It’s tough being a student. The limited supply of loan money, the frequent spending sprees, the pressure to go out every night to prevent people associating you as some sort of weirdo recluse – sometimes it’s just too much to handle. Eventually, there comes a time when you need to sacrifice your most valued possessions in order to make ends meet; it’s a painstaking process that always seems to end up in tears.
Alas, I had to prepare for the inevitable. I sat down and reluctantly dusted off my collection, checking the value of each item on eBay, dabbing my eyes with my custom-made Super Mario Bros. handkerchief. And then it hit me. After close inspection, it became increasingly apparent that games aren’t as exciting as they used to be.
Before 3D technology was utilised, third party companies were given the freedom to develop obscure games for niche markets, creating a plethora of fresh, new products in the process. Indeed, while there were a large number of cynical cash-ins (namely due to the success of Mario and Sonic), the games industry became a powerhouse for spark and creativity; this has been widely established as ‘the golden years’, an era which has been deemed the pinnacle of gaming in terms of both quality and quantity.
It could be argued that gaming as a form of entertainment has somewhat faltered over the years, failing to match the standards that their predecessors achieved so effortlessly. For example, the beleaguered Sonic franchise’s foray into 3D has not only destroyed the once lovable mascot’s reputation, but is now a notorious joke in the gaming community.
It’s hugely disheartening to watch a figurehead deteriorate into a paradox of obscurity, but it clearly shows that Sonic Team are directionless in their approach, attempting to conform to what is deemed popular. Many series have followed a similar trend, such as PlayStation forerunners Crash Bandicoot and Spyro – this is due to the original developers moving onto greener pastures.
However, the biggest problem is a lack of new products from first party developers; ideas tend to derive from previous iterations of other projects, using the brand’s name for monetary reasons, not for the sake of artistic integrity. Case in point: Nintendo. Once praised for thinking outside of the box and taking risks with the Gamecube, it seems they have succumbed to realms of sequels and shovelware, releasing a wide number of rehashes, and remakes galore.
Nintendo have barely taken a step forward with the Wii, playing it safe by ensuring that each game has a strong fan base and high demand. For example: Mario (in all its forms), Zelda, Super Smash Bros, Metroid Prime, Punch Out!!, Animal Crossing… the list goes on. Whatever happened to the likes of Luigi’s Mansion and Pikmin? Even The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker revamped the series with its cel-shaded design; Twilight Princess is more of the same.
The reason? Well, especially considering today’s economic climate, games are extremely expensive to develop with the technology used today. The 16-bit era featured a inane amount of convoluted trash from developers that had little to no cash. These days, gaming is a big business, swamped with copyright laws and technological enhancements galore. Developers simply cannot afford to make a game that would be deemed unprofitable. In business terms, it only makes sense to create derivative, generic titles that offer nothing new.
That’s not to say these are bad games – far from it. However, it’s frustrating to see Nintendo barely utilise the strengths of the Wii to its full potential. In fairness, Wii Sports set the benchmark of what to expect from the hardware (also noting that it is a new IP), but these are too few and far between. In fact, if you look at this year’s release list, there are barely any new products. You want proof? Monster Hunter Tri, Sin and Punishment 2, No More Heroes 2, Mario, Metroid, Golden Sun DS, Dragon Quest IX… it’s hard to ignore this ongoing trend, not to mention it’s a little monotonous.
Nintendo aren’t the only culprits here. Sony and Microsoft also follow a particular pattern that caters solely to the ‘hardcore’ market, making games devoid of any true originality. Ever since the success of Halo, every developer under the sun has tried to emulate the template it set. Gears of War and its self proclaimed ‘cover system’ also changed the way third-person shooters were approached; mindless IP’s such as Dark Sector and Wanted have desperately tried to use its gameplay mechanics without being accused of being a Gears of War clone, despite failing rather miserably.
Other products such as Prototype or Crackdown, while both perfectly functional, all share similarities with GTA. Forza Motorsport = Gran Turismo. Project Gotham Racing = Metropolis Street Racing. Wash, rinse, repeat.
O Father, where hath all the originality gone? If you look at the Sega Dreamcast, it was perfectly clear what Sega’s intentions were. The console may have suffered initially, but in hindsight has created a legacy of terrific IPs that gamers still rant and rave about, even until this day. They were not only influential, but helped shape the industry into what it is today. Online gaming is a major factor here, with games like Quake III Arena and Phantasy Star Online setting the benchmark for future projects.
The Dreamcast offered a baffling array of ground-breaking titles, most notably Shenmue, Jet Set Radio, Crazy Taxi, Chu Chu Rocket and Samba De Amigo. Indeed, that was when Sonic Team was actually a credible developer. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
However, not all hope is lost. There are still a fair share of success stories that are a strong reflection of what consumers want in today’s saturated market. Heavy Rain offered a truly unique experience, unrivaled by its competitors and boasting deliciously high production values that justify the PS3′s hefty price tag. The Last Guardian, the next project from Team ICO, is an ethereal action adventure which focuses on the relationship between you and a winged dog-like companion.
The Wii has also been fortunate enough to have a few niche experiments of its own. Spielberg’s Boom Blox makes clever use of the Wii-mote, featuring real-life physics in an LSD-infused world filled with jenga blocks. Zack and Wiki also boasts an interesting premise, transforming the controller into a saw, a turret, a hand – it’s pretty zany, but a worthwhile purchase nonetheless.
So, can it be said that originality is dead in gaming? Well, considering we have PlayStation Move, Project Natal and the 3DS to look forward to, I don’t think the industry has ”jumped the shark” just yet. However, especially when compared to the days of old, it’s a little disheartening to see so few developers making an effort both artistically and conceptually. Maybe in the future the new hardware will help push companies to break the mould. As Capcom’s Kenji Inafune infamously stated, “Our games industry is finished”.
Let’s hope not.