Sunday, 24 January 2010

Why nostalgia is a load of old tosh

It's the same every time a new year runs around. Every gaming website or magazine worth its salt - or bereft of ideas, depending on your viewpoint - unleashes a Game of the Year feature, where the best titles of the past twelve months are decided and rewarded, usually with a paragraph. If they're lucky.

One unwanted side-effect of these retrospective articles is the inevitable surge of the nostalgia-fuelled rant. Older guys will come out and say "gaming was definitely better in the eighties", while 20-somethings will inevitably say the same thing about the 90s gaming scene.

It's a load of rubbish.

With that said, the 80s and 90s were, of course, pivotal times for gaming. Every classic genre was formed, from the RTS and FTPS to the platformer, sports sim and racing game, and careers were made, with Sid Meier, Will Wright, John Carmack and John Romero just some of the names to emerge during these halycon days.

These two decades were vital in shaping the course of gaming, setting down trends that would last until today and will undoubtedly prevail into the future. That means that the 80s and 90s were incredibly influential, and I'm not going to be silly enough to deny that.

However, that's still no excuse for claiming that the gaming scene of twenty years ago churned out games that are consistently better than recent titles. That's beyond appreciation for classic titles - that's just silly, like claiming that classic silent movies are better than today's Oscar winners, or that the BBC's first forays into television are more rewarding, in 2010, than the latest jaw-dropping wildlife documentary.

These wild claims are entirely borne out of the rose-tinted spectacles worn by those folks who grew up at the time. I'm certainly not immune to looking back with fondness: Road Rash was my first gaming love and devoured hundreds of hours, but I'm not going to claim that it's a better title than Burnout Paradise. Similarly, FIFA 94 and 97 were the two football games that first captured my imagination, but FIFA's latest incarnation kicks it all over the park.

Take other classic games that have been widely credited with inventing entire genres and it's plain to see that few stand up to their modern counterparts, even if recent titles can't claim to innovate half as much.

The first Dune and Warcraft games were released in the early 90s, for instance, but it's impossible to argue that they're more fun to play than, say, World in Conflict or Warcraft 3: the latter games' features, graphics and gameplay more than see to that, even if the original games were responsible for popularising the genre. I've been back to play Warcraft 1, and it's incredibly frustrating: long before the era of second buttons on mice, you had to click a character, then click a box in the panel and then click an area on the world to make them move. Ouch.

The earliest FPS games are beset with similar limitations. Doom's fun in a simple, blasting monsters kind of way, but Serious Sam HD does all of that on a far grander, prettier and more versatile scale. Quake introduced mouselook, sure, and it should be commended for its innovation. It's also a game I spent many hours playing in my youth. Now, though? I have Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Half Life 2 and all manner of games to stoke my FPS fires.

Every genre is littered with games like this, and few games seem to stand up today in the face of far more advanced competition. Take Mario and its brand of 2D platforming, which has stood the test of time partly because of its fantastic gameplay and partly because Nintendo enjoys rehashing its back catalogue to appeal to millions of new (young, and inexperienced) players drawn into gaming by the Wii.

The majority of "classic" titles, though, are just that: games which deserve endless praise for innovating and, in some cases, inventing genres and concepts that are still relied upon today. And, of course, at the time they seemed revolutionary. That time, though, was twenty years ago - and that time has long gone. It's fine to reminisce about games you enjoy, but claiming that these old games are better than today's finest? Tosh.

Instead of wallowing in nostalgia, then, I'll enjoy concepts pioneered by Doom, Warcraft and Mario in Modern Warfare 2, World in Conflict, Uncharted 2 - titles that have become hundreds of times more intricate and challenging than their influential forefathers. And they look fantastic on an HDTV without the need for rose-tinted specs, too.

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