This summer, I decided to read Ready Player One, a novel that centers around a video game so advanced that, when the developer suddenly dies, the whole world sets out to find an easter egg planted somewhere in the game containing his entire fortune. Aside from this super special video game, called the “OASIS”, the book is full of references to 1980’s pop culture and video games. While reading this book, it got me thinking. I wasn’t around in the 1980’s, but I have enjoyed a lot of video games from that era, games like Defender, Galaga, Street Fighter, Frogger and my personal favorite, The Legend of Zelda. The 1980’s were a great time for early video games, and were a big inspiration when I was programming my own games, which are mediocre in comparison. Now, the video games of today have taken on a completely new rhythm, and are challenging modern technological boundaries each year. They are, coincidentally, starting to take on some of the characteristics found in Ready Player One’s OASIS, with new virtual reality components and expansive worlds with few limitations. Among all this exciting technological advancement, I think it’s important for us to look back on the beginning of video games, and discuss how retro games are making a comeback!
Of the many retro arcade games, Ready Player One’s main character Wade enjoys, Joust is the game he plays to obtain the first key in a series to unlock the easter egg. Joust is a typical two-dimensional, cooperative-play arcade game where you play as a knight, riding an ostrich and battling enemy birds. Think of Donkey Kong, or maybe even BurgerTime, but with flying buzzards rapidly moving across the screen. Games like these were common in the 1980’s arcades and were some of the classic games played on Ataris and IBM personal computers.
Arcade games were also ungodly hard. Since owning a Nintendo 64 and beyond, I have eventually beat every game I’ve played. However, I have yet to beat an old arcade game, let alone keep my name on a high score list for more than an hour.
Even almost 30 years later, anyone can go spend some time playing in vintage arcades, which are popping up all over the country. Classic arcades are becoming more popular, and those who played these early video games as kids can now find the joys of their childhood again by brushing up on some Dig Dug or Space Invaders.
When coding a video game, these arcade gems provide a lot of guidance and are often used as templates to build upon. They are relatively simple but target all the qualities we find most fun in video games.
So what exactly makes a game fun? Well, modern games are often pretty spectacular to look at, with beautiful graphics and backdrops. But, classic arcade games employed relatively simple graphics, so the art style of the game, although it definitely enhances it, can’t actually be what makes a game fun. So how about the objective? Accomplishing a goal is satisfying and feels good, so that could be part of what makes a game fun to play. The journey to beating a game, an enemy, or a puzzle of some kind, has to incorporate an element of fun, or else, what’s the point? I would also reach to say that offering cooperative play helps make a game fun. Of course, there are exceptions to this, the Legend of Zelda being one of them. Although, even in this game, the main character, Link, is almost always accompanied by some other character. I think that, as humans, we don’t like to have fun alone, and when we are playing video games the fun is compounded when there are others to enjoy the game with us. Whether they are playing alongside, or watching you from the sidelines.
This all being said, we still find that we all have certain gaming preferences. Some of us enjoy shooters, while others enjoy puzzle games. This has been true for decades, hence why there are SO MANY games out there. Video games are an art form, and like art, expression has no limits, and neither should fun.
In Ready Player One, everyone is online. Always hooked into the OASIS, playing games, working and making online friends. Nearly all of the main characters admit to preferring being online inside the OASIS instead of out in the “real world”. I mean, this is true for some people in society today who feel like they just don’t fit in anywhere but online. The world is a scary place, and being online can be a nice escape. The world of Ready Player One has seen a number of really crummy consequences, so I can understand why the OASIS would seem like a great gateway to a more attractive reality. A huge message this book had, however, was that any online world, or game, no matter how amazing, can’t replace what the real world can offer.
This brings me back to the comeback of classic arcade games. Instead of sitting at home, glued to a screen, gamers can now venture out into town and experience some of the old school fun arcades offered 30 years ago. Coin operated, joystick functioning, fun. The return of classic arcades is reminding us what it meant to be out with friends, or even on your own, enjoying the beginnings of video game culture. When you could play for hours trying to beat your last score, revel in getting a high score, and raging when you didn’t.