Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lowlights of this generation; i.e. - why I won't be buying a PS4 tomorrow night

For whatever reason - poor impulse control, rabid fandom, obsessive desire for material objects, being a tech addict - I've always been an early adopter of game systems. Up until I was in college, coinciding with the release of the PS2, I was a day zero purchaser of nearly every game system that came out in the 90s. I got my NES Control Deck for my 7th birthday after I got a Fisher Price PXL camcorder and as disappointed that it was black and white, or was required to be plugged in or something. Mind you, this wasn't even my idea. My parents chose this as a surprise, and what a surprise it was. Up until that point I had been used to playing with action figures and drawing in my short little life. But I'm pretty sure that Thundercats and M.A.S.K. dovetailed nicely into another hobby that was largely creative in nature.

Anyway, after that, I was hooked. Soon enough, I was staking out Nintendo Power for SNES news, and had that the day it came out. Before the days when gaming was popular enough to even have preorders or reservations. I remember my mom taking me to Children's Palace and pouncing on their meager supply the day that they arrived. Past that, I had a job to pay for my habits: I caddied and used my xmas earnings to buy a Sega Genesis and Sega CD (the latter being a very poor choice), worked at a restaurant to snag a Saturn and Playstation 1 on launch day, and a hardware store to get a Dreamcast right on schedule. This isn't even mentioning the handhelds I had. I think I had every incarnation of the Gameboy at one time, a Game Gear, you get the picture.

But then college came, and in addition to being largely poor due to being on a rural campus and not having a car, thus not being able to have a job, my interest had started to wane a bit. Not because I'd "grown up", or any of the standard reasons that anyone would think up when they hear that your interest in video games had dropped off a bit. One, I didn't have time. Two, I picked up an even nerdier hobby (that would later prove to contribute to being the bane of my life for almost 10 years) in the form of anime, thanks to a girl I came to love but that did not return the sentiment. And finally, three, the game related reasons...

For one, when you're 7 and you have an NES and it's the 80s, your main sources of info come once a month in magazines and in the Sears xmas catalog. Because of the tech then everything had to be programmed from scratch, and as a consequence games came out kinda infrequently. You heard about them in Nintendo Power for months at a time, and there were hardly ever firm release dates for titles then. I read recently that over five thousand games were released for the XBox 360 in its seven-plus years. The original Nintendo had around 850, and that's with redumps over different territories, also including Famicom games. Also, when you're 7, you tend to be dependent on others to buy you games, so you know your limitations. That, and games back then, by and large, took a few hours to beat or get bored with, excluding rare examples like Zelda. As time ran on, naturally games got more complex and thus more involved and time-consuming. A few of my favorite games, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6 and Final Fantasy Tactics, ate up a ton of my time in high school. My main save on FFT had the clock at 99:99:99, so yeah, I played a lot. But my point is that, even just between 1987 and 1994 - 7 years - the complexity of games had ballooned in size greatly. Even Final Fantasy 4, which came out in 1991, took my 11 year-old self 40 or 50 hours to conquer. (I was a total completist, I explored every nook n cranny) I was used to games that a) didn't usually take that long, and b) weren't massively complex except for the above mentioned cases and a few others, which meant I was free to sample and I didn't feel like I was missing anything. When the PS1 era came along, there started to be more and more releases (a lot of which were crummy, but more on that in a minute) every week and by the time the PS2 was in stores, forget about it. There were just ridiculous amounts of games on shelves, and aside from the money factor, when every game takes up a bunch of your time, you need to pick and choose what you get to play.

Another gaming-related reason, as I said, loads more games were releasing every week - and not that the NES and SNES' library didn't have their share of turds - but there were more horrible games than ever. And I viewed everything beyond the 16-bit era as a transitional phase to the current gen (360 and PS3, that is) that we have today. I was raised on pixel graphics and a certain kind of gameplay, and try as they might, the Saturn, the PS1, none of them really ever impressed me that much. Knowing what could be from tech demos for the then-Ultra 64 (Nintendo 64) and even Pixar movies like Toy Story, which came out in 1995, you knew what was eventually coming. So it was hard for me to get excited about blurry, lo-res textures, or even flat-shaded, low-polygon models of things in games. It all just looked kind of awkward to me, I guess. That's not to say that there weren't some legitimately good games in that generation, but I just never saw the "amazing quality" of Final Fantasy 7, for instance, even when it was new. Final Fantasy 6 on the SNES was a masterpiece, hand-crafted pixel-by-pixel, with music that was insanely wonderful. I waited for 7 for three long years, and they made it out to be this CGI spectacle, and that was the problem. The character models on the map were "popeye-armed" to use the term coined back then, the music was okay, but it was more MIDI synth than symphonic like its 16-bit predecessor had, the textures were grainy, as were the "prerendered" backgrounds, and translation was atrocious. It always baffled me how, after spending years on development not only of the game, but the technology to make the game, how they could put so little effort into the translation. True, RPGs weren't really a big Western thing then - when it came to console gaming at least - but ironically, even though the translation is awful (and RPGs are based on story and character development), it brought RPGs into the spotlight in the West. Stuff like this, bad scripts and voice acting in games like Resident Evil 1-3, grainy video, bad collision and hit detection sort of soured me on gaming in general, then.

Around 2000 I tried getting back into the swing after seeing that Final Fantasy 9 would be like a throwback to the older games. But there again, it presented a problem that I'd dealt with before, as well as a new one. Final Fantasy 8 had turned me off with its goofy Triple Triad card game, and side quests and such. The Gold Saucer in FF7 was okay, but it was merely a collection of minigames secluded in one section of the game. FF8 was festooned with stupid complexities that just made the game less fun overall. Magazines to collect for skills or whatever, having to suck magic out of enemies, card games, some BS with salary and such. So I start up disc 1 of FF9, and what is one of the first scenarios I'm greeted with? A button-matching minigame. Worse, a button-matching minigame which, if I got a lower score, I didn't get a item. So there was a tangible consequence to being bad at Simon. And this introduced me to the thing that still has a bad taste in my mouth to this day. Way back when, you had your Nintendo Powers, your Tips & Tricks Magazines, EGM, Gamefan, whatever. You had a few finite pages with tips and tricks, and with games not being that complex for the most part, you were kind of left to your own devices to figure things out, and it was fun to play the game. With this game, like never before - and I acknowledge it had been around before, but not in the same capacity - I'd been going back and forth between GameFAQs on my PC screen and the TV. It boiled down to me following instructions if I wanted to obtain everything. So I quit playing. If I wasn't playing for fun, and just following a guide step-by-step, it wasn't worth it. Games now are more open-ended for the most part, but there's still this complexity, where, I feel if I'm not using a guide, I'm not getting to see everything. And with all of the releases around now, I don't have the time to play everything all over again to perfection. Nor would I want to, most of the time. I just hate feeling like I didn't have the complete experience. Or for games like Dark Souls that are superfrigginhard, you worry about being underpowered or stepping into the wrong area if you're not looking online for info while playing.

But I got trapped in these old ways. I was used to games not keeping me entertained forever, and only playing one or two a year that would genuinely hold my interest for 50 hours at a time. So, I drifted off the path for almost the entirety of the PS2/XBox/GameCube generation (I owned all three, but purely out of habit). I was mainly into handheld gaming for the longest time, playing games like Fire Emblem, Mario Golf, Warioware, Treasure's Astroboy game, the 2D Metroids, the 2D Zeldas, Phoenix Wright and the excellent last-of-the-2D Castlevania games. (And I thought the neatest thing ever was the GBA SP, that screen was so sharp!) The other big distraction was that my friend got me into World of Warcraft in 2004. We hung out near-constantly at one point in time, and that game spoiled me in every definition of the word, for other games. First in the good sense, then the bad. It had been the first online game I'd ever really played with any sort of seriousness. I had Final Fantasy 11 which I lost interest in pretty quickly (and that froze my computer fairly often), Ragnarok Online which was terrible, and some earlier PC junk in the late 90s. But WoW was, well, WOW. I had always liked the Warcraft lore, and this brought all of those races to real, living color. You got to get involved in adventures you dictated and characters your tailored to your specifications. The exploration was long and arduous but rewarding. The environments were rich, things were deep, complex in a graspable way, there seemed to be an infinite amount of fun to be had. But once you'd explored every zone, it just became a race for gear, on a treadmill. You were mandated to using one of a few cookie cutter builds for your character because everything boils down to math, and if you want mega healz or DPS out the wazoo, you did what was necessary to stay in your guild and get phatty lewts. You did the same rotations, and had to have the same gear as others, because you'd get replaced if not. Then they started going overboard with things that were "limited edition" in game items and ridiculous achievements, and you had to be logged in like it was a full-time job. At first, the expansions revitalized the experience with more zones to explore and new mechanics, but after so many similar experiences, it just wasn't happening anymore. And after quitting and coming back a few times, I was spent on any future gaming, period, for a good, long stretch.

In 2007 I purchased an XBox 360, as I had seen some of the games and was impressed and decided that I wanted to get back into gaming. But it sat. And sat. And sat some more. Oh, I bought games, but I didn't play any of them for more than ten minutes at a time. I don't know if I was still burnt out from Warcraft, or if taking an entire generation off from ever-more-complex games (my rationale when I was a WoW-lover, was that I was "building something" with the characters I made, with standalone games, I'd finish it and it wouldn't matter or amount to anything) made my head spin because now every game took at least 20-30 hours to see everything, but I just didn't play. Plus, I had games from other generations to play (I'm talking PS1 games, when the 360 was out for a few years) that I had almost... guilt(?) about not playing. I guess the whole point of this article is the fact that, before I never had a "backlog" of games. I stuck that cart in the NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, I kicked Andross in the balls and watched the ending. But then stuff piled up. I'd start Metal Gear Solid 2 with every intention of finishing it, and then Wind Waker (the original) would come along, then Katamari Damacy, then Godhand, then Shadow of the Colossus comes out, and the ball keeps a-rollin.

So when pressure - in the form of friends talking about it, TV ads (again, remember, this gaming thing wasn't super hip until a few years ago, so now they milk it for all it's worth), e-mails, previews, reviews, etc - really started to buckle my resolve not to buy a PS4 on launch day, I had to go back to my pile of unplayed or unfinished games from this generation. My "lowlights" if you will. I have approximately 35 XBox 360 games, around 10 3DS games and 2 PS3 games. Amongst all of these, I finished most of my 3DS library, so kudos to me. But I've never even opened Kid Icarus (over a year old) and Resident Evil Revelations (also over a year old). Other failures of note:

- Abandoned Animal Crossing village after about 200 hours (Not a huge deal, since I did play it that long, but I expected to perpetually keep my village going. But even rudimentary upkeep takes like an hour a day, and eff that)

- Bought original Left 4 Dead when it was newish, never played it. About as useful as an AOL startup disk now.

- Got hooked on Borderlands, bought the xpacs and Borderlands 2. Played the xpacs, never touched BL2.

- Bought Bionic Commando (nuff said)

- Actually played Bionic Commando

- Bought Tales of Vesperia and Devil May Cry 4 with the 360, never played either.

- Didn't finish Dead Rising once

- Didn't play Fallout 3 or New Vegas until 2013.

- Have Gears of War, never played.

- Fable 2 & 3, ditto (the original Fable was my favorite original XBox game)

-Dead Space 1 & 2, nope.

- Have Dead Rising 2, never played.

- Farcry 3 made me motion sick so no go there.

- Didn't finish Mass Effect 2

- Played like 30 hours of Red Dead Redemption, didn't finish

- Castlevania has never been in the drive

- Dishonored is still in the wrapper

- Played Batman: Arkham Asylum most of the way through, got bored, never even opened Arkham City

- Have had Resident Evil 5 since 2008, you guessed it, not played.

- Diablo 3 sits in hell waiting to be played

- Dragon Age Origins, never played

- MvC 3, still sealed

- Finished 3 chapters of Telltale's Walking Dead

and the two biggies:

- Have every Assassin's Creed except 4, have never played any except the first, thought it was boring, so I quit. (To be fair, I didn't buy any but the first and third ones, and the first was like $10 at Best Buy, my friend worked for Ubisoft at the time and would give them to us as xmas gifts every year)

- Bought a PS3 essentially for The Last of Us. It is now collecting dust underneath the clock that I've sat on top of it. No idea why I haven't played it. (Also got the Kingdom Hearts HD remake, and I guess my tastes have improved, because I couldn't sit through more than Wonderland before I hit pause forever)

So there you have it. My list to refer to tomorrow, when that clock strikes 12 and I get any big ideas to fly out to Best Buy or GameStop for the big launch and snag a livingroom-monolith of my very own.