I love history. I love video games. Video game history is really hard to get into, though. Why? Because every five years, we ceremoniously dump video game history into a trash bin and pretend it never happened.
Console generations have outlived their usefulness. I’m not saying anything particularly revolutionary in that statement. Since the advent of the eighth generation, gamers have been questioning what, if anything, distinguishes this new generation from the previous one. That’s a good question in my mind, since nothing on an immediate level identifies eighth generation games as superior to their predecessors. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched in 2013, preceded by the Wii U a year earlier.
Perhaps Nintendo needs to be the exception to this particular observation. Every generation of Nintendo consoles looked different from what came before and after. The NES, SNES, N64, GCN, Wii, and Wii U all look different from each other and, with the exception of the transition from GCN to Wii, each newer console looked significantly better than its predecessor. Stare too closely at the fine detailing of a Wii game and you might think you were looking at a primitive PlayStation 1 game.
Accepting that the Wii U requires excepting from this broad generalization, I still find myself frustrated by the idea that video games get offloaded into the abyss every half a decade because, well, at this point, it’s tradition. Innovation has stagnated dramatically in the video games industry and now the stink of that stagnation hangs overhead, with an occasionally repulsive gust bubbling out of some unseemly demonstration by the big publishers, and it usually sounds faintly like someone whispering, “Oligopoly.”
What is just so puzzling is that we are in an age where finding old video games should not be a problem. With the Internet and digital downloads, obtaining old games is easier than ever. In, say, 1996, if you wanted to get something old or obscure, you were scrounging bargain bins at FuncoLand and hoping to roll twenties so that Fortune might smile on you in your quest for some game that you only knew about because your cousin saw it once at a friend’s house and it was owned by a sweaty guy in his 30s who was a local Pac-Man master in his heyday. Now, we routinely have games that are only available as downloadable titles in certain or all parts of the world. So what gives with how retrocompatibility is hardly even worth incorporating any more? Neither the Xbox One nor the PS4 even bothered with it, yet the Xbox One inscrutably released a massive Halo compilation as if to say, “What past two generations of consoles?”
It’s strange to me because it is as if the industry occasionally feels compelled to hit the Reset button every few years. Here at Reset After Dark, we take pushing that button very seriously. It’s why I call shenanigans on the fact that old games are falling by the wayside and, but for some players like Good Old Games, the industry would happily let those games disappear into the ether, to be spoken of purely as legend. The question is: why?
One view is that many old games were made by developers that are no longer in the business. Tiny studios were bought up and dissected by larger publishers and no one even knows where all the developers are, or if they do, they are all working in different and sometimes competing corporations. That is a copyright nightmare. As a lawyer who proudly proclaims to know less than nothing about IP (that’s intellectual property, not Insomnia Princess), I don’t pretend that’s some academic problem; I honestly marvel at what sort of hoops Good Old Games must leap through to be able to distribute these games, especially in Europe where the fact that these games are technically licensed rather than sold means nothing short of a copyright/ownership/transference nightmare. Perhaps GOG gave everyone free back rubs before asking for the distribution rights.
A cynic (much like yours truly) would say the real reason that old games aren’t distributed so widely is that it benefits the industry. A short memory business model ensures that a lack of innovation need not be seen as such; how many times has a game bore exactly the same name as a different game in the same series? How many times has one game done something unique, only for its competitors to emulate it ad nauseam and then start all over in the next generation? Why, the Wii U sold itself as the Wii but with HD graphics, thereby ensuring that the two principal talking points about the console were already old concepts. Similarly, the 3DS was a DS but with 3D, a gimmick in cinema that had just run past its expiration date when the 3DS hit stores, and that’s a pity since the 3DS is a reliable piece of hardware that Nintendo was worried enough about that it created the 2DS so kids did not go cross-eyed from overexposure to 3D graphics. Since Nintendo, of the three big publishers, has the largest back catalog, one would think it would be flogging its games far and wide, but as anyone who got excited at the initial announcement of the Wii Virtual Console knows, Nintendo released old games slower than a snail administering an intravenous drip. The party line is that Nintendo didn’t want the novelty to run out by throwing out all of its games at once in a single shotgun blast. I believe Nintendo simply imagined it could wave its hand with monarchical indifference indefinitely on the premise that the Wii would fund the company until the sun exploded. Oh, how times change!
This kind of apathy to innovation would have meant the death of the first company who dared any such thing in the 90s. CDs, systems talking to each other, digital downloads and distribution, centralized game services – all of these things were pioneered over twenty years ago. Do you hear anyone still talking about that? Not really, because why would the video game companies want to admit that all of the current industry standards are from the same decade as the Teletubbies? Someone might want to demand accountability and progress, and then where would we be? We’ll have none of that!
What do you think are reasons that the video game industry keeps dumping its games with every new generation and only reluctantly glances back?