time to dwell on your errors.
So when I say “Game overs were bad” I need to be clear with what I mean. Game overs with a painfully long outro or loading screen following them up, forcing you to sit there for 5 minutes listening to what evil villain you were chasing down laugh at you as the disk struggles to find where you last saved; that’s bad.
Now I will admit this one was more often than not a technical limitation of retro games rather than any sort of design choice. But did they really have to have the game mock me while it forced me to wait? Did you need to laugh at me Castlevania? It just made the action of waiting even more tedious.
Shockingly though this isn’t something that’s completely gone out of fashion, famously Too Human had a amazingly long cutscene every time you died: it was of a Valkyrie coming slowly (very slowly) down to earth, picking your character up and very slowly going back up to the skies. Every. Time. You. Died. The punishment for a player’s death should be to go back to the last checkpoint or the start of a level, you don’t need to add to that by making them wait, waiting doesn’t feel like a good punishment for us dying, waiting feels like a punishment for us buying your game.
Passwords as a save option were always a fascination of mine, what caused them to not only pop up but become the popular option in games was something I spent a long amount of time reading up on. Let me quickly explain why there were passwords systems, not just continues.
Continues required a programmer to store a lot of the player’s information onto the cartridge the player was using, taking up valuable gameplay space in order to let them continue from where they last stopped. (This was before Zelda came along with its memory chip inside of the cartridge).
However a password eliminates all the issues that saving brings, a password let the programmer skip all of that nonsense, they could just tell the game “If the player puts in this password, teleport them here and give them these items”. Much less space was taken up and as an added bonus it was far easier to program. Not to mention those memory cards in each cartridge sold must have increased production costs a fair amount.
But for some reason, game designers got more and more paranoid that somehow gamers might “guess” their passwords and skip some of their game. To combat this they went to great lengths to make guessing these passwords impossible, the downside of this, of course, is that it also made them impossible to remember and a big pain in the neck to input.
The question quickly comes up of “Why not just use 5 symbols?” I can remember “Monkey, Rabbit, Rabbit, Cat, Monkey.” It’s very unlikely even with a small pool of characters you have to input (A 5 letter password for example) that a player would just get lucky and guess it. If you must give your players a long password, developers really should have made the effort to make it something you could remember, for example, two words stuck together such as “NewHill”. It doesn’t even have to be related to the stage you are skipping to, just making it actual words makes it far easier for a player to remember and to read from a notepad when inputting the password.
I for one am glad that we mastered the art of saving.
4) Leap Of Faith
This was a weirdly common gameplay choice, wasn’t it? You run to the right, jumping, shooting, battling, and timing everything perfectly, then, you hit a cliff edge. You can’t move the screen any further forwards and all you can see in front of you is…nothingness, just the backdrop of the level. What do I do now? You think to yourself, and then it slowly dawns on you. It’s a leap of faith. The developer wants you to trust them, jump right off that cliff and land on the platform below, that you can’t see, nor have any idea if it’s really there. Worst yet, some developers decide this is the perfect place to put a hole in the ground or a tough enemy to deal damage to you. Hiding information from your players just isn’t good game design.
5) Time Limits
Nothing gets the heart pumping like a sense of urgency, builds excitement as the end draws near, a mountain of fire behind you maybe? A pool of lava. Something chasing you.
On the other hand, nothing is more frustrating than an arbitrary time limit that just straight up kills you once it hits 0. No reason, no way to avoid it, you’re just dead. Move faster next time kiddo. Time limits are just an “anti-fun” way to make a game. Rushing to the end of a level, constantly worrying about if you have enough time to beat the stage stops a player actually enjoying what they are doing. Anything challenging quickly stops being engaging and starts becoming a controller breaking frenzy.
A single level with a time limit, designed around that time limit is fine. In fact, it’s a good way to mix up how a player tackles your levels and keeps them guessing about what future levels might pull out. But far too many old classics had a time limit on every level, forcing the player to keep moving forward, rather than explore or try new things.
If your time limit doesn’t add anything to the experience and instead just takes away from player freedom, it probably shouldn’t be in your game.
So that’s my list folks, do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear what you won’t be missing from the past…