Achieving Gaming Greatness: A Link to the Past


by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)

Everyone loves their annual “best of” lists, those lists that compile the best X of the year. Sometimes those lists are broader and look at best of all time, pitting newer properties against older, more storied properties. Those lists are something of a fool’s errand, as the newer stuff usually fails to hold a candle against the older stuff. This is especially true in video games.

Ever notice when you ask someone what the best game they’ve ever played is, it usually happens to be something from the bygone era of gaming? A time when HD graphics and Unreal engines didn’t rule the roost? Maybe it’s just a generational thing and in a few years SNES games will be a distant memory, but there’s likely a reason that people think the old-school games are better: they’re generally more naturally challenging.

Face it, you probably know only one person (if that) who’s beaten Final Fantasy for Nintendo. Or Kid Icarus. Mega Man. The list goes on and on, but often it’s those games that get mentioned near the top of the “best of all-time” lists. These games are so heavily regarded because their difficulty made them near impossible to complete, yet there relentless request that you pour hours into completing them had gamers clamoring for more.

Games nowadays? They’re just not that difficult. Now, it’s easy to confuse longevity with difficulty. For instance, the Elder Scrolls series boasts extremely long games. In fact, my main Skyrim save is currently around 200 hours of playtime. That doesn’t make the game hard though, just rife with things to do and see. It’s not hard like Mega Man was hard, a game which gave you a razor thin margin of error (you had a life bar instead of being killed in one shot).

A lot of the difficulty and challenge in games seems to have been sacrificed for prettier character renders and sweeping, orchestral soundtracks. Of course, you can’t complain about that because the games are truly feasts for the senses and are a joy to play. Developers, though, have shifted priorities on the difficulty front. Instead of making the game itself difficult, they’ve decided to infuse difficulty via achievements, which might be the one of the greatest joys and pains to ever be considered part of video games.

When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, it was heralded as the first high-definition console and kicked off an unheard of eight-year console lifecycle that is still going strong. It also brought with it achievements, signaled by that soothing pop on-screen, rewarding gamers for an action in the game. Games are now relying on achievements for difficulty, which, sadly, means the games aren’t as good.

Now the aforementioned Skyrim? Of course it’s a good game. One of the best this generation. Is it really better than Chrono Trigger, though? Possibly the best game of all time? Chrono Trigger had upwards of fourteen endings which, for the time, was unheard of. Now games may have two endings, but typically the only incentive to play through and seem them both is because there’s an achievement tied to both. And developers know this.

Instead of making a game difficult through thoughtful development, a lot of developers are copping out in a sense and instead relying on achievements to make the game more difficult.  And games are being evaluated on how good they are based on the achievements. Avatar: The Last Airbender is famous for making all 1000 achievement points attainable after five minutes of button-mashing and the game is universally panned. Granted, there are other things about it that make it a bad game, but people only remember the achievement part of it.

There’s something about old-school games that just feels different than the current generation. Those games couldn’t count on 1080p resolution to distract you from the complete lack of story. Or a Season Pass of DLC that makes you forget you’re still playing the same game, just likely with a new multiplayer map or character skin. Instead, those games had to rely on story primarily and thoughtful level design.

There are certainly a ton of quality games that have graced current generation consoles. Developers know what they’re doing and manage to put out those with stories gamers can get behind, graphics that are jaw-dropping and gameplay that’s innovative. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like they’re going to be able to match the games of yesteryear. Even the latest entries in the Final Fantasy series are largely forgettable, while the opera scene from Final Fantasy III (US) is still seared in my memory.

Achievements are a nice touch to games, but when developers rely on them for making the game challenging, that’s when there’s a problem. For as satisfying as it is to get that pop, it’s also something of a detriment to the gameplay. No longer are gamers playing a game for pure enjoyment; instead, they’re trying to sync all the viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed. No longer are developers relying on a crazy boss fight like the Weapons from Final Fantasy VII to make games challenging and enjoyable; instead they’re having you complete a mission on an airplane in under a minute on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Achievements aren’t an indictment of the entire industry. There are still top-notch developers putting out top-notch games that are healthy blends of graphics and gameplay. For instance, games like Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls really emphasize quality gameplay over everything else. There’s a reason why games like those are often unheralded among the media, but lauded by those who play them. They’re a happy medium between the feel of old school and look of new school.

Fewer and fewer games however can be referenced as “greatest of all time” and those lists may stay static for a while. Even the latest Zelda The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword—a franchise that’s always a Game of the Year candidate—doesn’t hold a candle to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. They’re both great games in their own right, but when it comes to difficult and overall gameplay, give me old school all the way. I’ve heard there’s an ocarina that can manipulate time and maybe get us back to those days.

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