The entertainment industry is a race. In an ever-evolving world of technology, developers and designers all want to be the first to release an evolutionary idea. The good news is that the successes are innumerable! Plenty of new introductions have become springboards for the next generation of consoles, genres, and franchises. But do today’s releases draw players farther and farther away from their origins? If that’s the case, why should we be worried when games nowadays are so much more advanced than before? Depending on who’s being asked, the answer to these questions can be staggeringly different. While innovative tech and newer gameplay mechanics are always exciting, it never hurts to remember that change isn’t always progress. That isn’t to say we should avoid change, of course. But with the release of special editions, HD remasters, and single-disc anthologies, it’s easy to see the industry’s reliance on its roots.
A huge example of that is the longevity of several classic franchises. These series boast video game characters with longer lifespans than many of the players who control them—Mario, Link, Samus, Kirby, all big names that kids today will recognize just as well as the 40-year-olds who played them on the NES. But here’s the real kicker: the newest games involving those characters are far from the most popular. No video game developer actively tries to create a game inferior to an older one, and yet it happens pretty often. That isn’t to depreciate their efforts of course; it’s just the reality of the field. There’s an immense difficulty that comes with taking a renowned game and recreating its strengths in a next-gen package that’s also different enough to feel new. This is arguably an even greater feat than creating something from scratch, but so many video game studios take this route because the payoff is equally significant, catering to an existing fan base while improving upon an already-successful formula. It’s kind of a risky move. They have a responsibility to maintain tradition alongside the new ideas that provide the game an adherence to the expectations of today. All things considered, the market is absolutely littered with sequels, some successful and some disappointing. I can think of one example that falls into both categories, successful in its execution but disappointing because of its nonexistent third iteration (I’m talking to you, Valve). But the continued fixation on existing franchises is proof that even one of the most rapidly evolving industries in the world knows there’s a time to stick with the old school.
That time, however, is not always. The importance of innovation cannot be overstated in the video game world and sometimes we just have to move on. Holding onto the past can undoubtedly be detrimental (as evidenced by the release of Double Dragon IV last month), but it’s worth mentioning that progress in video games has one key difference from other areas of study. The general ideas behind advancement revolve around effectiveness and efficiency. A breakthrough is made when the end result is accomplished with a more effective and/or efficient method than before. But players and developers alike realize that effectiveness and efficiency aren’t what define a good game when it comes to the experience itself. In fact, some would argue that the exact opposite is true. From Borderlands to Dishonored, there are plenty of franchises out there that reward getting distracted by exploration. Powering straight through to the end credits isn’t nearly as satisfying as taking the inefficient route, engaging in activities that do nothing to advance the story. Video games don’t evolve by making conflict resolution more efficient, but rather more engaging, and there’s no concrete formula for doing so. Sure, there are fundamentals to abide by. Coherent storytelling, diverse gameplay, and smooth animations never hurt. But executing them in a complementary way is easier said than done, especially when staying true to components that already exist.
The idea here is that the words “newer” and “better” are almost never used interchangeably, and this is exactly how it should be. The video game industry amazes millions of consumers worldwide with its growing complexity and innovation. But what’s even more impressive is its ability to be one of the most rapidly changing markets in the world while maintaining a foothold in the outdated, but still remarkably enjoyable remnants of the past. What other product niche has the ability to repurpose a piece of tech from the ‘80s and sell it next to today’s merchandise? I’m not the only one reliving childhood memories with the NES Classic Edition and it’s a great reminder that retro gaming is still just as fun as it was three decades ago. Everyone should look to the future, but that doesn’t mean forgetting the past. Lucky for us, the gaming community is easily capable of doing so.