You, dear Reader are already familiar with my interest in video games, especially older ones. A quick look at the Let’s Play tab will reveal that many of the games I am most familiar, and fond of, are over twenty years old. I will be the first in a room to talk about how much I love Sierra’s classic adventure titles or the hours of entertainment I derived from NES titles such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Destiny of an Emperor. What you won’t find me doing is putting on the rose-tinted glasses and waxing about the “golden years” of gaming. A recent jaunt with the game above, Alone in the Dark, has reminded me just how far video games have come. And, how difficult gaming could be in the past. Nostaliga is the only thing that keeps us from seeing it. That, and such useful things as: save states, VGMaps, DOSBox, GameFAQs, etc., etc.
I’ve found that they the best way to remove the “golden age” delusion is to simply introduce the deluded person to an game that they have never played. King’s Quest or Space Quest would be a slog if I hadn’t spent hours and hours and hours playing, and memorizing, them as a youth. Without access to FAQs or other aids they’ll quickly come around. I did this to myself just the other day when I booted up Alone in the Dark. Thankfully, I didn’t have to dig deep into my memory banks and try to remember how to create autoexec.bat or config.sys files or fiddle around with Windows compatibility options in order to get the game to work. This was mandatory back when the game came out and before DOSBox. No, I just installed the package provided by GOG.com, clicked, and played. This wasn’t an issue for console gamers but, for the longest time even getting your game to run on a PC was a challenge. Did you have a sound card? Did you have the right drivers for it? Was it compatible with the game you were playing? Did you have enough memory? Is your PC loading TSR programs that are eating up your memory? Some games you could never play and you’d never know why either… No one mentions how much fun they had creating boot disks, and various forms of autoexec.bat; because it was terrible, awful, and we’re all glad those days are behind us.
Once you get into the game though it isn’t much better. Alone in the Dark was an early 3-d game and it shows. Everything is an ugly collection of cubes and polygons. Your character is unresponsive and moves like a tank, objects that are necessary to complete the game are sometimes hidden in objects you assume are the background… Good thing there’s a story here and one inspired by my favorite author, H.P. Lovecraft, or I’d never even play the thing.
Alone in the Dark isn’t alone (harhar) even the highest rated games from the past; the ones that make ‘Top 100’ lists are riddled with odd choices, confusing puzzles, and impossibly stupid game design. And why wouldn’t they be? People were, they still are, trying to figures things out. “How do we give the player control in a 3d environment?” “What if we make the city a giant maze?” “What would a game about a reporter be like?” Some things eventually work (moving in 3d space in a video game) others didn’t (an adventure game about reporting, and giant maze cities)
That doesn’t mean these games are bad, it just means you have to accept them on their terms and use a FAQ when you hit a wall. It’s a lot like reading really old novels or watching old movies. There are times when you wonder “why are they doing this?” Well, it’s because it had never been done before and it seemed like a good idea at the time. No one knows until they try. It’s a good thing they did too because now we don’t have tank controls or nondescript endless corridors. Once you accept that, you can find a lot of good stuff out there!
Just don’t tell me that it was better back then.