A few weeks ago news that made my inner-child happy was announced: That WayForward is working on a remastered edition of the classic Nintendo game: Duck Tales. My inner-child got a second dose of happiness when the game Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion was also revealed to have a remastered edition coming.
Duck Tales, like many children’s cartoons made the transition to video games with help from veteran studios at the time such as Capcom. But what’s interesting was when Wayforward revealed plans to make an allowance for children playing the game by having easy modes. Now the odd part was that Duck Tales and its ilk when they were released were aimed at children… or were they?
The video-game market has changed dramatically over the last 20 + years and so has the intended audience. In the early days, console and PC games were 100% separate from each other with rare exceptions. But one comparison was the niche market audiences of the respective platforms.
Anyone who grew up playing PC games over the last three decades can tell you that games today pale in complexity and challenge to the ones released back then. Part of the reason was technical limitations such as the radical introduction of the mouse, or windows based platforms.
Another thing to keep in mind was that computers back then were not for everyone like they are today. Back in the 80s and into the early 90s, the people who used computers were on the cutting edge of technology and tech savvy. And said computer users who became designers wanted to make games for people like them.
“it’s easy to make a hard game, but a challenging game is another matter.”
They didn’t need to worry about making something appealing to the mass market, as there was no mass market.
While this had certainly led to a lot of classic PC games being dated, this was also the time where we saw some of the most innovative and replay-able games created such as X-Com, Civilization and more.
The same thing was also happening on the home console market following the revival of the game industry. While game quality ranged from good to poor, difficulty was all across the board on the higher side. Once again part of the reason was the technical limitations both on the hardware and controller inputs.
A D-pad like the keys on a keyboard were simply not responsive to subtle movements compared to the eventual development of an analog stick. Trying to perform precise jumps onto platforms was a difficult affair as you only had two speeds: off and normal.
On the technical side, it wasn’t until the Nintendo 64 era that the functionality of saving became standardized. Previously, only RPGs or big name games had the option of battery saving. For the rest you either had to finish the game in one sitting or use a password feature.
Just like the PC audience, game makers knew who their audience was: a niche group who were most likely male teens to young adults (as this was the time of the video game nerd stereotype.) Designers were also basing their games on the similar designs of the arcade: by making their games difficult it would keep people coming back to play them.
As time went on, the video game industry grew and opened up. In today’s market we have boys, girls, men and women playing.
With so many games being released, designers want their games to appeal to as many people as possible.
This has led to both the streamlining of game design and the restructuring of games aimed at kids to be even simpler.
Now, designers have a new avenue for advertising their games: as a return to the old days. But that may not be a good selling point.
Most of the time whenever a designer plugs their game as being “old school”, that is another way of saying that the game is going to be hard. But as I’ve said over the years: it’s easy to make a hard game, but a challenging game is another matter.
The problem is distinguishing the elements of older games and figuring out which ones added to the game mechanics and which ones were there due to limitations or to make things difficult.
On one side we have games like The Dark Spire and La-Mulana: games completely committed to old school design. The problem that I had with both was that they each adhered too much to the old school elements and didn’t separate the “fat” from the meat in a sense.
These games weren’t challenging because they required the player to learn the mechanics and get better. Instead they were difficult for using outdated mechanics without any attempt at improving or modernizing them.
La-Mulana‘s use of esoteric puzzles and hidden solutions weren’t something that the player could improve on through playing, but were hoops designed for them to jump through. The same thing could be said for late 80s adventure game design such as in King’s Quest: where you could die from just about every situation if you were not careful.
In The Dark Spire‘s case, I found the Etrian Odyssey series to be superior for taking the party based RPG mechanics, and modernizing them without sacrificing challenge or depth in the process.
Now while these past examples were from games that didn’t cut enough, my next example is a game that went too far.
X-Com: Enemy Unknown may have been one of my favorite games of last year, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing when compared to the original which had more replayability and depth of tactics.
The issue here was that Firaxis wanted to streamline the game to make it more accessible: Such as removing Time Units for actions.
However they went too far and made the strategic layer predictable, reduced the challenge of the tactical side and basically made a more linear game.
Now that’s not to say that the original X-Com was a perfect game. The painfully obtuse UI and difficulty would turn off most modern gamers today. But by removing so much from the original design, Firaxis got rid of what made the game a classic in the first place.
As we’ve seen you can either go too far or not far enough when looking at older design, but is there a happy medium?
Talking about the skill level of kids can be tough. On one hand controls and game complexity have improved considerably since the 90s, but games for their age level have become simpler. When I was young I was playing games like Ninja Gaiden and Battletoads, but then again, today kids can play games like Call of Duty.
My suggestion is the same that we see with some of the best animated series: have them age appropriate, but have winks or themes for older audiences.
Cartoons like Avatar: the Last Airbender, Gravity Falls and Justice League Unlimited were aimed at kids and teens. But dealt with or mentioned mature issues for older audiences and didn’t pander to one group or the other.
With video games, having optional challenging content can work at engaging different groups of gamers. The Mario Galaxy series was great in this regard by having optional star challenges designed to test gamers while having easier ones for less skilled people. You didn’t need to do the optional stuff to beat the game, but it was there for people wanting to go for 100% completion
Firaxis attempted to do this with the second wave options they introduced to Enemy Unknown. These modifiers became unlocked after beating the game and did everything from making it harder to get psionics, to randomizing starting stats. But personally, I don’t think they went far enough to capture the magic of the first game.
Going back to the Duck Tales remastered version, I’m really curious to see how it turns out and if this will be the start of seeing more remastered versions of classic games. They have said in an interview that the hard mode of the game will be closer if not the same in terms of difficulty of the original. If they can appeal to both young gamers and the young at heart, I think they’ll have something.
And to end this post, here is something that makes me smile every time I hear it, enjoy: