Through the console generations
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the next generation of consoles, which I personally find to be quite a telling signal that we’re ready for one. Also interesting now that we’re up to our necks in the pre-Christmas silly season is that the latest batch of sequels doesn’t appear to be scoring critically as high as publishers might have hoped. Not that Metacritic is a particularly authoritative metric for such things, but despite selling through the roof, Modern Warfare 3 appears to have slightly disappointed many critics. In fact, it’s failed to broach that coveted 90+ mark expected of the industry’s biggest blockbusters. In case you missed my review over at PC World, I was right there with those critics.
It appears that the same is true of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Battlefield 3 and a growing list of other titles at a time when the industry’s best are meant to rear their heads. These games might well be the best, most refined entries into their respective series, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that iterative releases aren’t really good enough any more. We crave something that will truly wow us – something unexpected, and something that will rejuvenate our excitement for the medium.
As I’ve previously mentioned in an editorial feature I wrote for Gameplanet a couple of months back, I believe there’s nothing quite like the possibilities hinted at in the early stages of a new console’s lifetime to do just that. So I thought it would be interesting take a retrospective look through the console generations to the games that really got me excited about that particular platform. Now, these games aren’t even necessarily my favourite games on each particular console, but simply those that surprised me with their scope, technology or whatever else made me sit up and take notice.
Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt – Nintendo Entertainment System (8 bit), 1988
Back when this two-game package released (bundled with Nintendo Entertainment Systems at the time), I was 6 years old. In fact, it may have released slightly later here in New Zealand – I don’t recall. But not only was Super Mario Bros. the game that kickstarted the Mario phenomenon, but it was a staggering step up from what was capable on the Atari 2600 in terms of graphics and gameplay. I mean, just look at how Super Mario Bros. compares to, say, Pitfall, which was one of the nicer-looking Atari games that I used to play. If graphical fidelity is truly an exponential curve, it might go a long way to explain why the improvements were far more dramatic back then as these machines essentially doubled in power with each new generation.
Secondly, there was Duck Hunt, the first light-gun game that I’d ever seen. The fact that I could point a fake plastic gun at a TV screen and shoot virtual ducks (and yet not that annoying dog that would laugh at you when you missed) really did blow my little mind.
Starwing – Super Nintendo Entertainment System (16 bit), 1993
More commonly known as ‘Star Fox’ outside of Europe and Australasia, Starwing was one of the earlier titles released for the successor to the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s also one of the first home-console games to utilise 3D graphics, courtesy of the Super FX coprocessor integrated within the game cartridge to accelerate the console’s 3D capabilities. Until I saw Starwing, all I’d really known from consoles was either side-on 2D graphics or top-down 2D graphics. I used to think this game looked incredible, so it’s quite funny to go back and look at it now. Nevertheless, it was undeniably groundbreaking stuff for the time. There’s a screenshot here, but it’s probably best demonstrated in the accompanying YouTube clip of the first mission. I also really dug the music. Hell, I still do.
Wipeout/Tekken 2 – Sony PlayStation (32 bit), 1995/1996
Of all the consoles to leave an instant lasting impression on me, the PlayStation is possibly the most significant. The first console to really make the CD format work, it also constitutes the single-biggest graphical leap from one generation to the next in my memory. Before I owned a PlayStation, I rented one, and Wipeout was one of my first experiences on this new platform. It’s an incredibly fast-paced, futuristic racing title with unprecedented visuals, an incredible art style for its time and a pitch-perfect techno soundtrack. After playing it from its first-person vantage point, it was also the first time I recall getting motion sickness from a video game. Like Starwing, it’s probably best seen in action as opposed to a static image – it actually looks much better in motion.
When I eventually sold my Sega Mega Drive and finally bought a PlayStation, Tekken 2 was the first game I owned for the platform. It was with this game that I realised I was in possession, for the first time, of a console that was capable of delivering an arcade-like experience. In fact, it was better. The PlayStation version of Tekken 2, for instance, provided all the playability of its arcade counterpart, but threw in extra playable characters, game modes, CD-quality audio, jaw-dropping computer-generated computer-generated cut scenes and a whole host more – all without the need to continually feed $1 coins into an arcade cabinet. Better still, the visuals of the PlayStation version of Tekken 2 even outperformed those of the arcade version. This realisation that my PlayStation and indeed Tekken 2 were capable of such was truly a watershed moment for me as a console gamer.
Grand Theft Auto III – Sony PlayStation 2, 2001
It wouldn’t be right if this list didn’t include this game. Released during my second year of university study, the era of the PlayStation 2 and Xbox would prove to be the first console generation that I didn’t rush into headlong. But I’ll never forget when I first laid eyes on Grand Theft Auto III at a friend’s flat one day. Since I’d lost interest in gaming somewhat and hadn’t really been following the industry as closely as I had previously, this game came somewhat out of left field and left me absolutely floored. I marveled at the unparalleled levels of freedom (particularly in regards to the size of Liberty City, of which the player was free to explore every nook and cranny), and also at the way that the AI NPCs would react fairly realistically to your actions. I sat transfixed as my friend began the process of raising his ‘wanted’ level that elevated as he proved himself to be an increasingly dangerous threat to the citizens of Liberty City, and felt the adrenalin of the police chases and the military response that resulted. And all of this was simply an aside to the main game. Grand Theft Auto III was a controversial game on account of this unparalleled freedom. It was widely reported that it was a game in which the player beat up hookers; this was only true insofar as it was a game in which you could technically beat up anyone that you wished, and that Liberty City also happened to include hookers amongst the ranks of its citizens. In any case, this is truly one of gaming’s most groundbreaking achievements, and is perhaps partially responsible for pulling me back into the fold at a time when I had lost interest in the medium.
Gears of War – Microsoft Xbox 360, 2006
Earlier I mentioned that graphical improvements between console generations just might be best represented by an exponential curve, with a theoretical maximum level of fidelity. As such, the initial wave of titles for the Xbox 360 didn’t appear to me to constitute a particularly significant leap forwards at first, despite the fact that it was the first of the high-definition consoles. That was, of course, until I laid eyes on Gears of War – the first game that truly made me feel like I was playing on a next-generation console. At an early stage of the 360′s lifetime, this game achieved what seems to be close to the height of the machine’s graphical capabilities, and it’s still an absolutely gorgeous game to behold. Of course, it was all aided by a winning, genre-defining third-person shooter mechanic that’s become one of the most influential (read: copied) of this generation. But the ruined environments that hinted at the beauty that once was, made possible by the monster Unreal Engine, will always cement Gears of War’s place as the first truly impressive title on the Xbox 360.
It’s interesting to revisit these games and consider exactly why they’ve left such a lasting impression on me. And while I’m still absolutely enjoying everything that the current generation seems to be serving up, which are undeniably some of the best gaming experiences in history, it is harder to be particularly impressed when they tend to constitute the iterative improvements on established formulas that we expect. Mass Effect 3 will likely fix some of the shortcomings of Mass Effect 2, just as Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is said to have done with the annoyances of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. But I want to experience the same overwhelming sense of jaw-dropping awe that I have with the games highlighted above. And the longer that this generation drags on, I’m less convinced that this will happen anytime soon.
There’s an important distinction to be made here: I’m not necessarily criticising sequels as such, here. I’d love to see what new hardware can bring to the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War, even the likes of Call of Duty. Many punters wonder if there’s really that much that new hardware can bring to the table in this HD era, but one thing that most of the aforementioned games had in common was that their innovations were unprecedented. Even still, I can come up with a laundry list of improvements for the current generation off the top of my head that new hardware could plug – imagine the possibilities that I’m not even in a position to know about…
So here’s hoping that there’s something in the recent rumours of the next-generation consoles’ upcoming reveals. I, for one, am excited to see what can be done next.