Some of my fondest childhood gaming memories were on the Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis for you Americans). I can’t recall ever being much more excited than the day our Dad gave in and drove us down to the nearest mall/shopping centre to pickup the Toy Story Bundle. We spent the whole afternoon trying to work out how to tune our TV to the console’s adapter which broadcast the games on Channel 36 (I even remember that).
Soon we were renting games from our local video store, squeezing every minute we could into trying to complete the game before it was time to return it. No game was too easy, but nor was any game worth giving up on. The Mega Drive had no storage, and so no saved games once the console was reset. Many games, like Sonic the Hedgehog or Spider-Man & Venom: Separation Anxiety, didn’t even have passwords to start again on a later level. Nope, this was hardcore gaming at its finest. If you don’t time that jump properly, you’re starting from the beginning, buddy.
A few months ago I discovered that one of my brothers still had our old mega drive, and some of the games we bought (although most of the greats we borrowed from friends or the video store). It was an intimate experience, unpacking the mega drive and all its cables and pieces and configuring my TV to see Channel 36 once again. Sadly the only original games left were NHL 95, Andretti Racing, and Brian Lara Cricket. Nothing shooty or jumpy. So I bought some classics from a garage sale: Sonic 2, Another World (WE PLAYED THIS BEFORE IT WAS COOL), Jurassic Park, and Mortal Kombat. Of course, I had played all these many times since the Mega Drive began gathering dust, via emulation on my PC. But the cover art, the manual, the controller, the flickery TV signal.. it was a whole different level of special!
And so I allowed myself to get hooked on Jurassic Park. Like old times. No saving, no graphic filters to pretty up the game, no minimising to check facebook. And just like old times, it took me over 2 hours over numerous sittings just to get through the early levels. And as each level passed, I scribbled down the password as quickly as I could (OK, I typed it on my iPhone..) before it would automatically progress to the next level.
Gaming just ISNT like this anymore. We expect progress with little effort. But could it be? That’s a large slice of the dream that many indie developers have: to tug our (and their) nostalgia-strings. But I don’t think it’s as simple as creating a game inspired by the classics. The world has changed and so has the way we use our time.
While playing Jurassic Park was great fun, I had to fight off this feeling that I could be doing something better, and more efficiently. I’m used to making progress quickly and feeling productive, even in my playing sessions. Minecraft is particularly good at making you feel like you’re getting work done, even though you really aren’t. Furthermore, we have access to 1000s of games, free and paid, at our fingertips at all times. Why spend 10 hours on one game when we could spend 10 hours on five games? I remember running around aimlessly on Brian Lara Cricket, letting my imagination run wild, because a. I didn’t know how to play cricket, and b. I had no other games to play.
Sonic 3 only has 6 ‘zones’ and if you cheat your way through using emulator save-states, you can probably finish the game in a little over an hour. So to many, playing the hardcore way and starting over and over again as you lose all your lives on the final boss is an exercise in futility. But in reality, the feeling you get when you finally destroy Dr Robotnik ‘once and for all’ (or at least until the next instalment) is far greater than cruising your way over the finish line of any modern commercial game. It’s just a case of committing yourself to the game and allowing yourself to get immersed.
And so I think the biggest challenge for an indie developer in recreating this classic experience in a new game, is to give the modern audience a reason to commit their time to finishing it. It’s not impossible but it is getting exponentially harder as the indie game industry grows.