Same Old Song

ocarina-of-timeIt’s raining outside and I’m feeling more than a little melancholic, so today I figured I’d talk about how buying new video games isn’t as much fun as it used to be.

I recall with perfect clarity the day I bought the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was late November of 1998, the day of my grandfather’s memorial service. He’d passed away a couple of months before and there’d been a funeral in BC, where he lived, but his cremated remains then had to be flown across the country to us in Ontario for our memorial.

My grandpa and I had been very close, so I was down in the dumps. My dad knew I’d been wanting a new video game for a while, so we took the early Christmas tips from my newspaper route and went up to my local Walmart, where I picked my copy of Ocarina from the shelves. It cost me the princely sum of $99.99 CAD (equivalent to around $138 today).

This was back in an era when the games weren’t kept in locked cabinets, but in plastic boxes the clerk had to pry open like the treasure vaults of Midas himself.

I was so excited. Here was a game I’d been following (as much as I could in the world of dial-up) for some time. I’d read all the Nintendo Power articles. A few friends and I at school had even made terrible fansites, probably hosted on Geocities. Remember Geocities?

Anyway, I got home, plugged that cartridge in to my N64 with gusto, flipped the power switch, and BOOM! I was in Hyrule.

Now, I’d played Zelda games before. I’d never beaten one – they were beyond by abilities as a young kid, and back then I had more interest in playing outside anyway. But Ocarina was, and is, a fantastic game. Right then and there, fifth grade me became a video gaming fan. At the time, my parents probably felt it was just a phase, something I would surely grow out of. Well, I’m nearly 30 now and it hasn’t happened yet.

So, why don’t I experience the same rush of adrenaline today when I plonk a new game into an Xbox or purchase it from Steam? Nostalgia is my first guess, but I suspect it’s something more than that.

Back in those days, we’d just barely begun to see what polygons were capable of. This was an era when the term “3D” could be applied to just about anything that had a first-person-ish view. Think Wolfenstein or Doom.

The updated hardware brought a sense of newness to everything. We’d been to Hyrule before, but we’d never seen it look like this. We’d journeyed through dungeons, found the boomerang and defeated Ganondorf with the Master Sword, but never like this. Updated graphics made even the familiar parts of Link’s adventures feel fresh. But now that freshness has worn off, especially as we come ever closer to the vast Marianas Trench that is the uncanny valley.

These days, we have the same game schlepped to us year after year, and Nintendo are the worst offenders of the lot, followed closely by EA and Ubisoft. And we swallow it. There’s no innovation anymore. No shine. No hope of a brilliant story being conveyed by a developer who wants to please an audience, rather than make a dollar.

I understand Nintendo is and always has been a business, but they used to make games that were innovative and fun. Compelling and awe-inspiring.

Now? Now, they sit in their own filth outside the pub, watching as patrons go in and out, holding out a hat in the hopes of the nostalgia dollar. And, instead of buying themselves a shiny new set of clothes made from a new IP or the re-invention of an existing one, they continue to buy the cheap liquor of the easy sell.

There are days where I get up, walk into my living room, see my Wii, my Xbone, my PS3, and my PC, and wonder, What the hell it’s all for? Why do I bother with this crap day in and day out? Where on God’s green earth did my fun go? Where is my whimsy, my stories of derring-do and heroes triumphing over villains?

It’s still there. Sometimes. Now and again a company makes the lightning strike, and the industry shudders along like Frankenstein’s monster, all the while surrounded by the pitchforks and torches of the mainstream gaming press who decry the game as a walk too far on the wild side, but then wonder where the creativity is when the developer does something safe the next time around.

Sometimes the triple-A publishers get it right, but only, I suspect, when someone on the dev team pulls a fast one on the board, and they’ve gone and published the game before anyone can even start to complain.

This is why so many of us look to the indie development scene these days. It seems the level of creativity is limitless there, unfettered by the heavy chains of corporate ownership. These are usually games made by gamers for gamers. We know what we want to play, so a few of us with the talent make those games. Some of them even get picked up by publishing houses.

Though this, too, often ends in tears as the soul is ripped from the game in the name of the safe, bland, bog-standard the company requires. Then, the developer is let go, the IP is seized by the publishing house and it’s left to linger on life-support, like so many other wonderful ideas. Dead before their time.

We aren’t asking for a lot, development teams. We play older games and reference them constantly not in the hopes you that you’ll give us updated versions (though, these are sometimes nice), but in the hopes you realize it’s the sense of wonder we are after.

Take a chance. Even if it doesn’t pan out entirely the way you’d hoped?  You’d still have our respect for it.

… Then again, Grand Theft Auto V is the fastest selling video game of all time. So, what the hell do I know?

Same Old Song

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