What Makes A Game Classic?


By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
What makes a video game into a classic? We all have our favorites and what we consider to be classics of the genre. For me, I’d be hard pressed to find a game more legendary that Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. That game not only had all elements of being a classic, but it also revitalized an industry that was struggling in the deep echoes of misdirection and failure at the time.
But what makes that game a true “Classic”? Did it know it was going to be a classic when it was being produced from conception? And what is the difference between a game that is a classic and one that is just merely popular for a generation?
When one takes an unbiased look at the original Super Mario Bros., it is quite the simplistic game. Even for its time (the mid-1980’s), there wasn’t much to the gameplay. It was a basic left-to-right sidescrolling platformer game – and even if the platformer hadn’t been firmly established yet, SMB was the most rudimentary ways of kicking them off. The graphics didn’t set the world ablaze (even for 8-bit), the music had a child-like simplicity much like a nursery rhyme, and the sound effects were as repetitive as the enemies. But yet, it rescued a video game industry, made Nintendo a giant in the video game world, has spawned countless sequels and spinoffs that many could be considered “Classic” in their own right (Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Smash Bros., anyone?).

Did the makers of Super Mario Bros. know they were making a classic when they were programming it? It’s doubtful, but the results are unquestionable.

Another one of my favorite franchises is Resident Evil. The original is hailed as a “Classic” that kick started the survival horror genre back in 1996 on the original PlayStation. Being a big zombie fan, this game delighted me from its horrendous voice acting and dialogue to when I jumped as those dogs burst through those windows to when the “Master of Unlocking” almost became a “Jill Sandwich”.
The original Resident Evil is a true classic, but why? It clearly stole/got inspiration from zombie movies that came before it – “Resident Evil 2” even had a memorable homage to the movie “Day of the Dead” – but the game itself wasn’t all that original. Its core gameplay was lifted directly from the popular PC gaming series Alone in the Dark series that debuted before Resident Evil did, and people like myself live the bad B-movie qualities… but does that put it in the same category as a Super Mario Bros? I liked SMB because it was awesome, but I liked Resident Evil for many entirely different reasons, and many of them were not flattering. But yet, I still consider it a Classic. Why?
I think games today have a much harder time establishing themselves as a true classic. For one, it is hard to call yourself a classic game when you have sequels and retreads come out on a near yearly basis – and I’m looking at you Call of Duty/Battlefield. So while those games may have high sales and popularity, I think their “classicness” gets watered down by the sheer number of entries in their franchise.
But for another reason: It is just hard to make good, original games anymore. The effort may be there, but it takes a behemoth effort and promotion for them to get any kind of attention and get out from behind the shadows of the Maddens and the like. The Last of Us (for the PS3/PS4) has rightfully gotten classic status because it is rich in gameplay, story and originality alike. But equally ambitious Shenmue (for the Sega Dreamcast) sadly didn’t get the same kind of attention that it deserved and became more of a niche game rather than a full blown classic. It is simply much harder and less enticing for a programmer to put so much energy and resources to make a visionary game when the chances of it becoming the next The Last of Us rather than the next Shenmue are great. How frustrating it must be to invest so much into a game when something like Candy Crush or Flappy Birds gets all the buzz.
With the current generation of consoles that have recently been released – and the upcoming Nintendo Switch, I have high hopes that classics for a new generation will be born. It’s slow going though, as both systems (PS4 and Xbox One) are having a mini-drought of incoming games that can be thrown into the conversation when discussing Classic Games. But games like Titanfall, Infamous: Second Son and Mario Kart 8 (despite the latter two being sequels) make me hopeful that each system will see some truly memorable, awesome gaming experiences that are tailored for their respective systems. Each generation of consoles has a real classic or two, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

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