I have recently found myself wanting to play through a few series that have been apart of my backlog for many years. Specifically, Castlevania (GameBoy Advance to present), Devil May Cry (the entire series but the second entry), Luigi’s Mansion (the original), and Splinter Cell have all be series I have been wanting to get around to playing, and I am finally doing that. I just finished the first Devil May Cry, started both Luigi’s Mansion and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, and got Splinter Cell close enough to my Xbox One that it may actually work its way in the disc tray. While playing through these titles, I would make comments on Twitter and our Discord to the effect of:

I must say, it hasn’t aged the best considering it feels like a hodge podge of genres looking back now.
And thanks to the ever-annoying prodding of our guest writer, it got me thinking on what exactly makes a game age well or badly? Well, now that I have had a few days to digest that question, I believe I am ready to answer it.

Quality of Life

We hear the term quality of life tossed around a lot when it comes to game design, especially in reference to remakes or sequels. Generally speaking, the term quality of life when in reference to game design, is about making a smooth experience for the player. This could take the form of allowing players to customize their controls, get through menus or information quicker, making certain aspects of the game clearer, and more. The key is having design elements that make the overall experience less about the playing trying to work through these elements, but rather just having them work. When looking at games of past, quality of life stands as one of the major pillars that separate the wheat from the chaff.

As games have evolved, so have their design elements. Certain design elements that were not standard before, are now, and now that consumers have become accustomed to them, they expect them. Take for example the function of saving a game and how it has changed, titles at the dawn of video games didn’t even feature saving, players were expected to start again or just leave it on for where they were. Fast forward a generation or two, and the introduction of saving games through passwords or physically on cartridges become commonplace. Move to now and nearly every game features an auto-save function that doesn’t require any input from the player to do, and saves can be accessed locally or over the omnipresent cloud. Games that lack features we have become accustomed to when looking back appear antiquated and clunky in those respects, and part of why they may feel as they have aged poorly.

Take for example the first Devil May Cry, a game I just recently finished for the first time and originally released in 2001. Saving in the game happens before and after missions, and must be done manually. If I forgot to save after a mission and turned on my console, well, goodbye progress, I would need to do it all again. To add to this, Devil May Cry uses in-game items, Yellow Orbs in this case, as a means of how many retries players would get within a mission before they would start over from the beginning upon dying. What this resulted in, especially for levels that were boss fights, is that if you were out of Yellow Orbs, it meant restarting the game from the save file. On the surface, this didn’t seem like much of a problem, but bosses typically required a short amount of time to reach them before starting the fight. This resulted in boss fights, instead of taking seconds to try again, took several minutes as I loaded the save, started the mission, and eventually got to the boss again to try.

Looking at most modern games of the same genre, having such a long amount of time to simply retry a boss-only stage is largely unheard of, and for good reason. That amount of time I took to reach the boss was completely unneeded, it didn’t add anything to the game making me wait that time to try again, and yet there it was. When comparing such a game to its modern counterparts, it is mechanics like this that give the impression of aging poorly, largely because modern games are more respecting of your time, making the contrast so obvious and jarring that it can’t be ignored.

This is just but one example, but it provides good context for what makes an old game appear to age poorly or well: the contrast and how much of an impact a feature or function has when compared to a modern counterpart. This stands true for more than just how respecting a game may be of one’s time or ease of use, it also applies to the mechanics and rules.

Player Knowledge, Understanding, and Mechanics

When it comes to how a game functions on a mechanical level, there are three different aspects of a game’s design that are all interwoven at various different levels (depending on the situation) that affect how an older game is perceived. There is player knowledge; this is exactly what it sounds like, how much knowledge the player has in a particular situation in a game. Understanding encompasses the player’s ability to use their knowledge and comprehend the game’s mechanics. Finally, there is the game’s mechanics, the rules and building blocks of the world itself. All of these play an important role when it comes to a player’s understanding of the game itself, and depending on how it’s presented and what the player knows, it can impact one’s opinion, especially when looking towards the past.

I always like to use two games in particular when it comes to highlighting the differences between generations of games (and why the classic game isn’t always the best game to start on), those being The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The reason why these two titles serve as such great is examples is that they are conceptually the same through their overarching structure and mechanics, the only difference being that Twilight Princess further builds on these by being a later entry into the franchise. Perhaps one of the most obvious differences is how information is relayed to the player:

Ocarina of Time, and subsequently Majora’s Mask, come from a different era; a time when games expected different things from the player. Players might be expected to explore and search to find their next objective, perhaps talking to all the NPCs available to learn of side quests or other hints for the game. They might be expected to physically record certain bits of information about the game for later use, or upon reaching an objective realize they need to discover how to complete it.

No Country for Old Games – 5/618

But when looking at Twilight Princess, those same mechanics and assumptions made in Ocarina of Time are abandoned or lessened in favor of newer design philosophies that didn’t require the same player knowledge.

In Twilight Princess, many of those same game mechanics and functions [found in N64 era Zelda titles] are improved upon. For example, in Ocarina of Time, you have Navi, who is as helpful as a sticky note that reads “Do stuff!” while Twilight Princess features Midna, who provides actual input and ideas on where and how to progress.

Twilight Princess provides a more structured and rule-based game. Yes, some of the things still require an understanding of the developers’ thinking, but those instances are fewer and much easier for players to make the connection and understand what they are supposed to do.

No Country for Old Games – 5/618

This same phenomenon happens again and again in longstanding franchises. Something that would have been cryptic for a modern player, would have been expected in a previous title. When someone like myself would take a look at these two titles, I would argue that Ocarina of Time, in this instance, has aged poorly; simply for the fact that what is being required of the player in that title, isn’t something that would be expected now.

For example, walking through this hidden wall in Ocarina of Time.

This applies in a multitude of different ways throughout games and can take shape through the three aspects mentioned above, player knowledge, understanding, and game mechanics. If a player has knowledge but lacks the understanding to put it together, as can be the case with older titles and understanding their logic, the game can be perceived poorly because it doesn’t hold up to the modern standards being levied against it. The same is true for mechanics, if a player expects to be able to perform a function a certain way in a modern title, going back to an older one that doesn’t allow it can once again create the same issue.

It is these two main pillars that can make a game feel like it has aged well or poorly, but overall it all comes down to expectations and understanding. When we expect a certain level of something for a game or genre, regardless of what it is, and don’t find it, we see it as an old way of thinking and judge it poorly. This doesn’t mean the game is bad, just that it was developed for a different point in time. And even when considering this fact when playing, the contrast at times can be too drastic for us to enjoy. Again, this doesn’t mean its bad, but it may not be for you and what you currently want.

So, the next time you consider playing an older game that has been judged as aging poorly, consider when and where it comes from; you may find it hasn’t aged as badly as you thought. But regardless of how you personally judge your next retro game you decide to play, just know, it may simply not be for you, and that’s OK. Games, just like other mediums, change over time to suit current trends and tastes, and yours may not align.