one in my generation who grew up playing video games needs to be
reminded that the production qualities and technological muscle of
contemporary video games have reached once-unimaginable levels. There
was a time back in the halcyon 8-bit days of yore when too many
Octarocks crawling around the screen in Legend of Zelda caused
your game to lapse into a lurching slow-motion cadence until things
cleared out a bit. You could practically hear Scotty’s muffled brogue
coming from inside your NES console: “I’m givin’ her all she’s got,
Cap’n.” And 'all she had' was enough. We were too busy enjoying
ourselves to care.
Today’s a different story. Contemporary game studios demand technical perfection. And silky frame-rates in next-gen titles ensure that animations seamlessly unfold. An obviously buggy slow-down in the action would likely cost a few designers their jobs. In the options menu for Capcom’s downloadable title Mega Man 9, you have the option of toggling on legacy affectations that good-naturedly mimic some of those familiar glitches from back in the day. Screen sprites—misfiring individual pixels in the display—will flicker occasionally like distant stars. While it seems a bit gimmicky to design a 2008 release in a defiantly traditional 8-bit style, the effect is one of pure joy and elegant simplicity.
Capcom’s use of simulated imperfections in Mega Man 9 feels like the gaming equivalent of a recording engineer going into his studio’s state-of-the-art ProTools rig and adding record crackle to a newly minted track. The nostalgic charm of those subtle imperfections becomes part of the allure. I actually prefer listening to the older, scratched-up records in my vinyl collection—The Four Tops, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder. The crackle of the needle jumping those scratches warms the soul like the sound of wood burning in a campfire. Bob Dylan’s voice ain’t perfect, but it’s also one of a kind. So what if the man has an 8-bit croon? He uses it to great effect, just like Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune and his team do with the so called “limitations” of midi music and slightly beefier pixels.
Mega Man 9 slips effortlessly into the template of the former numbered titles in the series, the last of which came out in 1996. Eight new boss robots to battle and the 2-D side-scrolling, platforming action of its predecessors. Two buttons—jump and fire. The formula’s brilliance is in its deceptive straight-forwardness. Don’t fall into any pits. Don’t touch those pointy spikes. Shoot the robot baddies. But, after playing the game for a couple minutes, you’ll realize these objectives are infinitely easier said than done. The timing of your jumps requires pin-point precision and environments make matters that much more complicated. Introduce a simple gusting wind and see how well you do leaping between platforms over a yawning chasm.
Some of the most savory gaming experiences I’ve had this year were delivered by downloadable titles. The delicious visual bombast and adrenalized survival impulse of Geometry Wars 2; the showered-and-shaved update of a NES classic, Bionic Commando Rearmed; the gorgeous soundtrack and wistful emotional payload of Jonathan Blow’s Braid…and now Mega Man 9.
Talk about a gargantuan win-win. The money game publishers save from not having to manufacture and ship physical product means pure profit for the industry and cheaper games for consumers (maybe the only drawback is that you can’t sell a downloaded game on half.com once you’re finished with it). The relatively modest capital investment required to develop a less tech-intensive project means lower financial risk, which frees game designers up to cultivate fresh, less-commercially-proven ideas. As Nintendo’s bulging pockets have proven, it’s the quality of the gaming experience that will drive our industry forward, not the one-upsmanship of the technology race. No amount of makeup can help an ugly person caught in the unforgiving gaze of HD cameras.