What makes a game timeless?

Everything is getting old. Some things are better with age, others just can’t stand test of time. Games are no exception and games have more factors that can get old than any other entertainment media. Sometimes an old game becomes unplayable due to new standards and sometimes it feels like a 20 years old game was released just yesterday. What makes a game outdated? Is everything worth playing today? I want to analyze elements of the game to see what really makes them outdated or timeless.

Graphics and design

Starting with the most obvious thing: graphics. The thing that is constantly improving over the years. No doubt an old game will look worse… and old. Most notable examples are from the fifth generation. Early 3D graphics looks terrible today and it is hard to look at them. We used to call it “realistic”, can you believe it? However, not every game from those times have to look bad. This is where design comes in. If a game was designed with hardware’s limitation in mind, the game can look great even today. The best example is Radiant Silvergun. Simple blocky enemies are designed this way and it is hard to imagine them with more polygons without losing their style. Remaster for X360 upgraded only textures and the game looks like it was made today. System’s limitation can shape a vision, thus make a game look great despite it. We can’t say it about most 3D fighting, racing or adventure games. First Tomb Raider is the best example of a game that simply got awfully outdated. Lara’s model has improved a lot over the years and looking at the first game in the series is painful today.

On the other side, fifth generation spawned one of the most timeless graphics. 2D graphics. While still pixelated, games like Metal Slug, Rayman, Street Fighters and Guilty Gear are simply a pixel art and look awesome today. These are the games that wouldn’t benefit a lot from a graphical update. There isn’t a lot to upgrade. If only it was the focus of those times…

It doesn’t mean 2D graphics can’t get old as well. Infamous prerendered 2D sprites look incredibly awkward today. Donkey Kong Country is the first example that comes to my mind. You can also take a look at first Mortal Combat. Those two 2D games look bad today.

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Everything seems fine… yet it feels strange to look at those 2D sprites

Sixth generation is in a better position. This is the time where 3D graphics improved a lot and some common issues like bad drawing distance went into oblivion making those game acceptable or even still good looking today despite low resolution.
It is hard to say something about 8-bit games because I’ve found them difficult to classify. People either love or hate those graphics, making it hard to judge whether those games got old or the style is timeless in some way.  8-bit graphics are often used by indie developers today to make their games look more old school. I think that’s saying something.

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Drawing distance in Carmageddon. Environment pops up as you move forward. Definitely an issue of the past.

Controls and gameplay

Something people may not have paid attention to. Control schemes for certain genres were changing over time. It is especially noticeable for platform and racing games in both controls and mechanics. New standards were made, new mechanics introduced, which later became something we quickly got used to. This can make going back to some games a little confusing. Racing games before gamepad’s triggers didn’t offer gas regulation, making drifting in some games less enjoyable. Analog stick and triggers allowed more precise control over a car, making it somewhat closer to the driving wheels. That’s why Daytona USA 2001 for the Dreamcast feels like a fresh game. Despite the year, it uses a control scheme standard for racers past X360 launch. Again, fifth generation suffers the most, because, there was neither analog stick nor triggers in standard, except for Nintendo 64.

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Dreamcast’s analog triggers fulfilled racing game’s experience, giving you a control over gas like with a steering wheel. It made every PS2 racer a little bit stale.(source: Classic Game Room)

Speaking of, the N64’s analog stick was made for 3D environment. It showed us how a character should be controlled in 3D world. PSX and Saturn didn’t have the analog stick initially resulting in either imprecise 8 directional movement or infamous tank controls. While tank controls fit Resident Evil series to this day, the 3D platformers, which were using this control scheme are a true nightmare to play today. Croc is the best example of a platformer with tank controls. I didn’t mind them back then, but today it is hard get past them.

I should mention FPS genre, which is an oddball here. While we are experiencing gameplay’s evolution with aiming down sights, cover system, crawling, leaning left and right, and other modifications, there are old fashioned shooters, which despite outdated gameplay, are still enjoyable today. The best example is the Counter Strike. There are no aiming down sights, no weapon modification and there is still that archaic recoil pattern, yet it is still one of the most popular FPS games. The best example that “more” doesn’t necessarily means better. I like Counter Strike myself, however, I have to admit that playing CS:GO feels a little old after all.
There are also good old single player shooters. Duke Nukem and Doom are still fun today, because it was just about shooting, but hell of a fun shooting. While graphics surely haven’t aged well, the gameplay is immortal once you get past them.

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A recoil pattern in Counter Strike: Global offensive. Modern shooters have more realistic recoil simulation, yet due to CS’s popularity it is considered normal and controlling it is one of the crucial skills.

Story and motives

The easiest to ignore as well as the easiest to get tired of. Taking a popular motive is common in gaming and other industries. Sometimes you can get sick of a theme, that one title make extremely popular. This is where niche and unique games have a larger chance for becoming timeless and, unfortunately for developers, become appreciated after years. The best example is Skies of Arcadia, which due to late release on the Dreamcast wasn’t noticed. A release for Gamecube didn’t helped a lot too. What do we have today? Skies of Arcadia is listed as one of the most underappreciated RPGs of all time. There is simply no other game about pirates in the sky.

Other examples of old, timeless RPGs are Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. There is loud about those games today and for a good reason. They present a unique story told from the beginning to the end and people still refer to them as one of the best in the genre.

As for overused motives Resident Evil is the first that comes to my mind. I believe that this game started a long strain of games with zombies created due to a virus spread. Left 4 Dead, The Last of Us or Dead Island are a few to name. I bet, if you have played a lot of zombie games you can get tired of them faster. A similar fate met famous Bullet Time, which was a slow motion on demand. Max Payne started a new fashion in gaming, which was so overused, we hardly ever see it today. If you haven’t played such game you may still have fun with it, but when I saw it for a second time in a row in Need For Speed game after playing Max Payne and Fear, I was like “Aw, c’mon. Again?”. Now it is an artifact of those times. You may not agree with me, but once a single thing is repeated over and over in a short period of time, you can get bored with it and consider it cheesy. If you want to do well with an overused theme, you better do something outstanding like The Last of Us did.

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I would be more surprised if those zombies appeared to be the actual living dead instead of being infected. And it all started with Resident Evil… where it was a plot twist.

Music… A special mention

Music is obviously up to a personal preference but nobody can’t deny that some music has that 90’s or 80’s feeling. Whether music with such feeling is timeless or plain old is debatable. However, games due to limited hardware and physical media had characteristic tunes and jingles, which noticeably belong to either 16-bit or 8-bit era. Those are either hit or miss, because composers had to rely on the core melody alone. There was no polyphony and any attempts at doing so ended with an unmemorable soundtrack. These limitations born famous themes like Castlevania’s Vampire killer (stage 1 theme), The Legend of Zelda’s main theme or Duck Tale’s Moon stage theme. We can often hear rearrangements in modern sequels of the games. 16-bit era? Thunderforce IV has outstanding hard rock soundtrack and Sonic the Hedgehod has iconic tunes as well. A lot of arcade shoot’em ups have a great soundtrack. Music can make or break the game. Make it memorable or forgettable. This is all time valid rule.

Going back to CD quality music I can name Sega Touring Cars on Sega Saturn and Scud Race from arcades simply screaming “90’s!” with their music. On the other hand I have to highlight Rayman 2: The Great Escape with a soundtrack so good and timeless, it sounds like it was made for a Pixar movie last year. This game amazed me with its fairy tale style music.

I did quite some work there. Everything gets old, however, everything you play for the first time is a new experience. Some titles deserves coming back to them sometimes. Who knows which modern games will be considered timeless, old, or maybe ahead of its time in the future. Note, that I am not comparing any of these games. Every case is treated individually.
What other games remained timeless? What aged extremely badly? Share your thoughts with me. It is a timeless topic!

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