Retro-ing Games

Today I’m going to start with a review we just posted over on the Moving Pixels blog:

Mega Man 9, by Arun Subramanian

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is. A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles. These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase. It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9. However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.

That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty. From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming. The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault. Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.

As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9. Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses. Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.

Read the rest of this entry here.

Arun found Mega Man 9 to be pretty good, as far as modern downloadable games go. Me, I think it’s brilliant.

Earlier this summer, Capcom announced that they were bringing back a game that I constantly, adamantly defend as one of the best of all time: Bionic Commando. The NES version of Bionic Commando is perhaps the only game that I have been compelled to play through more than ten times. The mechanic of Bionic Commando — that is, to replace jumping with the use of a bionic arm — allowed it to be playable in a multitude of ways. You could take a careful approach, inching along, using the arm only when necessary, making sure you know exactly where the surfaces are that you’re going to have to grab on to. Or, you could swing like Tarzan, each launch of the arm a makeshift vine, relying as much on faith as any actual knowledge of the game. It was up to you and whatever mood you were in, and any approach could, potentially, be a successful one.

Perhaps it was the weight of unattainable expectations, but Capcom’s reimagining of that wonderful game, which they titled Bionic Commando: Rearmed, just didn’t quite cut it for me. The mechanics were changed a bit, a number of the bosses were updated for a modern age, and unfamiliar bonus “rooms” were added for good measure, all adding up to something that should have surpassed the original in every way, but ends up inspiring an uncomfortable sort of displacement. It’s like walking behind someone, thinking you recognize them, and having them turn around only for you to realize that they’re not at all who you thought they were.

Turning on Mega Man 9, however, is a lot like seeing a friend that hasn’t come to visit in 10 years. Sure, for a second, you resent the onset of new technology and the tweaks and spinoffs that the series has spawned in a desperate effort to stay relevant in a world that has moved past the mechanics of the original games (thus pushing off classic-style games such as this one), but mostly, you’re just glad to have it back. From the first moment, when you get a purely 8-bit image of a futuristic city and a title card that says “It is the year 20XX”, it’s authentic enough to make you feel like Mega Man, in its original form, was never really gone at all.

The thing is, the lengths to which the developers went to preserve the old-school feel of the game are astounding. In an interview with Gamasutra, Mega Man 9 producer Hironobu Takeshita says that “there were some things, like you couldn’t have more than three enemies on the screen at once, so we had to make sure that that’s how it stayed in our game. In the part with the dragon with the flame, [there should be] flickering, and whatnot.”

Gamers who never played the NES might well question this, and not without reason. Why would you actually want graphical glitches inspired by the old hardware’s limitations in the game? The answer is a question of authenticity. Seeing flicker in a game that is designed to simulate the graphical capabilities of the late ’80s will do wonders for convincing the brain that what the eyes are actually seeing is something from that era rather than simply a simulation. The challenge is there, too — games in the NES era were created to be punishingly hard, simply because not all that much content could fit in a cartridge. In order to keep gamers playing for more than the hour or two of content that was actually contained in the game, the games had to be almost insanely difficult to conquer in order to push them closer to the magical ten-hour mark of playability. Mega Man 9‘s levels will frustrate you to the point of throwing your controller clear across the room, in much the same way that the classic versions of the series did.

That guy in the middle? That’s Proto Man,
a downloadable Mega Man replacement!

What truly makes Mega Man 9 a triumph, however, is the idea that despite these intentional throwbacks to a gaming era long gone and mostly forgotten, it still incorporates modern gaming ideals. You can save your game, for example, an option never presented in the original games. Achievements pop up as you master certain portions of the game. And there’s a store that you can use to buy items that will mitigate the punishing difficulty. There are even options that allow you to turn off the graphical tics. These things allow the player to decide just how accurate a re-creation of the 8-bit experience is desired.

The disparity in the approaches Capcom took to Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando beg the question: what do we want out of a “retro” experience? In a column for, Irma Zandl writes that the appeal of retro is that, in general, it “represents a generational response…against the uniformity and slickness of much of today’s mass marketing. To some extent it also suggests a backlash to a culture of disposability and fakery.” It is the last bit of that statement that rings the most true. So much of modern gaming is disposable enough that you forget it as soon as you played it; such is the price of having ten or more unique hours worth of game inside a package. While modern games may carry memorable moments, even the best of them aren’t necessarily memorable in their entirety. On the other hand, An awful lot of gamers who worked their way through The Legend of Zelda in the mid-’80s could describe to you the shapes of half of the game’s dungeons. Gamers who plowed through Mega Man or Castlevania could still name for you the bosses that gave them the most trouble or the trickiest parts of certain levels.

Bionic Commando, then and now

This is the biggest strike, then, against a game like Bionic Commando: Rearmed. By housing the retro elements of the game in an HD package that is more in line with modern games than classic ones, the game ends up with an identity crisis. On one hand, a lot of the same tricks that used to work still do, the maps remain largely the same, and devotees of the original will know many of the secrets of the update. On the other hand, to be cruising along, contentedly remembering your childhood, and suddenly being thrown into an entirely unfamiliar boss fight that absolutely requires that you use some of the “updated” capabilities of the old mechanics, is unpleasant, and more importantly, unnecessary. Add to this that the controls have changed just enough to confuse a gamer for whom the original controls are second nature (not to mention that extra frames of animation are just enough to throw off the timing), and the conflict of sensibilities is just enough to put one longtime retrogamer off of playing what has been a generally well-received remake.

Games can have it both ways — Ikaruga is a modern shooter that preserves the utterly punishing difficulty of old shooters like Gradius and Gaiares while adding a graphical sheen and a new play mechanic that enhances the experience. New Super Mario Bros. added DS-specific play mechanics and a graphical makeover to the side-scrolling experience of the original mario games and came up with something fun and able to be played repeatedly. You can even feel a sense of nostalgia when you’re playing something like Cave Story despite the fact that it was originally released a mere four years ago, thanks to the intentionally dated graphical style and play mechanics.

The common thread to the games that work is that none of them are confused about what they are. They are either remakes, reimaginings, or simply new games that borrow the themes of older ones. Where retrogamers can get hung up is in those instances where they think they’re getting one thing (that is, the game is presented as one of those things), but the game turns out to be something else. Bionic Commando is pulled between the old and the new, making it confusing to the sensibility of the retrogamer (if still a decent game and a difficult challenge). Mega Man 9, however, is a very rare — almost unheard of in the mainstream gaming community — example of embracing the limitations of the past to the benefit of something entirely new. Hopefully, its success will open the door for other franchises to follow suit.

For more retro-style musings, check out the Moving Pixels blog’s Retrogaming section.