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Stop lying to yourself: Old-school gaming is not what you remember

Remember how great old-school shooters were? Remember how rampant, non-stop and utterly balls-removed-from-trousers-and-placed-resolutely-against-the-wall they used to be? Remember Doom, with its endless hordes of ravaging hellspawn, just begging to be mowed down with all of those gigantic weapons of handheld mass-destruction? Remember what a whirling, strafing, gore-drenched, bullet-spewing, one-man army you were back then?

Well I don’t, and I played a whole load of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D back in the mid-‘90s.

What I do remember is a lot of nervous, plodding exploration, punctuated by bursts of intense danger. I remember a lot of tense, seemingly endless, borderline confounding treks around vast, labyrinthine environments, half of my brain trying to decipher how I could possibly reach the big gun teased on the other side of the impossible architecture ahead of me, the other praying I was right in thinking I’d killed everything in the immediate vicinity. Because I knew that the dwindling, rapidly depleted ammo count for my more powerful guns wasn’t up to a big assault. It rarely was. That stuff was reassuring to have in my inventory, but good God, I was buggered if I was going to fire it away willy-nilly.

You see the common perception of ‘old-school’ games that’s being touted around and popularised on the modern internet is 90% bullshit, and we need to stop using it as a convenient—yet false--annotation for certain types of gameplay. Because the problems with the lazy usage of a term so binary--yet ironically fuzzy--in its definition go beyond simple matters of misremembered game design. They bleed into everything, pooling and clotting around the ankles of gaming’s entire heritage and development, and creating sticky, completely inaccurate--and sometimes dangerously disparaging--perceptions of the medium and its achievements.

Let’s stick with shooters for a minute. The present, default use for the term ‘old-school’ when describing FPS is to denote a game as having fast-paced, anarchic, near-constantly empowering action, and an irreverent, often blackly comic tone. As mentioned above, that really doesn’t apply to Doom. Or Wolfenstein. Or a whole lot of other games that so frequently have the term clumsily stapled to them. So what meaning does the descriptor actually have, and why does it exist?

In its current format as a generic plaudit for fast-paced, somewhat freeform FPS, it strikes me that the term is effectively a pseudo-educated reskin for “It’s not like Call of Duty”. Because really, CoD is the poster-boy for linear, straightforward, highly scripted first-person shooter gameplay. And since the mass market appeal of its gameplay model and presentation-style began to dominate the genre, those of us preferring something freer and more improvisational have needed a spiritual rallying point when lambasting ‘the new ways’. Arguments are always easier to make when you have a figurehead for some supposed rightness, and nostalgia makes one hell of an easy in-road to idealisation.

Thus, we created an exaggerated, archetypal antithesis to Call of Duty and its imitators in our minds: a scrappy, unpolished short-hand for the type of gameplay we preferred. And then inevitably, many of us tied its generic, inaccurately sketched form to the games of yore, however inappropriately. Because, as is always the way with delusional self-assertion, everything was always better ‘back then’, before the current rubbish thing du jour happened. But the thing is, Call of Duty’s restrictive, semi-interactive gunplay only really became dominant around 2007 – 2009. And the real kicker? The franchise’s gratuitous, explosive, ceaselessly destructive focus on instantly gratifying carnagetaculars now shares more in common with the imaginary values of ‘old-school’ shooters than Doom ever did.

So, the intricacies of that particular group-hallucination dealt with, let’s move on to more general, wider-reaching problems with this terminology. Aside from using it to twist the history of gaming into a bluntly-defined, self-serving, made-up narrative, we also do a massive disservice to some of the most innovative and forward-thinking games of the current era. As well as inventing deep, convoluted perceptions of what ‘old-school’ means, we’re also using shallow, superficial interpretations of the idea to limit our appraisal of complex works.

Yeah, I’m talking about pixel art.

I’ll side-step any discussion of sprite-work’s current ubiquity as a positive or negative, as hopefully the next paragraph or so will clear up my position. Instead, I want to look at how it shapes our immediate responses to the games it appears in, and how the idea of ‘old-school’ again throws a spanner in the works. There are a lot of pixelly, 2D platformers and adventure games coming out of the indie space right now. A lot of great ones. And between their look and their lack of a third dimension, they often earn ‘old-school’ as a primary adjective long before their gameplay is discussed more deeply. But are they, really?

Think about Spelunky. 2D, pixelly in its original form, and hard as concrete. Old-school right? Well no, because nailing it to the era of 8 and 16-bit platforming entirely ignores its game-changing innovations in random level-generation and roguelike, freeform adventure gameplay, not to mention the complexity of its underlying systems. Similarly, something like the excellent Rogue Legacy can be easily thrown into the Ghouls ‘n’ Ghost camp if we’re using ‘old-school’ short-hand to appraise its aesthetic themes and superficial control systems. But in reality, RL’s structure, scope and conceits make it far more akin to a side-scrolling Dark Souls.

Ditto Hotline Miami. Old-school, top-down shooter, yeah? It’s Contra 3’s overhead levels crossed with Ikari Warriors, crossed with the original Grand Theft Auto. Except that it’s not. It’s actually a deep-as-Hades reinvention of the stealth, shooter and even puzzle and RTS genres, dressed up in a pastel-toned ‘80s shoulder-pad suit. 

There’s no problem at all in initially describing Hotline as a top-down shooter. That is one undeniable element of what it is. But to add the ‘old-school’ modifier to the start of that description simply because of its aesthetic and difficulty--'all old games were crazy-hard' being another self-congratulatory fiction, of course--is to immediately preclude further discussion of the game’s delicious, fresh, and utterly unique layers of dextrous, modern depth. The game looks as SNES as you like in screenshots, but its design could only have come from a modern perspective.

And one last point leading on from that, before I leave you to go about your business. By doing this stuff, by doing all of the things mentioned above when we discuss games old and new, we utterly whitewash over the real story of video games. The binary nature of our definitions of ‘old-school’ and ‘modern’ implies that a void exists between the past and the present. And that’s a total fiction.

As I say rather regularly, games are an iterative medium. As much machine as art, they evolve by building their mechanisms and systems upon the blueprints of what has gone before, tweaking here, streamlining there, and finding more powerful and efficient ways of doing the good stuff while drilling out the bad. Just as a modern vacuum cleaner or car is actually the more evolved descendent of its precursors, so too are modern games part of an unbroken, flowing line of organic evolution. Modern developers didn’t spring out of pods, fully-formed and independent of any previous influences. Their paths to professional game design are paved with the games that were released along the way. There is no such thing as a ‘modern game developer’.

BioShock Infinite is probably the last generation’s most extravagant shooter in every applicable sense of the word, but it’s also an exploded evolution of BioShock. BioShock is an iteration of System Shock 2. System Shock 2 runs hand-in-hand with Half-Life, and in turn probably influenced Deus Ex. Before SS2 and Half-Life, the original System Shock was pioneering the ideas that both games later expanded upon. And before that there was Quake. Which springboarded off from Doom. Which isn’t the ‘old-school’ carnage fest you might think it is. There is no void. There is no deadzone between the past and the present. There are no absolutes. Until recently, Call of Duty was still built using an upgraded version of the Quake 3 engine.

The bigger picture is a lot less black and white than you think. There is no ‘now’ and ‘then’, There is no ‘old-school’ and ‘modern’. There are just games. As Dustin Hoffman pointed out in I Heart Huckabees, it’s all connected. So let’s look at games for what they really are, individually, and fully explore what each one gives us. To fit them into convenient, easily defined holes, we’re going to have to keep cutting bits off and sticking other bits on where they shouldn’t go. And that kind of Frankensteinian thinking leads only to the kind of giant monster-feet that we’re all already tripping over. 

16 comments

  • rxb - June 30, 2014 5:42 a.m.

    Good article Hooters. I do agree using lazy labels that describe a mis-remembered overly nostalgic past help nobody. Problem is people like quick labels and with the quantity of new games a lot with pixel art the term 'old school' is an easy way to appeal to a certain type of gamer. Also modern games didn't just appear with no predecessors but certain aspects of modern game design such as microtransactions of FTP definitely seem very modern.
  • Notanerd - June 28, 2014 10:09 a.m.

    Hey, you guys got a point for sure cause I grew up with the 85 nintendo also ( and doom and wolfenstein). But I got somethin to say a bit off topic. I just recently started playing BF4 on the ps4 and I'm very unhappy with the 'style' of progression online....takes a long time to get any kind of attachment or any new gun ( therefor you die will struggling to rank from private) but here's the downfall....if I fork out $200 I can buy all the guns and all the attachments....even being a private! I'm Complaining because this ' style' has tainted a great game. Big downfall in my mind. They have geared it for you to buy your way through or die trying.
  • jeremycarrier - June 28, 2014 6:23 a.m.

    That reminds me, I'm sick of mothafuckas calling games like Painkiller and Serious Sam "old-school" or "Doom clones". Doom is a mix of fast-paced action and methodical exploration, Painkiller/Serious Sam is a big wacky game where you run into one giant arena/room after another and mow down hundreds of people. They have old-school elements, like floating health and armor, or a giant arsenal of weapons at your fingertips, or what have you. But they weren't Doom.
  • ObliqueZombie - June 27, 2014 9:19 p.m.

    I love you
  • Eightboll812 - June 27, 2014 8:34 p.m.

    It occurred to me after I posted that this article itself is sort of "old school GR", lol. And I personally think that makes it better than new school GR articles that use the slide show format. But oh well. Not sure if the irony was intended.
  • Eightboll812 - June 27, 2014 8:31 p.m.

    I honestly didn't realize there was such a problem out there with stereotyping games. I'm assuming that is what you are reacting to. I don't personally think that way so I kind of shrug in response to this. Old school doesn't mean to me "automatically" better, and I certainly never remembered Doom as non-stop action. I fondly remember it for being the first time I felt scared while playing a game, and it was the lack of action (and flickering lights) that created that tension. But I know that I don't often enjoy playing those old games either. So again, if others have trumped up the past in their minds, I guess they need this type of article to bring them to their senses. I do think there is meaning in the term retro and old school though, when applied to games. One irritation I've had with the way things have evolved is the 3d-ification of every genre. I get with shooters, why 3D is so popular. It has annoyed me that other genres like adventure have followed suit. So if someone says it's an old school point-and-click adventure game, I would understand what they meant.
  • Lurkero - June 27, 2014 6:28 p.m.

    I don't care what a game looks like or what a game was inspired by as long as it is enjoyable to play.
  • Ken Serra - June 27, 2014 2:27 p.m.

    Please more long-form editorials, GamesRadar! Such goodness. Mmmm Yum.
  • FoxdenRacing - June 27, 2014 1:50 p.m.

    What I wouldn't give for auto-saving as drafts right now. My browser crashed and lost all 5,000 characters of my reply. Long story short: We're getting old, Dave. We're the first generation to grow up with video games, but we're no longer the only generation that's grown up with them. What's old-school to us is ancient history to them, and we've done a terrible job of educating those who came after on what it was like "in the before-times", relating what we treasured and why, articulating the paradigms that made our favorite games great. Personally, I pine for games of substance and satisfaction. Games where winning is the known outcome, but doesn't get treated like a foregone conclusion the whole time by the game itself. Games that remember they're entertainment, not super-serious business with no room for being entertaining. Games that aren't afraid to let me fail, rather than being terrified of hurting my feelings. Games that set out to be the best game they can be, rather than 'designed' by meddling middle management money men salivating at the idea of recreating the sales figures of CoD or anything by Zynga/King, convinced that they can render all the meat from the bones of gaming and discover the 'formula' or 'template' for a 20-million seller. There's plenty of recent games that fit the mold...Dark Souls, Bulletstorm, Metroid Prime, Bioshock...and countless old ones that were the same kinds of half-hearted cash-grab shovelware we deal with today. The problem with comparing the present to the past is that the present's garbage is still visible, while the past's garbage has long since faded to obscurity...so it looks like the past was a treasure trove of gems, an illusion that's easily shattered by finding a store that deals in retro and looking at all the cruft.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - June 28, 2014 8:14 a.m.

    There is much wisdom in this comment. Much wisdom indeed. :)
  • Jackonomics2.0 - June 27, 2014 11:01 a.m.

    Thank you, I'm sick of seeing cliche indie games being praised for nothing. If they have to be praised, it should be about what the game does, not that it's "Retro"
  • FoxdenRacing - June 27, 2014 2 p.m.

    I think it was Justin, but somebody on here had a great article on how graphics standards have outpaced the time needed to get the absolute most that can be gotten from the same, as well as the diminishing returns of increased graphical fidelity [in terms of calculation power required], which gets into that nicely. 2D and Pixel graphics are great for nostalgia, but these days any half-bit hack out for a quick buck, and every corporate-minded jerk with a carefully-calculated appearance of being 'independent', is using them and it's getting harder to separate the Super Meat Boys from the...crap, that awful thing that used Pokemon sprites and charged real money for individual 'bullets'. I played my fair share of sprite-based games with sloppy controls, cheap enemies, and terrible construction...and don't envy those who are going through that now, simply because they weren't yet a twinkle in their daddy's eye the first time they were around. Same can be said for both 'click and wait' and 'connect the dot' glorified flash minigames that are so insubstantial they would've been laughed off Newgrounds 10 years ago.
  • Nikku7 - June 27, 2014 10 a.m.

    This is one of the coolest gaming articles I've ever read...
  • PlainLikeVanilla - June 27, 2014 9:28 a.m.

    Great article, couldn't agree more. I'm glad someone finally took the time to go over this.
  • LoboMau - June 27, 2014 8:32 a.m.

    By old-school games, they mostly mean retro-looking games.
  • DarthPunk - June 27, 2014 8:07 a.m.

    Thank you this is article 100% correct. Certain gamers and their 20 inch nostalgia goggles drive me mad and frankly I'd happily live the rest of my life without ever seeing another game with pixel art it's every bit as overdone as grim/dark is in AAA games if not more so. Also on your point getting lost in Doom's levels I too have given up on some "old school" games because of their atrocious level design

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