Retro gaming is just as bad (and good) as the modern day

Elite box art

Elite – open world gaming from 1984 (pic: Frontier)

A reader argues that most genres and industry complaints from modern gaming have their roots in the very earliest days of video games.

Is the interest in retro gaming about respect rose gold-tinted glasses? Let’s be honest, it’s a bit of both. The mind-blowing graphics of old games look decidedly crude in the modern world. The passable sound effects wouldn’t cut mustard in any triple-A production that has hired a whole orchestra. But there is more to it than that. Some classic games remain, well… classic. Even some of the chiptunes of yesteryear hold up quite well (as an aside, I find it slightly amusing the SNES sound-chip was created by their later rival Sony). In fact, the music and intro sequence for Probe Software’s Supremacy still brings joy to me today.

Aside from the abomination of the ET game and the painful loading times, the seventies and the subsequent decade were fundamental. Laughing at Sinclair machines was mandatory for Commodore owners. But even though Uncle Clive wasn’t an avid computer user, his machines helped manifest the landscape of British gaming. I gather many video game creators today, of a certain age, owe a fair bit to Mr Sinclair.

This era showed us genres that are still stubbornly with us. Graphical adventures, simulators, and even, to an extent, game creation programs. Before Dreams on the PlayStation 4, we had the cruder but similarly themed 3D Construction Kit. The Media Molecule product is a million times better, yet it has strong family links in ambition to Incentive Software’s game builder.

Open world games are hardly a new genre, but they stretch back a long way. One of the most obvious and well received 80s example is Elite. The space battle and trading simulator managed to seduce the BBC Micro’s limited tech into creating galaxies and real-time 3D. The use of procedural generation is still used today. Although hardly identical, we see connections to the controversial title No Man’s Sky. Trading, battles, and missions in a procedurally generated universe were around before some younger gamers were alive.

One reason I enjoy Retro Gamer and books about this period is learning about the sheer cleverness of programming in that age. It is one thing to use a powerful modern tool like Game Maker, quite another to code for the old Commodore, Sinclair, and Acorn machines. Some of the people making beloved titles in this age were literally teenagers. From Manic Miner to Repton, one has to admire the talent of the youngsters making these now primitive machines become a source of delight (and, in Manic Miner’s case, often frustration).

It is hard to think of many genres that did not emerge back in the day. Only four years after the famous Live Aid concert, SimCity was released. Even real-time strategy had been attempted, since Activision’s late eighties game Corporation has echoes of this. User generated content was not unheard of, even if less common than today. We had Mr Robot, Boulderdash Construction Kit, and even the adventure game creator named The Quill.

Some delicious titles of recent times are about food production. From Overcooked, to its enjoyable VR related Cook Out and Clash Of The Chefs. It’s still not entirely novel though, as the ancient game Burger Time cajoled the player to use platform gaming mechanics in order to create fast food. The game is so old it arrived in the same year as the ZX Spectrum was put on sale. On the same system I discovered there were a culinary title called Cookie (from Ultimate Play The Game). It seems computer-based cooking has a bit of a history.

The idea of ​​hacking or online sleuthing as an in-game mechanic might seem modern. It isn’t. We had titles such as Steve Cartwright’s Hacker many years ago. Accessing online systems as a gameplay mechanic was lauded in Uplink, but it has an ancestor of sorts in the 1984 offering called System 15000.

Even some of the issues and controversies of today are not a new aspect of gaming. Okay, so we didn’t have microtransactions. We did have the endless issue of software piracy and attempts to subvert it, from colour-coded matrices to devices aimed at stopping or enabling such activities.

A common moan today is the idea of ​​releasing a game that is bugged or unplayable. That again, not surprisingly, isn’t new. The bugbear of early games was poor collision detection. You’d beat up your joystick, screaming ‘my car didn’t even go near that’. Infuriating controls that made the game far too difficult were another thorn (China Miner springs to mind).

Even loved games could seem unfair – Hunchback will be named and shamed for this. Despite its acclaim, the original version of Jet Set Willy annoyingly stopped any player from winning the game. The only solution was producing in bits of code to solve the bug… almost like a game update.

Controversy isn’t new to video and computer games. Some time ago, there were concerns raised about a game where the player essentially takes out individuals using their car. This was not Grand Theft Auto, but a 1970s game called Death Race. As is detailed online entry points out, the ethical issues raised by critics likely only increased the userbase. Maybe Rockstar knew this when they actively encouraged the media to go on the warpath about their most famous IP.

Alleged concerns about content and parody were also out there with Codemasters’ release of Rock Star Ate My Hamster. For those unfamiliar with it, the game was a tongue in cheek band management simulation. It introduced us to parodies of real performers and silly press headlines. Not long before that, the puzzle game Splitting Images had to be retitled due to legal concerns that the name resembled a famous political puppet program.

One of the criticisms we hear today is that Game X is clearly just uninspired plagiarism of another title. Or, more positively, it might be a game that ‘takes inspiration from’ and ‘improves upon the formula’. Even well received titles have been accused of nabbing too much from earlier ones, such as the very enjoyable Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4.

All this is old hat. A potentially good offering from Manfred Trenz, Great Giana Sisters, had a short shelf life. The gaming media were fans. Nintendo weren’t. Its hyper-homage to Super Mario Bros. didn’t go down well, so well done if you managed to grab a copy before its retail demise!

The primeval period of gaming can be fascinating. It shows how intelligent and creative some of the early coders really were. It also reminds us that some of the issues and genres of today are reflected in the digital pond of the past. Even the laudable VR headsets we now wear have very old antecedents. The website for Verdict, in a feature on virtual reality’s backstory, puts the date of the first headset a year before the moon landing. So, in a sense, our latest innovation really goes back before personal computers were on our desks or knees!

If you are curious about gaming history, there are a lot of books that deal with it. They range from light reads to in-depth historical analysis. Although not billed as such, Tony Mott et al.’s 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is a vivid panoply of retro gaming information. Also highly recommended is Tristan Donovan’s Replay: The History of Video Games.

By reader Robert Pomfret

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

You can submit your own 500 to 600-word reader feature at any time, which if used will be published in the next appropriate weekend slot. As always, email and follow us on Twitter.

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