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More than nostalgia: what we lost in the seventh generation

It bugs me when people who voice their preference for past generations of video games are accused of being simply nostalgic, of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, of only remembering the good games from past generations and forgetting the bad. Perhaps that really is the case for some people. But looking back at the seventh generation of video games, I think there is a legitimate case to be made that previous generations were superior to it. At the very least, there's been a marked shift in the behavior and output of the "AAA" game industry this generation, and I don't mean trends like achievements or DLC.

I've played a number of this year's new games, from critically acclaimed AAA blockbusters like Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider to indie games like Electronic Super Joy. But two games I played for the first time this year made a much stronger impression on me than any of the others: Metroid Prime and Jet Set Radio.

I'm not saying that good games aren't made anymore, or anything similarly ludicrous. What I am saying, though, is that neither of the two sixth generation games I mentioned could have been made in the seventh generation, and that shows what gaming has lost amidst the improved graphics and controls that the seventh generation has brought.

Metroid Prime was a critically acclaimed and commercially successful game at the time of its release, and remains very popular and well-liked to this day. That makes it hard to appreciate how incredibly risky it was for Nintendo.

At the time development started on Metroid Prime, the last released Metroid game was Super Metroid in 1994. An entire console generation had passed without a Metroid game, and Nintendo could easily have left the series to die like countless other series that didn't make a transition to 3D. Instead, they gave the task - and budget - of turning Metroid into a AAA game in 3D to a completely new, unproven studio called Retro.

Even more significantly, Metroid Prime didn't fit neatly into any existing genre, meaning that it had no proven audience other than people who played the original Metroid games. It looked enough like a first-person shooter to repel fans of the previous games and players who don't enjoy shooters (one of the reasons I didn't play it until this year), but was different enough from one to not attract the shooter audience. It heavily incorporated first-person platforming, a mechanic notorious for not working well in any other game that tried it. And it was completely free of any spoken dialog, instead relying on the player to discover the world of Tallon IV by taking the time to constantly scan the surroundings and piece together the narrative. Given all that, the idea of Metroid Prime was such an absurd proposition that it's amazing it exists at all.

Such a high-budget, risky, genre-defying game would never have been made this generation. How many major big-budget titles have there been this generation that defy existing genre classification in such a way? The only one I can think of is Mirror's Edge.

The other game I played this year that left an impression on me was Jet Set Radio. I got its PC port for $5 during the Steam summer sale mostly out of curiosity, but ended up playing 46 hours of it to date. Unlike Metroid Prime, Jet Set Radio is a game that arguably hasn't stood the test of time especially well. Its physics and controls in particular are awkward and unwieldy by modern standards. Yet even through the inevitable frustrations it provides, I couldn't stop playing the game and thoroughly enjoying it. I attribute this to two things: it doesn't fit into a predefined genre, and it's absolutely dripping with a unique personality and charm. I already discussed the former with Metroid Prime. The latter is related, and is something else we don't see much of these days.

What stands out the most about Jet Set Radio is its style. Its cel-shaded art style remains distinctive even though other games have adopted the technique since its release, and the soundtrack is still phenomenal. Everything about the game has a cheesy, ridiculous, but unique and likable flair to it. For that matter, the entire game concept of "non-violent cartoon gangsters on inline skates paint the town with graffiti while running from over-the-top police brutality set to a catchy J-pop soundtrack" sounds like something conceived on LSD, and not something that would be actually made and marketed by a major publisher. There's nothing like it.

Of course, there have definitely been some games in the seventh generation that have a distinctive style associated with them. No More Heroes, Alice: Madness Returns, and Ninja Theory's entire catalog all spring to mind. But none of those games were hugely successful from a commercial standpoint. And even most of the games in that list stick to well-established gameplay formulas, relying on their art direction, setting, and storytelling to establish their uniqueness. The only one that incorporates unique gameplay mechanics to fit with its style, like Jet Set Radio does, is the low-budget and low-profile cult classic No More Heroes.

My point is this: during the seventh generation, large publishers have become averse to taking risks on uniqueness and innovative gameplay. Perhaps it's because the increasing cost of producing games and the demand for impressive graphics in every major release have made the associated risk too great. Whatever the cause, major releases from mainstream publishers have become stale because of the lack of new ideas and new genres. This generation has seen the rise of indie games that aren't afraid of new and risky ideas, but which don't have the access to large budgets and publicity needed to fully take the place of games like Metroid Prime and Jet Set Radio. Money is no longer in the same places as innovation and uniqueness, and that's why I think gaming has taken more steps back than forward this generation.

They just don't make games like they used to, and that's a bad thing. Really.
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About Plomboone of us since 10:40 AM on 10.21.2013

I'm a person who plays video games and reads Destructoid. I play games on Linux when possible, and on console or Windows otherwise.

I'm also one of the developers of OpenBOR, an open source 2D game engine which is more popular and more useful than any other open source game engine that you've never heard of.