Sunday, February 17, 2013

Do a Barrel Roll!

...aaaand we're back. I went on a huge nostalgia bender and played Star Fox 64 this morning, and started to update my status about in on Facebook when I started to prolix, and so I decided instead to post my blathering on here! 

Graduation from college had meant a lot of things, and one of the unanticipated parts of that is that I no longer have anyone compelling me to sit down and write any more, and so I have been missing it a lot. In an effort to get back to it, I've started to keep a personal journal on (awesome site). It's been a great way for me to unwind and  spend some time thinking. What I realized today however was that on the occasion when I feel like posting something for others to read I don't really have a place to do it other than trite messages on Facebook. And then I thought what any person my generation would think - this problem can be solved with a blog. You might ask why am I writing in the blog I created to document my adventures in Japan over a year ago, and the answer would be because I'm too lazy to think of a new title for another blog. Even if it's just my mom reading this, writing for an audience forces me to work on writing with polish, and if nothing else comes from this it, this will be good practice. But don't get me wrong - I still hope to entertain or intrigue whomever happens to be reading this, and I will endeavor to write about topics and musings that everyone in my audience can relate to. 

Which brings me to Star Fox. 


Today is Sunday, and I decided to spend the morning doing what I do best - being unproductive. As a part of that, I plopped down on the couch and played a round of Star Fox 64. I recently had all my old Nintendo 64 games shipped out to me from home, and I've been going through a stint of nostalgia replaying these old games. After getting my ass handed to me on Expert Mode, I realized there are some things I did better as a child than as an adult (NB: talking about my poop is not one of them). As a consequence, I decided to erase all the old data and start over fresh. I was determined that if I couldn't play Expert Mode, I would need to earn back the privilege to play it by unlocking it again. And so I played through the game from the very beginning, just like I did on Christmas 14 years ago when Cedric and originally got Star Fox, which happened to be our first video game ever.

If only starting over fresh in real life was as easy as erasing data.

After I was done and set down the remote, I took a moment to reflect on what transpired. I was feeling a mix of emotions - certainly nostalgia from revisiting a childhood landmark, but also something else. I was excited, elated, energized. I had just had a ton of fun replaying this old game. Certainly the nostalgia was part of the fun, but it wasn't just that - it felt kind of like re-watching old Bugs Bunny cartoons as a grown up;  I realized that Star Fox 64 was objectively a very well-done game which is simply a whole lot of fun to play, both then and now.

** For those who have never played before (my mom can skip this part), you can get a quick look at the plot and the characters in the video below, which is just the introduction footage from the game. Even if you know the plot, re-watching the video is helpful to refresh on what the graphic capabilities were of the Nintendo 64.
Introduction video from Star Fox 64. Count the Star Wars references. 

Star Fox really had it all. Even though the game is now 15 years old, it still fells snappy and quick to play. And while the N64's graphics capabilities are laughable compared to even something my cell phone could do now, I think the designers of Star Fox 64 were very intelligent in crafting their aesthetic to take complement the angular shapes and polygons the N64 makes so well. Instead of being an eyesore, the game has held up remarkable well, still managing to feel sleek and stylized.

The dialogue was as cheesy as I remembered, but overall the Star Fox manages to come off as cheeky and fun, and had the good sense not to take itself too seriously. The gameplay itself is fast, with each level lasting at most 10 minutes, owing to the fact that your Arwing seems to have every modern technology in it except brakes. Every level has dozens of quick strategic decisions you need to make as you zoom through the obstacle course while shooting down bogies and picking up power ups.

The quick, arcade style of the game means you can beat it in 90 minutes, but since every level has 2-3 possible outcomes, it ends up being a game you can come back and play again and again. Star Fox was my first video game, and the fact that I can come back 15 years after it came out and find it just as fun is a testament to the workmanship Nintendo invested in this game.

Box Art from the original SNES game, Fantastic Mr. Star Fox

By now you're might be wondering when I'm going to get to the "so what" part of this post, so here it is. The thing about nostalgia is that it inevitably causes you to compare the past to the present. And what I realized today was that there is a lot that modern video games could learn from old games like Star Fox.

Now, don't get me wrong, there have been unbelievable breakthroughs and in the video game world over jut the last 15 years. Graphics and processing have improved exponentially, new interfaces and technologies for controlling and experiencing games are coming  out every day, and now millions of people play games online together in colossal, intricately detailed worlds.

But along with this shift, the way people play video games, and the reasons they play them, have also shifted. Games used to be short and simple (owing in no small part to technological limitations), and as a consequence a lot of these old games were so easy to pick up and have fun playing.

Where video games used to be short, fun, and simple, modern games have grown increasingly complex and sophisticated, and the time commitment required for someone to win a game or gain any skill with it has increased as well. For many, playing video games has shifted from a fun past-time to something akin to an obsession or addiction.

The video game industry has experienced changes. It's grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, which caters to hundreds of millions of consumers. And like any industry that gets that this large, video game companies have become dependent on consumers who keep coming back to buy more products. The costs of gaming have now go far beyond simply buying the newest games and hardware. Buying a game now is more like an initial investment, and consumers are now asked to pay for things like monthly subscription fees to play online (sometimes as high as $30/month), and in the months following the release of a new game companies will release new "downloadable content" to expand your initial purchase.  It used to be that when you bought a game, you assumed you were buying a finished product which you could expect to play forever (or at least until you got bored). Now when you buy a game it's more like buying a first draft and having to pay for the revisions. Profit-motive caused developers to stop making games which are focused on fun, but instead making games that will keep you hooked.

Now, I'm not saying that spending hours playing video games is a new thing, and I won't deny I spent plenty of days obsessively playing  games on my N64 when I was younger. Most video games are naturally addicting because they feed our brains a steady stream of objectives, successes, and accomplishments, which triggers the brain's natural reward response mechanism. What's happening now is that games are being intentionally designed take advantage of this, so that you keep playing for as long as you can. Because as long as you are playing their game, it means they can count on you to pay for another month's subscription, or to buy the newest downloadable content, or to sit through another advertisement on your phone while you wait for your next turn in Words with Friends.

Video games aren't the only thing that have been affected by this movement. In the last 15 years, it seems like our entire world has moved to this online realm of social networks, where being "connected" has become paramount to modern living. I know I sound like a crotchety old man reminiscing about "back when I was your age", but sometimes I really wonder if we need all of this. It seems like this is all just a part of the next Big Thing, a new marketing ploy to keep us buying things we don't need, and spending time on things we don't care about. When I take a step back, I realize that I don't really give a shit about what my friends are liking Facebook. My life isn't really a whole lot better when I can endlessly refresh my inbox on my phone in addition to my computer. And I really think I don't need to pay $30 a month to spend my waking hours sitting in front of a computer screen playing video games while typing to people I will probably never meet.

Perhaps the key to happiness is much simpler than that. Perhaps happiness doesn't require the latest and greatest technology, or being connected to thousands of other people at all points of the day, or a require huge investments of time and money. Perhaps, I ever really needed was a swift Arwing. With Fox McCloud at the helm. And a star to steer it by.

A really big star. 

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