To Have or To Hold (’til Ebay do part)…..
As a 40 something gamer, console and computer gaming has been a part of my life since as far back as I can remember. From the early days of handheld gaming, the infiltration of households by the then great Atari, the Sega/Nintendo, Spectrum/Commodore playground wars, the advent of 16bit gaming, next generation consoles, to online gaming, it’s been a wonderful journey to have lived through, and holds the fondest of all my childhood memories
But as much as the hardware has advanced, in line with the latest technologies, the software itself, has also undergone dramatic progression. The bulky hollow cartridges of the earliest consoles, giving way to sleeker, later editions and handheld devices, able to cram impressively detailed games into the smallest of cartridges. And as home computers gained popularity, magnetic tapes were replaced with 3.5″ discs, which ultimately morphed into the optical discs still used today.
Then, as technology advanced even further, the benefits of the immediate load times and the robustness, associated with cartridges, were able to be amalgamated with the high storage capacity of a disc, resulting in the re-introduction of ‘mini’ cartridges on one of the latest of home consoles, the Nintendo Switch.
However, as games become increasingly detailed and photo realistic, blurring the lines of reality, the huge data required has trounced the capacity of even these, resulting in games being released, with only a fraction of the finished game actually present on the media you buy, with lengthy downloads and updates required onto your machine, before play can commence.
This obviously relies on the burgeoning use of the internet, a double edged sword since it’s inception, bringing, at times, as much bad as good, into every corner of modern life. It has also seen the popularity of ‘download only’ games, soar to stratospheric levels over recent years, opening up real and accessible avenues for independent designers to get their games published into the relative mainstream, similar to the public domain environment that existed back in my day.
One flip side to this ever expanding modern world where today’s gamer has everything at their fingertips, just a click away, is an increasing dearth of hobbyist, intent on reacquiring the games from their yesteryear. The ability to seek out, purchase and to again own a game that they once toiled many childhood hours over, in order to finally defeat that final boss; or the acquistion of a game that they could not afford or missed out on when it was originally released; but also to again realise the pleasure associated with being able to physically hold the game in their hands, complete in it’s oversized box, with illustrated manual.
So, I wanted to think about this conflict in a bit more detail, reflecting my own personal experiences against those of my children, who, at aged 9 and 13 years, inhabit an increasingly unfamiliar online world, where everything exist virtually in clouds that they will never even fly through, let alone hold in their hands.
To do this, I need to identify some stand out memories from my own childhood, not necessarily systems/games I owned, but definitely ones which I was influenced by. The wonder of the early Atari machines – 2600 and 800XL, with a seemingly (if not at times, questionable) unlimited array of cartridges, each one encapsulating an entire new world, to fill your 14″ black and white television screen. The Sega Master System, announcing it’s arrival with the ability to bring actual arcade titles into my very own living room. The lowly and humble Commodore 16, (my first computer), which allowed me to physically create my own games and save them onto magnetic tape. The Super Nintendo and in particular, the titular release of Super Mario World, into which I poured an uncountable number of hours, in order to find each and every last dragon coin. The Atari ST with it’s big cardboard box releases that swamped the contents that rattled around inside. The handheld releases of the Lynx and Gameboy, and onto the advent of true next generation releases beginning with the PlayStation, leaping ahead with disc media and many, many others in betwixt and afterwards.
As a child, teenager and young adult, we were not rich, by any stretch of the imagination and each dating console was inevitably sold on or traded in, in order to fund the next purchase, a practice that I continued, up until very recently, even when finances were not as restrictive, it just seemed the ‘right thing to do’. Why bother keeping the old, when I had the shiny, fast and new.. However, with life as a proper adult/parent, now busier than ever before, and new modern games seemingly requiring you to invest huge chunks of time, that I simply just do not have, it is to the old that I have found myself returning.
That is not the only reason; I genuinely have the strongest affinity for games from the 80’s and early 90’s, I have a number of arcade cabinets from this era and it may have only been a matter of time before I turned my collecting attention to the consoles and their games, that filled my youth. Even the consoles themselves, look stunning when displayed as a collective. Their, at times, dramatic styling, serving as a real indicator towards the cultural trends of society. But of course without the games, they are, just stylish ornaments, and back then, I saw them simply as a conduit, a vessel in which to insert the real magic, contained within the game cartridge/disc.
And so I began to, slowly, start seeking out and buying the games. Having decided to collect a mixture of the best games for each system, coupled with those that I remember loving as a child, but ignoring those that I have no interest or affinity towards, no matter how good that game may be on that system. It was off to EBay, I clicked.
I remember receiving the first few packages through the post, opening the parcel and holding the game box in my hands, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. Floods of long forgotten memories came rushing back, as my eyes darted all over the artwork on the front of the box. Flipping the box over and reading the blurb on the back, along with the enticing screen shots, brought with it a real buzz of enjoyment and engagement. But it was on opening the box, to find, of course the physical game, but also the illustrated instruction manual and an advertisement poster/sheet, showing other games available for the console, that really made me smile. So much effort and attention to detail included by the developer/publisher, as a real compliment to the game itself and a thank you to the player for purchasing their game. The manual with it’s written preamble of your character, the game world, your mission, all serving to set the stage for the next chapter, where you take over. The detailed illustrations and artwork covering all the sprites and characters that you would soon be meeting in game. Although it cannot go unmentioned that in the early, early days, the amount of artistic licence imbued here, compared to the disparities in-game, was as times pushing the legalities of advertising.
But back to my purchase and it was just sublime. Even the cartridge offered a tactile recollection, the shape, the visible edge connector and the satisfying ‘thunk’ sound as I pushed it home into the console. As for the games, yes, some have aged better than others, but those that were the pioneering games of their day, still hold up amazingly well today, with the gameplay shining out where the limitations of graphics and memory could not.
However it is not all riding a-crest the wave, some of the games I have bought, no longer work one hundred per cent. Issues, ranging from the ‘simple to fix’ of dirty edge connector pins, through to the more serious corrupted chips, or in one case where the internal battery within the cartridge itself, having leaked their corrosive innards over the sensitive traces on the printed circuit board, these are all potential problems. Other later media, is also not beyond degradation with magnetic tapes and floppy discs susceptible to losing their data as the magnetic field decreases over time and optical disks easily scratched, preventing the laser from reading the content stored upon them.
So what games fill up my kid’s library? Do they have a tower of over-sized cardboard boxes in the corner, next to the TV, or ‘Billy bookcase’ shelves filled with chunky plastic cases? Well, no, of course they do not. They have a Nintendo Switch console, my old PS4 (which I was not using) and their own I-Pads and from where I sit I can count 16 physical games for the Switch, and about 12 for the PS4, the titles are not relevant, the tiny space they take up, more so. But, for myself, one of the most disappointing aspects, specifically with the Switch games, is the complete lack of ‘anything’ inside the game case, with the exception of the tiny cartridge, itself. Gone are the detailed booklets and promotional material, replaced with the now accepted modern equivalent, of online content for those that wish to download and view. A choice my kids forego, every time, opting instead for directly jumping straight into the main event – well, after it has downloaded the patch updates and the final half of the game, of course.
Even the box itself is discarded, almost immediately, with the cart stored in a carry case (or nearest available surface) along with all the others, leaving the case redundant. The glossy artwork on the front and the screenshots to the rear, of little interest to them, not because the quality is poor, or the content not relevant, but simply due to the kids, who through watching trailers, unboxing videos and gameplay clips online, have already experienced all that the box had to offer and much, much more beyond what that media could ever provide.
It is probably this lack of physical content that saddens me the most with modern gaming. And an aspect, admittedly, that I do not fully understand. Could it be purely down to money, a huge factor in nearly everything today, or was research carried out to show a genuine lack of interest? The platform could offer a wonderful opportunity for artists to showcase their illustrations and the game developers to add context to their characters. A good example of this can be found in some of the limited run/homebrew releases for both modern and retro systems alike, where the physical releases are accompanied with an utter wealth of literature and supplements. Sam’s Journey; The Bear Essentials; TangleWood; and some of the Limited Run Game’s releases are just a handful of examples where the developer and publisher have really pulled out all the stops to either recreate that original standard of releases for that system or included, an at times, vast swathe of extras. And with a lot of these releases being funded through Kickstarter type campaigns it is clear to see that the demand appears to still be very much alive and kicking for this extra content, despite the hollow cases filling the high street shelves.
To try and balance the argument a little in the favour of the current/next generation releases, I can see that they do have their own advantages. The availability online, of course means that the games can be downloaded pretty much anywhere at anytime, immediately upon release. No longer does the child have to wait until the weekend trip into the town/city centre with their parents, to peruse the shelves of Woolworths, hoping they would still have some stock of the latest release. Nor do they have to endure sitting through a mediocre, almost warm, tasteless lunch, purchased by said parents in a department store restaurant, before returning home to load up the game – but at least they had the fancy instruction booklet and poster to read through! And in today’s tumultuous times, who knows what semblance of a high street will still be available, when we next get the chance to walk through their doors.
The games, once downloaded, belong to the user, across as many of their platforms and products that share the operating system. And the lack of physical releases not only brings the retail cost down, but also the production costs, allowing for a burgeoning Indie market, that simply did not exist in mainstream gaming back in my youth.
The games once downloaded are more robust, free from the problems associated with the many physical incarnations and can be downloaded again and again, after the initial purchase. But they are not immune, neither today or in the future. Eventually, servers are closed down and/or no longer maintained and the games that sat on them will also disappear. Other instances are of games simply being removed from the market, for a number of reasons and no longer being available to purchase, either from the retailer or from another owner, without the selling of the entire device on which it currently exists. A notable example being the mobile game ‘Flappy Bird’ which had an incredible initial take-up, turning it into the must have game of it’s time, but was then removed from sale by the developer, leading to devices with the game already installed upon, selling for ridiculous amounts on EBay and the likes.
As I said earlier, I personally don’t play many modern console games, whilst I am amazed and in awe at the level of gameplay and graphics proffered, I just do not have the time at present to devote, to fully experience the wealth that these campaign games have to give and much prefer the quick and casual gameplay from the older games. That said I do love my Switch at the moment and there is a lot of content on there, both first and third party, that allow for quick bursts, saving your position for next time.
However, despite the potential positives in modern online releases, for me, the massive missing element will only truly be found in years to come. When my children, grown up, find themselves starting to talk a bit like their dad used to, about how things were better back then, slower, with more time to appreciate and enjoy. When they too, begin to fondly hanker over the games they used to play for hours and hours; for the memories they created playing ‘their release’ of Mario Kart against each other, sibling rivalry at it’s greatest; when they, as I have, decide to rekindle those feelings, where will they turn, where will all of the online only content have gone?
It’s an answer I do not have. Only time will tell. But I fear for them, that many, will simply not exist.
Well if you have got this far, then thank you. This is my first submission of a more journalistic tone, which I wavered over submitting here, as it is a different beast from my usual, restorative posts with more photos than words, but once it was written, where else could I post it?
I hope you enjoyed reading it, I would genuinely love to know what you thought, both of the content and the questions is raises. Is a post of solid text, off putting? Would it be better with ‘some’ images, to break it up? Would you like to see more writing, in between the restoration updates?
As always, if you like what you find here, please subscribe, read through my earlier posts, hit like, and share on the social media of your choice, via the buttons below. I genuinely would love to hear what you think, good or bad, and will always reply to any comment, kind enough to be left.