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Is it time video games regained their purity?

While playing After Burner Climax last night, it hit me. How long has it been since most games were like this? Ten years? Fifteen years? Twenty years? Games used to be entirely based around a single gameplay mechanic. Shooting things, overtaking things, jumping on things… technical limitations demanded it. But the key was in doing that one thing well – and that just doesn't happen any more.

Ironically, Call of Duty's multiplayer does stick to that one thing – and look how successful that is. It simply gives you a brilliant shooting system and lets you have fun with it. Indeed, tinkering with it in Modern Warfare 2 has arguably over-complicated the game and made it less enduring.

But other games seem to want to give us everything. A sandbox world, RPG elements... Even a game that sets out to let you do like Just Cause 2 feels it has to tack on a ropy story and disappointing delivery of missions. And ninjas. Unexplained ninjas. And then there's the stealth section that has to be in every game, because people love stealth. It was even in The Wind Waker. You can't say it made the game better.


Above: Isn't this cool enough? Let's add disappearing ninjas

And then there are racing games that all need to have hundreds of cars, hundreds of layers of decal edits and a whole array of driver aids to pacify people who want to hold accelerate all the time. If that's what they want to do, let them do it - they'll enjoy the crash animations that this generation offers. Sheesh.

So what's the obsession with variety? There just seems to be this fear in the industry at the moment of being too one-note. To use a musical comparison here, you can either have one instrument play all the notes at once and fail to deliver any kind of lasting melody, or you can just play an unforgettable power chord. If After Burner Climax were a sound, it would be the last note of a rock concert.


Above: After Burner Climax does one thing, turned up to 11

Thankfully, there are a few great examples of modern games that do one thing without appearing to be 'too retro'. Trials HD may feel like a bit of a curio alongside the more conventional games on XBLA with its devastatingly simple go/stop control system, but it had the entire GR office in a choke hold for weeks. Ragdoll bails and impressive lighting effects keep it contemporary, but the basic gameplay could have been achieved on a NES.

Geometry Wars and its sequel are universally acclaimed for their brilliance – but the whole game is based around a square, 2D grid. Super Stardust HD is similar, and while it has loads of game modes, they're all based around the basic idea of moving your ship around what amounts to a flat playing arena without getting blown up.


Above: Super Stardust HD is extremely underrated and often dismissed

Then there's Portal, which we declared the perfect videogame – that's built entirely around a single gaming mechanic. Did anyone complain about that?

Why don't we have more games like this? And why are all but one of the examples above consigned to XBLA and PSN? A great videogame is a great videogame, no matter how it's packaged. Gamers won't feel short-changed if the concept is good enough.

I want to see some full-price games that are so fantastically programmed, their longevity and appeal goes beyond the quantity of their parts.

23 Apr, 2010

19 comments

  • zigs - April 25, 2010 2:30 p.m.

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article, and fully support this ethos. Keep it pure!
  • philipshaw - April 24, 2010 12:13 p.m.

    I like games to have variety or I will get bored. But can see your point, devs should spent less time with multiplayer and just focus on single player
  • AuthorityFigure - April 24, 2010 8:47 a.m.

    The only way Portal can be considered prefect is by thoroughly imperfect judgement. recaptcha: garotte bernard
  • michaelmcc827 - April 24, 2010 5:05 a.m.

    Well...I totally disagree. It doesn't even sound like you play games if you really want less features, since they obviously aren't impacting the quality of the games.
  • Rub3z - April 24, 2010 2:11 a.m.

    2 sides of the same coin, guys... 1 thing that is pure, untainted, simple, or 100 things to keep you interested. The article does have a point, and no, he's not saying BIG GAEM IZ BAD! He's just saying he'd like to see more pure games based around fewer mechanics, with these game mechanics executed very well. These types of games, in my opinion, are capable of having just as much longevity as your standard big-budget multifaceted title... developers Valve prove this with pretty much all of their games. Portal is a good example, as is Half-Life... in HL, you have one of each type of weapon, and none of them feel subjugated or pushed aside in your inventory as a result, because they all dispatch Combine baddies in a different way. For instance, take a look at all the assault rifles available to you in MW2. The only main difference between them is whether it is auto, 3-round burst, or single shot. Other than that, they all fulfill the same combat role and can all be pimped out with the same ridiculous attachments and perks. Now take a look at that assault rifle in Half-Life 2... do you honestly need any other assault rifle? That damn thing is big, meaty, loud, fully automatic, and extremely satisfying to use. Like most everything else in Half-Life, it doesn't need to be kitted out, upgraded, or otherwise changed... it just is, and that's all it needs to be. It says, "I am an assault rifle. HEAR ME ROAR!" So yeah, relating to what Justin was saying, the difference between the guns in these two games is much like the difference between the games Justin has seen much of and the games he wants to see more of. Everyone is entitled to their opinion... some people want to pick and choose between their guns, while others just want one gun to rule them all. I'm with Justin on this one... that assault rifle in Half-Life kicks every other gun's ass! (Except for probably the Gravgun, but then again that's not really a gun, it's a Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator :)
  • Imgema - April 24, 2010 12:26 a.m.

    Now that you mention it, many of my all-favorite games are based around one game mechanic. Like F-Zero X, Portal (of course), Shadow of the colossus and some older titles like Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Doom. But games with variety can also be very good like Goldeneye, Ocarina of Time and Super Metroid. I can't really decide what's better though.
  • wrapdump - April 23, 2010 9:47 p.m.

    It must be stupendously hard to make a game that can stand up just on one feature. Outrun 2 manages it, Portal manages it. Developers probably don't bother trying this approach as it's too hard, so they throw the kitchen sink at something. Gran Turismo can't get by on the gameplay, so it's a graphics fest, Just Cause, Syphon Filter etc can't manage it. Makes these "purer" experiences all the sweeter.
  • Spybreak8 - April 23, 2010 9:13 p.m.

    Oh I forgot to say it, BOTH, have both. Why is it that many people feel there needs to be one or the other in the gaming industry like Guitar Hero and Rock Band for example. I enjoy the contrast in my XBLA to 360 retail games.
  • Spybreak8 - April 23, 2010 9:08 p.m.

    "But the key was in doing that one thing well – and that just doesn't happen any more." A good game disguises this, making you feel like you're doing one thing while many are happening behind the scenes. I enjoy XBLA titles, I've got about over 60 of them or so, and I think it's the perfect spot for these kinds of games. Really Portal was bundled with The Orange box and I don't think it would do well on it's own. Or at least drop the price. I can see paying 60 or even 50 bucks for big triple A titles because they have to invest so much for them, almost getting to be movie industry budgets, but a XBLA game should be 20 bucks maximum. That reminds me, Pac Man CE, Trials HD, Worms, Shadow Complex, Crystal Crashers, UNO, Puzzle Quest, Assault Heroes and Peggle are my all time fav simple XBLA games.
  • oryandymackie - April 23, 2010 7:43 p.m.

    Fallout 3. Oblivion. Thief. 'Nuff said.
  • Doorstop - April 23, 2010 7:30 p.m.

    The reason "full" retail games don't use simple concepts is for longetivity. If a "simple" game costs $60, I expect it to entertain me for awhile, which simple games just don't seem to do most of the time. Cheaper games, simpler concepts, usually.
  • 2dboy - April 23, 2010 6:55 p.m.

    @Clovin64. You absolutely summarized what I was going to say.
  • garnsr - April 23, 2010 6:38 p.m.

    I like the new GR ability to just have thoughts and put them into a little article. Every article doesn't need to be focused on mind-blowing, important events, they can just let us know what they're thinking about. And is Justin one who loved or hated Flower? That's a perfect game built on a simple mechanic, that many people just called a screen saver.
  • Clovin64 - April 23, 2010 6:09 p.m.

    This is a tough call. When massive free roaming games like Oblivion do it right, they can be AMAZING, giving you tons of variety and stuff to do and creating what feels like a massive living breathing game world you can lose yourself in for months. However, sometimes the simplist pleasures are the best, like Soul Calibur or Timesplitters multiplayer mode. And lets face it, how many sandbox games actually get it just right without becoming an absolute mess?
  • gilgamesh310 - April 23, 2010 5:59 p.m.

    @thekeith82. I agree with you it is a very pointless article, there's more than enough variety out there to cater for people's tastes and it shouldn't be otherwise.
  • thekeith82 - April 23, 2010 5:54 p.m.

    i am so bloody sick of hearing these grand sweeping statements about games. peter molyneux claiming games should steer away from branching stories, the crytek lads banging on about all games having substandard plots, roger twatting ebert wailing about games not being art, and now a plea for games simplify. as the article itself says; A great videogame is a great videogame, no matter how it's packaged. Gamers won't feel short-changed if the concept is good enough. so why the huge generalisation? why not just allow each game to stand on its own and be judged on its own merits (or lack thereof)? there is plenty of variety on the shelves, and if you don't want to play a vast, varied sanbox adventure or whatever, your tastes are more than catered for. i'm really struggling to see the point of this article...
  • gilgamesh310 - April 23, 2010 5:44 p.m.

    Maybe if reviewers like yourselves stopped giving games like GTA 4 and fallout 3 such high scores and people gave up buying them developers would stop making them and make games more pure like Resi 4. What do you honestly expect when so many people are in love with games like GTA and halo's multiplayer. I never really liked sandbox games but many others do so they will continue to be made.
  • OnyxOblivion - April 23, 2010 4:43 p.m.

    Nevermind...the review went up right below it. THAT'S WHAT I GET FOR NOT SCROLLING DOWN!
  • OnyxOblivion - April 23, 2010 4:38 p.m.

    That's it! I'm buying Afterburner. It is good, right? Not just retro. But GOOD and retro?

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