I’ve always felt a very strong connection to the world of video games, and a large part of that comes from being born into a gaming-friendly family during the relatively early years of the home console in 1980. My parents’ purchased an original Magnavox Odyssey for themselves before I was ever conceived, and still have it, in box, with all its original parts (a fact that my collector side salivates over). They moved on the Atari 2600, and I have many fond memories of me as a little tyke trying to play River Raid with my dad. As I got older, we bought newer consoles and watched as the industry changed alongside myself. I watched as the games changed from simple single-screen games to 2D side-scrollers with better graphics to basic 3D polygons to the stunning looking games we know today. But as those years changed, we saw many beloved childhood franchises fade away, genres all but disappear, and many of the old game design philosophies fall by the wayside.
That is, of course, until our current generation of consoles. Why would our current world of HD gaming, motion controllers and technology more powerful than ever be the saving grace of classic gaming?
The reason, as I see it, is this console generation’s increasing focus on downloadable games.
In a world of High Definition consoles, the budget required to develop a top-notch game grew exponentially, well into the millions of dollars. Risk-taking suddenly becomes much more dangerous with costs like that. Couple that with a market that requires internet connectivity for a gaming console to succeed, an opportunity arose. What if there was a way to help developers make smaller games at a reduced cost? How do you get that smaller, riskier game made and sold in the highly competitive retail market? Why not bypass it all together?
Microsoft had their answer, with Nintendo and Sony soon to follow.
When Microsoft first established their Xbox Live Arcade concept for the Xbox 360, it focused on bringing back arcade classics as cheap downloads that could be purchased without ever leaving your home, such as Midway’s Robotron 2048 and Smash TV, Capcom’s Street Fighter 2 Turbo, and small original titles, such as Geometry Wars, that retained that classic arcade feel. Nintendo introduced their Virtual Console service, that allowed anyone with an internet connection to purchase and play old NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis classics without having to go on a yard sale expedition. Sony followed suit with the Playstation Network, allowing gamers to download original game titles and classic PS1 games to play either on the PS3 or PSP. Now, no matter what console a player decided to purchase, cheaper and smaller games were available to them to download and play.
Over time, Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network began to focus more so on original content rather than just ports of older games, while Nintendo introduced their WiiWare service, also with original games in mind. However, this new avenue of distribution continued to help foster old-school game design, and developers saw the perfect opportunity to experiment with some of their dormant franchises.
In 2007, Namco released Pac-Man Championship Edition, developed by legendary Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani before his retirement. A full-fledged sequel to Pac-Man, Pac-Man C.E. featured new maps that expand and alter during play, varying play speeds, and bright, neon graphics. The development staff then later developed a similar update to their classic arcade hit Galaga in Galaga Legions.
After a port of Street Fighter 2 Turbo for XBLA proved to be a swift seller for the legendary third-party developer, Capcom was soon to offer improved version of classic games, such as the fully re-drawn Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix and a fully 3D remake of an NES cult classic with Bionic Commando Rearmed. Both games were quality titles that took full advantage of the visual capabilities of the PS3 and Xbox 360. Bionic Commando Rearmed exceeded sales expectations with a reported 130,000 copies in its first seven days, outperforming the first-month sales of the criminally underappreciated next-gen sequel it was designed to promote. They weren’t restricted themselves to remakes, either. Capcom published new sequels to Commando and 1942 with Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 and 1942: Joint Strike respectively.
Capcom took it one step further, however, with the release of Mega Man 9.
Not content with imitating just the gameplay mechanics of old, Mega Man leaped back to the past and presented itself as a long-lost NES sequel, complete with classic 8-bit sprites and catchy, chip-tune music. The Mega Man franchise, after taking so many wild turns over the years into spin-offs and side-stories, as well as a couple of Bionic Commando Rearmed-style remakes for the PSP, was finally back to the main series that spawned the beloved Blue Bomber, in a brand new title that felt lovingly familiar. Releasing a new NES game for modern consoles was a big risk for series, but it paid off in spades, selling over 140,000 copies on the Wii alone in its first week of sales. It paid off so well for Capcom, that they decided to continue this old-school approach for the series, at least in the short-term, as Mega Man 10 will see a staggered release schedule this month.
Ever since the success of Capcom’s classic updates, we’ve seen several classic franchises get another chance in the world of downloadable games, and the success of Mega Man 9 also proved that you don’t necessarily need HD graphics in order to do it right. Konami has thrown their hat into the ring with the Rebirth series, giving gamers original entries of the beloved Gradius, Contra, and Castlevania franchises, all of which feature graphics, music, and gameplay that look, sound, and play like lost classics of the Super Nintendo era. Gradius Rebirth feels like an arcade-perfect port of a non-existant arcade game, Contra Rebirth finally found the balance between fun and challenge that Konami couldn’t quite find with Contra Shattered Soldier for the PS2 and Contra 4 for the DS, and Castlevania The Adventure Rebirth reminded us of early level-based days of the series before Symphony of the Night changed the game. Also on the agenda is a Bionic Commando Rearmed-style sequel to Rocket Knight Adventures, bringing one of my personal favorite lost mascot’s Sparkster back into gaming relevance.
It’s not just Konami getting in on the act, either. Classic PC adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island, saw an HD remake for XBLA, and the recently revived Sunsoft gave the classic NES vehicle-based platformer Blaster Master the Mega Man 9/Konami Rebirth treatment with Blaster Master Overdrive for WiiWare, Square Enix continued the plot of Final Fantasy IV with Final Fantasy IV: The After Years for WiiWare, and most notably, Sega has recently announced Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode 1.
After years of attempts of recapturing the magic of Sonic’s glory days on the Genesis, Sega is presenting the latest and first original to XBLA/PSN/WiiWare entry to the franchise as the true sequel to 1994′s Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. and features 2D gameplay, the familiar checkered soil and loop-de-loops of the original Green-Hill Zone, and classic boss battles against the villan-formerly-known-as-Robotnik Dr. Eggman in his flying ship. Sega has even go so far as to get the original senior level designer for Sonic 3 & Knuckles to work on the title.
We’ve also seen original downloadable titles with a classic feel, from the Golden Axe-inspired brawling of The Behemoth’s Castle Crashers, to the platforming of Twisted Pixel Games’ ‘Spolsion Man, to the Metroid-style action and exploration of Chair’s Shadow Complex. Capcom released Dark Void Zero as a downloadable game for the DSi, following the Mega Man 9 faux-NES game vibe. The retro-revival has even begun to spill into the world of retail. The success of Capcom’s downloadable fighting titles has led to the company, who moved away from fighting games in recent years, to return to it full force with Street Fighter 4 and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, and another cult NES classic, A Boy and His Blob, saw a beautifully hand drawn remake on the Wii. Namco has been working on a 360/PS3 entry to the classic horror beat ‘em up Splatterhouse. Would these games exist without the success of the downloadable classic game revival? Maybe so, but I have my doubts.
As a life long gaming fan, I simply love to see the resurgence of classic game design. As someone who still pops a cart into the NES every now and then, it is bliss. Modern consoles are more than capable of delivering the gaming community anything in the world. I, for one, am glad to see that some developers are using that ability to remind us of the classics that built the industry into the unstoppable juggernaut it is today.Last 5 posts by Gil
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