Gradius 3 is a wonderful game that hates you and wants you to suffer.
As I contorted my body with howls of rage at the injustice of Gradius’s hellish little world, as I flung my hands incredulously upward when a boss hurled a pattern of apparently impossible-to-dodge lasers at me, I remembered these games, these bonecrushingly-hard-but-still-really-fun games, and I realized that I have almost no interest in playing them beyond the short burst of challenge and reward that I get after, say, ten to twenty minutes.
I am trying to figure out why this is the case. I can play a game like Street Fighter 4 or Blazblue for an hour or three hours on end, if I’m playing online or in person against real people. I attribute that to the depth of the gameplay but also the kinetic satisfaction of successful attacks and the visceral triumph of outguessing or outsmarting your opponent.
I can play a game like Bionic Commando – the new one – for hours as well, for its challenge and difficult opponents and nasty platforming puzzles, but again there is a visceral pleasure – the kinetics of swinging on a powerful arm and soaring through the air, or hurling a car several kilometers with a physically-impossible whipcrack of said arm, or the satisfaction of exploration and discovery for all the little collectibles.
I can even play games like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry, which are hard as balls but powerfully satisfying despite their braindead plots and insultingly poor level design.
What is it that current gen games have – even not-so-great current gen games which cannot stand up to classics like Gradius 3 – that makes them, for me, more fun, more playable, more enduring in their interest?
I don’t think it’s the graphics. Gradius is a great looking game. I play a lot of 2d indie games as well, many of which have poorer graphics than Gradius.
I enjoyed playing Gradius 3, so the gameplay is good. There is satisfaction in destroying a row of enemies with well-placed shots. But I feel no urge to play it again, ever. Why is that? I am experiencing similar problems with many XBLA games, some of which I regret purchasing now – games like Pac Man and Geometry Wars which, although quite awesome for a short time, failed to hold my interest for very long at all. Although Geometry Wars 2 was pretty sweet.
My first instinct is to suggest that there has been a change in the game design zeitgeist. Games have really moved away from the arcade kind of experience – the games that were hard because people wanted them hard, but also because a game that’s just hard enough is the perfect way to suck all the quarters out of a kid’s pocket. You get a lot more games these days that are not challenging at all, and don’t even try; what they do is simply create the illusion of obstacles to create an experience for the player, which is admirable (but often falls flat since sometimes what they are making is actually just a pretty arcade game with no difficulty to combat and no substantive experience or immersion to offer either).
So is Gradius 3 failing to compel me because it does not draw me into a world, because it doesn’t immerse me in an interactive fiction? Is that why I don’t enjoy arcade games? Maybe. But then why is it that fighting games are still very enjoyable for me? Why is it that I can play other sludge-brained gameplay-focused arcade experiences? Maybe it’s because with current gen game design principles, the very design and movement and presence of things is more immersive. Maybe it’s because I have some idea of how to make a 2d game, and it’s like the first time you learn to play chords on guitar and the way you appreciate guitar-based music changes forever. Maybe it’s because the kind of challenge offered by these games is not the right kind of challenge – not the smorgasbord of choice and reflex and reaction and immediate violent result that you get in Ninja Gaiden or Street Fighter.
Incidentally, I don’t really feel like playing Ninja Gaiden lately either. Hmm.
I don’t know what it is, but the Mega Mans, the Gradiuses, the Earthworm Jims – these games don’t draw me in anymore. Honestly, this makes me a little bit sad but also a bit relieved.