Gamers of my generation look at the 16-bit generation as the greatest generation of video games. I stand voraciously by this opinion myself, but that doesn’t keep any one of us from looking at those years through a pair of rose goggles. Just because the 16-bit Era was the best era doesn’t mean we haven’t managed to overrate it a little bit.
The other day, I was unwinding by playing a little bit of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I’m too early in this game to really form much of an opinion on it yet, but while it has so far been very engaging, the combat system is a real mess. I got my ass kicked repeatedly by a Sith Lord early on, and after finally throwing my arms up, I shut the game off and decided to forget about it by going into the very distant gaming past. I grabbed my Nintendo DS and plugged in a 16-bit classic – Donkey Kong Country. A real game, from a real gaming generation, a good old platform game where you only have to run from the left to the right of the screen. After screwing up the combat in Knights of the Old Republic, it would surely be a refreshing break.
Unfortunately, I was at one level in Donkey Kong Country at the time in which I had to frequently transport myself using barrels that were cannons – I jumped inside the barrel and it would shoot me out, to another part of the level. I don’t know exactly how the things work, but the barrels – which were stationary – would frequently shoot me just short of a place I had to land, or I would fall into a bottomless pit and die. This seemed to happen completely at random, so I didn’t pass the level until the game apparently decided I had suffered enough. The game had been torturing me for fun.
It was then that all the bad aspects of the 16-bit Era came flying back. The bugs, thoughtless design, gameplay quirks, hit throwbacks, and all sorts of other things which made me wonder whether or not a game had visited the testing lab before being thrown out into the world. Controls not being quite as good as they should have been, and the computer frequently being cheap as hell.
What sucked about games in the 16-bit Era was that if you died, first of all, you were thrown pretty far back in the level after fighting through an impassable obstacle, and would have to do it all over again. Second, a game’s controls always had the potential to fail in big trouble situations, so if you ended up dying, it was quite frequently safe to blame the game for your death. How often did you make a last minute save by hitting the jump button just as you reached an obstacle, or a projectile reached you, just to see it cancelled out?
Furthermore, have you ever been in one of those situations where you had to use a glitch to beat a boss or get through a level because the thing was otherwise impossible? Levels back then weren’t quite as creative, either: You would always have to fight through a number of cliche levels, like the fire level, ice level, water level, and those damn chase levels where some big rolling thing was always on your tail and would kill you, no matter what, the second you came into contact with it. No matter what the game was or how original it was, there were a lot of variations on one several particular kinds of levels, and very few of those varieties were any fun.
Aiming in many different directions is now something we take for granted. But some of the brightest stars of 16-bit games – I think primarily of Mega Man – couldn’t so much as fire their basic weapons to the left or right. This mechanic alone could drive gamers mad because it turned very small and simple nuisances into major threats which we had to jump all over the screen trying to shoot down. If you were playing a game in which your character got knocked back while facing an enemy like that, chances are it would happen over a series of short ledges, where the flying enemies all hung out.
If you think movie licensed games today are bad and shameless, in the 16-bit Era, things were a lot worse. Every bad movie got an even worse game of its own: Last Action Hero, The Addams Family, Demolition Man, Judge Dredd – which was actually used in a gaming championship one year – and Toys, among a million others, got games of their own. It’s pretty bad when the infamous movie bomb Waterworld not only got a game of its own, but one that was completely sensible when compared to the Home Alone and Baby’s Day Out games.
There was a lot less work being put into good video games back then, too. Hence the glitches. Gaming back then was still very much a geek thing and an outcast thing, so a lot of places that developed games were always thinking that if they made one, people were obviously going to buy it. It was an insulting way of looking at things if you really think about it. So while we may miss the good old days a lot, in some ways, we have to be glad they’re gone forever.