The Limits of Retro Gaming Experiences

I recently read Mike Schiller’s first post in his “Ambassdorship” series, a series of blog posts looking at 20 retro Nintendo games “offered by the 3DS Ambassador program” (“The Limits of Nostalgia: Ice Climber, Unlimited Lives, 6 April 2012). In that post, Schiller discusses his relationship to the 1985 NES game, Ice Climber, a game that he had especially fond memories of playing when he was younger but that he has less appreciation for now, finding that “it’s unremarkable even in an eight-bit context.”

Now, I did own Ice Climber for the NES myself, and I, like Mike, have rather wistful memories of playing the game. At the time (and really now as well), I personally had a preference for video games that were more end-goal oriented, games that offered some sort of narrative resolution as a prize for beating them. For me, the true gems on the system were games like Super Mario Bros., Zelda, and even Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! as opposed to games like Mario Bros., Popeye, or even the tremendously well scored Spyhunter — all of which were more like endless arcade titles (appropriately enough, given that all of these titles are arcade ports). Nevertheless, Ice Climber is the game that I might rank as my favorite game that lacked an end-goal, that created an arcade-like experience in which the player kept climbing for the sake of climbing and for, of course, the sake of points. Though that was not the only reason that one climbed.

Without knowing initially that Schiller was writing about playing Ice Climber on the 3DS, my first thought on reading of his discontent with the experience was: “What is he playing Ice Climber on? An emulator?” because I also thought, “Then, he’s playing alone. That must really suck.”

The funny thing about the title of Ice Climber is its singular, not plural, description of the game and its protagonist. Truth be told, Ice Climber should, like its arcade sibling the original Mario Bros., acknowledge that there really isn’t a single protagonist in the game. It should be called Ice Climbers. Mario Bros. when played in its optimal form is not about Mario, it’s about the Mario Brothers and their efforts to clean up the sewers of their pesky turtle infestation. Simply put, it plays better with two. Likewise, Ice Climber in its optimal form isn’t about Popo. It is about Popo and Nana.

In other words, it may not be nostalgia blurring Schiller’s memory of the title. Ice Climber is a pretty “meh” game solo. It really requires two players to be a pleasurable experience. Nintendo was and really continues to be awfully good at creating co-op living room play experiences, and I think that this is one of those titles. Playing Mario Kart, alone? Eh, I’ll pass. With two or more players? I’m definitely in.

That is not to say that all of Nintendo’s co-op games are only good played co-operatively. However, they often are. Super Mario Galaxy is a really excellent game when played alone. That being said, add a second player to help gather stars using the additional Wiimote, and it’s even better. (In fact, I would argue that the really optimal way to play Super Mario Galaxy is with two players of differing ages. I have argued in the past that Super Mario Galaxy is the best parent-child co-op game ever designed, and I stand by that claim. It feels like it was actually designed with that thought in mind. Indeed, a second player may be completely bored with his or her support role if played by two players of equal skill.).

Indeed, issues like number of players or interface style can greatly effect a play experience, and for good reason, the gameplay was often designed with that style of play in mind. I have played a million ports of Centipede on various platforms. None of them have the “right feel” of playing the game with a rollerball, like the one that the original arcade cabinet featured. It is a game designed in part around its interface. The original Diablo as a single player dungeon crawl? Yawn. As a multi-player co-operative dungeon dive? Amazing.

We like to say that there are some films that are meant to be seen on the big screen. I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia in a movie theater and on a television at home. It is a film whose desert vistas are intended to sprawl across a screen twenty or thirty feet in the air. No lie, the movie is better seen the way it was intended to be seen. I’m so glad that I saw The Matrix and Kill Bill in the theater. That fight scene in the lobby of the building in The Matrix? Incredible. The Bride vs. the Crazy 88s stretched out dozens of feet in front of me? Hell, yeah.

Of the few Michael Bay films that I have ever seen, I have never enjoyed a single one. Of course, I was unwilling to pay ticket price to get in to see them the “right” way. Transformers battles look like a jumbled mess to me on my home television. Maybe I would get why people drop so much money on his films if I saw them the way that a big spectacle is meant to be seen? You know, as a big spectacle.

For that matter, really any change in format to a piece that is really designed around the medium in which it originally appeared can have a huge impact on how it “reads” or “feels” later. I have never seen a good cinematic adaptation of Moby Dick. Read it. Don’t see it. The book depends on things that only books can do. The textual “whale hunting” that coincides with the actual whale hunt that the novel’s main action describes just can’t be represented on a movie screen. Who wants to “research” (and how does one do reasearch) by watching a film? Maybe it could be done (insert documentary scenes about whales and whaling history to intrude on the main action?), but no one has successfully made the cetology chapters work onscreen. Regardless, I think they still would lack the “feel” of investigating the whale in these other ways that Melville provides for the reader.

This is a problem for games, maybe more than for a lot of other media. Video games suffer issues not merely of adaptation but from the constant evolution of technology that makes each new bit of tech obsolete in the wink of an eye. Sure, movies went to VHS, then DVD, then BluRay, subtle changes in visual fidelity. However, games designed for one system sometimes make significantly less sense on another system. No More Heroes makes a significant joke that concerns the nature of games themselves and the game’s protagonist by requiring the player to essentially “masturbate” his Wiimote as Travis Touchdown “masturbates” his own sword in the game. You port the game to another system, some of the discourse of the game is lost.

While Ice Climber has no such satirical messages in mind in terms of its gameplay, nevertheless, it is a title that at the very least was created with the original expectation that another controller would be present for another player to pick up when you play the game. Without that other controller, the experience that the developers designed much of the game around gets lost pretty much altogether. For those that might never have had the chance to play the NES Ice Climber, there’s a bit of the feel of the Lego co-op games to the experience of two-player Ice Climber. Since you can kill your partner if you advance too quickly, a certain tension is created between players. This can lead to play like I know that my brother-in-law and his sister (my wife) would have had playing this growing up. He would have enjoyed the hell out of sadistically killing her every chance that he got. Indeed, it would likely have been the entire reason for him to play, for him to climb. By contrast, there is also the playstyle that my brother and I enjoyed, which was to really look out for one another and do your damnedest to keep your fellow climber alive (with the occasional shove over the edge thrown in just to keep things interesting).

To me, re-experiencing Ice Climber may be a context thing and not specifically an issue of historical context. Very often the context of play is developed around things like interface, like number of players, like whether the two players are actually in the room together or connected via the internet.

Journey won’t be holding up as a game when no one is available to play with online, I imagine – or at least not as the experience that it was intended to be when it was designed and tweaked to emphasize how players relate to one another.

Dark Souls multiplayer servers have almost gone offline at least once, and, again, a unique experience of the game will be lost without that component. Will Dark Souls still be a good game with no one else to run into during play? Yes, I’ve played it as a single-player campaign.

However, not all games are necessarily designed to maintain the same quality of experience without the original hardware for which they were designed or the original thought of what would make them really work or really be fun. There isn’t a clear solution to this problem. Also, admittedly I haven’t played Ice Climber in years, and I don’t discount Schiller’s “blah” experience with it. Maybe the game just isn’t as good as it seemed to me when I was a couple of decades younger. However, before blaming nostalgia for being misleading about memories of a gaming experience, it may still be worth considering the gaps in memory that imperfect adaptations may create in really remembering fully what we once played and why it might have been a real pleasure to do so — given the right context.


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